U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik returned from her eight-day trip to Israel talking about artificial intelligence, a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and “strains of anti-Semitism” within the Democratic Party.
Stefanik, a Republican from Schuylerville whose district spans northern New York, took the trip along with 72 members of Congress, 41 Democrats and 31 Republicans, the largest delegation to Israel ever from the 535 total members of Congress.
She had a schedule packed with back-to-back meetings and briefings, including conversations with Israeli military leaders and a discussion with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She also visited regions close to the Gaza Strip, a self-governing Palestinian territory mostly surrounded by Israel, and the Golan Heights, an Israeli-occupied region captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. In March, U.S. President Donald Trump broke with global convention and declared that the U.S. recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
“Israel and the U.S. have a special relationship. They are one of our most important allies around the world,” Stefanik said. “We have shared values when it comes to democratic values, when it comes to freedom of different faiths in their region. The fact that they are this thriving democracy is an anomaly in the Middle East today.”
Stefanik said Israel faces border threats from Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
“It’s pretty clear, when you’re in Israel, they are in a very tough neighborhood,” Stefanik said. “To see how small, geographically, the country is, and how really almost every border, except maybe the Jordanian border, they are under severe security challenges.”
She said she visited an “Iron Dome” missile defense system the U.S. worked to develop with Israel. One of these defense systems is estimated to have a 90% success rate in intercepting inbound rockets.
“We were able to hear from some of the individuals and families that live on the kibbutz that face these sirens from rockets that go off on a weekly basis,” Stefanik said. “To hear their personal stories was pretty powerful.”
Stefanik said she is proud of her pro-Israel record and that she has been there twice before as a congresswoman.
She spoke out against two congresswomen who did not take the trip, and around whom there has been political controversy around recently — U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.
“Every member of Congress, when they’re a freshman … every Democrat, every Republican is invited to go on this delegation to Israel,” Stefanik said. “Both Tlaib and Omar chose not to accept that invitation.”
The two had chosen to skip the congressional trip and were planning their own visit to Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied West Bank on a tour organized by a Palestinian group.
“They should have gone on the visit with the rest of their colleagues; there were 41 Democrats on that visit,” Stefanik said. “I think it’s a shame that they did not go with the bipartisan delegation because we also had a meeting with the Palestinian Authority (in Ramallah in the West Bank). That’s important to get their perspective, when it comes to the regional challenges and a two-state solution.”
Omar and Tlaib were then banned from Israel by Netanyahu for their expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. This came hours after Trump tweeted that for Netanyahu to let these congresswomen visit would be “a show of great weakness” by Israel, and that Omar and Tlaib “hate Israel & all Jewish people.”
Netanyahu later said a “humanitarian request” by Tlaib to visit her grandmother in the West Bank would be accepted “on the condition that she pledges not to promote boycotts against Israel during her visit.” Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, rejected this offer.
Omar was still banned from the country at that time.
“I’m very disappointed in how they’ve conducted themselves when it comes to issues related to Israel,” Stefanik said. “I think we are seeing an increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric coming from members of Congress, which I deeply oppose.”
Asked if Omar and Tlaib have said anti-Semitic things or are anti-Semitic themselves, Stefanik said “yes.”
Stefanik disagreed with Trump’s comments that Jewish people who vote for Democrats have a “total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
“In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people, and you’re being very disloyal to Israel,” Trump said.
“I think some of the concerns with the president’s rhetoric was that he said ‘voting Democratic,’” Stefanik said. “I think that you can show your support for Israel whether you’re voting Republican or Democratic. I frankly think the Republican Party has proven its strong support for Israel, and I think what’s concerning is you have elected officials who are Democrats who are, on a weekly basis at this point, not only saying anti-Semitic rhetoric but really putting Israel under threat in terms of their right to exist.
“I disagree with the president broadly saying that you can’t be pro-Israel if you vote Democrat — I think you can be pro-Israel and vote for Republicans or Democrats — but I think the real challenge, nationally, right now is within the Democratic Party, you have strains of anti-Semitism that are very, very concerning.”
When asked if Republicans are showing the same problems, Stefanik said they are not.
“I don’t believe so,” Stefanik said. “If you look at the headlines, it is consistently two elected officials within the Democratic Party that continue to make news with very concerning statements.”
Stefanik has previously called for Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to resign after racist remarks. While she specifically referred to his “white-nationalist,” “white-supremacist” and “racist” words, part of his racism involved anti-Semitism, including retweeting neo-Nazi Mark Collett, saying he sought out the “Polish perspective” on the Holocaust and meeting in Austria with members of the Freedom Party, a far-right political party founded by a former Nazi SS officer.
The Enterprise was not able to contact Stefanik after this was researched to ask for clarification on her statement.
Stefanik said Democrats have also been critical of Omar and Tlaib, including Max Rose, a Democratic representative from Staten Island who said they do not speak for the party.
She also cited Eliot Engel, a Democrat representing the Bronx who is chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who said he disagrees with Omar and Tlaib but asked Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. to let them in.
Israel and Palestine have been locked in a decades-long conflict over territory, and Stefanik said she supports a two-state solution, which would involve splitting up the region into two individual countries.
“I support a two-state solution,” Stefanik said, “but it has to recognize Israel’s right to exist.”
She said the two-state solution is preferred broadly by the members of the delegation that visited and that it has been pursued by recent presidents, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
“What has been such a challenge is there have been numerous offers for a two-state solution made by Israel, and they were not taken by the Palestinians,” Stefanik said.
Stefanik said the U.S. and Israel share a similar commitment to technological innovation.
“Israel is known as a ‘startup nation,’” she said. “If you look at the number of technology companies that are founded in Israel, it is a huge number. They are one of the most competitive places in the world to start a tech company. … Israel has more companies on the NASDAQ than all of Europe combined.”
Stefanik has a say in U.S. military policy because she sits on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. She also is a member of several subcommittees and caucuses related to military intelligence and readiness.
Stefanik said she addressed this innovative link when she met with Netanyahu, asking him to create a partnership with the U.S. in artificial intelligence development.
Israel, she said, is tech-savvy and a partner of the U.S. in missile defense capabilities.
Stefanik wrote a bill that founded the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, which is chaired by the former CEO and former chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt.
“So when you think about the amount of data in the world today, you can also think about the amount of data the U.S. Department of Defense — whether it’s the Army, the Navy or the Air Force — all this information they’re gleaning,” Stefanik said. “We need to be able to analyze that data very quickly. AI capabilities allow us to do that.”
She said that while AI would be used to analyze data, individuals would still be in charge of making decisions. She added that she wants to assess potential ethical questions that crop up about AI.
“We want to take a very different path than China, for example,” Stefanik said. “They have citizen scores of Chinese citizens.”