Between hiring staff and setting up district offices, three freshman lawmakers from Maryland and Virginia made time for another political rite of passage: a trip to Israel.
Reps.-elect Elaine Luria (D-Va.), David Trone (D-Md.) and Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) were returning Friday from a five-day crash course in U.S.-Israel relations sponsored by the American Israel Education Fund, the charitable arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The trip, one of many the organization funds annually to give lawmakers and staff a basic understanding of the Middle East, also gave lawmakers from very different backgrounds a chance to bond before they become immersed in the culture on Capitol Hill.
Luria, a retired Navy commander from Norfolk and the only Jewish member of the Virginia congressional delegation; Trone, the co-founder of Total Wine who was raised on a hog farm; and Riggleman, a former Air Force intelligence officer and distillery owner, spoke by phone Wednesday to describe the experience.
They crowded together on a sofa in the lobby of a restaurant near the Sea of Galilee and spoke into one cellphone.
Asked when they arrived, Riggleman joked, “About an hour ago.”
“No, I think she means in Israel,” Luria said as the three shared a chuckle.
Political, military and business leaders took the trio from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and the tiny country’s borders with Syria and Lebanon.
Highlights of the trip included meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and the lead negotiator of the Palestinian Authority, Saeb Erekat, as well as a helicopter tour of the Gaza Strip, the members-elect said. They traveled mostly by bus in a group of six lawmakers, three Republicans and three Democrats.
They were joined by Reps.-elect Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) and Susie Lee (D-Nev.).
Luria, who was on her first visit to Israel, said the trip will help inform her decision-making in a military-heavy Hampton Roads district that includes the largest U.S. naval base.
She said she was struck by how U.S. support to Israel allows residents “to live in their communities normal, secure lives without the fear of mortars and rockets falling on their roofs repeatedly when those types of activities do break out.”
Riggleman, who deployed to Israel with the Air Force in 1996 to work on avionics, said he was impressed by how open military and political leaders were in sharing their thoughts in “a non-attribution environment.”
“The [Israel Defense Forces] has perfected warfare in closer places,” he said, and the capital region can take lessons from how the military and private sector worked together on technology.
Trone, who visited Israel in 1999 in his capacity as a CEO and returned earlier this year with his wife and some friends, said the latest trip cemented his belief that Democrats and Republicans can work together on the “safety and security of Israel.”
Although the trip is affiliated with AIPAC, which calls itself America’s pro-Israel lobby, each incoming lawmaker said they felt they were getting a well-rounded perspective.
An AIPAC spokesman did not respond to a questions about how the six incoming lawmakers were chosen, but each had expressed interest in foreign policy on the campaign trail.