By Cindy Mindell
It’s difficult enough to understand and analyze the news from Israel as a lay person. But for a congressional chief of staff, grasping the goings-on in the Middle East is key to the job.
For eight days in May, Mark Henson got his first glimpse of Israel and its turbulent neighborhood. The chief of staff for Connecticut Representative Jim Himes was one of 17 congressional staffers from several states invited on the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF) Educational Seminar to Israel.
Created in 1990, AIEF is the charitable organization affiliated with AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). The 501 (c)(3) organization provides annual grants to AIPAC to support select educational programs including Middle East research, educational materials and conferences, and leadership programs for university students. In addition, AIEF funds educational seminars to Israel for members of Congress and other political influentials, which help educate them about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship through firsthand experiences in Israel, briefings by experts on Middle East affairs, and meetings with Israeli political elite.
From May 10 to 18, AIEF took the group from the borders with Syria and Lebanon in the north to Sderot in the south, stopping at sites along the way in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the “narrow waist” between the West Bank and the Mediterranean Sea. They met with IDF officers and intelligence experts, journalists and people on the street, entrepreneurs and doctors, Knesset members and government officials, minority-rights activists and a Supreme Court justice, new immigrants and at-risk youth.
The trip was essential to Henson’s understanding of the complex geopolitical issues facing Israel, so that he can be a better-informed advisor to his boss.
“The Congressman deals with a tremendous level of constantly changing issues on the local, national, and international level on any given day,” he says. “While he has excellent background knowledge on most issues, reads constantly to keep up, and meets with high-level officials, business leaders, and constituents to learn more, he needs someone to collect and order all the information he receives and that his office receives without his presence through meetings, constituent correspondence, and other written material.
“As his chief of staff, when important decisions and issues arise, I collect and organize this information, his past record, the pulse of the district, and the thoughts of respected leaders in that specific area in a concise format for him to review, bringing in other staff and subject-matter experts as appropriate. I further relay the pros and cons of each potential vote or action through multiple lenses and, when asked, give my own opinion on the matter. In short, I attempt to organize what he knows, discover what relevant information he may not know, and talk through with him the best possible outcome, occasionally with limited time and conflicting information and perspective.”
One of the most effective eye-witness moments for Henson was the trip to Israel’s northern border, just a mile from the United Nations’ demilitarized zone, where the group learned about the strategic importance of the Golan Heights.
“We were looking into Syria, into a government-held town, and we heard mortar fire and saw buildings go up in smoke,” he recalls. “After we got home, we learned that what we had witnessed was the rebels taking the town. What I understood was how close Israel is to such a dangerous neighborhood and how on guard Israelis need to be.”
Since early 2013, Himes has served on the Congressional Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Last month, he signed on to a bipartisan letter to President Obama, released by U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), the committee’s Ranking Member, stating that any long-term sanctions relief for Iran requires congressional action. Henson says that the AIEF briefing by Israeli intelligence experts on monitoring the Iranian nuclear program helped him advise Himes on the letter.
“The AIEF trip provided me an essential living glossary of terms when advising the Congressman on Israel,” he says. “While I was previously familiar with the geography, history, and current political environment in Israel, I have now seen an Iron Dome battery with my own eyes and talked to IDF soldiers who have saved countless Israeli lives from rocket fire from Gaza. I have driven from the Golan Heights to Jerusalem, and sat down with a Palestinian negotiator in the heart of Ramallah.
“The invaluable experience from the AIEF trip enables me to visualize what the Congressman has deeply known from his many trips to Israel and his in-depth knowledge of the region, and therefore gives me a better perspective when summarizing the potential ramifications of any action he may be called upon to take,” he said. “Further, on my trip, I met and will keep in touch with political leaders and subject-matter experts directly on the ground in Israel. While the Congressman and his office receive excellent information from groups based in the United States, having the ability to talk in a collegial and friendly manner to leaders on the ground in Israel provides another invaluable perspective to advise the Congressman how the U.S. is being perceived and what actions can be taken to further strengthen the special relationship with Israel and enhance the prospects for a lasting peace in the region.”
Lee Slater, chief of staff to Connecticut Representative John Larson, was also among the 17 congressional staffers on the AIEF trip. He did not respond to the Ledger’s request for an interview.
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