Jerusalem - The summer tour season to Israel for American politicians reached its peak this month, with nearly 10% of the House of Representatives visiting Jerusalem in the past two weeks. Forty Republicans and Democrats met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in two separate rounds of intensive touring mixed with high-level policy meetings.
This year's tours came at a crucial moment, as Congress is considering a massive and controversial arms deal proposed by the White House and aimed at both Israel and Saudi Arabia. In addition, American policymakers are readying for an international summit in November that will deal with the situation in the Middle East. The Congressional trips, sponsored by pro-Israeli groups, have become one of the main attractions offered during the summer recess.
"They have us on our feet at 8 o'clock in the morning, and we run around until late at night," said one of the staff members accompanying the members of Congress.
For first-time congressman Paul Hodes, the visit was also a chance to get a closer look at the Jewish state. Hodes, the first Jewish congressman to represent New Hampshire, had never visited Israel.
"This is my first trip outside the United States as a congressman, and I'm happy it is to Israel," Hodes said while walking to a quick lunch, after which he headed out for a bus tour. "As someone who follows the issue for many years, I was especially interested in coming here."
On a hot Tuesday morning, 18 Democrats - most of them members of the 2006 freshman class - mounted a tour bus on their way to Ramallah for a meeting with the new Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad. Dressed in khakis and sport jackets - the preferred attire for an adventure in the Levant - Democratic members of Congress returned from their trip to the Palestinian territories with a clear sense of excitement over the new Palestinian leadership.