Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.) participated last week in a bipartisan delegation of U.S. Congressmembers to Israel and Qatar. This was the second trip to Israel for the Congressional freshman, who represents Staten Island and Bay Ridge, having previously visited as an Assemblywoman in 2019 with the National Council of Young Israel. This trip included meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid; and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In an interview with Hamodia on Tuesday, the freshman discussed the trip, her concerns about the Iran deal and Hamas, the Abraham Accords, and bonding with her colleagues over late night dinners of tabouli and babaganoush.
Tell us about your trip: what you saw, what you did, whom you met.
Just to give a little a little background on who was on the trip: Greg Meeks is Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I’m the ranking member of the Subcommittee on International Development, and we had members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. It was seven Democrats and three Republicans, and we all felt it was very important that we go to the region as our very first trip, particularly considering the conflict that has just occurred, and the election of the new government.
We met with the prime minister, the defense minister, foreign minister, along with, obviously, the U.S. Ambassador.
You learn a lot on these trips. You could read as much as you want about Israel in the newspaper, but going there and speaking to the leadership and speaking to the people, understanding what their lives are like day in and day out, I think is incredibly important.
We were very interested to hear how this coalition was formed and what their goals are. You have eight parties that range from the right wing all the way to the left wing, the first Arab Muslim that’s part of leadership in Israel. And it’s an interesting coalition that is very reflective of the population there, but it’s, I think, a fragile coalition. And I think their strategy is really to focus on a lot of the domestic issues, the economy, infrastructure.
They have a budget that is due in several months, so that’s like going to be their real first major test. It’ll be interesting just to see how this plays out.
Prime Minister Bennett is very optimistic that they’re going to be successful and that they’re going to stay together, and only time will tell.
There were two things that they made very clear. One is that they do not want the United States of America to re-enter the JCPOA [Iran nuclear deal], and that’s something that I strongly agree with.
They have grave concerns particularly with the sham election of the new president Raisi. This is somebody who has U.S. sanctions against him, he is responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent Iranians who were advocating for their freedom.
They shared some great concerns, I think it was important for the group to hear, particularly the members that voted for the JCPOA, that there must be changes, that Iran can never have a nuclear weapon, but they also can’t have the capability to build a nuclear weapon.
I think it would be reckless for the Biden administration to move forward and make concessions, particularly to someone like Raisi, who’s demanding that sanctions be lifted to even have a conversation, and also refuses to stop funding terrorists, like Hamas and Hezbollah. There’s great concern about Hamas; they’ve taken control of Gaza, and the thousands of of rockets that they’ve flown into Israel.
And so there are serious concerns about the United States, and I’m happy that they made very clear that they do not want the United States re-entering JCPOA. It’s something I agree with.
Can you tell me the officials you spoke with who expressed concern about the JCPOA, and also, was their concern with what the deal would look like, or do they have opposition to entering any agreement whatsoever?
The Prime Minister was very clear, as was Foreign Minister Lapid and Defense Minister Gantz.
I would say that they certainly do not want the United States to re-enter the JCPOA, but if they are going to make another deal it must be significantly improved. Obama negotiated a terrible deal. And there needs to be significant changes. We all agree that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon. That’s something that I think we’re in agreement, Democrats, Republicans from the delegation, and all the leaders that we met. The question is if there is going to be some type of deal, it must be significantly improved from the disaster that Obama had negotiated.
But the “maximum pressure” campaign has been working in terms of significantly reducing the cash reserves of the Iranian regime, and also their ability to spend militarily.
You mentioned that there are things people can only learn when visiting Israel as opposed to just reading about in the media. This is something I’ve heard from other people as well. Can you go into that a little bit, what, particularly, you feel someone learns from visiting.
It’s the complexity of the whole region: Understanding the difference between the Palestinian people and Hamas, which is a terrorist organization. Understanding the role that Egypt is playing in the negotiations between Hamas and Israel. Understanding the role that Qatar plays from a strategic military standpoint with the United States and its coalition forces by housing our Al Udeid Air Force Base. Over 8,000 American soldiers are there. Also the role that they’re playing right now in facilitating the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, following the troop withdrawals.
And then you have the rift between Qatar and its neighbors Bahrain and the UAE, and then the new normalization between UAE and Bahrain with Israel, and the success of the Abraham Accords and the economic stimulus that it’s bringing to the partner countries. It’s just so complex, and you really have to go there and hear everyone’s point of view, to try to piece it all together to really see what’s going on there.
You mentioned the Abraham Accords. There was some question as to whether Biden would pursue that. AP reported that the Biden administration is pursuing it, but the Washington Free Beacon obtained emails in which State Department employees were told not to use the phrase “Abraham Accords” but “normalization agreements.”
Have you heard anything about this? Is the Biden administration pursuing more countries to join these agreements, whether by “Abraham Accords” or another name?
I don’t know if [the Biden administration is] doing it, but I know the Israeli government is doing it. They are very happy and pleased with the role that President Trump played in negotiating these deals, and and they want to build on that, and certainly I, as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, it was bipartisan, want to see the Abraham Accords being expanded.
I would not be surprised if President Biden tries to highlight some of the successes of the partner countries and tries to take credit for what President Trump did. But I do believe also that there is opportunity to build on the Abraham Accords. Some of the countries that have been mentioned, Oman, Indonesia, one day they’d love to normalize with Saudi Arabia, I think that’s a relationship that needs to be worked on, but I think they’re hopeful about that in the future.
So there’s definitely room to grow and build upon the success, and as members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, we want to be supportive of that expansion.
I met recently with the ambassador of the UAE, and he was raving about the success, the economic opportunities that normalization with Israel has brought. So they are very pleased as well.
Iran is obviously not pleased, because it’s further isolating them. And the Palestinian Authority is not pleased, because they feel that any deal should include them, because they are being left behind, losing any leverage they may have.
During the recent war between Israel and Hamas, some of the far Left members of Congress, including some from New York’s delegation, were sharply critical of Israel. Do you want to comment on that, and if you feel that the mainstream of the Democratic Party is still largely pro-Israel?
I think the mainstream is concerned about what the Left is saying, and they feel that they need to justify their support for Israel with the radicals in their party like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.
I think that there’s agreement, at least from the group that we traveled with, that Hamas is a terrorist organization. And that is something I believe that the United States government, speaking for the group that we traveled with, as well as the Israeli government, as well as the Fatah wing of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas’ group, are truly concerned about Hamas, that they are a violent terrorist organization. I think that the mainstream members of the Democratic Party must stand stronger against what the radical Left is saying. And we need to be clear that Hamas is a terrorist organization. They flew thousands of rockets at Israel. They use their own people as shields — children, women doesn’t matter — and that they are a bad organization, and Iran is propping them up. And that is the concern for the JCPOA partially; the other concern is we just don’t want Iran having a nuclear weapon, but also just anything that supports Iran, which the JCPOA does, is a concern.
I think they should be stronger and more clear, and I think that some of the members on this trip have been. Brad Schneider had issued statements against what Omar had done, and led a letter with Jewish Democrats.
You mentioned Mahmoud Abbas. Do you believe he is a partner for peace?
They haven’t accepted any deal. They say they want a deal, but they haven’t really accepted any deal. He keeps reiterating that he wants to work in peace, not through acts of terror like Hamas does. I feel that he’s a weak leader, and that the Palestinian people don’t have an alternative. Hamas is the alternative. So if there was an election — which we also pushed, by the way, why there hasn’t been an election, because we believe in free and fair elections in the United States, and there hasn’t been one since 2006, and they’re saying they’re not going to allow an election until the Palestinians can vote in East Jerusalem, and many people believe that that’s an excuse because they feel that if they have the election that they’re going to lose to Hamas.
[Abbas] reiterated multiple times [to our group] that he and his party are about moving forward in peace, where Hamas is about violence and they do not support that.
When you visited the Middle East, did you did you try any of the local foods? Was there anything in particular that you liked?
First of all, the tabouli was amazing. We had eggplant that was that was stuffed with babaganoush, it was so delicious, that was really fantastic.
What was nice is they had a lot of fresh juices, like beet juice and carrot juice. I’m into that kind of stuff.
The seafood is good. And we had lamb chops.
It was a very, very busy trip where we didn’t really get to see religious sites. We only went to the Western Wall; that was the only opportunity for free time we had, we went to the Western Wall to pray.
But the one thing is we did get to enjoy late night meals with each other, which I thought was good. And I told the group this on the plane back: As a freshman, I feel very much like everything’s been so polarizing and everything’s been so divisive since I’ve gotten to Washington, and that it’s always been Republicans versus Democrats, us versus them. And this is the first time I felt like we weren’t there as Republicans or Democrats, we were just there as Americans, wanting to help strengthen partnerships with our ally, and also work toward what’s in the best interest of bringing peace to that region, and some stability to that region. And also from a national-security standpoint, what’s best for our nation.
And it was actually nice. It was a nice camaraderie. I think that’s another reason why these delegations [are good]. You spend a lot of time with the same group of people over a five-day period, and it gives you a real opportunity to get to know them as human beings, not as just somebody from the opposite party.
My final question is on another topic: As someone whose mother fled Cuba, would you like to comment about the protests going on in Cuba now?
Yes! My mom left in 1959 with my grandmother. My grandfather stayed there; he had two gas stations. The regime eventually came and took those gas stations and his home away.
I have family still there, so for me it’s very personal. I know that my family there is suffering. They don’t have access to very simple items, like aspirin and soap and deodorant and toilet paper. The shelves are basically empty, if you even have any money.
They have to work months to buy a pair of shoes, for example, or anything you would consider something easily accessible here in the United States. And then if they do have any additional support, meaning they have family members in the United States that can maybe send some extra money to them, the shelves are bare. They can’t even find anything.
So the people there are legitimately like starving, they don’t have food, they’re suffering and they’re stuck in the 1950’s. They just don’t have anything. And that’s what communism is. You’re getting rid of the free market, there’s no production, there’s no supply chain. And so they’re suffering as a result.
I could talk about this forever. But the bottom line is that the people are finally rising up and saying, now that the Castro brothers are gone, that they’re not going to do this with a third guy. They’re ready to move on. They want freedom. They want democracy. They want to be able to elect their leaders and determine their futures. They want more free market. And they want to be like the United States of America, which is why you see them marching in the street with the American flag. And that should be a wakeup call to people like AOC and Bernie Sanders and these socialists that want to make us more like Venezuela and Cuba, when the people there want to be like America.
They crave that freedom, they’ve had enough, and they’ve hit a point. They’re willing to put their lives on the line to demonstrate, which historically has led them to be beaten, jailed or even killed. But they’ve had enough, and they’re just willing to rise up now.
The problem is once the government starts cracking down on them, they don’t have weapons. That’s why the Second Amendment is important, because they don’t have any weapons to defend themselves against this government or to fight back. I’m concerned about what’s going to happen if they do that and they shut off the little access they have to the internet that is allowing the world to see what’s happening there. They’re just going to shut it down, and the rest of the world won’t be able to see what’s taking place.
I think it’s incredibly important that President Biden speak forcefully against the regime, that he calls it what it is — communist, which his statement lacked yesterday — and that he pushes them to allow this freedom of expression, allows the media to come and cover what’s going on, and allows the internet that is allowing these videos to be seen. And that they move toward democracy, and more toward freedom.
I’m concerned because I don’t know that our president is the leader that can seize this opportunity at this moment.
But we have a record number of Cuban Americans in Congress right now. There are ten of us — three in the Senate and seven in the house. We’re going to keep talking about this and advocating and pushing and hoping that there’s going to be some change, that this is going to lead to something real.