U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan's second trip to Israel was very different from his first, taken a little more than a year ago.
Then, the former prosecutor, a Republican, was a candidate seeking to represent the state's seventh district, which includes Delaware County. But now, he's a freshman lawmaker who traveled with a GOP Congressional delegation and was able to meet with the likes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
His first visit occurred during a quiet week, while last week he was in the country when a Palestinian terrorist killed eight Israelis in coordinated attacks near the resort town of Eilat.
Later, five Egyptian soldiers were killed during clashes between Israelis and Palestinian terrorists, with Israel claiming the deaths as accidental. Rockets from Gaza were also fired upon southern Israeli cities.
The incident has raised questions about the security of Israel's border with Egypt after the toppling earlier this year of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak and, more broadly, what implications the "Arab Spring" will have for the Jewish state.
"It was a very sobering time to be in Israel. All of Israel was struck by the violence in the Gaza Strip," said Meehan, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee and the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. "To have experienced, by being in the country, the trauma associated with the attacks in Gaza, you get an appreciation for the continuing threat."
In meetings with Israeli security officials, he heard "suggestions that the terrorists were actually dressed in Egyptian army uniforms, which begs the question as to how they would be able to acquire them."
The fear, he said, is that in the post-Mubarak era, the Egyptian border is "going to be another front that Israel is going to have to defend."
All told, 81 members of the House — about a fifth of that body and the largest total ever — visited the Jewish state this summer on three trips sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, which is affiliated with the lobbying group AIPAC.
The week after Meehan returned from Israel, U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-District 6) traveled to the Jewish state on another GOP congressional trip. Fitzpatrick is also technically a freshman; he represented the Bucks County district for two years, lost his seat in 2006 and won it back last year.
"Israel is a key ally in the Middle East," the Bucks County representative said on a statement on his website. "Both as a strategic defense partner and an important economic partner, I look forward to building on the strong foundation of the relationship between the U.S. and Israel."
U.S. Rep. Mark Critz (D-District 12), who represents the Johnstown area, was the lone Pennsylvania Democrat, who took part on the trip led by U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House Minority Whip.
Meehan's trip consisted largely of GOP freshmen and was led by Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. From the Keystone state, U.S. Rep. Todd Platts (R-District 19) of York and U.S. Rep. Tom Marino (R-District 10) of Scranton also took part.
"This was a genuine working opportunity to visit and see firsthand the complexity of a region that we have made a significant commitment to and will continue to commit to," said Meehan.
He added that the group was given a briefing on the status of the Iron Dome project, an air defense weapons system used against short-range missiles that received American funding.
"It's the kind of technology that will not only protect Israel but will protect other places in the world from exposure to these kinds of attacks. With the fall of Libya there is a concern that thousands of weapons may fall out of the hands of current overseers and into the hands of terrorist networks," he said.
Meehan said that, based on meetings with Israeli officials as well as Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, he's convinced that the Palestinian unilateral declaration is all but sure to go forward. Mahmoud Abbas canceled plans to meet with the group, said Meehan, who opposes the unilateral declaration.
"[Fayyad] did not answer whether or not they are willing to negotiate some kind of solution," said the congressman. "Is this a real effort to try to create recognition or is it a provocation? In the end, it's going to create increased tensions."