Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka didn’t expect an invitation from the president himself Friday, but by Tuesday, Jan. 28, the Nisswa lawmaker found himself in the East Room of the White House, with a front row seat to history in the making.
Gazelka, with state Sen. Jeremy Miller, was on hand for a summit by President Donald Trump alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to unveil Trump’s plan for the Middle East and another stab at diplomatically undoing decades of unrest and war between Israelis and Palestinians.
In a phone interview Thursday, Jan. 30, Gazelka said he was one of a small crowd of more than 150 dignitaries, lawmakers, Christian leaders and media members on hand for the event. Gazelka said he and Miller were among a half dozen state-level lawmakers who received an invitation.
“It was very small. It was a very tightly fit group there to hear this peace plan from Trump and working with Netanyahu,” Gazelka said. “Netanyahu said this can work, but Palestine has to accept Israel exists as a Jewish nation and that they have to lay down terrorism. Well, as you’ve probably later heard, they rejected it. It was unfortunate.”
Still, Gazelka said there’s reason for optimism. Israel has a real opportunity to reclaim a large number of areas it has a biblical right to occupy, while Palestinians can finally get the recognition and support to establish their own state.
The plan indicates Israel is willing to collaborate with Palestinians in the creation of an independent Palestinian state and while it remains to be seen if the Israeli-U.S. plans are acceptable to their neighbors, it’s a far cry from Netanyahu’s statements in 2015: “Whoever moves to establish a Palestinian state or intends to withdraw from territory is simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel.”
“For the first time, I thought ‘This could actually work,” Gazelka recalled. “It has potential.”
That’s due in large part to the fact this is the first time Israeli authorities have officially proposed implementation of a two-state solution, and are willing to work toward gathering $50 billion in funding to help establish the Palestinians in a functional and stable form of government. Both sides, the plan stated, would be allowed to keep their homes.
It should be noted no Palestinian representatives were present at the summit and Palestinian authorities have not signaled they’re considering the plan that designates Jerusalem, Israel’s controversial settlements and the long-contested West Bank as traditional Israeli territories — though, the plan stipulates that Palestinian authorities have four years to sign on.
Gazelka — who described himself as deeply religious and an ardent supporter of the Jewish people — said just as Trump was the first U.S. president to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, the plan shows he will continue to honor the birthright of “God’s chosen people” that’s over 2,000 years in the making.
Gazelka speculated his own participation at the event may have stemmed, in part, from his widely publicized statements in opposition to rising anti-Semitism in recent months.
Asked how biblical rights based on texts written 2,000 years ago have bearing on modern land disputes in Palestine when, closer to home, local Minnesotan communities struggle to reconcile Native American treaties written in the 1800s, Gazelka didn’t answer directly, but noted Trump’s plan is also a victory in strategic and humane terms.
“It’s a step forward for the Judeo-Christian connection, but also the democracy connection with Israel in finding peace there,” Gazelka said of the region’s only functioning democratic state. “This region is the center of conflict of the big three monotheistic religions and we have an opportunity to protect democracy in a land where democracy hasn't existed.”