Brendan Boyle won’t soon forget his first time aboard Air Force One.
With President Obama slated to address the NAACP National Convention in Center City last month, the freshman Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania’s 13th District — encompassing parts of both Montgomery County and Philadelphia — was invited along for the ride.
“By coincidence, I was flying with the President on Air Force One the day the Iran deal was announced,” the 38-year-old Boyle told the Exponent in an exclusive interview. “Anytime you’re on Air Force One, it’s very special. This was my first time, and the fact I was there on a historic day adds to it. But it’s only a 25-minute flight.
“My only regret is I wish it was longer.”
You may or may not recall Obama’s NAACP speech — on criminal justice reform — was delivered later than planned. Boyle explained why.
“He was delayed for about an hour because he was busy calling the Saudis, calling Bibi” — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — “and other heads of state,” said Boyle, who recently returned from a weeklong trip to Israel, where he and 21 of his colleagues had an in-depth meeting with Netanyahu. “The news had just broken that morning. He was very joyous; he felt the history of that moment.”
Sometime shortly after Labor Day, the president will learn if that joy and commensurate sense of history was premature when Boyle and the rest of the House vote on the measure. The congressman, who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee and subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, in addition to serving on the subcommittee on transportation and public assets and 18 congressional caucuses, has been busy studying all aspects of the deal. He expects to announce his intentions by the end of this month.
But following his recent tour of Israel, where, among other things, he visited an Iron Dome battery — the U.S.-funded defense system that enables Israel to intercept incoming rockets — near the Gaza border, he’s developed an attachment for the land.
“This is my second time in Israel,” said Boyle, who went just over two years ago as a Pennsylvania state representative with a group from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “I absolutely loved my first trip and so, when I had the opportunity to go back, I jumped at it. I just think Israel’s a special place with amazing, innovative people. It’s largely a nation of immigrants — similar to America.
“The reason this trip came about is, every two years it’s a custom for freshman members of Congress go to Israel. They jammed about three weeks of meetings into one week. We met with Israeli President Rivlin; met for two hours with Prime Minister Netanyahu; met with a Palestinian finance minister; went up to the top of the Golan Heights and got a security briefing from an Israeli general, then went over to the border of Lebanon and got a different security briefing. It was a fascinating, exhausting but exhilarating week.”
It will come as no surprise that the vast majority of the time Boyle and his colleagues spent with Netanyahu was spent discussing Iran. Since returning home, he’s met with Obama and heard other experts analyzing the pluses and minuses of the deal.
His decision on how to vote won’t come easy. “I‘m a Democrat,” said Boyle, an Irish Catholic raised in the Northeast, who attended Notre Dame, then did graduate work at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “I deeply respect and like our president. At the same time I’m wrestling with a number of concerns. I’m trying to have all the facts I can to make an informed decision. I want more than anything that we get this right, because I know the consequences are so enormous.”
After incumbent Allyson Schwartz, who is Jewish, chose not to run in 2014, Boyle won his seat in the House by soundly beating Republican Dee Adcock. That came after he defeated a pair of Jewish candidates, Marjorie Margolies and Daylin Leach, in the primary.
His success there can largely be attributed to his Jewish constituents realizing his commitment to them. “The issues concerning Israel have a special resonance with me dating back to before I was elected to office,” said Boyle, who lives in the Northeast with his wife, Jennifer, and baby daughter, Abigail. “I was a Board member of the Holocaust Awareness Committee, housed at the Klein branch. I became friends when I was there with two dozen Holocaust survivors whom we would send out to schools to talk about their experience.”
That led to then state Sen. Boyle introducing the bill Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law last year making Pennsylvania the sixth state requiring the Holocaust and genocide be taught in schools.
“I was always very interested in politics and world affairs,” said Boyle, whose younger brother, Kevin, is currently a state legislator. “My dad came from Ireland. Being fully American and also having a link abroad, I was able to understand.”
All of which — along with his personal experiences there — better inform him about a land he says is vital to U.S. interests. “Israel is a great country in an extremely rough neighborhood, so U.S. support is vital,” said Boyle, who was instrumental a few years back in writing letters and working with the Jewish community to keep the Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic open. That’s a position he’s again prepared to take should the latest rumors of its closure come to fruition. He expressed admiration for how his Israeli hosts “go to every effort to make sure all members of Congress are aware of its case. Being there and seeing the challenges on literally three of its borders as well as West Bank — there’s no substitute for that.”
While Boyle may sympathize with Israel and Netanyahu, who bitterly opposes the Iran deal, his allegiance lies with Obama, making him torn on the vote. “I asked Netanyahu, what will Israel do if this does go through?” said Boyle, who does not expect a Senate filibuster by either party to delay the vote. “He was very vague and said, ‘Israel has always been resourceful and will continue to weigh its options and figure out what’s in the best interest of the people.’ But I am concerned. In the last 10 years, Israel has faced war with Lebanon and repeated attacks from Gaza — all from terrorist groups funded by Iran. So there’s a real nervousness and angst about things. Whether we want to or not, whether we like it or not, we’re heavily involved. We need to have members of Congress understand what’s going on.”
Should Congress successfully override a presidential veto to kill the deal, he’s just as concerned. “That is the big part of what I’m wrestling with,” admitted Boyle, who will have two meetings with Pope Francis when he arrives next month — first when the pope addresses Congress in Washington, and again when he comes to Philadelphia. “The consequences of voting ‘No’ and what that would mean for us financially, militarily and diplomatically: In the next few days, that’s what I’ll be getting briefings on. While I’m a skeptic of the deal, I won’t reach a final decision until the end of the month. But in my first year in office, we’re facing one of the most important foreign policy votes in last 30-40 years.”
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