WASHINGTON - This week the temperatures in Washington soared to 38 degrees Centigrade and the humidity reached 70 percent. Just the right time to flee the capital, first back home - every congressman to his or her state and constituency - and then abroad. For example, to Israel's shores, which are so well known for their cool temperatures in mid-summer. More than 20 Republican congressmen finished this kind of trip this week, and some 20 Democrats will leave for Israel the day after tomorrow.

Steny Hoyer is the leader of the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, No. 2 in the hierarchy of the house and one of the leading congressmen in the United States. He is one of the senior members of this Democratic delegation. Hoyer is from Maryland, and this is his third trip to Israel as a senior legislator and his "eighth or ninth" altogether, he says. He first visited Israel in 1976.

A visit of 40 congressmen in Israel within the space of two weeks is no small feat, but Hoyer, speaking on Wednesday morning, insists that a tour of this kind is of "crucial importance" for them. Israel, he reminds all those who have forgotten, is "our most important ally and friend," and its friends have to understand the challenges it faces from up close.

At all the events attended by the congressmen, Israeli leaders always found time for them, including the president, the prime minister, the defense minister, the foreign minister, the head of the opposition and the military's top brass. These 40 legislators are the ones who over the past few weeks supported additional funding for the Arrow missile, which is part of the budget for cooperation on combating terror within the framework of the Office of Homeland Security. They are also the ones who will vote on the $30 billion increase in the security budget to which the administration plans to commit itself over the next 10 years.

Hoyer expects that the focus of this visit will be on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the chances of extricating both sides from it. In any case, they will meet with the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, as well as the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayad. Hoyer believes that Israel considers Abbas to be a leader who is trying to reach a peace agreement - "the question is whether he is capable."

Hoyer is of the opinion that the U.S. administration wasted precious time when it refrained from becoming "fully involved" in the attempts to revive the peace process. This view is shared by most members of the Democratic Party. This is the only matter on which they were able to find fault with the current U.S. administration's policy toward Israel. Aside from that, there are no serious differences between the two major American parties when it comes to Israel, he says.

U.S. agenda

But the most interesting aspect of the conversation with Hoyer did not relate to the Palestinian issue. Rather, it concerned the main issue on the American agenda - the war in Iraq. Hoyer is certainly aware of the fact that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has publicly expressed an Israeli stance that is not exactly the same as that of his party. While Olmert has warned against a pullout from Iraq, Hoyer this week said that he "hopes" Congress will increase pressure on the administration to carry out a "redeployment" of the forces in Iraq. That does not exactly constitute support for a withdrawal. He believes that U.S. policy in Iraq has to change. But as someone who belongs to the faction that is wary of calling for an immediate and swift pullout of American forces, he is nevertheless cautious. He explains that the Democratic Party does not want the kind of policy that will leave behind chaos in Iraq and endanger Israel and the stability of the region.

Hoyer added that he attaches great importance to the Israeli point of view. To this end, he will ask Defense Minister Ehud Barak and several Israeli generals about their opinions on the possible implications of a change in Iraq. There are quite a few Democratic congressmen - including possible candidates for the presidency, such as Hillary Clinton - who are not enthusiastic about a speedy withdrawal. Yet they express this opinion, which is less popular among the voters, with a great deal of caution, so as not to jeopardize their chances in the upcoming primary.

Hoyer is second in importance in Congress only to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, but he is also one of her opponents. He waged a difficult war against Pelosi before being elected to his position since she preferred another congressman for the job: John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who was much more vociferous in calling for a withdrawal from Iraq. Murtha wanted to stop the flow of money to the armed forces, in order to force them to pull out, but his party and Congress won out against his approach. Some thought such a policy would not be fitting from a diplomatic point of view, while others understood that cutting off funds from soldiers who deployed on a ground mission is simply unwise from a political point of view.

Hoyer says his party has "not yet decided" whether it will support the giant arms deal the administration has promised the Saudis. There are congressmen who have already announced that they will request additional clarifications. Hoyer, too, expresses "concern" over the deal and censures the administration on it whenever he can. He notes that it became known this week that a huge quantity of arms, which the Americans had transferred to Iraq, had got lost: They are unable to locate 190,000 guns and revolvers and more than 100,000 helmets and flak jackets. A huge embarrassment. Hoyer and others assume that part of this equipment has fallen into hostile hands and is currently being used against the Americans. He explains that he would not like to see something similar happening "in other places," with much more sophisticated weapons - a reference to Saudi Arabia.