With the destruction still evident from the three-week Israeli offensive in Gaza last month, three members of Congress visited the region this week to witness the ruins and speak to local leaders and aid workers. This trip was the first by any U.S. government official to Gaza in several years, indicating a desire to re-engage with the region. With a slowly emerging shift in U.S. policy and with a changing Israeli leadership, are we finally on a path to securing a lasting peace?

Senator John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, visited Gaza after touring cities in southern Israel and speaking with top leaders. Congressmen Brian Baird (D-WA) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) also met with international and local relief agencies and viewed the destruction in the Gaza Strip.

This trip is the first by any American government official since Hamas won a parliamentary majority in democratic elections in 2006, and the first trip by U.S. legislators since 2000.

"The amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering," Baird said in a joint statement with Ellison. "The personal stories of children being killed in their home or schools; of entire families wiped out, and relief workers prevented from evacuating the wounded are heart wrenching. What went on here, and what is continuing to go on, is shocking and troubling beyond words."

Lately, there have been a growing number of supporters in Congress calling for peace negotiations, among them Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). Though support inside and outside of the Washington beltway is increasing for the pro-peace movement, its future is uncertain. With Benjamin Netanyahu having been tapped by Israeli President Shimon Peres to form a coalition government and assume the premiership, the outcome of these negotations is expected to continue to pose challenges to securing Palestinian rights. The international community must therefore insist that Israel honor U.N. Resolutions, including the removal of illegal settlements in the West Bank and withdrawing to the June 1967 borders.

Already, there is a framework of support for peace negotiations. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has requested that the U.S. enact the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, re-endorsed by Saudi King Abdullah at the Riyadh Summit in 2007. President Obama has declared the Israeli-Palestinian issue a foreign policy priority in his tenure, having appointed George Mitchell as special envoy to the region, and having authorized $20 million in food and medical assistance to Gaza. In addition, the European Union has contributed 41 million Euros to aid the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the Palestinian Territories.

With the international community's re-commitment to facilitating peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the key to breaking the deadlock remains within the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Past policies that were weak or unproductive now must be revisited or abandoned. As each new violent outbreak between Israelis and Palestinians is more brutal than the last, it becomes clear that past U.S. approaches are no longer tenable. Thus, it has become crucial for the U.S. to lead, to help focus negotiations around the fundamental issues of peace, security, and statehood. This week's congressional visit is a step in the right direction.

Read the Opposing Views debate, "How Should the U.S. Respond to the Gaza Crisis?"