Posted on March 22, 1999 in Washington Watch

On March 16 the U.S. Congress passed a resolution (House Concurrent Resolution 24) calling on the President to “unequivocally assert U.S. opposition to the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian State.”

Far more significant, however, than H.Con.Res. 24, was the historic debate that preceded the vote on the resolution. For the first time in the Halls of Congress there was a substantial debate: on Palestinian rights; on the one-sided unbalanced approach that Congress takes on Palestinian issues; and on the need for new thinking in Middle East policy.

In reality, the resolution, though unbalanced, is meaningless. A year ago when the pro-Israel lobby conceived of this effort, it was to be a resolution that declared blanket U.S. opposition to a Palestinian state. In its final form, however, H.Con.Res. 24 merely calls on the President to state what he already has stated, i.e. that the United States does not want to see a Palestinian unilateral declaration of statehood.

What prompted the outrage of some Members of Congress was the lack of balance in the resolution. Before the actual vote took place, member after member rose to condemn this one-sidedness.

Armed with a clear sense of justice and a letter from the State Department declaring U.S. opposition to all “unilateral acts by any party”, the Congressmen took to the floor to state their opposition.

Since a congressional debate of this sort was unprecedented–a number of the comments deserved to be printed.

Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV)

    [The resolution] simply fails to mention the other half of the equation. Failure to mention both parties in this resolution is only rhetoric

Congressman Sam Gejdenson (D-CT)

    But here in…Congress, we have…people that are harder line than even the Israeli government under Mr. Netanyahu…. we continue to deal with the Palestinians not as if they were partners in the peace process but the same adversaries they were in the past I think is a mistake….For those of us who care about the children and the women who die in marketplace bombings, who worry about the poverty and starvation in camps, we need to move this peace process forward and we need to take opportunities like this one not simply to single out one side, especially at a point in history where there is hope for a comprehensive peace….

Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA)

    The perception is going to be that we are acting in a biased, unbalanced manner even though our intelligence community…has reported that the Palestinian authority is doing everything it can right now to comply with the Oslo requirements.

Congressman John Dingell (D-MI)

    What we are doing is rejecting an evenhanded, honest broker approach to peace in the Middle East and substituting for that a participation in and invective directed at only one side.

Congressman Tom Campbell (R-CA)

    I intend to vote no because I believe that the people of Palestine are entitled to their own country…. But to the child born in a refugee camp who has never known a home except a refugee camp, to the child born in Gaza whose parents go up to work through a chute, as though a cattle chute, every day into Israel, to the resident of the West Bank who cannot carry on the trade with Jordan, I say you have a country; and you have the right to say you do.

Congressman David Bonior (D-MI)

    It is, I believe, a one-sided resolution that will only set things back…. Choosing sides now, and that is what the resolution does…is shortsighted.

Congressman David Obey (D-WI)

    But do not kid ourselves by saying this is a balanced resolution. It is not. If it were, it would take note of all unilateral actions taken by all parties…including some unilateral actions taken by this very Congress…. this Congress should…be fair-minded in noting the actions on the part of the Israeli government in taking unilateral actions with respect to some settlement activities in the West Bank and in Jerusalem…

Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-GA)

    I believe that this resolution sends a dangerous message to all those working and sacrificing for peace in the Middle East. This is, in the end, a politically motivated resolution that…aims to do is send a message to Clinton and Arafat in advance of their meeting next week and the upcoming Israeli elections. Its passage will undoubtedly send the WRONG message….it would be far more beneficial to send a message to Israelis and Palestinians and to the entire international community that the United States is committed to remaining an even-handed peace broker in the Middle East….I support peace based on fairness, justice, and security for all peoples of the Middle East.

Even the final vote doesn’t tell the entire story. While 380 members voted for the resolution, many of them publicly joined their colleagues in criticizing the bill. Some, like Congresspersons Rodriguez, Pomeroy and Capps expressed their concerns with the bill as follows:

Congressman Ciro Rodriguez (D-TX)

    I rise to express my concern over language utilized in H.Con.Res. 24. Although I support the resolution, I feel that Congress did not have an adequate opportunity to more fully discuss all unilateral declarations by any party to the Middle East peace process, including those by the United States.

Congressman Earl Pomeroy (D-ND)

    I rise to support this resolution expressing congressional opposition to the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state…. I am, however, disappointed with the one-sidedness of this resolution.

Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-CA)

    I rise in support of the resolution. [But] Congress should be on record opposing all unilateral acts, including, but not limited to, a declaration of Palestinian statehood.

What should be noted is that despite a year long campaign by the pro-Israel lobby and an intense last minute effort to pressure members to vote for this meaningless bill, 54 Representatives voted no or refused to vote at all. This, in itself, is a record number of Congressmen to oppose a pro-Israel lobby initiative.

Regardless of the final vote–the events surrounding the passage of H.Con.Res. 24 are a watershed in Congress’ handling of Palestinian and Middle East issues. It marked a number of important firsts.

The debate was an important breakthrough. Never before had such courage been shown by so many Members of Congress and never before had the issue of Palestinian rights and U.S. bias toward Israel been publicly debated in Congress.

Equally impressive were the efforts of leading Members of Congress. The International Relations Committee almost succeeded in blocking the bill. Congressman Sam Gejdenson, a Jewish Member of Congress, who is the ranking Democrat on the committee played a significant role. He first attempted to amend the bill to oppose “unilateral actions of both sides”. He spoke forcefully in support of his effort chiding his colleagues for only singling out Palestinians for condemnation. He noted that the Palestinians are the party honoring their commitments to the peace process and then rebuked the committee for taking a “gratuitous hit on the Palestinians” and asked rhetorically why Congress felt so threatened to take a balanced position.

Gejdenson was joined by a leading Republican member of the committee, Tom Campbell, who provided leadership during the entire process. Campbell criticized the bill for being one-sided and for the damage that it might do to U.S. relations with “our Arab allies”.

While Gejdenson’s amendment was voted down, Campbell continued to fight and was able to block passage of the bill, in committee, by use of a parliamentary tactic. A large number of members of the committee simply left the room and refused to reenter thus ensuring that the required number needed for a vote wouldn’t be present.

The Republican House leadership had to use a parliamentary tactic of their own to bring the matter to a vote. While this effort virtually guaranteed that H.Con.Res. 24 would pass, they could not stop the historic debate from taking place.

Much of what transpired during these events reminded me of 1988 and how, with the leadership of Jesse Jackson, we were able to break the “deadly silence” and debate Palestinian rights during that year’s Democratic Presidential Convention.

Much the same happened this year–but in a far more significant setting–the Halls of Congress.

Many members of Congress have indicated that they now feel emboldened to continue the struggle. They feel that even many of their colleagues who voted for H.Con.Res. 24 are now ready to take a more balanced position. They feel that while we may have lost the vote on H.Con.Res. 24, we won the debate and in the process helped break the chains of fear that have for so long silenced honest congressional debate about the Middle East.

My Institute was proud of the role we played in mobilizing Arab Americans to encourage Members of Congress to speak out and then to provide support to those who did. We were joined in this campaign by Americans for Peace Now, an American Jewish peace organization that supports a just, balanced peace.

H.Con.Res. 24 is a beginning. To maintain momentum we must continue to work to encourage and support those Members of Congress who will speak out, knowing that, if we succeed, the path to peace will be an easier one for all who seek to travel on it.

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