Posted on May 06, 2002 in Washington Watch

On May 2, the Department of State made a surprise announcement that they would work to convene an international Middle East peace conference later this summer. Since plans for the conference are still vague, some reporters were confused by what some described as a “premature” announcement.

It appears, however, that there was a story behind the story. The State Department hoped that the news of the intended conference might drown out news created by the fact that on the same day, both Houses of Congress had passed unbalanced resolutions “in solidarity with Israel.”

If that was the story behind the announcement, there was yet another story behind the pro-Israel resolutions—a story that needs to be told. When that story is known, it will be clear that far from a defeat, the resolutions exposed an intense new debate in Congress and a growing uneasiness that characterizes current congressional support for Israel.

As late as April 29th, Congress was not scheduled to vote on this pro-Israel resolution. Yielding to pressure from the State Department, the House bill’s original Republican co-sponsor stepped aside and said he would no longer push the effort. At that point the Republican Whip, Tom Delay (R-TX), an extremist right-winger, stepped in as the bill’s sponsor and said he would now push for its passage.

The bill had been set for a vote on April 30th. When the congressional Democrats were told that this would occur at their weekly meeting on April 25th, a number of members protested. Their objections coupled with State Department pressure forced Delay to announce on April 26th that he was withdrawing the resolution from consideration.

Then on Monday, April 29, at their weekly congressional leadership meeting with President Bush, Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD) informed the President that he would bring a milder version of a pro-Israel resolution up for a Senate vote later that week. Since the President indicated that he had no objections, Daschle felt free to move forward (the White House’s apparent support for the effort was later reaffirmed by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice).

On hearing of the Senate’s decision to move forward with their tamer version—a pro-Israel resolution that avoided excessive condemnation of the Palestinian Authority and its president Yasir Arafat—Mr. Delay announced that he would now push his House resolution with its harsh anti-Palestinian language.
In one fell swoop, both the State Department and the moderates in the Congress had been undercut.

Even more interesting than the antics that led up to the final introduction of the resolution, was the fascinating public debate that took place on the day that the bills were being considered.

At the last minute, one of the Democrats’ leading members, Congressman David Obey (D-WI), introduced a substitute resolution that was a balanced statement of U.S. policy toward the Middle East. It appeared during debate that this resolution would have the support of more than one-third of the Democrat caucus (about 75 of the 211 House Democrats).

Furthermore, when the Delay resolution finally came to a vote, 82 members did not vote for it. This is a record number of members of Congress who broke rank with both the pro-Israel lobby and with the leaderships in both parties who were pressing them to toe the party line and vote for the bill.

More impressive still was the public debate that took place on the House floor during the resolution’s consideration. During the day’s debate, 35 members of Congress spoke out in opposition to the unbalanced provisions of the resolution. Some were remarkable statements of principle like the speech given by Congressman David Bonior (D-MI), who spoke in opposition. Bonior’s remarks were so important they deserve to be quoted at length:

    Mr. Speaker, I rise in strong opposition to this resolution. This resolution blindly supports Israel’s actions against the Palestinians and wholly denies the generations of suffering of the Palestinian people. This would be wrong at any time, but in light of what has happened at Jenin and Bethlehem, Ramallah, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Netanya, and what continues to happen today, this resolution is dangerous.

    Like most Americans, I support Israel. However, just like most Americans, I do not support and will not support all of Israel’s policies. Generations of Palestinians and Israelis have suffered in the region, but the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be examined or addressed in isolation of decades of occupation of millions of Palestinians.

    Israeli suffering is something that this body understands and discusses. But what of the suffering of the Palestinian people? What of the history of land confiscation, water rights, torture, settlements, collective punishments, home demolitions, curfews, administrative detentions, expulsions, child labor? Where is the language about the 1,000-plus Palestinians killed in the last 19 months, bodies found under rubble? Where is the language about the thousands made homeless by the bulldozers in Jenin alone? Where is the language about the relief agencies denied access to treat the sick and wounded? We know that relief agencies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, were prevented from reaching and evacuating and treating the sick and wounded throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, resulting in untold deaths, from the mother who bled to death from a normally non-fatal wound in front of her children, to the couple buried alive under rubble for 8 days. The stories coming to light are horrific.

    Rarely on this floor is there discussion of the nearly 420 Palestinian villages destroyed at the time of Israel’s founding in 1948, or the 3.8 million refugees registered by the United Nations or the estimated 2 million others not registered. Palestinians live in 59 different recognized refugees camps in misery, in poverty, with no hope of a better future for the next generations that are born into those camps.

Equally important to note was the obvious discomfort of many of those who voted for the bill. At least 12 of those who did so were so troubled by the unbalanced nature of the resolution and by the obvious politics that brought it to a vote in the first place. Exemplifying their attitudes were the comments of Congressman Jim Leach (R-IA):

    Mr. Speaker, I intend to vote for this resolution, with reservations…This resolution is pressed in this body at this time, without administration support and without review by the committee of jurisdiction, all apparently because of concern that the Senate might competitively address the issue before the House.

    Substantively this resolution is unbalanced, untimely, and potentially counterproductive to the foreign policy interests of the United States and, implicitly, the viability of the State of Israel.

By day’s end, almost 100 members of Congress had either refused to vote for the pro-Israel resolution or publicly made clear their reservations with the bill, despite their reluctant vote for it. This represents a significant change in congressional balance. It will be recalled that during the last public debate on a pro-Israel resolution, only four members spoke against the resolution. And the previous record number of those who failed to vote for such a resolution was 52.

And so when you read the headlines “State Department announces plans for a new Middle East Peace Summit”, followed by the sub-headline “Congress passes pro-Israel resolution”, you should know that there was a story behind the story behind the story. And that is that there is an intense debate both within the Administration and within Congress. Attitudes are changing, maybe too slowly for some, but changing nevertheless.

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