Posted on August 11, 1997 in Washington Watch
There can be no doubt that the peace process is in a grave crisis. The actions of suicide bombers and the ever-expanding Israeli settlements point to deep unresolved problems that plague the search for peace in the Middle East.
Simply put, some Palestinian extremists are opposed to peace with Israel. They, therefore, seek at key moments to create violent and deadly crisis that will spread insecurity and provoke a hostile Israeli reaction and in turn, weaken the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership that has opted in favor of a negotiated settlement with Israel. At the same time, the Israeli government has clearly not forsaken its ambition to control what they term Eretz Israel. While seeking to rid itself of control of the daily lives of Palestinians in urban areas of the West bank and Gaza, there is not an Israeli commitment to recognize Palestinian sovereignty in that land.
It is precisely this two-pronged dilemma to which U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk referred when he noted that the underpinnings of the Oslo agreement had broken down. And it was the same set of issues that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addressed in her recent Middle East policy speech.
The Secretary was right in noting that in this crisis situation, the role of an even-handed honest broker is more important than ever. But the ability of the U.S. to play such a role is impaired by the behavior of the Congress which has erected its own obstacles to the search for peace in the Middle East.
The actions of the U.S. Congress which I have reviewed in the past few weeks have served to further enflame Palestinians, give comfort to the intransigent Israeli government, and impede the ability of the Administration to conduct diplomacy in the pursuit of peace.
In many ways this is not a new story. For many decades now, successive Congresses have given-in to Israeli excesses encouraging them, rewarding their behavior, and shielding them from negative diplomatic consequences.
Since the 1970’s, State Department officials have complained that their hands were being tied by domestic U.S. political considerations. Initiatives taken by several Administrations were undercut by Congressional actions or were suspended in reaction to Congressional threats. All the while Congress was providing excessive benefits for Israel and punishing the Arabs with hostile legislation.
From its inception, the design of the pro-Israel lobby has been to use Congress as a lever against the Sate Department which they accused of being dominated by “Arabists,” i.e. diplomats who had served in the Arab world and understood the issues and actions that must be passed to foster U.S. -Arab ties.
As a result of more than three decades of sustained political efforts, Congress has itself become a powerful force for Israel, taking actions that often contradict, not only U.S. interests, but normal Congressional behavior.
Congress, for example, is usually disinclined to give foreign aid except when it goes to Israel. Congress is usually inclined toward isolationism, except when engagement is required to serve Israel’s interests. And Congress is normally protective of U.S. economic interests, again, except when it comes to Israel.
As a result of decades of political pressure by the pro-Israel lobby on Congress, and Congress on the Administration, the very definition of U.S. interests in the Middle East has changed.
Congressional behavior on all these matters is the result of a long-standing, well-financed political effort to influence the legislative body. The tactics used in this effort are well-known; campaign financing, grass-roots mobilization, organized uncontested issue campaigns, and fear.
In each election cycle, organized political contributions by pro-Israel forces are between $8 to $10 million directly into Congressional campaigns (much more goes into the political parties and the presidential races). While this amount is not large given the overall amount spent on political campaigns, it is highly effective because it is targeted and uncontested by pro-Arab contributions. Pro-Israel contributions are targeted to members of the Congressional committees that vote on Israeli issues, campaigns of “friends of Israel” who are in need of help, and campaigns of opponents of Members of Congress who are deemed the “enemies of Israel.”
Before each election every member of Congress and every candidate for a Congressional seat are visited by a lobbyist for Israel and presented with issue briefs of positions favored by the lobby. Acceptance of these policies wins support, rejection carries the treat of opposition.
Since no counter campaign has ever been waged, most candidates choose the path of least resistance, i.e. acceptance of the pro-Israel positions. Thus pro-Israel lobbyists have often succeeded in establishing that their positions are the only ones possible.
Since, in a few instances, organized efforts by pro-Israel groups have actually contributed to the defeat of some of these Members of Congress who have opposed them, their threats appear to have teeth. In reality, fear of their power is greatly overrated since many of their highly touted victories were the result of local issues affecting the outcome of elections. There are also many instances where supporters of Israel with strong support from the lobby were defeated due to the same local issues. Nevertheless, the fear of their power is widely believed, and, given the choice, most members of Congress would prefer not to find out for themselves whether or not the lobby is as invincible as it claims to be.
The bottom line is that because the positions and myths of the pro-Israel lobby have not been effectively combated, they have developed a life of their own and are accepted by too many politicians. Although it is important to note that they are not shared by the majority of the voting public.
As a result, two separate campaigns take place in every election. Politicians running for office will write letters to pro-Israel donors and speak before pro-Israel audiences and sign statements of support for Israel interests—seeking their financial support in their campaigns. But they will never address any of these same issues before their larger voting constituencies. No members of the 105th Congress running for re-election in 1998 will go before voters in their respective districts and announce with pride how much money they voted to send to Israel, or how many exceptions they allowed for Israel, or how many punitive measures they passed against the Palestinians. Those actions are not done to win voters’ support, and therefore, remain secrets known only in Washington and in Congressional communications with supporters of Israel.
Campaign financing, grassroots mobilization, organized uncontested issues campaigns and fear—these are factors that have produced the ability of the pro-Israel forces to shape U.S. policy in Congress.
Since 1994, the situation in Congress has deteriorated even further as a result of the election that year of a new Republican majority that has taken control of both Houses of Congress.
This new Republican leadership is not from the traditional pro-business moderate wing of the Party once represented by Texans like George Bush, James Baker, and John Connaly. The new Republican leadership in Congress is an alliance between ideological neo-conservatives and the Christian fundamentalist movement.
Both groups share intense anti-Arab and anti-Muslim mindsets. Neo-conservatives, driven by a sense of Western supremacy, seek to extend their Cold War world vision to the post Cold War World. The theology of the Christian fundamentalists leads them to virtually demonize the non-Christian world.
The combination of these two ideologies now driving Congressional action on the Middle East has been fatal for the peace process.
These groups, for example, never supported the Oslo peace process, even in the heady days of September 1993. On the night of September 13, 1993 I left a meeting of Arab American and Jewish American leaders with President Clinton at the White House to go to CNN to debate former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a neo-conservative Republican.
Her opposition to Oslo from the first day was indicative of the attitudes of her fellow travelers in the neo-conservative movement. As their spiritual patron, former president Ronald Reagan, had rejected detente with the Soviet Union a surrendering to totalitarianism, these Republicans derided Oslo as acquiescing to terrorism. For Israel to negotiate with the PLO and Syria, they believed, was akin to betraying “Western values.”
As in the case of the Cold War, instead of making peace with the enemy, they sought to defeat the enemy. In this context, the new Republican leadership found common cause with Likud.
Beginning in 1994, Benyamin Netanyahu the leader of Likud, sent a small group of agents to Washington to work against the peace process and establish independent ties with Congress. Former Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin denounced this effort as traitorous and termed the Likud group “the gang of three.” They succeeded in their work and after the November 1994 victory of the Republicans, this group found a Congressional leadership responsive to their anti-peace message. From 1994 to 1996 they were able to push through a number of Congressional initiatives that complicated the peace process and frustrated U.S. and Labor government efforts to make peace with the Palestinians and Syrians.
There was some tension in the pro-Israel lobby in those years reflecting a split in loyalty in the Jewish community between those who supported the Labor government and those who were allies of Likud and opponents of compromise with Arabs. But with Likud now in power, that situation has been resolved and the anti-peace and anti-Arab activities in Congress have accelerated and are now virtually out of control.
It is true that the President can confront Congress and the ideas of the pro-Israel lobby. In most instances in the past when the President has directly challenged the lobby they have won—but usually at an enormous cost. In any case, Arabs and Arab Americans can not abdicate their responsibility to help themselves in this crisis situation—and I believe, if a concerted campaign is waged in the U.S., public opinion can be mobilized, Congress can be challenged, and the will of the Administration to act can be strengthened.
The situation can be remedied but only if Arabs and Arab Americans wage an intense campaign.
This campaign must have two parts. Arabs, for their part, must raise in a significant way, their just demands of peace. An issue campaign of substantial proportions must be waged in the U.S. in an effort to counter years of uncontested pro-Israel propaganda. Arab Americans, on the other hand, must target a few members of Congress, expose their actions to their constituents and work aggressively to defeat them at the polls. only if the issues domination of the pro-Israeli lobby is broken and their electoral hegemony is ended can there be real change in the U.S.
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