Posted on January 23, 2009 in Washington Watch

There are early signs of change in how some in Congress see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While it is not the “sea change” that many have hoped for, nor can it be dismissed as inconsequential.

There are several factors that have played a contributing role in creating this change of attitudes.

First and foremost is the change in Administration. The end of the Bush era, with its penchant for seeing all Middle East conflicts through the narrow lens of ideology, has given way to a more sober “real politik.” Because the media takes its early cues from the Administration in power, as do many in Congress, a veil has been lifted. Bush, for example, not only refused to criticize Israel, he also refused to express compassion for Palestinian suffering, lest that be interpreted as criticism of the agent responsible for the suffering. This has already given way to the more open and nuanced world view of Obama.

No doubt, Israel’s brutal and prolonged assault on Gaza has also played a role in generating congressional discomfort. While the January 9th resolutions supporting Israel passed by large margins, even some of those who voted in favor, simultaneous with their vote, issued statements expressing deep concern with Israel’s disproportionate attacks.

As the Israeli assault on Gaza persisted, and the impact of the bombing and the prolonged blockade became clear, dissatisfaction grew in the U.S. Congress.

Another factor contributing to a potential change in attitudes has been the increasingly active Arab American voice in communities across the U.S. and the growing strength of pro-peace groups in the American Jewish community. Both efforts, individually and combined, have provided support for Members of Congress who want to speak out.

Here are some examples:

Voting “Yes, but…”

While both the Senate and the House passed early resolutions supporting Israel’s right to defend itself (in the Senate it was by “unanimous consent,” i.e., no actual vote; in the House it was 377 in favor, 5 against, 22 present but not voting, and 15 absent), dozens of officials both at the time of the vote and since then, in letters to constituents, have made clear their displeasure with the unbalanced nature of the bills.

One such response came in the form of a letter Senator James Webb (D-VA) sent to constituents. It read, in part:
“While the resolution affirms U.S. support for Israel’s security and condemns Hamas rocket attacks, I believe it presented an incomplete response to the situation in Gaza.
“I am very concerned about the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Reports from the United Nations and from humanitarian organizations citing lack of access for humanitarian assistance in Gaza are very troubling. We here in the U.S. should be insisting that the situation be rectified immediately and permanently.”

Upon learning how one family, that of a constituent, was affected by the Israeli onslaught, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) went to the floor of the Senate on January 25th, to make the following remarks:
“Mr. President, we have all seen the photographs of houses, schools and other civilian infrastructure destroyed in Gaza, and the reports of civilian deaths, including over 400 children, and many thousands more injured. Behind each of these statistics is a story of a family tragedy. I want to take this opportunity to talk about one that has touched the lives of Vermonters, and which would cause each of us deep concern.
[After describing, in some detail, how Israeli forces shot and killed members of this family, Leahy continued] “…By this time, Ibrahim had died in his father’s arms. Israeli troops reportedly looked on and ignored Muhammad’s pleas for help. This case cries out for an immediate, thorough, credible and transparent investigation by the Israeli government. Any individuals determined to have violated the laws of war should be prosecuted and appropriately punished. In addition, it is important that the U.S. Embassy determine whether any Israeli soldiers were who equipped by the U.S. violated U.S. laws or agreements governing the use of U.S. equipment, both in relation to this incident and others involving civilian casualties. This should include the use of white phosphorous in heavily populated areas, which is alleged to have caused serious injuries to civilians.”

Humanitarian Concern

Concern that not enough was being done to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza in a timely way, on January 28th a group of 64 Members of Congress sent a powerful appeal to Secretary of State Clinton which read, in part:
“…we are writing to express our deep concern for the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and to request immediate action by the United States to address this crisis. With the ceasefire now in effect, it is critical that the United States play a leading role in alleviating the suffering of civilians in Gaza….
“As you know, the situation on the ground is dire. The flow of humanitarian goods into the Gaza Strip is limited to food and medicine. Yet there exists a real need to allow for the importation of construction materials and fuel, which require the opening of crossings into Gaza.
“…We also remain especially concerned about the desperate condition of medical services in Gaza. Although Israel has begun to allow limited medical supplies into Gaza, the need far outweighs the availability while hospitals remain understaffed and ill-supplied. One of the most crucial steps that needs to be taken is for Israel to allow critically ill patients to be transported out of Gaza [to] where they may receive necessary medical care. We therefore urge you to express this concern directly to Israeli government officials.
“In addition to the several thousand individuals who were physically injured during the recent military operations, we can expect to see a dramatic increase in the number of individuals suffering from psychological trauma. …we will need to further ensure that funds are used to provide adequate mental health services in Gaza.”

[It must be noted that this effort is also significant because its 64 endorsers stand in marked contrast to the mere 10 hard-liners who, the day before, signed an anti-UNWRA letter calling on the U.S. to suspend its support for that agency.]

Supporting Mitchell and Peace

Moved by the tragedy, and wanting to make a statement in support of peace, on February 4th, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, Representative Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and 46 co-sponsors introduced HR 130, which
“reaffirms that peace between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and the Arab world are essential national security interests of the United States; and expresses its appreciation to those engaged in support of Middle East peacemaking and the recent cessation of hostilities in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel, and calls on the international community to aggressively pursue efforts that facilitate a just and lasting resolution of these conflicts.”

[Of special note here us that among the co-sponsors are eight American Jewish, all three Arab American, and both American Muslim Members of Congress.]

Not quite a “sea change,” but quite possibly the beginning of movement in Congress on critical Middle East issues.