Posted on December 26, 2008 in Washington Watch

Even with the near-unanimous support for Israel demonstrated by the White House and Congress, and the long-standing and deep seated pro-Israel cultural bias demonstrated by most of the U.S. media, the American public still has some ambivalence about Israel’s actions in Gaza.

A Rasmussen poll, for example, conducted in the last week of December, shows the American public unconvinced. In that poll, 44% supported Israel’s military assault against Palestinians in Gaza, while 41% said they felt that Israel should have first tried to find a diplomatic solution. Especially interesting is the deep partisan split behind the numbers, with 62% of Republicans supporting the Israeli military actions and only 27% of Republicans preferring diplomacy. Among Democrats, 55% would have preferred diplomacy, and only 31% supported Israel’s actions. Also demonstrating less support for Israel’s behavior were significant numbers of African Americans, women, and younger Americans.

A later Pew poll (January 11th) that simply asked whether Americans approved or disapproved of Israel’s military actions found only 40% approving, while 33% did not approve and 27% were not sure. Here again, there is a partisan split, with Democrats disapproving by a 45-29 margin. And when it comes the U.S. response to the crisis, a Gallup poll (January 9) found the same ambivalence, with 33% thinking that the U.S. should be doing more to help resolve the conflict, with another 30% thinking that the U.S. was doing enough (with 22% saying the U.S. should be doing less and 16% having no opinion).

Congress, Unfortunately, Is Certain

This public ambivalence, of course, doesn’t show up in Congress. On January 8th the Senate agreed by unanimous consent to a Resolution “recognizing the right of Israel to defend itself against attacks from Gaza, and reaffirming the U.S.’s strong support for Israel in its battle with Hamas, and supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.” (The latter clause apparently thrown in an effort to appear balanced.)

A companion House resolution also passed the following day, but in the lower chamber there was a floor vote and a debate. The House version was supported by 390 Members (although several of those who voted for it did make a point of expressing their reservations). Five brave House members voted “no,” with 22 voting “present” and 16 not voting (and in the “world” Congress inhabits, voting “present” or not voting is akin to dissent, though not as courageous as a “no” vote).

Among those who spoke against the bill were Nick Rahall II (D-WV), who observed: “The current fighting is not in the best interest of the United States. Only the extremists on both sides are the winners. Those moderates in the middle, both in Israel and the Palestinian side, are the real losers in the current fighting.”

David Price (D-NC) was among those who voted for the resolution but making clear his opposition to parts of it, noting: “It is difficult to imagine how the current conflict might ultimately lead to a just and lasting peace. Hamas, though militarily debilitated, is not likely to disappear as a political force or suddenly prove more pliable in negotiations. …And Israel, while addressing a key short-term security objective, risks far-reaching damage to the peace process that is essentially its most critical long-term security objective….

Lois Capps (D-CA) said: “I will vote for this resolution today, but I am disappointed that we are doing once again what we have done so often. …My fear, this action by Israel, justified as it is, and provoked by Hamas, will not enhance Israel’s security, but only further endanger it. …In the meantime, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has grown to unspeakable proportions.

A Peace Coalition Grows

In addition to sparking demonstrations, across the nation, some of which have been quite substantial (15,000 in New York City and 10,000 here in Washington), Arab American and American Jewish groups have been active in Washington politics. They have organized a series of briefings for Congressional staffers focusing on the humanitarian crisis and the political dimensions of the conflict. Six of these organizations (Americans for Peace Now, the Arab American Institute, J Street, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, Churches for Middle East Peace, and B’tselem) co-signed a letter to President-elect Barack Obama noting that they had “come together in this time of crisis because we believe that, by working together, we can make the most effective contribution to ending the violence and delivering peace and security to the peoples of the Middle East.”

The groups spoke of their sense of urgency, noting to Obama, “You may be the last President who will have the opportunity to deliver a two-state solution for the Israeli and Palestinian people.” They also proposed, “As you build your Middle east team, we urge you to appoint individuals with boldness, vision, and the trust of both sides necessary for successful diplomacy.”

Clinton Provides Hints of New Direction

It is not yet clear who will comprise the Obama Middle East team, nor have they fully or publicly articulated their policy; but listening to the Secretary of State-designee’s opening remarks at her confirmation hearing provides a hopeful glimpse, in which she, unlike the current Administration, speaks with compassion and understanding of the suffering and alienation that are the result of the conflict in Gaza..

“As intractable as the Middle East’s problems may seem – and many Presidents, including my husband, have spent years trying to help work out a resolution – we cannot give up on peace. The President-Elect and I understand and are deeply sympathetic to Israel’s desire to defend itself under the current conditions, and to be free of shelling by Hamas rockets. However, we have also been reminded of the tragic humanitarian costs of conflict in the Middle East, and pained by the suffering of Palestinian and Israeli civilians. This must only increase our determination to seek a just and lasting peace agreement that brings real security to Israel; normal and positive relations with its neighbors; and independence, economic progress, and security to the Palestinians in their own state. We will exert every effort to support the work of Israelis and Palestinians who seek that result. It is critical not only to the parties involved but to our profound interests in undermining the forces of alienation and violent extremism across our world.”
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