Cynical Maneuvering by Democratic Leaders Quashes Recognition of a Palestinian State

Though outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has insisted that there just isn’t enough time for the lame duck Democratic-controlled Congress to consider much of the progressive legislation on the dock prior to the Republican takeover early next month, she and other Democratic leaders did find time last Wednesday to pass a resolution condemning efforts by Palestinian moderates to seek recognition of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The Oslo accords were signed in 1993 with the vision of Israel’s eventual withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. This was an enormous compromise on the Palestinian side, given that such a state would leave them with only 22% of their historic homeland, the rest of which became the state of Israel in 1948. Right-wing Israeli politician Benyamin Netanyahu, then in opposition, denounced the agreement and promised to derail it. As prime minister in the late 1990s and again since his coming to office again in last year’s election, he has been doing his best to accomplish this by colonizing large swathes of the West Bank with illegal settlements for Israeli Jews which he insists must be annexed into an expanded Israel. The moderate Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, by contrast, has been working toward the implementation of the Oslo Accords, offering strict security guarantees for Israel in return for an end to the occupation.

Nevertheless, the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives has insisted that it is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who are responsible for the breakdown in the peace talks. Recognizing that talks are pointless while Israel’s colonization drive continues and noting the Obama administration’s ongoing refusal to exercise its extensive leverage to force Israel to stop building new settlements, the Palestinians have understandably refused to return to direct negotiations until Israel suspends its colonization drive, which has been condemned as illegal by the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and virtually the entire international community. However, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), whom the Democrats put in charge of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East , insisted during last Wednesday’s debate, that “Israel has shown time and again that it is ready” to make peace and that Palestinians’ objections to Israelis colonizing their land were “overwrought.”

To help put pressure on Israel and the United States to move the peace process forward, the Palestine Authority has been soliciting international recognition of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. During the past couple of weeks, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Norway have done just that. This is what prompted the House resolution, introduced by House Foreign Affairs committee chairman Howard Berman (D-CA), who serves as the House Democrats’ chief foreign policy spokesman.

The Democratic leadership in the House has long argued that Israel’s attacks on civilian population centers in Gaza Strip and elsewhere are legitimate self-defense and that it is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who are making peace impossible. Pelosi, for example, insists that the conflict is about “the fundamental right of Israel to exist” and that it is “absolute nonsense” to claim it has anything do to with the Israeli occupation. One would think, then, that this Palestinian effort to achieve recognition for a state which explicitly defines the borders as exclusively those occupied by Israel in the June 1967 war and not any part of Israel itself would be welcomed. But, to the Democrats, Palestinians asking for even just 22% of Palestine is too much. Rising in support of last Wednesday’s resolution, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) called it “preposterous” that a Palestinian state should be created based on the requirements of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which from Presidents Lyndon Johnson through George H.W. Bush had been recognized as the basis of Middle East peace, which called for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for security guarantees. Similarly, Rep. Berman threatened the Palestine Authority by saying, “If they persist in pursuing a unilateralist path . . . there will be consequences.”

Congress has correctly condemned violence by extremist Palestinian extremist groups like Hamas, yet when the Palestine Authority tries to advance their freedom through nonviolent means, such as these diplomatic initiatives, the Democrats are just as quick to condemn them as well. Indeed, earlier in their careers, Berman, Ackerman, Engel, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders were on record opposing any kind of Palestinian statehood, changing their view reluctantly only years later. However, they insist that whatever kind of Palestinian “state” can only be on what the Israeli occupiers are willing to allow them to have, even if all that is left is a series of small non-contiguous cantons surrounded by annexed Israeli settlement blocs. Taking any initiative to advance their independence separate from what the rightist Israeli government can agree to, according to the Democratic leadership, is completely unacceptable.

One can only think of how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” noted that the greatest obstacle to the advance of freedom is one who “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

Recognizing that most ordinary Democrats oppose the Israeli occupation and would likely put pressure on their representatives to vote against the resolution, Berman and Pelosi put the vote on last Wednesday’s agenda before the text was even made available to other House members. This made it impossible to have any hearings, give any time for constituents to express their opposition, or even allow the Obama administration to offer an opinion. Also fearing opposition from Democratic House members who might be concerned at rousing the anger of their liberal constituents, Berman and Pelosi refused to have roll call vote and instead brought it up under a procedure known as “suspension of the rules,” a procedure normally used for non-controversial measure like honoring a recently-deceased eminent figure. Doing it this way not only limits debate and makes it impossible to attach amendments, it allows a resolution to pass by a non-recorded voice vote and to automatically be recorded as “unanimous.” Only ten representatives were on the floor when the resolution was passed by “unanimous consent.”

This kind of cynical maneuvering by the Democratic Party leadership is unfortunately quite typical of how they have handled resolutions dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during their four years in the majority. It raises the question as to whether the Republicans can do any worse.

Unfortunately, the answer is probably yes. While a growing minority of Democratic House members are finally listening to their liberal constituents’ concerns about U.S. backing for Israeli occupation, colonization and repression, the Republicans – outside of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and a few others of a more libertarian orientation – are solidly aligned with the rightist Israeli government. We can only expect more such resolutions in the coming Congress.