Democrats Grill Bush State Department Official from the Right

On July 26, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William J. Burns appeared before the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

Having this representative of a conservative Republican administration appear before the relevant House subcommittee for the first time offered the Democrats an opportunity to raise critical questions about U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine. The Democrats could have asked why U.S. arms continued to flow to Israeli occupation forces despite well-documented accounts of their use against civilian targets; why the Bush administration vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for international human rights monitors to be sent to the occupied territories; why the Bush administration has refused to suspend economic aid to Israel in light of the ongoing construction of illegal settlements; why the Bush administration has blocked enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions regarding ongoing Israeli violations of international legal standards; or why the United States insists on the need to be “even-handed” in a struggle between an occupied nation and their occupiers when the force of international law rests so strongly with the Palestinians.

What transpired, however, was surreal. The Democrats joined their conservative Republican colleagues in attacking Bush administration policy from the right.

Typical were the remarks of the ranking Democrat, Gary Ackerman of New York. He attacked the Bush administration for characterizing the ongoing turmoil as a “cycle of violence,” claiming “there is not a cycle of violence. There is Palestinian violence and there are Israeli responses.” Ackerman went on to criticize the Bush administration for endorsing a G-8 statement in Genoa which supporting some form of international monitors, saying, “This is not the message we should be sending.” Burns reiterated that the U.S. would oppose dispatching any monitors without the approval of the Israeli government.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of civilian deaths have been Palestinian and reports by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Israeli group B’tselem, and others, which have noted the bulk of the human rights violations have been committed by Israel, each committee member blamed exclusively the Palestinian Authority and its President Yasir Arafat for the violence.

Both Democratic and Republican representatives called for the U.S. to cut off all diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority, even though this would totally abort the peace process and derail current CIA efforts to assist the Palestinian Authority to better suppress radical Palestinian groups like Hamas.

Some of the criticisms expressed by the Congressmen against Arafat’s regime were well-founded. Some were bizarre, conspiratorial, and utterly ludicrous. Throughout the hearing, subcommittee members used the heinous crimes of a handful of Palestinian suicide bombers as an excuse to deny the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and to avoid urging an end to Israel’s 34-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

There was not a word of criticism directed toward right-wing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, despite the widespread international condemnation of the repressive policies of his occupation forces. Indeed, several subcommittee members praised his “restraint.” Regarding Israeli settlements being built on confiscated Palestinian land, Ackerman argued the Israelis were simply “building apartments.” Subcommittee Chairman Benjamin Gilman even tried to cover for Israel’s colonization drive in the West Bank by referring to these illegal settlements–reserved for Jews only–simply as “Israeli neighborhoods.”

Despite former prime minister Ehud Barak’s rejection at last year’s Camp David summit of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, his insistence on annexing large blocs of West Bank land, refusal to withdraw from the illegal settlements, and allowing Palestinians only a token administrative role in occupied Arab East Jerusalem, he was praised by subcommittee members for making an “extremely generous offer.” Arafat’s refusal to give in to these Israeli demands was presented by both Republicans and Democrats as proof of the Palestinians’ unwillingness to live at peace with Israel. Indeed, Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat, went so far as to claim that the Palestinians’ rejection of Barak’s Camp David proposals demonstrated their intent to destroy Israel.

When Burns expressed the Bush administration’s concerns about the enormous suffering of Palestinians living under Israeli closures–faced with record unemployment, lack of food, and difficulty obtaining health care, medicines, and access to hospitals–Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Nevada Democrat, countered that it was all the fault of Arafat for his rejection of the Israeli proposal at Camp David.

The issues at stake in U.S. Middle East policy–human rights, international law, the authority of the United Nations, and the right of self-determination–are the foundations of twentieth century liberal internationalism. These were the issues that supposedly prompted the bipartisan support for the Gulf War 10 years ago and the senior Bush administration’s call for a “New World Order.”

Yet it appears that both the Republican and Democratic Party have since abandoned these principles, leaving the younger Bush’s appointee on the defensive throughout the hearing simply for calling for an end to Israeli-Palestinian violence and the resumption of peace talks.

It will be difficult for the Democrats to win back the House if they continue to demonstrate their contempt for the liberal internationalism of Franklin Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and others who inspired so many. There is little chance for changing Bush policy on the Middle East with the Democrats outflanking the administration on the right. And there is scant hope for a more enlightened foreign policy anywhere when both parties display this kind of disdain for such basic and widely held values.