Falling In Line on Israel

The election of a Democratic majority in the House and Senate is unlikely to result in any serious challenge to the Bush administration’s support for Israeli attacks against the civilian populations of its Arab neighbors and the Israeli government’s ongoing violations of international humanitarian law.

The principal Democratic Party spokesmen on foreign policy will likely be Tom Lantos in the House of Representatives and Joe Biden in the Senate, both of whom have been longstanding and outspoken supporters of a series of right-wing Israeli governments and opponents of the Israeli peace movement. And, despite claims—even within the progressive press—that future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a “consistent supporter of human rights,” such humanitarian concerns have never applied to Arabs, since she is a staunch defender of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his predecessor Ariel Sharon.

For example, when President George W. Bush defended Israel’s assaults on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure this summer and defied the international community by initially blocking United Nations efforts to impose a cease-fire, the Democrats rushed to pass a resolution commending him for “fully supporting Israel .” The resolution, co-authored by Rep. Lantos, claimed that Israel’s actions were legitimate self-defense under the UN Charter and challenged the credibility of reputable human rights groups. Although groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented widespread attacks by Israeli forces against civilians in areas far from any Hezbollah military activity, the resolution praised “Israel’s longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss and welcom[ed] Israel’s continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties.” All but 15 of the House’s 201 Democrats voted in support.

Similarly, the Democrats echoed President Bush’s support for Israel’s 2002 offensive in the West Bank in another resolution co-authored by Lantos. In response to Amnesty International’s observation that the massive assault appeared to be aimed at the Palestinian population as a whole, all but two dozen Democrats went on record supporting the devastating Israeli offensive and claiming that it was “aimed solely at the terrorist infrastructure.”

In March 2003, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders signed a letter to President Bush opposing the White House-endorsed Middle East “Road Map” for peace, which they perceived as being too lenient on the Palestinians. The authors insisted that the peace process must be based “above all” on the end of Palestinian violence and the establishment of a new Palestinian leadership, not an end to Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian land seized in the 1967 war. Indeed, there was no mention of any of the reciprocal actions called for in the Road Map—not ending Israel’s sieges and military assaults on Palestinian population centers and not halting the construction of additional illegal settlements. The letter also voiced opposition to the UN or any government other than the United States monitoring progress on the ground.

The Democrats have attacked the International Court of Justice for its landmark 2004 ruling calling for the enforcement of the Fourth Geneva Convention in Israeli-occupied territories. In a resolution that summer, the Democratic leadership and the overwhelming majority of Democrats in both houses also condemned the World Court’s near-unanimous advisory opinion that Israel’s separation barrier could not be built beyond Israel’s internationally-recognized border into the occupied West Bank in order to incorporate illegal settlements into Israel.

More recently, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have condemned former President Jimmy Carter’s newly-released book criticizing Israeli violations of international humanitarian law in the West Bank. Carter’s use of the word “apartheid” in reference to Israeli policies of building Jewish-only settlements and highways on confiscated Palestinian land and allowing Palestinians to enter only as laborers with special passbooks proved particularly inflammatory to Pelosi and her colleagues. Meanwhile, they have refused to criticize this policy by any name and insist that the Israeli colonial outposts in the occupied territories—constructed in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and a series of UN Security Council resolutions—are legitimate.

Ongoing talks between Fatah and Hamas for a coalition government have raised the hope that the Palestinian Authority will soon have a non-Hamas prime minister and a largely non-partisan, technocratic cabinet. However, the Democrats support Bush’s policy of refusing to resume normal relations with the PA unless the cabinet excludes members of Hamas or any party that does not recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. By contrast, no prominent Democrat has raised any concerns over Olmert’s recent appointment of Avignor Lieberman, who has called for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Israel and much of the West Bank, as a cabinet minister and his new deputy prime minister.

The Democrats have also pushed for increasing U.S. military aid to Israel and have rejected calls to condition the aid on an improvement in Israel’s human rights record. The Democrats have also pushed for an increase in economic assistance to Israel’s rightist government, already the recipient of nearly one-third of all U.S. foreign aid, despite the country’s relative affluence and the fact that Israelis represent only one-tenth of 1% of the world’s population.

The decision by Democratic members of Congress to take such hard-line positions against international law and human rights does not stem from the fear that it would jeopardize their re-election. Polls show that a sizable majority of Americans believe U.S. foreign policy should support these principles. More specifically, regarding Israel and Palestine , majorities support a more even-handed U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and oppose the blank check given by the United States to Israel .

Nor is it a matter of Democratic lawmakers somehow being forced against their will to back Bush’s policy by Jewish voters and campaign contributors. In reality, Jewish public opinion is divided over the wisdom and morality of many Israeli policies endorsed by the Democrats, recognizing that such policies actually harm Israel’s legitimate long-term security interests. Furthermore, the vast majority of Democrats who support Bush’s Middle East policies come from very safe districts where a reduction in campaign contributions would not have a negative impact on Democratic re-election. Contrary to the belief that it is political suicide to condemn the policies of the Israeli government, every single Democrat who opposed this summer’s resolution in support of the Israeli assault on Lebanon was re-elected by a larger margin than in 2004.

Perhaps more damaging than pressure from right-wing PACs has been the absence of pressure from progressive groups that oppose Israeli policies. Indeed, some of the most hard-line Democratic opponents of Israeli peace and human rights groups were endorsed by leading U.S. peace and human rights groups.

Until the progressive community seriously challenges Democratic hawks, there is little hope that the new Democratic majority can be expected to contribute anything to the cause of peace and justice in the Middle East.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press). He serves as Middle East editor of Foreign Policy In Focus.