The Peace Movement Addresses Israel-Palestine (Finally)

Anti-occupation rally in Washington, D.C., June 10, 2007. Photo by Thomas J. Dooley.

In my Inbox last Friday was an email from Peace Action, the country’s largest peace group, encouraging its members to join the thousands of peace and human rights activists from across the country in the June 10 march in Washington against the Israeli occupation. This otherwise unremarkable letter served as an important reminder that U.S. support for the Israeli occupation is finally becoming an issue for the mainstream of the peace movement.

This was not always the case. Peace Action is the successor organization of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (better known as SANE) – founded fifty years ago by Norman Cousins and other prominent intellectuals concerned with the nuclear arms race – and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, which emerged in the early 1980s under the leadership of Randall Forsberg and others. These two leading peace organizations merged in 1987 to form SANE/Freeze, which changed its name to Peace Action six years later. Yet even the merged organization, with its broader mandate, initially avoided seriously dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Peace Action was certainly not alone, however. The peace movement has largely ignored the Israel-Palestine issue. This has not only hurt the cause of peace in the Middle East, it has harmed the movement as well.

The Israel Exception

During the 1980s, the Coalition for a New Foreign Policy – the lobbying arm of a broad coalition of peace and human rights organizations – took the position that while they supported the “sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence” of Middle Eastern states, they also insisted that such a principle “does not necessarily apply” to lands seized by Israel in the 1967 war. The Coalition also made an explicit exception for Israel in its otherwise strict standard of opposing unconditional U.S. military aid to countries that engaged in gross and systematic human rights abuses or developed nuclear weapons programs.

Similarly, National Impact, another Capitol Hill lobbying group that, during the latter part of that decade, claimed to provide “leadership on peace and justice issues” on Capitol Hill declared that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “off-limits.” And, during the 1990s, Demilitarization for Democracy, the advocacy center that promoted the code of conduct for recipients of U.S. arms exports overseas, also made an exception for Israel.

In June 1982, during the U.S.-backed Israeli invasion of Lebanon, there was absolutely no mention of the devastating war by any of the scores of speakers at the huge peace rally in New York’s Central Park. Even as hundreds of thousands of Israeli peace activists demonstrated in Tel Aviv against their government’s act of aggression, some leading American peace activists – such as Tom Hayden and his then-wife Jane Fonda – publicly praised the Israeli government’s massive air and ground assault, which led to the deaths of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. Even though American ordinance and delivery systems killed more civilians in Lebanon during those three months that summer than had been killed by American ordinance and delivery systems in El Salvador during the previous three years – the height of the repression in that Central American nation – the U.S. peace movement did not seem to care.

In 1991, some of the best fundraisers and organizers in the Freeze movement joined the presidential campaign of Tom Harkin, who – of all six major candidates for the 1992 Democratic nomination – was the most outspoken supporter of the government of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The Iowa senator opposed Palestinian statehood, opposed negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, defended and covered up for Israeli war crimes, supported illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and attacked the United Nations and human rights groups for raising concerns about Israeli violations of international humanitarian law. He criticized President George H.W. Bush from the right for conditioning a $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel on a freeze on the construction of additional illegal Israeli settlements. The veterans of the Freeze campaign who signed up for his campaign did not seem concerned, however. (Not surprisingly, Harkin voted in 2002 to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq and has backed unconditional funding for the war ever since.)

Similarly, prominent Freeze supporters endorsed California senator Alan Cranston’s 1984 presidential bid and Illinois senator Paul Simon’s 1988 presidential campaign, even though they were the most virulently anti-Palestinian candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination during those primary campaigns. Repeatedly, the peace movement made clear that while defending the human rights of Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, South Africans, and East Timorese was a litmus test for national office, a candidate could support the denial of the most basic human rights of Palestinians and Lebanese and still be guaranteed unconditional support from the peace movement. When I raised concerns regarding the movement’s apparent racism during a plenary speech at the 1991 annual meeting of SANE/Freeze in Chicago, I was strongly rebuked by some of the organization’s leaders for raising such a “divisive issue.”

Sea Change

In more recent years, however, Peace Action and other peace groups have finally acknowledged that U.S. support for the Israeli occupation and other Israeli policies that violate human rights and international law is a peace issue, every bit as much as U.S. support for repressive governments in Central America, Southern Africa, or Southeast Asia was a peace issue in previous years.

Indeed, the list of multi-issue peace groups endorsing the June 10 march was a long one: Code Pink, Nonviolence International, Global Exchange, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Pax Christi, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, as well as United for Peace and Justice, itself a coalition of more than 1300 local and national organizations opposing the Iraq War and related Bush administration foreign policy.

Because the mainstream peace movement has been so late in addressing Israel and Palestine as a peace issue, other groups that do not take a universal position on human rights and international law have often filled the vacuum. Such groups, often motivated by an ideological bias against Israel itself, have harmed the credibility of the movement to end the occupation as a whole. And while claims by right-wing supporters of Bush administration policy that opponents of the occupation are motivated by an “anti-Israel” or even “anti-Semitic” agenda are groundless in the vast majority of cases, such charges are unfortunately not unfounded in regard to a number of groups and individuals.

This is why it is so important for the peace movement to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not from a “pro-Palestinian” or “anti-Zionist” perspective but out of basic principles of justice that should apply to any nation or any conflict. As Peace Action director Kevin Martin, in his June 8 letter to the group’s e-mail list, succinctly put it, “Peace Action stands against military occupation anywhere.” Indeed, the peace movement should oppose U.S. support for the Israeli occupation for the same reasons it opposed U.S. support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor during the 1990s and as it should oppose U.S. support for Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara today.

The problem with U.S. policy toward Israel and its neighbors is not that it is “too pro-Israel.” Supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territories is no more in Israel’s long-term security interests than supporting the U.S. occupation of Iraq is in America’s long-term security interests. The debate is not about Israel versus Palestine. Israeli security and Palestinian rights are not mutually exclusive but mutually dependent on each other. The debate is about international law, human rights, the right of self-determination, and reliance on diplomacy rather than on violence. The Bush administration, with the support of a broad bipartisan majority in Congress, opposes these principles and must therefore be held accountable.

Raising the Stakes

Kevin Martin concluded his email by invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s dictum that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” More is at stake than the Palestinian people suffering under foreign military occupation and the Israeli people’s long-term security. As long as the Israeli government can get away with its violations of universally recognized norms regarding international law, human rights and non-proliferation, it will be difficult to enforce these norms anywhere.

Israel will not end its occupation, colonization, and repression in the Palestinian territories as long as the Israeli government continues to receive unconditional military, financial and diplomatic support from the Bush administration. The Bush administration will not end its military, financial, and diplomatic support for the Israeli government as long as the Democratic-controlled Congress continues to support the Bush administration’s policies toward the conflict. And the Democrats will not end their support for the Bush administration’s policies until the peace movement refuses to support any candidate who does.

Unfortunately, the political action committees affiliated with Peace Action, MoveOn, Act for Change, Council for a Livable World, and other otherwise progressive organizations have yet to make that commitment. Endorsing demonstrations and passing policy statements opposing the occupation are good and important. But lawmakers will ignore such statements and demonstrations until they recognize that there will be political consequences for their pro-occupation votes and public statements.

The perceived clout of the pro-occupation lobby on Capitol Hill may be less a result of the actual strength of the American Israel Public Action Committee and other right-wing groups as it is the relative weakness of the anti-occupation lobby. Similarly, the perceived influence of pro-occupation contributors and voters in election campaigns is less a reflection of their overall support as it is the unwillingness of progressive contributors and voters to make opposition to U.S. support for the Israeli occupation a decisive factor in determining whether to contribute to a campaign or to vote for a candidate.

Fortunately, this is beginning to change, as the U.S. Campaign against the Israeli Occupation and other groups have emerged in recent years to put pressure on members of Congress and multi-issue peace and human rights groups are beginning to become bolder in addressing this issue as well.

As the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination heats up, it is critically important that those in the peace movement make clear to the contenders that we will refuse to back anyone who fails to challenge the Bush administration’s support for the Israeli occupation. We must also make clear to progressive organizations that endorse candidates for national office based upon their foreign policy positions that they must either refuse to back any candidate who supports the occupation or lose our support of their organization. This is not a single-issue approach. Rather, it is a matter of consistency, of applying progressive principles of human rights and international law to U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine just as the peace movement applied them to U.S. policy toward Nicaragua, El Salvador, South Africa, and East Timor.

Stephen Zunes is FPIF Middle East editor and a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. He served as chair of the board of Washington State SANE/Freeze in 1991-92 and served on the board of the national Peace Action Education Fund in 2005-2006