Washington DC, May 25, 2007
Issue # 324
Congressional Time Warp
It is not news to readers of this column that I believe that in recent years the United States Congress has done very little to advance peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
On the contrary, Congress has specialized in legislation making it more difficult to provide aid to any and all Palestinians in the name of keeping aid away from terrorists. No matter that our policies have weakened the moderates willing to live in peace with Israel and mightily strengthened Hamas and company.
Even now when international relief agencies report that Congressional restrictions make it near-impossible to deliver aid to non-Hamas Palestinians because the existing law is so harsh, Congress is looking at ways to tighten it. The name of the game is Arab-bashing which Congress views as a sure crowd – i.e. donor – pleaser.
The good news is that the Congress that was elected in 2006 seems considerably less interested in playing that game. Speaker Nancy Pelosi demonstrated that when she resisted pressure and went ahead with her decision to include Damascus on her Middle East itinerary this spring.
When the White House attacked her for meeting with President Assad, the Congressional leadership -- including, notably, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Tom Lantos – vociferously came to her defense. And Pelosi stuck to her guns, clear evidence that the Tom Delay era, when "The Hammer" used his wide-ranging authority to bang nails into the very idea of Middle East peace, is really over.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Pelosi has her work cut out for her. Left to its own devices, the House (less so the more deliberative Senate) is still going to look for opportunities to grandstand on Middle East issues, especially in even numbered years but also in the off- years. (The distinction between election and non-election years has pretty much disappeared for House Members whose campaigns are so expensive that they are forced to dial for dollars in both years of their terms).
The most recent piece of evidence that the old patterns die hard comes in the form of a bill due on the House floor in early June which is designed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War. This is not a significant piece of legislation. When it passes (as it probably will 435-0 or very close to it), nothing will change.
The wars now raging in the Middle East – in Iraq, between Hamas and Israel and in Lebanon – will still be raging. The occupation of the West Bank, which resulted from the war, will still be in place with all its negative impact on Israelis and Palestinians. Implementing UN Resolutions 242 and 338, the Roadmap, the Saudi plan and the two-state solution will remain as distant as ever. No more and no less.
In other words, the resolution will pass and its policy implications will be nil.
But that is precisely what is wrong with resolutions like this. They are purely symbolic. This particular resolution is, with one exception, utterly rhetorical. It congratulates “the citizens of Israel on the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War in which Israel defeated enemies aiming to destroy the Jewish State.” It states the Congressional belief that Jerusalem must remain a “unified city.” It says that United States policy must be that “Jerusalem shall remain the undivided capital of Israel.”
The only actual policy change contained in the bill is the call on President Bush to "begin the process of relocating the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem" which, of course, Bush will not do. He won't do it because moving the embassy now would endanger Americans and American interests throughout the Middle East. Nor does Congress really want him to do it.
As for the language about keeping Jerusalem undivided, it is rhetoric, just rhetoric. No one wants Jerusalem to be divided but it is. East and West Jerusalem are completely separated from each other, with Israel's security barrier only adding concrete to the two-city reality that has deepened every year since 1967.
Whenever I'm in Israel I visit East Jerusalem and my Israeli friends tell me I'm crazy. "Why would you go there? It's Palestine." And, in fact, I never see Israelis (other than soldiers and journalists) on Salah al Din Street or on Nablus Road. The division is so stark that one hardly sees Israelis (or Jewish tourists) at the American Colony Hotel, one of the two finest hotels in the country.
This is not to say that the division is anything like the impermeable wall that separated Jordanian and Israeli Jerusalem into two completely distinct cities prior to 1967. During those 19 years no Jew could even set foot in East Jerusalem; even the Western Wall was completely off-limits for Jews.
But no one, no Israeli and no Palestinian, is proposing that Israeli and Palestinian Jerusalem be separated as they were prior to 1967. No, the idea is that – as both Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton agreed at Camp David – the parts of Jerusalem that are Jewish remain under Israeli sovereignty while the parts that are Muslim or Arab shift to Palestinian sovereignty. One undivided city with shared sovereignty.
Of course, this resolution ignores the Barak and Clinton proposals just as it ignores the events that are taking place right now. One would never know from reading this resolution that Sderot is under constant rocket attack, that Israel's retaliatory actions are accomplishing less and less, that innocents on both sides are being killed and that Hezbollah is so powerful that its war with Israel last year ended with a draw. In fact, this year’s resolution is virtually identical to the one passed by the House in 1997, as if nothing – absolutely nothing – has changed since then when, in fact, the situation today is infinitely worse for Israelis and Palestinians both.
This resolution exists in a parallel universe. In this universe, the Six Day War was a great victory for the IDF (which it was), it resulted in the reunification of Jerusalem (which it did, sort of) and the territorial gains Israel made in that war were good for the country (they have been a disaster). Can you imagine the Knesset passing this? Of course not.
But here, it seems, the Middle East is a game and anyone can play.
I apologize for making much ado about nothing. The resolution will pass just as a resolution saluting the American farmer or the contribution of the trucking industry would. The only people deeply offended will be those who live in the Arab world and Congress has rarely cared how their actions play in the Middle East – not even with 130,000 American troops over there.
For Arabs and Muslims in general, the idea of the United States celebrating the Six Day War (and, by inference the occupation it produced) – when we don't even commemorate our own wars except to memorialize the dead – will just be more evidence that the United States is abandoning the role of honest broker.
Congress has a role to play in the Middle East, especially at a time when the Bush administration's leadership in the region has been sporadic at best. But that leadership is not expressed by resolutions celebrating a war but by using its authority to promote security for Israelis and Palestinians.
It can start by abandoning its policy of all sticks and no carrots for the Palestinians. Since Hamas came to power, Congress has done little except to tie the hands of our own US government aid agencies and of private charities to prevent any aid from going to Hamas. In the process, we have essentially prevented vital aid from getting to anybody. Salaries aren't being paid. Hospital equipment cannot be replaced. Schools are falling apart. Even our democracy programs have been curtailed.
Our policy seems to be squeezing the Palestinian people until they cry uncle. That is not going to happen. Instead they do what most people do when being punished by outsiders, they turn to the radicals: Hamas and even those more dangerous than Hamas.
After all, as bad as Hamas is, as bad as the current situation is, there are far more dangerous forces just waiting to move in if the Palestinian unity government collapses into chaos.
Al Qaeda is now in Lebanon, just across the border, using the Palestinians to wage war on the government of Lebanon. How far is Lebanon from Israel? (We learned last summer just how close it is). History teaches that when you do not play the hand you have in the Middle East, the next one will be infinitely worse.
This is what WB Yeats warned about in his greatest poem, “The Second Coming,” composed in 1920. Yeats describes a time much like our own, when “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” A time when “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere.”
He concludes with the question: "What rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
It will take more than pointless Congressional resolutions to confront that beast.
MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.
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