Israel Policy: Ignorance Or Cynicism?

June 25, 2010 10:52 am ET — MJ Rosenberg

It is becoming clearer every day that liberals in Congress, with a few exceptions, do not care a whole lot about Israel.  (It's not news that they don't care a whit about the Palestinians.)

Think about it.

On other foreign policy issues they ask questions, try to discern whether a policy makes sense, and usually choose diplomacy over war.  That has been true since the latter days of the Vietnam War (the Iraq war was the notable and tragic exception).

The last thing anyone expects Congressional liberals to say is, "I trust the President's policy, no matter what it is. War works for me."

But, when it comes to the Middle East, the same liberals invariably salute, support, and rush to the House and Senate floors to express enthusiastic solidarity with the Israeli prime minister. (Check out these AIPAC letters, signed by 86 senators and, so far, 311 House members, endorsing without reservation Israel's blockade of Gaza and the attack on the flotilla.)

In our Congress, the Israeli prime minister is always right.  That is, until he is defeated by the next prime minister — who, in turn, inherits the mantle of infallibility. 

Some people look at this phenomenon and say that these Senators and Representatives are more loyal to Israel than to the United States.

That analysis is wrong.

I worked on Capitol Hill for more than 15 years (House and Senate) and I can say with certainty that these seeming "Israel firsters" do not, with few exceptions, care all that much about Israel. 

They do care about this country. And that is why they don't knowingly support destructive policies for America — while insouciantly supporting them when it comes to Israel.

Take Sen. Chuck Schumer, for example.  Watch him discuss domestic issues.  Note how much he seems to have studied them (although he sometimes reaches the wrong conclusions). Notice how happily engaged he is when talking about them.

Then watch him talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Not only is he ignorant of the facts, the history, and the changes in the contours of the issue, he seems not to care at all.  He is going through the motions.

Schumer does not care enough about Israel to expend any political (or real) capital on it.  He'll just say what he thinks he has to say and quickly move on to issues he does care about, issues that he thinks relate directly to the lives of Americans.

He is far from alone.

Most of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate and House operate the same way for the same reason. They support bad Israeli policies, and sign those "Israel, right or wrong" letters only because that is the path of least resistance.  I doubt there are 30 Democrats in both houses together who really think attacking the flotilla was right, but hundreds signed the letters anyway.

So why do they do it?

They do it because they don't care about the issue enough to risk the lobby's wrath.  As with Republicans and the NRA, the lobby's wish is their command. (See this excellent analysis by Jim Lobe about how the process works on the Hill.)

In one sense, there is nothing wrong with this path of least resistance politics.  Supporting the AIPAC/Netanyahu line is risk free.  And it sure does bring in lots of campaign money, money that helps liberals win elections.  That helps preserve the careers of some outspoken progressive voices (on other issues, anyway).

Of course that is an expedient, even cynical, way of thinking about this issue.  (But, hey, we are talking about Congress.)

It also ignores two important factors.

The first is that US policy on Israel/Palestine directly affects US interests worldwide.  That was obvious long before General David Petraeus said it. 

The Israeli-Palestinian issue is the only issue on which Arabs and Muslims worldwide are united in opposition to US policies.  Sunni or Shiite, Egyptian or Indonesian, public opinion in the Muslim world favors ending the occupation. And that means, as Petraeus suggested, that our position on this issue endangers Americans in the Middle East and, no doubt, elsewhere. 

Moreover, the banner of "Palestine" is a recruiting poster for anti-American terrorism.  We have been lucky so far, but everyone knows that the Palestinian issue can blow back here in America (which is why synagogues and other Jewish facilities here are guarded by the police on Jewish holidays and, in some localities, all the time).

Resolving this conflict fairly — i.e., ending the occupation with an agreement that guarantees the sovereignty and security of Israel and Palestine — is one of the most effective things the Obama administration can do for US security.

But the security of Israel should matter too.

I am not saying that American legislators must care about Israel (that is not in their job descriptions), but those who profess to care should not be supporting policies that, left unchecked, will bring about the end of Israel as a Jewish state. 

But that is where the Israeli government's current policies are leading, with the help of its Congressional enablers.

The flotilla attack left Israel more isolated than at any time in its history.  And Israelis know it.  The other day, in Knesset, Netanyahu spoke in near hysterical terms about Israel's terrible position (blaming everything on Israel haters and anti-Semites, of course). He is clearly scared...for his political future.  Other than the United States government (which did so under pressure) no other government supported the attack that left nine Turks dead. 

Even worse, the attack produced a rupture in Israeli-Turkish relations.  Turkey has been Israel's ally since the Jewish state was created.  But the Gaza invasion, the blockade, and then the attack on the flotilla seriously damaged Israeli-Turkish relations.  A full diplomatic break, which may be coming, would be disastrous for Israel.  

Imagine losing a strategic relationship with Turkey in favor of a blockade that Netanyahu now admits is unnecessary to Israel's security!

But these are the policies that Israel's supposed friends in Congress say they support.

Bottom line: they aren't friends.  They are doing what AIPAC and the House and Senate Democratic campaign committees (run by Chuck Schumer and Chris Van Hollen) tell them they must do to do as they head into November.  It's about the donors.  If we had public financing of campaigns those AIPAC letters signed by hundreds would instead be signed by a few dozen.  

I should mention that the Republicans are no better (they are no worse either).  But they are hawks, neocons and Christian fundamentalists (whose "support" for Israel is all about bringing on the Rapture). For them, supporting Netanyahu's policies is not primarily about kissing up to a lobby and raising money, it is who they are.

It's the Congressional Democrats (with some wonderful and rare exceptions) who are the hypocrites. 

AIPAC calls them "stalwart friends" of Israel and honors them for their "courage." Well, they are "stalwart friends" of AIPAC.  That's for sure.

But Israel, not so much. 

In fact the people who should honor them are the "one-state" activists.  After all, the policies these guys support will inevitably lead to one state, for Israelis and Palestinians together.  That is not necessarily a terrible idea if it ends the suffering and allows both people to live together in peace and with security. But it would end Israel as a Jewish state, a state it took 1,900 years to re-create.

Is that what these members of Congress want? 

Nah.  I doubt they have given it much of a thought — much like the security of Israel itself.