The September 25th House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and Asia hearing on US Policy toward the Palestinians might have more accurately been called an official Israel Pep Rally. The Subcommittee had indeed assembled a respectable roster of experts. Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk and Edward Walker certainly have the background to engage Members of Congress in a serious discussion of the complex issues facing American policymakers on the question of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. But before they could even speak, they were subjected to a procession of Members of Congress paying homage to Israel and painting the Palestinians as a nation of Osama Bin Ladens.
With the notable exceptions of Congressmen Joseph Pitts and Darrell Issa, members' statements showed an extreme anti-Palestinian bias, often bordering into racism. Rep. Gary Ackerman, for example, described an interaction with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and other high level PA officials as a "particularly Palestinian kind of kabuki dance." Rep. Ackerman would almost certainly not have tolerated a similar reference to a "typically Jewish" anything, and rightly so. Some statements bordered on outright incitement, with Rep. Brad Sherman declaring that "we must not forget those who danced in the streets of Nablus," ignoring the overwhelming outpouring of condolences from the vast majority of Palestinians.
However, to remove Israel from the context of its decades-long military occupation of Palestinians and to claim that Israel is a target of attacks because it is a "bulwark of freedom and democracy" is absurd to the extreme.
One after another, these distinguished lawmakers lambasted those who recommend that the U.S. reexamine its place in the world in the wake of this national tragedy. These people would have us believe that there is no connection between America's behavior abroad and the world's perception of America. While there can be no justification for terrorism at any level, by anyone, what is clear to the vast majority of observers is that these atrocities and the hatred that produced them do not exist in a vacuum. A quote from Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary of Britain, America's greatest and most important ally, states plainly what the rest of the world has known for years.
"I understand that one of the factors that helps breed terrorism is the anger many people in this region feel at events over the years in Palestine." (Ha'aretz, Sept. 27, 01)
Members' wholesale dismissal of those who point to America's extreme pro-Israel bias as a cause of anti-American sentiment is misguided. It is done not to safeguard American policy, but to protect Israel from scrutiny. This was best demonstrated when Gary Ackerman told us that "Israel is a target not because of the complexities of the Palestinian problem, but because Israel is a state like us."
However, to remove Israel from the context of its decades-long military occupation of Palestinians and to claim that Israel is a target of attacks because it is a "bulwark of freedom and democracy" is absurd to the extreme. It is precisely these types of simplistic, existential explanations that keep American policy in relation to Israel so off the mark. Reps. Gilman, Lantos, Engel, Ackerman, Berkley, Sherman and Cantor dread the idea that Americans might critically examine their government's relationship with Israel. To avoid that, Sherman advises that we "renew and reinvigorate our partnership with Israel," with no questions asked.
While Brad Sherman admonished us never to forget a handful of celebrating Palestinians, he did not remind us of pundits in Israel who referred to the September 11th attacks as a "public relations" coup. Neither did he remind us that immediately after the horrific attacks, Israel wasted no time in initiating the "largest number of simultaneous operations since the uprising started," as reported by an Israel army source. Nor did Mr. Sherman remind us that as America was in the midst of the greatest national tragedy in decades, only Ariel Sharon snubbed specific American requests to allow a single meeting with Palestinians that would help President Bush rally his allies in the region.
It is clear whose interests Reps. Sherman et al. were serving in the September 25th hearing. In their attempts to paint Yasser Arafat with the same brush as Osama Bin Laden, they are as guilty as extremist Israelis of exploiting America's tragedy to serve the narrow interests of a foreign government. They did not serve the interests of the American people by reducing a serious policy discussion to a pro-Israel pep rally.
America has an opportunity to fight terrorism with all the means at its disposal, while critically and thoughtfully examining the complexity of the problem. We have an opportunity to address festering problems, like Israel's military occupation, that keep the region unstable. We have an opportunity to build new relationships in the Muslim and Arab worlds. We can only take, advantage of these opportunities if we engage in serious and thoughtful policy discussions. The gravity of the current situation demands this of us. We deserve as much from those who were elected to represent us.
Margaret Zaknoen is Director of Programs with American Muslims for Jerusalem, a Washington-based advocacy group.