Thursday, November 5, 2009

Is the “We Love Israel” Consensus on Capitol Hill a Thing of the Past?

by Josh Ruebner National Advocacy Director On Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed H.Res.867, condemning the Report of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (known informally as the Goldstone Report) as “irredeemably biased and unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy,” by a vote of 344 to 36 with 22 abstentions. While this vote can hardly be characterized as a victory for all of us working hard to change U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine to support human rights, international law, and equality, it does reveal that the days of Capitol Hill’s nearly wall-to-wall “we love Israel” consensus appear to be over. The resolution began to run into trouble when a broad and diverse set of advocacy organizations—both within and outside of the US Campaign—either lined up against or refused to support the resolution. As we phrased it in a two-page fax we sent every Member of Congress:
H.Res.867 contains numerous ‘whereas’ clauses replete with inaccurate information about and misleading characterizations of the Goldstone Report. More significantly, its ‘resolved’ clauses undermine the commitment of the United States and the Obama Administration to the universality of human rights and the principle of holding accountable human rights violators.
Even more importantly, Judge Richard Goldstone himself sent Rep. Howard Berman and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chair and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a four-page letter pointing out the “serious factual inaccuracies and instances where information and statements are taken grossly out of context” in the text of H.Res.867. Strong grassroots opposition to H.Res.867 and Judge Goldstone’s critiques of the resolution seem to have emboldened Members of Congress to speak out against this attempt to shield Israel from accountability for the human rights violations documented by the Goldstone Report. Two Members of Congress who visited the occupied Palestinian Gaza Strip after “Operation Cast Lead”—Rep. Brian Baird and Rep. Keith Ellison—and who actually witnessed the aftermath of the war crimes documented in the Goldstone Report published strong op-eds against H.Res.867 in Capitol Hill publications. Rep. Baird, in an article published in the Nov. 2 edition of Roll Call and reprinted on his website, wondered: “Since scarcely a dozen House Members have actually been to Gaza, what actual first-hand knowledge do the rest of the Members of Congress possess on which to base their judgment of the merits of H.Res.867 or the Goldstone report?” Unlike most Members of Congress who condemned the Goldstone Report without reading it, Baird “read with care and interest the Goldstone report in its entirety and my firm conclusion is that, although the findings may be unpleasant and troubling, they are, unfortunately, consistent with the facts and evidence. In my judgment, far from meriting the obstruction called for in H.Res. 867, the Goldstone report is without question worthy of further investigation.” Meanwhile, Rep. Ellison, in Nov. 3 editorial in Politico, noted that
Congress is poised to oppose the Goldstone report without holding a single hearing on a document that few members of Congress, if any, have read. This is a mistake. The stance of this Congress will erode U.S. credibility in the post-Obama world, and it will tarnish our commitment to the principle that all nations must be held to the same standards. Rather than undermine the report or Goldstone, we are at risk of undermining Congress’s and President Barack Obama’s reputation as honest brokers.
By the time the resolution came to the floor of the House for a vote, it had managed to garner 202 cosponsors—a significant number to be sure, but far less than some of the other “pro-Israel” resolutions mindlessly endorsed by Congress in past years. More significantly, the floor managers in favor of the resolution—Rep. Berman and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen—clearly struggled to drum up enthusiasm amongst Members of Congress to speak on behalf of the resolution. They, along with Rep. Steny Hoyer, filled the bulk of their allotted time with long-winded diatribes against the United Nations, tired paeans to Israel, and unconvincing reiterations of the outright lies about the Goldstone Report contained in the resolution. Contrast their performance with Rep. Ellison, who ran a tight ship as the floor manager opposed to the resolution, doling out his minutes preciously to accommodate all the Representatives who lined up to speak against H.Res.867 and in favor of accountability, human rights, and justice. It was a watershed moment on the floor of Congress. Among the highlights of these speeches against H.Res.867 were: Rep. Ellison urged the rejection of the resolution “because it will undermine President Obama's commitment that all countries, including our own and our allies, should be accountable for their actions. This resolution complicates the President's current Middle East initiative.” Rep. Barbara Lee spotlighted the ongoing humanitarian crisis Palestinians face living under Israeli occupation: “Residents of Gaza and the West Bank continue to lack appropriate access to the most fundamental needs, including food, fuel, water, sanitation, education, health care, and the basic materials needed to rebuild their communities.” Rep. William Delahunt criticized the way in which the resolution was brought to a vote. “This resolution came to the floor on suspension without a hearing, despite the willingness of Judge Goldstone to come before the United States Congress and answer any questions that we might pose to him.” Rep. Brian Baird, in what may have been a precedent for the floor of the United States Congress, displayed a picture of a Palestinian father grieving over his three dead children, killed by Israel during “Operation Cast Lead,” and stated plaintively:
I have twin 4-year-old boys at home. When I kiss them goodnight, they look for all the world like these three little Palestinian children. I don't know that father, but I can imagine his grief. We must not say that this Congress will unequivocally oppose any consideration of a report by a jurist of this integrity and this reputation. Those children deserve someone to ask why they died, just as these children in Sderot deserve someone to say they must not be rocketed. And the Goldstone Report does both. It does both.
Rep. Brian Baird.
Rep. John Dingell called H.Res.867 a “bad resolution. It is unfair. It is unwise. It contributes nothing to peace. It establishes a bad precedent, and it sets up a set of circumstances where we indicate that we're going to just arbitrarily reject a U.N. finding and a U.N. resolution and that we're going to have that as a precedent. This is bad.” Rep. Dennis Kucinich stated: “Almost as serious as committing war crimes is covering up war crimes, pretending that war crimes were never committed and did not exist.” He termed efforts such as H.Res.867 “the triumph of Orwellian thinking.” Rep. Betty McCollum called attention to the fact that Israel used U.S. weapons to commit the war crimes documented in the Goldstone Report.
American-made white phosphorous shells were used by Israel in civilian areas, causing horrible burns to Palestinian children, yet this resolution refuses to seek the truth. The report Congress is burying today was led by a former chief prosecutor who has faced far tougher actors than the critics in this Chamber, critics who have not held one single hearing. There must be only one standard for respecting human rights, a single standard by which we must hold ourselves and our friends and our adversaries accountable.
Rep. Donna Edwards called H.Res.867 “just the wrong resolution yet again at this time.” Rep. David Price called the resolution a “disservice to a respected jurist who has devoted his life to upholding international norms of justice and human rights, and more importantly, it may damage future efforts to hold countries accountable through international investigations.” Rep. Lois Capps lamented that “Sadly, I think that in this body's haste, we've overlooked some of the depth of unspeakable tragedies that have occurred during the war on Gaza. Innocent Israeli and Palestinian lives were lost. We owe it to all victims' families to vow to do everything in our power to prevent further tragedy. Instead, we have a flawed resolution before us.” Rep. Jim McGovern criticized the resolution for “increasing the politicization and the polarization and the heated rhetoric so characteristic of the crisis in the Middle East.” In fact, in watching more than 10 years of debate on Israel/Palestine resolutions in Congress, I cannot remember one which featured such a robust performance by the opponents of a “pro-Israel” resolution and such a feeble performance by its supporters. Clearly the discourse on Israel/Palestine has changed in the general public and it seems like more Members of Congress are starting to get it. But don’t take my word about the tenor of the debate—watch it for yourself below. Fast forward to about 4:01:45 in the video to watch the debate on H.Res.867. You can also read it verbatim in the Congressional Record starting on page H12232. There was never any doubt that H.Res.867 would pass. However, when the votes came in, a surprising number of Representatives (36) opposed it outright with another 22 abstaining. In all, 58 Representatives refused to go along with the attempt to bury the Goldstone Report. Compare that to the vote count on H.Res.34 in January defending Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip, when only 5 Representatives voted against it and 22 abstained, and it seems clear that momentum is slowly starting to build on Capitol Hill for a change in policy. The question is: How can we further this momentum and create additional pressure for policy change? Here are a few answers: 1) For the short-term, take action. “Thank or spank” your Representatives based on how they voted on H.Res.867 by clicking here. 2) For the long-term, join our Congressional District Coordinator (CDC) network. Sign up to be a CDC and help us coordinate future efforts to educate your Representative about Israel/Palestine policy issues by clicking here. 3) And, make a tax-deductible contribution to the US Campaign to support our ongoing advocacy efforts. From now through the end of the olive harvest in Palestine, we’ll replant one tree for every $25 you donate to support our work. For details and to make a donation, please click here.