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Grassroots Advocacy Efforts to End US Support for Israel's Occupation

September 23rd, 2003

Remarks by Joshua Ruebner, Grassroots Advocacy Coordinator, US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation

United Nations International Conference of Civil Society in Support of the Palestinian People

United Nations Headquarters, New York, September 4-5, 2003

The United States, by providing Israel with virtually unlimited diplomatic, economic, and military support, has made itself complicit in Israel's 36 year-old military occupation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. During the current intifada, the United States has used or threatened to use its veto power in the Security Council to prevent the international community from deploying a protection force to the Palestinian Occupied Territories. The economic aid that the United States gives annually to Israel goes directly into its treasury, freeing up money that it would not otherwise have to spend on the construction of illegal settlements, bypass roads, and the separation wall in the West Bank. US military aid to Israel entrenches the occupation of Palestinian lands by providing the Israeli army with the indispensable materiel that it needs to enforce its daily subjugation of the Palestinian people.

These components of US foreign policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are well-known to all of us who are working for an end to the occupation and for a just peace. The inescapable conclusion to be drawn is that United States policy is an obstacle to achieving these goals; were it not for this unbalanced US policy, I believe that the international community would have intervened long ago to end Israel's occupation and set the stage for the establishment of a just peace between the two peoples.

As activists who are committed to changing US foreign policy so that it supports peace and justice rather than occupation and oppression, it is not enough for us to understand merely the mechanics and specifics of this policy. It is also imperative that we calmly and rationally try to understand why this policy was created and who are the special interests working to maintain it. Without such a lucid analysis of US foreign policy, we will be beholden to conspiracy theories or we will grasp at straws. In either case, we will be politically ineffective and incapable of generating the political change that is necessary if we want to see the occupation end.

After having studied and worked in Washington policy-making circles, I see three distinct, but overlapping, special interests that contribute to the formation of US foreign policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First and foremost in the eyes of many observers, is the so-called "pro-Israel lobby" or "Jewish lobby," represented most prominently by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). I put quotations around these words to cast doubt on the "pro-Israel" nature of this lobbying organization. It is a group devoted to ensuring weapons flows from the United States to Israel; if its intent were to work for the betterment of the Israeli people, then it would not have contributed so much to the militarization of Israeli society, a process that has not just proved disastrous for Palestinians but for Israelis as well. Nor is AIPAC a "Jewish lobby" in any meaningful sense. Although its estimated membership base of 60,000 is largely Jewish, this represents 1-2% of the Jewish American community. Recent public opinion polling of the Jewish American community reveals that a majority support ending the occupation and dismantling the settlements. Nevertheless, with its cadre of seasoned lobbyists and its control over an unknown number of political action committees (PACs), this lobby wields a great deal of clout within the political system. "Pro-Israel" PACs and individuals affiliated with them donated $8.6 million to candidates in federal elections in the 2002 electoral cycle, making it the 42nd largest special interest, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Another factor accounting for the current state of US foreign policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the dramatic growth of Christian Zionism in the United States. This movement is a relatively recent phenomenon and coincides with the growing political clout of the Christian Right and the increasing popularity of dispensationalist Protestant churches that tend to breach a fiery brand of End of Days theology. Israel's military occupation of the Palestinian people, in their view, is a necessary and laudatory step in the unfolding of God's plan for the battle of Armageddon, the Second Coming, and the Day of Judgment. This bloody eschatology is translated into the realm of mundane politics through increasingly well-organized Christian Zionist political organizations such as Christian Action for Israel and the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, to name a few. Because of its newness and its rather nebulous nature, it is difficult to pin down credible estimates of how strong of a political force Christian Zionism is at present. However, its growing political muscle is evidenced in and symbolized by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), whose extremism on this issue caused an Israeli minister who supports the transfer of Palestinians to declare that DeLay makes him look like a moderate.

The final and, in my opinion, most underestimated, special interest group that we need to take into account in order to understand US foreign policy is the arms industry. The $15 million worth of PAC money distributed by the arms industry to federal candidates in the 2002 electoral cycle makes it a heavy hitter within Washington policy-making circles. The Center for Responsive Politics ranks it as the 13th biggest spending special interest group. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular and the instability in the Middle East in general have created lucrative business opportunities for the arms industry. Total annual US foreign military aid to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan results in a roughly $4 billion subsidy to the arms industry paid for by hard-working Americans who often do not earn enough money to purchase health care insurance. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the sole reason for the arms industry throwing so much money into the political system is to protect this subsidy. Nevertheless, US military assistance to these countries-justified by the "instability" of the region-provides a substantial amount of guaranteed business that the arms industry will work to protect. If the cause of much of this instability-Israel's military occupation-were ever to be dealt with and resolved, the arms industry would risk losing some cushy deals.

As if these particular special interests arrayed in support of Israel's military occupation were not monumental enough of a task to overcome, there are other more general characteristics of the American political system that make it difficult for concerned citizens to change policy. The first factor, which contributes greatly to citizen cynicism and apathy toward the electoral system, is the crucial role played by campaign contributions. Electoral politics in the United States are awash in a sea of private and special interest money that makes elected officials beholden to these people and interest groups. Candidates are deemed to be viable or "electable" based not on their ideas and policy statements, but rather on their fundraising prowess. Much ink has been spilled debating the constitutionality and the potential remedial effect of the so-called McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. While it is not yet clear if its provisions will be upheld by the Supreme Court, what is clear is that if it is upheld, it will make it even more difficult for the average citizen to influence elections. Whereas the previous limit for individual contributions to federal candidates was $1,000 per candidate per electoral cycle, McCain-Feingold actually doubles the amount to $2,000, making it that much more difficult for people to contribute enough money to get on the radar screen of a particular candidate and influence him or her.

Another worrying phenomenon within the American political system is the growing number of "safe seats" that are being created in Congress. A "safe seat" is a Congressional district that is redistricted in a way that ensures the victory of one party or the other. Redistricting usually occurs once every ten years after the results of the Census Bureau survey are made public. After the 2000 census, many competitive Congressional districts were redrawn in a way that made it no contest between the parties. Some states, like Texas and Colorado, are still trying to gerrymander the districts to further benefit the ruling party in the state legislature (the Republican party in both cases). The troubling aspect of the drawing of "safe seats" is that it creates noncompetitive elections and voting becomes less of a real choice between competing visions for governing and more of a symbolic, ritualized event with little substantive meaning. This phenomenon is becoming so blatant, especially after the redistricting following the 2000 census, that of the 435 Congressional seats, the Center for Voting and Democracy can forecast already the results for 350 Congressional races for 2004, in many cases before the candidates even announce their bids. The organization's statistical modeling has proven accurate 99.9% of the time over the last six years. With the results of Congressional elections a foregone conclusion in many cases, it is no wonder why so many Americans make no effort to participate, even minimally, in the electoral process.

Closely related to the phenomenon of "safe seats" is the high incumbent reelection rate for Members of Congress. In the 2002 elections, 98% of Members of Congress who sought reelection won their seats again. This means that unless a Member of Congress commits a felony, is implicated in a scandal, or does something to earn the disfavor of his or her party, it is virtually impossible to unseat him or her. Thus, for average citizens who are displeased with the job that their Member of Congress is doing, there is simply no realistic chance of seeking an electoral remedy. And if it is so difficult to unseat a Member of Congress, then Members of Congress become less attuned to the needs of their constituents who wield no effective sanction unless they happen to be big donors to the campaign.

These three factors-the role of money in electoral campaigns, the drawing of "safe seats," and high incumbency reelection rates-all link together to create a profound skepticism and malaise among the American electorate. If big money determines who is an "electable" candidate, if state legislatures or courts determine which party will win a Congressional seat, and if Members of Congress are nearly always reelected, then what role is there for the average citizen to have an impact upon our democratic system? Most American voters indeed are unplugging from the whole apparatus of participating in democratic life; in the 2002 elections, less than 40% of eligible voters cast ballots. The non-participation of citizens in the political process is a troubling sign for the health of democracy in this country and an indication for grassroots activists of how difficult it will be to engage the general public and get them involved creating the types of political changes that we seek to affect.

I hope that my analysis of both the specific interests and the general phenomenon that we have to confront in order to change US policy is not too discouraging; on the contrary, my job is to provoke and stimulate grassroots activists to participate in and influence the political system. However, just because the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is trying to change US foreign policy, that doesn't mean that we are going to sugar coat our analysis of how difficult a job it will be. We would be both irresponsible and self-defeating if we tried to convince people that our task is simple because we would be unduly inflating expectations and setting ourselves up for failure. But, if we take these factors into account, then we can create measured, incremental, realistic programs for political change within the United States.

Before concluding with a program for creating effective and sustained grassroots pressure on the American political system, I wanted to take a few moments to be self-critical of our movement. At this conference, we have done an excellent job of criticizing others: Israel, the United States, the United Nations, etc. But there has been a distinct unwillingness to turn the searchlight inward and ask ourselves why we have been so ineffective in organizing and mobilizing for the political change that we want. I raise these criticisms not to belittle the tremendous efforts that we have made and continue to make, but in the spirit of self-betterment and self-empowerment. There are three problematic aspects to our movement's relationship to political structures and power.

First, some of us tend to ignore the political system altogether and believe that mass mobilizations or educational events in and of themselves will create the political change that we are working for. They will not. These tactics are the means to an end. If we get so wrapped up in the means and lose sight of the end, then I am afraid that we are not making the best use of our time and meager resources. Second, some of us expend far too energy much criticizing the Israeli government and its actions. As citizens of the United States, we have no direct influence over Israel; its actions are outside our circle of influence. However, as a client state of the United States, we wield tremendous indirect influence over Israel. We would best marshal it by focusing our efforts within our circle of influence by holding the US government responsible for the actions of its client state. Third, some of us tend to engage the political system, but in an unrealistic way that will probably have the inadvertent effect of turning activists away from this critical work. For example, going to elected representatives and asking them to cut off US military aid to Israel is like trying to jump across a 100-foot chasm when we know that our best jump won't get us further than 10 feet. Halting military aid to Israel, a goal with which I agree, is like attacking the "holy of holies" of the US-Israel relationship. We are simply not in a position of enough strength to accomplish this and we risk alienating our grassroots networks if we set them up to fail.

It is easy to criticize, but hard to prescribe. So, how do we, as a movement, go forward and create the political changes that are necessary to end the Israeli occupation? My view is that there is a positive flip side to the malaise and skepticism among the American electorate that I described before. The upshot is that with decreasing levels of citizen participation within the American political system, a small group of organized, committed individuals can have a disproportionate impact on the decision-making process of government. Despite the high incumbency reelection rate for Members of Congress, they are nevertheless extraordinarily sensitive to the needs and aspirations of their constituents. Those who are not in tune with their constituents are usually those 2% of Members of Congress who do not get reelected. To illustrate this point, a little demographic information is needed. After the results of the 2000 census, each Congressional district was reapportioned to be composed of roughly 635,000 people, of whom about 475,000 will be of voting age. In 2002, on average, less than 200,000 people per Congressional district voted. Those who are active politically in more substantial ways are an even smaller minority. Estimates are that 10-15% of eligible voters ever contact their Member of Congress and most of those who do contact them about big-ticket domestic policy issues such as taxes, health care, the environment, etc. Very few voters are concerned enough about foreign policy issues in general and Israel/Palestine in particular to organize pressure on their elected representatives.

This is our opening: coordinated, sustained, and effective grassroots pressure on our elected representatives. Since our coalition's official beginning in the summer of 2002, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has been utilizing this strategy in order to try to change US foreign policy. And, in Congressional districts in which we have been able to tap into existing grassroots activist networks and coordinate those networks with others, we've seen some small successes. For instance, we have seen that in some Congressional districts, committed networks of activists have successfully pressured their Member of Congress to sign on to the Rachel Corrie Resolution as a cosponsor. Even if the resolution is not passed and there is no American investigation into Rachel's death, our movement can still claim a small, moral victory because due in large part to grassroots pressure, 46 Members of Congress have signed on to the resolution. This is far more than the number of "usual suspects" whom we can count on and is a lot more than most Capitol Hill analysts thought was feasible when this resolution was introduced. Another example of successful grassroots pressure occurred when the US Campaign sent up to Capitol Hill constituents from around the country to talk to their Senators about blocking Daniel Pipes' nomination to the US Institute of Peace. We saw that constituents who visited their Senators who happened to sit on the committee dealing with Pipes' nomination affected the Senators' comments on this issue. In the end, the Senate committee filibustered Pipes' nomination and forced President Bush to make a discrediting recess appointment and to circumvent normal democratic procedures. This is another small moral victory for our movement.

As we grow, we are confident that we will translate these small moral victories into larger substantive victories, eventually building up our capacities to exert serious grassroots pressure on the American political system. To do this, we are building what is known as the Congressional District Coordinator (CDC) network. The US Campaign is actively seeking individuals who are well plugged in to local grassroots networks of activists and who are interested in coordinating grassroots pressure on their Member of Congress. The broader and deeper we build this network, the more effective it will be. Currently, we have coordinators in more than 100 Congressional districts in 30 states. This is a good start, but we need your help to cover the rest of the United States and reach Members of Congress who are not yet hearing from constituents who are demanding an end to US support for Israel's occupation.

Through our network and together with other national partner organizations, we coordinate "Washington Wednesdays," which are always the first Wednesday of every month, and other legislative action alerts. Through this partnership, thousands of activists around the country are coordinating their political outreach efforts through agreed upon topics and messages. We sincerely hope that you will join in our efforts and help us to build the type of national movement that will be strong enough to reverse the injustices of US policy.