American foreign policy American Jews Hamas Israel Israel lobby Middle East peace process Palestinians

So where were American Jews as Gaza collapsed?

MJ Rosenberg has yet another insightful piece in Huffington Post, where he details the extent to which Israel and the U.S. are responsible for the recent carnage in the Gaza Strip.

He errs in neglecting to stress more forcefully that Hamas, Fatah and Palestinian gangs bear a major share of the responsibility for the fratricidal warfare that has ravaged Gaza. That should be a given but any time one wants to address the nuances of this conflict, it is important to point that out. Still, he is, sadly, right about America’s role in the collapse of Fatah in the Gaza Strip. And I think he doesn’t go far enough, because he leaves out the role of the conventional Israel lobby and a passive American Jewish community that, once again, let a hardcore minority speak for it in Washington. A brief excerpt on the U.S. role:

First we demanded that the Palestinians hold elections (Abbas didn’t want them), then we dispatched monitors to certify they were “free and fair” which they were, but when we didn’t like the election results we rejected them and promised that the Palestinians would “pay.” Almost immediately Members of Congress rushed to stop almost all forms of aid not just to Hamas-run institutions but to the Palestinian people at large.

There was another way we might have gone. We could have welcomed Hamas’s participation in the election as a sign that Hamas was implicitly accepting the Oslo framework (which it was), insisted on the complete cessation of violence, and then used carrots and sticks to encourage the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority to mend its ways. But we offered no carrots, just sticks. And we didn’t even make much of an effort to strengthen Hamas’ arch-enemy, President Mahmoud Abbas, with Congress hastening to impose redundant and insulting conditions even on aid that was intended for him.

It was all fun and games, politics as usual. Meanwhile, thanks to the US-sponsored international boycott of the PA, salaries were not being paid and schools and hospitals were collapsing…

..A new confidential United Nations report confirms how Israeli and US policies have helped Hamas. Not only that, we have prevented the United Nations from using its own credibility to mitigate the situation.

In his report to the Secretary General, Alvaro de Soto, the UN’s special envoy to the Middle East, wrote, “Even-handedness has been pummeled into submission in an unprecedented way…

…He blasted the tendency that exists among U.S. policy-makers “… to cower before any hint of Israeli displeasure and to pander shamelessly before Israeli-linked audiences.”

Richard Silverstein makes a similar argument in a compelling post in Tikun Olam.

But why was the Bush Administration so passive? Why was Congress unhelpful?

I’ve been doing research for a book on the Israel lobby and have been reviewing Congressional activities in the first half of 2005, when Arafat died and Mahmoud Abbas came to power. This was before Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, before the Palestinian legislative elections in which Hamas won a majority. In light of recent events, it is heartbreaking to recall both the hope that was generated when Abbas initially took over the Palestinian Authority and the role of the U.S. government –abetted by AIPAC– in dashing that hope.

Here is an excerpt from my book-in-progress:

A momentous, exhilarating, now-forgotten event in Congressional history occured on the afternoon of February 1st, 2005: a resolution on the Middle East was introduced in the Senate without any input from AIPAC.

It was Senate Resolution 27, “Commending the results of the January 9, 2005, Palestinian Presidential Elections,” which passed by unanimous consent. Brought to the Senate floor by then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Minority Leader Harry Reid, and other heavyweights from both parties, it called the election of Palestinian President Abbas an important step “towards a free, viable…Palestinian state.”

Normally, as part of their command-and-control regimen, AIPAC lobbyists either help to draft or carefully scrutinize anything related to Israel before it is introduced to either House of Congress. This time, said one Jewish activist, the resolution was rushed to the Senate “before AIPAC had a chance to change it.” The next day, the House passed a similar resolution.

The resolutions were introduced with the close cooperation of the White House, which also wanted to bypass AIPAC. In the atmosphere of desperate hope that had greeted Abbas’ election and the possibility of moderate Palestinian leadership taking the reins, even the Bush Administration had pressed hard for welcoming messages from Congress. And even AIPAC couldn’t spoil the mood.

But within a few months, Congress had lapsed into old, predictable habits. In July, AIPAC and its allies pushed for legislation (H.R. 2601) that accomplished nothing except to weaken Mahmoud Abbas.

The new Palestinian president had been counting on an infusion of American aid to help him compete with Hamas’ social service networks. To win the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people and build a political constituency for compromise with Israel, he needed as much money as possible, as soon as possible. But a House resolution split up aid money from the U.S., calling for it to be delivered in quarterly installments rather than all at once. And it imposed other onerous restrictions on the aid.

As [MJ] Rosenberg wrote at the time, “At a moment when the United States is working to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas, and when Israelis are fearful that Abbas will be supplanted by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, this amendment targets…Abbas.”

On July 20th, 2005, 330 Representatives voted yes and 100 voted no.

Some Members rose to the floor and spoke frankly, for the record, about the folly of this initiative. “Instead of passing one-sided and punitive amendments like this one,” Lois Capps (D-CA) said, “it is incumbent upon the United States Congress to try to help both Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas confront the extremists on each side who seek to “derail the conflict…And what a tragedy it would be –for Israel, for the Palestinians and for American, if we didn’t do everything in our power to bring an end to this tragic conflict.”

AIPAC and its allies put other stumbling blocks on Abbas’ path that year. Yet, after the July vote, the American Jewish peace camp –myself included– made a big fuss about the 100 Representatives who had voted “no.” We proclaimed that it was a promising sign that so many Members were willing to stand up to AIPAC and take the sensible path instead of the politically expedient one. In retrospect, the positive spin we created from this relatively large opposition bloc seems a bit pathetic.

There were not enough legislators like Lois Kapps. Not nearly enough. And there were not nearly enough American Jews willing to jump in and help APN, Brit Tzedek, IPF, Churches for Middle East Peace and other groups that tried to defeat that bill.

In the meantime, the Bush Administration refused to raise a peep when the Sharon government did virtually nothing to help Abbas. True to form, there was not nearly enough organized, loud opposition from the so-called “pro-Israel” American Jewish community to the Administration’s silence and inaction. Most of the organized community –and all of those who were not organized– sat on their hands and did nothing, said nothing, heard no evil , saw no evil.

Again, Fatah might have been driven out of Gaza regardless of what the U.S. and American Jews did or didn’t do. I am sure that the cabal-watchers in the blogosphere will devote themselves to blaming the Zionists for everything that has happened in the Gaza Strip in recent days, and I can predict in advance that their claims will be absolutely ridiculous. No one forced the Palestinians to elect Hamas. No one forced them to kill each other on the streets of Gaza City.

Still, a certain amount of soul-searching in the liberal American Jewish community is in order.

15 thoughts on “So where were American Jews as Gaza collapsed?

  1. This is one of the most pathetic examples of blame-shifting and neurotic self-hatred that I have ever read.

    What do you think would have happened if Sharon had released tax monies owed to the PA, or freed some prisoners, or made it just a little easier for Palestinians to move about the territories? Do you honestly think Hamas and Fatah would not have descended into the madness we’ve witnessed in the last few days?

    This was a gangland struggle for power, with the front man for one of the gangs having a veneer of civility and “moderation.”

  2. I return to your blog sometimes and sometimes think it is interesting. But this time you went so far to the left you should be ashamed of yourself! I agree with “Give me a break.” Why are American Jews blamed by you when thugs shoot each other in hospital beds? Maybe Israel could have done more to help Abbas. Ok. But if we had did more, maybe it would have hurt Abbas. That is because the Palestinians think anyone who works with Sharon is a collaborator.

    Don’t beat yourself up, Dan. There are enough Arabs who want to beat you up!

  3. Actually, this is one of Dan’s better ones. It is obvious that the Israel lobby could not bring itself to help Abbas. Could one reason be that a moderate Palestinian leader makes it difficult to raise money and get American Jews fired up enough to lobby Congress?

  4. Give me a break, “Give me a break.” Are you trying to say that American Jews have nothing to do with U.S. policy in the Middle East? Of course we do!

    Israelis and Palestinians are stuck. They need help to get unstuck. More support from our community for pro-active American diplomacy might have helped. The lack of vocal support certainly did not help.

  5. I haven’t seen anyone (certainly not ordinary Palestinians or their supporters in the US) say that Hamas and Fatah thugs aren’t responsible for their own actions. No doubt you could drudge up someone somewhere saying this.

    What I have seen are people pointing out that Israel and the US sided with Dahlan and his thugs, giving them weapons and hoping that they might topple Hamas. Not too different from what South Africa did by arming Inkatha to fight the ANC. The actual killing was done by thugs in both movements, but the South African government was also guilty. And in both cases the people arming one of the factions in the civil war pretend to be appalled by the violence.

    This really isn’t difficult to understand. People pretend that it is because they want to put all the blame on one faction or another.

  6. Anon,

    In Israel’s defense, it was Hamas that sent people to blow themselves in cafes and supermarkets and helped to squash the Oslo process. It was Hamas and their bus bombings in ’96 that ruined Shimon Peres’ last chance to get elected and ushered in Bibi, who, to me, was a disaster for Israel.

    Yes, Israel and the U.S. chose the side in a civil conflict that at least offered the possibility of protecting Israeli citizens and perhaps eventually reaching a diplomatic compromise. What would you have done? Not chosen sides? Allowed Hamas to arm itself and not helped the PA?

  7. What would have been competent US statecraft?

    With this administration, it seems that everything that it goes near, falls apart.

    And, as its policy is that it has a duty to intervene in others’ conflicts, it makes a giant mess.

    I’m not of the opinion that the US should be more involved, until it learns the skill of policy formulation, implementation, and statecraft.

  8. Both MJ Rosenberg’s article and your dissection of it were strong, thoughtful, and needed at this moment. Thank you. I have spent the better part of the day reading comments on YNet, the Jerusalem Post, CounterPunch, Wings of Change, the London Times, the Drudge Report (all over the map), and I also read the Hamas charter – which was terrifying. I have been looking, all day, for a solution – and I have not found one. But I need to find one and I’m asking you to post one.

    And when you do, will you be posting a vision for Abbas to propagate, or someone else? If it is, will it carry a vision of peace that is as strong and absolute as the Hamas Charter’s is of Life Under Islamic Rule? Because that’s part of what’s missing in all of the opposition to Hamas – an equally strong vision. Without that vision, there can be no unity around the vision.

    As a pacifist (I respond to the “dove” more than the “realistic”
    though I believe it’s realistic that in 100 years war could be
    considered anathema as slavery is now considered), I have a hard time pressuring my government to pressure Israel to storm Gaza. But what are my other options?
    1. support “ignoring” Gaza
    2. support strengthening the boycott and turning off the water (would this create a breeding ground for more terrorism or would it break down the Hamas power grid?)
    3. support effort to bring Hamas to the negotiating table (it seems impossible but they agreed to participate in the elections)? Is there another option you see?

    As for Abbas – there are Palestinian hearts and minds that need to be won back. The U.S. government seems to believe that this is Abbas’ moment to do just that – they let that moment go in 2005, as you pointed out, and now, after a terrible spurt of violence, they’re ready to crown Abbas and work with him to strengthen Israel’s relationship with Fatah in the West Bank and wait for the Palestinians who voted for Hamas to “realize” that Fatah is “thriving.” Do you think this will work?

    Who will get this $700 million in tax money? Will it go to building up Fatah forces? Do you think it should be given back, and if so, how do you think it should be spent?

    These are questions, not answers, which is not exactly what you hope for from your readers, but I greatly respect your experience and look to you for advice for what to pressure the U.S. govt. to do NOW once our soul-searching is complete.

  9. Richard,

    You are probably correct that this Administration will never be competent enough to handle the delicate statecraft on its own, although there are still some sharp, savvy State Department staffers who could do a lot of good if they were allowed to do so.

    But the U.S. can and should work with the EU, the UN, the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians and others to forge an international umbrella. There are lots of ideas out there that could conceivably work with sufficient commitment from the international community. For example, there is the RAND Corporation’s “ARC Project,” a plan for building the infrastructure of a future Palestinian state and creating jobs and hope even before final status negotiations. It’s described at:

  10. Mari07,

    I am flattered that you ask me to post “a solution” and understand –and share– the anguish that motivated that request. There are people who are much more experienced and much more knowledgable than me who are completely and utterly baffled right now. The best I can do for you now is refer you to Daniel Levy’s latest post in “Prospects for Peace.”

    He, at least, has begun to sketch out alternatives to the “Let ’em starve in Gaza” scenario.

  11. Dan,

    Thank you for the great referral. He is certainly not throwing up his hands. I was struck by his insistence that “there are still significant elements within Fatah and Hamas that understand the need for reconciliation sooner, rather than later. There are likely to be Arab-led or other efforts to bring Hamas and Fatah back to the table. Again, success will neither be easy, nor quick, but building an arrangement for deeper power sharing is the best option, certainly from a security and peace perspective.”

    There were many points I found profound and enlightening; here is one that may be obvious to some but was helpful to me: “Another important lesson of the last years is that absence of an active peace process and an engaged US administration, does not apparently make Israeli and Palestinian hearts grow fonder. Rather, with no peace process to pin one’s hopes on, other, more destructive options, fill the vacuum and capture the public imagination. Any exercise in learning the lessons of what went wrong should include the need for a consistent drive towards peace as a linchpin for any constructive realistic policy alternative.”

  12. It is rather apparent that the Palestinian people do not want peace and live with Jews who rule a portion of the Middle east.

    When that changes, then peace is possible. Until that time, it doesn’t matter what America or Israel does.

  13. In response to Dan’s response to Anon (#6), it’s clear that the United States played an active role in encouraging Fatah to take up arms against Hamas. Read Tony Karon’s blog or the leaked report by former UN Envoy Alvaro de Soto. Of course, in no way does this absolve Hamas & Fatah of responsibility for their criminal infighting:

    I certainly don’t condone Hamas’ ideology or past use of suicide terror. However, a couple of things should be pointed out. First, Hamas’ popularity is a direct function of the brutality of the Israeli occupation. If Israel, the US, the UN, and the EU are successful in weakening Hamas, then the result will be to strenghten groups that are even more radical, violent, & uncontrollable.

    Second, the Quartet approach of “turning the screws” on Hamas until its accepts the 3 Quartet conditions has been a disaster. Not only has the diplomatic & economic boycott further impoverished the Palestinian population & led to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, but it also had the effect of weakening the more moderate figures within Hamas.

    I believe it would have been far more intelligent to have followed a policy of “cautious engagement” with Hamas – keeping diplomatic relations & aid to the Hamas-led PA, subject to certain conditions as a genuine commitment to adhere to a ceasefire, absolutely no attacks on civilians, etc. At the same time, this policy could have beem combined with a policy of genuinely renewing peace negotations between Abu Mazen & Israel, seriouly improving conditions in the Occupied Territories, an economic reconstuction of Gaza, and an end to all forms of violence, including military incursions & targeted assasinations as well as destroying Israel. I think all of these policies would have mitigated much of Palestinian radicalism, which in turn would force Hamas to moderate its hard-line positions.

  14. Peter,

    You wrote:

    “First, Hamas’ popularity is a direct function of the brutality of the Israeli occupation.”

    That’s much too simplistic. By all accounts, it won the legislative elections because of:

    1) The perceived corruption, greed and incompetence of the Fatah-led Palestinian authority.
    2) The perceived ability of Hamas to deliver social services efficiently and effectively.
    4) Among a growing minority of voters, a genuine commitment to Islamic fundamentalism;
    5) The perception that the intifadeh hadn’t worked, the Oslo process hadn’t worked and the average person had not gotten any of the promised “peace dividends,” so why not give Hamas a chance?
    6) Yes, the brutality of the occupation.
    7) The fact that people who agreed with Fatah and its allies had too many independent candidates. The electoral system rewarded the party discipline of Hamas as much as it rewarded its ideology.

    In retrospect, and in theory, the kind of “cautious engagement” you espoused makes sense. It certainly made no sense to sever diplomatic contacts with Hamas and to rely almost entirely on “turning the screws.” It made no sense to refrain from providing a political horizon to the Palestinians.

    But those rockets kept falling on Sderot and Hamas did nothing about them. They did nothing to help return a kidnapped Israeli soldier. They gave every indication that they were arming themselves to the teeth and wanted to emulate the confrontational model of Hizbollah. If the responsibilities of power, the obligation to run a government, did not “mitigate” their radicalism, it is hard to believe that anything you suggest would have accomplished that.

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