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.

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