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Why Capitol Hill Supports Israel
8 May 2002
On May 2, the US Congress overwhelmingly supported a resolution that declares "Israel's military operations" in occupied Palestine to be "an effort to defend itself against the unspeakable horrors of ongoing terrorism," and "condemns the ongoing support of terror by Yasser Arafat and other members of the Palestinian leadership." The vote was 94-2 in the Senate and 321-21 in the House of Representatives, with 29 abstentions.
A friend from the Arab world wrote to ask me: "How do these disastrous votes blindly supporting Israel come about? Is there anything one can do to enlighten these people?"
This story should provide some answers.
Having spent January through April in Jordan, Lebanon, the Gulf and occupied Palestine, I have just returned to my home in Virginia where for the past weeks I have crisscrossed ten states, speaking to student groups, anti-occupation activists and friends, about the situation in occupied Palestine and the sentiments elsewhere in the Arab world.
While the situation on the ground in occupied Palestine is appalling, the discussion be it with students at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, concerned citizens in Vermont, or policymakers in Washington has had as much to do with what needs to be done in America as the struggle against injustice taking place in occupied Palestine.
In general Americans of all backgrounds, be they Arabs, Jews, peace activists or policy makers have been appalled by the stories of the disgraces I endured along with millions of Palestinians daily at the hands of the Israeli military across occupied Palestine. Israel's acts belie an underlying crude objective of "disgrace" and "revenge" that has little to do with "security." This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that Israeli military checkpoints on Palestinian land regularly refused to allow any passage ostensibly for security reasons, yet I along with tens of thousands of Palestinians have been nastily told by Israeli soldiers that we could get around checkpoints if we were willing to walk a mile through the mud, over a hill and through a quarry to make our daily commute instead of driving on a paved road.
The point: sheer humiliation. Sharon wants to demonstrate that he is in control, that his forces will continue to occupy Palestine, that he will do what he wants to intimidate anyone who dares speak truth and justice. Americans of all creeds understand this, but that's not what matters to members of Congress when they vote.
Sadly, a tactic similar to the sheer humiliation practiced by Sharon's army at checkpoints permeates Washington. For years, Congress has been generating resolutions as biased and unproductive as the May 2 vote. Why? The answer is clear: While the supporters of Sharon-like policies have spent the past decades giving up a significant portion of their free time and incomes to engage America's core power structures, opponents of Israel's ethnic cleansing "transfer" policies have been much less visible in the process. Although that is changing, it will require decades of dedicated hard work to achieve even-handedness.
American politics is an open battlefield. Anyone can show up to play or to pay. Involvement brings influence; this is no secret. Those are the stated rules of the game.
When it comes to the Middle East, members of Congress live in a bubble supporting Sharon-like policies long before they get to Capitol Hill. These supporters give up their weekends, their evenings and their cash to involve themselves in the campaigns of mayors and city council members across America. This is not a Jewish conspiracy. Far from it, these are American citizens playing by the rules. In a way, they are role models. The problem is that they are on the wrong side of history and advocate injustice. But these pro-ethnic-cleansing activists make themselves entirely indispensable to candidates from the earliest stages of their careers. When any advocacy group can provide so much support in terms of volunteers and money to just about every member of Congress it's not surprising that Congress repays the favor. American democracy is an open playing field. The group that works the hardest and trains the hardest wins. Period.
There is one clear solution. First, anti-occupation activists in the US need to stop wasting time demonstrating or writing letters to Congress. Give me a break. Why should a member of Congress listen to a letter or 1,000 letters calling on him to condemn Israel's ongoing illegal occupation when Sharon's supporters in the US have been providing decades of campaign volunteers and huge sums of financial support. Some do vote their conscience, but the majority vote in a way that reflects the political realities of their re-election campaign. To counter this, supporters of peace and justice in the Middle East need to embark on a 20- or 50-year campaign investing tens of millions of dollars and person hours in political campaigns and TV ads, as they have belatedly started doing.
Second, citizens in the Arab world need to come on speaking tours to American churches and schools, monitor US media writing at least three letters to editors of US papers every week and work in the US on political campaigns as volunteers. The first year after college is an ideal time to do this work. This will both strengthen Arab-American efforts and strengthen insights into how to influence the US system. This may be a sacrifice, but it's really a tiny one. And without it America and the Arab world will never change. Of the millions in funds raised for Palestine, some should be dedicated to paying for such tours of the US. Washington is the second front in the battle for peace and justice in Palestine. Third, the Palestinian people need strategic leadership whereby their campaigns are fully coordinated and synchronized with efforts in the US, Europe and across the Arab world.
Finally, people who want to put an end to Israeli injustice need to be willing to put in a few hours each day, on top of their eight-hour-a-day jobs, for the rest of their lives. Parallel to the struggle on the ground in Palestine is one for political power in America. Both are essential. The pro-Sharon side is devoting a huge portion of its leisure time and money to the cause. Until those who want to end Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine are willing to do the same, they will loose. Those who curse Sharon and his supporters in Congress from the comfort of the couch should be ashamed of themselves. There is no better way to honor the citizens massacred at Sharon's hands in Sabra, Shatila, Jenin, and elsewhere than to join the struggle for change and participate every day.
In November 2002, nearly 1,000 major candidates for the Congress, the Senate, and governorships will be vying for election. There will be sure to be tens of thousands of supporters of Israel's hard-line policies among their dedicated campaign volunteers and fund-raisers. These are the people who will be able to influence Congress in years to come, not those who are demonstrating or sitting on couches cursing the TV. Campaign offices are open across America. How many opponents of Israeli injustice will sacrifice their nights and weekends for the coming six months to empower themselves and their community, in turn strengthening a cause they believe in? Every person who doesn't participate, no matter how they feel inside, is part of the problem not part of the solution.