(photo credit: AP)
One of the comments about Middle East policy that one hears from Senators, House Members and staff with ever-growing frequency is: "Why are obstructionist hawks so forceful a presence on Capitol Hill when they represent only a minority of the community?"
One can hardly exaggerate how often this question is posed to us - albeit only by those who feel confident that we will not "blow the whistle" on them by publicizing their doubts about the long-standing US approach to the Middle East.
It is not a pleasant question to encounter. After all, the mission of Israel Policy Forum (and our allies) is to help break the deadly status quo by encouraging policymakers to return to the proactive diplomacy of former presidents Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. It does not make us happy to hear "we read your stuff and agree with it, but we need to see more action."
Of course, we could put that question to them. In the "old days," it was inconceivable that members of Congress and their staffs would ask lobbyists and advocates to put pressure on them to do the right thing. In those days it was the Congress that led and the advocates who followed. Those days are over, and not only on this issue. In recent years, Congress has engaged in lobbying the lobbyists with increasing frequency as if the lobbyists, not the elected representatives of the American people, have the power and not them.
The good news is that the majority of the pro-Israel community is being heard today as never before. There are several good reasons for that, first among them is that the current situation and the policies favored to sustain it have so completely failed. Hardly anyone on Capitol Hill favors those policies but simply go along with them as the path of least resistance.
Our goal is to make the path of least resistance the one that leads to an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than to continued violence, terrorism and suffering. There was a good sign last week that some of Israel's most powerful supporters on Capitol Hill are coming to understand that status quo policies do not advance Israel's security.
Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-NY), chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia of the House Committee of Foreign Affairs, is currently circulating a letter to his colleagues urging support for the upcoming Annapolis conference, for significant additional aid to the Palestinians, and for the two-state solution. In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ackerman writes that "the coming months represent a critical opportunity to stabilize the region by advancing a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians - and perhaps a comprehensive opening of Israeli relations with the Arab world. However, it is equally clear that a still-born initiative could set back prospects for peace, destabilize regional allies, and exacerbate an already volatile situation in the Middle East."
THE LETTER, in contrast to so many previous House endeavors, does not engage in Palestinian-bashing but rather describes what the United States can do to promote an agreement.
Notably, the other House Member who is joining Ackerman in circulating the letter is Charles Boustany, an Arab-American and a Republican from Louisiana. The congressmen agree on the urgency of pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The Ackerman-Boustany partnership is reflected in the Washington advocacy groups that have come together to support their effort: Israel Policy Forum, the American Task Force on Palestine, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Arab American Institute, the Union of Reform Judaism (which represents 1.5 million Reform Jews, the largest Jewish denomination), and Churches for Middle East Peace (representing 21 Christian denominations and tens of millions of congregants).
THESE EFFORTS build on the success of last year when we succeeded in blocking a House-passed bill that would have stopped virtually all humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. The House bill, a top priority of the "status quo" lobby, was stopped dead in the Senate, which passed, in its place, a far more moderate bill. Nevertheless, the going is never easy for those of us who believe that America's hands-off policies are disastrous for the United States, for Israel and for the Palestinians.
The reason is simple. Although the overwhelming majority of policymakers agree with us, we simply do not have the resources to level the playing field. Writing in the New York Jewish Week on Friday, James Besser, its influential Washington correspondent, noted there is a media blitz against the Annapolis conference being launched by the Right.
While opponents of negotiations are "buying full-page ads in the New York Times critical of Palestinian leader Abbas, groups like APN and IPF 'just don't have those kinds of resources,' said an official with one of the groups.'"
The other day, a prominent legislator told me that it was no surprise that the hawks have such a "stranglehold" on Congress, considering how much money they spend. That spending, he added, is combined with a single-mindedness that also advances their views. "They are single-issue people while the people on your side care about a host of issues. That combination, lots of money, the willingness to spend it, and being single-issue is the winning combination," he said.
It's been a winning combination alright - just not for America, the Israelis or the Palestinians. It's a winning combination for Washington power brokers and for people outside of Washington who want some of the action.
The writer is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.