US Affairs: Losing the lobby on the Hill?

Concerned observers worry that criticism of Israel could be spreading in Congress.

capitol hill 88 (photo credit: )
capitol hill 88
(photo credit: )
Last month, three members of Congress made an usual trip, visiting Gaza for the first time since both the 2003 killing of three American security personnel by Palestinian militants, and the 2007 takeover of the coastal strip by Hamas, that prompted Israel and the United States to stay away. That the visit by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) and, separately, Congressmen Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) and Brian Baird (D-Washington) took place at all might have been its most newsworthy aspect. But it was not its only atypical one. Ellison and Baird both made comments conspicuously critical of Israel, and then organized a briefing for members of Congress to share what they saw, in an effort to push for change in American policies. They would like to see the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip opened, and well as a rethinking of the ways America supports Israel. Briefings of these sorts, particularly by members of Congress themselves, are rare. Though some observers downplay the significance of a few congressmen making such statements, and note they aren't unprecedented, others think these views could be spreading and receiving more traction as the Left gains power in America, and the administration puts itself firmly on the side of pushing for peace. While both groups agree it's too early in the session to jump to any broad conclusions, some already maintain that there is more space now for different perspectives on Israel, and more initiatives that aren't originating from the mainstream pro-Israel lobbies. Already resolutions and letters to the administration have emphasized support for its peace and mediation efforts, most recently in a letter by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, calling on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to demonstrate her commitment to the peace process during her current trip to the region as events there "underscore the importance of tenacious American leadership and engagement, now and in the future." More boldly, Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee, and represents heavily Jewish areas of New York's Long Island, issued a scathing critique of Israel at his first hearing of the session. He declared that the situation in the region was "spiraling downward," and blamed both Israelis and Palestinians. "The downward pressure comes from terrorism and the march of settlements and outposts, from the firing of rockets and the perpetration of settler pogroms … It comes from tunnels in Gaza and from digging in Jerusalem, as well. There is no moral equivalence between these acts, but they are part of the same destructive dynamic." And he also alluded to seeming inconsistencies in Israel's own policies, particularly in Gaza. "Start with Hamas, a terrorist organization, an entity beyond the pale. They are the enemy, and no one can talk to them until they accept the Quartet's conditions of recognizing Israel, repudiating violence, and accepting the PLO's agreements with Israel," he said. "Except that for years, Israel has been talking to Hamas through Egypt, and directly to the Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails." "I thought it was quite surprising that he went that far," one Jewish organizational official said of Ackerman's remarks. "That was very significant, because of who Ackerman is, and where his district is, and where he comes from. For someone like him, it requires real balls." The official, who works for a left-wing organization and was therefore pleased by these developments, noted that it's too early to make any determination about where the new Congress is headed. "But there are some indications so far that show there's a different atmosphere, that Congress is more willing to entertain perspectives that are more dovish," he said. "There's definitely a sense that there's an air of independence, and that people are more emboldened in their approach to this issue in general." He explained that difference as stemming partly from groups like the self-described "pro-Israel, pro-peace" J Street, which started last year, making it clear that "AIPAC is not the only voice that's out there, that there are strong voices with different views." But more important, he maintained, was that US President Barack Obama was squarely behind a peace deal. His early moves appointing George Mitchell as a Middle East envoy and reaching out to the Arab world "reverberated in the region, but it also reverberated on Capitol Hill," where members of Congress "feel more emboldened" to speak out on the issue. ONE CAPITOL Hill staffer said having a new president with a new Middle East agenda made a difference in how members felt about engaging on the issue. But he added that a greater factor was Israel's own leadership - or lack thereof. "It's not clear what Israel's policy is," he said, noting the unsettled state of its elections, but also its attitudes toward the Palestinians. He pointed to Israel's decision not to overthrow Hamas, yet also not willing to engage with it, as well as talking about a peace process at the same time that it says no deal is possible. "There's a bit of a vacuum, which invites people to step into the vacuum," he said. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi of The Israel Project, though, fingered the American political system. She pointed to gerrymandering which has increasingly made seats "safe" for Republicans or Democrats, meaning that the real fight for them takes place in the primaries, where party views are more extreme. "You see that we have more of these very liberal members of Congress," she said. "You have people who are now in Congress who don't feel accountable to voters of a wider political spectrum, and that's bad for Israel, because support for Israel is much stronger among centrists and conservatives than among liberals." At the same time, she said the latter were more likely to be swayed toward the Jewish state by the supportive messages for Israel coming from Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with whom they would identify politically. She also said the current activity on Capitol Hill didn't represent a serious blow. "As much as we might be upset about what two Congressmen say about the situation in Gaza," she said, "Israel will weather the storm." And Morrie Amitay, a former executive director of AIPAC, who now heads his own pro-Israel political action committee, dismissed the activity altogether, saying there have always been members of Congress with different views. "I don't see it as a new thing that there are some people in the Congress who are critical of Israel. And there have always been some in the American Jewish community who are part of what I call 'the blame Israel first crowd,'" he said. "It's a small minority, thankfully." His bottom line: "I don't see any reason why support of Israel would diminish." Doug Bloomfield, who once served as a legislative director of AIPAC, also thought that not much had happened - yet. "Right now you're having a few people talking, but I don't see this as a big sea change," he said. He added, though, that waves could be on the way, particularly as the US sees Israel moving to the Right at the same time that it itself is moving to the Left. "There is a foundation there for a shift to a more activist peace policy," he said of Congress. "The foundation has already been laid by the administration."