In Washington: Much ado about nothing

Congress needn't be stampeded into supporting ill-conceived legislation to score political points.

mjrosenberg88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The past year should be noted as the year the glacier cracked. In this context, this is good news. For the first time in memory, Congress rejected Palestinian-bashing legislation authored and promoted by the status-quo wing of the pro-Israel lobby. Instead, it passed alternative legislation backed by pro-Israel groups (led by Israel Policy Forum) which favors bold US moves to advance US and Israeli security by implementing the two-state solution. It was a David vs Goliath battle but this time, as in the original, David won. The saga began in January, when Palestinians went to the polls and chose Hamas to lead the Palestinian legislature, one year after the same electorate chose Hamas adversary Mahmoud Abbas as President. At the time, early elections were unnecessary and holding them was a bad idea. Both Abbas and Israel wanted parliamentary elections delayed. But the US told the Palestinians to go ahead. Nor did the Palestinians or the United States agree to Israel's stipulation that only political parties which reject violence should be allowed to compete, as was the case in Northern Ireland and other conflict areas. The Israelis believed that electing a government controlled by people who endorse violence was antithetical to the idea of democratic elections. In the end, Hamas narrowly won a plurality. It would not have won at all if Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah had run a remotely sophisticated campaign. The Hamas effort, on the other hand, was state-of-the-art. IT WAS at this point that Congress stepped in. The ostensible reason for Congressional involvement was to prevent US aid dollars from going to the new Hamas government. Congress correctly insisted that American taxpayers should not be supporting terrorists or those who back them. But the real reason Congress took action was because it was pressed, in an election year, to demonstrate that it remained a pro-Israel bastion, even if the definition of being pro-Israel is far more rigid than that of the Israeli government or Israeli people. There simply was no need for legislation. As the Bush administration argued, it had all the authority it needed to keep US dollars from going to Hamas, to prevent US contacts with Hamas, and to strictly regulate dealings of any kind between Americans and Hamas. Nevertheless, the House went ahead and produced a draconian bill that would have essentially extended the aid cutoff to include all Palestinians, not just the Hamas government. It made no distinction between Hamas and the Palestinian people in general, and none between Abbas and the leaders of Hamas. It was all sticks and no carrots, offering no incentives for Hamas to back away from its rejection of Israel. Moreover, its provisions would remain in effect even if Hamas lost control of the Palestinian Authority. It was not designed to hit Hamas, but to inflict pain on all Palestinians: men, women, and children. The Israel Policy Forum strongly opposed the bill, but it passed nevertheless. It was at this point that the glacier cracked. The Senate rejected the House bill and produced its own measure. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee insisted that the bill give the president the discretion to permit aid to meet the Palestinians' basic human needs. At every spot where the House bill tried to block aid for regular Palestinian citizens, the Senate opened a loophole. It wanted to punish Hamas. It did not want to punish ordinary Palestinians. And it quite specifically wanted the president to have the discretion to do whatever he considered was in America's best interests. Unlike the House, the Senate seemed not to worry that George Bush might suddenly decide to embrace Hamas! So along this divide there were two very different bills. The House and Senate insisted on their respective bills. But right from the beginning the Senate had the upper hand because most senators did not really care if the impasse between the two houses led to the passage of no bill at all. They shared the administration's view that no new law was necessary. In contrast, the House, and the House bill's proponents in the pro-Israel community, desperately wanted a bill. Specifically, the House bill represented their highest-profile victory of the year, and they needed a bill, almost any bill, to become law. So the House caved, passed the Senate bill verbatim, and the bill was signed by President Bush on December 21. And even here, the moderates prevailed when the president, as he signed the bill, said he did not consider its provisions to be in any way binding. "My approval of the Act does not constitute my adoption of the statements of policy as US foreign policy." He went on to add that "such policy statements" as well as other aspects of the bill related to his authority to "conduct the nation's foreign affairs," such as diplomatic negotiations, would be considered "advisory." In other words, the law essentially remains where it was before Congress decided to jump in 12 months ago. Talk about much ado about nothing. But not really. The victory of common sense over political grandstanding sets a significant benchmark for the new 110th Congress. The defeat of the House bill demonstrates that House and Senate members are free to decide key matters of foreign policy on the merits, and without fear that the roof will cave in. That means that the new Congress need not, must not, be stampeded into supporting ill-conceived pieces of legislation designed to score political points and not to advance America's security or Israel's. It also means that the coalition that helped defeat the House bill - pro-Israel groups, church groups, pro-peace Arab-Americans - are now a fixture on the Congressional scene. One victory won't take us to the Superbowl. But it's a start. The writer is director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum.