July 10, 2003
Pro-Israel: Solidarity or Retail Politics?
Pro-Israel lobbyists are patting themselves on the back these days for yet another congressional resolution declaring solidarity with the embattled State of Israel, and the kudos are justified.
Pro-Israel resolutions these days are routinely passed with only token opposition; lawmakers who would have had a hard time finding Israel on a map when they came to Congress now rush to the floor and praise its leaders and their policies.
Even many who have their doubts sign on to these resolutions. Why make trouble for yourself? Why help your political opponents?
Short term, such resolutions provide valuable public affirmations of U.S. support for Israel -- nothing to scoff at in a world in which Israel is unfairly isolated. But do they serve Israel's long-term interests? Or does the risk-and-responsibility-free congressional sloganeering just make it harder for America to play the kind of difficult, nuanced role that most experts say any real peace effort requires?
There are no easy answers, but there are plenty of reasons to be worried.
The latest congressional boost to Israel, sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), praised Israel for its forceful response to terrorism and condemned Palestinian attacks since the recent Aqaba summit.
Only five members voted against the resolution, despite heavy lobbying by Arab-American groups, with seven others simply voting "present."
Still, there were murmurs of protest. Why didn't the resolution express support for the administration's current peacemaking initiative, some pro-Israel lawmakers wanted to know? And why didn't it breathe a word about Israel's obligations under the Mideast "road map?"
But that misses the point; these resolutions aren't intended to be balanced or to reinforce the president's diplomacy or to offer new ideas for solving the ongoing conflict. On the contrary: they are crude political speed bumps, intended to slow U.S. diplomacy in the region.
In the past, such resolutions have been necessary responses to presidents who have squeezed Israel to mollify their friends in the Arab world, a process President George W. Bush's father brought to a whole new level. But the climate today is different. This President Bush has been much more sensitive to Israeli security and political concerns than his predecessors, and much more critical of the Palestinian leadership. Using Congress to erect barriers to his Mideast initiatives suggests motives beyond a simple expression of solidarity.
It's revealing that more and more, leaders of the religious right who oppose the very idea of territorial compromise are among those pushing hardest for these legislative shots across the administration's bow.
While the pro-Israel sentiments in these resolutions are heartfelt for some, the driving force here is retail politics, not diplomacy. The authors feel no obligation to propose actual solutions to the region's complex problems, or to balance conflicting U.S. interests. They don't have to deal with the fact that, sometimes, Israeli leaders have welcomed modest U.S. pressure, which gave them the freedom to take steps they believed were in Israel's best interests but which would have produced a political backlash. They don't have to seek to balance U.S. and Israeli interests, which are generally compatible, but not always.
There's virtually no cost to supporting pro-Israel resolutions, and a lot of benefit -- including campaign money and praise from important constituents. Besides, lawmakers rationalize, these lofty proclamations really don't mean a thing. The resolutions are nonbinding; they are usually broadly worded.
But they do mean something. They put modest political limits on administrations that are hostile to Israel, but also make it harder for friendly ones to conduct real-world diplomacy that may be in Israel's interests. They send out a message to the world that U.S. policymaking is based more on domestic politics than on nuanced assessments of U.S. interests.
They might also give Israel a false sense of security. They are not accurate measures of hard-core support for the Jewish state; today, voting to praise Israel is a cheap, cost-free way of winning important support, but that could easily change.
Bush has not been deterred by congressional resistance to his new Mideast initiatives, but there's little question it has slowed him down. It will slow him down even more if the Palestinians comply with their end of the deal, ratcheting up the pressure on Israel to fulfill its obligations under the road map.
Israel has pitifully few friends in the world; symbols of America's continuing commitment to its survival are welcome. And the Palestinian Authority, particularly in the past three years, has richly deserved official chiding from Washington.
But peace in the Middle East will come only through painstaking, complex diplomacy, with strong and creative U.S. leadership -- something that some backers of these resolutions hope to forestall. Others go along out of genuine concern for Israel, or for political expedience.
But the bottom line is the same: There are times when expressions of "solidarity" may not be in the best interests of a Jewish state that has seen far too much bloodshed in its short history.