ForeignPolicy

Democrats Are Cowards in the Face of Israel's Brutality

Democrats have silenced dissent and offered unflinching support for Israeli actions, including gross violations of international law.

The Democratic leadership's strident support for the ongoing Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip underscores how the Democrats suffer from the same illusions as the outgoing Republican administration: that placing an Arab territory under debilitating sanctions that punish the population as a whole, bombarding heavily populated civilian areas -- resulting in widespread casualties among innocent people -- and invading and occupying territories with a long history of resistance to outsiders will somehow lead to greater moderation from those afflicted. 

The reality is that Israel's war against Hamas and the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip is no more likely to result in more rational and compromising positions from the Palestinian side than the firing of rockets by Hamas into Israel will lead to more rational and compromising positions from the Israelis. 

As a result, the hard-line militaristic position of the Democratic Party does not bode well for a more enlightened Middle East policy after eight disastrous years under President George W. Bush. 

On Capitol Hill, resolutions are being prepared in the House and Senate to defend the Bush administration's policy of unconditional support for the Israeli assaults, which as of this writing have led to the deaths of 500 people, at least one-quarter of whom were civilians. Unless there is widespread public opposition, it appears that the overwhelming majority of congressional Democrats will vote along with their Republican colleagues in favor of these resolutions, thereby giving Israel a blank check to continue the carnage and, as a result, give Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups the excuse to continue their attacks against Israeli civilians as well. 

Democrats Goad Israel Into War 

In June, 38 of 49 Democratic senators -- including Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton of New York -- wrote a letter (PDF) to President Bush that Americans for Peace Now, a moderate Zionist group, warned would build "a defense, in advance, for a large Israeli military offensive in Gaza." The letter also urged the Bush administration to block any U.N. Security Council resolution critical of Israel, claiming that United Nations opposition to Israeli attacks against crowded urban areas constituted a refusal to "acknowledge Israel's right to self-defense." An almost identical letter in the House, drafted by House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., received the signatures of 150 of the body's 230 Democrats. 

Americans for Peace Now noted that such an Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip would likely result in large-scale civilian casualties. In apparent anticipation of the large numbers of Palestinian deaths that would result from such military operations in the Gaza Strip, the House passed a resolution (PDF) in March, during an outbreak of fighting, that claimed, "Those responsible for launching rocket attacks against Israel routinely embed their production facilities and launch sites amongst the Palestinian civilian population, utilizing them as human shields." The resolution goes on to specifically condemn "the use of innocent Palestinian civilians as human shields by those who carry out rocket and other attacks" and yet again makes note of Palestinians who "continue to be utilized as human shields by terrorist organizations." 

But according to Joe Stork of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, while Hamas failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians in the densely populated Gaza Strip, the watchdog group had found no instances of Hamas actually using human shields in the legally defined sense of deliberately using civilians as a means of deterring counterattacks. Despite my contacting the offices of more than a dozen Democratic members of Congress who supported the resolution -- all of whom are members of the so-called Progressive Caucus -- none of them could provide any examples of Hamas actually using human shields. It appears that the Democrats' goal in pushing through this resolution was to convince their constituents that it was the Palestinians, not the Israelis who were attacking them, who were responsible for civilian casualties and who would likewise be responsible for the far greater number of civilian casualties that would inevitably result from the Israeli bombardment and invasion which was to commence later that year. 

The resolution also gave unqualified support for the Israeli government's attacks against the Gaza Strip, even as Amnesty International condemned Israel's "reckless disregard for civilian life" in its bombing and shelling of civilian population centers. The AI report also noted how the attacks by Palestinians against civilian-populated areas in Israel, which the report also roundly condemned, "does not make it legitimate for the Israeli authorities to launch reckless air and artillery strikes which wreak such death and destruction among Palestinian civilians." 

Not a single one of the 230 Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against the resolution. (There were four abstentions, and 12 did not vote.) This sent a clear signal that there would be no opposition in Congress -- which provides over $4 billion annually in unconditional military and economic aid to the Israeli government -- for an even larger military assault against the Palestinian population of the enclave. 

Democratic support for an Israeli war against the Gaza Strip went beyond such nonbinding resolutions. In apparent anticipation of the long-planned Israeli invasion of Gaza -- which was to begin just three months later -- the Democratic-controlled Congress voted in September to send 1,000 of the highly sophisticated GBU-39 missiles to Israel, which have been used on a large scale in the Israeli assault. 

On Nov. 5, Israel launched a brief but significant military incursion into Gaza. Though the raid was a clear violation of the cease-fire that had been in place at the time, no criticism was heard in Washington. There had been a series of minor violations by both sides, but the magnitude of this raid appeared designed to provoke Hamas into letting the cease-fire lapse. Israel then tightened its siege of the Gaza Strip, prompting Human Rights Watch to note that "Israel's severe limitations on the movement of nonmilitary goods and people into and out of Gaza, including fuel and medical supplies, constitutes collective punishment, also in violation of the laws of war." Despite this, President-elect Barack Obama and Democratic congressional leaders continued to defend the sanctions. 

Hamas appeared willing to renew its cease-fire in return for Israel lifting the blockade on humanitarian and other aid and ending its periodic raids into Gaza and assassinations of Hamas officials. However, Israel -- again, supported by Obama and Democratic congressional leaders -- refused. Now, however, despite these leading Democrats' opposition to nonmilitary means, which could have salvaged the cease-fire and prevented the rocket attacks into Israel, they are now claiming that Israel had "no choice" but to launch its massive assault on Gaza Strip in retaliation. 

In a Dec. 28 interview, Obama's chief adviser David Axelrod appeared to align the president-elect with the Bush administration in its support for Israel's war on the Gaza Strip, citing an Obama statement from the summer, in which he said, "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. I would expect Israelis to do the same thing." 

Axelrod ignored the fact that since Israel had launched its bombardment of the Gaza Strip, rocket attacks against Israeli towns had actually increased. This raises concerns that an Obama administration, like the Bush administration, may be so ideologically committed to military solutions in political conflicts that it too will ignore even obvious failures. 

Rationalizing Civilian Deaths

Amnesty International USA, in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on January 2, noted its dismay "at the lopsided response by the U.S. government to the recent violence and its lackadaisical efforts to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza." The Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization went on to note, "Without diminishing the responsibility of Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups for indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians, the U.S. government must not ignore Israel's disproportionate response and the longstanding policies which have brought the Gaza Strip to the brink of humanitarian disaster."

Leading Democrats rushed to the administration's defense, however. As reports of widespread civilian casualties among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip from the Israeli attacks continued to pour in, Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., insisted that "When Israel is attacked, the United States must continue to stand strongly with its friend and democratic ally." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., stated ,"I strongly support Israel's right to defend its citizens against rocket and mortar attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza." House Majority Leader Hoyer claimed, "Israel is acting in clear self-defense in response to heinous rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza" and that Israel has "an unequivocal right" to engage in its military operations. Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., whom the Democrats recently named to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declared "Israel has a right, indeed a duty, to defend itself in response to the hundreds of rockets and mortars fired from Gaza over the past week." Even prominent liberals, like Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., insisted that "This use of Gaza as a base from which to attack Israel left Israel with no choice except self defense."

These Democrats have been unable to explain how a number of the most deadly Israeli strikes, which took place nowhere near any legitimate military targets, constitute acts of self-defense. These have included the missile which struck a group of students leaving the U.N.-sponsored Gaza Training College in downtown Gaza, the bombing of a mosque during evening prayers, another missile attack centered in civilian neighborhoods in the crowded refugee camps of Jabalya and Rafah, as well as a series of attacks against the territory's one university. Scores of others who worked in government offices under the Hamas administration but had nothing to do with rocket attacks against Israel -- or any other military function of the Islamist party -- have been killed as well.

Yet some Democrats have gone as far as to simply deny that attacks against civilian targets are taking place at all. For example, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and its Middle East subcommittee, has insisted that (PDF), contrary to reports of reputable human rights groups, international journalists and other eyewitnesses, "The Israeli response has been a series of targeted strikes against Hamas militants, aimed directly at those who are launching the attacks on Israeli civilian population centers" and that "the Israeli military is taking extreme caution to limit civilian casualties."

The Democratic Party has a history of denying Israeli culpability in the deaths of civilians during military operations in the Gaza Strip. During an Israeli offensive against the territory in 2006, prior to Hamas' takeover of the Palestinian Authority, Amnesty International declared:

"The Israeli authorities' deliberate and wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure and property in the Gaza Strip amounts to a war crime. The destruction and the disproportionate and arbitrary restrictions imposed by the Israeli army on the movement of people and goods into and from the Gaza Strip also amount to collective punishment of the entire population. This violates the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits punishing protected persons for offences they have not committed."

Similarly, the International Red Cross, long recognized as the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, declared that Israel was violating the principle of proportionality, as well as the prohibition against collective punishment.

Despite this and similar reports by other reputable human rights groups, Democrats – with only nine dissenting votes – joined their Republican colleagues in passing a House resolution claiming Israel's attacks, which resulted in widespread civilian casualties, were "in accordance with international law." The resolution went on to rebuke reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch's criticisms of Israel's failure to distinguish between military and civilian targets by including language that praised Israel's "longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss" and welcomed "Israel's continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties."

The resolution also insisted that Israel's attacks were in accordance with "Article 51 of the United Nations Charter." However, Article 33 of the Charter requires all parties to "first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice," which Israel -- with the backing of most of these same congressional Democrats -- has refused to do. Article 51 does allow countries the right to resist an armed attack, but not the right to engage in massive and disproportional attacks against crowded urban population centers.

The 2006 resolution, sponsored by the late Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., then the ranking Democratic member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, commended President Bush for "fully supporting Israel" in the face of widespread international opposition, including by some of the United States' closest allies.

With only nine dissenting Democratic votes in the 435-member body, this placed virtually the entire Democratic Caucus on the side of Bush against a broad consensus of the international community, including all major human rights organizations.

Opposing Peace Negotiations

It should come as no surprise that when negotiations are ruled out, war results. But instead of encouraging negotiations between Hamas and Israel, the Democratic Party has actively discouraged it.

Even President-elect Obama, who has expressed willingness to meet with leaders of Iran and other hard-line regimes, spoke out in early 2008 against any negotiations with the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, which received the majority of seats in the most recent Palestinian parliamentary elections. Indeed, the Democrats -- led by Vice President-elect Joe Biden -- have criticized the Bush administration for allowing the Palestinian Authority to go ahead with free elections in the first place.

This opposition to peace talks comes despite polls showing that a majority of Israelis -- including the mayors of the Israelis towns on the receiving end of Hamas rocket attacks -- do support negotiations with Hamas. Unlike the Democratic Party, the Israeli public is much more cognizant of the fact that -- whether it be a short-term cease-fire, a permanent peace agreement or something in between -- ending the violence without such negotiations will be impossible. Indeed, at the very time Obama was rejecting the idea of talks with Hamas, senior members of the Israeli security establishment were urging the Israeli government to engage in such talks, arguing that any agreement made without Hamas would fail.

Furthermore, for a number of years, the Israelis have been regularly negotiating indirectly with Hamas through Egyptian intermediaries and Palestinian prisoners. Back when Hamas was in charge of local governments in some West Bank towns several years ago, there were direct talks on a number of logistical issues. The Democratic Party, however, insisted that such talks not take place -- apparently because the prospect of negotiations would get in the way of Israel's massive military offensive against the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.

The Democratic Party's leadership has long argued that no talks should take place until Hamas formally recognizes Israel's right to statehood, yet many of these same Democrats have had no problems with meeting, and even providing support for, Israeli parties and political groups that insist that the Palestinians do not have the right to statehood, such as the Likud Bloc, which is favored to win the upcoming Israeli elections. In addition, a sizable majority of Democrats in Congress have gone on record insisting that an explicit Hamas recognition of Israel as a Jewish state be a precondition for ending sanctions and inclusion in the peace process, which is not only an unnecessary prerequisite for negotiating a long-term cease-fire, but is something which even the Israeli government has not demanded.

Silencing Democratic Critics

Democratic Party leaders have made it clear that any dissent from within the party to their right-wing position rejecting any contact with Hamas will not be tolerated.

For example, Robert Malley, who served as a National Security Council member and special assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs under the Clinton administration, was already under fire for having the temerity to object to the Bush administration's effort to organize a coup against Hamas, noting how, "Almost every decision the United States has made to interfere with Palestinian politics has boomeranged." He had been serving as an informal adviser to Obama during the presidential race, but was forced to sever his ties with the campaign when it was revealed that, as part of his efforts to promote a cease-fire in his role with the International Crisis Group, he had met with Hamas officials. For the Obama campaign, such peace-making efforts simply could not be tolerated.

In an even better-known example, former President Jimmy Carter was quoted last spring as saying, "I think there's no doubt in anyone's mind that, if Israel is ever going to find peace with justice concerning the relationship with their next-door neighbors … Hamas will have to be included in the process," adding, "I think someone should be meeting with Hamas to see what we can do to encourage them to be cooperative." He then met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Syria.

Former presidents have historically been largely exempt from criticisms by elected officials of their own party. When it comes to expressing the opinion that the United States should figure out a way to include Hamas in negotiations, however, such courtesy quickly evaporated. Carter, winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, was immediately denounced by Democratic Party leaders. Steve Grossman, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee claimed, "Carter's views are antithetical to those in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. He does not speak for either [Clinton or Obama] in any shape or form, and I think there's pretty much unanimity on that point."

As a result of his efforts to avoid war, Carter was denied a major platform at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, the first time in memory that a former president had been denied such an honor at his party's quadrennial gathering.

It's important to remember that both Malley and Carter were leaders of NGOs whose very mandates are to engage in conflict resolution. What these Democrats appear to be saying is that the Bush administration's policy of not talking with those deemed undesirable should not just be the policy of the U.S. government, but every nongovernmental organization and private citizen as well.

But that policy is inconsistent. Through his role at the Carter Center, for example, Carter met with war criminals like Liberia's Charles Taylor, Haiti's Raoul Cedras and Uganda's Martin Ojul, with no complaints from these same Democratic leaders. Their opposition to Carter's willingness to speak with Hamas appears not to have been because of the group's role in war crimes but because Carter had hoped such dialogue might pave the way for a negotiated settlement. Indeed, a number of those who supported Carter's exclusion from the Democratic National Convention had themselves met with unsavory characters as well, including right-wing Cuban and Nicaraguan terrorist leaders, some of the worst dictators on the planet, and others with even more blood on their hands than Meshaal.

What Explains the Democrats' Position?

All this inevitably raises the question as to why, in a conflict where both sides are clearly at fault, the Democratic Party has chosen to put 100 percent of the blame on the Palestinian side and has unconditionally supported the actions of the Israelis, who are not only the more powerful of the two, but whose violations of international humanitarian law are many times greater than those of Hamas.

There are those who try to defend these Democratic hawks by claiming it would somehow be political suicide to oppose any resolution supporting Israeli military actions. But a recent Rasmussen poll indicates that Americans are closely divided regarding the legitimacy of Israel's attacks on Gaza Strip, with Democratic voters opposing the offensive by a 55 percent-to-31 percent margin. Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict overall, 7 of 10 Americans believe the United States should not take sides -- yet another example of how out of step the Democratic leadership is with the American public.

Nor does this strident support for Israeli militarism have anything to do with a genuine concern for Israel's legitimate security interests, given that every previous effort to defeat Hamas militarily has backfired. Similarly, Israel's 2006 offensive against Lebanon's Hezbollah -- also overwhelmingly supported by congressional Democrats -- proved to be a disaster for Israel.

The primary factor for the Democratic leaderships' hawkish stance regarding the current conflict appears to be the relative inaction of the progressive base of the Democratic Party. Most rank-and-file Democrats, at least intuitively, recognize the fallacy of the Democratic leadership's militaristic line and are aware that support for the Bush administration Middle East policy has brought neither justice for the Palestinians nor security for Israel. At the same time, however, the grassroots of the party has failed to mobilize in a way that would let the party leadership know there is a price to pay for supporting such a right-wing agenda.

Despite their efforts to undermine international humanitarian law and rationalize for the killing of civilians, many of these Democratic supporters of Bush administration policy toward Israel and Palestine still receive the enthusiastic endorsements and PAC funding from MoveOn and other supposedly "progressive" political organizations.

The message to Democratic lawmakers, then, appears to be that the progressive community doesn't care about international humanitarian law, at least if the victims happen to be Arabs.

And, although American Israel Public Affairs Committee and allied right-wing groups have certainly played a role in limiting debate within the Democratic Party, their power is often so grossly exaggerated as to create a fatalistic view that it is not worth even trying to get these Democratic officials to support a more balanced policy on Israel and Palestine. This results in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy by leading progressive activists to blithely accept that otherwise progressive members of Congress embrace positions essentially identical to that of the Bush administration. Congressional staffers -- always off the record -- often play into anti-Semitic stereotypes by claiming that their boss is but a hapless victim of rich and powerful Jews behind the scenes and should therefore not be held accountable for his or her actions. It is profoundly disappointing that so many peace and human rights activists appear to fall for it.

If there is to be peace between Israel and Palestine, we must stop giving these Democratic hawks the benefit of the doubt or making excuses for them. This means engaging in protests at their speaking events and sit-ins in their offices. It means withholding campaign contributions, supporting progressive challengers in primary races and backing Green or other third-party challengers in the general election.

Until they know there is a political price to pay for their anti-Palestinian -- and ultimately anti-Israel -- positions, they will continue to push their right-wing foreign policy agenda. How the progressive community addresses the ongoing tragedy in the Gaza Strip in the coming days and weeks may determine the direction for the incoming Obama administration and the 111th Congress, not just in terms of U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine, but in foreign policy overall.

For ultimately, the issue is not about Hamas versus the Israeli government, or even Palestine versus Israel, but between supporters of international humanitarian law and those who believe the United States and its allies are somehow exempt.