A Lesson in Politics

James Zogby’s Column

Within a matter of a few weeks two of the United States’ top congressional leaders appeared separately on the same television program to let the country know how little they knew or cared about the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It was on May 1 that Texas Republican Congressman Richard Armey, appeared on “Hardball”, a nationally televised political program hosted by Chris Mathews. Here is part of their exchange:

MATTHEWS: OK. Let’s talk about the realities over there. There’s a fight between the Arabs and the–and the Israelis over who owns the Pal–all of Palestine. Do you support the idea that there be a Palestine state alongside Israel?

ARMEY: I am perfectly content to have a Palestinian state alongside Israel if it is a state that honors others borders.

MATTHEWS: You are in total, 180 disagreement with Tom DeLay who said this week that the entire West Bank belongs to Israel and it belongs to that country that’s not an Arab country. …It should not have a statehood.

ARMEY: No, I’m perfectly content to have a Palestinian state. I am not content to give up any part of Israel for that purpose of that Palestinian state.

MATTHEWS: Wait a minute. Tom DeLay’s, whose resolution you’re going to put on the floor tomorrow and schedule, has said that the entire West Bank, he calls it Judean Samaria, belongs to Israel. How can you say that this resolution doesn’t support the DeLay position which is Israel has a right to grab the entire West Bank?

ARMEY: No, I–I’m content to have Israel grab the entire West Bank. I’m also content to have the Palestinians have a homeland and even for that to be somewhere near Israel, but I’m not content to see Israel give up land for the purpose of peace to the Palestinians who will not accept it and would not honor it. It is time to…

MATTHEWS: Well, where do you put the Palestinian state, in Norway?

ARMEY: …No, no, that’s not–that’s not at all true. There are many Arab nations that have many hundreds of thousands of acres of land and–and soil and property and opportunity to create a Palestinian state.

MATTHEWS: So you would transport–you would transport the Palestinians from Palestine to somewhere else and call it their state?

ARMEY: …Most of the people who now populate Israel were transported from all over the world to that land and they made it their home. The Palestinians can do the same, and we’re per–perfectly content to work with the Palestinians in doing that. We are not willing to sacrifice Israel for the notion of a Palestinian homeland. …I happened to believe that the Palestinians should leave. …I am content to have Israel occupy that land that it now occupies and to have those people who have been aggressors against Israel retired to some other arena, and I would be happy to have them make a home. I would be happy to have all of these Arab nations that have been so hell bent to drive Israel out of the Middle East to get together, find some land and make a home for the Palestinians. I think it can be done.

Appearing with Mathews on June 18, Armey’s fellow Texas Republican Tom DeLay, had the following conversation:

MATTHEWS: What would be the point of [the Palestinians] negotiating? What would be the point of them laying down their arms and opposing terrorism? Why would the Palestinians do that? What would be in it for them?

DeLAY: Well, it’d be–for them, it would be a–a–a prosperous

life in Israel….

MATTHEWS: In Israel. You mean, they would all be condemned to living as part of the Israeli government? They would be under the Israeli government forever. That would be the goal.

DeLAY: I think it’s pretty–pretty awesome that you think that

they would be condemned to live in the most pos–prosperous nation in

the–in the area. I mean, you–you look at Israel, a democracy. And it’s–the-the prosperity that is generated for their citizens because of

freedom to associate freedom to–to start your own businesses…

MATTHEWS: …Should they become part of Israel?

DeLAY: Certainly, they should become part of Israel.

MATTHEWS: Should they become citizens?

DeLAY: Cert–certainly, they should become citizens. And–and They should–they–they should start schools. We should help them with hospitals. We should more or less impo–impose a–or bring a Marshall Plan to–to these areas so that they can have the prosperity and hope that obviously Arafat and the Palestinian Authority is not giving them.

What is, of course, striking about the observations made by both Amrey and DeLay, is that, in addition to their obvious contempt for Arab rights and total ignorance is that they stand in total contradiction to one another. Armey calls for “expulsion”, DeLay for “citizenship”.

Now before you dismiss both men too quickly it is important to note that they are among the most influential members of Congress. Armey is the Republican Majority Leader of the Congress and DeLay is the Republican Whip, the third highest post in his party. As such, they are in positions of power that make them central to decision making.

It was DeLay, for example, who last month sponsored and forced passage of a notorious anti-Palestinian “solidarity with Israel” resolution. And Armey is one of the leading forces behind a bill, currently pending in the Congress, to place new sanctions on Syria.

These are men with great knowledge of the legislative process and men who have a detailed understanding of budgetary matters and who can debate the intricacies of a broad range of social issues. But in the case of the Middle East, they neither know the details, nor do they care to master the intricacies.

On one level, it was almost fun to watch the much smarter Mathews trap these two powerful Congressmen in their ignorance. On the other hand it was damned irritating and even frightening to listen to them spout on.

It was interesting to watch the second half of Mathew’s show. DeLay had gone and the guest, who came on next was Craig Crawford, a political analyst. His response to Mathew’s first question was refreshing:

Mathews: Are you amazed that guys like Tom DeLay and Dick Armey…have never given any thought to this question?…

Crawford: I’ve got to tell you, I think that interview revealed how little some of our leaders have thought about this issue…particularly when-you know their real focus is domestic policy…you’re talking about the…global question. DeLay’s focused on-it’s a domestic issue for him. It’s not an international issue…It’s just domestic politics. And…the evangelical Christians and the Jewish right have formed a coalition and folks like DeLay are-are in the league.

This much is clear. For DeLay and Armey, and too many others in Congress, what matters most is domestic U.S. politics.

You could see it, or read it, in their responses. What they cared about was not being right, or even being informed. Rather what was on their minds was they did not want to say anything that might irritate the voter groups who they know to be very pro-Israel. And so when confronted by a tough question their brain grasped for an answer they hoped would not get them in any trouble. DeLay may have recalled that Armey got in trouble for his call to expel the Palestinians, and so he fell on a different answer. You could almost hear in his sputtering response the inner struggle for an answer that could incorporate what he hoped were the essentials: Israel is good; Palestinians were to blame, etc. What came out made no sense-but it was safe. And, DeLay hoped, this would at least indicate his support for Israel.

The tragedy in all of this is that it brings home the reality that the Middle East conflict, in America, is a domestic political issue. And while Armey and DeLay must be faulted for not understanding the reality of Middle East history and politics, Arabs too must be faulted for not understanding the realities of U.S. politics.

It is a sad but true fact that, as one member of Congress told me years ago, for most of his colleagues, the “national interests of the United States” are defined as their reelection to Congress. To transform American policy, therefore, it is imperative to engage in the internal U.S. policy debate and to bring it directly to the people and to shape their understanding of the issues and to help them to care about them. This is what Israel understands and acts on, and, up until now, Arabs do not.

And there is a lesson in all of this for Arab Americans too. American Jews and others who care about Israel, vote, give money and work to earn the support of Congress Members. Arab Americans and their allies must do the same. They are starting to do this and they are making progress-their efforts are needed now more than ever.

As for Armey and DeLay: Armey is retiring from Congress, but DeLay is running for reelection. He has a sizeable Arab American constituency in his district. Wouldn’t it be nice if they taught him a lesson in 2002?

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.