Confronting the Surreal Views of the U.S. Congress

James Zogby’s Column

U.S. public opinion is shifting, some members of Congress are developing a clearer understanding of Middle East realities, but extremist ideologies and fear of political pressures continue to hold sway on Capitol Hill.

Recent polls show real movement in public opinion.  The public still has greater sympathy for Israelis, in large measure because five decades of negative stereotypes and biased news coverage have shaped attitudes toward the people of the Middle East.  Opinion, however is turning against Israeli policy and Americans increasingly want their government to be balanced and fair to both parties.

Interestingly, polls show a widening partisan split in attitudes.  A recent Zogby International poll demonstrates this.  When asked “should Israel end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza”, Americans said “yes” by a margin of 58% to 29%.  Among Democrats, however, the margin was 69% to 21%, while for Republicans the margin was 48% to 39%, a gap in the margin of almost 40%.

The reason, of course, were the attitudes of the religious right wing who only support an Israeli withdrawal by a margin of 49% in favor to 38% opposed.  This group constitutes a substantial portion of the Republican Party’s base vote.  On the other hand, two key Democratic party base vote groups, African Americans and Hispanics, support an end to Israel’s occupation by a margin of 68% to 24%. 

There is also a significant age gap reflected in this poll.  Americans under 30 years old support Israel pulling out of the West Bank by a margin of 70% to 22%.  Those over 50 years old, on the other hand, only support this by a 55% to 29% margin.

This same poll also shows that 71% of the U.S. public now supports a Palestinian state, with the same partisan and age gaps also present.

Some of this was in evidence at the two competing demonstrations that occurred in Washington two weeks ago.  The pro-Israel rally was estimated at between 25,000 to 40,000 persons.  It was white, largely Jewish or conservative Christian.  The larger pro-Palestinian march and rally was estimated at 75,000 and included large numbers of Arabs and Muslims and a significant number of students and minorities.  The evolution of the pro-Palestinian march was, itself, an interesting development.  It began as a left-liberal anti-globalization rally, without a Middle East component.  The rally evolved into a pro-Palestine event during the last month in response to the horrific developments in the Middle East.  Significant credit must be given to pro-Palestine activists and a number of American Muslim groups who worked for weeks to build the event.

But even with all of this, now that the marches are over and the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, has ended its annual convention, politics in Washington have returned to normal.  While there are a few more voices urging a more balanced policy, for the most part, the scene is surreal.  Many members of Congress, it appears, live in an alternate reality shaped by politics and not facts as they are.  How else can one explain some of the bizarre statements some elected officials have made in the past week, or some of the equally strange letters and bills being circulated on Capitol Hill. 

Some examples:

Despite some initial concern from the State Department, a few members of Congress are pressing forward plans to add a supplemental $200 million to Israel’s aid package to assist their “war on terrorism”;

Republican Congressional leader Tom DeLay has joined Democrat Tom Lantos to sponsor a resolution “in solidarity with Israel in its war against terrorism”.  The resolution is both provocative and blatantly one-sided.  It has been opposed by the State Department, which fears that its passage will harm U.S. diplomacy.  Nevertheless, the hard-line congressmen appear determined to go forward.

Then there are the so-called “Arafat Accountability Act” and the “Syria Accountability Act”.  The anti-Palestine act seeks to reestablish the U.S. ban on the PLO and the Palestinian Authority by closing their U.S. offices and denying visas to their representatives. The anti-Syria bill, if passed, would freeze Syrian assets in the U.S. and impose tough new sanctions on that country.

Not as dangerous as the bills, but equally troubling because of the messages they send, are the letters to the President organized by groups of Members of Congress.  Because they require no vote and create no new policy, members can be quite extreme and irresponsible in drafting these missives.  During the last month there have been a large number of these missives denouncing everything from PA president Yasir Arafat to Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Despite all of this extremist activity, even in Congress there are signs of positive movement.  Some thoughtful members of Congress are deeply concerned with the cycle of violence in the Middle East and the damage that it poses to the region and to U.S. relations in the Arab world.  Many are deeply troubled by the Sharon government’s excessive violence against the Palestinian people.  One member of Congress sent a letter to the Israeli ambassador, decrying “the fact that Prime Minister Sharon is continuing this appalling wave of violence”.

Dozens have signed other letters supporting Secretary of State Colin Powell’s peace mission, urging that it be balanced and sustained.  And a congressional resolution endorsing UN Security Council Resolutions 1397 and 1402 is continuing to gather support.  (Note: at the last minute, congressional leaders have deferred to moderates and the Administration, and have agreed to withdraw the Israel solidarity resolution from the congressional calendar).

The next few weeks will be interesting, as moderate voices in Congress, supported by the State Department, go against their more hard-line colleagues.  The contest will, on one hand, be between sober and thoughtful voices who see the dangers of the present course of events in the Middle East and those members of Congress whose views are shaped by extremist ideologies or simply fear of political pressure from organized lobbies.

The task now before us is to translate the shift in public opinion and the realities of the Middle East conflict into a new political force that can shake Congress out of its surreal world.  The major Arab American organizations have agreed to host a national emergency mobilization in Washington in mid-May.  There is also significant organizing going on around the U.S. to challenge individual members of Congress.

The fight for reality and justice will not be easy.  But the effort must be made.  It is an uphill battle.  But it is a climb that must be made.

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