A Conversation to Remember

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The magnificent Coliseum in Rome. The chilling ruins of Pompeii. The wondrous cliffs of San Marino. The resilient Parthenon in Athens. And the conversation. Yes, the conversation. All were memorable events during my time in Europe back in 1996.

The conversation took place on a flight from London to Rome. The gentleman who sat next to me was a young European male. He looked at me with a puzzled look.

“Italiana?” asked the man.

“No, sono Palestinieze-Americana,” I answered in the little Italian I knew.

“Ahh, si,” he smiled.

The conversation thankfully turned to English. I found out he was a Portuguese travel agent, and was on his way to reunite with his Italian wife. We talked about a myriad of subjects, but it was his thoughts on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which intrigued me most. Though Mario did not have a formal education, he seemed quite knowledgeable on the topic. And while he disagreed with some of the Palestinian tactics for freedom, his views were a welcome change from the usual pro-Israeli views of many of my fellow Americans. I knew this had much to do with the more objective European media.

There was one specific statement he made, which I will never forget.

He leaned his head back and said matter-of-factly, “We know the Israelis run your Congress.”

I smiled to myself. This was sounding like a conversation I have with fellow Arabs. An over-simplification, perhaps. And yet, a profound statement since this is how a foreign individual was viewing our foreign policy.

The US Congress, created by Article 1 of the US Constitution, has a variety of legislative powers, including coining money and maintaining a military. Congress also frames US foreign policy. The US Constitution is arguably the greatest among sister nations’ constitutions, and the vision of the US Constitution’s architects has generally materialized.

But what our founding fathers probably never banked on was the influence of soft money and lobbyists. They couldn’t have imagined that our foreign policy would be guided by pocketbooks and interests which defy the values our nation was founded on, such as freedom and dignity for all.

“We know the Israelis run your Congress.” Again, a possible over-simplification, but one that deserves some scrutiny.

Israeli interests are promoted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), recognized as the most powerful foreign lobbying organization on Capitol Hill. Since 1978, AIPAC has contributed more than $34 million dollars to congressional candidates — translating into funding for more than 1,700 candidates. In fact, according to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, AIPAC contributed $2,044,606 during the 1999-2000 election cycle. And in the world of politics, it is money that makes the Hill go round.

The ability of Jewish-American Zionists to rally around Israel using such methods as mass harassment of US media [as Eric Alterman of the Nation pointed out recently in an MSNBC article], as well as the harassment of US politicians [which former Congressman Paul Findley pointed out in his book, “They Dare To Speak Out”] have all contributed to the notion that Zionists manipulate the domestic political climate on the Middle East

Has all of this been effective in silencing Congress in recent weeks on the unprecedented Israeli bloodshed in the West Bank? Well, as Arab American Institute President Jim Zogby told the Los Angeles Times, “There is reasoned discourse [over the Middle East] in almost every sector of society except Congress.”

Consider some of the following quotations heard recently in Congress.

Representative Tom Lantos (D- San Mateo) prepared to introduce a resolution expressing U.S. “solidarity with Israel in its fight against terrorism.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.): “The U.S. should stand by Israel’s side in the quest for peace and security.” She made these remarks on the floor as she announced that she would introduce legislation to cut U.S. ties to the Palestinian Authority if Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s mission in the region does not produce results.

And then there’s Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD). “I think that some show of support for Israel is important and critical.” Interestingly, Daschle was criticized by the Republican Party for recent comments about America’s war on terror in Afghanistan. Daschle had questioned the continued success of the campaign, and further stated that if ex-Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden were not captured, “we will have failed.”

“How dare Sen. Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field,” said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., in a written statement. “He should not be trying to divide our country while we are united.”

One can apparently assume that the bi-partisan congressional chorus of dissent against President George Bush’s repeated calls for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian Occupied Territories does not divide the country, or make our foreign policy seem ludicrous in the face of worldwide pro-Palestinian demonstrations. UN Resolution 1402, a resolution demanding Israel’s withdrawal, presumably means nothing to the Congress either — though the US voted for it.

American journalists have been prevented from covering several areas of the West Bank, international human rights organizations are unable to deliver urgently needed food and medical supplies, and reports of a massacre in the Jenin refugee camp have outraged the world. Shootings at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem by Israeli snipers do not raise an eyebrow on the Hill, and neither do scenes of utter devastation on our TV screens. Israel’s Ariel Sharon has spat on our demands for withdrawal, prompting questions as to who is calling the shots. Does the US, which gives billions in taxpayer dollars to Israel, call the shots? Or does Israel control us?

“We know the Israelis run your Congress.”

Yes, Mario, wherever you are. Your words certainly seem on the mark right now.

Note:

Zionism is viewed as a national movement by many Jews, and is largely responsible for the creation of the State of Israel. The United Nations, however, previously defined the ideology as a form of racism.

Sherri Muzher, who holds a Jurist Doctor in International and Comparative Law, is a Palestinian-American activist and free lance journalist.

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