Speaking Up For Palestinians

There were some little bits of good news to be found in the bad news emanating from Congress’ lop-sided vote in favor of HR 4681.

Termed the "Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act," the bad news was self-evident. Approved by a 371 "for"–”37 "against" margin (with 9 members of Congress voting "present" and 25 not voting at all), HR 4681 was much more than the anti-Hamas statement its supporters declared it to be. If signed into law, the draconian measures included in the bill would:

  • Not only remove the President’s ability to provide direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority, but also restrict aid to non-governmental organizations and create requirements so difficult that many aid programs would simply cease to operate;
  • Ban visas to anyone affiliated with the Palestinian Authority including non-Hamas members of the President’s office and the Palestinian Legislative Council; and
  • Seek to close the PLO office in Washington, and place severe restrictions on the PLO mission to the United Nations.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last piece of bizarre anti-Palestinian legislation coming out of Congress. Its architect, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annually creates these "hoop jumping exercises" to test their strength and see how far they can push Congress.

It is somewhat ironic that all the while this game is being played out on Capitol Hill, pro-AIPAC apologists are busily denouncing as "anti-Semitic," a paper written by two professors which points out the lobby’s excessive behavior in Congress.

AIPAC’s message: we will exercise our power by forcing Congressional "loyalty tests," but don’t dare point it out or warn about the dangers this presents to US diplomacy and interests.

That’s the bad news. But there was some good news as well.

It is important to note, for example, that despite the lop-sided vote, HR 4681 generated real debate in Congress. This was not the first time that some members of Congress spoke out and challenged both AIPAC’s heavy-handed tactics and the excessive nature of one of their sponsored bills, but it was the most extensive and thoughtful debate I have witnessed in my 30 years in Washington.

During the heated floor debate that preceded the vote more than a dozen members rose to speak eloquently and passionately about their concerns.

Most of those who spoke out objected to the impact that the bill’s provisions would have on the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people. ("The Middle East’s problems…will not be resolved by starving the Palestinians…They are desperate people, incarcerated in walls, afflicted with high unemployment, suffering from health and other problems…" Congressman John Dingell, D-MI) Others criticized the heavy-handed way HR 4681 would harm US diplomacy and efforts to reach a peace agreement. ("H.R. 4681 risks…harming United States national security…[it] subjugates U.S. national security interests to political grand-standing." Congressman Maurice Hinchey, D-NY). Still others expressed concern with the message this bill sent to Palestinian moderates and the Palestinian people as a whole about US intentions. ("This bill goes far beyond the ramifications of January’s election and Hamas’ rise to power. It would restrict relations with and support for Palestinian groups and institutions that have nothing to do with terror or rejectionism…it makes no sense to put sanctions on President Abbas," Congressman Earl Blumenauer, D-OR).

In a striking move, one legislator, who voted against the bill, wrote a widely distributed letter to the President of AIPAC condemning the way she was being pressured to support HR 4681. Outraged that an AIPAC representative had termed her opposition as "support for terrorism" that "would not be tolerated," she demanded that AIPAC apologize. After stating her reasons for opposing the bill and noting her opposition to Hamas and support for the US-Israeli relationship, she closed her letter, noting that "until I receive a formal, written apology from your organization, I must inform you that AIPAC representatives are not welcome in my office."

Arab Americans were, of course, united in their opposition to HR 4681, but they were not alone, and there was more good news here. Three American Jewish organizations played a lead role in the public opposition to the AIPAC-supported legislation, making it clear that many in the Jewish community do not endorse hard-line anti-Palestinian efforts. Also involved in the lobbying effort against the bill were the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference and a coalition representing major US Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant church bodies and organizations.

In addition to the breadth of the opposition and the eloquence of the voices who spoke out against HR 4681, there was the fact that the number of those who actually voted against he bill was the highest recorded since AIPAC began these "hoop jumping exercises."

One final piece of good news to note is that HR 4681, as written, will not become law. Despite AIPAC claiming that it will settle for nothing less, the Senate will likely pass a far less restrictive, though still imperfect, bill restoring at least some degree of sanity to the legislative process.

Pointing out the "little bits" of good news in no way minimizes the difficulties ahead or the damage being done by hardliners (in the US, Israel, and the PA) to the search for peace.

Despite agreeing to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Israelis, as Prime Minister Olmert made clear this week, remain determined to pursue their unilateral solution, and they seem confident that despite timid objections, in the end, the US will acquiesce.

In this context, the Hamas victory has made a difficult situation even worse. Their horrible record of violence and their stubborn refusal to adopt a different line has only served to legitimize Israel’s repressive measures and embolden hard-line opponents of Palestinian rights in the US and Israel. The immediate victims of all of this have been the Palestinian people.

That is why, in the face of all this, it is significant to note the importance of 37 members of Congress voting "no" to HR 4681, supported by an impressive grouping of American Jewish, Christian, and Arab American organizations. Not the best situation, but at least the bad is mixed with a "little bit" of good news. And this can be built upon in the future.