Few speak up for Palestinians in U.S. Congress

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Many voices around the world speak up for the Palestinians, but few in the U.S. Congress.

Lawmakers in Washington routinely pass nonbinding resolutions supporting Israel during Middle East crises. The Senate has backed Israel’s ongoing battle against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip and the House of Representatives is expected to follow suit soon.

Even U.S. lawmakers who express sympathy for the Palestinians hesitate to call themselves pro-Palestinian and they voice strong support for the security of Israel as well, hewing to decades of close U.S.-Israeli ties.

“When these events occur, there’s almost a knee-jerk reaction of Congress that endorses 1,000 percent what Israel is doing,” said Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat and Lebanese-American who has voted against some of the measures.

“Israel is our ally. … It always has been, with which I perfectly agree. But I don’t believe in allowing that to blind us to what is in our best interests, or giving knee-jerk approval to anything Israel does. We don’t do that with any other ally,” he told Reuters.

Washington has been Israel’s closest ally since 1948, when President Harry Truman made the United States the first country to recognize the new Jewish state.

Harry Reid, who leads the Democratic majority in the Senate, gave voice to the depth of the relationship when he said on Thursday, “Our resolution reflects the will of the State of Israel and the will of the American people.”

The Senate measure offered “unwavering commitment” to Israel. It recognized “its right to act in self-defense to protect its citizens against acts of terrorism” and urged a ceasefire that would keep Hamas from firing rockets at Israel.

That closely tracked Republican President George W. Bush’s comments on the crisis, said Ric Stoll, professor of political science at Rice University. But he questioned whether it helped U.S. diplomats trying to broker a ceasefire.


“You don’t have to say Hamas are nice folks,” Stoll said. “(But) how do you convince supporters of the Palestinians to pressure Hamas to go for a ceasefire, if your statements look like you are tilting heavily toward Israel?”

The House has passed similar measures in recent years by landslides.

In 2006, the House voted 410-8 to condemn Hamas and Hezbollah for “unprovoked and reprehensible armed attacks against Israel” and supported Israel’s incursion into Lebanon.

In 2004, the vote was 407-9 to support a statement by Bush that it was “unrealistic” to expect Israel to return completely to pre-1967 borders. In 2003, it was 399-5 to support Israel’s forceful response to Palestinian attacks as justified.

The few opponents of the measures often include lawmakers of Arab-American descent or from Arab-American communities, and mavericks such as Democrat Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Republican Ron Paul of Texas.

Kucinich, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination last year, charged that the United States was ignoring the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza while facilitating Israel’s actions with arms deals worth billions.

Washington “sniffs at the slaughter of innocents in Gaza,” he said. “U.S. tax dollars, U.S. jets and U.S. helicopters provided to Israel are enabling the slaughter in Gaza.”

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, says the Israeli lobby is often seen as the force behind pro-Israel votes, but he thinks it is not that simple.

Some Americans “don’t have a clue” about the Palestinians’ history, he said.

Lawmakers also take foreign policy cues from the president, Zogby said, so some change could lie ahead with President-elect Barack Obama, who has said little about the crisis so far.

“If the story from the White House is that the president expresses deep concern for the people in Gaza … politicians will have cover,” Zogby said. “Members will say, ‘Shoot, I support the president.'”

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