Could Congress's Anti-Palestinian Turn Be Good News for Palestine?

One might think that the U.S. Congress would be the last place to look for a ray of hope in the long Palestinian march for freedom -- think again

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House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen / Reuters

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is the Republican chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and when it comes to matters Israeli-Palestinian she tends not to mince her words. Here is but one choice example: "It's time for us to kick the PLO out of the U.S. once and for all, and move our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, where it belongs."

Is she an outlier extremist in the Republican caucus on this issue? Far from it. One GOP colleague, Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) introduced a bill resolving to support "Israel's right to annex Judea and Samaria in the event that the Palestinian Authority continues to press for unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations," while another, Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX) has lamented a situation in which, in his words "Palestinians have the Gaza Strip and they are occupying the West Bank."

Democratic members of congress, with a few notable exceptions, are only marginally more enlightened. Recently, New York Democratic Congressman Steve Israel (that's his surname, not the district he represents) introduced a bill to deny "Foreign Military Financing program assistance to countries that vote in the United Nations General Assembly in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state." And Rep. Howard Berman, ranking Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, noted that:

I believe it is appropriate to point out that should the Palestinians pursue their unilateralist course, the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual assistance that we have given them in recent years, will likely be terminated.

Resolutions passed in both the House and Senate in July followed familiar protocol -- parroting official Israeli talking points, blaming the Palestinians, and demanding the administration use its UN veto against any Palestinian initiative. Senate resolution 185 passed by unanimous consent; the House version, resolution 268, was a little more contentious, mustering only a 407 to 6 majority.

Given all this, one would think that Congress was the last place to look for a ray of hope in the long Palestinian march for freedom. Think again.

Congress has not made itself much of a friend to Palestinians in their efforts for basic rights and freedoms. Yet the excesses of current congressional behavior are offering something that can be both refreshing and even helpful in international politics -- clarity. And Congress is offering clarity to the Palestinians by the bucket load these days. In so doing, Congress may just save the Palestinians from the diplomatic cul-de-sac into which they have maneuvered themselves.

The entire peace process of over two-decades' vintage had contained at its core the following premise or leap of faith: the U.S. might not be a totally objective broker given its special relationship with Israel, but it could be an effective one, and when push came to shove, could deliver Israel for a reasonable, viable, two-state solution. If the Palestinians would accept the premise of Israel's existence, deny their claims resulting from the 1948 war by focusing only on the 1967 occupation, and desist from terror, then the U.S. could deliver the two-state goods from Israel.

From an historical perspective, it was not an entirely preposterous notion. After all, in March of 1975 President Gerald Ford announced:

I wish to express my profound disappointment over Israel's attitude in the course of the negotiations ... Failure of the negotiation will have a far reaching impact on the region and on our relations. I have given instructions for a reassessment of United States policy in the region, including our relations with Israel.

Within months, Israel succumbed and concluded an interim agreement on disengagement from the occupied Sinai, over which it had long been dragging its feet. President Jimmy Carter oversaw the Camp David process, which had Israel's first right-wing prime minister (Menachem Begin) returning every inch of occupied Egyptian land and removing all settlers and IDF forces from the Sinai. Even the Reagan administration, during its waning lame-duck days in December 1988, publicly announced the opening of substantive dialogue with PLO representatives. This at a time when Israel still refused to engage with the PLO. The George H.W. Bush administration famously withheld loan guarantees from the then-Shamir government over the settlements issue.

Against this backdrop, the PLO made its 1993 Oslo Accords gambit -- gaining limited self-government and lots of process and timetables, but little else by way of recognition of Palestinian rights. Almost 20 years later, it's now a lot more difficult to honestly entertain a belief in America's ability to midwife Palestinian freedom. Even post-9/11, with the Pentagon increasingly outspoken as to the U.S. national security interests at stake in securing Israel-Palestine peace (then-CENTCOM chief General David Petraeus testified on this to Congress), U.S. leadership on the issue is bringing little success. This applies to Democratic and Republican administrations alike, to enthusiastic embracers of the two-state solution as well as its more reserved adherents. When they are not preemptively blinking in the face of an Israeli leader's scowl, U.S. presidents have been unable to sustain a standoff with their largest Middle Eastern beneficiary.

Presented by

Daniel Levy is co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and an editor of the Middle East Channel at ForeignPolicy.com. He served on the official Israeli delegation to the Taba negotiations with the Palestinians in January 2001.

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