"Lord, we seek Your blessing upon all members of the House of Representatives and the people of this nation," intoned the House chaplain, the Reverend Daniel P. Coughlin, on Wednesday, Dec. 5. "Once Abram responded to Your call of faith he was given Your promise: 'I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make your name so great that it shall be used in blessings.'"
Just a few hours after Rev. Coughlin's invocation of God's promise to Abraham, the House of Representatives debated a "sense of the House" resolution condemning Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority and expressing solidarity with Israel in the wake of the Dec. 1 and 2 Hamas suicide bombings. The attacks killed 26 Israeli civilians and injured 175 others -- "the equivalent, on a proportional basis, of 1,200 American deaths and 8,000 wounded," Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chair of the House International Relations Committee, announced as he introduced the bill.
The same bill in the Senate was passed without debate or even a roll-call vote. But in the House, it was debated, and the debate was illuminating. The bill passed, as would be expected, overwhelmingly. But the discussion poked, prodded and dissected the relationship between the United States and Israel. In the process, it seemed to reveal evidence of undying loyalty -- and bitter resentment.
Behind the scenes, a Republican Lebanese-American congressman worked closely with a Democratic congressman who survived the Holocaust on changing some of the language -- and yet he still seemed to have a brief crisis of faith, despite their work together.
It forced members of Congress to come to terms with whether they considered the Sept. 11 attacks and terrorism against innocent Israeli civilians as parallel matters -- and made those uncomfortable with such a comparison speak out. And the final vote revealed some unusual ethnic and geographic fissures. In the end, 384 members of the House supported the resolution, 11 opposed it, 21 chose not to take sides by voting "present" and 17 failed to vote at all. And except for a brief mention in the Washington Post (which botched the final vote count numbers) the matter was entirely unreported.
Hyde, ranking International Relations Committee Democrat Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., and Middle East subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ben Gilman, R-N.Y., led the charge for the resolution, arguing that the terrorist predicament the United States faces is unquestionably similar to the one Israel has been fighting for decades. Responding to one congressman who decried the Palestinians killed by Israel, Lantos responded, "There is an enormous difference between targeting innocent civilians and collateral damage." Referring to the U.S. troops who had been accidentally killed just hours before by "friendly fire," Lantos said, "There is a difference of the whole world between deliberately killing innocent civilians and retaliating, doing one's utmost to avoid killing civilians and, tragically, mistakes occurring."
As in America on Sept. 11, the argument goes, Israeli civilians are slaughtered by soulless terrorists who seek nothing less than the obliteration of their nation; the only response can be a military one, quite like Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. On Sept. 20, President Bush said that "every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" and "any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." And Arafat has been doing nothing but harboring -- if not overtly supporting -- terrorists for years. Simple as that.
This spirit was certainly articulated during a visit to Israel last weekend by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "We feel a great kinship with the people of Israel," Giuliani said. "We always have and I think since Sept. 11 and what has happened here in Israel, we are even closer. The people of Jerusalem and the people of New York City are shoulder-to-shoulder in the fight against terrorism."
But others point to the deaths of Palestinian innocents at the hands of the Israeli army (collateral damage or not), the Israeli military presence in the West Bank and Gaza, the deplorable conditions for Palestinians in those territories and the continued construction of Israeli settlements in those areas. They argue that there is no similarity between the U.S. struggle against terrorism and the Israeli one, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more like apartheid South Africa. The killing of Israelis by Palestinians is, in this view, understandable if not excusable.
After the bloody weekend, on Monday, Dec. 3, staffers for Lantos and Hyde got together to begin discussing a resolution expressing the former perspective. "Bilateral relations with the U.S. mean a lot to Arafat," one staffer close to the negotiations says. "And we wanted to do something that would get Arafat's attention." The House International Relations Committee wanted to make sure Arafat knew that the U.S. might suspend ties with him and the Palestinian Authority if he continued to harbor terrorists. It could have been called the "One Last Chance" resolution, a staffer noted.
But Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a member of the subcommittee on the Middle East and one of six members of the House with an Arab heritage, had some issues with the resolution. The resolution stated that "this bloody weekend is part of an ongoing terror campaign often targeted at youth and families and perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalist groups." It mentioned Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and elements of Arafat's own Fatah organization. Issa didn't want Arafat and Fatah to be mentioned.
"Ultimately we have a dilemma in the Middle East," Issa explained in an interview with Salon. "Are there people on the Palestinian side who want peace and who want boundaries consistent with the land-for-peace initiative? If there are we need to fortify their position, because they very, very clearly have people who are opposed to them -- from Hamas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- whose definition of Palestine is much broader than what is consistent with the U.N. mandate. So the question is, how do we reduce the influence of Hamas and at the same time not destroy those who want to play a constructive role?"
The mentions of Arafat and Fatah were taken out of the bill. In its place was put a vaguer reference to "other Palestinian terrorist groups."
But there was another matter that Issa felt should be tweaked. The bill called for Arafat to destroy the infrastructure of the Palestinian terrorist groups, arrest the terrorists and either turn them over to Israel or prosecute and seriously punish them. If he failed to do so, the bill urged President Bush to suspend relations with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Issa wanted to first urge the President "to take any and all necessary steps to ensure that the Palestinian Authority takes the actions described ... including, if necessary, suspending all relations." The changes were made.
For any number of reasons -- shared democracy, historic roots, similar values, successfully lobbying, or the dearth of Israelis killing Americans -- Congress has traditionally supported Israel by overwhelming margins, so there wasn't much whipping needed. And since the bill was a generally symbolic "sense of the Congress" resolution, there wasn't anything tangibly at stake. Freed from the constraints of actual competition and actual substantive accomplishment, the debate took on an interesting philosophical -- and, occasionally, acrimonious -- nature.
One of the more intriguing issues the representatives debated was whether a terrorist's motivations should even be considered. The chief opponent of the resolution, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., ranking Democrat on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, who represents the largest concentration of Arab-Americans in the country, argued that Middle East terrorism needed to be addressed by "attacking the root causes of terrorism, not the least of which are the thousands or hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and others who feel themselves to be unfairly, badly, and improperly treated."
Agreed Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V.: "Make no mistake about it, we must truly look at the causes of terrorism." He later identified those causes: "The occupation must end. The occupation must end, the continued expansion and building of new settlements, that is confiscation of Palestinian land" must end.
Supporters of the resolution were appalled. "Palestinian apologists have tried to link these terrorist attacks to Israeli policies," said Rep. Shelly Berkley, D-Nev. "Let me say loud and clear that those who make this argument are the same, in many instances, who claim that the attacks on America on Sept. 11 were motivated by America's foreign policy. Only the most despicable or deliberately blind human beings can rationalize the murder of innocent teenagers for a supposed political cause."
Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., slammed Dingell for engaging in "jabberwocky," for talking "about the despair of the Palestinian people as if it is a rationale for dynamite laced with nails in the middle of a busy square in front of a pizzeria and an ice cream parlor, as if the slaughter of innocents is somehow a legitimate form of political speech."
Asked if Dingell's take on Hamas -- placing murderous actions in the context of political grievances, exhorting the U.S. to address "the root causes of terrorism," refraining from responding militarily -- applied to al-Qaida, a Dingell spokesman said no. "It's a completely different dynamic," explained the spokesman, who requested that his name not be used. "You're kind of comparing apples and oranges."
Dingell soon granted time to Issa, who surprised many on the International Relations Committee staff when he declared his opposition to the resolution they had tweaked to secure his support. The California conservative said that "the Palestinian Authority is also a victim of these attacks," as Hamas had sabotaged the peace process and undermined its leadership. "This resolution in its original form very outlandishly called on the Palestinian Authority, as though they were the perpetrators of this crime. It has been changed, because they are not."
Lantos -- a Hungarian who served in the anti-Nazi underground during World War II -- expressed agitation. He had tweaked the resolution so as to work with Issa, not to grant him the point. "I do not take back one single word of my statement," Lantos said. "Units of Arafat's Palestinian Authority have participated repeatedly in the most heinous terrorist acts and claimed credit for it. Arafat paid tribute to mass murderers and assassins on a repeated basis. He is part and parcel of the terrorist cabal." (Here is a much-cited example.)
Issa had also blamed the unrest in the Palestinian Authority on Israel's policies towards the P.A. police. How could the Palestinian Authority's "enforce the very laws that they ask to be enforced" when the Israeli Defense Force is "bombing their police headquarters in retaliation for what was taken credit by Hamas to be their act"? Issa argued that the Palestinian Authority police need to be given non-lethal riot control weaponry in addition to their guns so as to better gird them for their job. "Today (the police) only has two answers to a riot: yell at them or shoot them."
This held no water with Lantos. Regarding Issa's "sanctimonious statements about peace," Lantos noted the Camp David negotiations in which, at the urging of President Clinton, "former Prime Minister [Ehud] Barak made sweeping and phenomenal concessions to the Palestinian Authority. And instead of accepting those or coming up with a counteroffer, [Arafat] started a 14-month mass murder."
Issa soon returned to the microphone, however, to say that he was going to support the resolution. He explained to Salon that he was appreciative for the opportunity to get changes in the bill and, in the end, "I felt that there had to be a statement condemning the terrorist attack."
When it came time to vote, politics -- and geographic and ethnic divides -- came into play. Of the 11 who voted against the resolution, 10 were Democrats. Of the 21 who voted "present," 16 were Democrats.
Despite the fact that Jews in America overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, support for the Jewish state appears now to be a more reliably Republican cause.
There also was evidence of a racial divide, as well. Of the 21 who voted "present" on the resolution, 10 were members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Of the 11 who voted against the resolution, five were members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Democratic Reps. Jesse Jackson, Jr. of Illinois and Cynthia McKinney of Georgia. (McKinney's vote comes on the heels of an embarrassing incident recently in which she had to ask for the resignation of a press secretary after he wrote a letter to The Hill impugning the loyalty of Jewish congressmen and demanding an end to "the Israeli occupation of all territories, including Congress.")
Of the 32 who voted either "nay" or "present," almost one-sixth were from Michigan, where there is a large and particularly influential Arab-American population. These five individuals included powerful Democrats Dingell; Rep. John Conyers, ranking Democrat on House Judiciary; and Minority Whip Rep. David Bonior, who is retiring from the House to run for governor.
There are 27 Jewish members of the House, including Lantos, Gilman, Weiner and Berkley. Only one Jewish member of the House expressed any sort of disagreement with the resolution -- Rep. Bernie Sanders, the Socialist from Vermont, who voted "present."
But then again, 384 Members of Congress supported the bill. And of the six members of Congress with Arab heritage (all of whom are Lebanese-American Christians born in the U.S.) -- Democratic Reps. Rahall, Chris John of Louisiana, and John Baldacci of Maine, and Republican Reps. Issa, Ray LaHood of Illinois, and John Sununu of New Hampshire -- only Rahall voted against the resolution. The other five voted for it.
"On September 11, we in the United States learned what it was like to live in Israel," Weiner said. "We would not think of saying to Osama bin Laden, well, let us negotiate, let us take it easy, let us give him a chance. We would never think about giving them Texas and Louisiana if only they would go away."
Countered Dingell: "I am troubled when I hear some of my colleagues talk about how the issue here is terrorism, and you are either with us or against us on terrorism. Not so!" The issue is peace, Dingell said, and how best to get there. Despite his support for U.S. antiterrorism efforts, Dingell also condemned Israel's military retaliation as a fallacious way to pursue "a termination of terrorism. How is that done? Is it done by shooting up Arafat's helicopters? Is it done by terror bombings of people who are committing suicide to kill Israelis? No."
Of course not. That only works in Afghanistan.