By Eugene Bird
The unreal testimony given by three members of the Israel Lobby before the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia the House Committee on Foreign Affairs indicates that we have a long way to go before Congress, under the new Democratic majority, is able to shed its anti-Palestinian robes.
The lengthy hearing called by the subcommittee chairman Gary Ackerman (D-NY) could properly be described as a Valentine Day massacre of peace in the Middle East.
The Administration and even many members of Congress seem aware that the problem that Israel poses to the reputation of the United States throughout the world demands some immediate attention. Will it get that attention? The subcommittee hearing indicates otherwise.
Many organizations and individuals had asked the chairman to balance the Lobby witnesses with reasonably objective academics or activists on the peace process. The Palestine Center’s Fellow Michael Brown, citing the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, suggested that there were a number of real experts on the Middle East including Naseer Aruri, Phyllis Bennis, Nadia Hijab, Rashid Khalidi, Saree Makdisi, and Joseph Massad.
He might also have included Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations who recently commented that the Saudi initiative to successfully negotiate a coalition government for the Palestinians was a very positive development and one that might persuade the European Union to undertake its own initiative.
However, at the subcommittee hearing on February 14th, David Makovsky from the AIPAC-backed Washington Institute for Near East Policy attacked the Saudis as having undermined Secretary Rice’s idea of "political horizon" – the State Department’s en vogue term that has become a major supplement to "the roadmap" – that she will promote on President’s Day in Jerusalem. It is hard even to guess what she will say to President Mahmoud Abbas. Nor will she be able to offer him any additional aid, even for security purposes. The subcommittee hearing made clear that even the 87 million dollars already pledged was in jeopardy as a result of the new Palestinian coalition government.
The subcommittee has promised to have further hearings on the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine issue with the implicit promise that some actual, real Palestinians might be invited to testify for only the second time in 15 years. Everyone should be alerted and come down hard on the members of the subcommittee to see to it that this promise is fulfilled and that a fair hearing is held. Ackerman, the highly pro-Israel chairman, did ask a surprisingly frank question of the three witnesses, which also included former Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and the somewhat ridiculous academic Daniel Pipes. Ackerman said that the testimony had been very depressing with little or no optimism about where negotiations could go. What, he asked, did they have in mind for getting out of this situation, inferring that both the U.S. and Israel were in deep trouble. There was no real response to this question, except to insist that Hamas recognize Israel and foreswear violence.
Secretary Rice announced that she would be visiting with some representatives from the Arab states in Amman before going to Berlin next Wednesday for a meeting of the Quartet to brief them on her trip. It is a fair guess that there will be a representative from Saudi Arabia at the meeting in Amman, and officials around Secretary Rice have indicated that she would be seeking support for Prime Minister Olmert. The inference was that Saudi Arabia , in particular, might be asked to continue her backchannel efforts with Israel . Any attempt by the United States to encourage Saudi recognition of Israel is almost certainly bound to backfire.
However, there is a halfway house for recognition.
In exchange for a somewhat vague de facto recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia, the United States could end financial sanctions on the new government of Palestine and perhaps Prime Minister Olmert could be asked to include the Arab League in negotiations. This may look unrealistic and perhaps even foolish to the foreign policy establishment in Washington, but stranger things have happened in Middle East negotiations. The Bush administration very much needs a success in dealing with the Middle East, particularly Israel and Palestine.
-Eugene Bird is the founder of the Council for the National Interest (CNI) and served as the US ambassador to various Middle East capitals.