Saturday, September 12, 2009

Congress and the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict

Every member of Congress, whether in the House of Representatives or the Senate, is elected by the people to serve their interests and reflect their will. Earlier, we cited some striking figures about American public opinion on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Just as a reminder—
• 77% of Americans support establishing a Palestinian state;
• 74% of Americans support applying economic and diplomatic pressure on Israel to reach a peace settlement;
• 69% of Americans say they want the Bush Administration to lean toward neither side in the conflict.
Yet as a body, the US Congress is vocally and uncritically supportive of Israel. Though Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid and maintains a 36-year old military occupation, Congress has never held a hearing to discuss how Israel uses the aid, how it conducts its occupation or the human rights situation of the 3.5 million Palestinians living under that occupation. In the 107th Congress, no less than 37 bills and resolutions were introduced that dealt with Israel or the Palestinians. Less than ten of those were constructive. The majority expressed solidarity with Israel, condemned Palestinians, or introduced the possibility of sanctions against the Palestinian Authority. Congressional leadership in the 108th Congress has made shielding Israel from compromises called for in the Roadmap a higher priority than supporting this international peace initiative.

Congress—the body that is supposed to most closely represent the will of the people—could not be more out of sync with American beliefs and attitudes about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Members of Congress are not hearing us. Or worse—they are hearing us, but are choosing to ignore us.

The remainder of this toolkit is designed to give you the tools you need to convince your representatives in government to listen and to play a constructive role that helps, rather than hinders the cause of peace for all the peoples of the Middle East.

Negotiating the Terrain

This issue, more than most others, is perceived as sensitive and politically volatile on Capitol Hill. Before embarking on a plan of congressional activism, there are some helpful points for you to know, and remember.
Congress Can Have an "Us vs. Them" Mentality

Even though more Americans want their government to be balanced on this issue, organizations and activists that are uncritical of Israeli policies have typically been more vocal on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress and their staffs are just not used to hearing the voices of those seeking balance in US policy. This has led many in Congress to believe that there is no mainstream constituency concerned with Palestinian/Israeli peace. Many believe that only their Jewish and Arab-American constituents care about their position on this issue. And they assume that all of their Jewish constituents share the views of the lobby groups that are uncritical of Israel. That misunderstanding very often leads them to believe that it is just politically safer to support Israel uncritically.

A goal of congressional activism should be to let members of Congress know that the vast majority of their constituents want to see balance in American policies. It is key to let them know that this is not a question of Jews against Arabs—not in Palestine/Israel and not here at home.

For example, a recent poll conducted jointly by the Arab American Institute and Americans for Peace Now about the attitudes of Jewish and Arab-Americans found a belief on both sides that the Bush Administration should be steering a middle course in its policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; strong backing in the two communities for secure and independent states for Israelis and Palestinians alike; and support in both communities for a negotiated peace proposal that is broadly based on a land for peace framework. There are several new grassroots groups within the American Jewish community that are working to advocate for a just peace, often in coalition with Arab-American or American Muslim groups.

This Isn't about Being Pro-Israel or Pro-Palestine

Just as members of Congress too often see this as a question of Jew vs. Arab, they are also likely to view advocacy efforts through a pro-Israel or pro-Palestine lens. Many congressional offices will see pro-just peace constituents as wanting to change their position from pro-Israeli to pro-Palestinian. A goal of congressional activism should be to shift this perception and encourage members of Congress to focus on a solution to the conflict that is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine... not to mention, pro-American. It is key to be clear about that when communicating with congressional offices. For better or worse, Palestinians and Israelis are neighbors. Neither side is going anywhere. Neither people will have true peace, security and freedom unless the other also has peace, security and freedom. Members of Congress should be encouraged to pursue balanced policies that seek to advance the cause of peace and justice, not the perceived interests of one side over another.

Lobbying Congress—Like Democracy—Is a Process, Not an Event

If you remember only one thing in this handbook, let this be it! When working for a just peace in Palestine/Israel, remember that you are asking members of Congress to think about this conflict in a new way, in a way that challenges ingrained assumptions and may be politically costly. That takes time and sustained effort. It cannot be done in an hour-long meeting or with a letter, no matter how well written it is. Above all it takes a relationship.

A goal of congressional activism should be to build a relationship with a congressional office that can affect attitudes and policies over time. You will want to introduce yourself and others who share your goals to your representatives as constituents who care about this issue enough to let it affect how you vote. Because lobbying is a process and not an event, congressional activism will be more effective if you take the time up front to plan a course of action to affect change over time. Developing a strategy is a key to effective activism, whether you are a lone constituent or part of a grassroots activist group.

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