Behind the Pro-Israel Congressional Resolution: Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Monday, January 12th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

Pro-Israel groups are still kvelling about last week’s lopsided passage of a House of Representatives resolution expressing support for Israel in the current Gaza crisis and citing a long history of Palestinian attacks justifying Israel’s heavy military response.

The overwhelming numbers tell the whole story, pro-Israel leaders told reporters and anyone else who would listen; 390 members voted for the resolution, only five against, all of whom fall into the “usual suspects” category – members like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who can be counted on to spurn any resolution that seems to favor Israel.

Another 22 voted “present” and 16 didn’t vote at all.

But those numbers, seemingly so black and white, conceal a range of views and nuances not captured in the yea-nay choice members faced on the House floor, not to mention contradictory pressures faced by so many lawmakers.

It’s safe to assume most of the 390 who voted yes believe Israel has a right to defend itself against Palestinian rockets, and that none is particularly sympathetic to Hamas. But the “yeas,” motivated by political factors as well as hard analysis of the current Mideast situation, covered a wide range of views.

Here’s a quick, non-scientific guide to what usually constitutes such votes.

There’s little question that the Palestinian cause has been badly damaged in congressional eyes by the rise of Hamas and ineffective leadership by Palestinian “moderates.”  And that’s not all just because of pro-Israel muscle.  A significant although unmeasurable number of lawmakers believe whole-heartedly in the tone and content of the resolution.

That includes both Democrats and Republicans; it includes Jews who have a deep personal connection to Israel, evangelical Christians who subscribe to the view that support for harsh Israeli retaliation for attacks is biblically mandated and those who see Israel as manning the front lines in America’s defense against global jihadism.

But there are many others who voted yes for different reasons.

Some progressive members did so despite misgivings based on their belief that such resolutions do not contribute to the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that they see as the only long-term solution to the crisis,  or despite their concern about humanitarian impact of the fighting on Gaza’s population and the impact that might have in boosting support for Hamas.

Their reasons for voting yes are varied; they include the judgment that bucking the will of the organized Jewish community is more politically costly than  disappointing their friends in progressive circles, anger at the way Hamas has derailed a peace process they regard as vital and a desire not to make Israelis feel even more beset by world opinion on the eve of elections that will shape the country’s peace policies for the next few years.

Some felt it was important to express support and sympathy for Israel during a difficult time, but then quickly made other statements that show a more balanced approach.

How else to explain the vote of lawmakers like Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), a strong supporter of Israel who has also advocated a much stronger U.S. peace process?  (in a statement after the vote, Capps said “the violence that now permeates Gaza only puts off the serious and difficult work of diplomacy that is a predicate to peace.  And in the meantime, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has grown to unspeakable proportions, and millions of innocent Palestinians and Israelis are suffering.)

Lawmakers who support Israel but also believe that Israeli policies sometimes hurt prospects for a two-state solution have a precarious line to walk in an environment in which opposing such resolutions is often portrayed as hostility to the Jewish state itself, or sympathy for terrorists.  Politicians in the pro-Israel peace camp have to pick their battles with tremendous care.

The problem for Jewish lawmakers from districts with high concentrations of Jewish voters and activists is often particularly acute – a persistent problem for many in the New York congressional delegation.

Some have no qualms about resolutions like the one passed this week, but there are also New York progressives who, while being ardent in their support for Israel, privately worry that such congressional actions don’t help bring peace to the region and may, in fact, make peace harder to achieve.

And in many cases, they have big Jewish constituencies that are deeply and bitterly divided.

What do you do when some significant Jewish voter groups in your district think resolutions like the one that passed the House last week will hurt Mideast peace prospects because they are too one-sided, others who believe the resolutions don’t go far enough in signaling to Israel it won’t face any U.S. interference.

What do you do when a big chunk of the Jewish voters you depend on support Americans for Peace Now, another big bloc supports the Zionist Organization of America, and you know you’re going to get pounded no matter how you vote?

Who’d you rather get pounded by – AIPAC or Americans for Peace Now?

The fact is, the pro-Israel lobby that supports such resolutions is better at punishing those who vote against its wishes than the more amorphous, less organized peace camp, and that often tilts the vote of those who would prefer taking a more nuanced position.

It should be noted there is another big category when it comes to pro-Israel resolutions: members for whom  the whole range of Middle East issues simply isn’t that important. So why pick a fight on an issue you and your constituents don’t particularly care about?

And many who DO care about the issue simply don’t believe such resolutions carry any weight. So why ask for trouble by voting no?

“You pick your fights,” said MJ Rosenberg, Washington director for the Israel Policy Forum. Rosenberg worked on Capitol Hill for 20 years.  “The more overwhelming the vote, the less significant it is.  If I was on the Hill, I would have pushed for a 535-0 vote to show that is was insignificant and members voted for it simply because it was not worth the flak to vote no on something that would be forgotten the next day. It was utterly meaningless.”

None of this is to suggest Congress isn’t supportive of Israel in the current situation.  By every reasonable measure it is.

At the same time, sympathy for the Palestinian CAUSE, which now seems dominated by a Hamas leadership that has no interested in a peaceful solution, continues to plunge. It doesn’t help that there is no well-organized, effective and well-funded pro-Palestinian lobby.

But it is also true that the  “yeas” include both those who support AIPAC down the line and also those whose views are closer to those of the Jewish peace camp, but for a variety of reasons choose to go with the flow.

Critics of AIPAC argue that the kind of hard-edged lobbying that produces such one-sided votes will eventually produce a backlash from lawmakers forced to make politically awkward choices.

That hasn’t happened yet  – in part because there really is a strong base of support for pro-Israel positions and because of the absence of an effective pro-Palestinian lobby.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.