Rebecca Vilkomerson
The Hill (Blog)
September 12, 2011 - 12:00am

Tomorrow’s special election for New York’s 9th district to replace Rep. Anthony Weiner is a disturbing example of the limited range of acceptable political discourse on Israel in American politics.

Weiner was a liberal Democrat – on every subject except Israel. He maintained that he “came from the ZOA wing of the Democratic Party.” The Zionist Organization of America is one of the most right-wing Jewish institutions, consistently opposing President Obama’s Middle East policies and refusing to recognize, contrary to international law and U.S. policy, that Israel's control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza is a military occupation.

His would-be successors are vying to outdo Weiner's hard-line Israel credentials. Bob Turner, the Republican, has declared his unconditional support for Israel.

At least Turner's positions on Israel are consistent with his Tea Party politics. David Weprin, the Democratic hopeful, is generally liberal – except that his positions on Israel are virtually indistinguishable from Turner's.

In August, after the attack on the Israeli city of Eilat, Weprin commented: “this highlights the fact that giving up land for peace is never a good idea.” This is an extraordinary statement. Is he proposing permanent occupation, and permanent Israeli control over Palestinian lives? Is he suggesting that Israel should violate international law and permanently annex the territories it conquered in 1967?

The attack in Eilat, horrifying as it was, should be put in context. By only the crudest measure – the number of deaths – Israelis killed 203 Palestinians from February 2009 through the end of July 2011, while Palestinians killed 17 Israelis, according to the Israeli organization B'tselem. These statistics don't begin to capture the difference between life in a free society, which Jewish Israelis enjoy, and the severely curtailed life that Palestinians endure under Israeli occupation.

Yet Israel's Knesset responded to increasing international criticism by passing the recent anti-boycott law, which deteriorates the standards of democracy and free speech for all the citizens of Israel.

Knee-jerk defenses of every action by Israel undercut our ability to talk about the 44-year occupation and assaults on democracy inside of Israel. The vast majority of our politicians, even those who fight strongly for human rights in other contexts, tend to ignore the clear injustices that Palestinians face under Israeli rule.

In August, 81 members of the House of Representatives traveled to Israel under the auspices of AIPAC's educational fund. I am certain that they did not see first hand the devastation of Gaza. Barriers on both the Israeli and Egyptian borders imprison some 1.7 million Palestinians, with access to food, fuel, and medical supplies deliberately constricted by the Israeli government.

These delegations are a standard part of American political life, starting with local officeholders. The limited perspective offered is a leading factor in the skewed understanding of what is really happening in the Middle East. The fierce commitment to the electoral defeat of any politician who strays from AIPAC's position – which reflects the Israeli government position, no matter how extreme the composition of that government – is another factor.

This does us all a disservice. Many analysts, including Israelis, believe the occupation is the single greatest threat to peace in the region, yet these free junkets encourage unconditional U.S. support for settlement expansion that entrenches it further.

The $3 billion per year that Israel receives in military aid from the United States, especially during an era of staggering domestic needs, merits open challenge, especially since Israel uses it to perpetrate a military presence that directly contradicts our stated policies. Remarkably, most deficit hawks protect spending for Israel more vigorously than vital domestic programs.

True to the standard U.S. political parameters, “Progressive-Except-on-Palestine” Weprin will battle it out tomorrow with “Protect-Aid-to-Israel” Turner. Our political discourse will be the poorer for it. More importantly, Palestinian and Israeli lives will be the worse for our inability to say no to Israeli wrongdoing.

One exciting alternative is the growing grassroots movement that is not waiting for our elected officials to do the right thing. Just as we did in the civil rights movement and the movement against Apartheid, we will eventually grow large enough that campaign contributions and free trips will no longer overcome constituents' clamor for simple fairness in our Middle East policies.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017