There's a tired old adage in American politics often attributed to former Democratic House Speaker Tip O Neil: “All politics are local.” It means that even for members of Congress engaged in making decisions about American foreign policy, what folks and donors at home think is often more important than what is in the national interest of America.
Take the crisis in Lebanon. According to numerous news reports, hundreds of Lebanese civilians, many of whom were women and children, have been killed as they tried to retreat or seek shelter from Israeli bombings. Because those bombings came in response to unprovoked, deadly rocket launches by Hezbollah, members of Congress are almost unanimously supporting Israel. In the wake of last week’s bombings, they wrestled for the microphones at press conferences and on the House and Senate floor to prove they were the staunchest supporters of Israel.
So why do so many senators and Congress members of both parties worry that they are viewed as strong supporters of Israel? Is it because the pro-Israel lobby has given more than $60 million to members of Congress since 1990? Is it because the Israel PAC is viewed as being among the most powerful and effective advocacy groups on Capitol Hill? Is it because their constituents back home believe we must support Israel at all costs? Or is America’s strong pro-Israel stance the right policy for our national interest?
Let’s be clear. Hezbollah’s capture of Israeli soldiers and rocket attacks killing numerous Israelis were unacceptable. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that should be held accountable. But Lebanese civilians should not have to pay the price for a terrorist organization that has somehow thrived in the underground of Lebanese society. Leveling entire Lebanese villages and killing hundreds of innocent Lebanese civilians, including children and families in retreat, is wrong. Our leaders should say so. Lebanon, like most of the Arab world, does not have a powerful lobbying organization in Washington. The pro-Arab lobby doesn’t have a lot of swing on Capitol Hill.
The international community has condemned the attacks by Hezbollah and should aid in bringing the perpetrators of the missile attacks to justice. However, the international community, with exception of the United States, has also condemned the Israel attacks on Lebanese civilians. Once again, America stands alone in its unconditional support for Israel.
According to international human rights law, it is never justified to bomb civilians as they are retreating. In Qana, residents were warned in advance by Israel of its planned bombing. However, most Qana citizens were poor and lacked transportation. They could not get out.
With the growing evidence that Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s attacks are questionable, you would think at least a few members of Congress would stand up and say so. Most are too afraid of how that might affect their political future. Israel, after all, has some important and effective friends on K Street and on Main Street.
The U.S.–Israel friendship goes way back to U.S. support for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. We have stood by Israel unwaveringly for almost six decades. The $3 billion a year in foreign aid the U.S. gives to Israel is more than we give any other nation on Earth. It is safe to say the U.S. and Israel are good friends and close allies.
But there comes a time when you have to tell a friend they are wrong. There comes a time when you have to redefine your relationship with an ally who is out of control. Israel’s response to the unprovoked Hezbollah missile attacks was excessive and unjustifiable. As their closest friend, we should say so.
As long as the Arab world sees the United States as supporting Israel attacks on civilians, even moderate Islamic groups will begin to see their only friends in the more radical parts of the Arab world.
America must find a third option between unconditional support for Israel and appeasing terrorists like Hezbollah. As their best friend, America must lead Israel to a reasonable solution to peace in the Middle East. The U.S. must also engage directly in talks with Iran and Syria and the rest of the Arab world to minimize their role in the growing regional Islamic terrorist movements.
But we must be viewed as fair and just in our negotiations with the Arab world. The reluctance of our leaders to hold Israel accountable for the attacks on Lebanese civilians makes us lose any remaining credibility we have with even the moderate Arab states.
It is time we ask our leaders in Congress to show that they have the courage to forge a new relationship with our friends in Israel. To do so, our elected leaders must listen to the moderate voices within the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. and in their districts. They are many, but they are not often heard. Unconditional support for Israel, while great for certain pro-Israel activists and some aspiring politicians in the United States, is bad for peace in the Middle East and makes America less safe.
In the long run, a strong independent Israel, a more peaceful Middle East and a safer America will be rewarded by voters at the ballot box. More importantly, it is the right thing to do for America—not to mention our friends in Israel.