The US Congress's punitive actions against Palestine
Oct 9, 2011

The US Congress's punitive actions against Palestine

In response to the Palestinian bid for statehood, the US House, against the wishes of the White House, has frozen some $200 million dollars worth aid to Palestine. The funds were targeted towards food aid, healthcare and infrastructure development.

One of the central claims about the Palestinian statehood bid - in addition to fear mongering about a third infitada and the like - is that it is essentially a symbolic and therefore vacuous change and will not be able to make real changes on the ground. I think it actually does have at least some potential, but even if we grant that it is entirely symbolic, it is worth noting that the punitive action being taken here is a very real one. It isn't a symbolic gesture, such as many that could have been taken, but an action which directly effects people on the ground in some of the most basic human needs.

Since the 2006 legislative elections that were won by Hamas, and the resulting geopolitical changes and conflicts that came form that, the policy of both the Bush and Obama administrations has been one of heavily supporting Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank while isolating and ostracizing Hamas in the Gaza strip. While one might disagree with this asymmetry, the general program of state building is a crucial one. In order for a two state solution to be possible, it is necessary that the Palestinians have an effective state that is capable of providing for its citizens. Food, healthcare and infrastructure, as social determinants for peace, are as critical in a strong security situation as providing boots on the ground are.

It is only if one views the situation as zero sum in that any loss on behalf of the Palestinians is necessary good for Israel and its allies, or that any gain by Palestinians is necessarily bad for Isreal, does such actions seem reasonable. In contrast, hurting the state-building project in Palestinine is much more likely to hurt Israel's interests than to help it, in my view.

By both covention and design, the major influence and power when it comes to foreign relations is the executive branch. Congress has limited abilities to really shape, manage and institute a coherent and effective foreign policy; their power is largely relegated to the rare occasions when they say "no" and deny funding. In contrast, domestic policy is the bread and butter of congress and the president's strongest power is the ability to say "no" through the veto.

For example, the Democrats in Congress post 2006 often had opposition to the war in Iraq but hardly would act to openly cut funding for things considered part of Bush's strategy. Even in the case of Libya, where Obama's refusal to get congressional approval after two months for the war in Libya - something that is blatantly illegal according to US law and almost was shut down by a bipartisan alliance of progressives and tea partists - the leadership of both parties hobbled together support for the war. While I strongly disagree with it, the meme became that it is necessary to support the President in such foreign conflicts and it is almost unpatriotic to do otherwise.

Yet here we are, with the Congress openly defying the wishes of the president, taking a position outside of the overwhelmingly global consensus, and taking a real, on the ground, punitive action that hurts people and hurts the prospects of peace. It prevents Obama from being able to offer a comprehensive and nuanced diplomatic positions consisting of carrots and sticks, and goes beyond the appropriate role - as taken by Democrats post 2006 - of lobbying the President on foreign policy to acting unilaterally.

Since the 2010 midterms, the US congress has been considerably further to the right on the Israell issue than the White House. The showmanship of this was perhaps best expressed back in May when Netanyahu got standing ovation after standing ovation for his hardline stances on the Israel/Palestine issue (rejecting right of return, a separated Jeruselem, the 1967 borders as a basis, etc). Obama can't get as much tripping over each other from his own party during a State of the Union address and Netanyahu couldn't get anything close to such a reaction from his own Knesset; there is something very backwards seeming about nationlistic comments from the leader of a different country getting a more robust and over-enthusiastic reaction in the US than in their own country.

A lot of the reason for this is domestic politics. There is the desire to appeal to the "Jewish vote" (although there are many indications that this is far from monolithic or likely to simply follow the most belligerent voices, a large majority of Jews voted for Obama in 2008, for instance). And there is a desire to appeal to the religious right which has co-opted the Israeli cause - or at least a particular narrative of it - as their own. It has become a core aspect of identity that to be a proud, patriotic American requires support for "Israel", as they conceive of it. Even people like Alan Grayson, a champion of the progressive movement, lives in a heavily Jewish district and took very hawkish positions in support of Israel. That is just the reality of American politics. Be all of that as it may, it is deeply disturbing to see such flippant, punitive actions - taken for such transparent domestic politics reasons - that makes such a legitimately big difference in the lives of other people in other countries.

Part of this has to do with the shifting notion of what the "center" is on this issue. Since Obama is arguably the most pro-Israel recent President when judged by policies not just rhetoric, the right (which aims to be more pro-Israel that the Democrats) thus also shifts further along in this spectrum. While Obama vetos condemnation for settlement expansion and Palestinian statehood in the UN, the Repubicans in Congress seek to cut funding in response. One might attempt to answer the question of who is leading who, but given the genuine plight of Palestinians, it is almost distasteful to bother with this.

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