Thursday, December 1, 2011

Earth to Congress, We have a Problem

By Mike Coogan, Legislative Coordinator

Representative J. Randy Forbes' recent trip to a series of illegal Israeli settlements typifies much of what is broken with Congress these days and lays bare an unprecedented level of hypocrisy. While Representative Forbes was gallivanting along apartheid roads connecting Israel's illegal settlements, Palestinians were preparing to engage in an act of civil disobedience to highlight the lack of freedom and equality that has long characterized their lives. On November 15, nonviolent Palestinian Freedom Riders challenged segregation on Israeli buses plying routes between West Bank Israeli colonies. Rep. Forbes, holding to American principles, should have been the first to commend them.

Notably, he did not.

In fact, the Congressman frequently professes his intention to work for religious freedom around the globe, but has failed to say anything about Israel's denial of religious freedom and equality to Tuesday's Freedom Riders and millions of other Palestinians. Palestinians are at the mercy of Israeli occupation authorities if they hope to pray at Christian and Muslim holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem. That’s not freedom of worship; it is systemic religious and racial discrimination.

Forbes' penchant for self-selecting those who should be allowed to enjoy freedom was on full display during a recent meeting I had with his staff. Before the discussion about the Palestinian bid for membership in the UN and Israeli violations of U.S. laws could begin, the legislative assistant informed us that Rep. Forbes supported Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without reservations.

The message was simple: Israel can violate human rights and U.S. laws with impunity, but Palestinians will be subject to swift and devastating sanctions for nonviolently exercising their right to self-determination in the U.N.

To follow up on the legislative assistant's statement, we asked how the Congressman could possibly justify unconditional support for a leader who shows reckless disregard for U.S. law, Palestinian human rights, and American interests.

Astonishingly, we were informed that there is no difference between Netanyahu's policies and U.S. interests. There are differences between Americans in the Republican and Democratic parties, but no differences between Netanyahu’s policies and American interests? The idea is absurd and the sentiments behind it dangerous. We ought not cede our principles to the policies Netanyahu crafts for subjugating Palestinians.

The fundamental nature of an alliance and core American interests appear to be lost on Representative Forbes and his staff. Members of Congress seemingly lost the message sent out by military officials, human rights groups, and civil society organizations across the country: Israel is not a useful asset in the region, but a strategic liability. Quite simply, we do ourselves no favor by backing and funding Israel’s domination of another people.

For example, according to Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently told the National Security Principals Committee that the U.S. has received nothing in return for copious and unconditional support to Israel. During the same meeting, Gates reportedly went on to say that Netanyahu was both ungrateful and endangering Israel’s own security.

General David Petraeus stated in March of 2010 that unconditional support for Israel was damaging U.S. standing in the region and fomenting widespread anti-American sentiment.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department have documented clear and flagrant human rights violations by the Israeli government with U.S.-supplied weapons.

And in addition to concerns about human rights and U.S. security, taxpayers simply cannot afford to give Israel over $731 million in military aid over the next nine years as we underfund our own social programs and watch the deficit skyrocket.

Before Rep. Forbes makes more token statements about the promotion of religious freedom and equality, he should think about how his actions in support of Israel’s discriminatory policies fundamentally undermine the principles he claims to hold dear. After all, throwing Palestinian Freedom Riders off buses bound for occupied East Jerusalem is every bit as wrong as throwing American Freedom Riders off buses bound for the Jim Crow South.

Mike Coogan is a member of Virginians for Middle East Peace and the Legislative Coordinator for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.