Michael F. Brown is a fellow at the Palestine Center and is on the board of Interfaith Peace-Builders. Previously, he was executive director of Partners for Peace and Washington correspondent for Middle East International. His views are his own.
Look, Howard Diamond, legislative director and deputy chief of staff for New York Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman, basically told me, if you want your issues raised, get somebody to stand for office, get the candidate 25 years of seniority and the chairmanship of the subcommittee, and then you can get your concerns addressed.
His testy remark [to me] came immediately after the first hearing of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia chaired by Ackerman, a long-time backer of Israel, right or wrong. The loaded witness pool invited by the congressman suggested that Democrats in this 110th Congress are unlikely to be any better on Israel/Palestine than their Republican predecessors.
Witnesses invited to speak on “Next steps in Israeli-Palestinian peace process” were David Makovsky, Director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP); the Honorable Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution; and Dr. Daniel Pipes, Director of the Middle East Forum (and a driving force behind the McCarthyist Campus Watch classroom monitoring organization), who was invited by the Republican minority.
For years these witnesses have obstructed Palestinian national aspirations, and they were at it again on February 14. In well over two hours of testimony the threesome said not one word about Israel’s expanding settlements, the devastating economic circumstances gripping Palestinians in Gaza or the illegal barrier steadily being erected inside the West Bank. When challenged after the hearing on the lack of diverse voices, staffers erupted in a fury rooted in hubris. They have the power. Those concerned with Palestinian rights do not, so back off.
And yet the country is changing beneath their feet, even if Congress may be the last place reached by the debate initiated by John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt and President Jimmy Carter. There is a growing awareness at the grassroots level that AIPAC’s outlook on the Middle East is not good for the country and that Israel is pursuing an apartheid-like course in the West Bank with its dual system of law—one for Palestinians and one for settlers. Still, change often seems to reach Washington last.
Ackerman admitted to the Dubai-based satellite television channel Al-Arabiya after the hearing that his office fielded phone calls expressing concern about the makeup of the witness list. Strikingly, his first question to the panelists was whether Palestinians have legitimate rights and concerns. Perhaps even he was a bit embarrassed—just a bit—at the one-sided nature of the presentation and the misleading and stomach-churning ideological spectrum of Indyk on the “left,” Makovsky in the “center” and Pipes very much on the hard right.
When queried by Ackerman, there was no thunderous or even passionate response from the witnesses as to Palestinian rights. For them, Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is about securing Israeli security and not motivated by the desire to see freedom and justice for Palestinians.
The failure to include speakers capable of powerfully conveying the strength of the Palestinian case is indicative of a recklessness that pervades Congressional understanding of the conflict and is not mitigated by staffer claims that this was only the first hearing. The shortcoming not only imperils the prospects for peace, but endangers our standing in the region. Intelligent decision-making by Congress becomes quite impossible when not all the facts are on the table.
Several organizations made formal efforts to present more of the facts to the subcommittee. The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a national coalition of more than 200 organizations, sent a letter to Ackerman on February 8 recommending several witnesses for the hearing. They were ignored. Also ignored were the Arab American Institute, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Clearly, some newly re-ensconced Democrats are enjoying the trappings of power and are perfectly content to ignore the growing peace movement on both Iraq and on ending the Israeli occupation. Members of Congress would do well to listen to witnesses that care both for Israeli security and Palestinian freedom. This first hearing provided much on the former, but only acknowledged the latter as an implicit afterthought.
The subcommittee erred in distancing itself from recommended witnesses readily available in Washington, such as Phyllis Bennis, a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Nadia Hijab, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. Instead, the subcommittee preferred the failed wisdom of an old guard that has contributed mightily to setting the region on fire. Further setbacks lie ahead when new voices clamoring at the door are not permitted in the debate. Hubris led us into the Iraq conflagration and is quite capable of setting the wrong course on Israel/Palestine as well.