The Poison and the Antidote

James Zogby’s Column

The enemies of Middle East peace have stepped up their assault in Washington. Not satisfied with the bloodletting that is taking place in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are working overtime to further poison the well of the United States’ political discourse about the Palestinians, in particular, and the U.S.-Arab relationship, in general.

Recent actions in Congress are a case in point. Almost daily, members of Congress step forward to introduce bizarre legislation designed to either punish the Palestinians, Lebanese or other Arab countries or simply drive a wedge between the United States and the Arab world.

Most often, these resolutions are, at best, far-fetched, and stand little chance of being passed. Like Congressman Eric Cantor’s effort last week to cut all U.S. aid to the Palestinians. Cantor has charged that the Palestinian Authority is engaged in the destruction of the Temple Mount. In a release announcing his bill to stop U.S. assistance to the Palestinians, Cantor accuses Yasser Arafat, by name, and the Palestinian Authority of “Talibanism.”

This shrill rhetoric was matched by Congressman Eliot Engel’s proposed legislation that condemned the Palestinian Authority “for using children as soldiers and inciting children to acts of violence and war.”

These and other similar efforts will most likely not succeed. But they will, if not rebutted, continue to poison the well, adding yet more unanswered negative charges against the Palestinians into the U.S.’ political discourse.

Another clear and disturbing example of how far off base the congressional discussion of Middle East issues can be also occurred last week.

On July 29, the New York Times published, on their front page, an extraordinary in-depth analyses of the Camp David Summit breakdown. One purpose of the piece was to debunk many of the one-sided anti-Palestinian myths that have developed since the peace process’ collapse.

In the article’s opening, the author noted that since the failure of Camp David “a potent, simplistic narrative has taken hold in Israel and to some extent in the United States. It says: Mr. Barak offered Mr. Arafat the moon at Camp David last summer. Mr. Arafat turned it down, and then ‘pushed the button’ and chose the path of violence.”

“But,” the author continues, “many diplomats and officials believe that the dynamic was far more complex and that Mr. Arafat does not bear sole responsibility for the breakdown of the peace effort.”

What was striking, however, was that on the very day that the New York Times was debunking these anti-Palestinian myths, members of Congress were repeating them in tough questions directed at Assistant Secretary of State William Burns during a House International Relations Committee session.

Not satisfied with tough questions, some members laced their comments with outrageous accusations and insulting invectives directed at the Palestinian Authority and its President, Yasser Arafat. It is interesting to note, of course, the sheer hypocrisy represented by all of this. The very institution that rails against Palestinian incitement and criticizes Arabs for using their “automatic majority” in the UN to “gang up” against Israel will, without blinking an eye, incite against the Palestinians and use every opportunity to use its “automatic majority” to gang up against the Palestinians.

To his credit, Ambassador Burns withstood the storm and responded with exemplary evenhandedness. U.S Middle East diplomacy was well served by his careful treatment of each issue and his thoughtful and balanced analysis of the crisis.

In an effort to make our own contribution to challenging the lack of balance in the congressional discourse my Institute, the Arab American Institute (AAI), together with the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, cosponsored a forum on Capitol Hill last week. Hosted by Congressman John Dingell (a Democrat from Michigan), the session brought our two organizations and three Arab embassy diplomats before an audience of some members of Congress and their staff to discuss “Arab Perspectives of the Intifada and its Impact on U.S. Regional Relations.”

Dr. John Duke Anthony of the National Council, opened with an examination of U.S.-Gulf relations and the impact that the current conflict has had on opinion in that critical region.

He noted that “Leaders of the GCC countries are finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile official American pronouncements with American deeds and inaction. For example, congressional efforts to trim American economic assistance to Lebanon in the coming year to the equivalent of what the United States provides in less than two weeks to Israel, a country with an income per capita the size of Great Britain’s, are seen as unbelievable and objectionable.”

The Ambassador of Jordan, Marwan Muasher, made a number of telling observations as well. He argued that the United States was endangering its interests and friends by following a “totally one-sided policy.” He went on to note, that “There are Arab moderate countries who have gone out of their way and have gone far ahead of everybody else in trying to reconcile and effect a settlement. These countries today are out on a limb because of the positions they have taken. The situation is not sustainable … for countries like Jordan.”

Congressman Nick Rahall (Arab American Democrat from West Virginia) was sharply critical of the skewed and hostile discourse on Capitol Hill. He noted that the multitude of anti-Palestinian resolutions introduced in Congress “will not help the peace process and every Secretary of State who ever spoke here has said so.”

In my comments, I focused on “the profound and growing gap that exists between the perceptions and aspirations of the people of the Arab world and U.S. policy toward that region.” Citing the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act as an example, I observed that congressional actions, endanger the U.S.-Arab relationship and alienate even the United States’ strongest regional allies. The net result of all this has been a growing anger at the United States that can, if not redressed by positive action, create serious problems in the future.

Representatives from the embassies of Egypt and Tunisia and the Palestinian representative in Washington also spoke at the forum.

The room was filled beyond capacity, with dozens turned away at the door because they were unable to find a seat or a place to stand. In all, staff from more than 50 congressional offices attended the two-hour session.

It was a useful effort at providing an antidote to the poisoned rhetoric that too often characterizes congressional debate on Middle East issues. But much more is needed in this uphill battle.