Neither Democrats nor Republicans are prepared to say a word in opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to add far-right Knesset member Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party to Israel's governing coalition.
Instead, Democrats are shoring up their pro-Israel bona fides. They are strikingly anxious because of a courageous new book by President Jimmy Carter that hit American bookstores in mid-November, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid . It is an extraordinarily bold--and apt--title.
Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among others, forcefully criticized the book. "It is wrong," she declared, "to suggest that the Jewish people would support a government in Israel or anywhere else that institutionalizes ethnically based oppression, and Democrats reject that allegation vigorously."
Lieberman, however, embodies the pursuit of "ethnically based oppression." He has called for the execution of Arab Knesset members for meeting with Hamas leaders, and he regularly talks of removing from Israel many Arab Israelis in what can euphemistically be termed a land swap or "transfer," but in more plain-spoken English is a form of ethnic cleansing.
There is a dual system of law at work in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem--one for Jews and one for Palestinians. Additionally, Palestinians are confined to South Africa-like bantustans, while Palestinian refugees are refused permission to return to homes and land from which they were expelled by Israel. Meanwhile, Jews from around the world are welcomed under Israel's Law of Return.
Some members of the American Jewish community have tried to make the case for ending Israeli domination of the Palestinians, but most members of Congress still prefer to listen to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
The ADL criticized Lieberman in May, but National Director Abraham Foxman now says, "He has served Israel well in the past, and I have no doubt he will do so again." This abdication of moral authority is from the head of an organization that claims to provide "programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry."
Pelosi is very close to AIPAC, and when it comes to Israeli discrimination against Palestinians she appears to have a willed ignorance. It's as if she looked at the Jim Crow South and failed to recognize the discriminatory treatment meted out to African-Americans. How would Americans react had Pelosi claimed that there was no racism at work in the Jim Crow South or in apartheid South Africa?
The same claim of hers regarding the occupied territories is deeply troubling. Yet here we are in the twenty-first century with a generally well-informed leader saying there is no ethnic oppression by Israel at the very moment that a notorious racist is joining the government coalition. On that she is silent.
Indeed, it is hard to see how any serious American politician can fail to see the racism that courses through the thirty-nine-year Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. A partial explanation can be found in Pelosi's willed ignorance--a disbelief or bewilderment that Israel's military and political leadership could be capable of such systematic human rights violations--but some of the cause must also be attributed to lobbying efforts and the fear held by many Americans of being unfairly labeled as unfriendly to Israel or, worse, as anti-Semitic. Verbal intimidation has worked on far too many, politicians and activists alike.
Then, too, there is the peculiar belief that Palestinians were largely freed with the entry of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 and that certainly Gazans were with the unilateral Israeli withdrawal in September 2005 from the coastal strip. This ignores the fact that Palestinians do not fully control their borders, are confronted with myriad checkpoints, are still losing land to expanding settlements, do not control imports and exports, and do not even have a functioning airport or seaport in Gaza. Palestinians are cast as terrorists, while in Washington even the politicians who should know better give Israel a free ride, and billions in foreign aid, despite oppressive policies that in other locales would have American politicians incensed.
Carter's use of the term "apartheid" has even received flak from Congressman John Conyers, the next Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Conyers stated recently that the use of the term "apartheid" in the book's title "does not serve the cause of peace, and the use of it against the Jewish people in particular, who have been victims of the worst kind of discrimination, discrimination resulting in death, is offensive and wrong."
Conyers is absolutely right about the horrific treatment dealt Jews over the years. He would be entirely right to criticize Carter if he had compared Israel's actions to those of the Nazis. But Carter simply made the case that Israel is capable of discriminating against and subjugating another people.
Nobel Peace Prize recipient Bishop Desmond Tutu has made the same connection as Carter. "I've been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa."
In my own experience, I was deeply struck several years ago, during intermittent stays with the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron, by the need to save dishwater in order to "flush" the toilet. In contrast, nearby Israeli settlers enjoyed swimming pools and watered their lawns in the heat of the day.
The unfair distribution of water resources between Palestinians and Israeli settlers--as well as the previously noted relegation of Palestinians to what are essentially bantustans--made it clear that Israel is capable of discriminating on a par with apartheid South Africa. Obviously it's not precisely the same, but many aspects are strikingly similar.
Late last month I called a number of offices on Capitol Hill (Biden, McCain, Obama and Pelosi) for comment on the fact that Lieberman was then poised to be named Minister of Strategic Threats (principally giving him responsibility for the Iran portfolio) and for a response regarding his hateful statements on Palestinians--both in Israel and the Palestinian territories. They either had no relevant comment or did not respond to messages.
It is clear that a prominent racist employing violent rhetoric who is part of the Israeli governing coalition is simply not on Washington's radar screen. In an alert capital, Lieberman's entry into the explosive Iranian situation would have the full attention of American leaders. This is no time for provocateurs, and Olmert should be told as much.
American leaders and journalists had this opportunity November 13, when Olmert visited Washington. Congressional leaders, the President and journalists missed a real opening to press Olmert vigorously to eject the demagogic Lieberman from his coalition and to comply with international law by ending Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.
This would be in the American national interest--and certainly in Israel's national interest, though its leaders may not see the advantages of a just two-state solution until the day Palestinians in the territories begin calling not for national rights but for civil rights in a single, unified state. This is a future possibility, as there already are more Palestinians than Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. At the most basic level, however, rejecting Lieberman's racism and attaining Palestinian freedom are simply the right things to do.
Perhaps President Carter should send copies of his book to members of Congress who do not grasp the injustice of Israel's long-running oppression of the Palestinians. They might learn a thing or two about the long-festering conflict at the heart of so many of our current troubles in the region.