President Jimmy Carter’s courageous new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, is due on bookstore shelves November 14, 2006. In it, Carter reportedly states, “Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement.” As a result of such excerpts - and the title itself - Democrats in the U.S. Congress made significant efforts in October to distance themselves from their former leader who nevertheless maintains his standing as the conscience of the party. Several have publicly lambasted him and in doing so shown a profound disregard for basic facts pertaining to Israel’s subjugation of millions of Palestinians.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (the next Speaker of the House of Representatives) took the lead in responding to questions about Carter’s book during an online Israel Working Group Town Hall. “With all due respect to former President Carter, he does not speak for the Democratic Party on Israel. Democrats have been steadfast in their support of Israel from its birth, in part because we recognize that to do so is in the national security interests of the United States. We stand with Israel now and we stand with Israel forever. The Jewish people know what it means to be oppressed, discriminated against, and even condemned to death because of their religion. They have been leaders in the fight for human rights in the United States and throughout the world. It is wrong 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.”
Days later when anti-Arab MK Avigdor Lieberman joined Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition, there was no comment from Pelosi’s office despite a request for one. Nor did her office make any comment on the November 8 shelling of Palestinian civilians in Beit Hanoun despite two telephone calls regarding the matter. Rep. Pelosi apparently is oblivious to the fact that there is a dual system of law at work in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza). Notwithstanding the fact that Pelosi represents one of the most progressive districts in the country, she appears able to look directly at an Israeli system of “ethnically based oppression” and claim that she does not see it. So far as Israel is concerned, Democrats under Pelosi seem strikingly similar to Republicans under Bush.
Similarly, incumbent representatives Jerrold Nadler and Steve Israel provide no hope that Democrats will recognize the discriminatory policies pursued by Israel. Rep. Nadler said, “Carter’s views on Israel and the Middle East are fundamentally wrong.” For his part, Rep. Israel argued to the Israel Working Group Town Hall, “One book by one person does not pose a danger to Israel, even though I disagree with what the book said.”
Many activists who stood with Congressmen Charlie Rangel and John Conyers against apartheid in South Africa were presumably disappointed to hear them denounce Carter’s book while turning their backs on the discrimination faced by Palestinians. Rep. Rangel was relatively mild in his criticism. “Words like these may sell papers and books, but they do little to advance the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. For diplomacy to have a chance, we must create an environment that will allow both sides to come together and make the necessary but difficult steps to stop the violence and improve the lives of everyone in the region.”
Rep. Conyers, probably the next chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, cut at Carter far more vigorously than Rep. Rangel. Rep. Conyers insisted that Carter’s use of the term apartheid “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.”
Carter would have been wrong had he compared the Palestinian predicament to the savagery of the Nazis. But he did no such thing. In comparing the Palestinians’ situation to apartheid South Africa he is joined by the authoritative Bishop Tutu who in 2002 stated, “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.”
Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean joined the scrum when he asserted, “While I have tremendous respect for former President Carter, I fundamentally disagree and do not support his analysis of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Dean has apparently learned some lessons from his failed run for the Democratic presidential nomination: Do not be fair-minded when it comes to Israel and Palestine. The one-time frontrunner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, his campaign started sliding shortly after eminently reasonable remarks on the conflict in September of 2003. As detailed by Michelle Goldberg in Salon, at a campaign stop in New Mexico on September 3, 2003, Dean stated, “It’s not our place to take sides” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Six days later he told the Washington Post that U.S. policy toward the Palestinians and Israelis should be “evenhanded.”
The next day, September 10, Goldberg notes that Rep. Pelosi and 33 other Democratic members of Congress wrote Dean an open letter. “American foreign policy has been — and must continue to be — based on unequivocal support for Israel’s right to exist and to be free from terror …” they declared. “It is unacceptable for the U.S. to be ‘evenhanded’ on these fundamental issues … This is not a time to be sending mixed messages; on the contrary, in these difficult times we must reaffirm our unyielding commitment to Israel’s survival and raise our voices against all forms of terrorism and incitement.” Three years later Dean is squarely in Pelosi’s court when it comes to Israel. And both are in solid alignment with AIPAC.
Phone calls to a handful of members of the Progressive Caucus brought no response to the criticism of Carter’s book and no comment on Avigdor Lieberman’s joining the Israeli governing coalition. What remains of the progressive left on the Hill is thoroughly cowed on this issue, unable or unwilling to defend President Carter or denounce the racism of Avigdor Lieberman. Democrats may move haltingly on Iraq but cannot be expected to do the same on Israel and Palestine. Indeed, many will be intent on proving themselves to be more hawkish on behalf of Israel than the Republicans. The willingness of both parties to contribute to the subjugation of the Palestinians is breathtaking and suggests more bleak days are ahead for the region.
Michael F. Brown is a fellow of The Palestine Center. The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund. This report may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the author.