PALESTINE, THE MIDDLE EAST & THE OREGON PRIMARY
Who we elect to the White House and the Congress will heavily influence the future of the Middle East. In some ways Obama and Clinton are similar--as are Novick and Merkley, but there are key differences as well.
[ADVANCE COPY OF MAY 2008 PORTLAND ALLIANCE ARTICLE]
Ah, the Palestinian issue: the pariah topic of American politics. Few American politicians at the higher levels can do enough to show how sympathetic they are to our ally Israel. As they overlook what is done to Palestinians with our tax dollars, the public has similarly become inured to the idea that retribution is always justified when it comes from Israeli guns. By extension, how does this influence our attitude towards the rest of the Arab world?
The brouhaha over Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons illustrates this point. One of his sermon clips on You-Tube has this to say:
"... Last year's conference in Africa on racism... which the United States would not participate in, [because] somebody dared to point the racism which [the U.S.] supports both here and in Israel... .You don't see the connection between 9/11 and the Israel-Palestine [situation]? Something [is] wrong here."
Of course, these comments may seem particularly outrageous if you haven't noticed that our mainstream media coverage of Israel-Palestine is so biased. This same biased point of view is mirrored in the presidential race and the career trajectory of Gordon Smith.
Though drastically under-reported, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has tragically deepened. The U.S. mainstream press focuses primarily on the situation of the Israelis and how (in the words of Israeli Prime Minister Olmert in late March) life for Gazans is going to become "very painful". Only at places like KBOO ("Democracy Now", 5pm news, or monthly "One Land, Many Voices") or in other alternative or foreign media is another story told: of the economic blockade, increasing hunger, deaths from bombs and shelling, inadequate access to quality medical care, of Israeli-arranged electricity and fuel shortages, and near imprisonment (very limited access to Israel or Egypt, no international shipping or flights, and not even a visit by Jimmy Carter).
Though we can get thousands in the streets to protest the Iraq war, we cannot get a similar response to oppressive stranglehold of Palestinian areas that our generous aid to Israel makes possible.
NEO-CONS AND TODAY
The neo-con clique has a close historical connection with the Israeli right-wing. In 1996, many prominent neo-cons authored a white paper for the campaign for Israel's prime minister of Benjamin Netanyahu. That paper advocated "rolling back the regional challengers" of Israel. The vision has come to fruition in our Iraq assault, in our bellicosity towards Iran and Syria, and our blind acceptance of Israel's intensive bombing of Lebanon in 2006.
The platform of the neo-cons fits hand-in-glove with the goals of the pro-Israel lobby. Candidates Clinton and Obama have both paid homage to this lobby, including presentations to AIPAC, the leading pro-Israel lobby group, in early 2007 (with the Jewish Forward deeming Clinton's speech more hawkish). Clinton has played a more stridently pro-Israel game for longer, including endorsing the West Bank apartheid wall enclosing the city of Bethlehem, putting a photo of Ariel Sharon up on her web-site at one point, etc. At the 2005 AIPAC conference, she put it this way: "Our future here in this country is intertwined with the future of Israel and the Middle East".
Her campaign has played hardball in critiquing the remarks that an advisor to the Obama campaign, General Merrill McPeak (retired) of Lake Oswego, made in 2003—when he said that the settlement issue must be looked at closely for peace--remarks that reflect the attitude of the Israeli peace movement!
The same impetus to associate with the Israeli right-wing is clear too, however, in the Obama campaign. On a day when "Democracy Now" highlighted a recent report by an NGO coalition on the humanitarian emergency in Gaza (March 6), the show reported that both Democratic candidates defended Israel's punitive actions towards Gaza, asserting that Israel's response reflected that country's right to defend itself.
Gordon Smith is not an innocent bystander in this history. In 2002, Netanyahu was a star guest at a fund-raiser for Smith at the Portland house of Jordan Schnitzer (scion of the prominent Schnitzer family). Netanyahu is an open proponent of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians and one of the strongest opponents of the Israeli peace movement. Congressional score cards on the issues related to Israel-Palestine (and Israel's foreign policy) from the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation show that Smith has consistently had one of the worst voting records. In fact, in the 2006 Senate (a year with many votes related to Israel because of the attack on Lebanon), Gordon Smith tied with two other senators (Brownback and Santorum) for the worst voting record. One of the closer 2006 votes was related to cluster bombs' use on civilian targets, such as happened in Lebanon, yet Smith reliably did not vote against Israel's interests. Smith, as well as McCain and Hillary, are among the 20 top senatorial recipients of pro-Israel contributions for this election cycle (www.opensecrets.org).
The campaigns for the two principal Democrats opposing Smith, Steve Novick and Jeff Merkley, provided statements for this article. Steve Novick's comments read:
Like many Americans, I feel for the suffering of the Palestinian people, and hope for a Palestinian state. I also believe that to achieve that state, both Israelis and Palestinians must recognize their mutual right to exist.
It is important for Israel to continue to providing Palestinians in Gaza with electricity, water, medical services, food and medicine. We must also end the development of new Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. At the same time, we must continue to pressure the Hamas leadership to choose improving the welfare of the Palestinian people by ending their pursuit of violence against the Israeli people.
Merkley's office forwarded this quote:
I share the view held by many leaders that Israel's security will be best served by resolution of the long-standing conflict with the Palestinians through a two-state solution--establishing an independent, stable, and economically-successful Palestinian state, alongside a safe and secure Israel — with both states living side by side in peace and security.
Advancing toward this vision will take a high level of commitment by both parties, substantial international investment in the Palestinian economy, constant attention to Israel's security concerns, and concerted international cooperation. US leadership has proven critical at several key junctures; but in the end, the conflict can be resolved only by the parties themselves.
At a candidate forum at Portland's Mittleman Jewish Community Center on April 14, Merkley's remarks took on a different tone. Speaker Merkley indicated that "we need a Palestinian partner"--clichéd phrasing used in the Arafat years indicating that Israel can't negotiate now. His campaign position paper handout at the forum indicated that the candidate would fully support Israel and aid to it as the first commitment of the U.S. in the Middle East. The paper has not a word about the Israeli human rights violations in the Palestinian areas.
The spokesperson for Novick's campaign, Jake Weigler, did acknowledge that Novick had had conversations with AIPAC, but reported that there was no "public" position statement prepared for that organization.
As Anthony Antove (co-editor with Howard Zinn of Voices of A People's History of the United States) made clear at a March strategy session of PDX Peace, the peace movement needs to keep its anti-war focus during this election season, not fracture over differences about candidates, and realize that there will be work to do after the votes are in.
Though neither of the leading Democratic candidates is perfect, Clinton is a darker shade of gray. Clinton, for example, voted for the war and was a Johnny-Come-Latest to the Congressional coterie of war critics. Obama did oppose the war's initiation. A New York Times survey article of November 4 showed that Obama had the more anti-war advisory team, while a December Times piece reported that Clinton's "voting record on foreign policy placed her among the most conservative Democrats". Obama has received the endorsement of Move-On, and that of Tom Hayden, Barbara Ehrenreich and Portland's Danny Glover (in a joint Huffington Post piece)—with the caveat that the peace movement keep the pressure on. Similarly, Thom Hartmann on KPOJ has voiced a concern about Ms. Clinton's ties to the armament manufacturing lobby, while others are concerned about her advisor Mark Penn's ties to Blackwater. Then too, as First Lady, she was associated with the "worst sanctions of the 20th century" (per recent "Air America" commentary), with an estimated half million Iraqi children killed.
Senator Clinton probably does not have fond memories of Portland. In January 2006, Hillary's stance on Israel-Palestine and Iraq led to a spirited protest by hundreds of anti-war and anti-occupation activists, outside and inside of her downtown Hilton fund-raising event (as reported by the Alliance, Indymedia, and the Eugene Weekly).
Oregon's Smith has an even more meager record of bonafide action against the war. Though Senator Smith supported the war's initiation, he made a sudden conversion to war critic after the November 2006 election rout of the Republicans (calling the war absurd and possibly criminal). Nonetheless, so far his voting record has not changed much. One score card shows that Smith voted 8 times against the anti-war position in 2007 (www.capwiz.com/peaceactionwest/keyvotes.xc/). The "Stop Gordon Smith" web-site (of the Democratic Party of Oregon) shows that the Senator voted 20 times or more to fund the war this decade. Similarly, Smith was an early endorser of war hawk John McCain. Likewise, while the Congressional recess of last summer was marked by a number of spirited public town halls for Wyden, Baird, and Blumenauer, Smith did not allow such access to the public. He was also notable for narrowly limiting lobbying appointments for peace activists with his office.
The Democrats opposing Smith, Steve Novick and Jeff Merkley, are war critics, and have similar detailed policy stands on their web-sites. Hopefully, one of these candidates will successfully challenge Gordon Smith's image as a 'moderate' (per the Oregonian), for as Novick has said "while George Bush was taking our country to hell, Gordon Smith had his hand on the handbasket every step of the way." Novick has criticized Merkley for his yea-vote on a 'support-our-troops' measure in the State Legislature (2003), but overall Merkley has opposed this war (including statements made at the time of the troop-support resolution). Both candidates or their supporters have participated in Portland peace events.
IRAN AND SYRIA
Ms. Clinton has emphatically and repeatedly stated that "no options are off the table" vis-à-vis Iran and voted to characterize the Iran Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. While at times Obama's remarks have not significantly differed from Clinton's in this regard, he has indicated a willingness to talk to Iran without pre-conditions.
Gordon Smith introduced an earlier anti-Iran resolution in March 2007 entitled "Iran Counter Proliferation Act of 2007" (a bill to impose sanctions on Iran and on other countries for assisting Iran in developing a nuclear program). Both Clinton and Obama co-sponsored this measure (a resolution which never had a final vote).
The spokesmen for both Novick's and Merkley's campaigns indicate that these Democrats oppose a hard line approach against Iran. Novick's campaign supports Obama's willingness to dialogue with Iran, and criticizes Smith's vote to give the terrorist label to the Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Matt Canter from Merkley's office indicates that the concern is that Smith will not stand up to the belligerence of McCain. Again, however, the Merkley position paper described above takes a more anti-Iran (and anti-Syria) tone than his staff person conveyed to me over the phone.
THE NEW CRUSADE
Gordon Smith and his presidential candidate John McCain have helped to launch Bush's crusade against "terror" and to maintain the two occupations in the Middle East—a crusade based on economics and dreams of hegemony, draped in ethno-religious intolerance. McCain, for his effort, has received the support of part of the far religious right, such as End-Times author Tim LaHaye and the fanatical Rev. John Hagee (founder of Christians United for Israel).
Smith has been well-rewarded financially: The Oregonian reports that Smith will have at least $8 million for this fall's race. It is expected that the Democratic candidates will be near broke after May 20. It will be an uphill battle for the Democrats to counter the Smith advertisement deluge this fall.
How much the Democratic Party candidates would help continue this Middle East crusade is uncertain. I'm left pondering two quotations. First, George Soros asks us to question the behind-the-scenes influence of the pro-Israel lobby (in New York Review of Books, 2007):
"I believe that a much-needed self-examination of American policy in the Middle East has started in this country; but it can't make much headway as long as AIPAC retains powerful influence in both the Democratic and Republican parties."
Allen Nairn (award-winning journalist and activist) asks us to discern among shades of gray in our electoral choices (on "Democracy Now" this January):
"Let's say, you have two candidates that are 99% the same—there's only 1% difference between them—if you're talking about decisions that affect a million lives—1% of a million is 10,000—that's 10,000 lives. So, even though it's a bitter choice, if you choose the one who is going to kill 10,000 fewer people, well, then you've saved 10,000 lives."
Nancy Hedrick visited the Middle East in 2001 and 2004.
Since this article was written, Uri Avnery, eminence grise of the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom, posted a "Two Americas" column endorsing Obama. This week an New York Times editorial entitled "The Low Road to Victory" derided Clinton's claim to be the best candidate, with NYT castigating her warmongering remarks of April 22, when she declared that if Iran attacked Israel while she were president: "We would be able to totally obliterate them." Outside the Lincoln High School gathering to hear Bill Clinton (Saturday the 26th), a silent protest of this anti-Iran rhetoric was held by activists associated with Portland's American Iranian Friendship Council.
Support for Merkley among members of the Arab-American and Iranian-American community, as well as others concerned with the politics of that region (such as Brandon Mayfield) crumpled after Merkley's AIPAC position paper became known (as reported by Willamette Week and the Oregonian).
The local group, Americans United for Palestinian Rights, has posted both the Merkley and Novick AIPAC position papers, both of which are unbalanced and unabashedly pro-Israel. Admittedly, Novick's has fewer objectionable points (including wording to the effect that Israel shouldn't starve or cut off the electricity of the Palestinians) and with a subtle degree of criticism of Israel at a few points. You can find these at www.auphr.com. It would be a great day when candidates felt it necessary to write position papers of similar importance for leading peace organizations!
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