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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 1997, pgs. 14-17

Congress Watch

Congress Launches Fawning Frenzy Over Netanyahu's Har Homa Decision

By Shirl McArthur

Congressional reaction to the steady deterioration in the Israeli-occupied territories for the most part has not been constructive. Throughout March and April, Israel's congressional supporters seemed to fall all over themselves trying to please their Zionist campaign contributors by criticizing the Arabs, especially the Palestinians and Egyptians, and, remarkably, the Clinton administration for not being sufficiently zealous in support of Israel's position.

The only apparent exception to that pattern was the truly even-handed letter being circulated in the House by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) calling upon the U.S. to condemn terrorist attacks on civilians and also urging President Clinton "to prevail upon Israel to refrain from undertaking the construction of the Har Homa settlement on Jabal Abu Ghneim until the status of Jerusalem is resolved through negotiations." By the end of April, Rahall's bipartisan letter had collected 17 other co-signers.

By contrast, in early March no fewer than 14 letters were sent to the White House urging the U.S. not to participate in the March 15 Gaza meeting to mobilize international pressure against Israel's decision to build on Jabal Abu Ghneim. The letters were signed by a total of more than 140 senators and representatives, some of whom signed more than one letter. In the Senate, the most widely circulated pro-Likud letters were sponsored by Sen. Connie Mack (R-FL), also signed by 22 other Senate Republicans, and Sens. Bob Graham (D-FL) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), also signed by 12 other Senate Democrats plus Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who also signed the Mack letter.

In the House the main pro-Likud Republican letter was sponsored by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and signed by 24 other House Republicans. The main pro-Likud House Democratic letter was sponsored by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) and also was signed by 46 other House Democrats. A third pro-Likud House letter was sponsored by Rep. Bob Franks (R-NJ) and signed by 13 other House members, of both parties. Interestingly, the two main Republican letters (sponsored by Mack and Gingrich) were identical. (Apparently AIPAC writers don't bother to change the drafts they give their loyal accolytes.) In the end, the U.S. did participate in the Gaza meeting, in the person of U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem Edward Abington, as did representatives from the European Union, Norway, Japan, Russia, Jordan and Egypt, in addition to the Palestinians.

The March bombing of the sidewalk cafe in Tel Aviv in which three Israeli woman victims and the probable Palestinian bomber died provided another opportunity for congressional posturing. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) wrote to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright calling for a halt in U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority. House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) immediately issued a press release blaming the bombing on President Arafat for "permitting a climate of tolerance for terrorism," and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) wrote to Clinton also blaming Arafat. However, in an interview broadcast in Israel, Rep. Michael Forbes (R-NY) outbid his Republican colleagues by appearing to blame the Clinton administration for the bombing because it appeared weak in its resolve to fight terrorism. Forbes also called the Netanyahu decision to build the Har Homa colony "appropriate" and a domestic Israeli issue in which the U.S. should not get involved. The next day, Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-FL) told the same Israeli correspondent that "there is real concern" in the Congress "over the Clinton administration's tacit and implicit support of Chairman Arafat."

But the real fawning frenzy came with AIPAC's annual policy conference April 6-8 in Washington, DC. No fewer than 43 senators, 90 representatives, and a swarm of congressional staffers attended the meetings. Speakers included Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Ted Stevens (R-AK), Reps. Rick White (R-WA) and Jane Harmon (D-CA), and, giving the closing addresses, Speaker Gingrich and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. In addition, senior staff members for Gingrich, Gephardt, and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY) also spoke. The duel between Gingrich and Gephardt over who is the greater Zionist probably was won by Gingrich.

To be sure, Gephardt had his surreal moments. For example, he said that the way to move the peace process forward is to insist that the Palestinian Authority live up to its commitments. Later, he said that the U.S. cannot be second-guessing Israel. "We have to simply say, day in and day out with Israel: We are behind you. We support you. We are with you, because it is right."

Gingrich went further. He accused President Arafat of being in coalition with "the forces of terrorism" and waging an "information warfare campaign against Israel" in which the U.S. news media were the "witting or unwitting ally." Regarding Har Homa, he said, "Let me be clear. Har Homa is not, as the media attempt to insist, a settlement. It is a Jewish neighborhood in the city Israel has chosen as her capital." (We note that the French press refers to Israeli construction in the occupied territories as "colonies.") Finally, Gingrich said that the three principles that "we" should follow are, "First, never allow a wedge to be driven between the U.S. and Israel; second, hold Yasser Arafat to his promises; and third, take an active role in combatting the false images of Israel in the press."

Gilman Hearing on Egypt

The House International Relations Committee, under the direction of its super Likudnik Chairman Gilman, held an April 10 hearing on "U.S. Policy Toward Egypt." Originally two panels of witnesses were scheduled. The first panel was to consist of a deputy assistant secretary of defense, an AID assistant administrator, and U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Edwin Walker. The second scheduled panel supposedly was to consist of non-governmental "experts," but in fact included only predictable critics of Egypt: Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, AIPAC's think tank; national director Abraham Foxman of B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League; and Joseph Stork of Human Rights Watch. However, at the last minute, all of the administration witnesses declined to appear, thus thoroughly irritating Gilman, who threatened to remind Secretary of State Madeleine Albright of his subpoena powers. In an effort to show at least a degree of balance, the committee then asked Egyptian-American Prof. Mamoun Fandy of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University to join the remaining three witnesses.

In his opening statement, Gilman said the hearing was called to evaluate the U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relationship in light of the "regrettable, but widespread perception that the U.S. and Egypt appear to be moving farther apart on a range of critical issues," including the Arab League recommendation to restore the economic boycott of Israel and Egypt's support for Yasser Arafat in the Hebron negotiations. On cue, Gilman was followed by committee member Tom Lantos (D-CA) who read a statement saying he "reserves the option of proposing a cut in the level of our aid to Egypt." Then Lantos left the room, apparently to avoid hearing anything anyone else had to say.

Satloff, Foxman and Stork all expanded on Gilman's comments. However, Satloff did constructively suggest that the U.S.-Egypt relationship be strengthened rather than weakened. Regarding aid to Egypt, he said that AID's major infrastructure projects in Egypt are nearing completion, which presents the opportunity to change the nature of U.S. economic assistance by cutting back the huge USAID bureaucracy in Egypt, restructuring Egypt's debt to the U.S., and promoting increased U.S.-Egyptian trade. Specifically, he suggested "a dollar-for-dollar trade-off that matches cuts in aid with increased access to the U.S. market for Egyptian goods, especially textiles, that are currently restricted." Satloff said his suggestions would lower the dollar amount of U.S. aid to Egypt, but would benefit Egypt more than the current program. In response to a direct question from the committee whether an across-the-board 20 percent or 30 percent cut in aid to Egypt would "get their attention," Satloff said such a move would be a bad idea and not accomplish anything constructive.

Although seriously outnumbered, Fandy did a good job of refuting much of the previous testimony, while emphasizing that, as an American, he was not advocating the Egyptian position, but trying to explain some of the factors that have led to misunderstandings between the two governments. He said that at this delicate time in global and Middle East politics, it would be dangerous to hold U.S.-Egyptian relations hostage to the peace process.

Fandy pointed out the multiple contexts, Arab, Islamic, African, and greater Middle Eastern, that Egypt must operate within. He added that, had Egypt adopted a warmer attitude toward Israel, Egypt would have been even more isolated and the conditioned opening to Israel from some of the other Arab states would not have happened at all.

The deterioration in the peace process has happened in spite of, rather than because of, Egypt's efforts, Fandy declared. He pointed out that changes in the area have not taken place in Egypt, but in Israel. Finally, he noted, seeing the Middle East through Israel's eyes does "a disservice to America's broad and complex global interests" because Israeli and American interests do not coincide in the Middle East.

After the hearing, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, asked Fandy whether he thought he had made a difference. He said he didn't know, but he hoped so. Interestingly, the only member who appeared genuinely interested in what he had to say was Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), who is not a member of the committee but had asked to join the hearing. Lowey, who is Jewish and a strong supporter of Israel, asked intelligent questions, and spoke privately with Fandy after the hearing.

Rep. John Sununu Corrects AIPAC Statement on Embassy

In our March issue we said that AIPAC happily reported that one of the two new Arab-American members of Congress, John Sununu Jr. (R-NH), had spoken in favor of the Embassy Relocation Act. When we sought clarification from Sununu's office, his press secretary said that the AIPACreport was not correct, and that Sununu "does not support moving the embassy without having resolved the long-standing Jerusalem question." It is worth noting, also, that Sununu did not sign any of the congressional letters described above.



NAAA Delegation Visits Middle East

National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA) President Khalil Jahshan and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) co-chaired a fact-finding visit to the Middle East between March 22 and April 5. The group, which also consisted of NAAA Board Chairman George Gorayeb and Executive Vice-Chairman Elias Aburdene, visited Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Lebanon and Syria, after which Jahshan went on his own to Jordan, Israel and Palestine. The purpose of the trip was to meet with senior Arab political, business and media people, as well as with U.S. diplomats in the countries visited to try to gauge the mood and feeling of the region regarding relations with the U.S. The NAAA plans to use this information as it expands its efforts to promote stronger U.S.-Arab relations, while reflecting the concerns of its members and the realities in the region.

After his return, Jahshan said members of the delegation brought back three overriding impressions from the people with whom they talked: (1) the consistency of viewpoints in the various Arab capitals; (2) the intensity of concern and dissatisfaction with the Middle East peace process and its handling by the Clinton administration; and (3) the genuine concern over the future of U.S.-Arab relations.

Asked for his comments on the visit, Rahall said that he, too, was "amazed at the consistency of the viewpoints expressed by nearly everyone we met in the various capitals, and the intensity of concern over the Middle East peace process and its handling by the Clinton administration. The bottom line for most everyone I spoke with was: 'we are friends of the United States, yet our patience is wearing very thin over the breakdown of the peace talks, and especially so regarding the two U.N. resolutions vetoed by the United States.' Regrettably, recent events have led to a feeling of betrayal among many Arab officials. But lest we forget, a major reason for our visit to Kuwait in particular was to reassure them that the Congress of the United States has not forgotten the issue of Kuwait's missing-in-action and POWs, to which the Iraqi regime has still not responded. This is an urgent human rights issue, and there must be an accounting. If none is forthcoming, then Iraq must be held responsible."

Jahshan said the most remarkable impression was the unanimity and consistency of the opinions and mood expressed by the Arab leaders with whom the group met, from the Gulf to the Levant and whether official or private. In an area of the world where differences of opinion are the rule rather than the exception, recent developments concerning the peace process and the mixed messages characterizing U.S. policy, especially the two vetoes of U.N. resolutions, have rallied and unified these diverse voices in their dissatisfaction with the peace process and with U.S. handling of the region in general.

Jahshan said that it was almost as if everyone were speaking from the same talking points. The group heard the same viewpoint expressed in the GCC countries, for example, as it did in Syria. To be sure, there were differences in emphasis, based on local circumstances. Officials in the Gulf felt let down and disappointed, both by Israeli intransigence and U.S. equivocation. In Syria the emphasis was more on frustration and betrayal, because the Syrians had expected that by now the Israeli-Palestinian track would be moving forward, allowing for more progress on their own track with Israel.

The second thing that impressed the group was the intensity of the dissatisfaction with the U.S. and the concern over the future of the peace process. Jahshan said that the Arabs have been worried about the peace process and dissatisfied with U.S. policies to one degree or another for a long time, but in his 20 years of traveling to the region, he has never seen these feelings so acute, so deeply felt, and so broadly expressed. When asked whether the current mood might be similar to that which prevailed during the 1967 war, when the U.S. was widely believed to be actively assisting Israel, Jahshan said there were similarities, but also a major difference between the two situations. The 1967 war came after a long period of deterioration in U.S.-Arab relations, so U.S. support for Israel came as no surprise. Since 1990, however, many in the Arab world have felt that their relations with the U.S. had improved and that the Clinton administration has been trying (though not always with great success) to maintain its self-appointed role as "honest broker" in the peace process. This sense of improved relations led to rising expectations about the future of U.S.-Arab relations, which have been crushed by recent events, thus intensifying the feelings of let-down and betrayal.

The third thread running through all the meetings, especially those with government officials, was a real concern over the long-term future of U.S.-Arab relations. These officials see a new, post-Cold-War world order arising all around them, with new coalitions and alignments being forged, especially in Europe and Asia. But nothing is changing in the Middle East, and the U.S. seems to be taking the Arab world, especially the GCC states, for granted. Apart from "sound-bite diplomacy" vis-â-vis the "rogue states" of Iran, Iraq, and Libya, which seems motivated more by U.S. domestic considerations than by serious strategic considerations, the U.S. does not seem, from the Arab perspective, very interested in improving the quality of its relationships with the Arab countries.

Part of this concern over the future of U.S.-Arab relations stems from the people that the Clinton administration has appointed to handle Middle East affairs. Never before have Arab leaders seen U.S. Middle East policy so concentrated in the hands of so many people with a public record of bias and identification with one side of the Arab-Israeli issue. This naturally lends credibility to the multitude of conspiracy theories circulating in the Middle East about America's real intentions and objectives.

Perhaps even more damaging to U.S. interests in the area is the fact that this perception gives ammunition to opposition forces in those countries which have supported the peace process and the U.S. role in the region. At this point, the only viable opposition to the current leadership in those states comes from radical Islamists, whose political agendas are not consistent, to put it mildly, with U.S. objectives.

Even though it is unlikely that any of the Islamic opposition movements actually will take power in the near future, they affect U.S.-Arab relations because their influence is pressuring Arab leaders to modify their previous support for U.S. policy in general and the peace process in particular.

The NAAA leaders hope to use the findings gained from this trip to help develop a new five-year political program for the association aimed at upgrading U.S.-Arab relations to a new strategic level based on mutual respect and shared interests. In the meantime, their findings have formed the basis for a set of recommendations to be presented to the U.S. government.—S.M.