Many liberals are celebrating the apparent victory of San Francisco Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi to the leadership of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives. With foreign policy concerns now front and center in the political debate, some liberals concerned with peace and human rights issues hope that her election to the post of House Minority Leader is evidence that the Democrats may finally be ready to play the role of an opposition party. As evidence of this shift, so goes the argument, is Pelosi’s outspoken role as a defender of human rights in Tibet, East Timor and elsewhere.
A closer look at her record, however, reveals a far different picture. When the human rights abuser happens to be a key strategic ally and a recipient of large amounts of U.S. armaments, Pelosi has defended the Bush Administration’s policies.
The clearest example is her strident support for the right-wing Israeli government of Ariel Sharon, the former general widely considered by the international community to be a war criminal. While Israel represents only one-tenth of one percent of the world’s population and Israeli Jews enjoy the world’s sixteenth highest per capita income, Pelosi has supported sending a full one-third of all U.S. foreign aid to prop up Sharon’s fragile coalition government and to support his occupation forces in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights.
While insisting that Iraq and other countries the Bush administration does not like abide by UN Security Council resolutions, she considers UN Security Council resolutions directed at Israel as subject to negotiation with the Palestinians. Not only does Pelosi’s position ignore Israel’s legal obligations but it also ignores the clear asymmetry in power between the weak and corrupt Palestinian leadership and their Israeli occupiers.
Late last month, Amnesty International released a thoroughly-documented 80-page report detailing war crimes by Israeli occupation forces during its offensive in the West Bank this past March. This follows up upon a preliminary report issued during the offensive which noted how “the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] acted as though the main aim was to punish all Palestinians. Actions were taken by the IDF which had no clear or obvious military necessity.” The report went on to document unlawful killings, destruction of civilian property, arbitrary detention, torture, assaults on medical personnel and journalists, as well as random shooting at people in the streets and in houses.
These observations were confirmed by Human Rights Watch and other reputable human rights groups, including Israeli groups like B’Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights, and Yesh G’vul.
In response, Assistant House Majority Leader Tom DeLay introduced a resolution which claimed that “Israel’s military operations are an effort to defend itself ... and are aimed only at dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas.”
Most House members, who rarely get around to reading human rights reports, look to their leadership as to how they should vote on such resolutions. As assistant minority leader and a member of the so-called Human Rights Caucus, scores of Democrats looked to Pelosi to determine whom to believe: the right-wing fundamentalist Republican Congressman from Texas or the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights organization?
Pelosi chose to believe Tom DeLay, leading her fellow Democrats in voting in favor of his resolution, a vote widely interpreted as an attack on the credibility of Amnesty International and the human rights community as a whole.
During this same period, as peace and human rights activists spoke out in condemnation of the Bush Administration’s support for Sharon’s offensive – including a declaration by President George W. Bush that the rightist prime minister was a “man of peace” – Pelosi rushed to the administration’s defense, supporting a Republican-sponsored resolution praising President Bush’s “leadership” in the crisis. In throwing her support to Bush, she openly defied the growing discontent within the Democratic Party rank-and-file over the party leadership’s insistence on kowtowing to the Republican administration’s militaristic foreign policy agenda.
In response to demands by peace and human rights activists for a suspension of U.S. military aid to the Sharon government’s violations of the U.S. Arms Control Export Act, Pelosi supported a Republican-sponsored resolution calling for increasing military aid to Israel. In essentially rewarding Ariel Sharon for his rampage, she put herself on record as validating President Bush’s contention that increased arms transfers – not arms control – is the key to security in the Middle East.
In yet another example of where her priorities lie, Pelosi spoke at the annual convention of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a right-wing lobbying group with close ties to the Sharon government, during the height of the offensive, praising the Israeli government and condemning the Palestinians. At the same time, she refused a longstanding invitation to appear before a human rights forum in her own district.
Pelosi has long insisted that the Palestinians’ 1993 decision to recognize Israeli control over 78% of Palestine was not enough and that the Palestinians must learn to “compromise.” She has consistently blamed the Palestinians exclusively for the violence and for the breakdown in the peace process.
In addition, to rationalize for her support of Israel’s repressive occupation, she has chosen to re-write history. Pelosi now claims that former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s proposal to create a Palestinian Bantustan on approximately 18% of Palestine that would have effectively divided the territory into four non-contiguous units with Israel controlling the borders, air space and water resources as “a generous and historic proposal.”
There are those who insist that Pelosi is actually a liberal at heart but she is forced to take these right-wing positions for political reasons.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Pelosi represents one of the most liberal districts in the country. It is also one of the safest districts in the country; she routinely wins re-election by close to 80% of the vote.
Furthermore, public opinion polls have consistently shown that most Americans believed that both sides are to blame for the ongoing violence. For example, a May 2002 poll indicated that a majority of Americans opposed Sharon’s invasion and his refusal to withdraw from the re-occupied Palestinian towns. It also showed that two-thirds of those polled believed the United States should be strictly even-handed in its approach to the conflict. According to Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Initiatives at the University of Maryland, “What this poll makes clear is that recent actions by Congress are out of step with the American public and their views on the crisis in the Middle East. Americans clearly hold both sides equally responsible for the current situation and are willing to increase pressure on a both sides to achieve a peace deal.”
Furthermore, a Time/CNN poll in April indicated that, in response to Israel’s offensive, 60% of Americans believed some or all U.S. aid to Israel should be suspended, while only 1% believed it should be increased. Pelosi aligned herself with that tiny right-wing minority.
If Nancy Pelosi is the best the Democrats can do for leadership, there is little hope of stopping George W. Bush.
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace
& Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He is Middle East
editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus
Project and author of Tinderbox:
U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism