I was rather baffled by many of the comments to a column I posted last week. I offered what I thought was a modest and quite harmless suggestion: You should urge your representative in Congress to sign the Kind-Delahunt letter, which calls on the president to make strong efforts to move Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution.
Oh no, no, said most of the commenters. Don't bother. Each had their own reason and their own particular way of phrasing their common conclusion, which I think I paraphrase accurately here: Any effort to pressure the U.S. government is wasted, because the U.S. will always support the policies of Israel, no matter how unjust. (Oh, and the author is a fool -- or worse -- some added.)
If the leaders of the "Israel right or wrong" lobby in Washington bother reading Common Dreams articles and the comments to them, they would surely have been pleased. That passive "why bother?" response is precisely what they are counting on to win another victory in Congress.
They'd be even more pleased if they knew how much the comments on my piece were typical of opinions one hears all the time on the left about the Israel-Palestine issue (which is the only reason I'm moved to make this response to the comments).
The right-wing Israel lobby and its supporters are desperate to prevent representatives from signing this letter and any like it. Their goal is to protect Israel from making any compromises, because that makes Israel look weak -- and it makes the lobby feel weak. There is only one agency in the world that can force Israel to make the compromises the lobby hopes to avoid: The United States government.
So the lobby opposes anything that might have even the slightest chance of shifting U.S. government policy. And it applauds anything that might help them avert a shift in U.S. policy.
Letters like the one now circulating in the House have no binding authority, but they have huge symbolic meaning to the right-wing lobby. The Lobby takes every signature on every such peace-oriented letter as a personal defeat. That means one more House district that the lobby can no longer count on controlling. To the lobby, this is dead serious stuff. So they oppose any and every sign of pressure, no matter how slight, on any and every member of Congress.
And they see an ally in anyone who -- for whatever reason -- chooses not to bother putting any pressure on their member of Congress. Which creates what politics so often creates, they say: Strange bedfellows; the right-wing Israel lobby snuggled up with so many progressive critics of Israel.
Obviously, those progressives write from vastly different motives than the right-wing lobby. And the progressives have no intention of helping the lobby. Their aid is given totally inadvertently. But it is aid nonetheless.
Perhaps the many progressives who offer such passionate criticism of Israel feel like they are doing something really active to help relieve the suffering of the Palestinians.
But try as I might, I cannot figure out what their positive strategy is -- what positive outcomes they aim at. I assume their conscious aim is to serve the Palestinian people by moving the Israeli government to stop its unjust policies.
How do these critics of Israel think their criticism will achieve that aim? Do they have some way to translate their shouts of "Israel is terrible, or does terrible things" into political action, or even policy proposals, which could actually move the Israelis to mitigate their injustices? If so, I don't see it. Perhaps it's there, somewhere, but too small to be seen?
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Some of the critics do go on to make policy proposals, such as a one-state solution, cut off all military aid to Israel, boycott everything Israeli, etc. Perhaps some day those ideas will become reality. Lots of realities start off as seemingly far-fetched ideas.
The question I'd ask of those more policy-oriented critics is: How long should we ask the Palestinians to wait? If any of those policies are going to become reality, it won't be in the near future. That's for sure. No one with any power inside the administration is going to advocate for any of them. Nor is anyone in Congress -- not one legislator -- prepared to support such ideas publicly.
So as a practical matter, how does one turn those proposals into useful political tools that can serve to relieve the plight of the Palestinians rapidly? Because "rapidly" is the key point here. Again, how long do we ask the Palestinians to wait? How long will it be until the American left figures out how turn angry verbal outbursts into useful political action? So far, I don't see it happening. And I don't hear any answers to my questions.
It's the matter of urgency that moves me to advise playing the traditional political game, using the old fashioned "call your representative" method. There's certainly no guarantee that it will change U.S. policy. Not at all.
But should we believe that there is any chance at all of changing U.S. policy within the next few years? That's the question on which I and my critics differ. As I've explained, those who say "No" are in effect doing the work of the right-wing Israel lobby by promoting passivity from the left.
Those of us why say "Yes there is a chance," or at least act as if there were a chance, use a different political calculus. We figure it's simple math: If one route has no observable probability of reaching to a goal (in this case the rapid alleviation of Palestinian suffering), and another route has a small but more perceptible probability of reaching that goal, it's pretty obvious which route to choose.
And once you decide that there is a better chance (even if it's only a small chance) of reaching your goal through the traditional political system, then it's equally simple logic to decide that you should indeed play the old political game.
This is why I'm rather baffled. I hear from all these progressives who sincerely want to help the Palestinians, yet choose a path that has no perceivable way to help the Palestinians. At the very least, the other path -- an attack on the power of the right-wing Israel lobby in Congress -- will anger that lobby, not give them the passivity from the left that is their fondest wish.
Why would so many progressives choose to do just what their political opponents want them to do? And why would they chastise (sometimes scream at) those of us who suggest working through the system?
I've got no answers. I do understand that we all get emotional satisfaction from venting our anger when we see injustice. My concern is that the appeal of emotional satisfaction may be getting in the way of actually taking practical steps that might help people who desperately need our help. Might. No guarantees.
Only one thing is for certain: Merely continuing to vent anger with no way to turn it into real political change is guaranteed to have no practical results except for inadvertently doing exactly what the right-wing Israel lobby wants us to do, helping their efforts to prevent real change.
PS. For those who want to play the political game, there is still time to tell your House member to sign that Kind-Delahunt letter. But you'd better act fast. Today may be the last day to sign.