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Congress and Its Colonialist Agenda

New members of the 112th Congress on Capitol Hill, November 19, 2010. (Photo: Talk Radio News Service / Flickr)

Up until the mid-20th century, Western attitudes regarding national freedom essentially went like this: the independence of white Western nations (Great Britain, France, the United States etc.) was a given. Independence for nonwhite, non-Western nations (such as those in Africa, the Middle East and Asia), however, could only be under conditions granted by the occupying powers. The time at which these nations could be free, their specific boundaries and the conditions of their independence could only be reached through negotiations between the colonial occupiers and representatives (if approved by the colonial powers) of the conquered peoples. It was not the purview of the League of Nations, the United Nations, or any other international legal authority to adjudicate such matters, so went the argument, since the rights of those in the colonies were limited to what was willingly agreed to by the colonizers.

Based on a resolution unanimously adopted by the Senate (S.Res. 185) on July 29 and by a 407-6 majority in the House (H.Res. 268) on July 7, Congress went on record reiterating their “strong opposition to any attempt to establish or seek recognition of a Palestinian state outside of an agreement negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.” It called on Palestinian leaders to “cease all efforts at circumventing the negotiation process, including through a unilateral declaration of statehood or by seeking recognition of a Palestinian state from other nations or the United Nations.” It called upon President Obama to “announce that the United States will veto any resolution on Palestinian statehood that comes before the United Nations Security Council which is not a result of agreements reached between the Government of Israel and the Palestinians” and to “lead a diplomatic effort to oppose a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and to oppose recognition of a Palestinian state by other nations, within the United Nations and in other international forums prior to achievement of a final agreement between the Government of Israel and the Palestinians.”

Reread the above paragraph and replace “Palestinians” with “Namibians” or “East Timorese” or “Kenyans” or “Algerians,” or any other people under foreign occupation in recent decades, and replace “Israel” with the respective occupying power, and the implication of this resolution becomes clear: Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are still trapped in an early 20th century colonialist mindset which believes that colonized people should only be allowed independence under the terms and conditions granted them by their occupiers.

Debra DeLee, president and executive director of the liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now, noted that the resolutions “do a disservice to the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace and do not serve the national security interests of either the United States or Israel. These resolutions will only exacerbate the growing US and Israeli isolation on these issues and further undermine the chances of achieving peace and security for Israel.” Other moderate pro-Israel groups weighed in against the resolutions as well, but both Republicans and Democrats instead lined up with right-wing groups supportive of the Israeli government's occupation policies.

Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, before a joint session of Congress in May to repeated bipartisan standing ovations, made clear what parameters he would demand in order to grant Palestinian “statehood”: Arab East Jerusalem – the largest Palestinian city and historic heart of Palestinian cultural, economic, religious and academic life – would be permanently annexed into Israel. The Jordan Valley, on the eastern edge of Palestine, would also be under permanent Israeli control. And large swaths of territory in between would also be annexed into Israel to incorporate Israeli settlements built in defiance of the Fourth Geneva Convention, a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice. In effect, there would be nothing left for the Palestinians on which to build their “state” but a series of tiny non-contiguous cantons surrounded by Israel.

Not a single member of the US Senate and only a handful in the House were willing to consider the idea that, as a territory under foreign belligerent occupation, the Palestinians of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip have a legal right to self-determination under international law, and that not Israel, the United States or any other government can legally deny that to them. Yet, both major parties are still blinded by a pre-Wilsonian belief in the right of conquest, whereby political freedom can only be allowed to the extent of what may be voluntarily granted by the conqueror (which both Republicans and Democrats have repeatedly referred to as potential “painful concessions” by Israel).

Congress does not accept the right of conquest in all cases, of course. When Iraq conquered and occupied Kuwait in 1990, Congress demanded unconditional withdrawal and authorized a major war to liberate the tiny sheikdom, even though Saddam Hussein insisted that Kuwait was historically part of Iraq as vehemently as did Netanyahu when he declared to Congress that the West Bank was historically part of Israel. The difference, of course, is that Israel is deemed a “strategic ally of the United States” whereas Saddam's Iraq was not. The other difference is that the leaders of Israel – like the British and French conquerors of the Middle East early in the last century – are predominantly white.

(There is one current case where a majority of senators are on record supporting a proposed annexation of an occupied nation by a nonwhite country by backing a Moroccan effort to get international recognition of their illegal 1975 conquest of Western Sahara under the guise of a dubious “autonomy” plan. Despite a series of UN Security Council resolutions calling for a withdrawal of Moroccan forces and reiterating Western Sahara's right to self-determination and despite Western Sahara being a UN-recognized, non-self-governing territory which requires providing its people with the option of independence, 54 senators signed a letter calling on the United States to support the Moroccan autonomy plan, which explicitly precludes the option of independence. Perhaps if Morocco's rulers were as white as Israel's, they would have also gotten unanimous support rather than just a simple majority.)

Israel certainly has legitimate security concerns, which is why the UN Security Council Resolution 242 – long seen as the basis of Israeli-Palestinian peace – called for security guarantees from Israel's neighbors as a prerequisite for Israel's withdrawal from occupied Arab territories. However, the Palestine Authority (PA), under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, has already agreed to such security guarantees, including a demilitarized state, the disarming of militias and the stationing of Israeli and international monitors inside Palestine. Indeed, there have been virtually no attacks against civilians inside Israel from areas controlled by the PA since Abbas became president in 2005.

Furthermore, Resolution 242 reiterated the longstanding international recognition of the illegitimacy of any country expanding its territory by military force, and a series of subsequent unanimously adopted resolutions have called on Israel to rescind its illegal annexation of greater East Jerusalem and to withdraw from its illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Yet, both parties in Congress are now backing Netanyahu's arrogant rejection of his country's legal obligations.

Both Republican and Democratic politicians have long insisted that, despite the longstanding recognition of Israel within its internationally recognized borders by Fatah (the dominant Palestinian political party), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the PA that the Palestinians' real intent was to destroy Israel. For example, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi says that it is “absolute nonsense” to claim that the current conflict has anything do to with the Israeli occupation, insisting instead that it is about “the fundamental right of Israel to exist.” However, by explicitly declaring in its anticipated declaration of independence in September that the state consists solely of the Palestinian territories outside of Israel's internationally recognized borders – the 22 percent of Palestine invaded and occupied by Israel in the June 1967 war – the PA would directly challenge such claims by Pelosi and other Congressional allies of the Netanyahu government. However, even settling for just 22 percent of Palestine is too much in the eyes of the US Congress, which insists that the Palestinians should settle instead for Netanyahu's offer of allowing for a series of tiny, crowded, economically unviable and non-contiguous enclaves surrounded by Israel.

More disturbingly – as well as ironic, given his Kenyan ancestry – President Obama also seems to have embraced positions paralleling the colonialist notion that national freedom can only come under conditions supported by the foreign occupier. He, too, has stated his opposition to Palestinian statehood outside of a framework agreed to by the Netanyahu government. Furthermore, his administration is on record renouncing any role by the United Nations and international law in addressing this critical international dispute. For example, in justifying the unprecedented veto of the UN resolution reiterating the illegality of Israeli settlements, Obama's Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice stated that it was “unwise” for the United Nations to attempt to resolve key issues between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Other Problematic Clauses

The Congressional resolutions incorporated Rice's remarks, which is particularly disturbing in light of the fact that such violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention in territories under belligerent occupation have long been considered within the purview of the United Nations, as are international conflicts in general. It appears, then, that both the Obama administration and an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress have adopted a Bush/Cheney-like attitude that it is the United States, not the United Nations, which should determine whether international humanitarian law should be recognized; and that it is the United States, not the United Nations, which should be the arbiter in conflicts between nations such as Israel and Palestine.

The diplomatic “Quartet” – consisting of the European Union, the United Nations, Russia and the United States – put together a “Road Map” in 2003 which, in its initial phase, called on the PA to halt attacks against Israel, break up terrorist cells and other militia and engage in major internal reforms. It also called upon Israel to end its “attacks on civilians” and its “confiscation and/or demolition of Palestinian homes and property” and for the Israeli government to freeze all settlements activity and dismantle settlements constructed since March 2001. The PA has made major progress on its obligations, but the Israelis have continued to confiscate and destroy Palestinian homes and property, have expanded their settlement drive and attacks on Palestinian civilians continue. Congress has never raised concerns about Israel's ongoing violations. However, these recently passed resolutions criticize alleged “Palestinian abandonment of the Quartet conditions,” though the resolutions fail to specify a single condition the PA has supposedly abandoned.

It has been Israel's ongoing violation of the Quartet's insistence on a settlements freeze which led to PA to suspend peace talks with Israel's rightist government until it honors its commitment. The House resolution makes no mention of such Israeli violations, but criticizes the PA for having “prevented negotiations by insisting on unprecedented pre-conditions,” namely that Israel abide by the Quartet conditions. Indeed, the Israeli government has refused the Quartet's invitation to resume direct negotiations with the Palestinians since it includes calls for Israel to abide by its commitment to suspend its settlements expansion.

The House resolution also claims that because Hamas has refused to unilaterally recognize Israel and accept the Quartet's conditions, the formation of a national unity government between Fatah and the hard-lined Islamist party – even under conditions of Hamas' armed wing suspending attacks against Israel – would “violate the underlying principles of the Oslo Accords, the Road Map, and other relevant Middle East peace process agreements,” and that inclusion of Hamas in the PA would require an end to US relations with the PA. However, Congress has long been unconcerned that the current Israeli government includes members who refuse to recognize Palestine or accept Quartet conditions as well. For example, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has called for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs from territories controlled by Israel, has argued, “The idea of land for peace is false … we will never agree to a definition of 'two states for two peoples.'”

Yet, in the eyes of both Republicans and Democrats, it is the PA, not the Israeli government, that is responsible for the failure to move the peace process forward, and that the predominantly white Israeli leadership does not have to be held to as stringent standards as do the darker-skinned Palestinians. Both parties believe that while it is illegitimate for a Palestinian government to include any party that does not recognize Israel, renounce violence, or agree to previous agreements, it's perfectly O.K. for the US taxpayer to spend billions of dollars annually to prop up an Israeli government that refuses to recognize Palestine, renounce violence or uphold previous agreements.

The resolution also put Congress on record supporting Obama's veto of a UN Security Council resolution reiterating the longstanding international legal consensus – based upon the Fourth Geneva Convention, a series of previous UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice – that Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories under belligerent military occupation were illegal. This places virtually every single Republican and Democrat in Congress to the right of conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron and the conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whose governments voted in favor of the mildly worded resolution, as well as to the right of previous US administrations, including those of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, who also acknowledged the illegality of Israel settlements.

Challenge Congress' Colonialist Mentality

One might think – given this literally reactionary pro-colonialist ideology promoted by Congress – that at least some Democrats might have to worry about losing the support of their progressive base in doing so. However, a majority of Democrats have supported this and similar resolutions pushed by right-wing Republicans with little consequence. Liberal groups and political action committees like MoveOn and Democracy for America have labeled a number of these neo-colonialist Democrats as “progressive heroes” on the assumption that a progressive domestic policy for (predominantly white) Americans somehow makes up for racist policies toward people of color overseas. and that support for the legal rights for (predominantly white) Americans somehow makes up for opposition to longstanding tenets of international law when it affects nonwhite peoples.

Despite this, progressives here in the United States continue to give millions of dollars that could be used to support groups fighting for human rights and international law in the Middle East and elsewhere to the Democratic Party, MoveOn, Democracy for America, and other groups that are backing politicians who are fighting against those very principles.

The problem is not so much the supposed power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other groups to force members of Congress to back their right-wing agenda as much as it is the failure of progressives groups to force members of Congress to do otherwise.

Those who care about human rights, international law and the right of self-determination must withhold any financial support for the Democratic Party until Democrats end their strident opposition to such principles and limit their campaign contributions to the small number of Democrats who do.

And if MoveOn, Democracy for America, and similar groups want to salvage any credibiity or integrity, they must be clear that they will not endorse any member of Congress for re-election who opposes the right of self-determination by those under foreign belligerent occupation and who continues to embrace a reactionary early 20th century colonialist agenda.

If they do not, we must withhold our support for those groups as well and let them know why.

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