In most of the world, the Israeli attack on Gaza is viewed as an intensely controversial act and, more commonly, an excessive, unjustifiable, and brutal assault on a trapped civilian population. But not in the United States—at least not among America’s political and opinion-making elite. Here one finds a bipartisan consensus as simplistic as it is unquestioned: Israel’s bombing campaign and invasion of Gaza are right and just, and it is the duty of the U.S. to support these actions unequivocally.
From the moment Israel began dropping bombs on Gaza, leaders of America’s two major political parties rushed to announce their total support, competing to see who could most fulsomely praise the offensive. So complete was the agreement that they all seemed to be reading from the same script. While other Western governments issued even-handed statements condemning both Israel and Hamas and their diplomats worked furiously to forge a ceasefire agreement, America’s political leaders stood on the sidelines, cheering with increasing fervor.
When it comes to Israel’s various military actions, there is far more dissent within Israel, where one commonly finds prominent, vehement criticism of the Israeli government, than there is within the U.S., where such criticism is all but nonexistent. Indeed, in the U.S. Congress, there is far more unqualified support for Israel’s wars than for America’s own.
The refusal of our political leaders to deviate even slightly from this ritual reached its zenith during the week of Jan. 5, when events in Gaza heightened worldwide opposition to the Israeli attack. The Palestinian death toll exceeded 800, with more than 3,000 wounded. The UN reported that roughly a third of the dead and wounded were children, that Gaza was on the verge of collapse, that its residents were on the brink of mass starvation. Israel bombed a school where the UN had established a shelter, killing 40 refugees hiding there in terror. The Israeli Defense Force initially claimed that Hamas militants had shot from a rooftop of the school and Israel merely returned fire. But the following day, when the UN investigated and found that claim to be false, Israel was forced to acknowledge that no such provocation occurred. Instead, the IDF said, the bombing of the school was merely an accident.
The next day, the Red Cross, which for a full week had been prevented by the IDF from entering Gaza, unveiled a gruesome discovery: numerous children, too emaciated even to stand up, had spent days in an apartment complex lying next to the corpses of their parents and other relatives as the IDF blocked ambulances from reaching them. The same day, the UN suggested that Israel had committed war crimes, citing an appalling incident in which the Israelis ordered some 110 civilians to enter a house and stay there, then proceeded to shell the building, killing 30 civilians inside. Though the IDF physically prevented journalists from entering Gaza, even in the face of a week-old order from the Israeli Supreme Court directing them to allow access, documented stories began emerging of large extended families in Gaza—parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and small children—extinguished by Israeli attacks.
The world recoiled in horror. Angry street demonstrations erupted in Europe, and condemnations of Israel from the UN and Red Cross were unusually strident.
It was at this moment that the American Congress inserted itself—and, in effect, the United States—into the war, and did so in the most one-sided manner possible. As the Palestinian body count and international anger mounted, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) introduced a non-binding resolution that expressed unequivocal American support for the Israeli attack and formally declared that all blame for the war and all responsibility to end it rested with Hamas—none with Israel. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee quickly announced its full support.
AIPAC’s enthusiasm was unsurprising since the text of the resolution could easily have been written by the Israeli government. Every sentence was framed exclusively from the Israeli perspective, each clause grounded on the premise that Israel was 100 percent just. Not a word of criticism or even reservation. On the contrary, Berman’s resolution praised Israel for its humanitarian conduct of the war—even as the UN accused Israel of possible war crimes and the Red Cross vehemently complained about the IDF’s impeding of medical and other humanitarian services. Most notably, the resolution expressed unyielding American dedication to the “welfare” of Israel, both in general terms and with regard to this war.
In the Senate, support for the resolution was absolute across party and ideological lines. Its chief sponsors were Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Not a single senator—not one—expressed opposition, so there was no need for a roll-call vote. On Jan. 8, as images of a burning Gaza were being broadcast around the world, the Senate approved the resolution by unanimous consent, without objection.
Two days later, the House followed suit. Of the 435 members of Congress, a grand total of five voted against the resolution, while 20 voted “present.” The rest—from the farthest left precincts of the Democratic Party to the farthest right wing of the Republican Party, from all four corners of the country and everywhere in between—found common cause in lending full-throated support to Israel’s war.
What makes this transpartisan consensus so notable is not merely the improbability of 510 ideologically diverse lawmakers all looking at this perplexing and contentious war and just happening to decide that Israel is fully in the right. Beyond the abstract question of whether Israel’s attack is justified lies the weightier question of whether the United States should incur the wrath of much of the world, and virtually the entire Muslim world, by involving itself in this war. Remarkably, the consensus extended not only to the view that Israel was right to attack Gaza, but that the U.S. should formalize its support for Israel’s offensive.
Though the resolution was nonbinding, it was not inconsequential. At a time when worldwide disgust was at its peak, the U.S. made Israel’s war our war, its enemies our enemies, its intractable disputes ours, and the hostility generated by Israeli actions our own. And we emboldened Israel to continue.
Given that we hear endlessly from our political establishment that the first obligation of our leaders is to keep us safe—that’s the justification for everything from torture to presidential lawbreaking—what legitimate rationale is there for the U.S. Congress to act in unison to redirect worldwide anger against Israel toward American citizens? How are U.S. interests advanced by insinuating ourselves into such an entrenched conflict? Answers to those questions from supporters of the resolution were never required because those questions were never asked. As dubious a proposition as it is, the notion that American interests are inherently advanced by lending unquestioning support to Israel is one of the country’s most hardened and unexamined premises.
What makes this accord among America’s political class more notable still is how disconnected it is from American public opinion. Last July, a poll from the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 71 percent of Americans want the U.S. government not to take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Similarly, a Rasmussen study in early January—the first to survey American public opinion specifically regarding the Israeli attack on Gaza—found that Americans generally were “closely divided over whether the Jewish state should be taking military action against militants in the Gaza Strip” (41 to 44 percent, with 15 percent undecided), but Democratic voters overwhelmingly opposed the Israeli offensive—by a 24-point margin (31 to 55 percent). Yet those significant divisions were nowhere to be found in the actions of their ostensible representatives.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to find in American political life any other issue of this consequence, complexity, and controversy that generates such absolute agreement within our political class. Even in the intense climate that prevailed in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when most of America’s elite institutions notoriously marched lockstep behind President Bush, there was substantial minority dissent. As pliant as the Democratic Party and the Congress were, there were still 22 senators and 133 House members—more than half of the Democratic caucus—willing to vote against the American invasion of Iraq.
There are few matters more important to America’s future than the extent to which we continue to involve ourselves in endless Middle East wars. Our immersion in these conflicts profoundly affects every aspect of our country’s welfare—military, diplomatic, economic, and civil. Yet there is an almost perfect inverse relationship between the significance of these policy questions and the extent to which they are debated by our political leaders.
Glenn Greenwald is author of Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics.
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