My concern for the Israeli-Arab conflict is a personal one. I was raised in a Jewish neighborhood — three synagogues within three blocks of our home in Springfield, Mass. — which sensitized me to Jewish culture and history. As a young student of world affairs, I closely followed the history of the Holocaust and Israel’s birth in Palestine.
On the other hand, I also had a close boyhood friend whose family had roots in Syria and Lebanon; they exposed me to the local Lebanese community. The Middle East conflict was part of my global political awakening
During my 12 years in the U.S. Senate I enjoyed the support of a number of Jewish organizations, most notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the preeminent “pro-Israel” lobbying organization. For a time, I had a perfect voting record in support of Israel.
On several trips to Israel and the Middle East, I developed contacts at the highest levels of the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). These trips were discouraging; the possibility of peace seemed unattainable — until the courageous leadership of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat emerged.
My political rupture with AIPAC occurred over a vote for military aid to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel. This legislative package of aid was put together by the White House primarily to shore up support for Sadat in the Middle East. AIPAC opposed the package and hoped to muster enough congressional opposition to pressure the White House to stop the military aid package to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But on this occasion, Sadat’s overture to Israel was too significant a factor. This was a rare instance in which AIPAC didn’t “win” on an issue. Interestingly, my vote was the same as those of Sens. Jacob Javits (New York) and Abraham Ribicoff (Connecticut), two Jewish leaders at that time in Congress and the nation. They also recognized the importance of supporting Sadat and were not intimidated by pressure from AIPAC.
This event underscores the nature of the Israel lobby in Washington. Political positions and decisions within AIPAC were and continue to be profoundly influenced by the Israeli government.
The tragedy is that much of the nation’s progressive Jewish community defers to Likud-like organizations, and too many Jewish donors — as with Christian Zionists — buy into fear-mongering and rationalizations for anti-Palestinian discrimination transmitted from abroad. A Jewish community once at the forefront of pushing for civil rights and equality in our own country too often today supports organizations and candidates upholding Israeli discrimination in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and, increasingly, within Israel itself.
When I left office in 1981, Israeli leaders were increasingly succumbing to a bunker mentality, sustained by fear and a history of oppression that has long since changed. The Israel I admired is difficult to recognize, save in the actions of young Jewish demonstrators helping Palestinians to protest Israel’s expansionist West Bank barrier. Israel has been captured by the religious right with its sense of entitlement to Palestinian land.
The dangerous political leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his oppressive domination of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank must be opposed. He does not want peace. Instead, Israel continues to build on the ethnic cleansing it perpetrated in 1948. The colonization effort in occupied Palestinian territory is thriving under Netanyahu.
Unfortunately, I expect the U.S. Congress to give Netanyahu thunderous applause later this month in a joint meeting as he obscures Israeli discrimination against Palestinians. Likewise, this month will see many American politicians beat a path to the annual AIPAC conference, where speaker after speaker will identify threats against Israel without noting the enormous harm Israel is causing itself — and Palestinians — with a repressive occupation fast approaching half a century in age.
Until Israel’s leadership and policies change, we will not see regional peace. Unless American leaders acquire a more balanced approach, and become more supportive of Palestinian aspirations for freedom, the United States will not be able to act as a fair broker for peace.
Mike Gravel was a Democratic U.S. senator from Alaska from 1969 to 1981.