Israel Backers Push for Tough Resolution

Posted June 7, 2010 at 6:24pm

The debate over Israel’s blockade of Gaza could head to the House floor soon as lawmakers push for a resolution explicitly backing the Jewish state amid an international uproar over the deaths of nine people during an attack on a ship bringing aid to the territory last week.

Israel’s actions received an outpouring of support from dozens of Members of Congress, although in the aftermath of the violent confrontation at sea, a handful of lawmakers sharply criticized Israel’s blockade of the impoverished land ruled by Hamas.

Now, Members are pushing to bring the issue to the floor, although the House Democratic leadership hasn’t yet decided how to handle the matter; the White House didn’t respond to inquiries about a resolution by press time.

Democrats are bracing for a Republican resolution defending Israel’s position with the most aggressive language possible — a tack the majority expects will be tailor-made to divide their ranks and discomfort the president.

“The Republicans seem intent on playing politics to embarrass Democrats,” one senior Democratic aide said. Meanwhile, the majority, this aide added, needs to balance robust backing of Israel with the challenge of navigating a fluid and combustible diplomatic situation.

The Obama administration has had an uneasy relationship with Israel’s staunchest defenders in the American Jewish community — including those in Congress. But the White House has taken pains in recent months to bridge the gap, dispatching top officials to Capitol Hill to assure pro-Israel lawmakers of their commitment to standing with the Jewish state.

Last month, President Barack Obama huddled at the White House with 37 Jewish Members of Congress to discuss issues facing the country and his administration’s plans for pursuing a peace process. And he has gotten mostly positive marks from them for the administration’s response to the flotilla raid.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) authored a resolution in January 2009, shortly before Obama’s inauguration, that backed Israel during its invasion of Gaza and passed the House on a 390-5 vote. That came after Hamas launched thousands of rockets across the border, and Israel has justified its blockade as necessary to intercept weapons on their way to Hamas.

A new resolution would likely contain many of the same elements — blaming Hamas for launching rockets into Israel, for kidnapping an Israeli soldier, and acts of terrorism. It also could address Turkey, a key U.S. ally and NATO member that is furious over the attack on the flotilla.

The issue became even more inflamed Monday when Iran threatened to escort in aid ships with its Republican Guard.

That threat prompted Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) to challenge Turkey to reject Iran’s overtures.

“It’s time for Turkey to pick a side,” Weiner said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security ranking member Peter King (R-N.Y.) said he is drafting a resolution that would explicitly back the blockade and bless the use of U.S.-supplied weapons to enforce it.

“I will certainly resist any efforts to water it down, and I’m hoping we can get a majority of Democrats and Republicans to support it,” King said. “The last thing we need is to water it down. It’s time to put up or shut up.”

In addition to backing the blockade, King’s resolution would demand that the Obama administration block any international efforts to investigate Israel and call for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council, which condemned Israel’s attack.

King also complained about what he called “mixed messages” from the administration on Israel since Obama’s inauguration.

“We have been really very reluctant to support Israel,” King said, accusing Obama of trying to draw a moral equivalency between Israel and its enemies. “I feel strongly that the administration should be much more forceful that Israel has the right to blockade, has the right to defend itself and fight for survival. Hamas has fired thousands of rockets against Israel.”

King denied that he wants the resolution to be partisan, and he specifically praised House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for strongly coming to Israel’s defense last week.

“Steny Hoyer has always been very standup when it comes to Israel,” King said. “I would hope that Speaker Pelosi would be as forceful as Steny Hoyer.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for an investigation last week of the flotilla attack in a milquetoast statement, but she initially neither endorsed nor condemned the blockade.

She later said at a press conference last week in San Francisco that she respects “Israel’s right to defend its people” and appeared to bless the Gaza blockade.

“If there was a threat coming into our waters, we would want to make sure it was stopped,” she said.

But Pelosi also has some of her more liberal Members — including Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the only Muslim in Congress — calling for an end to the blockade, while Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) wants Israel’s funding to be cut.

King said the resolution must specifically back the blockade, not just reiterate support for Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Israel is under siege,” King said. “If you are under siege, a blockade is a legitimate way to defend yourself.”

King added, “If we aren’t being explicit, we are backing away from Israel.”