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Politicians Being Dumb and Dangerous on Israel

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When it comes to issues involving Israel, politicians in Washington can become quite hysterical, making the dumbest remarks or doing the most illogical things. Evidence of such bizarre behavior abounds, and this week provided several examples.

Taking top prize would be newly-elected Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois. Kirk wants the U.S. to use military assets to stop the humanitarian flotilla on its way to Gaza. He wrote that the United States should "make available all necessary special operations and naval support to the Israeli Navy to effectively disable flotilla vessels before they can pose a threat to Israeli coastal security or put Israeli lives at risk".

Apparently it doesn't matter to Kirk that several dozen U.S. citizens are on those ships (including a number of retired U.S. military personnel), and that hostile action by the U.S. military would put the lives of their own citizens at risk. It also doesn't appear to matter to Kirk that with the U.S. actively engaged in several conflicts in the region and U.S. favorable ratings at record lows in the Arab World, a hostile act of this sort against this target would, in fact, only serve to further compromise the U.S. in the Middle East.

Almost as disturbing as Kirk's call for military action was the letter sent this week by Texas Governor Rick Perry to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Perry, who is widely believed to be considering entering the Republican Presidential primary contest, takes his hysteria over the flotilla in a different direction. In his letter, he says, "More importantly, I write to encourage you to aggressively pursue all available legal remedies to enjoin and prevent these illegal actions, and to prosecute any who may elect to engage in them in spite of your preemptive efforts".

Perry doesn't note which U.S. laws have been violated. Nor does he describe which "legal remedies" should be pursued. What he does reveal is that in his pursuit of the Presidency, he will say or do most anything.

And then there's the action taken this week by the entire U.S. Senate when it unanimously passed a resolution that expresses its: "opposition to the inclusion of Hamas in a unity government... [while noting that] Palestinian efforts to gain recognition of a state outside direct negotiations demonstrates absence of a good faith commitment to peace negotiations ... [which] will have implications for continued United States aid".

In speaking for their aid-threatening bill, the two Senators who introduced it made comments worthy of note. Lead sponsor of the legislation, Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, accused the United Nations of having a "well documented record of being hijacked" by Palestinians for use against Israel. Collin's co-sponsor, Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, denounced the UN effort, describing it as a "unilateral attempt by the United Nations to establish a Palestinian State".

Collins, of course, ignores the many times the U.S. Senate has "been hijacked" by supporters of Israel to take actions detrimental to the Palestinians (like this very resolution which threatens to cut U.S. aid or the infamous Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act of 1996, which had a devastating impact on perceptions of the U.S. across the Arab World). And while Cardin's description of the possible U.N. action has been so overused as to become cliché, it is, nevertheless, nonsense, since it defies logic to describe any action taken by a vote of the overwhelming majority of the more than 190 member states of the United Nations as "unilateral". But when it comes to demonstrating loyalty to Israel, logic and good sense are put aside in favor of outlandish displays.

All this might just be dismissed as "political pandering" or more "harmless hot air" from politicians who specialize in both. But it is dangerous and has consequences. In the first place, actions and statements like these send absolutely horrible messages overseas about the inability of American politics to deal fairly with any Middle East issue that involves Israel. And so these behaviors end up undercutting U.S. diplomacy. Secondly, these actions, and the bizarrely skewed, one-sided politics they reflect, tie the hands (or, at times, force the hands) of Administrations, negatively impacting the ability of policymakers to act. And finally, in the end, these comments and actions embolden hardliners in Israel and the Arab World, who both come to believe that there are no restraints on Israeli behavior and no way that Arab concerns will be heard or respected in U.S. policy debates.

And so, far from being harmless hysteria or just plain dumb, all this posturing can be damaging and dangerous. It is a good part of the reason why we are in the mess we are in the Middle East and why a just resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict appears to be so intractable.

Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of  Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American-community.