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Washington Must Confront Its Dysfunction, If It Is to Lead

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The hysteria on display in Washington over UNESCO's vote to include Palestine as a member of the world body, though largely a manufactured effort, was, nevertheless, irritating and a sad commentary on the dysfunctional nature of U.S. politics.

From the Congressional letter urging the Administration to "Oppose [the] Dangerous Bid by the Palestinians to Gain UNESCO Recognition", and the White House's briefing of corporate executives warning them of the consequences to their interests should the Palestinians succeed "forcing the U.S. to defund the U.N.-related agency"; to the post-vote breast-beating that accompanied the "automatic cut-off of U.S" dues, and the shameful rhetoric that blamed the Palestinians for harming UNESCO's work -- just about every aspect of this entire affair was almost surreal.

I was here in Washington in 1993 and 1994 after Oslo, when it was fully expected, in the euphoria that followed the Arafat-Rabin handshake and signing on the White House lawn, that Congress would rescind its long list of anti-Palestinian legislation. It would have been the right thing to do, but it was not to be the case, since AIPAC and its hard-line pro-Likud supporters would have none of it.

And so instead of changing or canceling the anti-Palestinian laws they had passed in the previous decade, Congress was pushed to place even more punitive restrictions on U.S. relations with and support for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Instead of removing the ban on the PLO operating in Washington or even visiting the U.S., they were given a "waiver" to operate, that could be revoked under certain conditions and required a regular report from the Administration to Congress in order to remain in effect. Aid was given to the Palestinians, but with conditions more humiliating and burdensome than any other U.S. assistance package.

During this period, an alliance was born between the Likud who wanted Rabin to fail and Republicans in the U.S. Congress who wanted Clinton to fail. Both saw punishing the Palestinians as a safe target on which to focus their attention in order to accomplish their shared objective.

Despite Democratic control of the House of Representatives, hard-line pro-Israel politics trumped the Administration's appeals for Congress to take steps more supportive of Israeli-Palestinian peace. After Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, it was as if the Likud had moved its offices to Capitol Hill. At one point, AIPAC's and Congress' efforts to pressure and punish the Palestinians became so troubling, that then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin came to Washington to deliver an angry message to AIPAC, telling them to "back off" because their meddling in Congress was interfering with his efforts to make peace.

The legislation that has now been implemented suspending U.S. dues to UNESCO is a product of that era: of Likud and their bipartisan allies in Washington who wanted to set up as many traps and pitfalls as they could to make peace impossible; and of cowardly Democrats who wouldn't stand up to support their President and peace by opposing this obstructionism.

What is of course so irritating is how selective are the memories of those who run official Washington. Instead of remembering that these laws requiring an "automatic" withdrawal of U.S. dues were passed precisely with the intention of punishing the Palestinians and making the search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace more difficult, politicians today act as if these sanctions are divinely-ordained. When officials here lament the enforcement of these laws saying "regrettably we have no choice", even spelling out the dangers that these laws pose to the U.S. and the world, what they are really saying is that they lack the courage and political will to act to change the very laws they created.

Because lawmakers refuse to challenge hard-line Likudniks, they, therefore, blame the Palestinians for forcing them to confront the situation they themselves created and now refuse to change. In the surreal world created by this mindset, America becomes the victim, now being forced to do something it knows: will hurt the world's poor, impede efforts to preserve the world's heritage, harm the interests of American companies, and do more damage to America's image and standing in the world. And in answer to the question "Why are you doing this?", politicians feign innocence and say "because the bad Palestinians forced us to, that's why."

That is why all this breast-beating is so irritating. And it is why, as long as Washington is captive of its own refusal to confront its own dysfunction, it cannot provide real leadership in the search for peace.

The Palestinians, to be sure, have problems at home. They must work to achieve national reconciliation and they must give hope to their people empowering them to become part of a true national liberation struggle. But for the past several decades, the Palestinians have not just had to face a brutal, humiliating, and acquisitive Israeli occupation, they have also had to face down an America that enabled this occupation -- an America that feigned a leadership role as an honest broker, all the while acting as "coat holder" and cheerleader for one side in the conflict. And that is why, as painful as I find this state of affairs, I believe that it is important that the Palestinians have embarked on this strategy forcing Washington to face up to the reasons behind its failures in the Middle East, and increased isolation in the world.

For there to be peace between Israelis and Palestinians, America must change. This will not come easily. There will be more of the proverbial "gnashing of teeth" and complaints that the "Palestinians are pursuing a dangerous course" or "forcing us to do this or that". In reality, however, all that we are being forced to do is come to grips with our own failure and face up to what is increasingly becoming the reason behind our self-imposed isolation.

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.