Shifting Gears on Pro-Israel Congressional Sign on Letters

06/23/2010 10:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Even before J Street launched two years ago, I always found the dynamics around Congressional sign-on letters and resolutions on Israel troubling.

Year after year, one-sided, reflexive statements on the Middle East - representing one vision of what it means to be 'pro-Israel' - would automatically garner near unanimous support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

With near-total disregard for nuance or even a tip of the hat to actually resolving the Middle East conflict, these statements served only one goal: to meet the perceived domestic political need to demonstrate unswerving support for Israeli policy.

So, it was not in the least surprising that, in the wake of Israel's raid on the flotilla off Gaza last month, two sign-on letters made the rounds - one in the House and the other in the Senate - offering unquestioning support for the Israeli government and its actions around the incident and toward Gaza.

Even less surprising was that both letters garnered overwhelming support. Even as the Israeli government was itself finally reconsidering its self-defeating policy toward Gaza, the US Congress pressed ahead with a full-throated endorsement of the unsustainable status quo.

Given the tenuous state of the Middle East in 2010 and the growing recognition of the significant impact the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict has on American interests, one might have hoped that Members of the House and Senate would have taken this opportunity to put forward a statement crafted to promote America's interest in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Perhaps Congress might have addressed the fact that the window of opportunity for a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is closing rapidly and that, without it, Israel can no longer be both Jewish and democratic. A thoughtful statement would have addressed how the United States will have a harder time pursuing its critical interests in the Middle East and around the world without a near-term resolution to the conflict.

Yet the latest letters ultimately signed and sent by overwhelming majorities of the House and Senate adopt a business-as-usual approach that will satisfy the lobbyists who crafted and pushed them, but bring Israel and the Palestinians no closer to ending their conflict.

Isn't it time for Congress to express its support not simply for Israel, but for a strong and meaningful American initiative to lead the way to a permanent two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to a broader, comprehensive regional peace?

Failure to achieve a mutually-agreed upon two-state resolution is likely to consign the Middle East to ongoing conflict and a broader conflagration, placing at risk not only our own nation - but the security and the Jewish and democratic character of Israel.

As nearly every Congressional pronouncement on the topic has always stated, the national interests of the United States and Israel do line up. However, those joint interests aren't necessarily best expressed by standing in lock-step unity around any and all policy decisions of the Israeli government - but rather in making resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a central goal of American foreign policy.

Congressional sign-on letters affirming Israel's legitimate security interest in preventing arms smuggling into Gaza, condemning Hamas violence and, of course, calling for an immediate release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit are entirely appropriate.

However, real courage and leadership from Congress would mean a break from business-as-usual politicking and a strong statement from Congress that it is ready to stand behind the President - or at least not stand in his way - if he steps forward in the coming months with a meaningful initiative to lead the way to a negotiated two-state agreement.

Without such leadership, the Middle East is likely doomed to bounce from crisis to gradually intensifying crisis, until the chance for a two-state agreement has disappeared.

If members of the House and Senate truly support Israel and truly wish to see it secure and survive, the time has come to break with politics-as-usual on this issue, to reject simplistic and politically-motivated statements and to promote a final peace agreement - before it's too late.