British House Of Lords Versus U.S. Senate

Daily Beast 2.12.13

The British House of Lords is anathema to many on this side of the Atlantic. Even with reforms, there are still members of the chamber who are there due to an accident of birth, and its members’ titles sound like a Shakespearean play. Yet despite the unelected, privileged and often detached nature of many of the peers, the House of Lords took time on Thursday to debate the role of civil society in building peace in Israel and Palestine.

The Lords and Baronesses of Great Britain decided to have an in-depth discussion around the civil society groups, so often overlooked and ignored by analysts and decision-makers, and elicit a government response. The members who participated range from the former chair of the Liberal Democrats Friends of Israel group, Lord Palmer, to Baroness Tonge, a passionate advocate for Palestine.

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Snow falls on the Houses of Parliament on January 18, 2013 in London, England. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images)

The groups mentioned included ACRI, OneVoice (full disclosure: I am a staff member), Hand in Hand, B’tselem, ALLMEP and others. The discussion ranged from funding levels to normalization, refugee rights and educational policies.

In the United Kingdom, the House of Lords exists to provide expertise on legislation, and a discussion that has a small check and balance on the House of Commons. Back here in the U.S. where I now reside, the Senate, where discussion is supposed to be king, is clearly failing with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The lack of intelligent public discussion on the challenges and opportunities in the conflict coming from members of Congress is frankly appalling. Though high profile confirmation hearings bring out the worst grandstanding from Senators, the repetitive nature of the inquisition of Senator Chuck Hagel demonstrated the poverty of the debate.

Compare the obsessive fixation on Israel in Senator Hagel’s confirmation with the softball questioning of Senator John Kerry in his confirmation for Secretary of State. One could argue it demonstrated a lack of real interest in what’s going on on the ground, in such an important area of U.S. foreign policy.

The power of the Senate to affect the conflict dwarfs that of the House of Lords by such a magnitude that it is hard to even hold them side-by-side. The more power the chamber has, the more it seems to have an inverse effect on the level of debate. The more power, the less informed televised debate happens, and all of us who care about the conflict suffer.

When was the last time anyone heard anything new or interesting about the conflict in a Senator’s remarks? If elected officials are going to fixate on Israel and Palestine, they should at least have something interesting to add to the discussion.

I love the power that the American political system embodies in Congress: Elected officials in the United States are far more than the lobby fodder of their British counterparts. With six-year terms, Senators have the time and power to truly make a difference. It would be nice if they actually did.

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When House of Cards Becomes Reality

Ha’aretz 2.11.13

In the new, and may I say excellent, Netflix remake of the political thriller “House of Cards,” the main protagonist, Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, seeks to knock out the president’s choice for secretary of state. With some in-depth research and some dirty tricks, he links the nominee to an obscure op-ed written 40 years ago that criticizes Israel. Underwood then gets the Anti-Defamation League to come out and call the nominee anti-Semitic, and in the ensuing media storm the nominee is withdrawn.

Chuck Hagel, on the other hand, survived the media firestorm amidaccusations of anti-Semitism to arrive at the U.S. Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination as secretary of defense. But – in a life imitates art scenario – it wasn’t an easy ride.

While Hagel does have a record worth questioning – as would any other candidate for a high cabinet office, to ensure they are qualified for the post – his confirmation hearing made for uncomfortable viewing for anyone who really cares about Israel.

Israel was raised a stunning 178 times (according to the Lobe Log; Foreign Policy counted 166 mentions), with Senator Cruz (R-TX) even brining in an audio-visual display. The focus of the questioning was guided by the weeks of campaigning by groups such as Christians United for Israel and the Emergency Committee for Israel. Yet the uproar that these groups caused ahead of the hearing turned out to be that of a paper tiger; Not only did they have no material success, they ended up having the inverse impact on Israel’s image to that which they sought to achieve.

Stephen Walt, co-author of “The Israel Lobby” argues in his book that pro-Israel lobbies prevent Congress from holding open debate about U.S. policy toward Israel. He goes on to argue that this lack of genuine debate on Israel prevents a “generally positive impression of the Jewish State” to be shaped among politicians, and thus the American public. “Playing the anti-Semitism card stifles discussion even more and allows myths about Israel to survive unchallenged,” he writes in his book.

After the circus at Hagel’s confirmation hearing, Walt ironically thankedthe Emergency Committee for Israel, Jewish-American magnate Sheldon Adelson, and the Senate Armed Service Committee for “providing such a compelling vindication” of his views.

The Punch and Judy Show that the Israel debate has become in Washington is incredibly damaging to those who care about the U.S.-Israel relationship. While in 2008 there was a danger of it becoming a partisan issue, the bi-partisan consensus has truly been shattered by the debate shifting from the reality of the situation to the ideology of the religious right. The mainstream support of Israel is being battered by a singular slavish view that is more in line with the evangelical Christian community then that of the U.S. Jewish community.

This episode should serve as another reminder to the U.S. Jewish community to the fact that they are not the only players in the Israel-lobbying sphere. The mainstream Jewish groups sat out of the Hagel fight, yet Israel remained the number one issue in the confirmation hearing. The obsessive questioning further disconnected intelligent voters and Israel as a bi-partisan cause. The issue was appropriated and abused by a small group of resourceful and passionate activists, and through their abuse Israel was damaged in the eyes of many.

Pro-Israel lobbies should be careful not to lose the American Jews who are conflicted between their own “hugging and wrestling” with Israel and the desire to keep a united public front to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. For if the pro-Israel standards that are expressed before the public continue to drift further and further to the political right, especially on prime-time television, Jews will find themselves attempting to identify with a consensus they no longer recognize.