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Israeli critics still won’t find like minds, or loud voices, in Congress

Even lawmakers who voted no on appropriation to restock Iron Dome reticent to criticize Israel publicly

WASHINGTON — As the conflict in Gaza grinds into its second month, with the prospects of a more lasting cease-fire unclear, a rancorous, often emotional debate has unfolded on the world stage, on television screens, across social media platforms and at protests over Israel’s use of force and Hamas’ tactics. 

But there is at least one place where that debate has been conspicuously missing: the U.S. Congress, even though it can be typically counted on for rancor.

In their last act before leaving for a five-week summer recess, lawmakers nearly unanimously approved a $225 million funding package to restock Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

The measure cleared the Senate by unanimous consent, without lawmakers’ taking a vote. In the House the measure passed 395-8, without debate.

And in a marker of the uniform support that Israel continues to enjoy in Washington, even as the nation’s most recent incursion into Gaza draws fierce condemnation from many quarters, not even the eight lawmakers who voted against the Iron Dome resolution are willing to criticize Israel outright.

Al Jazeera America contacted the offices of all eight representatives — four Democrats and four Republicans — who voted no on the appropriation: Justin Amash, R-Mich.; Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; Walter Jones, R-N.C.; Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.; Tom Massie, R-Ky.; Jim Moran, D-Va.; Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas; and Mark Sanford, R-S.C.

None were made available for an interview, with some staffers citing travel schedules because of the summer recess. Some passed along brief statements, none of which addressed whether Israel had overstepped its bounds and used excessive force in the monthlong war. So far, nearly 2,000 Palestinians — three quarters of them civilians, according to the United Nations — have died in the conflict, as well as 67 Israelis, including three civilians.

“I have supported Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system in the past and do not oppose it now. Congress had a responsibility to debate this measure prior to borrowing and spending nearly a quarter of a billion dollars,” Lofgren said in a statement. “But this measure did not get even one minute of debate or discussion. As profoundly troubling events continue to unfold in the conflict between Israel and Hamas — in particular the death of hundreds of children — it is more important than ever that Congress be deliberate and thorough in its actions. I was disappointed that did not happen.”

O’Rourke said at a town hall meeting in El Paso, Texas, shortly after the vote that he was troubled by the lack of debate and that he favored a more comprehensive, political solution.

“What I think what Congress and those who proposed this vote were saying is, ‘Let’s send a message that we support Israel.’ Listen, I support Israel, but I’m not willing to vote to send $225 million jut as a sign of support if the need is not there,” he said when confronted by a constituent about his vote, according to The El Paso Times. “And I would like our efforts and our focus to be on trying to broker a peace deal or some political solution to our problems there.”

O’Rourke was, nonetheless, quick to lay the blame on Hamas for starting the war and for the mounting civilian casualties. 

“I believe that Hamas started this war. I believe that Hamas is culpable for what is happening. I believe that Hamas uses civilians as shields, launches rockets from schools and mosques, stores weapons in civilized areas. I think all of those things are true,” he said.

Moran, on MSNBC in mid-July, came closer than any other lawmaker in questioning Israeli tactics and noted that he was in the minority of members even calling for a cease-fire.

“Israel has the overwhelming support of the American Congress,” he said. “They can’t kill all of the people in the Gaza, and they can’t eliminate Hamas. They can certainly teach them a lesson, and their objective is long-term stability in Gaza. I’m not sure that’s going to be achieved when you have as many deaths as has occurred from this recent conflict.”

Even Ellison, a Muslim-American who has called for Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza, shied away in his public comments from remarking on whether Israel’s display of military force was excessive.

“Because a cease-fire is what we should prioritize now,” he said when asked to explain his vote on “Meet the Press.” “A cease-fire protects civilians on both sides. It doesn’t just say, ‘We’re only concerned about people on one side.’”

Meanwhile, the Republicans who voted no on the Iron Dome resolution focused on the question of fiscal responsibility. 

“I have always supported Israel’s unique tie to our country, and I feel for the families and friends there whose very life in many instances hangs in the balance with Iron Dome,” Sanford said in a statement on his Facebook page. “Here is the problem though, the bill’s cost wasn't paid for, and as a consequence, its $225 million dollars were simply added to the tab that is represented by the national debt.”

“We’re supposed to offset all new spending with cuts elsewhere. Congress did so with the border bill (which is for our own country), but not with the additional Iron Dome funding,” echoed the libertarian-leaning Amash on his Facebook page. “Our debt is approaching $18 trillion. Even our own defense spending is offset, so this was a clear violation of our rules.”

Israel has long enjoyed robust support among both Democrats and Republicans in the United States, receiving approximately $3 billion a year in assistance. Moreover, the pro-Israel lobby is a formidable force in U.S. politics. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee alone has spent $1.5 million in lobbying in 2014.

But among the public, unconditional support for the United States’ historic ally appears to be wavering, particularly as images of leveled neighborhoods, demolished U.N. schools and grieving family members in Gaza have ricocheted around the globe at the speed of an Internet connection.

A recent Pew poll found that 40 percent of Americans said Hamas is to blame for the latest violence, with 19 percent blaming Israel. Democrats are more evenly split, with 29 percent saying Hamas is at fault in the conflict and 26 percent saying Israel is. Asked if Israel has gone too far in its response, 25 percent overall and 35 percent of Democrats said yes. 

But don’t expect to find those views in Congress — not yet. 

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