Secretary of State John Kerry, Vice President Joseph Biden and more than 50 congressional Democrats skipped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress yesterday because of his and House Speaker John Boehner’s disregard of diplomatic protocol. Several politicians criticized Netanyahu’s attempt to undermine nuclear negotiations with Iran and the arrogance he displayed toward the U.S. and the Jewish people, all of whom he claimed to represent.
No one mentioned the Israeli government’s ongoing mistreatment of Palestinians. despite recent polls indicating that there would be considerable popular support for a harder look at Israel’s policies by Congress and President Barack Obama’s administration.
Netanyahu appears determined to push the U.S. into a greater confrontation with Iran that, as a recent poll shows, most Americans do not want. He used the same “You’re either with us or against us” rhetorical stance that he employed more than a decade ago to help convince the U.S. to go to war in Iraq — a disastrous decision for both countries and the entire Middle East. His religious references and comparison of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Haman, the biblical Persian potentate (presumably putting himself in the role of Queen Esther, who saved the Jewish people) betrays dangerous fanaticism.
Netanyahu’s prediction that a deal with Iran would not block that country from acquiring nuclear weapon capability but, on the contrary, pave the way for such acquisition is baseless. Vigorous multilateral diplomacy with Iran over the past two years has made significant progress. The Islamic republic has suspended or even reversed some of its most worrisome nuclear activities and has been more transparent about other aspects of its program. Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear arms through diplomacy means avoiding violent confrontation with yet another Muslim country.
Netanyahu’s warnings about Iran’s nuclear program ignored a recently leaked document from his own intelligence agency, Mossad, that contradicts him. The report stated that Iran is “not performing the activity necessary to produce [atomic] weapons.” In addition, Mossad recently warned a congressional delegation to Israel that the imposition of new sanctions on Iran would derail negotiations.
In fact, the elephant in the room during Netanyahu’s speech was Israel’s status as a nuclear power. While Iran has signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Israel has not. The NPT has been signed or agreed to by virtually every country in the world except Israel, India, Pakistan, South Sudan and North Korea (which withdrew in 2003). Israel’s development of a hydrogen bomb is described in a recently released 1987 U.S. Defense Department report, dispelling any ambiguity about Israel’s capacity.
Each year the U.S. gives more than $3 billion in military aid to Israel, which has militarily occupied and subjugated millions of Palestinians for almost 50 years. The National Lawyers Guild (NLG), the first public-interest bar association in the U.S., formed in 1937 to advocate for the protection of human and civil rights, has called for Washington to end this military aid to Israel, in compliance with the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act; the latter stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
Israel’s numerous and systemic violations of international law and Palestinian human rights have been well documented by the United Nations and international human rights organizations. Under Netanyahu, such violations have only gotten worse. Israel has greatly expanded Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank, which the U.S. considers illegitimate and most of the world deems illegal, including the International Court of Justice, the judicial arm of the U.N. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits nations’ settling their citizens in occupied territory. Building settlements in militarily occupied territory constitutes a war crime under the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court.
Human Rights Watch has indentified a “separate and unequal” legal structure in the West Bank — one for Jews, the other for Palestinians. The latter suffer violence from Israeli settlers, daily military raids, home demolitions, checkpoints and the illegally constructed walls that separate them from their farms, schools, families and communities. If arrested, Palestinians can be subjected to indefinite detention without charge or trial, as documented by the NLG’s recent delegation focused on the plight of political prisoners.
Gaza is a man-made humanitarian disaster. Netanyahu’s government has tightened its blockade, imprisoning its population and causing its economy to collapse. Since December 2008, Netanyahu initiated two of Israel’s three massive military assaults on this densely populated area, in which more than 3,500 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed. In just the latest assault this summer, more than 500 children lost their lives. None of these horrors were discussed by Netanyahu or the many commentators who analyzed his speech and what many have called the unbreakable special relationship between Israel and the U.S.
According to the NLG submissions to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and to the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Independent Commission of Inquiry into the 2014 conflict in Gaza, Israeli forces were not acting in self-defense against rocket fire when they launched their 2014 assault on the West Bank and Gaza. Another submission by the NLG, together with the Center for Constitutional Rights and several international legal organizations, demonstrates that Israeli forces violated provisions of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court regarding war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Six months after the July assault on Gaza, with a cold spell hitting the Middle East, more than 100,000 Palestinians whose homes were destroyed are still without shelter, and babies are dying of hypothermia. Yet Israel continues to restrict the entry of necessary construction material. Oxfam said that at the current rate, it could take “more than 100 years” to reconstruct the civilian infrastructure, including homes, schools, hospitals and water and sewage systems.
Congress passed four resolutions over the summer supporting Israel’s “right to self-defense.” Netanyahu’s speech yesterday received numerous standing ovations by members of Congress. Yet Americans are far ahead of their elected officials regarding Israeli policies: According to a CNN poll taken last month, 66 percent of respondents wanted the U.S. to take neither side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is time to re-examine the unwavering political support from both parties in Congress and even the White House for Israel’s policies, which Netanyahu repeatedly emphasized in his speech. The U.S. does not need to be provoked into another senseless conflict in the Middle East. Instead, it should turn its attention to ending Israel’s unjust and illegal treatment of Palestinians.