A crisis of will

Pub date November 20, 2012

OPINION In 2009, I was working in Congress when the eminent South African judge Richard Goldstone came to the House of Representatives to defend the UN report he authored on war crimes committed by both Israelis and Palestinians during that year’s war.

Goldstone stood before a few of members of Congress and told them that before they condemned the report, they should at least read it. A few staffers and I sent emails across Capitol Hill offering to hand deliver a paper copy of the entire 575 page report. Only two members took up our offer. That afternoon 344 out of the 435 members of US Congress voted in favor of condemning the report. Most members said the same thing: we need to move forward and not point fingers.

But pointing fingers, Goldstone reminded us, is sometimes the most important thing to do. Without ascertaining who violated the law and therefore who should be held accountable, we create no system of punishment for those who harm civilians. We give them, in short, no incentive not to do such things again. As I left the Capitol building, an Israeli friend who worked with me in support of Judge Goldstone reminded me that in Congress the ultimate four letter word is “accountability.”

Three years later Goldstone’s fear has come true: The same war is happening again. And it is happening again because the US too often looks away when Israel violates international law.

You can almost copy a news article from 2009 and paste it into a newspaper today: Israel kills children in Gaza. Hamas fires rockets into southern Israel, killing civilians. The US issues a statement defending Israel’s right to self defense. The US says Hamas must change its actions but will not deliver these messages to Hamas because the US does not talk to terrorists. Then a few months later, a fact-finding report is released saying Israelis used US weapons and failed to distinguish between civilians and combatants. The UN votes on the report, the US vetoes, and the report’s author, like Goldstone, is vilified. Pundits come on TV and debate who fired first, and Fox News argues if there is a Palestinian proclivity to violence and hopelessness. And finally, NGOs put together donor pitches about how the solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict is getting Israelis and Palestinians to spend a summer on a picturesque lake in Maine.

But the solution is not getting Israelis and Palestinians to drink tea together. Nor is the solution to investigate Palestinian culture. The solution is addressing US aid to Israel. Last year, the US gave $3.1 billion to Israel. In comparison, Ethiopia received just $580 million. And while US law stipulates that no US weapon should be used to carry out human rights abuses, these laws are seldom applied to Israel. Even when 23-year-old American Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli bulldozer, the US did not press Israel for justice.

This is not to absolve Palestinians of guilt—Israelis civilians have also been killed, and we must not forget that. But we should not think this is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a issue of occupation.

Thankfully there is rising resentment over this lopsided support. Jon Stewart regularly skewers Israel and there is a growing group of Americans—across all faith lines—who wonder if the US should give Israel so much money given its record.

But this shift is not reflected among US politicians. This is a crisis of will, after all, not a crisis of solutions.