“We will stand for Israel because Israel stands for American values as well as Israeli ones,” Senator Hillary Clinton thundered into the microphone at a demonstration outside the United Nations building on Monday.
“To some, like our feckless friends in Europe” said Representative Anthony Weiner shortly afterwards, “this is a complicated issue, a nuanced issue. But this is not a time for ambiguity. This is a time to be loud and clear that we stand with Israel.”
With rockets falling on Haifa and warplanes over Beirut, the officials in New York—home to more Jews than anyplace outside of Israel—seemed united in their support for the Jewish state.
Indeed, the members of the heavily Democratic contingent of Senators and Representatives who have been struggling to offer relevant opposition in Washington in the debate over Iraq have snapped to attention, mobilizing themselves to express support for Israel and, for the most part, for the Bush administration’s affirmation of Israel’s actions over the past week.
“This is the biggest thing that’s happened since 9/11 … in terms of the juncture between politics and Israel,” said Jennifer Duffy, editor of The Cook Political Report.
Like any political tremor, though, this one has exposed fault lines in the delegation, prompting subtle shifts in ideological alliances, in the long-term outlook on the national political picture, and on what the United States ought to do about what suddenly looks to be a potentially disastrous regional war.
Just below the surface unity in support of Israel’s right to self-defense, reactions to the eruption of open warfare have shown a delegation split into several imprecisely defined camps, with Republicans and moderate Democrats roughly lumped together as unconditional Israel hawks, and liberal Democrats—united in their dovishness on Iraq—divided on their degree of support for Israel’s muscular response to the cross-border kidnapping of two soldiers stationed near the Lebanon border.
It’s not an exact science.
Take Representative Jerrold Nadler, a social liberal and staunch opponent of the war in Iraq. He said in an interview that the eruption of hostilities in Israel and Lebanon was “a moment of clarity” that highlighted that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and Lebanon would never be enough to satisfy critics. And he equated support for Israel at this moment with support for the country’s right to exist at all.
But, he said, “the fact is I think that we’re spending much too little on protecting the United States; I think that we have to be very strong in support of Israel; and I think the Iraq war was a stupid mistake. Does that make me a hawk or a dove?”
It depends who you ask, apparently.
In the context of the delegation’s generally strong support for Israel, Representative Charles Rangel—the dean of the delegation—sounded downright conflicted about Israel’s “aggressive” actions.
“I think you know that everybody, everybody, says that Israel has a right to defend herself, to defend her kidnapped soldiers—and that they should exercise restraint in terms of civilian deaths,” he said.
Mr. Rangel emphasized that diplomatic efforts should be undertaken to bring about what he called “face-saving” conditions for either side.
“Of course, if we put pressure and stop the missiles from going and get a release of the soldiers, Israel has no choice except to stop the aggressive movements in southern Lebanon,” he said.
“Support for Israel is important, but it’s got to be done and carried out in the right way,” said Representative Maurice Hinchey, a liberal whose district is upstate. “We don’t want to have a situation where everything is being done on the basis of fear and violence. We need to continue to support Israel, but that doesn’t mean you have to continue to support everything that the Israeli government does.”
Almost uniformly, the Democrats in the delegation predicted that there would be no partisan gain for either side on the issue.
“I think it’s a wash,” said Representative Joseph Crowley, whose district includes parts of Queens and the Bronx. “I think both Democrats and Republicans consistently support the state of Israel.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, New York’s relatively few Republicans seemed less reticent to talk about the issue in partisan terms. Representative Peter King, a tough-talking conservative from Long Island, said he thought that Democrats who opposed the war would have a tough time defending strong support for Israel.
“The fact is that Israel’s foreign policy and ours are very similar,” he said. “They’re not looking for psychobabble here. They’re being attacked and they’re attacking back.”
Mr. King continued: “Israel is always going to have strong support among Republicans and Democrats, but I think some of the loud voices in the Democratic Party—some of the shrill anti-war voices in the Democratic Party—are just going to create problems for themselves and Democrats.”
Of course, the political ramifications of the conflict will depend on how quickly—and at what cost—the situation is resolved. As The Observer was going to press, Israeli leaders were still talking about completing a weeks-long operation to rout Hezbollah, while the rocket attacks from Lebanon that have sent residents of northern Israel to bomb shelters show no signs of letting up.
It is still a very real possibility that the conflict will spread to neighboring states, with Iran and Syria being implicated by Israel and the United States as the parties responsible for arming Hezbollah in the first place.
“This reminds me very much of the first week of June 1967, and I’m very worried about it. That was the week before the Six Day War broke out,” said Mr. Nadler. “This could lead to a regional war. It has all the elements that could lead to a regional war, which is not a good idea.”
And with sectarian violence reaching horrific levels in Iraq, it’s not clear that members of the Republican Party will actually be able to claim any aspect of current events as a vindication of their international security policies—or that Democrats will plausibly be able to claim that they have an alternative.
“Intransigence in North Korea, intransigence in Iran, absolute catastrophe in Iraq, disaster in Palestine, major war in Lebanon—seldom has the country had so many disasters internationally all at once,” said pollster John Zogby. “And seldom has the United States seemed so unsuccessful. So Democrats have a real opening here, with one exception: What would they do about it?”
For now, as the terrible events play out on the ground thousands of miles away, their arguments are irrelevant, leaving them to offer what they can—gestures of moral support.
On Sunday, outside the empty Diplomat Centre at the United Nations, more than 100 pro-Israeli demonstrators gathered for a protest ostensibly aimed at the Syrian Permanent Mission on the 15th floor.
With people hoisting signs, waving Israeli flags and spilling over toward a nearby H&R Block and Hallmark gift shop, their message was clear: Let Israel defend itself.
Mr. Weiner began an impassioned speech by connecting the missiles that struck Israeli soil to Damascus.
Congressman Eliot Engel followed his lead.
“Syrian missiles are being used,” said Mr. Engel. “We must isolate Syria. If they want to partner with terrorist states, then they’re going to get it from us tenfold, because we’re not going to stand by and let them do it.”
“This is the front line of terror, and Israel is fighting to win the war on terror,” he added. “The fight against terrorism is America’s fight, and it starts this week in the Middle East and Israel. We must succeed.”
“This,” he said, “drives home the point that the fight on terrorism is everybody’s fight.”