The 111th Congress was in session from 1/2009–12/2010. The first session (convened on 1/6/09 and adjourned on 12/24/09) was covered in JPS 155; the second session, covered below, opened on 1/5/10 and adjourned on 12/22/10, bringing the 111th Congress to a close.
Overview of Congressional Priorities in Context
Throughout the second session, perennial Congressional priorities with regard to Palestine, Israel, and the wider conflict included maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, continuing U.S.-Israeli bilateral military cooperation (particularly developing antimissile capabilities to protect Israel against rocket fire from Gaza and Lebanon), and containing the threat of a nuclear Iran that sponsors Hizballah, Hamas, and other groups hostile to Israel. Support for the Palestinians remained largely confined to humanitarian assistance and training for Palestinian security forces. Holocaust remembrance and the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit (captured in Gaza in 2006) have also become routine.
In addition, the second session was marked by the continuation of specific trends carried over from the first session of the 111th Congress and President Obama’s first year in office. International pressure and criticism of Israeli policies, already exacerbated by Operation Cast Lead (12/2008–1/2009), the Goldstone and other investigations that followed, and the ongoing blockade of Gaza, received new impetus from the 5/2010 Mavi Marmara incident in which Israel staged a massive military assault on a humanitarian aid convoy organized by Turkish and international activists to break Israel’s siege on Gaza, killing nine activists. Soon after, the Friends of Israel Initiative (FOII), a group of international public figures was organized by former Israeli diplomat and current president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Dore Gold, to “combat attempts to delegitimize Israel,” with Israel’s right to self-defense becoming a prime issue. Meanwhile, ongoing U.S.-Israeli tensions over Israel’s settlement construction and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process were reignited in 3/2010 when Israel announced a major new East Jerusalem settlement project, thus derailing Israeli-Palestinian talks about to begin. The tensions over settlements continued (in varying degrees) until 9/2010, when a temporary West Bank “freeze” (agreed in 11/2009) ran out, and, Obama having abandoned efforts to secure an extension, West Bank settlement construction resumed. With the peace process now completely dormant, the Palestinians, refusing to restart talks in such conditions, shifted their diplomatic focus to securing international recognition of a de facto Palestinian state at the UN.
By that time, Congress was already preoccupied with the midterm elections campaign, heightening Congress’s already marked partisan divide. Earlier in the session, Democrats in general had supported Obama’s peace stands, while Republicans accused his administration of pushing Israel too hard and not being “sufficiently pro-Israel.” During the campaign, Republicans and Democrats, besides highlighting their support for Israel, engaged in a kind of one-upmanship on Iran, resulting in a series of hard-line anti-Iran measures seemingly more for show than expected to make it out of committee and into law.
The 11/2010 elections for the 112th Congress kept the Democrats in control of the Senate but brought a Republican majority to the House. Soon after, the presumptive House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) told the press that he had assured Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu at their recent one-on-one meeting in New York that the new Republican majority in the House “understands the special relationship between Israel and the U.S.” and pledged to “serve as a check” on the Obama administration (seen by Republicans as too pro-Palestinian).
After the elections, House Democrats engaged in some last-minute jockeying over pro-Israel legislation before the Republican take-over in 1/2011. Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) pushed through the passage of H. Res. 1765 of 12/15/10 “condemning unilateral measures to declare or recognize a Palestinian state” just before the winter recess. The Republicans had introduced more strident measures on the same issue in November, but Democrats, keen to be seen as taking the lead, sneaked the measure through under a “suspension of the rules” procedure and by voice vote with fewer than 10 representatives on the floor. Also on the eve of the winter recess, Congress, having failed to agree on the FY 2011 budget (which should have taken effect at the start of the U.S. fiscal year in 10/2010), managed to extend the current budget through 3/2011. As a result, disbursement of Israel’s $3 b. in military aid for FY 2011 was delayed.
Overview of Legislative Action
During the second session, Congress acted on a total of 73 measures relating to Palestine, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Of these, 67 were newly introduced bills and resolutions (representing 1.4% of all measures introduced in Congress during 2010) and 6 were carried over from the first session. Of the 73 measures, 21 passed.
Bills and Joint Resolutions
Of the 73 relevant measures acted upon this session, 37 were bills or joint resolutions that have the force of law if passed. Of these, 7 were passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by President Obama.
Of the 7 bills that became law, 4 contain provisions providing or authorizing military aid to Israel, as follows:
• Two stop-gap funding bills (necessary to keep the government from shutting down Congress) that allowed government operations for 2011 at the same levels as in 2010. The Continuing Appropriations Act (H.R. 3081 of 6/26/09) contained a legal fix permitting increased military assistance for Israel. The Continuing Appropriations and Surface Transportation Extensions Act (H.R. 3082 of 6/26/09) carried over that assistance, as well as economic aid for the West Bank and Gaza, until the 112th Congress could pass its own funding bill in 2011.
• Two bills granting new authorities to the president and the defense secretary to allow them to increase military assistance to Israel. The Security Cooperation Act (S. 3847 of 9/27/10) allowed the president to grant Israel access in emergencies to a growing stock of U.S. military equipment and supplies stored in Israel, and contains provisions expediting approval for proposed arms sales to Israel. The 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 6523 of 12/15/10) gave the defense secretary the authority to finance Israel’s purchase of a missile defense system to defend against rockets from Gaza and Lebanon.
The other 3 bills that became law all contain provisions that undermine Israel’s adversaries. These are:
• The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (H.R. 2194 of 4/30/09) required the president to implement potentially crippling sanctions against Iran and companies that do business there. The bill passed with overwhelming support in both chambers and represented a major triumph for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the wider Israel lobby, which had been lobbying for such a bill for many years.
• The Intelligence Authorization Act (H.R. 2701 of 4/6/09) required the Director of National Intelligence to provide an assessment to Congress of the nuclear weapons programs of Syria, Iran, and North Korea.
• The Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act (S.1147 of 5/21/09) cites among its justifications the need to cut off Hamas’s and Hizballah’s purported fundraising through the sale of illegal cigarettes in the U.S.
Hereafter, and throughout the text, the bills that have passed will be bolded and marked with an asterisk.
Of the 37 bills and joint resolutions introduced (or carried over) this session (including the 7 that became law), 16 directly benefited Israel. Of these, 10 concern military funding or military assistance/cooperation. The others involve non-military aid or benefits, recognition, or diplomatic support. The bills providing diplomatic support include: pressing the U.S. government to move its embassy to Jerusalem (H. Amdt. 3690 to H.R. 4872 of 3/17/10); calling on the U.S. govt. to oppose any UN investigation into the Mavi Marmara affair and supporting Israel’s right to self-defense and to blockade Gaza (H.R. 5501 of 6/10/10); calling for a diplomatic effort in favor of Israel’s right to self-defense (H.R. 5351 of 5/20/10), and broadening the definition of anti-Semitism to include discourse “couched as expression against Israel” (H.R. 6277 of 9/29/10). Though counted (above) under military funding or assistance, S. 3676 of 7/29/10 also calls for Israeli-Arab normalization and for ending the Arab boycott, and conditions any funding for establishing a Palestinian state on fulfillment of certain Israeli demands
An additional 13 bills, while not directly benefiting Israel, promoted its interests by undermining its adversaries or perceived enemies. Seven of these involved Iran, North Korea, and Syria, (including *H.R. 2701 of 6/4/10) and Iranian “surrogates” Hezbollah and Hamas. Of these, 4 target Iran principally: 2 call for comprehensive sanctions, etc. (*H.R. 2194 of 4/30/09 and S. 2799 of 11/19/10); 1 calls for stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons programs (H.R. 6296 of 9/29/10), and 1 essentially supports regime change (S. 3008 of 2/11/10). An additional 4 concern Hamas and Hizballah without mention of Iran (including S. 3676 of 7/29/10, which prohibits funding for the PA if Hamas joins the government, and *S. 1147 of 5/21/09). Finally, 2 joint resolutions sought to prevent the U.S. from selling advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia (H. J. Res. 99 of 11/18/10 and H. J. Res. 124 of 12/15/10).
Palestine was addressed in 3 funding bills: 2 provide economic aid and security training to the PA (*H.R. 3081 and *H.R. 3082 of 6/26/09) and the 3rd (S. 3676 of 7/29/10) sought to fund programs in the West Bank and Gaza requested by the president and State Dept. Of particular interest in this last bill are the provisions on a presidential waiver and PA compliance.
Four bills expressed Congressional ire at the United Nations and affiliated bodies: H.R. 4636 of 2/22/10 proposed ending aid to countries that voted less than 50% of the time with the U.S. at the UN; H.R. 5065 of 4/20/10 would limit U.S. funding to UNRWA and subject it to tight controls; H.R. 5351 of 5/20/10 would prohibit funding for U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court; and H.R. 5501 directs the U.S. to cease participation in the UN Human Rights Council and ensure that no U.S. contributions are used for investigation of Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla.
Simple and Concurrent Resolutions
Simple and concurrent resolutions cannot become law if passed, but merely express the views, opinions, and (on occasion) the demands of Congress. Simple resolutions (designated H./S. Res.) are debated in only one chamber, concurrent resolutions (designated H./S. Con. Res.) in both chambers. Both require a simple majority to pass. While not legally binding, they can carry significant political weight.
In this session, 36 simple and concurrent resolutions were introduced, of which 14 passed. Of these, 5 offered recognition, congratulations, or condolences to various parties; 4 concerned the Holocaust, 2 called for the immediate release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, 1 condemned the actions of those aboard the Mavi Marmara, 1 condemned Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and 1 condemned the PA’s effort to gain international recognition for a Palestinian state.
Israel is mentioned in 22 resolutions. Of these, the theme that stands out is Israel’s right to self-defense, as mentioned above reflecting mounting international criticism of Israeli policies, especially in Gaza. in H. Con. Res. 315 of 9/14/10. Three of the 4 resolutions concerning the Mavi Marmara (*S. Res. 548 of 6/9/10, H. Res. 1440 of 6/14/10, and H. Res. 1599 of 7/30/10) emphasized Israel’s right to self-defense against the terrorists on board the humanitarian aid ships; the last resolution (H. Res.1532 of 7/15/10) implies a self-defense motive in Israel’s attack on the ship by asserting that the flotilla attempted to “breach Israel’s coastal security” and “assault” its navy. Other resolutions emphasizing Israel’s right to defend itself are H. Con. Res. 260 of 4/13/10 (in general); H. Res. 1553 of 7/22/10 and H. Con. Res. 315 of 9/14/10 (against Iran and the nuclear threat); H. Res. 1241 of 4/13/10 (against terrorists). Also of note are the 2 resolutions on Jerusalem (H. Res. 1191 of 3/18/10,urging the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and H. Con. Res. 271 of 4/29/10, reaffirming Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital), whose timing was certainly related to U.S.-Israeli dispute over Israel’s settlement building in East Jerusalem reignited in early 3/10.
Iran was another important focus of the session, figuring in 10 resolutions. Of these, 7 were directed against Iran primarily: 2 with reference to nuclear weapons (*H. Res. 1457 of 6/22/10; H. Res. 1553 of 7/22/10); 3 calling for diplomatic or legal measures against it (H. Res. 1181 of 3/12/10, H. Con. Res. 256 of 3/22/10, H. Con. Res. 295 of 7/1/10) and 2 concerning domestic issues (H. Res. 1431 of 6/10/10 on abuses against Iranian citizens, and H.Res.1497 of 6/30/10 on the content of Iranian textbooks). Five of the Iran resolutions also reference its support of Hizballah and/or Hamas. H. Res.1285 of 4/21/10 on Syria condemns it for transferring Scud missiles to Hizballah.
Three resolutions address Palestinian diplomatic efforts to gain international recognition of a Palestinian state: H. Res. 1731 of 11/18/10 and H. Res. 1734 of 11/29/10 (which also called on the Obama administration to suspend aid to the PA if it unilaterally declared a state) and *H. Res. 1765 of 12/15/10.
Lobbies and Congress
As in previous years, the pro-Israel lobby intervened publicly in a number of congressional initiatives during 2010. AIPAC is the most visible of the lobbies and arguably has the most influence in Congress. Its annual conferences, held in Washington every May, are its most important public lobbying events, drawing large numbers of congressmen, featuring major speakers, and devoting a full day to lobbying Congress. The 2010 conference (its 51st ) took place 5/21–23 with a record attendance of 7,500. On the final day, some 4,000 AIPAC volunteers lobbied their senators and representatives in about 500 scheduled meetings. Talking points distributed to the volunteers at preparatory workshops emphasized AIPAC’s 2010 priority issue, Iran sanctions, as well as the perennial need to support U.S. military assistance to Israel. The congressmen were also urged to sign 2 letters (sponsored by their colleagues in the House or Senate): one to President Obama on the urgency of sanctions against Iran, and one to Secretary. of State Clinton on the urgency of reducing the U.S.-Israeli tensions over settlements that were running high at the time.
Letters on U.S. policy that circulate in Congress, often sponsored by congressional leaders of both parties with influence over legislation dealing with U.S. foreign affairs, are widely believed to be authored by AIPAC itself, often reproducing verbatim arguments made in AIPAC press releases and position papers, themselves often echoed in congressional measures. Senators and representatives active in pushing the AIPAC agenda are often rewarded with campaign contributions from pro-Israel political action committees (PACs); 5 of the those with prominent roles in this session’s efforts (Howard Berman, Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs [HCFA]; Ileana RosLehtinen [R-FL], ranking Republican on the HCFA; Ron Klein [D-FL], member of HCFA; House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer; and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor) were among the top 10 recipients of pro-Israel PAC money for the 2009–10 election cycle. (See H.R. 2194 of 4/30/09, H. Con. Res. 260 of 4/13/10, and H. J. Res. 99 of 11/18/10 for the measures this session where AIPAC’s role was most visible; H.R. 2194 of 4/30/09 also featured lobbying efforts by other Jewish groups, including the Zionist Organization of America, which generally keep lower profiles).
The AIPAC lobbying model has been adopted by the Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest pro-Israel organization in America, which claims 500,000 members. Rooted in End Times theology and with political positions based on literal interpretations of scripture, the organization drew 5,000 CUFI members to its 2010 annual summit (7/20–22). Its main themes (not very different from AIPAC’s) were the Iranian threat; terrorism; Israel’s sacrosanct right to self-defense, including by military action (this last theme is based on a passage from Deuteronomy when God calls on the Israelites to annihilate their enemies); and Israel’s God-given right to its ancient land (and therefore to build settlements and to resist U.S. pressure to curb them). CUFI summits (like AIPAC annual conferences) end with a lobbying day on Capitol Hill where CUFI members (4,000 in 2010) meet their senators and representatives to press upon them these principles and their biblical origins. Founded in 2006, CUFI’s influence in no way approaches AIPAC’s, and tends to be greater among republicans. (See H. Res. 1553 of 7/22/10 where a CUFI role is discerned.)