Congress Voices Support for Israel After a Week of Partisan Bickering

A week after Israel took Hezbollah on in response to a cross-border attack, the U.S. Congress was expected to pass a resolution Thursday expressing support for the Jewish state. Efforts by both houses of Congress to rush through earlier resolutions were dogged by political turf wars and agonizing over how best to express concerns about the safety of Lebanese civilians.

The arguments were reflected in the only significant difference between the final Senate version, passed unanimously on Tuesday, and the final U.S. House of Representatives version, which was scheduled to come to a vote on Thursday.

The difference boiled down to 10 words in the “resolved” section of the final Senate version, which “urges all sides to protect innocent civilian life and infrastructure.” No similar language appears in the House version, which instead recognized “Israel’s longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss.”

Close to 300 Lebanese, the vast majority of them civilians, have died in the fighting since July 12. Of 29 Israeli deaths, 15 have been civilians.

Ultimately, both resolutions were overwhelmingly positive for Israel. Each supported Israel’s right to defend itself and pursue state sponsors of terrorism.

“Congress recognizes that Israel has been forced to respond to unprovoked attacks and, like the United States and all sovereign nations, has the right and duty to defend its citizens,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement.

Beneath the comity, however, were frustration and accusations of bad faith. Democrats and Republicans exchanged barbs about “playing politics” — and each said the other side was behind the delay.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the minority leader in the House, removed her name from the resolution as a co-sponsor because it did not address the protection of civilians.

Consensus resolutions usually feature the name of both leaders; as it now stands, the House resolution is topped by the names of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the majority leader; Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the chairman of the International Relations Committee, and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.)

Republicans were happy to point out Pelosi’s no-show.

“It speaks volumes that she’s unwilling to lend her name as a co-sponsor,” said Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “It highlights a real wave within the Democratic Party that wants a more ‘even-handed’ approach on these issues, and that wants to view Israel through the same prism we do Hezbollah. Watering down is not acceptable right now.”

Democrats said it is nonsense to suggest they were ready to equate Hezbollah and Israel.

“Any effort to protect civilians from casualties and loss of life is something we want to see,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a conference call with Jewish reporters. But Democrats understand that “Hezbollah doesn’t care about civilian casualties, Israel does. Israel is doing everything it can.”

Concern for civilian casualties also dogged passage of the Senate resolution — but in this case, at least in part, because a leading Republican expressed reservations.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in a speech on the Senate floor on Monday night that he was concerned there was no mention made in the resolution of the 25,000 Americans stranded in Lebanon.

Additionally, he said, there should be a more emphatic call on Israel to show restraint.

“While I fully recognize that Israel was a victim of provocative attacks on her people and sovereignty, I urge the administration to think through very carefully how Israel’s extraordinary reaction could affect our operations in Iraq and our joint diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue,” Warner said.

Republican sources say they persuaded Warner to come around by Monday evening and the vote was held Tuesday.

Warner’s statement showed that there was bipartisan concern for Lebanese civilians, Democrats said.

Pelosi’s aides said she had twice signed off on versions that included such concerns, only to find that Boehner’s staff had removed the language. Ultimately, Pelosi’s staff said, she was not going to add her name to a resolution that did not contain a word she wrote.

“Rep. Pelosi wanted to incorporate her thinking if she was going to sign off on it,” said Jennifer Criden, Pelosi’s spokeswoman.

Boehner’s office could not be reached for comment.

Democrats also said Pelosi hoped to have the resolution on the floor by July 13, a day after Hezbollah launched its rocket attacks on Israel and killed eight soldiers and captured another two in a cross-border raid. Pelosi was willing to override the protocol, which would run the bill through the relevant committee.

Hyde, who heads the relevant committee, persuaded Boehner to restore the protocol, Democrats said, which delayed the vote. Sources in the pro-Israel community confirmed that sequence of events.

Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Republicans were too busy addressing “wedge” issues ahead of November elections in which they stand to lose one or both houses. He cited votes on a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, and one that would add protections to the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Neither the Pledge of Allegiance nor marriage are currently threatened,” he wrote on his blog. “Yet each ‘issue’ was a priority for the House, which at this time has still not passed a resolution expressing solidarity with Israel.”

In a phone interview, he lashed out at Republicans for targeting Pelosi. “This is a time for bipartisanship on Israel, but I guess the Republicans are so desperate with their situation in the Jewish community that they’ll make even the most laughable of attacks.”

Pelosi expressed strong support for the resolution in a floor speech Wednesday, but also made sure her concern about the welfare of Lebanese civilians were made known.

“This resolution reaffirms our unwavering support and commitment to Israel and condemns the attacks by Hezbollah,” she said. “As the fighting rages, it is imperative that the combatants take whatever steps they can to lessen risk to innocent civilians. The world knows too well the horrors of war. But there are ways to offer some degree of protection to civilians, and it is right to insist that those ways be chosen.”

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