Congresswoman’s Middle East forum tilts to the left


It’s not every day that you attend a panel discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the most "right wing" members of the panel are the representative from B’Tselem and a onetime adviser to Israeli left-winger Yossi Beilin. But that was the case Thursday evening in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. at a townhall meeting hosted by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.).

Edwards, who took office last June, was one of 22 members of Congress who voted present — in addition to five who voted no — on a January resolution during the Gaza war which backed Israel’s right to defend itself and reaffirmed U.S. support for the Jewish state, while also encouraging a "sustainable" cease-fire in Gaza.

During her campaign last year, she said the Middle East didn’t come up much in her meetings with voters in Maryland’s Fourth Congressional District. But she said last week that her vote in January engendered such a response that the issue necessitated a further discussion. She told the crowd that she voted present because she didn’t feel it was appropriate for the U.S. Congress to weigh in on the issue the morning after the U.S. had voted to abstain on a United Nations resolution calling for a cease-fire, but that she “did not want to send a signal to anyone that it was appropriate to send rockets into Israel.”

Judging from those that asked questions at her town meeting, there were more people who had wished she had voted "no" on the resolution than those who voted yes in her district, which includes a large chunk of the largely middle-class, African American Prince George’s County and some neighborhoods, including Olney and parts of Rockville and Silver Spring, in affluent Montgomery County — a jurisdiction with a significant Jewish population. She knocked off incumbent Rep. Al Wynn, a reliable pro-Israel vote, last year, arguing that Wynn was too close to business interests and getting the backing of progressive organizations and blogs.

Questioners ranged from gently critical of Israel to outright hostility to the Jewish state – with calls for the recognition of Hamas, the suspension of aid to Israel and a man who sneeringly asked why no one from “the dreaded AIPAC” had shown up — with no questioner ever offering a traditional pro-Israel view.

Edwards said in an interview after the program that she had expected AIPAC supporters to be in the audience, but said she specifically didn’t ask someone from the pro-Israel group or another mainstream Jewish organization to be a panelist for the same reason she didn’t ask someone from the other “extreme.”

"I wanted to actually have a dialogue, in moderation,” she said, on what she had heard and felt from people in her district. With such groups, the discussion “might have been polarized and unhelpful,” adding that “this is also about education for people.”

Panelists included Daniel Levy, the former adviser to Beilin and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak who currently is a co-director and senior fellow of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation; Amjad Atallah, Levy’s co-director; Mitchell Plitnick, director of the USA Office of B’Tselem; American University professor and Carter Center fellow Robert Pastor; and Heather Hanson from the humanitarian group Mercy Corps DC.

Asked if that group was one-sided,” Edwards responded, “I don’t share that belief. They are moderate in their approach, pragmatic in their approach, about what needs to happen in the region and with the process.I know that there is a much wider range of dialogue and debate that goes on in Israel every single day than there is in the United States.”

Asked after the panel what it felt like to be the “right-winger” on stage, Levy, who advised Edwards on the Middle East during her campaign, laughed and said he loved it. More seriously, he said that “in this kind of audience, if you want to make sure that supporting peace doesn’t become an anti-Israel thing, modesty is a lot more effective.”

There is “perhaps more of a receptivity” having a “progressive Israeli voice,” he said, adding that he wished he had more of an opportunity to address the Israeli perspective on certain issues that were broached.

Edwards already has a checkered history with some in the Washington, D.C.-area Jewish community. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington had trouble before the election in engaging her in discussions about the Middle East, and the Washington Jewish Week newspaper did not get a response to numerous requests for a pre-election until after the campaign learned that the paper was preparing an article on her unresponsiveness.

Last week’s town hall didn’t help those relations. JCRC of Greater Washington executive director Ron Halber said that when you combine Edwards’ vote with her “unbalanced” forum, “many Jews in her district are becoming uncertain about her leadership. I encourage her to begin a conversation with Jewish leaders.”

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