The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

Is It True That Not a Single Senator – Including Progressive Dems – Cares About Palestine?

The pro-Israel letter 100 U.S. senators sent to the U.N. fails to mention Israel's illegal occupation or settlements

Ben Norton & Adam Johnson, AlterNet, May 2, 2017

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

All 100 members of the U.S. Senate sent a letter to the United Nations on April 27 that spread misleading pro-Israel myths. Included as signatories were the Senate’s two progressive leaders, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

AlterNet repeatedly contacted the offices of Sanders and Warren with a request for comment. Neither replied.

The 725-word letter does not mention Israel’s illegal military occupation of Palestinian land, which marks its 50th anniversary this June. Nor does it acknowledge Israel’s illegal colonization of Palestinian territory through ever-expanding settlements.

Even the U.S., Israel’s closest ally, has agreed at the U.N. that Israel’s occupation and settlements are flagrant violations of international law. The senators’ letter glosses over this elementary fact, and does not even acknowledge the existence of the Palestinian people.

The bipartisan senatorial campaign against the U.N. was led by hard-right neoconservative Republican Marco Rubio and Reagan-Republican-turned-Democrat Christopher Coons.

“Although, as Republicans and Democrats, we disagree on many issues, we are united in our desire to see the United Nations improve its treatment of Israel,” the senators wrote in the letter, which also demonizes the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

They claimed “member states and agencies are using the U.N.’s privileged platform to advance an anti-Israel agenda.”

U.N.’s Pro-Israel Bias

In reality, the evidence shows that the U.N. has a pro-Israel bias. Emails leaked from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demonstrate how the U.S. State Department successfully exerted pressure with the goal of “deferring” U.N. action on Israeli war crimes, as previously detailed in my report on Salon.

While the State Department conceded that the 2009 U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, known commonly as the Goldstone Report, was only “moderate,” it was still not pro-Israel enough for the U.S. Messages from top officials illustrate how the government pushed to water down the report, “reframing the debate” about the atrocities and “moving away from the U.N.”

Moreover, U.S. government cables released by WikiLeaks show how former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon worked with the U.S. and Israeli governments to weaken the 2009 U.N. report on the war crimes Israel had committed in its recent war in Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead.

The idea that the United Nations was “singled out for special scrutiny” is conventional wisdom in U.S. political circles. Those who make this argument, as the senators do in the letter, point to Agenda Item 7—a standing agenda item on the U.N. Human Rights Commission’s docket that debates Israeli human rights violations. Crucial context missing from this talking point is that the focus on Israel’s human rights record by less powerful U.N. bodies like the Human Rights Commission is the logical byproduct of a U.N. Security Council—by far the most powerful and consequential U.N. body—doing nothing to curb Israel’s human rights abuses through the decades.

Indeed, the last time before December of last year the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution even vaguely condemning Israel was in 2002, when Resolution 1397 passed calling for a two-state solution. The United States’ “automatic veto” on all things Israel virtually guarantees even its most flagrant human rights abuses will go unchecked by the only body with the power to actually enforce anything.

Take one word cloud of the frequency of countries referred to in U.N. press statements in all of 2016. Israel barely registered a blip, wedged between Syria and Central-African-Republic. Does this look like a country that’s suffering “entrenched bias”?

Erasing Millions of Palestinian Refugees

The senators accused the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East of “perpetuating troubling anti-Israel bias and activities,” without citing any evidence for this claim. They also failed to disclose the fact that UNRWA was only created because some 80 percent of Palestinians were violently expelled from their homeland in the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing by the Zionist militias that formed the state of Israel.

Today, seven decades later, there are more than 5 million Palestinian refugees recognized by the U.N. These millions of refugees were not mentioned in the U.S. senators’ letter.

Demonizing BDS

The letter claimed the U.N. has committees that “inspire the anti-Israel boycott, sanctions, and divestment (BDS) movement,” and called for such committees to be “eliminated or reformed.”

BDS is a global movement, called for by Palestinian civil society, that uses peaceful economic mechanisms to pressure the Israeli government to comply with international law. The BDS campaign’s three demands are not only very moderate, they are all required under international law.

The U.S. government has relentlessly smeared the movement, while the Israeli government has created an entire ministry devoted to countering BDS.

Conflating Criticism with Anti-Semitism

Echoing right-wing pro-Israel groups that conflate criticism of Israeli government policy with racism, the letter also ludicrously claimed the U.N. has “reinforced the broader scourge of anti-Semitism.” The senators heavily implied that criticism of Israel’s crimes is anti-Semitic.

They applauded the U.N. leadership for withdrawing a March report by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) that acknowledged “Israel is guilty of imposing an apartheid regime on the Palestinian people, which amounts to the commission of a crime against humanity.”

Pressure by the U.S. government forced Rima Khalaf, a Jordanian diplomat and the former head of ESCWA, to resign. Several weeks later, Khalaf stands by the accuracy of the report and says she has “no regrets.” The senators’ letter smeared this report as “anti-Israel” and implied it is anti-Semitic.

The senators did not mention that the ESCWA report was co-written by Richard Falk, a renowned legal scholar who is also Jewish. Falk, a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and the author of dozens of academic books, is also the former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories.

In the report, Falk emphasized that ESCWA rejects “the accusation of anti-Semitism in the strongest terms.” He added that “the question of whether the State of Israel is constituted as an apartheid regime springs from the same body of international human rights law and principles that rejects anti-Semitism: that is, the prohibition of racial discrimination.” Falk also flatly rejected the allegation that the U.N. singles out Israel for disproportionate criticism. He noted that the U.N. and its predecessor, the League of Nations, have failed to fulfill their obligations to the Palestinians since 1922.

Falk wrote, “If this attention to the case of Israel by the United Nations appears exceptional, therefore, it is only because no comparable linkage exists between United Nations actions and any other prolonged denial to a people of their right of self-determination.”

Calling for Action Against U.S. Enemies

The letter correctly noted that “some of the world’s worst human rights violators” sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC). What it did not mention is that the U.S. and its allies supported putting some of those violators there. Saudi Arabia is the most egregious example; a close ally that acts as an extension of the U.S. military, the Saudis have in the past decade bought well over $100 billion in weapons from the U.S.

In October 2016, the U.S. and its allies welcomed the reelection of the Saudi regime to UNHRC, while working to kick Russia off of the council. The British government refused to withdraw support for Saudi Arabia’s membership.

In September 2015, the U.S. State Department “welcomed” the appointment of the Saudi regime to the head of a U.N. human rights panel, explaining, “We’re close allies.” In late April of this year, the U.K. also refused to deny voting to put Saudi Arabia, whose laws systematically subjugate women, on the U.N. commission for women’s rights.

Israel is likewise an ally of Saudi Arabia and the two have become increasingly unified in their shared opposition to Iran.

The U.S. senators glossed over all of this in their letter, and failed to even mention Saudi Arabia. Rather, they insisted UNHRC should instead focus its attentions on the human rights violations committed by U.S. enemies Russia, China, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela. This double standard alone should expose the political bias of the senators’ letter.

Ben Norton is a reporter for AlterNet’s Grayzone Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton. Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst at FAIR and contributing writer for AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJohnsonNYC.