Lobbying groups pressure lawmakers, Obama on Gaza flotilla

Israel’s commando raid of a Gaza aid flotilla has sparked a surge of lobbying here in Washington.

Despite the congressional recess, groups from across the spectrum on the Middle East peace process went into action once news broke last Monday that nine activists died in a skirmish with the Israeli military. Advocates have been talking to lawmakers and the White House as well as garnering public backing by initiating letter-writing campaigns and phone calls to district offices of members of Congress during the break.

Much of the debate has centered not on the incident itself, but rather on the underlying policy disagreement: Israel’s 3-year-old blockade of Gaza. Activists were trying to run the blockade when Israeli commandos boarded their boat, leading to the battle between the two sides. It is expected to be a persistent problem for the Obama administration since activists are planning more runs through the blockade. 

Israel took over one such ship belonging to a Cyprus-based Gaza activist group on Saturday, forcing the ship to divert to an Israeli port so cargo going into Gaza could be searched for weapons. The nonviolent confrontation was over in minutes, the Associated Press reported.

In a memo to lawmakers and supporters this week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) said Israel “has a legitimate right to self-defense and reason to be concerned about cargo going unchecked into Hamas-controlled Gaza.”

The group defended the raid by saying Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and has been caught smuggling in weapons later used for attacks against Israeli civilians. In addition, AIPAC said the blockade is only partial, and that Israel lets relief aid flow into Gaza.

AIPAC has also been urging people to contact their lawmakers and ask them to issue statements of support for Israel. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was one of the latest to back the country in a statement he released Friday.

But others say the incident shows that Israel should end the blockade and are making that case to policy-makers in Washington.

“It hasn't worked,” said Hadar Susskind, vice president of policy and strategy for J Street, another Jewish lobbying group. “What we are calling for is for them to have a strategy for them to succeed, to have security as well as to revitalize the peace process.”

Susskind said Israel has a right to defend itself but the blockade is counter-productive, having already been proven ineffective by black-market smuggling into Gaza.

In turn, J Street is seeking signatures for an open letter to President Barack Obama calling for the end to the blockade of humanitarian goods from entering Gaza, subject to inspection to stop weapons from getting in. Susskind has been saying the same to members of Congress and administration officials, he said.

“We have to get away from the comic-book narrative and work with members of Congress and the administration on how to actually move this forward and achieve peace, not just see how many lawmakers we can get to recite our talking points,” Susskind said.

Others seeking an end to the blockade are calling on lawmakers to come out against it.

“Unfortunately, the bastion of support for this humanitarian siege is in the Congress. Unless that changes, there will be no movement towards a peaceful and just resolution of the conflict,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Others see the onus being on Hamas to change in order for Israel to remove the blockade and are trying to place the emphasis on the group, designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., in the media.

Kenneth Bandler, director of communications for the American Jewish Committee, said Gaza’s ruling party has been responsible for violence against Israeli citizens, forcing Israel to respond.

“If Hamas had renounced terror, recognized Israel and supported the two-state solution, we would not have the blockade,” Bandler said. “It is important to get the message to foreign capitals, the highest levels of government, and to the media in this country.”

The aftermath of the flotilla raid is being watched closely by more than just Jewish and Muslim activist groups, though.

Turkey is also involved in the flare-up since it was the boat of a Turkish organization that was raided by the Israeli commandos. But unlike the Turkish government, which has harshly criticized Israel for the tragedy, the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA) emphasized a more balanced approach to the incident.  

“The lack of leadership displayed by the countries in the region, and the United States as a super power, in solving a more than half a century old dispute is perpetuating a crisis of ever expanding proportions,” said G. Lincoln McCurdy, TCA’s president, in a statement.

“We call on the Obama Administration to have a principled and even-handed approach to make sure that international laws, United Nations resolutions, and human rights considerations are uniformly applied. We also hope that all parties remember that the Turkish and Jewish people have had a friendly history extending over five centuries.”