For House Democrats, a vote for solidarity with Israel meant solidarity with Republican Whip Tom DeLay, who reminds them of Newt Gingrich. Such liberal luminaries as Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi, the House's leading advocate for human rights, Barney Frank, the usually remorseless critic of House follies, and John Lewis, who spent much of his youth in jail for civil rights, were among the 352 who voted aye for DeLay's flier in diplomacy.
The resolution was nonbinding, which was some comfort to those with misgivings. They know it will not stop suicide bombers or muzzle Yasser Arafat or halt the tanks of Ariel Sharon. What it will mostly do, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) observed glumly during the floor debate, is make us the "laughing stock of the world."
None was rude enough to mention the crass political reality that DeLay is also an an evangelist, and that he made an incautious statement in Pearland, Tex., April 12 that sounded like a warning to non-Christians that they might not be saved. "Christianity is the only way," he said at the First Baptist Church. Fervent promotion of a resolution that might have been written by the Israel lobby, AIPAC, was seen as a powerful antidote -- so powerful that it might even open up to the GOP the large, rich, heavily participatory Jewish constituency that has hitherto belonged to Democrats.
An election year is no time for nuances. A member could easily brush aside a charge that he or she was "no friend of Israel" if opposed to DeLay, by citing a lifelong record of Zionism and explaining that it is possible to love Israel while deploring the tactics of Ariel Sharon. As for the unspoken accusations of anti-Semitism, they hung in the air like cobwebs.
Administration objections to Capitol Hill kibitzing were known. It was a moment of peak tension: a fire in the Church of the Nativity, Sharon's tanks poised for a new West Bank assault, the cancellation of a U.N. mission to investigate the rubble of Jenin and the announcement of a new Mideast parley. It did seem an ideal moment for adult inaction. But the die was cast at a Tuesday meeting at the White House. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle announced the restiveness among his horses, who were hot to trot for Israel; Tom DeLay announced he couldn't hold his, and the derby was on.
The Senate voted 94-2 for a resolution sponsored by Joe Lieberman, who makes no secret of his ambition to be on a national ticket again. It was somewhat milder than DeLay's in that it didn't castigate Yasser Arafat.
Only Sens. Robert Byrd and Fritz Hollings voted no. They are both old enough to remember the 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution of Lyndon Johnson, another ill-timed congressional resolution endorsing military action. The resolution was waved around at hearings for years as justification for the Vietnam War. It helped engender the tide of wrath and tears that eventually overcame Lyndon Johnson. Only two held out in 1964, Sens. Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morse.
House Republicans, usually sticklers for loyalty, quite easily rationalized resistance to George Bush's objections. They took a cue from Binyamin Netanyahu, who, on a recent U.S. tour, announced that George Bush, whatever he was saying, was on Israel's side. He might talk evenhanded -- "on the days he talks to Colin Powell," in the cloakroom formulation -- but he wasn't kidding when he called Ariel Sharon "a man of peace."
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) bravely introduced a resolution with an unashamedly balanced approach. The former head of the Progressive Caucus in the House was able to muster only 13 co-sponsors. DeFazio said he found it "stunning" that the House would want to go on record with a resolution that positioned it "to the right of Ariel Sharon and the Likud Party."
But that's exactly what the House wanted to do, and Tom DeLay made it easy for them. He arranged a rule that forbade any amendment to his resolution and banned the introduction of any substitute or alternative amendment.
When DeFazio took to the floor with his passionate plea for "balance" and noted that "Ariel Sharon engaged in a provocative foray to the Temple Mount to foster his political ambitions, he provided the spark that ignited the fuel of Arafat and the current violence," he spoke to empty chairs.
Tom DeLay had a capacity audience for his closing speech, picturing Israel in a fight for survival against terrorism. He had cleaned up the floor with his unaccustomed allies, the liberals. They must console themselves with the thought that outraged Arabs will be further outraged by this show of intemperance, helping to defer Bush's much-desired war with Iraq.
Thursday's work may turn out to be a heavily disguised move for peace. The bombers will not be heading for Baghdad anytime soon.