Muslim congressman: Palestinians can’t live under current conditions
Keith Ellison, who was recently mentioned during Obama's Cairo speech, tells The Media Line both Israel and Palestinians have 'some legitimate and meritorious points to make about the land and the area that is so hotly contested'; adds 'I’m not going to stand up and call for a direct dialog with Hamas, but I do recognize that if you talk to all of the players in the game then it does make it easier to bring the game to a reasonable resolution'
United States Congressman Keith Ellison was recently referred to by President Barack Obama in his Cairo speech as the nation’s first Muslim representative to swear the oath of office on Thomas Jefferson’s Koran. Representing Minnesota’s 5th District, Ellison has made the Middle East a priority, traveling to the region on a number of occasions since entering Congress in 2007.
Below is a complete transcript of The Media Line’s June 7th interview with the congressman.
Ellison: I was as surprised as anyone when I heard the president refer to my swearing in.
The Media Line: I don’t think I’ve heard an Episcopalian congressman introduced as “the Episcopalian congressman or a Jewish congressman introduced as “the Jewish congressman.” Do you tire of being introduced as “the Muslim congressman?”
Ellison: I just take it in stride. I think the first Jewish member of Congress probably got referred to as the “first Jewish member of Congress.” And certainly when Joe Lieberman was on the ticket for the vice presidency, people often made reference to his religion because he would have been the first…you just got to take the good with the bad…
The Media Line: Congressman, in the area of foreign relations, you’ve really shown a strong interest in the Middle East, almost from the first day you entered Congress. I’m sure it would be simplistic to attribute all of it to your religious beliefs, so tell us what’s behind it.
Ellison: Well, it’s a part of the world where we’ve had historic conflict that if we could resolve it, we could open a tremendous opportunity
for the 300 million people who live in the Middle East. As well as for the world. And look at Iraq. Here’s a society that has ancient roots, has major purpose for the three Abrahamic religions, and yet, it’s in chaos. The same thing can be said for Afghanistan…it doesn’t have the religious attachment, but it is part of the broader Middle East that’s been war-torn for many years. The fact that the Americans and Europeans and other countries are there now, and before that the Brits….they’ve had conflict for quite a long time. So I think that the Middle East is a fascinating part of the world and it’s a part of the world where if we could really work on ironing out these age-old conflicts I think we could make some significant progress and bring about a higher standard of living for everybody and even reduce some of the flash points that tend to draw the United States in to conflict in that part of the world.
The Media Line: You’ve made a number of trips to Israel as well as to the Palestinian territories, how black and white is that conflict?
Ellison: The fact is it’s too simplistic to speak in terms of who’s right and who’s wrong. The reality is that the story of the Jewish people in Israel is the story of overcoming major obstacles, particularly around World War II and the Holocaust, and then coming to a homeland and having trouble there. At the same time, the Palestinians were in the area and they regard that as their homeland, too, and so it would be easy if you could say one side is wrong or one side is right. The point is that both sides have some legitimate and meritorious points to make about the land and the area that is so hotly contested; and of course, over time there are certain elements within both groups that have made errors that have set back the cause of peace, collaboration and cooperation. And so I don’t think it’s very useful to speak in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian situation in moralistic terms. I think it’s much more important and much more effective to talk about the future, dealing with how to get along now, how to improve the quality of life for everybody concerned, how to resolve conflict over a table rather than over a battlefield. I’m more focused on the more practical aspects of resolution of the conflict because I think that once you start delving into history and who’s right, who’s wrong, who did what first, you just end up with a never ending cycle and you don’t really move the cause of peace down the street. And again, what’s most important to people? The people who are living in Tel Aviv want to be able to get on a bus safely, and get to where they’re going without worrying about any sort of bomb blast. And what are the people worrying about in the Palestinian areas? They want to be able to make sure their children have a bright future, a good education, and can actually realize their dreams. So we focus on the things that we all need to have as opposed to other considerations I think it’s much easier to understand what we need to do.
The Media Line: When you’re in the Middle East, you spend a lot of time with Israelis, you spend a lot of time with Palestinians; you go to Sderot, you go to Gaza. You speak to both sides, occasionally in terms they don’t want to hear. Yet, you go back to Washington to the land of “yea” and “nay” and it seems that as a representative, you’re required to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. Is there room to embrace both people back in Washington?
Ellison: I think the only sane solution is to embrace both people in Washington. Washington does have this very strong mannequin element to it; you’re either for or against: yes or no. That does not lend itself to American national security nor does it lend itself to the benefit of people who are in the Holy Land – whether they be Israeli or Palestinian. We’ve got to break this framing of “you’re either on this side or on that side”; we’ve got to be on both sides. We’ve got to say that we are for a two-state solution in which Israel can live in peace and security and Palestinians can have a state of their own where they can grow and prosper. And then over time, we can really drill-down over issues that everybody really needs to be focused on, like water, energy and how to really make some economic prosperity.
The Media Line: Congressman, let me ask you about two non-binding resolutions offered back-to-back in the House. Nancy Pelosi offered one right after Israel’s Gaza operation that was unequivocally supportive of Israel. It received a lopsided approval on the floor of the House. Then Cong. Kucinich offered a resolution that was unequivocally critical of Israel on the issue of the humanitarian crisis. It didn’t fare as well, but my point is why couldn’t the two resolutions have been combined so that congressmen and women could have supported the good points of both?
Ellison: It’s a great question. You know, ideally, we could have had these resolutions pooled together because then it wouldn’t force people to make difficult choices. If you have a resolution that supports Israel’s right to stand up for itself because of the Qassam rocketing -- obviously I condemn (the rockets) and I support Israel’s right to defend itself. But in the context of the Gaza war, the resolution in my opinion did not reflect the suffering that the ordinary people who didn’t really cause the conflict were going through. And at the same time, when you talk to everybody – and I’ve talked to people who are unquestionably pro-Israel and always have been – all of them said “we really are sad that people in Gaza are suffering that way, especially the people who are captive of the people who are shooting those crazy and immoral Qassams off and don’t have anything to do with it at all. So it goes back to the earlier question that you asked. Why do we find ourselves always squeezed into the position – rather than coming together as a Congress, asking “What makes sense?” This is the sense I’m trying to speak up for more and more, and say, “Look, let’s be on the side of peace. Because in the Congress, if you say, “I’m pro-Israel,” then there are a number of people who will support you for that. And if you say I’m pro-Palestinian, there’s a smaller group, but there still are those people who say “I want to support you being that way.” But if you say, “I’m for peace and resolution of the conflict, and for the United States to be engaged for the benefit of the both people including the United States,” then that constituency is almost non-existent. There is this sort of mannequin need to say you’re for this or you’re for that; I think we’ve got to evolve out of this and I think President Obama is going to help us do that.
The Media Line: Congressman, what should be the American position on Hamas? Is it sound policy to boycott a Palestinian government that includes Hamas if it refuses to recognize Israel and renounce violence?
Ellison: That’s a very interesting question that you ask, because no American politician, no member of Congress today can stand up and say “Let’s have unrestrained dialog with Hamas and not have to defend that position to the degree that that politician would not scarcely be able to talk about anything else at all. So I’m not going to get up here and tell you yes, let’s have unrestricted dialog with Hamas. But I will point out a few things. One, is that it’s fairly well-known that Israel talks with Hamas through Egypt and maybe directly. That’s suspected but it’s not known. But it’s known that they talk through Egypt as a conduit. We also know that Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, and to act like they’re not there all might not help us get to the goal we all want which is to have a fair, final resolution of the conflict. So, again, I’m not going to stand up and call for a direct dialog with Hamas, but I do recognize that if you talk to all of the players in the game then it does make it easier to bring the game to a reasonable resolution. I will say, however, that terrorism is objectionable, immoral and un-Islamic, and I think that any group that partakes of it is in the wrong and need to abandon that behavior.
The Media Line: Gilad Shalit is still being held captive. As a Congressman, what measures could be taken by the American government?
Ellison: I think that all governments should work hard to get all people who are unjustly held in captivity, including Gilad Shalit. I’ve met with Gilad’s parents and I have a replica dog tag of his. I also met with the parents of Goldwasser and Regev who were captive in Lebanon; but the fact is that if you talk to people who are coming from a Palestinian standpoint, they will point out that there are a lot of people who are Palestinian being held in Israeli jails. I guess we should have some real dialog on how to move forward on that. I do think that it’s very important that Gilad be released – there is no justification for holding him. But I would just urge all parties to release all people who are unjustifiably detained, including Gilad Shalit, but perhaps including others.
The Media Line: Congressman, the president articulated a vision for the region, but a lot of people in the region who are saying that we don’t know whether he’s just another guy with good rhetoric but couldn’t deliver. What must President Obama do regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to succeed where others have failed?
Ellison: What I think he needs to do is settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to demonstrate some persistence. Let’s bear in mind that the conflict in Northern Ireland seemed like it would never end. It also had religious dimensions to it. And yet, there is peace in Northern Ireland today. And so I think that we shouldn’t be cynical and believe that it can’t be solved; it can be. I think he’s making the right moves. You know, we’ve got George Mitchell there; we’ve made a number of important policy statements there. I think that Israeli leaders are looking at the progress the Palestinian security forces have made in the West Bank and are gaining greater comfort there due to the Palestinian security forces success. They have indicated in meetings that I’ve been in that they are ready to move away from occupation. And those Palestinian security forces continue to build their capacity to maintain law and order. So I think that we need to continue to train Palestinian forces. We need to train them in human rights and professionalism and in terms of counterterrorism. And we need to keep on being patient and moving forward. Once you can get the Israeli public confident that Qassams will not begin to come flying out of the West Bank, you will find a public willing to make concessions on the other side. I think that’s very important. Most people want peace. I think that’s what we have to continue to do and I encourage Obama to continue to work with General Keith Dayton and to continue to press for final status negotiations so that we can get a Palestinian state established and then we can help it to strengthen itself; to build its economic and cultural, social viability; and make sure there’s peace there. I think it’s important to show the Palestinian people that peace pays; that working with the international community is the right way to go; and that peace has its benefits. But we can’t ask the Palestinian people to wait forever. They can’t be expected to live under expanding settlements, illegal outposts and over 600 checkpoints and be told, “You’re going to get yours one of these days, but not now.” People can’t tolerate that; they can’t live under those conditions. All it does is seed people who turn to desperate measures; extremist measures, and it’s important to bear that in mind. When you do not leave room for Palestinian moderate impulses to be expressed, it essentially empowers people who will turn to extremism.
The Media Line: Congressman, is there room for negotiation in the contentious area of Israeli building in post-1967 land?
Ellison: Absolutely. There’s plenty of room for negotiation, but we have to negotiate. So often, we’re not negotiating. When I was in Israel, a number of leaders said they had taken acts to get rid of illegal outposts, that they had stopped construction of new settlements; and all that’s positive. But the fact is it seems to be perceived as progress by people who are living in the West Bank and Gaza. They need to be able to say, “Things are getting better, our quality of life is better.” I could switch back to Gaza for example. What if we just opened up the crossing points? The crossings being closed requires that any goods, fuel, construction material – anything – be forced to go through those tunnels that are connected to Egypt. That means that Hamas makes money by charging people for the use of the tunnels. If you open the crossings, then people can get reconstruction materials – not just limited humanitarian goods, but any kind of food they want through the crossings – what happens then is that the Israelis and the Palestinians are in position to make sure that illegal weaponry does not go through the scanning devices. And then you take away a stream of income that Hamas gains from the tunnels. And then, most importantly, you improve the quality of life for the Arabic people living in Gaza. What we’re doing now is just not working: it’s making people upset and I think is not resulting in a productive outcome.
The Media Line: Finally, Congressman: a sense of optimism or a sense of pessimism?
Ellison: Always optimism. I’m optimistic that the Israeli public will continue to say, look, we want security and we’re ready for peace as long as we feel we’re not giving up our security. I’m optimistic that the Palestinian people want to resolve this conflict; are looking forward for better days for their kids. I’m optimistic that people like (Palestinian Prime Minister) Salam Fayyad are bringing greater credibility and confidence to the PA because of excellent management skills. And I’m confident that the people who lead Hamas are going to see that the best way to go is the peace route.
Interview reprinted by permission of The Media Line