On Monday, a cloudless 85 degree afternoon, a crowd estimated at 100,000 assembled on Capitol Hill to rally in support of Israel. Speakers came from across the political spectrum: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, among others. The most popular speech came from hawkish former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose denunciations of Yasir Arafat and calls for a forceful military response to suicide bombings drew deafening applause from the crowd. Chants of "Bibi, Bibi" could be heard, and for a moment one wondered if this was in fact his first stop on the campaign trail in an effort to push Israel even further to the right than current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The equally hawkish U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was not nearly as popular, however. Wolfowitz's pronouncement that "innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying as well. It is critical that we recognize and acknowledge that fact..." was met with a chorus of boos from the crowd.
That a hawk like Wolfowitz is booed for making a statement of fact is an indication of just how far to the right American Jewish public opinion has moved. Indeed, few peaceniks could be found among the throngs of Israeli flag-wearing frat boys and black-hatted Brooklynites. Though many at the rally claimed to "support peace," their cheers for Netanyahu's drum-beating call to arms appeared self-contradictory.
Similar opposing tendencies are evident in Israel as well. In a Ma'ariv newspaper poll, 75 percent of Israelis claimed to back Operation Defensive Shield, the military euphemism for Sharon's invasion of the West Bank. Among those backing the offensive, 30 percent do not expect it to reduce suicide bombings and 17 percent believe suicide attacks will increase. At the same time, 52 percent of those polled claimed to support the Saudi Peace Plan calling for full withdrawal from all occupied territory in exchange for peace with the Arab world. Fifty-four percent still support the idea of a Palestinian state, and 57 percent support a unilateral pullout from most of the occupied territories and the dismantling of some settlements. Writing in Ma'ariv, Hemi Shalev called the simultaneous support for the offensive and the peace plan "a paradox" and "almost inconceivable."
Among American Jews at the pro-Israel rally, the notion of land for peace, or that Palestinians might deserve a state of their own, was rarely found. More common were signs proclaiming "Jordan is Palestine" and "Arafat=Bin Laden." Others simply urged Sharon to "Finish the job." When Sweeney and National Urban League President Hugh Price mentioned their support for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's mission, the need for a lasting peace, and respect for Palestinians' national aspirations, there was no applause.
But in some ways the real action was taking place far from center stage on the Capitol steps. At the corner of 3rd and Constitution NW, eight Palestinians were staging a counter-demonstration. Most of them were girls between the ages of 10 and 18. They marched in circles on a little patch of overgrown grass surrounded by police cordons and a phalanx of officers. On the other side of the yellow police tape stood a crowd of 20 to 30 Jewish men wearing "I stand with Israel for Peace" stickers, yelling at and taunting the Palestinian demonstrators. "They're a bunch of terrorists," one man said to me, pointing to the young girls. "Get a job. You're too stupid to work," another yelled at them. Adopting the tone of a soldier, a third yelled, "Come over here, do what I say, you're a terrorist." A group of official State Department guests looked on with disapproval.
As the shouting match heated up, perplexed police officers on horseback positioned themselves firmly between the two groups. A more moderate Jewish man observing the spectacle remarked, "This is almost symbolic of the land. They were given that little piece of land," pointing to the ugly patch of dirt and weeds covering an area of 10 sidewalk squares. "This is a buffer zone, it's necessary," he continued, gesturing toward the police officers keeping the groups apart.
Observing this successfully defused conflict in microcosm, one cannot help but think of proposals for U.S. or NATO peacekeepers on the West Bank. But as Powell wraps up his peace mission, it remains unclear whether these neutral forces, so desperately needed to tame both Sharon and Arafat, will ever find their way into the rubble-strewn streets of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jenin.