With a manner strongly reminiscent of fellow Brooklyn native John McEnroe arguing a line call, Robert Wexler has made himself one of the nation's loudest critics of President Bush. The liberal congressman from Boca Raton has made more than 100 appearances on cable television shows during the past two years, debating with Bill O'Reilly, Bob Novak, Pat Buchanan, and other conservative carnival barkers. He's attacked Bush on the environment, prescription drugs, corporate scandals, tax cuts for the rich, and the issue that first put him on the TV map: the president's 2000 election tactics. For all his sometimes foolish-seeming bluster, Wexler at times comes up, again like McEnroe, with bold winning points that need to be made.
So when Wexler appeared on CNN's TalkBack Live September 4 to discuss the president's bull rush to invade Iraq, we might have expected to finally hear a South Florida Democrat vociferously attack the ill-conceived plan. To hear that Bush is after the bastard God oil, that he is driven by wrongheaded ideologues, that he is trying to kill the chimp perched on his old man's shoulder. That Saddam Hussein, while a thug and a criminal, has no motive to lash out wildly with chemical weapons -- unless, of course, we attack him first. And to hear that, with Afghanistan in relative chaos and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict raging, such a move would not only bring more violence and anti-American hatred to the Middle East but prove catastrophic for the entire world.
But Wexler instead told host Arthel Neville that war on Iraq is a swell idea. "Well, I support the president's stated goal, which is a regime change in Iraq," the congressman proclaimed. "And I agree with the president that Saddam Hussein has to go.... And I will ultimately support the president in terms of an authorization of military action."
Wexler isn't a new convert to Bush -- he's just an old loyalist to Israel, a country that, along with a powerful Washington, D.C., lobbying group called the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is pushing the war on Iraq with a vengeance. In essence, the Israeli lobby is urging big brother America to come out, flex its military muscles, and make the Israel-American alliance the dominant power in the Middle East.
An orthodox Jew, Wexler has always been a Zionist hard-liner and has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from pro-Israel interests during the past six years. And he's picked up a big stick for the fight against Iraq. A member of the House committee on international relations, lately he's been spending an inordinate amount of time traveling around the country and the world promoting Israel and the war on Hussein.
So last week, I asked Wexler the obvious question: Who, as you prepare to send U.S. soldiers to war, are you really representing: South Florida or Israel?
"Let's get this straight," he answered. "I'm American. I'm 100 percent American. I bleed American. Am I proud of my heritage? Yes. I support the state of Israel and wholeheartedly support an unbreakable bond between the U.S. and Israel... but there is nothing about my policy that is anything other than American. It is not driven by Israel. At this point, it is supportive of President Bush."
I too believe in a strong alliance between the United States and Israel, but I also believe that Israel's narrow interests have far too much influence on our foreign policy. We need a balanced approach in the Middle East. If America continues to tie itself almost solely to the tiny Jewish state as it thrashes about in a sea of Muslim Arabs, we're asking for long and widespread warfare in the region.
Unfortunately, Wexler and several other Jewish Democrats in Congress, led by Connecticut's Sen. Joe Lieberman and a gaggle of representatives from California and New York, are spoiling for that fight. And because these same politicians can usually be counted on to anchor the Democrats' opposition to Bush, they have helped to destroy any hope of the party's reining in Dick Cheney's dogs of war. Of course, a few Jewish members of Congress -- California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chiefly -- have opposed the invasion.
Broward County's own Jewish Democrat in Congress, Rep. Peter Deutsch, is another near-fanatical, pro-Israel politician who expects to vote for military action in Iraq and has publicly backed it. But he recently told me that Bush hasn't yet met his "three-pronged test" for an invasion. Deutsch won't support war until the president has proven that Saddam has nuclear weapons, expects to use them on the United States, and is developing a delivery system to carry out such an attack.
No such proof has been disclosed, but Deutsch says he fully expects it will be soon.
The Washington, D.C.-based Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel has put both Deutsch and Wexler in its "Hall of Shame" for their pro-Israel voting records. Powerful lobbying groups like the American Jewish Congress and AIPAC have "hijacked the agenda" with millions of dollars in campaign contributions and powerful backers, alleges JPPI founder Josh Ruebner, adding that politicians like Wexler are "representing the government of Israel, absolutely. Most American Jewish members of Congress are guilty of that."
And it's a dangerous policy, according to Nidal Sakr, a Muslim political activist from Miami Beach. Wexler and other liberal Jewish hawks are "clearly serving foreign interests rather than the national interest they are supposed to be serving," says Sakr, who runs a group called March for Justice. "The U.S.-Israeli relationship is the largest threat to our national security and the safety of our citizens. Our support for Israel and its crimes against Palestinians that have been denounced again and again by the international community and the United Nations fuels the anti-American sentiments and feelings of hatred that are being compounded around the world."
For the record, I believe that Yasser Arafat is a terrorist and Sharon is a war criminal. Both have been implicated in the killings of countless civilians. Both are violent, power-hungry, small men who hope to eradicate the other's people. And both are manifestations of an age-old madness that can't cure itself. The world, through the United Nations, needs to solve that problem with armed peacekeeping forces and nation-building plans that dictate a two-state system fair to both Israel and Palestine.
But America, with its many vetoes of U.N. sanctions against Israel for alleged human rights abuses, helps to keep that from happening. And until there is peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, any talk of attacking Iraq is premature and damaging to our relations in the region.
Ruebner, who trekked to the West Bank last month, reports there is much fear among Palestinians that Israel will use the chaos of a war in Iraq as cover for ethnic cleansing -- not to kill them but to forcibly remove them from the area. If Iraq launches missiles at Israel and mad dog Sharon jumps into the fight, Ruebner expects atrocities.
When I asked Wexler what he thought about such a possibility, he reacted with surprise at the term "ethnic cleansing" and said: "If Israel is being threatened by Palestinians, they need to respond. Sometimes the right to self-defense is the right to be proactive, to preempt, as President Bush has said, to eliminate a danger before it destroys you. Sometimes you just can't wait."
This rather unsettling answer makes me wonder if getting rid of the Palestinians isn't a hidden goal of this push for the so-called regime change by the Jewish hawks (a group that, incidentally, includes Paul Wolfowitz, the chief war ideologue in the Bush administration, and Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, a key pitchman for the invasion).
While he casts Palestinians as usurpers and terrorists, Wexler speaks glowingly of Israel as a bastion of peace, love, and understanding. "I am a steadfast supporter of the American-Israeli relationship that is based on shared values, democracy, freedom, and the love of life," he says robotically, as if the words were encoded in a computer chip inserted in his brain.
I asked him, "Are you saying that Israel's hands are clean? That it hasn't committed any atrocities?"
He paused and euphemized, "Israel at times has made mistakes in terms of strategy. Even they have admitted that."
Of course the Israelis have admitted it or Wexler wouldn't have conceded the point. For his pandering, Wexler was recently ridiculed in the British magazine Bully. After a BBC interview in May, he made Bully's "Piss List" (which is described as "things that irk the shit out of us") for this remark: "Americans are just rock solid with the people of Israel. It is a democratic nation and a freedom-loving people and a very decent people, and they deserve to have a free and secure state."
The magazine added this comment: "If Israel loves freedom so much, why won't they let inspectors establish whether a massacre occurred in Jenin in April? Wexler should try that pitch on the innocent Palestinians who have had their houses bulldozed for 'strategic' purposes."
Wexler, in recent months, has also been peddling an attack on Iraq to government leaders around the world. Just in the past several months, he's traveled to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey trying to win support for ousting Saddam. And he has been urging Congress to increase trade with Turkey in an effort to buy that key country's support. It's part of a very quiet effort on the part of our wonderful country to purchase allies for the unpopular and bloody business of overturning the Iraqi regime.
"Turkey is an incredibly important ally of the U.S.," Wexler says before assuring me that the Turks will soon jump on the war train. "They are a model country for other countries in the region. And right now, Turkey has enormous economic problems. They're leading the fight in Afghanistan, and I think America has an obligation to help Turkey like they are helping us."
Wexler agrees that an attack on Iraq presents horrific dangers. He acknowledges that it carries a "grave risk" to stability in the Arab world and might set off other conflicts. He rues the fact that it could detract from the rebuilding of Afghanistan, which he notes is already at the brink of falling apart. He says that the sure loss of American soldiers is his "highest concern" and that Iraq may well attack Israel in retaliation. He also concedes that there is no "smoking gun" tying Saddam to 9/11 or any terrorism against American targets.
Despite all that, he still wants to go after the mustachioed dictator ASAP.
"If we have a successful regime change, we won't have World War III but the opposite," Wexler opines. "When people see how serious America is about protecting our interests, how serious we are about seeing that terrorism does not flourish, then Syria, Lebanon, and Iran -- all who have toyed around with terrorism -- will look at themselves and have to decide which side they are on."
Can anybody say "imperialist"? I'm afraid we're proving Osama bin Laden right: The U.S. wants to conquer the Muslim world militarily after all. It even has a name: the Bush Doctrine.
Wexler is banking on the idea that our little act of naked aggression will scare all those other Arab nations into joining America and Israel. If they don't embrace us infidels, though, we'll surely be fighting one war after another -- or perhaps just one big one, the aforementioned World War III.
It's all worth the risk, and it's really just part of our war on terror, according to Wexler. For the congressman, 9/11 made it our duty to go to war wherever terrorists flourish, regardless of whether they are a direct threat to our country. The only requirement is that they threaten our "interests" -- a code word he often uses to mean Israel.
So the horrible events of September 11 have been reduced to just another bargaining chip for pro-Israelis who want America to conquer the Middle East. Deutsch too is on a campaign to broaden the war on terror to include those who threaten Israel, especially Arafat, and he's using September 11 as a sales tool. One of the more sickening items of propaganda Deutsch and others have been pushing is that Israel, proportionate to its population, suffers a 9/11 every time 50 of its citizens die in terrorist attacks. On March 17, while leading a special service on the House floor in honor of the Israeli Independence Day, Deutsch announced that "just this past month, Israel sustained the equivalent of three 9/11s, and I think if we can just imagine what the United States, God forbid, that would have occurred to us, what we would do."
Palestinian deaths suffered at the hands of Israel, however, aren't any big deal among the pro-Israelis, apparently. Just "strategic mistakes," as Wexler put it.
Deutsch is strongly aligned with AIPAC and, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has received roughly $100,000 in campaign contributions from pro-Israeli political interests during his past decade in office -- including $40,000 since 2000. In May, he traveled to Israel, where he pledged allegiance to the Jewish state and hand-delivered to Sharon a House resolution pledging unequivocal support from the United States.
During the trip, Deutsch announced, "We are totally committed to the war against terrorism... and there should not be a Yasser Arafat exception," according to the Jerusalem Post. "He is a terrorist." It's one of the Broward-based congressman's favorite phrases, "Arafat exception," and it implies, though Deutsch doesn't say it, that the United States should forcibly remove Arafat from power.
Most recently, Deutsch has taken to traveling around with an explosives-laden suicide bomber's vest given to him by the Israeli Defense Forces. It's a wonderful propaganda tool, designed to invoke emotion rather than reason. He's also fond of defending the recent Israeli incursions into Jenin and Ramallah by recounting the weapons Israel has recovered in Palestinian territory.
Bush isn't the only unlikely political ally Wexler and Deutsch have in their solidarity with Israel. During a huge April 15 pro-Israel rally at the Capital, they shared the stage with ultraconservative Bill Bennett, Texas Republican Dick Armey, and members of the Christian Right, including a representative from the gay-bashing Family Research Council. And Deutsch accompanied none other than Newt Gingrich on a pro-Israeli mission to the Middle East back in 1998, when he praised the Georgia Republican, again in the Jerusalem Post, as a "an insightful and forceful speaker."
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But when I spoke with Deutsch last week, he backed away from his hawkish stance on Iraq. "I could not support military action based on what is on the table at this time," he told me.
Then he laid out his three-pronged test regarding nuclear weapons -- which seems to me reasonable. If Bush meets that test, the country would likely stand behind a war on Iraq, just as it did toppling the Taliban. But the president, of course, has proved nothing of the kind. "I know the president has more information than I have," Deutsch said. "And my assumption is that the data he has from an intelligence perspective is that [Saddam] has the capability of a nuclear attack and the intention to use nuclear weapons.... I believe that I will ultimately support military action."
He seems so certain of it, I wonder if Deutsch knows something we don't.
As we all wait for a damn war that seems preordained, I'm issuing a call to any potential antiwar movement leaders in South Florida. There seems to be a dearth of them in this alleged Democratic bastion. Or at least, there is in our delegation to Congress -- the only place it seems to really count.