BEIRUT: U.S. Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner has come under fire in recent weeks after admitting to sending lewd images to women over the Internet, but Middle East policy experts say the international scandal over the lawmaker’s private behavior pales in comparison to the more egregious offenses he has committed against people in the region.
As Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and Middle East expert and analyst recently wrote on his blog Informed Comment, “The real scandal surrounding Anthony Weiner is that he is bigoted against Palestinians … Weiner is so blinded by his allegiance to Israel and so studied in his ignorance of the Middle East that he has played a uniformly sinister role in that aspect of foreign policy.”
Weiner’s claims that Israel is the only true democracy in the region, and moves such as calling for Columbia University professor Joseph Massad to step down, based on student claims of anti-Semitism which turned out to have no basis, are common enough in American pro-Israel politics.
However, many of Weiner’s stances and actions on the issues have betrayed a dangerous lack of understanding of the region, and the media fixation on other issues is worrying, analysts say.
As As’ad Abu Khalil, professor of political science at California State University and author of the Angry Arab blog told The Daily Star, when media attention focuses on issues such as Weiner’s preoccupation with photographing certain body parts, rather than those issues which affect people’s lives in the Middle East, “It says that some insults and offenses [against Arabs and Muslims] are not only permitted, but they are even encouraged in the political calculations of the U.S.”
Consistently and avidly pro-Israel, Weiner in May 2006 called for the Palestinian delegation to be refused entry to the U.N., stating that they “should start packing their little Palestinian terrorist bags.”
He justified this stance in an interview on Democracy Now! in September of that year, saying: “The PLO is a terrorist organization. It’s acknowledged it’s a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.”
In actuality, the PLO was removed from the U.S. terror blacklist nearly 20 years beforehand, in 1988.
He then claimed that Mahmoud Abbas, who has headed the Palestine Liberation Organization since Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004, does not in fact hold said position, stating, “Mahmoud Abbas does not represent – I hope he doesn’t represent the PLO. He certainly doesn’t say he does. He represents the Palestinian Authority.”
In January 2009, toward the end of the devastating Gaza War – which led to nearly 1,500 mainly civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip, and 13 Israeli deaths, mainly military – Weiner told Congress that the Israelis were using restraint in their military campaign.
As evidence, Weiner said that the Israeli army’s tactic of going “home by home” looking for rockets was “as surgical a job as possible.”
Citing the alleged defensive nature of Israel’s foreign policy, Weiner added, “Israel more so than I think than any nation maybe in the history of the planet has always essentially taken one, two, three, ten body blows before they react.” The Gaza War began with a surprise Israeli airstrike on the Gaza Strip.
Weiner concluded his speech by stating that the Israelis are, by nature, diplomatic creatures, and that the Palestinians are not. “Whenever there is a possibility of negotiating, the Israelis say yes, and it is the Palestinians, with the support of their neighbors in the region, that say no.”
Alex S. Lubin, current chair of the American Studies Department at the University of New Mexico who will join the American University of Beirut as director of the Center for American Studies and Research in the fall, told The Daily Star that little attention was given to Weiner’s stances in the U.S.
“These positions on Palestine went largely unnoticed in the U.S. public sphere, and in general, there is little public debate about military and financial support for Israel. The largely absent role of Palestine in U.S. public discourse makes it difficult for there to be critical analysis of U.S./Middle East relations.”
A preoccupation with Palestine’s neighbors, and in particular Lebanon and Hezbollah, has also been prominent in Weiner’s attitude to the Middle East.
Unreferenced news reports that Hezbollah were targeting “Jewish institutions” in New York City were cited in Weiner’s 2006 call for the release of $25 million from Homeland Security to protect such buildings, and his campaign which began in 2007 for tougher federal laws to curb the illegal sale of tobacco was largely based on his claims that “the black market sale of cigarettes are funding terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.”
During the 2006 summer war against Lebanon – which led to around 1,300, mainly civilian, Lebanese deaths, and 120, mainly military, Israeli deaths – Weiner claimed that the U.N. “seems to be siding with the terrorists.”
He traveled to Israel directly after the war had ended, saying, “”This is a time of need for our ally.”
He refused to condemn Israel’s use of cluster bombs in south Lebanon, saying that, “There is no doubt that there are innocent victims in this conflict … But at the end of the day, this is Israel taking a defensive action that it didn’t choose.”
While his “sexting” exploits may be unbecoming of a married man in a public position of power whose wife is expecting their first child, Weiner’s foreign policy failings have gone ignored.
Lubin said: “What has been unquestioned in the scandal, and in the U.S. public sphere in general, is how Weiner could be both politically left in U.S. domestic politics and politically right in world affairs, especially as they relate to Palestine.”