Israel Debate

02.12.13

British House Of Lords Versus U.S. Senate

The British House of Lords is anathema to many on this side of the Atlantic. Even with reforms, there are still members of the chamber who are there due to an accident of birth, and its members’ titles sound like a Shakespearean play. Yet despite the unelected, privileged and often detached nature of many of the peers, the House of Lords took time on Thursday to debate the role of civil society in building peace in Israel and Palestine.

The Lords and Baronesses of Great Britain decided to have an in-depth discussion around the civil society groups, so often overlooked and ignored by analysts and decision-makers, and elicit a government response. The members who participated range from the former chair of the Liberal Democrats Friends of Israel group, Lord Palmer, to Baroness Tonge, a passionate advocate for Palestine.

The groups mentioned included ACRI, OneVoice (full disclosure: I am a staff member), Hand in Hand, B’tselem, ALLMEP and others. The discussion ranged from funding levels to normalization, refugee rights and educational policies.

In the United Kingdom, the House of Lords exists to provide expertise on legislation, and a discussion that has a small check and balance on the House of Commons. Back here in the U.S. where I now reside, the Senate, where discussion is supposed to be king, is clearly failing with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The lack of intelligent public discussion on the challenges and opportunities in the conflict coming from members of Congress is frankly appalling. Though high profile confirmation hearings bring out the worst grandstanding from Senators, the repetitive nature of the inquisition of Senator Chuck Hagel demonstrated the poverty of the debate.

Compare the obsessive fixation on Israel in Senator Hagel’s confirmation with the softball questioning of Senator John Kerry in his confirmation for Secretary of State. One could argue it demonstrated a lack of real interest in what’s going on on the ground, in such an important area of U.S. foreign policy.

The power of the Senate to affect the conflict dwarfs that of the House of Lords by such a magnitude that it is hard to even hold them side-by-side. The more power the chamber has, the more it seems to have an inverse effect on the level of debate. The more power, the less informed televised debate happens, and all of us who care about the conflict suffer. 

When was the last time anyone heard anything new or interesting about the conflict in a Senator’s remarks? If elected officials are going to fixate on Israel and Palestine, they should at least have something interesting to add to the discussion.

I love the power that the American political system embodies in Congress: Elected officials in the United States are far more than the lobby fodder of their British counterparts. With six-year terms, Senators have the time and power to truly make a difference. It would be nice if they actually did.