Congressman Who Defied the Foreign Policy Blob Calls for New Approach to Israel-Palestine
I interviewed Brian Baird, a moderate retired lawmaker who took the unusual step of seeing the conflict from all sides, empathizing with Israel and visiting Gaza.
I struggled to write a reported news story or analysis of the events in Israel and what has unfolded since the unprecedented Hamas terror strike last Saturday.
This was the worst terror strike in Israel’s history and the worst mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust. It shocks the conscience. The trauma of the attack has resounded across the world. Every new detail of the butchering of innocent life is a shock to the core. It’s hard to even fathom the level of cruelty and dehumanization that makes such an assault on human life possible.
Another human catastrophe is taking shape in Gaza, where the IDF is bombing and amassing soldiers for a ground invasion. The understandable search for justice and accountability for the killers could well transform into revenge killing of innocent life. Palestinians living in the closed territory, half of whom are under the age of eighteen, have been cut off from additional imports of food, water, and electricity, with nowhere to go.
I wrote several drafts about the situation and deleted them. I initially wrote about my own experience in the region. Last November, I traveled to Israel and to the West Bank and learned a great deal about the very diverse perspectives around the conflict. Part of the trip was with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which stressed the real security concerns faced by Israel, and for a few days, I was with B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group that documents human rights abuses suffered by Palestinian people. I also spent time on my own meeting filmmakers, journalists, and ordinary Israelis and Palestinians.
But instead of writing my own essay on this seemingly intractable crisis, I thought to talk to someone with more experience, who has spent considerable time exploring the region and the issues from a relatively independent perspective. Congressman Brian Baird is not a radical. He was elected in 1998 as a moderate, a member of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, representing a suburban district outside of Seattle.
Very few lawmakers have a balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Baird has not only traveled repeatedly to Israel and viewed the conflict from the perspective of the Israeli government, but he also struck out on his own and decided to visit Gaza to investigate on his own, a very unusual move that set him apart from the Washington establishment. The experience deeply moved him and he became an outspoken voice on Capitol Hill on issues concerning peace in the region. He left office in 2010.
The below transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
LEE FANG: I’m struggling to write about the last few days. I was thinking about my own experience in the region and how much I was impacted by meeting people and having face-to-face contact. I met people at a moshav that was along the border with Gaza, whose community I just discovered had members murdered by Hamas. And I am still in contact with Palestinians from the West Bank, who live under extreme repression, who have had all kinds of terrible incidents over the last year with little international outcry. There are a lot of hurt emotions and trauma right now. We’re still seeing so many videos and pictures coming from the Hamas attack. What is the appropriate U.S. role? Are you concerned about the escalating violence?
BRIAN BAIRD: I share many of the same feelings you just described. I’m one of only a handful of members of Congress who have ever been to Gaza. I met many people, fantastic people who are doing their level best to try and care for the mental health and education and hope of their community against really horrific odds.
And I saw terrible destruction that came from Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. And I saw the dominance of the border walls and blockade on the sea. I talked to people who really saw no hope. They figured their children would grow up to be adults and never leave Gaza, never have the chance to pursue dreams or travel or do anything free. And periodically, there would be bombardments and invasions, and what wasn’t coming at them from the Israeli side, they had to live with the thugs and extremists in the form of Hamas. So they were in a terrible bind. And that has only exponentially increased in the current situation.
And like you, I went to Sderot, I went to Israeli communities on the border, where they had to receive incoming rockets at the time. I spoke to really wonderful people there who were actually trying to reach out and build relationships with people in Gaza.
So it is with profound sadness and horror that Hamas has done this, this is heartbreaking and stunning.
One of the challenges in these circumstances is that if you criticize something, you are anti-something. There’s a difference. Sometimes criticizing something constructively can be the most caring and helpful thing one does. I would not want to live in a world where no one could criticize me. Or I would say that they’re against me like kids or my wife can’t criticize me. And they have every right to do so oftentimes.
In the case of Israel, it could easily be said that if you criticize Israel, you’re anti-Israel. I am certainly not. Simultaneously, if you’re Palestinian criticizing Hamas, well, they say you’re defying God or you’re defying the Palestinian people and they could imprison or execute you. So one problem we have is in this particular region, this particular conflict, the tolerance for critical discussion is similar on both sides. And in the U.S. political system, one pays a political price just for raising questions, even going to places to see firsthand what things are like on the ground.
Now any effort to try to explain or understand what has happened gets invalidated because of the horror of what happened. Or anything that one tries to say can be interpreted as an apology or excuse, or a failure to appreciate the horrors of what happened. But that, too, doesn’t allow us to think in ways that will ultimately solve the long-term problem. And this is a terrible paradox. I’m wrestling with it, to be honest.