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Peace activists target Tammy Baldwin and praise Mark Pocan — but how far apart are they on Gaza?

Protesters have been targeting Wisconsin’s Democratic Sen Tammy Baldwin recently, demanding that she endorse a ceasefire in Gaza. Pro-Palestinian activists interrupted her repeatedly during a get-out-the-vote event at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last month. Over the last week, members of World Beyond War and Jewish Voice for Peace have been conducting a sit-in at her office across the street from the Capitol in downtown Madison. On Thursday, a delegation of peace activists emerged from that office after a Zoom meeting with Baldwin, who spoke to them from Washington, to express their frustration with her position on the war.

“Madison is a city that prides itself on being progressive,” said Madison Ald. Marsha Rummel, adding that the Madison Common Council recently passed a ceasefire resolution. “I would urge Sen. Baldwin to represent us and call for an end to the bombing.” 

Rowan Attalah of the Madison Raffa Sister Cities Project outside Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s office on Dec 14 | Wisconsin Examiner photo

Rowan Atalla, a UW professor and a member of the Madison Rafah Sister Cities Project said, “For people who support Palestinian rights and people who support observation of international law, I think honestly, we’re going to be looking to see if there is another credible candidate that we can actually support unequivocally and wholeheartedly down the road.”

On Tuesday, activists will be holding a candlelight vigil outside Baldwin’s office. On the same day, they plan to deliver thank-you notes to U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, who has joined other members of the House Progressive Caucus on a letter urging the Biden administration to call for a ceasefire.

It’s unusual to see Baldwin and Pocan pitted against each other. Both are among the most progressive members of the U.S. Congress. Pocan, for the last decade, has held Baldwin’s former House seat representing deep-blue Dane County.

“I support a temporary ceasefire for as long as it possibly can be,” Baldwin told me on the phone Friday. “What I will not tell Israel is that you cannot defend yourself against Hamas and protect the country from something like that happening again.”

“We know that Hamas will not agree to a ceasefire,” she added. “So you’re really asking Israel to unilaterally stop and we know Hamas won’t, both through words and actions.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders said something similar on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Dec. 10: “I don’t know how you can have a permanent cease-fire with Hamas, who has said before Oct. 7 and after Oct. 7, that they want to destroy Israel, they want a permanent war.”

Pressed to endorse a permanent ceasefire, Baldwin’s progressive colleagues Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren demurred, drawing protests in their home districts. 

But last week, in a letter to Biden, Sanders urged the president to withdraw his support for the $10 billion in weapons for Israel in the proposed supplemental foreign aid package now being considered by the Senate and to reverse the U.S. veto of a U.N. resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, the unconditional release of all hostages, and full humanitarian access to Gaza.

Baldwin said she is waiting to see the actual legislative text before rendering a judgment on the supplemental aid package. She said she has been working on language to add conditions to military aid to Israel and review what kinds of weapons the U.S. supplies “because we absolutely want our values and our adherence to international humanitarian law to be reflected.” Like Sanders, she said she supports a humanitarian ceasefire that will release hostages and deliver full humanitarian aid to Gaza. She shares her constituents’ visceral horror at the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza, Baldwin says, where more than 18,000 people have been killed since Israel began bombing.

“I feared — I still do — how much larger [the casualties] could be if people begin to starve, or get contagious diseases because of unsafe water and unsafe living conditions,” Baldwin said.

For that reason she led an effort among her Senate colleagues to bring about the recent short-term ceasefire to help aid reach Palestinian civilians. She also supported the opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza, which, over the weekend, doubled the amount of aid getting into the besieged area.

“I believe it is attributable to the Biden administration that we had the multiple days of ceasefire earlier. I just want to figure out a way where they can do that again,” Baldwin said.

Asked if she has any line in the sand regarding restrictions on military aid to Israel that would have to be in the supplemental aid package before she would support it, she pointed out that the package, which includes aid to Ukraine will be voted on all at once. “I just feel so strongly that we have to step up to our role in providing humanitarian relief in the world, too,” she said. “And, you know, we have lots of colleagues who don’t think that that should be the mission of the United States.”

Pocan agrees that humanitarian aid is the main, substantive issue Congress should be focused on.

“The groups drove me crazy at the beginning of this thing when they all were focused on the stupid ceasefire resolution that had zero chance of going anywhere,” Pocan said of a proposed resolution back in October. “They were missing everything else. …  We were told the White House that week was going to release their humanitarian funding. A large chunk of that will go to Gaza. But it’s not just for Gaza, but for the entire planet for the next year. I think there’s, what, 300 million people essentially that are in starving conditions right now in the world? … And they all were too busy fighting over something that was not going to happen.”

Pocan and Baldwin agree, broadly, on Israel/Palestine issues.

  • Both say Israel had a right to respond to the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 civilians and took more than 200 people hostage. Baldwin called the attack “absolutely horrific.” Pocan condemned it as “heinous.”
  • Both also say the civilian death toll in what they describe as Israel’s indiscriminate bombing in Gaza is unacceptable.
  • Both are highly critical of Netayahu’s rightwing government.
  • Both say President Joe Biden has been working behind the scenes to try to rein in Israel’s bombing.
  • Both say Israel is losing support in the U.S. and the world.
  • Both support a two-state solution.

They also agree that Congress has limited powers to do much about the agonizing situation in Gaza, where they feel the White House has much more sway. And both focus heavily on humanitarian aid, which is where they believe Congress can do the most good.

Some of the language Pocan uses to describe the oppression of the Palestinian people is much sharper than Baldwin’s. He described Gaza as an “open air prison” with “some of the worst living conditions on the planet,” even before Oct. 7. “My position has been that what happened on Oct. 7 was a horrific attack and that Israel has a right to be able to go after Hamas,” Pocan told me Friday. “But what we’re seeing happen is certainly not a strategic attack on Hamas in Gaza. It’s become this very broad, collective punishment of all Palestinians in Gaza. And, you know, whenever there are 6,000 or 7,000 kids that have been killed — clearly they are not Hamas … so we’ve said that they should stop.”

Baldwin does not disagree. But she also emphasizes the perspective of the people she has met whose loved ones were killed on Oct 7 and who have relatives who are being held hostage in Gaza. “It was very clear to me that the people of Israel immediately had a life-altering change in terms of feeling they were a safe country,” she said.

“I also want to say, there could not be a worse leader for Israel right now than Netanyahu,” Baldwin added. She criticizes both Nentanyahu’s anti-democratic, authoritarian government and his attack on the Israeli Supreme Court, his intelligence failures leading up to Oct 7 — “he was warned and looked the other way,” and the way he is prosecuting the war: “There’s indiscriminate bombing. The civilian toll is untenable and heartbreaking.”

Does Baldwin see a point at which the U.S. will take a tougher stance toward Israel?

“I think we’re seeing that pivot in real time right now, with what the president is now saying out loud for the world to hear,” she said, “and what the administration has been saying privately for some time. You know, Israel stands with a very real prospect of isolating itself in the world.”

“I have always supported a two-state solution,” she added. “I fear the way that this war is being prosecuted makes that much, much, much harder to achieve. And I don’t believe that Netanyahu any longer is committed to that. You cannot so destroy a place where people reside that a future there isn’t compatible with what you need to live.”

Baldwin and Pocan agree that what Congress can do is limited. “Most of it is going to have to come from the White House,” said Pocan, who agrees that Biden has pivoted to public criticism of Israel’s bombing after failing to move the needle behind the scenes. 

While Baldwin is temperamentally more careful and judicious in her speech, which upsets peace activists who are beside themselves about what is happening in Gaza, she and Pocan articulate the same basic goals and similar ideas about how to get there.

Baldwin voted against going to war in Iraq. Like Pocan she has voted to repeal blanket authorizations of use of military force, giving the president the power to get involved in war without consulting Congress. Back in 2013 she argued with President Barack Obama that he should not use those expanded executive warmaking powers to bomb Syria.

Around that time in 2013, Baldwin was delivering a speech at Fighting Bob Fest, an annual gathering of progressives in Madison, when a group of protesters stood up and began singing loudly. Baldwin stood silently at the podium for several minutes while the protesters sang, “Which side are you on, Tammy?” demanding that she vote against a resolution to bomb Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad had used poison gas on civilians, prompting a threat of retaliation from Obama.

“There are no good options in Syria,” Baldwin said in her speech. She quoted Sen. Robert M. La Follette, the great anti-war senator from Wisconsin, in his floor speech opposing U.S. entry into World War I, saying it’s “important for us to speak and vote our convictions when the question is one of peace or war.” 

Her speech “said everything but what they wanted me to say,” Baldwin recalled, when I reminded her of the fracas during our phone conversation. “And the reason I had not said it, at that moment, was that I promised the president that I would hear him out before I made a public statement, and we hadn’t scheduled that call yet.”

Days later Baldwin declared her opposition to the bombing of Syria. But it was “aggravating,” she says, “to be protested and interrupted when it’s like, we’re of the same mind.”

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F12%2F19%2Fpeace-activists-target-tammy-baldwin-and-praise-mark-pocan-but-how-far-apart-are-they-on-gaza%2F by Ruth Conniff

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