Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat, is the junior United States senator from New York. Born in 1950 and a product of the Brooklyn public schools, he is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. Schumer was elected to the New York State Assembly at age 23—one of the youngest members since Theodore Roosevelt—and to Congress at 29. After serving nine terms in the House, representing a district in Brooklyn and Queens, where he particularly made his mark fighting crime, he was elected senator in 1998. He serves as a member of the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, the Judiciary Committee, and the Rules Committee. Daniel Pipes interviewed him in his New York office on July 21, 2000.
Middle East Quarterly: Is the peace process working?
Charles Schumer: It’s working when compared to anything else.
Schumer: Let me go right back to the start. As I sat on the White House lawn in September 1993, listening to Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat speak, I noticed something. Rabin, not usually an eloquent speaker, rose to the occasion that day. He quoted Ecclesiastics—"a time for peace, a time for war"—and talked about his dream of the time when an Israeli mother will hear a knock at the door and not have a pang go through her body in fear that it was someone from the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] telling her that her soldier son had been killed. It was a beautiful speech, and I had tears rolling down my cheeks.
Then Arafat spoke. It was like he threw cold water on me, because he didn’t speak about peace or reach out to the Jewish people in Israel. His main point was that "the Palestinian flag will fly over Jerusalem." It was a pathetic performance, especially following Rabin’s generosity and eloquence.
Afterwards, reporters came over to me and asked me, as a Jewish member in Congress, "What do you think?" I replied that "My heart longs for peace, and my head says, ‘Be careful.’"
MEQ: You feel the same way now, nearly seven years later?
Schumer: Yes. If anything, my commitment to the peace process is stronger than ever. When you ask people what’s an alternative to the peace process, they have no realistic reply. I have not yet heard a good alternative to the negotiations. By the way, until I became senator last year, I represented probably the most conservative Jewish district in the country, where many of the children are living in settlements on the West Bank, so I heard a lot of complaints—but no alternatives.
MEQ: Do you see both sides similarly living up to their commitments?
Schumer: Not at all. The Israelis are doing what they said they would. Note how they’re wrenching themselves and making concessions. But not so the Palestinian Authority. Its textbooks, for example, still state that Jews are terrible people and are filled with horrid anti-Semitic caricatures. Nor has Arafat been telling Palestinians about the concessions they have to make to end the conflict. To a considerable degree, the process has been one-sided.
I am not the only one to think this. I was amazed the other day to hear on television Richard Haass, who was hardly leaning to the Israeli side when he was a Middle East advisor to President Bush, basically say that it’s the Palestinian intransigence that’s to blame.
MEQ: Despite this, you advise continuing along the current tracks?
Schumer: Yes, at least until I see a better alternative. Do I have worries about it because I think that Arafat has either been unwilling or unable to bring his people closer to peace? Having seen what I’ve seen in the last three to four months, I would say they are some sine qua nons.
MEQ: How much do you think the U.S. government should pressure Israel?
Schumer: In general, we should defer to whoever the Israeli prime minister is—I did so when [Binyamin] Netanyahu was prime minister, upsetting some on the left. I defer now to [Ehud] Barak although this upsets some on the right. But we Americans don’t live there. When it comes to their security, the Israelis know better than I. As you can see, I’m moderate on these issues, like I am on most issues.
MEQ: Israel and the Palestinians, in your view, are both better or worse off today than they were in 1993, when the current round of negotiations began?
Schumer: Israel clearly is better off. I go to Israel and I can see the difference. For example, I now find Japanese businessmen in the hotels. The international isolation Israel long faced has greatly diminished. Part of Israel’s economic prosperity results from the peace process. I was head of the Congressional coalition to deal with the Arab boycott of Israel, and I can tell you that it’s defunct.
Militarily, too, not directly because of the peace process, but as a side benefit of it, Israel has gained a greater advantage over its opponents. Look at Israel and Syria, which is probably the main military confrontation still remaining, and you can see how much greater the Israeli military advantage over Syria is than ever before.
MEQ: The short answer to my question then, is "Yes, the peace process is working but not very well?"
Schumer: And be careful.
MEQ: What do you see ahead?
Schumer: Even if the peace process stops, even if they go home from Camp David II [in progress at the time of this interview], I expect the two sides will be back to the table before long. I just do not see a viable alternative.
MEQ: Your thoughts on the future of Jerusalem?
Schumer: That’s different from security issues, where Israelis know better than we here do. I think all of the Jewish people have claim on it, due to its religious and emotional centrality to Judaism. Therefore, on this topic, I think we Americans have more of a right to be involved.
MEQ: You feel you have the right to make up your own mind about Jerusalem.
Schumer: Jerusalem has meaning to every Jewish person in America, regardless of what one’s views are of the politics in Israel. In other words, there is something transcendent that’s beyond just the American-Israeli relationship.
MEQ: You have expressed "deep disappointment" that President Clinton has delayed the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem;1 what must Congress do to make this happen?
Schumer: In every bill on Jerusalem that’s come before us, there’s been a waiver, allowing the president for certain reasons not to move the embassy. I think that in a short period of time we in Congress must remove that waiver, and just require the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem.
MEQ: Why, despite all the congressional efforts, has nothing come of this until now?
Schumer: In good part because the Israelis have not put a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem at the top of their agenda.
MEQ: How do you see the Syrian-Israeli negotiations?
Schumer: Looking at the whole process, it has been always in Barak’s interest to make peace with Syria before going to the Palestinians. The issues here are less sticky than on the Palestinian track. And closing the conflict with Damascus changes the balance with Arafat. I think Barak thought this, too; he’s a very strategic thinker, and I give him tremendous credit.
MEQ: And now, under the son?
Schumer: The negotiations are up in the air. The big question mark is, does Bashshar al-Asad have the strength, the ability, the desire, to make peace with Israel?
MEQ: What’s the net effect of Israel’s two failed negotiations, with Syria and the Palestinians?
Schumer: Barak won two promises from Clinton early on, that have, to the best of my knowledge, stayed in effect up to today. He got Clinton to admit publicly that all of Jerusalem will remain Israeli and that Israel need not go back to the 1967 borders. That was smart and strategic; those were the two most important, obtainable things he could get out of Clinton, and he got them.
MEQ: There’s been talk of very large amounts of money going to the Palestinians, the Syrians possibly as well. How can Congress most effectively be involved in these decisions? Right now, the president makes promises that could well not be redeemed.
Schumer: There’s a check-and-balance in the process. If the Israeli government communicated to the friends of Israel, Jew and gentile alike, in the Congress, that what our administration was doing was a danger to Israel, it would stop. So, I’m not that worried about it.
MEQ: Is it realistic to involve Congress earlier, perhaps even in the negotiations?
Schumer: Not really. You have to have a strong executive to run foreign policy. Congress serves as a check, not as a proactive force in itself.
MEQ: At what point would you say that Israel has sufficient resources not to need American money?
Schumer: Probably within the next decade. But it’s not American money that is ultimately decisive. A small nation such as Israel cannot afford to be isolated from the community of nations. Because so many nations are mercenary and see more gain for themselves by taking the Arab side, it needs the friendship of the United States as a counter-balance.
MEQ: A friendship that is symbolized by money?
Schumer: No, it doesn’t have to be symbolized by money.
MEQ: But the money is at base a symbol of friendship, as opposed to a financial instrument?
Schumer: No, the friendship could stay even without it, but it would be very valuable in case other countries began to isolate Israel.
Let’s say the peace process breaks down, and the Palestinians declare a state. Israel responds by annexing those parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem that she already controls. A period of coldness follows as the Arab countries put great pressure on the rest of the world to take steps harmful to Israel. As long as the United States’ friendship is there and remains strong, even if we did not give Israel a nickel, it will stop a lot of the bad things from happening. As long as our will is there and we stand up for Israel in the United Nations and more broadly in the community of nations, as long as we are willing to be the conscience of the world, things can’t get too bad for Israel.
MEQ: But is money necessarily part of this equation?
Schumer: No, not necessarily.
MEQ: Let me try rephrasing the question. At what point do you think money will no longer be necessary as a transfer to Israel from the United States government?
Schumer: If the Israelis should want it ended, then within the decade. Military technology is a different issue; that will have to go on much longer.
MEQ: Speaking from your congressional experience, is it true that aid to the rest of the world would decline if not for the Israel lobby pushing through its portion? If there were no money to Israel, would that hurt or help Chad and Haiti?
Schumer: Israel is the engine that pulls the rest of the foreign aid train. You have to understand that foreign aid is highly unpopular in America. I think there was a survey that asked a sample of voters what percentage of the government budget goes for foreign aid, and the answer came back "25 percent." As you know, it’s not even 2.5 percent. But Israel is the one popular recipient of the aid, and it makes the other programs possible.
MEQ: It’s not as though there’s a certain fixed amount for foreign aid and Israel (plus Egypt) gets a lion’s share of it, pushing others aside.
Schumer: Exactly. If Israel were not there, the pie would be dramatically smaller. Cut out aid to Israel and it’s not as if its funds would be distributed among other nations; it would go to very different programs, probably domestic ones. The overall size of the aid package depends on Israel.
MEQ: Is aid to Israel growing more controversial? How about to the Palestinians?
Schumer: No, a vast majority of both parties support aid to Israel. That said, you still have some resistance. As for the Arabs, if there is a peace settlement with either the Palestinians or the Syrians, and the amount of money asked for is not outlandish, it’ll pass.
MEQ: What is Israel’s overall standing in Congress?
Schumer: Its position is much better than ever before, and for one main reason. In the old days, almost all the Democrats were pro-Israel but only a small number of Republicans. Because of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich—with whom I didn’t agree on most things, but I give credit where credit is due—the Republican party is now also a pro-Israel party.
MEQ: No less pro-Israel than the Democrats?
Schumer: Not quite. The Democrats remain ultimately more pro-Israel. Presidents can be one or the other, regardless of party—Reagan and Clinton are pro-Israel in their heart, Bush and Carter are not—so, when push comes to shove, what counts is the party as a whole. There you find that when a Democratic president turns on Israel, he faces far more restraints than does his Republican counterpart.
MEQ: "I saw nothing new, they ought to let him go," is how you are recently quoted in The New York Daily News on seeing the classified file indicating what information Jonathan Pollard turned over to the Israeli government.2 "He didn't hear anything he hadn't heard before," said your spokeswoman Cathie Levine after you received what The New York Post called "a top-secret briefing by the CIA."3 In light of this information, what are you doing now about the Pollard case?
Schumer: Pollard should have been punished; he spied on the United States. But the sentence he received is disproportionate. When I got the top secret briefing you alluded to, it didn’t teach me anything that I didn’t know from open sources.
MEQ: I would like to read you a section of the Eban Commission Report on the Pollard Affair4 titled "The Decision to Cooperate with the U.S." which tells how the Israeli authorities turned over the documents they had received from Pollard on two conditions, one of which was "the consent of the Americans to the fact that the documents returned would not be used to convict Pollard." Those documents were then used against Pollard. According to Assistant U.S. Attorney John R. Fisher, the "defendant agreed to enter a guilty plea and cooperate only after government attorneys and investigators returned from Israel with additional evidence of defendant’s guilt."5 What do you think about this?
Schumer: I conclude from it that the animus against Pollard is very deep. At first, I thought it was just [former defense secretary] Caspar Weinberger, who was known as anti-Israel; many observers had doubts about his motivation in this episode. Now I know that the matter goes much deeper.
MEQ: Would you speculate about why the intelligence community is so determined to keep Pollard locked in jail?
Schumer: It is hard for me to figure out, but I think in part it has to do with its resentment over the pressure that has been building to release him. When it perceives that intelligence needs are overruled by domestic politics, this gets its back up.
MEQ: What would you say Pollard’s prospects are now?
Schumer: I’ve been pushing internally for his release for some time now, but frankly we’ve reached a roadblock when George Tenet, head of the CIA—a good man—says he will quit his job if Pollard is released from jail. This creates a major barrier because it isn’t something the president of the United States wants to go to the mat on. Pollard, after all, is not one of the top foreign policy issues he faces, so why should he take on the major brouhaha that would follow when the head of the CIA quits?
Islamists in the United States
MEQ: You’re quoted as saying, "Make no mistake about it, Hamas is here. Hamas is in the United States. They are in Chicago; they are in Brooklyn; they are in New Jersey; and they are even in Oklahoma City. They, and other terrorist organizations, are now in America."6 What sort of danger do you see Hamas posing?
Schumer: When you have terrorist organizations functioning in your country that believe that the West, and the United States in particular, is the devil incarnate, there’s a tremendous danger. Before the World Trade Center was blown up, I said that there would be a major terrorist incident in the United States but no one paid attention until it happened.
MEQ: Is anyone paying attention now?
Schumer: There is more attention, but not remotely enough.
MEQ: What is the main danger?
Schumer: Technology. Small groups of people can now use terrible weapons that they were not able to use before. And we’re not prepared. The danger we face from terrorism has increased because of new methods.
MEQ: Is terrorism your only concern with the fundamentalist Muslims?
Schumer: No. Their anti-Americanism concerns me a great deal. I don’t like ideologues of any hue or religion.
MEQ: I remember you saying that thirty years ago when we were undergraduates in college.
Schumer: That’s correct. That was a seminal experience, going to Harvard in the late 1960s and seeing ideologues in action. Anyone who believes he has the message from God, and that he is superior to everyone else because of it—anyone like that is a danger.
MEQ: At a time of enormous ideology and revolutionary spirit, you were chairman of the Young Democrats.
Schumer: I was trying to tell people: We have a democracy. If you’re against the Vietnam War, which I am, go elect candidates. Don’t take over buildings.
MEQ: A message not many people heard, right?
Schumer: No, I was ostracized for it. Although, at our 25th college reunion, I went to the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] gathering and one leader of SDS back then got up and publicly apologized to me.
MEQ: Very nice gesture.
There are two general American outlooks on fundamentalist Islam: that we can live in harmony with this movement if we take the right steps; or that we can’t, because it opposes us on the basis of who we are, not what we do. Do you subscribe to one of these viewpoints?
Schumer: Yes, to the second one. I don’t believe we can live in harmony with this movement. It is not a benign phenomenon but a real problem for America. It’s a terrible danger to the United States, to the world, and we aren’t doing enough about it.
I sometimes ask myself what has caused this upsurge in fundamentalism. I wonder if it is a backlash, similar to the sort of fundamentalist backlashes that have recurred in the history of the United States. The sociologist Edward Shils argued that the temperance movement early in the century was a way of trying to pull things back. Americans left the rural areas, went into the cities, had country clubs, but they wanted to bring the countryside with them; so they said, "don’t drink."
MEQ: Looking ahead, what do you see for Islamism?
Schumer: Long term, I am optimistic. The general trend in society is toward greater information, greater equality, and greater individualism; these will ultimately prevail over fundamentalism. But, at the moment, that’s small consolation.
MEQ: The Effective Death Penalty and Anti-Terrorism Law of 1996 was explicitly designed to prohibit fundraising by terrorist organizations in the United States, but it has hardly been applied and those organizations continue to fundraise as before. Why has this been the case, and is there anything Congress can do about it?
Schumer: I was one of the lead sponsors of the Anti-Terrorism Act and helped pass it in the House. It should have made life much easier for law enforcement. Before, to close organizations sending money to Hamas, Hizbullah, or other terrorist groups, you had to prove that the specific dollars being raised in the United States went not to children’s welfare, but to making bombs. That’s an absurdity because it is a whole group that participates in terrorism; one can’t specifically trace the money in this fashion. The 1996 law gives law-enforcement more teeth to do its job. Even if the terrorist groups are also supporting good works, they can be closed down under this law, and that’s very important.
MEQ: It’s a great law, but it’s not in effect.
Schumer: No, the administration has not used it well enough.
MEQ: Can Congress do anything about that?
Schumer: We should hold hearings and draw attention to the problem. Frankly, it’s only been in the past year that it’s come out that the Executive Branch hasn’t done very much, and that Congress has to do more about pushing the use of this legislation.
The Clinton Administration
MEQ: In the twilight of the Clinton administration, how do you assess its Middle East record?
Schumer: Very good. It is solidly pro-Israel; sure, there were some little bumps in the road but if you look at all the U.S. administrations from World War II forward, the Clinton administration stands out as the one that in its heart and soul and mind has been thoroughly pro-Israel. There were others, too: Reagan stands out, but even Reagan had the unhappy events of 1982, while Clinton has had very few real ruptures with Israel. The main one would be that the administration let itself get too heavily involved in trying to influence the Israeli election in April 1996—an effort that, of course, backfired when Netanyahu beat Shimon Peres.
MEQ: In what main ways would a Schumer administration have been different these last years?
Schumer: I would have put more pressure on the Palestinians to come clean as they moved into the peace process. It is not surprising that they have been so reluctant and that so much of it hasn’t worked.
MEQ: You would have put pressure on the Palestinian Authority even though the Israelis themselves are not putting pressure on it? In such circumstances, how could that work?
Schumer: I could have tried; I would have talked to the Israelis. I probably would have deferred to them, but, yes, put more pressure on them to do more to go after Hamas and the terrorist groups. To do more to make sure that the Palestinian people know that they can live in peace with the Jewish people. To do more of these things for their own protection.
MEQ: Let me just note that it’s remarkable for an American politician to feel it necessary to wake the Israelis up to their own security needs. But finally, looking to the next administration, any piece of advice?
Schumer: Not yet. But let me say that my gut feeling is that Al Gore would be far more pro-Israel and friendly to Israel than George W. Bush. And I say that not as a Democrat, but as somebody who cares a lot about Israel.
1 See http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/US-Israel/waiver.html.
2 Sidney Zion, "Israel Betrayed Pollard, Too," The New York Daily News, June 22, 2000; see also Aaron Lerner, "Finally, the Truth about the Pollard Affair," The Jerusalem Post, June 20, 2000.
3 Robert Hardt, Jr. and Gregg Birnbaum, "Schumer Pitches for Pollard As Hill Makes Grab For Bill's TV Guide," The New York Post, June 9, 2000.
4 A document of a subcommittee of the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, May 26, 1987.
5 "Government’s Opposition to Motion to Reduce Sentence," July 17, 1987, p. 10. Included in the Joint Appendix to United States of America vs. Jonathan Pollard, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, 90-3276, June 3, 1991.
6 See http://cgi.cnn.com/US/9603/terrorism_bill/13/schumer/, Mar. 13, 1996.