Republicans frustrated on Election Night 2010 that the GOP was unable to win Vice President Joe Biden’s old Senate seat in Delaware were heartened later in the night when they won a more symbolic and consequential seat: President Barack Obama’s seat in Illinois.
But it turned out that the victory was more than symbolic. The new senator from Illinois, former Rep. Mark Kirk, has been perhaps the president’s most knowledgeable and substantive critic in Congress on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president’s old seat then, far from being just another statistic in the Republican election wave, has been haunting him, doggedly pursuing him as he navigates the challenge of Mideast peace.
There are two facets to the effectiveness of Kirk’s criticisms: timing and issue depth.
The day Hamas and Fatah announced they had reached a unity deal, Kirk tweeted almost immediately: “Hamas+Fatah=probable suspension of US aid to Palestinian Authority…Hamas supports terror, killed 26 American citizens.”
Kirk’s rapid response gives him credibility on the issue—he doesn’t have to convene focus group to test its popularity or call together his advisers to find out what it all means. This would be a tremendous detriment if he was wrong, but he wasn’t. He has a strong enough grasp of American law and of Palestinian politics to know right away the implications of major developments in the region.
In March, we saw the brutal murders of the Fogel family (including three children) by Palestinian terrorists in the Jewish village of Itamar. While the Western media gave it scant attention and some news outlets portrayed the Fogel family as deserving of their fate for living in disputed territory, Israeli officials recognized the culprit: A Palestinian media that dehumanizes Jews to the point where slitting the throat of a young child becomes something less than barbaric.
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told me a couple days after the murders that such events don’t happen in a vacuum, and that the incitement must end. Mark Kirk was one of the few in the U.S. to draw the same conclusion, and he led the writing of a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pressing her to take a more forceful tack with Mahmoud Abbas on the issue. The letter, which garnered the signatures of more than a quarter of the Senate, read in part:
“Although President Abbas has expressed his sorrow over the Itamar massacre, the Palestinian Authority must take unequivocal steps to condemn the incident and stop allowing the incitement that leads to such crimes. Educating people toward peace is critical to establishing the conditions to a secure and lasting peace.
“The Itamar massacre was a sobering reminder that words matter, and that Palestinian incitement against Jews and Israel can lead to violence and terror. We urge you to redouble your efforts to impress upon the Palestinian leadership that continuing to condone incitement is not tolerable. We also urge you to consider focusing adequate training and educational programs in the West Bank and Gaza that promote peaceful coexistence with Israel.”
The letter, importantly, also includes other recent instances of official Palestinian incitement to back up its claims.
This is nothing new for Kirk. About a year ago, when the Israeli housing minister announced plans for more homes in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem while Biden was visiting, administration officials berated Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, though it was clear at the time that Netanyahu didn’t know the announcement was coming either. Kirk and Pennsylvania Democrat Christopher Carney wrote to Obama asking him to keep his eye on the ball.
“While the recent controversy is regrettable, it should not overshadow the importance of the US-Israel alliance,” they wrote. “A zoning dispute over 143 acres of Jewish land in Israel’s capital city should not eclipse the growing threat we face from Iran.
“To promote Middle East peace and defend America and Israel’s national security, we urge your Administration to refrain from further public criticism of Israel and to focus on more pressing issues affecting this vital relationship, such as signing and enforcing the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act when it comes to your desk.”
What makes Kirk such a formidable opponent on the issue—and therefore one that is more difficult for the president to ignore than he might otherwise be—is the fact that Kirk seems to be a congressional curve-breaker on the issue of the Middle East. He knows enough of the details to rise above the platitude-happy middle of the pack.
This was on display in Kirk’s recent memo detailing all the possible legal issues with regard to American funding for a Hamas-Fatah unity government. Under U.S. law, Kirk wrote, no American money may be used for:
“1) salaries of personnel of the Palestinian Authority located in Gaza;
2) assistance to Hamas or any entity effectively controlled by Hamas; or
3) any power-sharing government of which Hamas is a member, unless the President certifies to Congress that ‘such government, including all of its ministers or such equivalent, has publicly accepted and is complying with’ the core requirements of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, which are:
a. publicly acknowledging the Jewish state of Israel’s right to exist; and
b. committing itself/themselves and adhering to all previous agreements and understandings with the United States Government, with the Government of Israel, and with the international community, including agreements and understandings pursuant to the Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (commonly referred to as the ‘Roadmap’)
The accompanying report language further defined ‘such equivalent’ as ‘other officials of such equivalent rank and stature’ and further defined ‘publicly accepted’ as ‘in writing by such government and its ministers.’”
The timing of this memo was important as well; any administration response to the Palestinian unity government will now be made with Congress, the media, and the administration having been made aware of what is legal and what is not.
Kirk’s perspective may be that he is helping the president. But the administration is likely to feel boxed in and the State Department probably feels chivvied. Diplomats love wiggle room, but Kirk has allowed them none.
Kirk, a commander in the United States Navy Reserve, has given the Senate GOP an instant boost on foreign policy. He has been out in front on Iran sanctions for years, and when Kenneth Tomlinson profiled Kirk for the Weekly Standard in 2009, he found Kirk possessed “an encyclopedic knowledge of Afghanistan and of broadcasting there.”
Tomlinson noted that Kirk had won re-election in 2008 when Obama carried Kirk’s district by 23 points. Not much for celebrating, Kirk got right to work. Tomlinson wrote: “Less than a month after his victory, Naval Reserve Commander Mark Kirk was in Afghanistan working counternarcotics around Kandahar… He spent most of December there—the first time a U.S. representative has deployed to an imminent danger area since World War II.”
The administration seems poised to continue its push for Israeli-Palestinian peace while a vote on Palestinian statehood at the September UN General Assembly looms and Netanyahu prepares to address Congress. Expect Mark Kirk to be a significant part of the GOP’s response to all three.
Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.