On a day when legislative redistricting and a parking lot tax were on the agenda, Philadelphia City Council briefly turned its attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a rare but not unprecedented occurrence. The council on Sept. 15 overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing the Palestinian efforts to seek support for unilateral independence at the United Nations. The measure essentially expressed support for a resolution passed by the U.S. Senate in June that called for the Israelis and Palestinians to return to bilateral negotiations. The Senate document also threatened to curtail American aid to the Palestinian Authority if it went ahead with its bid at the United Nations. Despite the fact that the City Council move was largely symbolic, local Jewish groups said it represented an important step in educating the public about the situation, and that the issue is not about the prospect of a Palestinian state but the method the Palestinians are using to go about it.
"We were very pleased at the passage of the resolution," said David Cohen, Israel Affairs associate for the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. "What we are trying to do is let the community know why the U.N. resolution is not a productive path toward peace."
Since 2000, City Council has passed three other resolutions related to Israel. A 2001 resolution expressed sympathy for the victims of a suicide bombing in Israel. Another in 2005 honored Uriel Palti, who was then Israel's consul general in Philadelphia and one in 2006 recognized the work of peace activists Salaiman Khatib of Ramallah in the West Bank and Yonatan Shapira of Tel Aviv.
Councilman Brian O'Neill (R-District 10) introduced the text and nearly all 17 members voted with him. Council members Maria Qunones-Sanchez (D-District 7) and Curtis Jones Jr. (D-District 4) said "nay" when called. Donna Miller (D-District 8) abstained from voting.
For more than 20 minutes, council members sat and listened to activists testify for and against the resolution — mostly for. Among those who spoke out in favor were: Israel's consul general in Philadelphia, Daniel Kutner, Marc Zucker, past president of JCRC, Tom Tropp, president of the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee, and Howard Katzoff, executive vice president of the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim.
"We join the Obama administration and Congress in opposing these tactics which repudiate the central principle of the peace process — that the solution to the conflict can only be the result of direct and bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians," Zucker told the council.
Also, two local Presbyterian ministers — who each have traveled to Israel with JCRC — said a declaration of statehood at the United Nations would hamper the peace process.
Their testimony came as a committee of Presbyterian Church USA — which has sparked controversy in recent years by raising the issue of divesting from companies that do business with Israel — last week raised the issue again. The Church's Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment recommended that its general assembly divest from Motorola, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar because of their business ties with Israel.
Testifying at City Council, Rev. Bill Borror of Media Presbyterian Church, said of the U.N. bid: "I understand the frustrations of the Palestinian people, but this is a shortcut that will put the United States in a difficult position."
Borror, who sits on the Presbyterians' national Middle East oversight committee, also touched on a question that was raised: Is City Council the proper venue to debate Mideast politics?
"In a time when we have a lot of trivia in public debate, I would like to applaud City Council" for taking up the issue, he said.
During public comments opposing the resolution, Susan Landau, a member of Congregation Miskhan Shalom who has long been a critic of Israeli policies, asked the members, "Why is City Council reaching to get involved in supporting legislation that is divisive within the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities and has nothing to do with the City of Philadelphia?"
Marwan Kreidie, director of the Arab American Community Development Corporation, didn't object to the body debating the issue but claimed the language was one-sided, and that if it condemned the Palestinians, it should also blast Israeli settlement building.
Kreidie, who is active in numerous local and national Arab organizations and said he supports the two-state solution, referred to Philadelphia when he said: "In the birthplace where we voted for our own unilateral independence, let's not take that away from the Palestinians."
Tropp, of the AJC, said that while he appreciates that he and Kreidie can discuss things civilly, they disagree on almost every issue. Tropp said he was glad that, on this day, the majority of council members agreed with him to support the resolution.