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A vapid Mideast discourse

Even in the wake of an atrocity, few American politicians are willing to criticize Israel.

By John Nichols

The Obama administration and the State Department responded with their usual caution to the Israeli commando attack on a flotilla of aid ships bound for the Gaza Strip. The attack, which occurred before dawn Monday in international waters, left at least 10 civilians dead.

The incident has stirred an international outcry and a call from Turkey, the country from which the ship sailed, for a U.N. response. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of committing "inhumane state terror" after the attack on a ship carrying 600 aid workers and activists, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Máiread Corrigan-Maguire. "International law has been trampled underfoot," the prime minister added.

Within Israel, there has been an intensely critical response, with a top columnist for the newspaper Haaretz arguing, "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must return immediately from North America and convene a national committee of inquiry into Israel's interception of a Gaza aid convoy on Monday. ..."

On the other hand, the official U.S. response was tepid in the extreme. "The United States deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy," said deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton.

Behind the scenes, a mild signal was sent. Netanyahu had been scheduled to meet with Obama Tuesday to discuss restarting peace talks with the Palestinians. The meeting was canceled, logically enough, as the prospects for peace do not look good - and Obama would face rough questioning at the photo op. Netanyahu returned to Israel to face a firestorm of criticism.

And what of the American response beyond the White House? For the most part, Congress has been, and is likely to remain, cautious. But one key congressional candidate was outspoken.

Veteran California Democratic activist Marcy Winograd, who is mounting a serious challenge to conservative Democratic Rep. Jane Harman in a primary next week, bluntly criticized the attack. Winograd and Harman are both Jewish, and they are running in a Los Angeles-area district with a large Jewish population, but their contest is a reminder of the diversity of opinion on Israel within the American Jewish community. Winograd has long been associated with the Israeli peace camp, while Harman is linked to groups that are more resistant to negotiation.

Warning that "the killings are bound to heighten awareness about the brutal blockade and to increase pressure to end the imprisonment of over a million people in Gaza," Winograd declared Monday: "As a Jewish woman of conscience, I invite my opponent, Jane Harman, another Jewish woman, and all of Congress to join me in denouncing this kind of barbaric violence, demanding an end to the blockade, and seeking an international investigation into these murders."

Unlike in Israel, where there is a rich political discourse, the debate about Middle East issues among U.S. political players tends to be ridiculously constrained - to the point of being vapid. Winograd is pushing the limits and seeking the sort of frank and thoughtful discussion that Israel and other countries enjoy. Even those who might disagree with her position should welcome her boldness.