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Originally published Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 2:07 PM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

AG Rob McKenna's letter about Israel's response to Gaza ignores broader issues

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna signed a letter defending Israel's 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza. The letter does so on narrow grounds without considering wider arguments that favor the Gazans.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Last winter, Israel shelled Gaza, rolled in the tanks, shot it up and left much of it in ruins. Some 1,400 Gazans and 13 Israelis died, a ratio of 100-to-1.

Israel was defending itself, or so it said. To persuade the new Obama administration of that, a letter was circulated among U.S. state attorneys general who had visited Israel, some as guests of the America-Israel Friendship League. The letter is addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. It begins:

"The undersigned Attorneys General write to convey our strong support for the State of Israel's actions in Gaza." The letter deems it unfair to compare the dead on each side the way I just did. It says Israel was not bound to be "proportionate" in its response to Gazan rocket attacks. "Israel's acts were justified and, in our view, met the international legal standards required of a modern state."

Signing the letter were four Democrats and six Republicans, including Washington's Rob McKenna.

This is a remarkable thing. The chief legal officers of Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington — state governments, with no authority over foreign affairs — were lobbying the U.S. secretary of state on behalf of a foreign power.

I asked our attorney general about the propriety of that. "We're elected officials," McKenna said. "All the attorneys general have constituencies for which Israel is important."

They do — and on both sides. Some friends of Gaza heard about the letter and went to see McKenna in July. One was Craig Corrie, whose daughter Rachel was killed in Gaza in 2003 by an Israeli soldier. Corrie told me he objected to a state official who had supported "increased violence in the Middle East."

That is what the letter does. McKenna focused on what it says. "The letter was narrowly crafted around whether Israel has a right to self-defense," he said.

I asked him whether 1,400 deaths were not excessive in response to rocket fire that had killed no one by the time the Israelis responded.

"You have to wait until enough of your people die so that it's roughly equal to the number of people you're going to kill?" he asked. "Nobody operates on that principle."

Indeed not. But under the rules of war, surely the other side had just cause as well. After the people of Gaza had elected the Hamas government, Israel had blockaded Gaza for a year and a half, by land and sea. The Gazans could export nothing, and could not make a living in the world. Israel had reduced them to living on handouts, and only a ration of those.

A blockade of such a small place — less than twice the area of Seattle — can be more lethal to civilians than rockets. It is also an act of war. But there is nothing in the letter about any of this.

Nor was there any mention that Israel's centrist Kadima Party government was facing an election Feb. 10 and was afraid of losing to the rightist Likud Party. The Gaza incursion was part of an election campaign. (Likud was elected anyway.)

McKenna said the letter came across his desk and he turned it around in 24 hours. He is a lawyer, and he responded like one.

But in this state he is Mr. Republican, his party's brightest and most successful standard-bearer. Someday he will run for U.S. Senate, where his foreign-policy views count. He should be careful about what he signs.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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