The Middle East Policy Council held its 105th Capitol Hill Conference virtually on Friday, July 16th: “Changes in Palestinian and Israeli Leadership: Implications for U.S. Policy.” The panelists addressed recent developments in both Palestinian and Israeli politics, shifting attitudes towards the conflict within the U.S. Democratic Party and the impact, if any, of these changing dynamics on the long-unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) introduced the event and Bassima Alghussein (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the moderator. The panelists were Dan Arbell (Scholar in Residence, American University); Sari Nusseibeh (President Emeritus, Al Quds University); Joel Rubin (Executive Director, American Jewish Congress); and Omar Rahman (Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Center).
Mr. Arbell described the diverse and unprecedented new governing coalition in Israel. He believes that the coalition’s narrow majority in the Knesset and lack of shared agenda besides opposition to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggests policy breakthroughs will be unlikely anytime soon. With regards to the Palestinians, there is a paradox: a majority of the new governing coalition supports a two-state solution, yet because the right-wing members have veto power, substantive progress is unlikely and settlement activity and withholding taxes from the Palestinian Authority (PA) will likely continue. In terms of the Biden administration, Mr. Arbell sees an opportunity for deeper ties after years of tension between Netanyahu and the U.S. Democratic Party. He sees this resulting in the Biden administration working to “manage, not resolve” the conflict through modest measures like involving the PA in Gaza reconstruction and advancing confidence building measures.
Mr. Nusseibeh believes that the Palestinians are again coalescing around the idea of a shared political identity. However, the split governance between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank complicates this vision, particularly as Fatah under Mahmoud Abbas has become increasingly associated with corruption and authoritarianism. To demonstrate the depth of Abbas’ estrangement from many within his own party, Mr. Nusseibeh explained how Abbas’ recent cancelling of the first elections in 15 years was clearly because he knew he would lose them: some Fatah members who previously supported him were planning on running against him. Despite this political fragmentation and instability, Mr. Nusseibeh sees signs of hopeful change in some of the economic, social and demographic trends in Palestine. Younger Palestinians in the West Bank are increasingly seeking regular life through entrepreneurship and civic engagement, a trend that could even take hold in Gaza once the “missile mentality” runs out of steam.
Mr. Rubin outlined the tumultuous political dynamics in the U.S. Democratic party related to Israel and Palestine. He explained how after being in the “wilderness” for 12 years, the change in leadership in both Jerusalem and Washington has suddenly illuminated the question of what the Democratic position is on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This question is complicated by two factors: first, the Democratic majority in Congress is quite tenuous making many members hesitant to take bold positions on lightening-rod issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and second, the intraparty conflict between the more progressive and moderate flanks. While this tension hasn’t been too visible since the current Congress took office, it boiled over related to a debate on U.S. aid to Israel. Mr. Rubin explained that while some members advocated for language emphasizing conditions or constraint on aid to Israel, this position lost momentum, signaling that there continues to be an appetite for moderate positions on the issue within the U.S. Democratic Party.
Mr. Rahman described a desperate PA, forced to resort to crushing opposition and journalists to cling on to power. This desperation is responding to a real crisis of legitimacy for the PA which is now viewed by most Palestinians as a “sub-contractor of the occupation” without having any ability to protect Palestinian civilians. He stressed how there are no pillars of legitimacy left for the PA in the eyes of the public, a slow unraveling of the PA’s role as a once temporary administrative body in the early 1990s that has become disconnected from a collapsed Olso framework and peace process. Amidst this unraveling, Israel continues to consolidate control over territory in the West Bank and there is a growing sense on both sides of the conflict that the door on the two-state solution has closed. Given these conditions, he suggested there could be value in the Biden administration thinking about the issue with a different approach. The Trump administration did this with generally disruptive and mixed results, and Mr. Rahman see this new administration pursuing a safe, limited agenda – something that may leave them vulnerable to unexpected developments on the ground in the coming years, he believes.
The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email Press at mepc.org.
Scholar in Residence (History), American University
Former Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Israel in the United States
Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Center
Former Research Analyst, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
President, Al-Quds University
Former Representative, Palestinian National Authority
Executive Director, American Jewish Congress
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs,
Introductory Remarks by
Chairman of the Board and President, Middle East Policy Council
Former Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman
Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council