The Middle East Policy Council held its 98th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, October 25th: "The United States, Israel and Palestine: An Assessment." Convened during a time of political uncertainty in Israel, the panelists were unanimous in their pessimism concerning current prospects for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. They also noted the importance of acknowledging the success the Trump administration has had in implementing policies which undermine the peace process, and stressed the need to address the urgent humanitarian plight of the Palestinians.
Amb. Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley (former U.S. Ambassador to Malta; Vice Chair of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event; Amb. Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) participated; and Dr. Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Dr. James Zogby (President, Arab American Institute); Ms. Lara Friedman (President, Foundation for Middle East Peace; Fellow, U.S./Middle East Project); Prof. Shibley Telhami (Anwar Sadat Professor, University of Maryland; Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution); and Amb. Jake Walles (Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Former U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia; Former U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem).
Dr. Zogby began by noting that while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer the most pressing issue in the Middle East - the Syrian civil war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen receive greater attention from the media and policymakers - the suffering of the Palestinians continues unabated. Even the U.S. political debate among the Democratic candidates for president fails to recognize the Palestinian reality. Most candidates ignore the human dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and instead default to saying they support a two-state solution. But Dr. Zogby believes that it is distractive to talk about a two-state solution because it is not going to be realized under current circumstances. Reducing the issue to a binary debate between supporting a one-state or two-state solution obscures the urgent need to address the humanitarian suffering in the occupied territories.
Ms. Friedman urged taking a clear view of what has happened around the Israeli-Palestinian issue since President Trump took office. In her view, the Trump administration has been both coherent and effective in realizing exactly their intent to systematically dismantle the peace process. This has been achieved through a variety of actions: taking Jerusalem off the table; removing settlements from the debate; changing U.S. policy as it relates to refugees; supporting Congress in changing U.S. law as it relates to families of Palestinians killed or imprisoned by Israel; and, acting to politically delegitimize the PLO and PA, and to de-nationalize the Palestinians as a people. Moreover, the Trump Administration has declared unilaterally, in the context of its Golan Heights policy, an amendment to international law to permit a country to retain land acquired in a defensive war - paving the way for recognizing Israel's right to retain the West Bank. She warned against believing that, if there is a change to a Democratic administration in the 2020 elections, the goal should be a return to the pre-Trump peace process status quo. There is no way to return to that status quo, she argued, and even if it were possible, it is that failed peace process that paved the way for where things are today. She suggested, instead, that regardless of whether one supports two states or one state, the way forward at this time must focus not on end-game aspirations but on working for international law and Palestinian rights.
Prof. Telhami shared an overview of American attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The data suggest that while historically Americans have favored a balanced U.S. policy toward both parties, recent opinions have split more on partisan lines. While majorities of both Republicans and Democrats still favor a balanced U.S. role towards the parties, Republicans who favor one side largely favor Israel while Democrats who favor one side are now more evenly split between the two sides. He explained the reasons for this shift as three-fold: the actions of a right-wing Israeli government engaging in the U.S. political system in opposition to former President Obama; the Trump administration's wholehearted embrace of the agenda of Israeli's right-wing government; and the Israeli-Palestinian issue having become part of a broader value system within the Democratic party about human rights. Looking forward, he is not sure that sufficient passion exists amongst U.S. Democrats to make this a core issue for the presidential candidates, although it could be something that resonates with primary voters.
Amb. Walles agreed that a two-state solution is not feasible at the moment but that it represents the only way to reach a resolution to the conflict where the aspirations of both sides are met. He sees the Israelis and Palestinians moving further apart, making it increasingly difficult to preserve the conditions for a future two-state solution. This is complicated by the leadership transitions underway: we could be seeing the end of the Netanyahu era in Israel, and also the beginning of a succession process to replace President Abbas. In his view, the Israelis will likely regret not having made a deal with President Abbas when his successor's priorities and political orientation become known. Amb. Walles offered greater hope that a new U.S. president could undo some of the actions taken by the Trump administration, and recommended re-establishing the two-state solution as U.S. policy, developing a more balanced position regarding Jerusalem, and restoring bi-lateral relations with the Palestinians.
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 members of the Middle East Policy Council's leadership, please email [email protected].
GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Is this better? (Laughs.) All right. Good morning. I am Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, vice chairwoman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. I’m pleased to welcome you to this, our 98th Quarterly Capitol Hill Conference.
Our topic today is “The United States, Israel, and Palestine: An Assessment.” I attended a talk on Middle East policy a few weeks ago, given by a respected scholar in the field. I won’t say where he was from. And he surveyed the region’s challenges for an hour before taking questions. I’m not sure what struck me more forcibly by the end, that the first questions he received were on the Israeli-Palestinian relationship or that during his presentation he did not mention either country once. Certainly today, among policy analysts, we might get strong arguments on where this issue should lie among our priority set, but such a divide deserves examination. Today we are fortunate to have an experienced and very knowledgeable group of panelists with us to delve into the factors at play that affect the U.S. approach to this perennial challenge.
However, before I turn to today’s program, I would like to say a few words about the Middle East Policy Council. The Council was established in 1981 for the purpose of promoting dialogue and education concerning the United States and the countries of the Middle East. We have three flagship programs: Our quarterly Capitol Hill conference, such as today’s event, our quarterly journal, Middle East Policy, which enjoys a strong reputation among those with an interest in Middle Eastern affairs. And it can be found among 15,000 libraries worldwide. And finally, our educational outreach program, TeachMideast, which provides educational resources on the Middle East targeted mainly toward secondary school students and teachers. Please visit us at our website www.MEPC.org and our TeachMideast program on the web at www.TeachMideast.org to learn more about our organization and our organization and our activities.
Now, to today’s event. This program is being livestreamed on our website. So I’m pleased to also welcome all of you who have joined us online. The conference proceedings will be posted in video and transcript form on our website, as will a recap of the discussion. An edited transcript of the program will be published in our next issue of the journal, Middle East Policy.
So let me briefly introduce our panelists. We will begin the program with Dr. James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute. Our next speaker will be Ms. Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a fellow at the U.S./Middle East Project. Our third panelist is Dr. Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And finally, Ambassador Jake Walles, who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The program will begin with each panelist delivering brief opening remarks. This will be followed by a discussion session which will be moderated by my colleague Dr. Tom Mattair, executive director of the Middle East Policy Council. Note that we’ve placed index cards on all of the chairs. Please use these to write down any questions you may have as the speakers are speaking, and then hold up the card. Our staff will collect them during the presentations and give them to Dr. Mattair so that he can consolidate the questions for the discussion section.
With that, let me turn the podium over to Jim. Thank you.
JAMES ZOGBY: Thank you, Gina. And thank you to the Policy Council for inviting me, and for inviting my colleagues. It’s a wonderful group of folks to be associated with and to have a discussion, that I’m sure is going to be helpful to me, because I’m floundering a bit trying to sort things out.
Let me begin by saying that with Lebanon and Iraq being broiled by protests, and with Syria and Yemen entering yet a new phase in their internal conflict supported by external players, there is no doubt that the Israel-Palestine issue is no longer a headline story in the Middle East. And certainly, here in America when the story gets mentioned at all it’s the long, drawn-out soap opera we call the dysfunctional Israeli political system. Who’s on first, who’s on second? Is it going to happen? What does it take to happen? As if it actually made a difference in terms of whether there was peace and justice for Palestinians, which it does not.
That being the case, I also have to say that, revealing some polling that we’ll be coming out with later next month, that Palestine question is no longer the top priority – a top priority. It’s no longer even close to being a priority, concern, across the Arab world. There are other fish to fry with, as I said, Lebanon and Iraq, et cetera. There are focal points that require almost immediate addressing. And so the long boiling situation in the West Bank just continues to boil away. The weekly marches at the border in Gaza continue to happen. Seventy-three were shot last week. Nary a mention here, but certainly in the Arab world as well.
The reality is that Israel’s dug a hole for itself. And we, here in the United States, have either been cheerleader, a coat holder, or sometimes we’ve actually, went they got tired, it appeared, picked up the shovel and helped them dig. Legislation coming from this and previous congresses certainly have not made the situation any easier for – not only for Palestinians, but for the search for peace. There – I just was noting yesterday to somebody, a friend, that when The New York Times did its interviews with all of the presidential candidates and asked them a series of questions and posted the responses, I read them. I also watched them. And I suggest that you watch the one on whether or not they would do anything in their administration to address Palestinian human rights.
It was actually comical, because there were a few who were quite good, I thought. But most of them, when they got asked the question, looked like if you’ve ever seen third graders get hit with a pop quiz – (laughter) – and know that there’s an answer someplace but, oh my God, what do I do with this? And I didn’t prepare. And then all of a sudden, the light would come on and they’d say, oh, well, I support a two-state solution. I began calling it the two-state absolution. It meant, in other words, I’m not going to do a damn thing about Palestinians being brutalized. I’m not going to do anything about human rights at all. But I support a two-state solution, so leave me alone. Do I have it? Am I OK now? Can I go?
That’s about the best we have to offer. But the reality is that there is no two-state solution anymore. And it pains me to say it, because I supported it back in the ’70s when Palestinians didn’t support it. They wanted a secular, democratic state. And so we started the Palestine Human Rights Campaign back then to say: While the debate is taking place over what happens, on a daily basis people are being brutalized. With 600-plus-thousand settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem, which Israel continues to call East Jerusalem but is actually 28 Palestinian villages encompassed inside this myth of the fact that it’s all Jerusalem. And if you look at it, there are these little Palestinian villages, and huge settlements surrounding them, strangling them, having taken their land and their livelihood and made them a captive people.
And with no political will or even interest in Israel in doing anything about it, and certainly no political will or interest here in doing anything about it except, again, for a few presidential candidates who are willing to say that they would take action, one would wonder how you create a Palestinian state in that environment. If you’re not going to move settlers out then what you’re left with are these – what you see on the map – these little tiny circles of captive Palestinians with a network of roads and settlements and outposts that have taken their land and denied them freedom of movement, freedom of the ability to function as a unified people. Palestinians are separated from one another inside the West Bank, not to speak of the separation that they have endured now for many decades from Gaza.
Given that situation, the political conversation here I think is – it’s almost abusive, when we focus on exhausting our energy talking about a solution that is not going to occur. We’re – I think we go back to where I believe we were when we started the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, which is: Something must be done about the daily situation in the territories. Someone has to assume responsibility. I was thinking the other day of in Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman where – now Willy Loman’s not a character that you want to emulate or that you hold up as a hero. But his sons, who are frustrated, and fed up, and angry, and want to basically disown him instead of him disowning them – at one point, the mother says: He is a human being. He must not be allowed to fall into his grave like a dog. Attention must be paid to this man.
Regardless of the frustration people have with the Palestinian Authority – I have frustration with the Palestinian Authority, it is long past time for it to either change or go. Regardless of whether or not your frustrated with that, this has been going on for hundred years. And it has been going on for a hundred years. There are real people who are suffering real pain. And they’re suffering that pain at the hand of the Israeli, but also at the hands of the United States. And looking at the most recent report from UNRWA of the cuts that they have been forced to make, and not only in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, but also the cuts they’ve had to make in West Bank and Gaza – with food programs cut, with education programs cut, with health and sanitation programs cut, and American NGOs suffering the same fate. The reality is, attention must be paid to this people, to the daily needs that they have. And no one is paying attention.
We’re going to have a conference, J Street. I am one who respects J Street and think they’ve created space for debate. But what people will be looking at is whether or not candidates say I’m for one state or two states. That is a nonsense way of absolving yourself on the one hand and of evading the responsibility. What are we going to do about real people who are dying every single day and suffering a fate of an occupation that has now felt it has total impunity – it can operate with impunity to do what it wants, and no one’s going to raise a peep. That’s where we are. And that, I think, is the challenge we face.
LARA FRIEDMAN: So thank you. And thank you, Middle East Council, for having me. It’s always hard to follow Jim, but I’m really happy because I’m in front of the other two guys. (Laughter.) So that saves me from having to follow all three of their brilliant acts.
For folks who know me, and there’s a lot of friends in the room, I’m that sort of reality check person. Some people say, oh, you’re very pessimistic. I say it’s not pessimistic. It’s knowing the facts. And if you’re going to find hope or you’re going to find a way forward, you know, hope is not a strategy. You have to know the facts and sort of figure out where you go from there. That is a strategy.
The reality check, I think, is important. This is a panel that we’re looking at U.S, Israel and the Palestinians. And we’re here in Washington. I think it’s important to start off with where we are with the Trump administration three years in. And I think that needs to start with a recognition of how enormously successful this administration has been at achieving its goals on Israel-Palestine. And, you know, I say this as someone who has been pushing back since they came into office against arguments that this Trump – this administration is chaotic and reckless and constantly doing random things on the Middle East. On Israel-Palestine, they have been coherent, and cogent, and consistent. And they’ve had the same people involved since before the election, right, saying the same thing. If we had done them the respect of believing them when they laid out their goals, when they laid out their vision on Israel-Palestine, we would not have been surprised at anything they’ve done.
And what they’ve done – and this is separate for a moment from what’s happening on the ground which Jim described – in terms of policy, they have in a very effective way systematically dismantled the peace process. And they have dismantled all of the achievements of the past 25 years – actually, more. In some ways rolling us back not just to pre-Oslo, but to pre-Madrid. And I think it’s worth taking a moment to look at that, starting with the permanent status issues, right? Everyone knows the president took Jerusalem off the table. There is no peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians without Jerusalem. We’ve taken Jerusalem off the table.
We’ve taken settlements and land off the table. Well, this is a conflict over land, right? It’s over how you’re going to divide this land or share it between two peoples. And we have a new policy, since this administration came into power, which basically said: Israel can build wherever it wants, it will suffer no price. And we will actually throw ourselves in front of the international community to protect Israel from any consequences. And we will call it defending Israel against anti-Semitism, right? So if anybody – if Israel wants to differentiate between Israel and settlements, we will call that antisemitic and anti-Israel. And we will pass legislation to say you cannot differentiate.
So what are the other permanent status issues? Refugees. We’ve gone after UNRWA. The purpose of going after UNRWA is not about financial responsibility. The purpose of going after UNRWA is to say if we dismantle the organization that stands for the rights of Palestinian refugees, we erase the refugee issue. And that’s not me attributing intent. That’s me literally quoting the people who have been saying for 20 years that we need to get rid of UNRWA because that’ll get rid of the refugees.
On security, security was never really a permanent status issue. The U.S. stands with Israel. But this administration and Congress have gone far beyond that. It’s far beyond just an MOU. It’s essentially saying Israel can do anything it needs to do and we will be there, and we will provide whatever is necessary without any question of how it affects the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it even goes further. There are two more things I want to raise that are not normally thought about in this context.
The first is prisoners. And we’re sitting in Congress, which passed bipartisan legislation which says that the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, if they support the families of people who have been killed or imprisoned by Israel, then that is a – they are an entity that supports terror. Prisoners are at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Every family in the West Bank and Gaza has a family member who has been killed or imprisoned by Israel. Supporting those families is at the core of the identity of being a leader for the Palestinians.
That was understood during Oslo. The reason prisoners are not a permanent status issue in Oslo is that this issue was so important that it had to be resolved before permanent status. And the prisoners were supposed to be released before we even got to permanent status talks. The U.S., this Congress, have taken prisoners, put it back on the table after it was supposed to be resolved. And now we’ve taken it off the table and said it can never be resolved because anyone who is either imprisoned or killed by Israel is a terrorist and saying otherwise means you support terror.
And the other piece of it is the PLO and the PA. The fundamental development that allowed the peace process to take root was the legitimization of a Palestinian national leadership. It was the U.S. recognition of the PLO. It was Israel’s recognition of the PLO, and the creation of the PA. And saying: You have legitimacy to represent the Palestinians as a national body. The Taylor Force Act, which is the “pay to slay,” the legislation about prisoners – the core of that piece of legislation is to say the Palestinian Authority and the PLO are illegitimate and they support terror. That’s what this is about, this piece of legislation. And we’re already seeing this tested in court today.
Fundamentally, this administration, closing the PLO mission here, closing the consulate – closing a consulate is not just a bureaucratic issue in Jerusalem. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem and saying the Palestinians now come under the authority of the U.S. ambassador to Israel is saying: We no longer recognize the Palestinians as a bilateral partner with which to make peace, or anything else. They are now a subset of our relationship with Israel. It’s as if Abbas is another mayor of another Israeli town. We have effectively in three years – again, to give credit where credit is due, this is what they said they were going to do.
So as we look at where we are and where this goes going forward – and I very much agree with Jim, the focus now, I think, if you are – have any – setting aside ideology. If you want to be practical about what’s happening, all you can focus on is the immediate and the rights issue, because two-state solution has been taken off the table in a very conscious and deliberate way – separate from the Israeli body politic and what they would accept, separate from whether the PA has the ability to make a deal, or the PLO has the ability to make a deal. It’s been taken off the table by the U.S. administration and the Israeli government. That’s where we are today.
And that’s a conscious policy. And looking at how we get beyond that, I have arguments every day between the two-staters and the one-staters. And I always say: You can like two states, you can like one state – I personally believe in two states – at this point you need to take that idea, that end game that you have in mind, and wrap it in plastic wrap and bubble wrap and put it up on the shelf, and deal with the here and now, and deal with it together – whether we agree on two state or one state or not. Because there is no process available now that will let us get to any end game other than from the river to the sea, a greater Israel that is in line with David Friedman and the settlers’ idea of a Jewish state that is the Biblical promise, and all of that.
That’s what we’re aiming at. And again, they’re telling us that. This isn’t me attributing intent. It is – it is mindboggling to me the ability – the depth of the ability of the D.C. analytical community to try to not believe what they’re being told by the people who are making decisions. Every day I have arguments with people who say, well, I need to write an article about how they can still save the peace process. They’re not trying to save the peace process. Here’s how they can still save the two-state solution. The people in charge making policy are not trying to save the two-state solution.
And one more change I didn’t mention, which is actually about the Golan but has impact for the West Bank and Gaza, this administration has changed international law. They have established a principle which says that a party that gains land in a defensive war has the right to keep it. And you may agree with that. And that’s fine if you agree with that. But recognize what that’s laying out as a possibility moving forward on the West Bank. That is the principal which says that Israel can keep the West Bank. It can keep Gaza if it wants it too, but I don’t think it wants it.
As people look ahead, we have one more year of this administration, I would strongly encourage people to read the speech that David Friedman gave at the last AIPAC policy conference, where he exhorts the public – he exhorts his audience, in almost the tones of someone speaking at the pulpit, on how we cannot – what will we tell our children if we miss this opportunity to once and for all save Israel and save this agenda? I think the expectation should be, whether we see a Trump plan or vision put down, to see a continuation of the policies we are seeing now.
It would be irrational to believe that there is going to be a change in this administration’s policy. If you take them at their word, you should expect an escalation of this administration’s policies. And that could get interesting if we have an Israeli government that stops escalating, right? We don’t know what’s going to happen there. I think it’s much more likely we’ll see these continue – annexation, de facto annexation, declaring the two-state solution over. We don’t know where this goes, but we have another year of this Trump administration.
After that, we either have four more years or we come into new administration. And, again, referencing what Jim said, if you listen to the language of the candidates on the other side, none of them are coming in with a new vision. None of them are coming in with the idea of a new paradigm. At best, what they’re talking about is how we return to status quo ante, the Obama era, Clinton era, Bush era peace process, which got us where we are today – and, which is not returnable to. There are things that cannot be easily undone, easily rolled back.
So as we look ahead, I think we need to be practical and I think we need to be realistic about where things are. And as we have a conversation maybe on this panel later about what could be the next step, I think we have to frame it – we have to base our analysis not on what we wish things were or how we hope they could be turned back, but in where they are and where we are can take them from there.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR: Shibley, before you – can I just remind people that we have asked for questions to be written on cards, and if you have them please – our staff will bring them up to me now so I can start sifting through them before we get to the end of the presentations.
Veronica, would you walk around please?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Sure. Good morning. Thank you for hosting this event. And it’s really good to see with good friends on this panel.
Let me just limit my comments to where the American public on – is on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In part, because I’ve been doing studies on this since 1988 – literally, the first public opinion poll I actually carried out was in 1988. And we’ve had some baseline questions dating back to that era. And certainly, I’m continuing to do that. I just released another public opinion poll on this issue from our University of Maryland critical issues poll. And we had a panel releasing it at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday. And I invite you to look at the results. But let me just make some, you know, remarks related to what the data shows.
One baseline question that we had asked, beginning with – in one form or another; sometimes it changed over the years – is about whether the American public wants the U.S. government to lean toward Israel, to lean toward the Palestinians, or to lean toward neither side of the conflict. And what’s been fascinating is really from 1988 to now the strong majority of Americans always says: We want the U.S. government to lean toward neither side. And that has not changed, by the way. But there is a lot that has changed.
And what has changed is of that minority of people – anywhere to a quarter to a third and sometimes a little more – that wants the U.S. to take sides, it used to be where the gap between Democrats and Republicans was small, and by a large ratio that minority wanted the U.S. to take Israel’s side. Sometimes three to one, four to one, five to one, six to one ratio. And that has been, you know, the case over the years. Over the past 10 years, specifically the past 10 years, we have seen a shift in that group that wants the U.S. to take side.
That whereas more and more Republicans want the U.S. to take Israel’s side outright – and in fact the latest polls shows now a majority of Republicans want the U.S. to take Israel’s side outright – whereas among Democrats it’s quite the opposite. Where we have had still a large majority who want to take neither side. But of those who want to take side, now it’s almost even between wanting to take the Israeli side and the Palestinian side. And some of the polls, particularly among young people, even slightly leaning toward the Palestinians.
So we have seen a shift that is among Republicans and Democrats. In a way, you can say that American public attitudes on Israel-Palestine were somewhat immune to the polarization in American politics. Not perfectly immune. There was always some gap, but not quite a wide gap. And that recently this issue has become no longer immune to the polarization that we see in almost every other issue in American politics.
What’s interesting is that this even holds for some very controversial issues. For example, the settlement issue was brought up. And Democrats – a majority of Democrats favor imposing sanctions or harsher measures over the settlement issue. And Republicans overwhelmingly oppose that. So even on an issue like that, you have a polarization. In the most recent poll, we even ask about BDS specifically, something I had never asked before. And as you can imagine, in the poll only half of Americans say they’ve heard a little about – at least a little about BDS. But among those who have heard, again, Republicans overwhelmingly say they oppose it and a majority of Democrats say they support it – of Democrats who say they’ve heard of BDS.
But there are some issues on which Democrats and independents come together, but they come together – or, at least the gap is narrower. One question that has been standard that we have asked is what if there are no two-state solution. Would you then favor Israel – the Jewishness of Israel, even if it means that the Palestinians don’t have full rights? Or would you favor a democratic Israel, even if it means that Israel is no longer a Jewish-majority state? And overwhelmingly Americans favor democracy. And that happened to be the case across the board of the political spectrum – Democrats, independents, and Republicans.
However, even on this issue there’s a slight narrowing where Republicans are now increasingly divided even on this issue, in contrast to Democrats and Republicans who overwhelmingly support democracy over Jewishness of this issue. I should also say one other issue that has been relevant, particularly to Congress, where Republicans and Democrats come together, particularly in the recent poll, is that the majority of all groups oppose laws that prohibit boycotts, regardless – including people, obviously, who oppose boycotts of Israel on settlement. A majority oppose laws, on civil liberties ground. That would – that would legislate that it’s wrong to boycott.
What explains these trends? So let me give you just a quick explanation, and then tell you whether it really matters policy-wise. One reason for it, I think, over the past 10 years, is we’ve had a right-wing Israeli government. And obviously with policies that have been opposed by the American mainstream, particularly on settlements, but especially during the eight years of the Obama administration.
And in a way, part of that polarization is really visible, because particularly with the prime minister of Israel seeming to be part of the American political system, even speaking here in Congress over issues that matter to Democrats and the country like Iran, he was seen to be on the other side of the equation. There’s no question that emphasized that tension between a right-wing Israeli government and an American democratic administration increased the polarization on this issue dramatically. And second, with the Trump administration, we see further polarization, with Trump essentially embracing the right-wing Israeli government, the right-wing Israeli government embracing Trump, we see the increase in that polarization.
And those two together – the political circumstances over the past decade that have increased the polarization – also should make us think about something in the future. Let’s assume that we now have – that in 2020 the country elects a Democratic president instead. And let’s assume that the Israelis have a more moderate prime minister instead, who works well with the Democratic president. The problem with that is we have to be careful not to be complacent that that therefore things are taken care of, because as we know in the past they were not taken care of, and people – it, in a way, removed the urgency of dealing with the humanitarian issue and the occupation issue. And people have to be careful not to allow that to happen, to be complacent if in fact there’s a change in the mood that reduces the polarization.
A third argument – a third reason why there’s this shift is what I call value based. I mean, I’ve written about this before, where you see that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become part of a broader value system in the Democratic Party that focuses on human rights, international law. And for whatever reason, it has emerged as a prototype in that – in that scheme. And so it has become an activist issue in and of itself, based on fitting into those values.
What does it – does it matter in the end? So does this polarization matter, particularly the shift within the Democratic Party public opinion on this issue? I wondered – you know, I wrote a piece in The Washington Post when I first started seeing this trend back four years – five years ago. And I said, I wondered whether there’s a big gap between elected officials in Congress and the Democratic public on this issue. Is this sustainable? Can it be sustained over time? Or will there be a corresponding shift?
And I’m not sure, but I have – just to tell you my own thoughts – and I think, you know, Lara Freidman and Jim Zogby are here. And I believe we were many years ago – maybe 15 years ago or so – we were on a panel together discussing this very issue, as you can imagine. This is not something that we just discuss for now. I had remarked about my very first article on this issue. It was a 1995 article that was highlighting what we call the issue publics. That is in American politics, it’s really passion that matters most for the political system. It’s really intensity of views that matter most, and those who care most about a particular issue.
The question is, we see the trend in the Democratic Party. Are the Democrats really caring enough about this issue to make a difference in the political system? I think the picture is mixed. The picture is mixed. As Jim noted, even in the Arab world Israel-Palestine isn’t exactly the burning issue of the day anymore among Arabs. It’s certainly not the burning issue of the day in Washington. It’s not likely to be. It’s not a strategically important issue. And therefore, I think it isn’t going to drive people’s position on this issue in the campaign.
However, because it is anchored, as I said, as a prototype and a value system at a time when we’re polarized, I think in the Democratic primaries it could indeed emerge as an issue because as Bernie Sanders has demonstrated, he energized his base by appealing to the issue of human rights of the Palestinian people. He actually energized people that way. And I think that that remains to be seen, but I think that the Democratic Party could well be – in the Democratic primaries, it could well emerge as an issue. Thank you.
JAKE WALLES: Thank you. It’s great to be here and to be on a distinguished panel with a number of longstanding friends and colleagues. We’ve been together on panels before, we’ve talked about these issues many times, but it’s always good to get back together again. Going last, I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t know that I’ll have any optimism to counterbalance what we’ve heard already, but I’ll do my best.
Let me – let me start with this question about two-states. And Jim talked about this, and Lara talked about this as well. I would agree that the two-state solution is not something that is available at the moment. However, I continue to believe that a two-state solution is the only way to reach an agreed resolution to the conflict in which the aspirations of both sides are met. There are other possible outcomes, of course. One state, autonomy for the Palestinians. But these are outcomes that cannot be agreed between the two sides. In other words, there’s no way that those outcomes can be a conflict-ending solution to the conflict. The only way I can see to reconcile the aspirations of both the Palestinians and the Israelis is through a two-state solution.
And I think that’s been – that’s been the conclusion that the people have come to, going back many, many decades, not just recently. But if you go back to 1948 and the partition resolution, and ever before that, the idea of dividing the land as the way to reconcile these two – these two conflicting claims was the way that most people came to. Having said all that, as I said, I don’t think an agreement for two states is something can be reached now, or in the near future. The political situation in both sides, both the Israeli and the Palestinian side, are incapable of making the compromises necessary to reach an agreement. And in fact, as I see it, the two sides are moving farther apart rather than moving closer together.
So I’m not optimistic about the current situation, but I would continue to hope that circumstances will change over time and make a two-state solution possible at some point. In terms of the current focus – and I would say this more for the Israelis and the Palestinians rather than the Trump administration, the focus I think needs to be on finding a way to preserve the possibility of two states in the future.
That would involve things about allowing the Palestinians greater control over their lives, reducing Israeli involvement in a day-to-day basis in Palestinian lives, particularly on security issues. And also finding some way to deal with the expansion of settlements, particularly in the areas outside of the box beyond the security barrier. I fear that the absence of an agreed solution over time will mean that the current situation will become the de facto solution. That de facto solution would, over time, begin to look like something like an apartheid situation, which is not good either for the Israelis or the Palestinians.
Let me – let me talk a little bit about the Israelis and the Palestinians, where they are right now. I think one thing that’s common to both sides is a leadership transition that’s already underway, both in Israel and among the Palestinians. In Israel, I think we’re beginning to see the end of the Netanyahu era. Exactly how and when this is going to happen is not certain, but it’s becoming clearer that the political and the legal challenges that he faces are going to make it difficult for him to continue as prime minister much longer. Again, I don’t want to oversell that. We haven’t seen the end of him as yet, but I think we’re beginning to see the end.
What that means for policy is hard to say. I think the perspective of the Blue and White Party and Likud are actually rather similar when it comes to the Palestinians. So in terms of the – any progress on permanent status issues, I don’t see a new government being able to do that anytime soon. However, there may be more scope for a different kind of government and more – not a hard-right government to take steps on the ground, in conjunction with the Palestinians, that would, as I said, help preserve the possibility of a two-state solution in the future.
In terms of the Palestinians, I think we’re also already beginning to see a succession process for President Abbas. How and when this will happen is unclear, but there’s already jockeying underway among the leaders of Fatah for succession. That’s already begun. We’ve already seen some evidence of that. While most of the potential successors would continue to support the basic outlines of a two-state solution, none of them, I think, is as committed as President Abbas is to the notion of peace. That will make it harder in the future. And I think in the future when Israelis look back on this period, I think they will regret the fact that they didn’t find a way to do a deal with President Abbas, rather than wait for his successor to come in.
Let me turn to say a few words about the Trump administration and their approach on this. Basically, I think Lara did a good description of what they’ve done. I think unlike most other aspects of this administration’s foreign policy the Trump administration has clear goals in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they’ve been fairly successful in what they’ve done to achieve that. I think – I think what they’ve done is, of course, been very negative in terms of the prospect of a two-state solution in the future. And, again, I think that’s their purpose, which is to undermine the possibility of a two-state solution.
From what I can see, their primary objective in developing a plan and possibly putting a plan forward is not to produce a negotiating process or even agreement in the near term, but rather to reset the terms for a future outcome. I think what they’re trying to do, in effect, is to replace the Clinton parameters – which President Clinton elaborated just prior to leaving office I 2001 and essentially described a two-state solution – to something that might be called the Trump parameters and is definitely not about a two-state solution. I don’t know what is in the plan. I suspect it describes an outcome that is more or less autonomy for the Palestinians within a larger Israeli-controlled space between the Jordan River and the sea.
This happens to be the historic position favored by Likud in Israel, which goes back to the Camp David agreement between Begin and Sadat. As I said before, I don’t think autonomy is something that meets the minimal aspiration of the Palestinian people. So I don’t think this plan, if it is ever made public, would gain much traction. The principal authors, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, may hope that this will change over time, but I’m very dubious. And I think it’s telling that Jason Greenblatt has already announced his departure date. That’s not something that someone would do if they thought that the plan that they put together really had any chance of going anywhere, at least in the near term.
Finally, I think it’s useful to begin to think about what should be done after the Trump administration. And I know that not knowing when the Trump administration is going to end. That could be a year from now; that could be five years from now. And either way, I think it’s important to begin to think about what comes next, because I don’t see any way in which the Trump administration can regain the trust of the Palestinians, which I think is a necessary prerequisite for the administration to play a role in mediating the conflict.
I think the first step that a new administration should do would be to focus on undoing the damage that’s been done. I would agree with Lara that undoing the damage is not going to be easy, but I think that’s where you have to begin. I think that I would start with restoring two states as the ultimate objective for the process and finding a more balanced U.S. position on Jerusalem. The latter, Jerusalem, will be particularly difficult. Any statement or action regarding Jerusalem is perilous, which is why so many of us who were in the State Department argued against making any change in our position absence a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The Trump administration ignored this approach and fixing it will be difficult, but I think it will be a necessary step to move forward.
Finally, I think a new administration should also begin to prioritize the restoration of our bilateral relationship with the Palestinians that has been destroyed by the Trump administration. This would include reestablishing an independent diplomatic mission responsible for our bilateral relationship with the Palestinians, restoring our assistance programs, which will require some changes in existing legislation, and allowing the Palestinians to once again have a representative office in Washington. These steps will also be complicated, politically dangerous, but I think it will be equally necessary in order to find a way to move forward. Thank you and I look forward to your questions.
MR. MATTAIR: All right. Thank you very much. It’s difficult to know where to begin, but a few things that were said by panelists I’d like to ask about, and then there are a lot of questions from the floor. Jim, you said that Israel has dug a hole for itself. Can you elaborate on that?
MR. ZOGBY: An article I wrote back a short while ago called The Liberal’s Lament. It’s about wanting to protect the Jewish and democratic state. Coupled with that is the argument that a binational state or a democratic and open state for both Israelis and Palestinians Arabs would, I mean, be compromised by what they call the demographic timebomb. I mean, there’s a whole lot of racist imagery that goes on. There was an article last week that I saw that started with the “the demographic surprise” that the Jewish birthrate is up, and the Arab birthrate is down. And that’s great news for Israel. And I thought, holy shit, could you imagine that in an American newspaper about the white birthrate’s up, and the Black birthrate and Latino birthrate are down, we don’t have to worry anymore? I mean, what? But, you know, that’s par for the course.
The issue is that Israel has seen this as its biggest nightmare, and yet they’ve created this nightmare for themselves. They had an opportunity after the ’67 War. They bungled it. They didn’t bungle it. They deliberately sabotaged it because going back then there were settlement plans in place from the very beginning to hold the entire territory. They lamented. And Ben-Gurion after the ’48 War celebrated – he said: We had a double miracle. We got more land and less Arabs. They lamented after the ’67 War, they got more land and more Arabs. And the question was how to deal with that. And you had everything from the Allon Plan to plans actually to, you know, create another evacuation, removal of Palestinians.
But what they settled on the ’70s was the Drobles Plan, which was a World Zionist Organization plan that Likud adopted, which was, in their words, to create a network of settlements and roads that would divide the West Bank, making a future contiguous Palestinian entity impossible. They did it. And we watched them do it. I mean, I think, you know, Lara was right. I mean, it’s like, what is Israel going to do? Just listen them and they’ll tell you what they’re going to do. And they’ve been saying it. And we haven’t paid attention to it. And we still want to talk about other options. But that’s not the option they want. They’ve wanted the option of the whole land. And they’ve created a situation that is now today, I believe, irreversible. So that’s my answer. (Laughs.)
MR. MATTAIR: Yes. Another friend of ours recently wrote an article in which he reminded us that Levi Eshkol said in the ’60s that this was like wanting the dowry and not wanting the bride. They wanted the land and not the people. And actually, the annexation language that Netanyahu is using really means permanent control without granting citizenship to the people which is what real annexation should mean. So someone in the audience thinks that that is suicide for Israel, to – you know, to still have control over the land with an Arab population that doesn’t have citizenship and that is growing. Are you that – do you think Israel’s future is that dire, or do you think that they can succeed?
MR. ZOGBY: The only way they succeed is if they have an acquiescing Palestinian population and a world community that turns attention away from them. I happen to think that that’s, at best, wishful thinking. This situation will explode. This situation will be transformed. There is, as Shibley notes, a growing restiveness here in the States for that kind of future. It won’t happen quickly, which is why I’ve never supported a one-state solution in the past. I didn’t want to subject Palestinians to 100 years or 50 years of that horrid situation. But it seems that there is no option. It’s either that horrid situation or the horrid situation of doing nothing and allowing the status quo to simply continue to deteriorate, Palestinian rights in the territories.
And so, yeah. I mean, I think that Israel is killing itself, committing suicide. What they mean is that the sort of the romanticized vision of the film “The Exodus,” you know, of white Jews from Europe and America wanting to carve out the – sort of the cowboy and Indian thing, you know, when we used to think Indians were the bad guys. You know, that vision is somehow going to be realized. And now Israel is hurting it. And it’s not the Israel I thought it was going to be. It never was going to be that. It was always going to be based on the displacement of indigenous people. That’s what it was based on.
And what’s happened is that people woke up from the nightmare and are seeing it as a nightmare and seeing the nightmare real. It’s actually happening in front of them. Now, you call that suicide, I call it growing awareness of the fact that you really did a bad thing, and that bad thing is simply getting worse all the time, and at some point it will explode. At some point, it will not remain where it is. And the situation is going to be – it is inevitable that at some point an Arab majority asserts itself in a very vigorous way, with support from folks in the international community, and it becomes a transformative moment.
MR. MATTAIR: Please, Shibley.
MR. TELHAMI: Yeah. I just want to add something here. I think one has to be very careful also not to ground the argument about what needs to be done in what’s good for Israel because, you know, whether, you know, you’re supportive of Israel, critical of Israel, obviously that’s an issue for the Israelis to decide. So, you know, I could say what’s good for Israel. Lara could say that. Jake could say that. But ultimately, that’s not going to be persuasive to the Israelis in terms of us deciding what’s good for Israel. And so I think it has to be grounded, ultimately, in the rightness of the issue. And in this particular case, obviously, the human rights of the Palestinians have to be grounded in that. It’s where the basic line has to be.
As an analyst, not as somebody who will use this as a political argument – this is not good for Israel, therefore change the policy, because nobody’s going to listen to me on that – but as an analyst, you know, looking at it in a historical perspective, I just can’t see how this could work for Israel. And let me tell you why, to add to what Jim said. It’s not the fact that the Israelis are obviously having a tough time dealing with the Palestinians in the West Bank and internally in a way that’s leading to tension. So obviously Israeli society is not in a good place on that issue. So they’re going to have their own trouble dealing with it. But I think it’s more than that.
Now, there’s a strategic circumstance where Israel has an upper hand right now, strategically. Support from the U.S., upper hand militarily, but more importantly Arab governments that are so preoccupied with their own issues right now that they’ll, you know, work with Israel over multiple issues and overlook the Palestinian question. That’s historically important. But think about the notion that emphasizes Israel’s Jewishness, both in law and in practice, as the basis of its longevity? In a world where most people in the region are at the Muslim majority, and Arab.
And so if you ground it in a religious basis of a definition of a state, and we define the conflict in historical terms that are related to religion and in which you have privileges based on that, how is it possible that at some point that’s not going to work against you, in an environment in which you are a minority? How is it possible as an historian or as an analyst in looking at the big picture? I just can’t imagine. But obviously you know, we people have to decide for themselves what’s in their interests. But we have to decide what’s right.
MR. MATTAIR: Yes.
MS. FRIEDMAN: Just to offer a slightly different perspective. I don’t know what it means anymore for something to not be sustainable. I have worked in this field most of my adult life with the statement always there that the occupation is not sustainable. My takeaway, after 52 years of occupation, is that the occupation is pretty sustainable. And my impressions, dealing with Israelis, is they are not seized with this issue. They are not tortured about the identity of their state. For years we talked about Israel, the ultimately choice that Israel, if they don’t end the occupation, being forced to choose between being Jewish and democratic. I would argue that Israel has pretty clearly voted with its feet over the past 10 years and more, particularly the past 10 years with Bibi, that if forced to make the choice, the choice is Jewish. And if we’re going to call ourselves democratic, we’ll define democracy some other way.
And let’s remember where we’re sitting. We’re sitting in an ear of illiberalism ranging across the world. We’re in an era of democratic recession. And we’re in an era where Israel can make common cause across the world with a lot of countries, a lot of leaders who are very happy to say, you know what? Might does make right. And ethnicity and identity are reasonable and just things to center your nationalism around. And we stand with Israel. In fact, we want to be like Israel, and Israel wants to be like us, and that’s fine. I don’t any longer feel like it is an argument that I can make as an analyst that this will explode at some point.
I worry – looking at the situation now with the two-state solution pretty much off the table and with occupation and de facto annexation moving and now open talk about actual official annexation – you know, my mind goes to: If I were the Israeli right-wing person thinking I have this historic moment that I can seize, what would I do to seize it? And I think about 52 years of Israeli policy in East Jerusalem, which has systematically weakened the social fabric and systematically worked to limit the number of Palestinians in the city through all sorts of policies of displacement, denying rights to live there, denying permits, taking away residence. And I’m thinking, wow, I could apply all that to the West Bank. And we won’t call it expulsion and ethnic cleansing. We’ll just call it this is bureaucratic stuff.
I think we need to thinking in terms of what is – if you assume that the people who have power are serious about moving forward in what they say they want to do, and you for a moment break away from what feels like absolutely concrete, unassailable logic about what could be and should be, and put yourself in the feet of – in the shoes of people who are motivated by ideology. Ideology is not interested in your security arguments. And ideology is not interested in your definitions of democracy, or liberalism, or anything else. The settlers in the ’90s – I was the settlement officer on the ground in the Oslo period, meeting with settlers before and after Oslo.
And the settlers were not demoralized by Oslo. The settlers saw Oslo as this obstacle that they would go around, they would go over, they would go under, or they would go through. And twenty-six years after Oslo, I would say they succeeded. And all of us who said, oh, they’re delusional, history has passed them by. I would say that we were irresponsibly optimistic and irresponsible in not taking more seriously their ideological commitment to their goal.
And folks who want to think about something here, imagine this is the fight against Roe versus Wade. The settlers are like the forces against Roe versus Wade. The Supreme Court ruled, and the people who said no, women should not have a right to choose, didn’t say, well, we lost. It’s over. And here we are, in 2019, contemplating the likely end of Roe versus Wade in the foreseeable future. That’s what we have on the ground here. And we have to look ahead with that in mind, or we’re going to talk about futures that are disconnected from the processes happening today.
MR. MATTAIR: There’s a lot to come back to in what was just said, but can I come to you, Jake, for a minute? You know, Lara, in the ’90s and afterwards American officials, some of them were saying that the expansion of settlements in the West Bank was not going to impact the ability to have a successful peace process and two-state solution. But they proliferated and proliferated. And looking a map now, you can see that they’re everywhere and they basically surround Palestinian population areas, which are cut off from everyone.
And so, Jake, I mean, how is it that you still have a hope? And how would it really look, in your view, to have a two-state solution when you have so many settlers in the West Bank? How would the map be drawn, and what would their status be, and how would they participate in Israeli domestic politics to oppose that? And, I mean – and I don’t know, Shibley, I’d like your opinion too, because we haven’t talked in a while. But, I mean, is it just too late, because of the facts on the ground, to get back to what we were trying to achieve in so many years of U.S. policy? I mean, really, ultimately, since the ’60s it was land for peace, not necessarily defined in terms of other – the term “Palestinian statehood” was not used until maybe Clinton at the end of his term. But still, that was the basic idea. And is it too late now? Why do you still have hope?
WALLES: Well, it may be too late. I think we’ll have to – events on the ground will tell us that. If you go back to the negotiations under Clinton, under Bush, under Obama, the basic idea for a territorial compromise was that Israel would retain the main settlements closest to the Green Line, which are referred to as the settlement blocs within the security barrier, in return for some sort of compensation for the Palestinians, some sort of – which was generally thought of in terms of a land swap. That was not – that was not something that the two sides were able to agree on in those periods, but that was the general concept they were working towards.
Going forward, I think that’s the only territorial compromise that’s still available. What makes it so much harder now than it was then are the number of settlers beyond the security barrier. I think the number – Lara would know the numbers better than I do – but I think it’s 100,000. It’s roughly 100,000. And that’s up from about half that under the Clinton administration, roughly. So and I don’t – I don’t want to minimize the difficulty that that poses. But I think that’s the crux of the issue of whether there’s a way to preserve the possibility of two states, is whether those settlements beyond the blocs can ever go away. I think it will be very hard, given Israeli politics, to conceive of that. But without that, I think we’re in this era that Jim talked about.
And I do tend to agree more with the idea that it’s not sustainable in the long run. Israel has been very good at dealing with intifadas and wars and that sort of thing. They’ve been able to defy the international community and the United States for many years on the issue of settlements. But I think continuing to that, continuing to expand settlements beyond the blocs results in a situation of a perpetual conflict. And I think even though, as I said, that may be – that may be what we’re stuck with. But for those who care about Israelis, and those who care about Palestinians, I don’t think that’s a future that anybody wants to see. So while I may not be optimistic, I think we have to continue to come back to the idea of finding a way to make two states possible somehow in the future. Otherwise, it’s just a question of perpetual conflict on the ground.
MR. MATTAIR: Do you think it’s too late, Shibley?
MR. TELHAMI: Well, I think that, you know, let’s put it in multi layers here. So at one level if there is a miracle, meaning you have an Israeli government and a Palestinian government coming together with the support of the international community, and say we’ve just agreed – just come to the Palestinian and Israeli people – say we’ve just agreed that we’re going to have to two states and they’re going to be roughly along the lines of the ’67 borders with swaps, I think the public would support it. I do. I do, even now. But to get there is impossible under the circumstances.
And if you look back historically – so the problem for why Israelis and Palestinians both are losing faith in the two states is – you know, for a long time in our polling you showed that, you know, the majority of Israelis and Palestinians supported two states. But then you had a – saying it’s not possible, though. The majority say it’s not possible. What we now see is no longer is it true that the majority supports two states. And, you know, a minority only support a two-state. And the reason for it is that they now see the very advocacy of two-state as a device to justify the status quo. And so therefore even the advocacy of two-states is seen as an instrument to remove the urgency of dealing with an unjust reality.
And so even separate from the difficulty in terms of removing settlements or not building new settlements, the truth of the matter is, in Israel itself the Jewish public has moved to the right on this issue. And there’s no doubt about that because right now the only reason you’re talking about the possibility of a minority government that might even be centrist – not leftist, but centrist – is that you’re taking into account the fact that you have 20 percent of the Israeli population who are Palestinian Israelis, who are now prepared to play part of the game to – and obviously they’re not even going to accept it.
So for me, you know, when I look at it, I think that the discomfort with the one-state, two-state is that it is being used as a device to polarize and divert attention from the reality as unacceptable, which is what should be a starting point. There is an unacceptable injustice on the ground that has to be addressed. And no matter whatever you – whatever outcome down the road that might happen, it shouldn’t divert our attention from dealing with the humanitarian and political and rights-based issues on the ground. That is – I think that’s why I’m sort of frustrated with this whole idea of debating one-state, two-state, because it is – in a way, it diverts attention from the crucial issues.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, then just one last question on that. And it’s – you know, people in the audience are asking if the outcome of the election in Israel will have any bearing on this. And Benny Gantz didn’t really discuss these issues much during the campaign. And if he formed a government, would it make any difference?
MR. TELHAMI: Well, I think, you know, obviously it depends on what happens. If you had to predict now, and I follow this very closely, including conducted both a poll in the spring among the Jewish Israelis and the Palestinian Israelis. And I would say that if you had to predict – if you had to predict the most probably outcome there would be another election, rather than a – and the second more probably outcome is that you’re going to have a national unity government before you have a minority-based government. And the third possible outcome is if there’s any kind of other than a national majority – a national unity government, it is likely to exclude the 12 members of the Knesset who are Arab.
So in a way, you know, no matter how you look at it it’s going to be center with support from the right. And therefore, it will be an improvement on many issues. Don’t get me wrong. I think that pragmatism is useful for politics domestically and globally in the sense that there are – we’re talking about the big picture. Is this going to be transformative? Is it going to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It may not do that, but it will make some difference. And those differences matter.
For example, the Israeli nation state law that was discriminatory against Arab citizens, that reversed is a good thing. It’s a very good thing, not just a good thing. If the Arab citizens are empowered and feel like they’re participating in their government, their voice on the Palestinian issue is going to increase. That’s a good thing. It’s not a bad thing. So it makes a difference. And let’s not be cynical about politics. But it isn’t going to transform these big priorities. Unlikely under any circumstances, because of the coalition who is likely to emerge, I can’t imagine that you’re going to have somebody who’s going to say, I’m going to go – I’m going to have a two-state solution and, you know, kind of shut down some settlements in the honor of the Palestinian state. I don’t see it.
MR. MATTAIR: Jake?
MR. WELLES: Just to follow onto that a bit. I would agree that the most likely outcome is some sort of unity government. I think if they go to a third election, which is possible, they’re going to get the same outcome, more or less, that they’ve gotten in election number one and election number two, which, again, brings you back to a unity government. The question, I think, will be whether that unity government is headed by Benny Gantz or whether it’s headed by Bibi. And that’s largely in the hands of the attorney general, whether Bibi gets indicted or not.
In terms of the impact that a unity government would have on the peace process, I agree completely with Shibley that it’s not going to change overnight. Attitudes about permanent status or unity government is not going to be prepared to make concessions, removing large numbers of settlers, territorial compromise, that sort of thing I don’t think is in the cards. But a unity government would be very different than, say, a hard-right government that we’ve seen recently on the more immediate issues – the questions of whether there would be annexation or not. I don’t think a unity government would support annexation, simply because they wouldn’t have a majority to do that.
I think there might be scope, if there’s a unity government, for the Israelis and the Palestinians to do reciprocal steps on the West Bank and may reduce tensions. Again, not to produce an agreement but it might make the environment more conductive to an agreement at some point in the future. And I think that’s important, given where the U.S. administration is. And whereas I don’t think the U.S. administration can play a positive role right now, there have been periods like that in the past, where Israelis and Palestinians have done things on their own and been more productive at it than having the U.S. involved. So I tend to agree, generally speaking, with what Shibley said.
MR. MATTAIR: Yeah, Jim?
MR. ZOGBY: I am – I’m less – the only possible scenario where you could get a government out of this formation, the result from the last election, is if Netanyahu is forced to step down, because every political – or, a massive act of betrayal by members of one or another, or multiple, political parties. Because everyone’s made pledges either to their voters or to their coalition partners not to do certain things. The coalition around Likud has pledged to support Bibi. They’ve also pledged to keep the coalition in place and negotiate as a single unit. The coalition around the Blue and White have pledged not to include religious component in their – in their coalition. They’ve been very clear that this is going to be a secular government.
To have Likud break from the religious partners and join a secular government, which would then include Lieberman as well, would create real tensions between the religious community and that government, not to speak of the tensions that exist in the general society between – if the Arabs were then excluded completely, having becoming the third-largest political bloc in the – in the country. So I don’t see a unity government emerging, again unless there’s an act of betrayal. And I think it would be more likely to go to a permanent state of disfunction, which is maybe another election or maybe not, and a caretaker government until somehow Netanyahu is disposed of by the attorney general.
The other thing about the Arab parties I think interesting is that they they’ve been very sophisticated and emerged as power brokers. And I –when I hear the right challenge Gantz by saying – calling what he would form a minority government, I think it’s so disrespectful and racist. It’s like calling Nancy Pelosi a minority speaker because she needs Black Caucus votes to have her majority, right? And that’s basically what they’re saying. That was the argument against Rabin, was that he made peace with a minority government – meaning, the Jews were not a majority of Jews in the Knesset that were in his coalition. He got his majority with Arabs. That’s very revealing, I think, and I think ought to be troubling to all of us, to call it a minority government, which is what the term of art is in Israel right now.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, we’ve discussed the Israeli election and attitudes in Israel. But people in the audience want to know about what is it that the Palestinians want now? Do they want a two-state solution, or do they want a one-state solution? There would be –
MR. ZOGBY: Well, we’ve polled, and I’m sure Shibley has too. They have largely lost hope in the two-state outcome. And you have a significant number who simply see no solution at all. I mean, more like what Lara’s talking about. They basically have reverted to – it’s not a majority, but a significant minority just want to be left alone. They want rights protected. They want the freedom to take care of their kids and have a future. And they’ve almost stopped thinking and talking about politics. But I would say that whereas there was significant support for the idea of an independent Palestinian state, they no longer see that on the horizon.
It’s interesting we did this rather exhaustive poll of Israel and the Palestinians about a year ago. And we found that there was a plurality on both sides that favored a one-state outcome. But when we dig deeper into what the one state means, for Palestinians it means equal rights for everybody and for the Israelis it meant we control, they either go or they have no rights within that one state. But two entirely different visions about what one state would mean. But, yeah, I mean, there’s no longer a decisive majority among Palestinians for two-states.
MR. MATTAIR: Before you speak, Shibley, let me add one other element in here maybe you could address too. If the promise that Abbas made was carried out and there was another election for Palestinian Authority would that – would that make any difference?
MR. TELHAMI: Well, first, a point on the Palestinian position, and separate from the public opinion which Jim described, and I think accurately. That remember, that the Palestinian authority still is committed to a two-state solution. That’s what it says it wants. And frankly, the Arab parties in Israel also, you know, embrace the two-state solution. They want equal citizenship within Israel, but they want a Palestinian state. And they are supportive of the Palestinian Authority. So officially the two-state solution is still the objective. It hasn’t changed really.
And the public – you know, obviously if you ask the public what they want, they want equality, whatever it is. So the – I think that the public opinion is much more complex here because, as I said, if you give them a two-state solution tomorrow morning, they’ll grab it. And so the reason they don’t support it is because they don’t – not only that they no longer think it’s possible, but they think that the very people who are advocating it are essentially disarming them from standing up for their rights. Saying, just wait until you have your rights. And of course, every day it’s backwards. And the track record has been that the advocates of two-states have not delivered, and in fact it has gone back. And so it is very complicated about what they want.
There are certain advantages to two states because theoretically if you have two states, and separate for both Israelis and Palestinians, but I’m talking about for Palestinian Authority. Because if there is going to be one state – and, obviously, that’s a long stretch. I can’t imagine that Israel is going to accept that anytime soon. But if there’s going to be one, it is improbable the Israelis are also going to have, you know, support for returned refugees to that one state. Whereas, if you have a two-state theoretically – and that had been the original mission, is that you certainly – the Palestinian state could accommodate refugees – Palestinian refugees. So it’s a complicated story for the Palestinians. But right now, no one is really focused on that as much as on wanting rights. And really, that should be the starting point.
MR. MATTAIR: So let’s – OK, Lara.
MS. FRIEDMAN: Just I think it’s useful to think about what this looks like for Palestinians. And for folks who haven’t been on the ground, if you talk with – we have some friends for Palestine in the room, so I speak with some humility. And they’re here, and they know better than I. When I talk to my Palestinian friends on the ground, nobody cares about talking about two states or one state. I mean, you can have that. You can sit in a restaurant and talk about it. The reality is that neither of them are on offer. And what has been on offer for 26 years is a process which people, you know, suspended their disbelief and said, fine, we’ll see where it goes. And it’s a process that has essentially dispossessed them every year of more and more concretely – that belongs to them – more and more possibility of a better life.
The idea of – I sometimes speak in synagogues and people say, oh, the Palestinians don’t support two states, so they’re not a partner. And I think, this is like saying, you know, that we don’t agree with – the Palestinians don’t agree on how, if we shared – if we shared two halves of the house that we would all paint the house the same color, right? They don’t agree on that. But of course, we won’t let them in the house at all. But until – look, it’s surreal. It’s a discussion that is so disconnected from – that was a terrible analogy, sorry – (laughter) – it’s so disconnected from the reality on the ground for Palestinians, I can’t even convey how – there’s a Flat Earth Society element to the discussion.
You know, from the Israeli perspective, the Palestinians’ acceptance of two-states was seen as a kosher stamp. All right, we can sit with them because they agree on an outcome with us. At this point, the Israelis don’t agree to that outcome anymore. And this is still treated as a requirement for the Palestinians to put down in order to be seen a partner when the U.S. and Israel say: We’ve taken that back. So the discussion is – we were talking before – it’s past its expiration date. I don’t know if this discussion over two-state, one-state is dead. I don’t think it is. But it’s not relevant right now. It’s not relevant to the realities that Palestinians deal with, in any way.
MR. MATTAIR: Well – OK, please.
MR. WELLES: You asked about Palestinian elections. I think the Palestinians desperately need elections. They haven’t had elections since 2006, either for president or for Parliament. They haven’t had a functioning Parliament since 2007. So they need that element of democracy and it’s important that they get their act together. Having said that, I think the likelihood of elections is actually very low. In order or the Palestinians to have elections both Hamas has to agree to allow elections to go ahead in Gaza and the Israelis have to agree to allow elections to go ahead in East Jerusalem. But the likelihood that both of those things are going to happen is quite low.
Hamas is insisting on both legislative and presidential elections, which is something that Abbas is trying to sequence for his own reasons. Seeing that – seeing Fatah and Hamas come to an agreement about this is very hard. And the Israelis, given everything that’s going on in Israel, given the fact that there is no – there is no – there’s only an acting transitional government in Israel at the moment and an interim government and that may continue for a long time, making decisions about Palestinian voting in Jerusalem is hard for me to see them doing either.
You know, when the Palestinians are in a situation, you know, as Lara was describing, where they’re having – they’re not even debating one-state or two-state anymore because they don’t see it as relevant to their lives, it’s a situation where they should be focusing more on their internal problems, on the divisions between Gaza and the West Bank, the divisions between Fatah and Hamas. But those – they don’t seem to be able to deal with that either. So that’s another element to the picture which is – again, it’s not a very – it’s not a very pretty picture.
MR. MATTAIR: A number of you have said that the discussion really ought to be about alleviating the situation on the ground for the Palestinians, improving their daily lives. So I’d like to get to that. Before we do, would – you know, the policy of the Trump administration has an impact on that issue. So if Netanyahu was out of the government, would it have an impact on the Trump attitudes and the Trump administration policies, and make it possible for us to deal with those issues you’ve been advocating?
MS. FRIEDMAN: So I never want to ascribe –
MR. MATTAIR: May I also my colleagues on the left, jump in whenever you want to, because I tend to look over here. OK.
MS. FRIEDMAN: So without – no one has a crystal ball. As an analyst, I look at what this administration has done and what it said to predict what it likely will do. This administration is not taking its cues from Bibi. In some ways, it is outpacing Bibi. They have an ideology; they have an agenda. I don’t think what happens – I think what happens on the Israeli scene may tweak their timing a little bit. I don’t see suddenly a new energy to do something positive because they are not inclined to do something that we would see as positive.
On the alleviating the human suffering side of it, this Congress passed legislation in a bipartisan way which has led to the cut off of all aid from the Palestinians, separate from anything this administration did, right? The Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act. Between Taylor Force and the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, we cannot provide any aid, including security aid, to the Palestinians. That was bipartisan. That was Congress. And that dovetailed with an administration that says: Screw ’em. I don’t see how that has anything to do with Netanyahu. That isn’t a we’re doing this for him or against him.
And on the – just to jump to where you were before a second – on the alleviating the humanitarian problems, I want to be really clear: This is not a humanitarian crisis. There has not been an earthquake. There is no tsunami which has destroyed people’s houses. There is a political situation on the ground which leads to drastic humanitarian consequences for the Palestinians – the humanitarian – particularly in Gaza. When we talk about the focus on the humanitarian side or rights, which from an Israeli right-wing perspective is great. Now we’re denationalizing this conflict and we’re talking about individuals and economic plans, whatever. That’s not what I think any of us mean.
If you talk about human rights, if you talk about individual rights under national law, if you talk about legitimate humanitarian needs, the only way to address them to challenge the paradigm that allows these violations to exist. So it is ultimately – and this is why, you know, the rights agenda is viewed by the Israelis as a stealth anti-Israel agenda. Because if you’re really going to apply international law, if you’re really going to talk about rights, then you have to challenge the structures that exist today that create the situation on the ground.
MR. ZOGBY: Let me – yeah, that’s absolutely perfect, Lara. I just would add that in this discussion there are the Israelis and the Palestinians. There is U.S. public opinion, and the Trump administration, and then there’s Congress, which has its own – it’s been also the coat-holder, and the cheerleaders, and they’ve put their shovel to the hole to dig it deeper. And the interesting thing that Shibley and I work with when we look at public opinion is the growing disconnect between Democratic elected officials and the where the Democratic base is. And I’ve come to view the split right now, Shibley, not so much as a partisan split, but as a demographic split.
If you look into the numbers it’s not an ideology of Democrat versus Republican. It’s some unique demographic groups – Millennials on the one side, African American, Latino, Asian, educated women – that’s the – those are the demographics that make up the Democratic Party. But they also are the demographic that has a unique view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict versus the white born-again Christian who is about 41 percent of the Republican base right now. Those two worlds are totally separate. It’s red state-blue state. It’s like gay marriage was 20 years ago, when you looked at the two – the two sides. I mean, in some questions on the Democratic side it’s 65-35 and on the Republican side it would be 35-65.
And I think that when we talk about presidential candidates, you’re right, it’s not an urgency issue but it becomes an authenticity issue. When they hear – and I won’t get into names – but when they hear some of the candidates sputtering and stammering and/or saying the old thing – well, I stand 100 percent behind our ally, blah, blah, blah – it just says to those particular demographic groups that we’re talking about, in particular Millennials, it’s like they might as well be saying something about gay marriage. They might as well be saying something about a woman’s right. It just it’s so hackneyed that it just don’t come off as something that I want to support.
Whereas, what Bernie Sanders learned – because Bernie was not always really good on this issue. (Laughs.) But what Bernie learned in 2016 was that there is a constituency – when at the debate in New York he challenged Hillary Clinton and got whoops and yells and an incredible ovation, it was energizing that this is an issue that draws demographics that are Democrats to the table, to see you as an authentic person. As opposed to a same old, same old hackneyed let me repeat my talking points. You know, you see the eyes roll back in the head and sort of, like, well, my advisor says that I got to, whatever – and then they go on from there.
And so I think there’s not passion, but authenticity. And there are some distinct demographic groups. It’s not good for the country that we’re as divided in unique demographic components as we are, but we’re tribes. And our tribes have separated. And it’s a problem here. It’s a problem is Israel. As you note, I mean, it’s a problem of illiberalism everywhere. And we’re dealing with it.
MR. MATTAIR: So – OK, Jake.
MR. WELLES: I just wanted to follow up on something that Lara was talking about in terms of the Congress. There’s a long history of congressional efforts to impose restrictions on assistance to the Palestinians or contacts with the Palestinians, and it’s strictly on a bilateral basis – or, a bipartisan basis as well. What’s different is that in the past you had administrations both Republican and Democrat that would push back against that, not so much because they were trying to protect the Palestinians but because they were trying to preserve the administration’s ability to negotiate or to mediate between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And you saw that under – not just under Obama, but under Bush, under Clinton, and even before that.
What’s different now is that the Trump administration not only has not pushed back against it, but they’ve been actually complicit in what’s been done. And that’s the kind of thing that has to be turned around in a future administration. But, again, it’s not going to be very easy to undo these things.
MR. ZOGBY: That’s right.
MR. MATTAIR: So we come back to your remarks early, Jim. And what is it you said, yes, something needs to be done about daily life on the West Bank. They are real people and there’s real pain. So under all these circumstances, what is it that we could be doing? What is the solution? How do we contribute to the solution? How do the think tanks contribute? How does the media contribute? How do we deal with the American public opinion, and divisions in American public opinion? How do we deal with the polling – you know, the politicization of the issue, in which people are saying, well, Trump said if you’re a Jewish American and you don’t vote Republican then you’re either stupid or disloyal to Israel. So when you have that kind of thing being said, and when you have criticism of Israel being equated to anti-Semitism, or when you have advocacy for helping Palestinians being equated to anti-Semitism, what are we supposed to do at this point, after decades of diplomacy and education?
MR. ZOGBY: I’d say simple. Support Betty McCollum’s bill. Make sure that Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar do not lose their next election. That becomes absolutely critical for me. The weaponization of anti-Semitism and the sense that aid to Israel is somehow exempt from any of the other concerns that Democrats have traditionally had about human rights violators of being sanctioned or called to account for their behaviors. Those two things – Betty McCollum and defend those who have actually been good and made important statements on this issue. And don’t let anti-Semitism become a weapon that it – number one, it’s damaging to those who get called it. It also ultimately ruins the effort we all must make to combat anti-Semitism. It so distorts what anti-Semitism is that it becomes – I think it trivialize it in a very dangerous way.
MR. TELHAMI: Can I?
MR. MATTAIR: Yes.
MR. TELHAMI: Just on this, I think we have to also very careful about how we describe Democratic public opinion. Democratic public opinion is not anti-Israel. And actually, there’s nothing in the public opinion that shows anti-Israel. In fact, if anything Democratic public opinion is as even-handed as you can imagine. As I said, overwhelmingly – over 80 percent of Democrats, I think 89 maybe in one of the polls – want the U.S. to be – neither lean toward Israel or the Palestinians. And of those who want to take sides, it’s roughly evenly divided. So it’s not – it’s not – it’s not anti-Israel. Democrats are not anti-Israel. There’s not – that’s not what we see.
What we see is they’re against the occupation. They want to defend Palestinian human rights. They want to respect human rights and international law. And they’re angry with the policies that are not addressing those issues. That’s what we really see. And we have to keep in mind, you know, be careful. But it’s like people saying, no, we should stop supporting Israel, or. And I think also they are against criminalizing action that would punish policies that they see as unjust or not in harmony with their values, or with international law on human rights. So I think it’s really important to keep that conversation focused on those issues.
MR. MATTAIR: But their positions are mischaracterized?
MR. TELHAMI: Whose positions?
MR. MATTAIR: You were just speaking –
MR. TELHAMI: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, and I think on the issues – there’s no question, if you’re a right-wing Israeli government or somebody who wants to continue the occupation, or wants to, you know, not – ignore Palestinian rights, you’re going to see those democratic attitudes being anti-Israeli and define them that way. But that’s not the way they’re expressed. There is nothing – it’s not a, I mean, in principal opposition to Israel, or even sort of to one side against Israel. It is an adamant, and principled, and strong, and increasing opposition to occupation, to settlements, to injustice for the Palestinians, to violation of their human rights and international law. That’s what it is. It’s – you know, it’s a different category.
MS. FRIEDMAN: Can I just add?
MR. MATTAIR: Yes, please.
MS. FRIEDMAN: The question of what to do is vexing, because the normal activism is sort of cut off. You know, pushing for more aid – aid is not – you can’t give aid now, even if the Trump administration wanted to. Activism is being delegitimized as anti-Israel and antisemitic, right? So, you know, nonviolent protest is now seen as an antisemitic act. What Jim is saying, you know, defending free speech. At this point, whether or not you care about Israel-Palestine, if you’re going to defend free speech you have to defend free speech on Israel-Palestine, because Israel-Palestine is being used as the political hook for eroding political free speech.
We have a resolution in the House right now which is essentially reasserting the validity of boycotts as a nonviolent legitimate tool of protest. It has almost no cosponsors because it has been framed as anti-Israel and antisemitic, even though it doesn’t mention Israel or the Palestinians. And almost all of the cosponsors of it are people are of color. We can’t get white progressives – they can’t get white progressive on it, because it’s seen as anti-Israel and antisemitic to simply restate the right to boycott, which is extraordinary.
I think if we’re going to be talking, though, about what to do going forward on Israel-Palestine in this era of rising illiberalism and everything else, I personally believe the only frame that makes any sense is a global frame. I think we have to de-exceptionalize Israel-Palestine. This issue has been exceptionalized for so long – whether you’re talking about the way we give Israel aid and the special relationship, or the way that we worry about the Palestinians and give them special attention, however you want to look at it, it has been treated as an exception to everything else.
At this moment, defending Palestinian human rights, it lands like a thud. There are so many problems in the world – Syria, Yemen, whatever, we have to be talking about defending human rights, period. I want it. If I’m going to be arguing with people on Israel-Palestine I want them – when they say, oh, you’re holding Israel to a higher standard – no. We’re holding Israel to the same standard as countries everywhere in the world. What I want them to say is: We insist that you hold Israel to a lower standard. We insist that you find the worst possible behavior in the world, and you don’t hold us to any higher standard than that.
So when I argue about occupation, yes, I should also be talking about western Sahara, because I think occupation is wrong anywhere. And I don’t want to fall into this ridiculous situation where people defend occupation by saying, oh, by those guys are worse. You know what? I don’t like what those guys are doing either. And I think in 2019, when we’re – again with this rising illiberalism and all of the – everything that’s happening here, the generation of intersectionality, the generation which says we don’t want to hear you old talking points, why are you inconsistent? This generation is saying: We want consistent, values-driven positions. And they have to apply everywhere. And that includes at home, and it includes in Israel-Palestine. We don’t have an Israel-Palestine policy. We have a human rights policy. I think that’s the only way forward.
MR. ZOGBY: Yeah, I served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. And we brought the issue of religious – the way Israel impedes free religious practice for Christians and Muslims in the territories. And we had a brilliant group of young lawyers in the West Bank who had done the study for us, it was 160-page book that they printed, comparing the treatment of the way Turkey behaves in Cyprus and the way Russia was behaving in Crimea, both of which the Commission had taken a look at and viewed as violations of religious freedom. They said, this is exactly the same thing. We lost the vote. Didn’t get a Republican vote, lost a couple Democrats.
And the argument that was made was what Lara’s saying, why are you singling Israel out? And my response was, I’m not singling Israel out. You’re singling it out as the one country we can’t criticize. And the result of Congress passing human rights bills over the last 40-50 – 40 years, that I know of, and making Israel an exception, means that that legislation becomes honored only, in the case of Israel, in its lack of applicability and it create impunity on the side of Israel.
They know they can get away with – I mean, American citizens are abused at airports, and our State Department refuses to do anything to defend them. And when they’ve shown their American passport the Israeli guy would say: What do you want me to do, kiss it? It means nothing to me. And our secretaries of state have said nothing, done nothing to defend them. So the sense of impunity is the result of our absolute neglect of our values and our – and our very legislation. That’s what we have to be challenging.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, there is a question from the audience that if I understand it correctly is: Is there any way to use international discussions about the holy places in Israel and the West Bank as a – as a bridge to larger discussions about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian –
MR. TELHAMI: You know, I have already referred to the fear about infusing religion into the conversation. And I think religion is important. It’s central. I mean, I don’t ignore the fact that whether it’s for Israelis, Jews, Palestinians, Arabs, and it has to be an important factor in the equation. Ut the question here is not a religious conflict. We are not here in a religious conflict. Israel is accepted internationally because it’s been – it is accepted by the United Nations. That’s the source of its legitimacy internationally. The international community sees the occupation, the Israeli control of the West Bank, as illegal, illegitimate because it is defined legally as an occupation. We’re referring to international events about national movements, states, international law. That’s what defines the conflict.
And the more we bring in religion as a factor in the argument, the worse it becomes because one reason why this conflict looked like it lent itself to some resolution in the 1990s is that it increasingly was defined in nationalistic, and realistic, and international long-term. The more and more infusion of religion into it, whether on the Palestinian side or the Israeli side, the more it becomes irreconcilable, the more it becomes zero-sum, the more it becomes enduring, the more it becomes something that is going to pop its head down the road.
So I would say no, don’t base the conversation – any conversation – on religion. Take religion into account. It’s important. It’s central. Jerusalem was always recognized as something unique, even in the 1947 partition plan. And everybody has to be taken into account, for sure. But don’t make it the basis of resolution. And that is why this particular administration, the Trump administration, the kind of argument that we have with our ambassador in Israel, used to justify control of territory, appealing to faith, and religion, and history, and the interpretation and Biblical, that is not conductive to a resolution. It’s the wrong way to go. I respect religion. I think it’s important. People have to take it into account on all sides of the equation. It’s a matter of reality. But don’t turn the international argument about what needs to be done based on faith and religious narrative of one side or the other. That is a losing path.
MR. MATTAIR: And something the Trump administration has done, and you’ve criticized them for. Yes.
MS. FRIEDMAN: It’s also been tried. I just want to be clear. This idea – and this is the technical. Forget the narrative part for a second. I totally agree with Shibley. There’s been this idea that while you have these equities, you have churches, you have Muslim and Jewish shared sites, this is a hook. People are going to have to talk about this, right, so we can use this as a hook for broader conversations, because parties automatically are interested. It hasn’t worked. I mean, if you look at the state of Hebron, the state of affairs in Hebron, where you have shared site, right? You have a contested site, a shared site, a precious site. And what has essentially happened is that negotiating over the state of the site in Hebron has actually make it more contested, more problematic, all of which came in the wake of negotiations and changes to the status after a huge Israeli terrorist attack. The result of which is that Palestinians have less stake in the site than they used to.
In Jerusalem this has been tried again. You have heads of many, many different churches. And not to get too far into the weeds here, but each of those churches has its own equities and they don’t always play well together. And each church is looking to preserve its equities in the face of an Israeli government, which is more than happy to sort of use one against the other? This has gone on for generations, long before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this game-playing in Jerusalem. The effort to use these Christian equities in Jerusalem to try to help the Palestinians – what’s happening is we’re losing – Palestinians are losing more land in the old city because churches are playing games with Israel, and they’re worried about their tax bills, and they’re worried about access to their sites. It’s an interesting technical hook that has been tried, and it has consistently failed.
MR. MATTAIR: We have ten minutes left. I wonder if we could go to regional politics for a few minutes. We’ve talked about how this is not a burning issue for Arab governments, but is this still food for – I mean, this unresolved conflict and this human rights debacle and human suffering, is this still food for extremism? Is this still food for al-Qaida, and ISIS, anybody else who might break away and create itself out of these groups?
MR. TELHAMI: Well, first of all, you know, let’s be careful also in terms also of how to describe the reality. I think it’s true that our governments are not preoccupied with this issue right now, and their interest, particularly in light of what happened in events that followed Iraq, or the Arab uprisings, their own issues. This is not a priority for them. But the public, although as Jim pointed out also doesn’t rank this issue high, it doesn’t mean it’s not important to them. It’s not the top issue. I hasn’t disappeared. It’s not now on the top – on the top of the priority list. But if you were to ask them what they want on Palestine, they know what they want on Palestine. Or, they think they know what they want on Palestine. They support the Palestinians. It’s just not a priority issue. So it’s an important issue, but it’s not – it doesn’t rise to the top.
Now, one reason why governments have in some ways tried to lower the profile, even separate from the priorities, deliberately tried to make it less important to the public, is that they see it as an opposition issue. That is, those who oppose the governments tend to mobilize the Palestine question and use it against them if they’re not doing something directly. And therefore, any time where there’s tension, like over Jerusalem, they want to play it down because they don’t want their opposition to use it against them. And so in that sense, yes, I think one reason why governments deliberately are trying to provide a different narrative to lower the profile of this issue among the public is that they very much fear that it is there still, and can be activated, and might actually be used by opposition against them. And, frankly, you do see the chanting in – if you see what happened in Algeria, or elsewhere in those demonstrations against governments, that they invoke this issue still to this day.
So it is not a priority issue, but it is still there. And it is, in my opinion, not out of the question that it will be activated again.
MR. MATTAIR: And the extremist groups? The extremist movement?
MR. TELHAMI: Extremist groups have used it for sure, and maybe more than we have admitted in the past, including a-Qaida initially. But I don’t think that’s really the source of the worry of governments because extremists, with or without that question of Palestine, they’ve got their way of doing it. I don’t think that’s going to – that’s really what generates opposition to the militants. I’m talking about really the broader Arab public, the people who are disenchanted with governments, which as you can imagine is pervasive. And the type of energy that we saw activated in the Arab uprisings, the first round, being activated in what be the Arab uprisings 2.0, ongoing, I think it is going to be – in the end, it isn’t about Palestine, but Palestine is an issue that could be activated in that.
MR. MATTAIR: Jake?
MR. WELLES: Yeah, I just want to add to what Shibley said. When I was ambassador in Tunisia I was surprised at the number of times Tunisians would bring up the Palestinian issue with me. It’s not – and Tunisia’s quite far away from the conflict, and maybe there’s some reasons going back to the PLO being in Tunis that explain it. But it is there, and it is something within the public – not just in Tunisia, but across the region. It’s not something that people are going out to the streets to protest about on a day-to-day basis, but it’s easily something that could be activated depending on events elsewhere.
So for example, if there were – if there were incidents around the holy places in Jerusalem, that would definitely provoke a kind of response around the region. So I think – I think I agree completely with what Shibley said, that it’s a factor that has to be considered. And it’s something that radical groups, al-Qaida and others, have in the past take advantage of. And I think they would likely do so in the future.
MR. ZOGBY: One of the biggest factors that it is not considered a high-intensity issue right now in the Arab world, I think we have to be very clear about it, is the bankruptcy of the Palestinian leadership. The issue has been defined too long by people who no longer inspire confidence or inspire even a vision of what the issue of Palestine used to be about and still can be about. What we’re left with is, as Jake notes, incidents. I remember during a period during one of the Gaza wars speaking with a friend in the – in a Gulf country who hated Hamas and everything about Hamas. And one might suggest, if you recall, when Bush dealt with the issue back in the first 2008 one, there were Arab governments who would like to have seen Hamas demolished, just as they would have wanted to see Hezbollah demolished.
But there were pictures from Gaza that were on – in the media. And I remember this friend actually choking up on the phone because they looked like – they looked like his kids, and his grandkids. And I thought, it’s there. It’s still there. It doesn’t go away. But it requires something, hopefully not, you know, a tragedy. But there is no momentum. I mean, what are you supporting right now? I mean, are you supporting Mahmoud Abbas? Are you supporting Saeb Erekat, saying it’s for the – I think someone should show a count of how many times we’ve said the last nail in the coffin. I get this image of nails on top of nails. (Laughter.) There’s no place to put the nail anymore.
I mean, it has become so ossified and bankrupt, and not just financially bankrupt but – and basically, Arab countries were subsidizing the occupation for, like, decades. And so there is a sense of weariness and frustration. But that can flip on a dime because it remains – Palestine remains the wound in the heart that doesn’t heal. And but it’s not – Palestinians and the cause itself are not being served by a leadership right now that is more interested in survival than it is in securing rights. And so I think Palestinians themselves need to be aware of the fact that they can generate that support. But there needs to be a vision. There needs to be inspiration. There needs to be something to support in the Arab world. And I’ll come. It’ll come in response.
But they’re just – right now the attention is going to be on Iraq. The attention is going to be on Lebanon. And it’s going to be on what’s happening in Syria and Yemen. But right now, in Palestine, there is simply people being abused on a – on a daily basis, humiliated on a daily basis, shot at on a very frequent basis. I think it was 11 last week were shot in the West Bank and 73 in Gaza. And yet, that’s it. You know, that’s not – there’s no vision there. There’s nothing there to drive people to support. And I think I’ll just end there.
MR. MATTAIR: This may be the final question because of the time, but we’ve seen the U.S. withdrawing from Syria. We’ve seen Russia, Turkey, and Iran extending their influence in Syria. We’ve seen a general loss of American credibility in the region. Does Israel have anything to worry about from this posture of American withdrawal and unreliability?
MR. TELHAMI: I mean, I hear that now. Obviously people are talking about a loss of American credibility, that Israel should worry. Frankly, I don’t see that in the foreseeable future. I don’t see a scenario. I mean, the only things that you could say is if, in fact, the prime minister of Israel was hoping that Trump would use a military option with Iran. He will be supportive. But obviously that didn’t happen. And frankly, the latest poll that I just released shows 75 percent of the American people, including a majority of Republicans, opposed a military option with Iran, even if Iran were found to be behind the attack on the Saudi oil fields. So I don’t think that’s supported.
From the current Israeli government’s point of view, Trump has given them everything they wanted and more, certainly on the Palestinian question, on the Golan Heights, on Jerusalem. And it is hard to envision a short-terms scenario where the Israelis really need the United States to intervene on their behalf. I just don’t – I just don’t see it. It doesn’t mean that they’re happy about what happened in Syria, particularly because it does, you know, shift the balance a little bit to their disadvantage, undoubtably. But not in any – not that that American presence would have, you know, made such a big difference for them strategically. So my point of view is that point is exaggerated. I think it is used politically a little bit because – to push the point that the president has let down people who were counting on him. In this case, I think it’s a little bit of a stretch.
MR. MATTAIR: Yes, Jake?
MR. WELLES: Just quickly, I mean, Israel certainly can take of itself, and I think they will. But the fact that there’s a perception in the region, and I think there is one, that the U.S. is pulling back, that the U.S. credibility is not what it was in the past, I think that has an impact. And I think – I think that impact of that perception is not good for Israel.
MS. FRIEDMAN: I’ll just say – I mean, I’ve seen people from the D.C. analytical community weighing in that Israel should be worried because we’ve now abandoned an ally, and they should take a – that that should worry them. I think that’s absolutely delusional. This administration, again, ideological when it comes to Israel-Palestine and incredibly consistent doing what it says. This is not the Kurds. This is not Trump changing his mind on Syria, or Yemen, or Saudi Arabia. This is a consistent ideological policy with an ideological goal, which they are aiming at, and that hasn’t changed.
I would also add, when it comes to the question of how much the U.S. would or wouldn’t support Israel if there were a real threat, we have an unbroken history of support for Israel when it is having a time of need. That hasn’t changed. I don’t see that changing. I hope it wouldn’t change. Beyond that, we have legislation, right, the strategic partnership. We have everything short of, now, a mutual defense agreement – which now people are talking about – a limited mutual defense pact. We have legislation passed in the House which would give a president the ability to provide Israel with, and I’m quoting, “any military services or products,” whatever, without any oversight, no limitations. All the president has to do is report to Congress after the fact if the president decides Israel is facing an ongoing or imminent military threat.
I mean, this is where we are. None of that’s changing. That is all moving ahead under its own steam. So I think there can be analysis of whether the changes in the region are good or bad for Israel. I would argue that Israel is happy having the enemy of Iran and the dangers on its extended borders to hold up as an excuse or as a pretext for its military posture. I think Israel needs an enemy, and it always has, and that’s – it’s fine. Other people can analyze whether they’re right or wrong about that.
MR. MATTAIR: OK. Well, it’s noon so we will adjourn. But, first, thank you very much to the panel. And also to the audience for coming. And you will be able to see the video again, if you wish to. It will be on our website soon, possibly this evening. And you’ll be able to read the transcript in the next issue of the journal, which is the winter 2019 issue of the journal. So thank you very much for coming. (Applause.)
President, Arab American Institute
President, Foundation for Middle East Peace
Fellow, U.S./Middle East Project
Anwar Sadat Professor, University of Maryland
Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Former U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia
Former U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem