James Zogby / Lara Friedman / Shibley Telhami / Jake Walles
The following is an edited transcript of the ninety-eighth in a series of Capitol Hill Conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on October 25, 2019, in the Russell Senate Office Building with Council Vice-Chairperson Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley moderating and Executive Director Thomas R. Mattair, PhD, serving as discussant.
JAMES ZOGBY, President, Arab American Institute
With Lebanon and Iraq being embroiled in protests, and with Syria and Yemen entering yet a new phase in their internal conflicts, supported by external players, the Israel-Palestine issue is no longer a headline story in the Middle East. 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 make it 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 reveal some polling that we’ll be coming out with later next month: the Palestine question is no longer a top-priority concern across the Arab world. There are other fish to fry, as I said: Lebanon, Iraq, et cetera. There are focal points that require almost immediate addressing. 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, and certainly in the Arab world as well.
The reality is that Israel has dug a hole for itself, and we here in the United States have either been a cheerleader or a coat holder. Sometimes we’ve actually, when they got tired, picked up the shovel and helped them dig. Legislation coming from this and previous congresses certainly has not made the situation any easier — not only for Palestinians, but for the search for peace. I was just noting yesterday that, when The New York Times did its interviews with the presidential candidates and asked them a series of questions and posted the responses, I read them. I also watched them. I suggest that you watch their responses, especially whether they would do anything in their administration to address Palestinian human rights. A few were quite good, I thought. But most of them, when they were asked the question, looked like third graders getting hit with a pop quiz. They know there’s an answer someplace but, what do I do with this? I didn’t prepare. Then all of a sudden, the light would come on and they’d say, “Well, I support a two-state solution.” I began calling it the two-state absolution. 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. Am I okay 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. It pains me to say it, because I supported it back in the ’70s, when Palestinians didn’t. They wanted a secular, democratic state. So we started the Palestine Human Rights Campaign to say, while the debate is taking place over what happens, on a daily basis people are being brutalized.
Today, with over 600,000 settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem, which Israel continues to call East Jerusalem but is actually 28 Palestinian villages encompassed inside this myth that it’s all Jerusalem. If you look at it, there are these little Palestinian villages, with huge settlements surrounding them, strangling them, having taken their land and their livelihoods and made them a captive people.
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 wonders how you create a Palestinian state in that environment. If you’re not going to move settlers out, what you’re left with are what you see on the map: 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 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 almost abusive, when we exhaust our energy talking about a solution that is not going to occur. I think we go back to where I believe we were when we started the Palestine Human Rights Campaign: Something must be done about the daily situation in the territories; someone has to assume responsibility. I was thinking the other day about Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman. Willy Loman’s not a character you want to emulate or hold up as a hero; his sons are frustrated, fed up and angry, and want to disown him. But at the end, 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."
This has been going on for a hundred years. There are real people who are suffering real pain, at the hands of the Israelis but also at the hands of the United States. Look at the most recent report from UNRWA of cuts that they have been forced to make — not only in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, but also in the West Bank and Gaza — in food programs, education programs, health and sanitation programs. American NGOs are suffering the same fate. Attention must be paid to these people, to the daily needs that they have. But no one is paying attention.
This week, J Street is going to hold its annual conference. I am one who respects J Street. I think they’ve created space for debate. But what people will be looking at is whether candidates say I’m for one state or two states. That is a nonsense way of absolving yourself and of evading responsibility. What are we going to do about real people who are dying every single day and suffering the fate of an occupation that now feels it has total impunity? It can do what it wants, and no one’s going to raise a peep. That’s where we are. That is the challenge we face.
LARA FRIEDMAN, President, Foundation for Middle East Peace; Fellow, U.S./Middle East Project
It’s always hard to follow Jim Zogby, but I’m really happy because I’m in front of the other two guys. That saves me from having to follow all three of their brilliant acts.
I’m a sort of reality-check person. Some people say, you’re very pessimistic. I say it’s not pessimism. It’s knowing the facts. If you’re going to find hope or a way forward, hope is not a strategy. You have to know the facts and figure out where you go from there. That is a strategy. The reality-check is important. This is a panel that is looking at the United States, Israel and the Palestinians. And we’re here in Washington. It’s important to start off with where we are with the Trump administration three years in and a recognition of how enormously successful this administration has been at achieving its goals on Israel-Palestine. I say this as someone who has been pushing back since they came into office against arguments that this administration is chaotic and reckless and constantly doing random things on the Middle East. On Israel-Palestine, they have been coherent, cogent and consistent. They’ve had the same people involved since before the election, saying the same things. If we had paid them the respect of believing them when they laid out their goals, their vision on Israel-Palestine, we would not have been surprised at anything they’ve done.
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 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. I think it’s worth taking a moment to look at that, starting with the permanent-status issues. Everyone knows the president took Jerusalem off the table. There is no peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians without Jerusalem, but we’ve taken Jerusalem off the table.
We’ve also taken settlements and land off the table. This is a conflict over land, and 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. We will call it defending Israel against anti-Semitism. So if Israel wants to differentiate between Israel and settlements, we will call that anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. And we will pass legislation to say you cannot differentiate between the two.
What are the other permanent status issues? Refugees. We’ve gone after UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East). 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. 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 will get rid of the refugees.
On security, that was never really a permanent-status issue. The United States stands with Israel, but this administration and Congress have gone far beyond that, far beyond just an MOU. It’s essentially saying Israel can do anything it needs to do, and we will be there. 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. We’re sitting here in Congress, which passed bipartisan legislation saying that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the PLO, if they support the families of people who have been killed or imprisoned by Israel, 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 of the Palestinians. That was understood during Oslo. The reason prisoners were not a permanent-status issue in Oslo is that this issue was so important, it had to be resolved before permanent status. The prisoners were supposed to be released before we even got to permanent-status talks. The United States, this Congress, have put prisoners, back on the table after it was supposed to be resolved. 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.
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, 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 — the “pay to slay” legislation about prisoners — is the core piece of legislation saying that the Palestinian Authority and the PLO are illegitimate, and that they support terror. That’s what this is about, this piece of legislation, and we’re already seeing it tested in court today.
This administration closed the PLO mission here and has closed 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 were just another mayor of another Israeli town. 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 is going, I very much agree with Jim. Setting aside ideology, if you want to be practical about what’s happening, all you can focus on is the immediate, the rights issue. The 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 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. That’s a conscious policy.
Looking at how we get beyond that, I have arguments every day with the two-staters and the one-staters. I always say: You can like two states, you can like one state — I personally believe in two states — but at this point, you need to take the endgame you have in mind and pack it in bubble wrap, put it up on the shelf and deal with the here and now. And deal with it together, whether you agree on two states or one state. There is no process available now that will let us get to any endgame other than from the river to the sea, a greater Israel that is in line with David Friedman’s and the settlers’ idea of a Jewish state that is the Biblical promise.
That’s what we’re aiming at. And, again, they’re telling us that. This isn’t me attributing intent. It is mindboggling to me 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, "I need to write an article about how they can still save the peace process." They’re not trying to save the peace process. The people in charge of making policy are not trying to save the two-state solution.
One more change I didn’t mention is actually about the Golan but has impact on the West Bank and Gaza. This administration has changed international law. They have established a principle which says a party that gains land in a defensive war has the right to keep it. You may agree with that, and that’s fine. But recognize what that’s laying out as a possibility moving forward on the West Bank. That is the principle that says Israel can keep the West Bank. It can keep Gaza if it wants it too, but I don’t think it wants it.
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 his audience, in almost the tones of someone speaking from the pulpit: 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 set down, to see a continuation of the policies we are seeing now.
It would be irrational to believe 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. That could get interesting if we have an Israeli government that stops escalating. 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 a 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 or the idea of a new paradigm. At best, what they’re talking about is how we return to the 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 or rolled back.
So as we look ahead, we need to be practical and realistic about where things are. If we have a conversation on this panel later about what could be the next step, I think we have to base our analysis not on what we wish things were or how we hope they could be turned back, but on where they are and where we can take them from there.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland; Nonresident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
Let me limit my comments to where the American public 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 carried out was in 1988. We have some baseline questions dating back to that era. I’m continuing to do that. I just released another public-opinion poll on this issue from our University of Maryland Critical-Issues Poll. We had a panel releasing it at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday (October 22, 2019). I invite you to look at the results, but let me just make some remarks related to what the data show.
One baseline question we had asked 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 in the conflict. What’s been fascinating is that from 1988 until now, the strong majority of Americans always say, "We want the U.S. government to lean toward neither side." That has not changed, but there is a lot that has. What has changed is, of that minority of people — anywhere to a quarter to a third and sometimes a little more — who want the United States to take sides, it used to be where the gap between Democrats and Republicans was small. By a large ratio, that minority wanted the United States to take Israel’s side. Sometimes a three-to-one, four-to-one, five-to-one, six-to-one ratio. That has been the case over the years. But over the past 10 years, we have seen a shift in the group that wants the United States to take a side.
Whereas more and more Republicans want the United States to take Israel’s side outright — in fact, the latest poll shows that a majority of Republicans want the United States to take Israel’s side outright — among Democrats it’s quite the opposite. We have still had a large majority who want to take neither side. But of those who want to take a side, now it’s almost even between wanting to take the Israeli side and the Palestinian side among Democrats. Some of the polls, particularly among young Democrats, even lean slightly toward the Palestinians.
So we have seen a shift 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, though not perfectly. There was always a gap, but not a wide gap. And recently this issue has become immune no longer from the polarization that we see in almost every other issue in American politics.
This even holds for some very controversial issues. For example, the settlement issue. A majority of Democrats favor imposing sanctions or harsher measures over the settlement issue. Republicans overwhelmingly oppose that. So even on an issue like that, you have polarization. In the most recent poll, we even ask about BDS specifically, something I had never asked before. As you can imagine, in the poll onlyabout half of Americans say they’ve heard a little — at least a little — about BDS. But among those who have heard of it, Republicans overwhelmingly say they oppose it and a plurality of Democrats — who say they’ve heard of BDS — say they support it.
There are some issues on which Democrats and independents come together or, at least, the gap is narrower. One question that has been standard is, what if a two-state solution is not an option? Would you then favor the Jewishness of Israel, even if it means that the Palestinians don’t have citizenship and full rights? Or would you favor a democratic Israel, even if it means that Israel is no longer a politically Jewish state? Overwhelmingly, Americans favor democracy, and that happened to be the case across the political spectrum, among Democrats, independents and Republicans up until this year.
Even on this issue, however, there’s a slight narrowing. Republicans are now increasingly divided, in contrast to Democrats and independents who overwhelmingly support democracy over Jewishness.
One other issue has been relevant, particularly to Congress, where Republicans and Democrats come together, particularly in the recent poll: the majority of all groups oppose laws that penalize people who boycott Israel — including people, obviously, who oppose boycotts of Israel on settlements. A majority oppose laws, on civil-liberties grounds, that would legislate that it’s against the law 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, obviously, with policies that have been opposed by the American mainstream, particularly on settlements, but especially during the eight years of the Obama administration.
In a way, part of that polarization is very visible, particularly with the prime minister of Israel seeming to be part of the American political system and 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 the tension between a right-wing Israeli government and an American democratic administration increased the polarization on this issue dramatically. Second, with the Trump administration, we see further polarization, with Trump essentially embracing the right-wing Israeli government and the right-wing Israeli government embracing Trump.
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, in 2020, the country elects a Democratic president. And let’s assume that the Israelis have a more moderate prime minister who works well with the Democratic president. We have to be careful not to be complacent that things therefore are being taken care of. We know that in the past they were not taken care of and it, in a way, removed the urgency of dealing with the humanitarian issue and the occupation. People have to be careful not to allow that to happen, to be complacent, if there’s a change in the mood then that reduces the polarization.
A third reason there’s this shift is value-based. I’ve written about this before: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become part of a broader value system in the Democratic Party, which focuses on human rights and international law. And for whatever reason, it has emerged as a prototype in that scheme. So it has become an activist issue in and of itself, based on fitting into those values.
Does it matter in the end? Does this polarization matter, particularly the shift within the Democratic Party on this issue? I wrote a piece in The Washington Post when I first started seeing this trend five years ago. I wondered whether there was a big gap between elected officials in Congress and the Democratic public on this issue. Can it be sustained over time, or will there be a corresponding shift? Lara Freidman, Jim Zogby and I, maybe 15 years ago or so, were on a panel together discussing this very issue. This is not something we are just discussing now. I had mentioned my very first article on this issue, in 1995, highlighting what we call the "issue publics." In American politics, it’s really passion that matters most for the political system, the intensity of views and those who really care most about a particular issue.
We see the trend in the Democratic Party, but do the Democrats really care enough about this issue to make a difference in the political system? I think the picture is mixed. As Jim noted, even in the Arab world, Israel-Palestine isn’t exactly the burning issue of the day anymore. It’s certainly not the burning issue of the day in Washington. It’s not a strategically important issue. Therefore, I don't think it is going to drive people’s position on this issue in the campaign.
However, because it is anchored as a prototype in a value system at a time when we’re polarized, I think it could indeed emerge as an issue in the Democratic primaries, as Bernie Sanders has demonstrated. He energized his base by appealing to the issue of the human rights of the Palestinian people. I think that it remains to be seen, but in the Democratic primaries, it could well emerge as an issue.
JAKE WALLES, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Former U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia; Former U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem
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 begin with this question about two states. Jim and Lara talked about this as well. I would agree that the two-state solution is not something 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. There’s no way 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.
That’s been the conclusion people have come to, going back many, many decades, not just recently. If you go back to 1948 and the partition resolution and even before that, the idea of dividing the land as the way to reconcile these two conflicting claims was what most people came to. Having said all that, I don’t think an agreement on two states is something that can be reached now or in the near future. The political situation, on both the Israeli and the Palestinians side, is not conducive to making the compromises necessary for an agreement. In fact, as I see it, the two sides are moving farther apart rather than 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 — I think there needs to be a focus on finding a way to preserve the possibility of two states in the future.
That would involve allowing the Palestinians greater control over their lives, reducing Israeli involvement on a day-to-day basis in Palestinian lives, particularly on security issues, and 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 would, over time, begin to look something like an apartheid situation, which is not good either for the Israelis or the Palestinians.
Let me talk a little bit about where the Israelis and the Palestinians are right now. I think one thing common to both sides is a leadership transition that’s already underway. 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 legal challenges 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.
What that means for policy is hard to say. I think the perspectives of the Blue and White Party and Likud are actually rather similar when it comes to the Palestinians. So in terms of 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 — 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 already beginning to see a succession process for President Abbas. How and when this will happen is unclear, but there’s already jockeying for succession underway among the leaders of Fatah. 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 when Israelis look back on this period, 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 the Trump administration and their approach on this. I think Lara laid out a good description of what they’ve done. Unlike most other aspects of their 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. What they’ve done has, of course, been very negative in terms of the prospect for a two-state solution in the future. I think that’s their purpose, to undermine the possibility of such a solution.
From what I can see, their primary objective in developing a plan and possibly putting one 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 in 2001 and essentially described a two-state solution — to something that might be called the Trump parameters, and they are definitely not about a two-state solution. I suspect the plan 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 historical position favored by Likud, 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 a person would do if they thought the plan they put together really had any chance of going anywhere, at least in the near term.
Finally, it’s useful to begin to think about what should be done after the Trump administration. Even without knowing when the Trump administration is going to end — it could be a year from now, it could be five years from now — either way, it’s important to begin to think about what comes next. 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.
The first step that a new administration should take would be to focus on undoing the damage that’s been done. I would agree with Lara that it is not going to be easy, but I think that’s where you have to begin. 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 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 the U.S. position absent 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, a new administration should also begin to prioritize the restoration of our bilateral relationship with the Palestinians, which 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 once again to have a representative office in Washington. These steps will also be complicated and politically dangerous, but they will be equally necessary in order to find a way to move forward.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
Jim, you said that Israel has dug a hole for itself. Would you elaborate on that?
DR. ZOGBY: An article I wrote a short while ago, called “The Liberal’s Lament,” is about wanting to protect the Jewish and democratic state. Coupled with that is the argument that a binational or democratic and open state for both Israelis and Palestinian Arabs would be compromised by what they call the “demographic timebomb.” There’s a whole lot of racist imagery in that term. I saw an article last week that started with “the demographic surprise”: the Jewish birthrate is up, the Arab birthrate is down and that’s great news for Israel. I thought, holy cow, could you imagine in an American newspaper a story about the white birthrate being up, and the black and Latino birthrates being down, so we don’t have to worry anymore? But that’s par for the course. Israel has seen this as its biggest nightmare, yet they’ve created this nightmare for themselves. They had an opportunity after the ‘67 war, they bungled it. Actually, they deliberately sabotaged it; there were settlement plans in place from the very beginning to hold the entire territory. 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 that they got more land and more Arabs. The question was how to deal with that. You had everything from the Allon Plan to plans actually to create another evacuation, a removal of Palestinians.
What they settled on in the ‘70s was the Drobles Plan, 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. Lara was right. What is Israel going to do? Just listen to them and they’ll tell you. They’ve been saying it, but we haven’t paid attention. We still want to talk about other options, but not the option they want. They’ve wanted the option of the whole land, and they’ve created a situation that is today, I believe, irreversible.
DR. MATTAIR: A friend of ours recently wrote an article in which he reminded us that Levi Eshkol said, in the ‘60s, this was like wanting the dowry but not the bride. They wanted the land but not the people. Actually, the annexation language Netanyahu is using really means permanent control without granting citizenship to the people — what real annexation should mean. Someone in the audience thinks that is suicide for Israel to still have control over the land with a growing Arab population that doesn’t have citizenship. Do you think Israel’s future is that dire, or do you think they can succeed?
DR. ZOGBY: The only way they succeed is if they have an acquiescent Palestinian population and a world community that turns its attention away from them. I happen to think that’s, at best, wishful thinking. This situation will be transformed. There is, as Shibley notes, a growing restiveness here in the States against 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 50 or 100 years of that situation. But it seems there is no option. It’s either that horrible situation or the horrible situation of doing nothing and allowing the status quo to continue to destroy Palestinian rights in the territories.
Yes, I think Israel is killing itself, committing suicide. What they want is the sort of romanticized vision of the film “Exodus”: white Jews from Europe and America wanting to be the cowboys against the Indians — when we used to think Indians were the bad guys. They wanted that vision realized, and now Israel is hurting it. It’s not the Israel they thought it was going to be. It was never going to be that. It was always going to be based on the displacement of indigenous people. That’s what it was based on.
What’s happened is that people woke up from the nightmare and are seeing that the nightmare is real. It’s actually happening in front of them. Now, you might call that suicide. I call it the growing awareness of the fact that you did a really bad thing, and that bad thing is getting worse all the time. At some point it will explode; it will not remain as it is. It is inevitable that at some point an Arab majority will assert itself in a very vigorous way, with support from the international community. It will be a transformative moment.
DR. TELHAMI: 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. Whether you’re supportive or critical of Israel, obviously it is an issue for the Israelis to decide. I could say what’s good for Israel; Lara could say it; Jake could say it. But that’s not going to be persuasive to the Israelis. I think it has to be grounded, ultimately, in the rightness of the issue. Obviously, the human rights of the Palestinians have to be grounded in that, too. That is where the basic line has to be.
As an analyst, not as somebody who will use this as a political argument, I could say: This is not good for Israel, therefore change the policy. Nobody’s going to listen to me, but as an analyst, looking at it in a historical perspective, I just can’t see how this can work for Israel. Let me tell you why. To add to what Jim said, it’s not that the Israelis are having a tough time dealing with the Palestinians in the West Bank and internally — and that’s leading to tension — so obviously Israeli society is not in a good place on that issue, and they’re going to have trouble dealing with it. I think it’s more than that.
There’s a strategic circumstance in which Israel has an upper hand right now: support from the United States, an upper hand militarily, but more important, Arab governments that are so preoccupied with their own issues right now that they’ll 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 region where most people are Muslims and Arabs.
If you ground the state on religion and define the conflict in historical terms related to religion, in which there are privileges based on that, how is it possible for that at some point not to work against you, in an environment in which you are a minority? How is it possible for a historian or an analyst not to look at the big picture? I just can’t imagine. Obviously, people have to decide for themselves what’s in their interests, but we also have to decide what’s right.
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, hearing the statement that the occupation is not sustainable. My takeaway, after 52 years of occupation, is that the occupation is pretty sustainable. And my impression, from dealing with Israelis, is they are not seized with this issue. They are not tortured about the identity of their state. For years we have talked about Israel’s ultimate choice if they don’t end the occupation, being forced to choose between being Jewish and being 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: if forced to make a choice, the choice is to be Jewish. If we’re going to call ourselves democratic, we’ll define democracy some other way.
Let’s remember where we’re sitting: We’re sitting in an era of illiberalism ranging across the world. We’re in an era of democratic recession, in an era in which Israel can make common cause with a lot of countries whose leaders 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. 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 that, as an analyst, I can make the argument that this will explode at some point.
Looking at the situation now, with the two-state solution pretty much off the table, and with occupation and de facto annexation and now open talk about actual official annexation, I think, if I were an Israeli right-wing person thinking I have this historic moment to 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, denial of the rights to live there, denial of permits, denial of residency. I’m thinking, wow, I could apply all that to the West Bank. We won’t call it expulsion or ethnic cleansing. We’ll just call it “bureaucratic stuff.”
We need to be thinking in terms of what exists. Assume that the people who have power are serious about moving forward on what they say they want to do, and for a moment break away from what feels like concrete, unassailable logic about what could be and should be, and put yourself in the shoes of people who are motivated by ideology. Ideology is not interested in your security arguments or your definitions of democracy or liberalism or anything else. 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. They saw Oslo as an obstacle that they would go around, go over, go under, or go through. And 26 years later, I would say they succeeded. All of us who said 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.
Imagine this is the fight against Roe versus Wade. The settlers are like the forces arrayed against Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court ruled, and the people who said no, women should not have a right to choose, didn’t say, we lost; it’s over. Here we are in 2019 contemplating the likely end of Roe v. Wade in the foreseeable future. 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.
DR. MATTAIR: Lara, in the ‘90s and afterwards some American officials 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 a two-state solution. But the settlements proliferated and proliferated. Looking at a map now, you can see that they’re everywhere surrounding Palestinian population areas, which are cut off from each other.
So, Jake, how is it that you still have hope? How would a two-state solution really look when you have so many settlers in the West Bank? How would the map be drawn, and what would the Palestinians’ status be, and how would they participate in Israeli domestic politics to oppose that? Shibley, I’d like your opinion, too. Is it just too late, because of the facts on the ground, to get back to what we were trying to achieve? Since the ‘60s, it has been land for peace, not necessarily defined by the term “Palestinian statehood.” That was not used until Clinton at the end of his term. Is it too late now? Why do you still have hope?
AMB. WALLES: It may be too late. Events on the ground will tell us that. If you go back to the negotiations under Clinton, Bush and Obama, the basic idea for a territorial compromise was that Israel would retain the main settlements closest to the Green Line, referred to as the settlement blocs, within the security barrier, in return for some sort of compensation for the Palestinians, generally thought of in terms of a land swap. That was not something the two sides were able to agree on, but it was the general concept they were working towards.
Going forward, I think that’s the only territorial compromise still available. What makes it so much harder now is the number of settlers beyond the security barrier. Lara would know the numbers better than I do, but I think it’s roughly 100,000. That’s up from about half that under the Clinton administration. I don’t want to minimize the difficulty that poses. But I think it's the crux of the issue of whether there’s a way to preserve the possibility of two states — 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 it, I think we’re in this era that Jim talked about.
I 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 continuing to expand settlements beyond the blocs will result in a situation of a perpetual conflict. 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 anybody wants to see. So, while I may not be optimistic, I think we have to come back to the idea of finding a way to make two states possible somehow in the future. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of perpetual conflict on the ground.
DR. MATTAIR: Do you think it’s too late, Shibley?
DR. TELHAMI: At one level, if there is a miracle, meaning an Israeli government and a Palestinian government coming together with the support of the international community, and the Palestinian and Israeli people have just agreed to have two states, roughly along the lines of the ‘67 borders with swaps, I think the public would support it. I do, even now. But to get there is impossible under the current circumstances.
If you look back historically to the reason for why Israelis and Palestinians are losing faith in the two states — for a long time our polling showed that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians supported two states. But then you had people saying it’s not possible, though; the majority say it’s not possible. What we now see is that it is no longer true that the majority supports two states. Only a minority supports a two-state solution. The reason for it is that they now see the very advocacy for two states as a device to justify the status quo. Therefore, even the advocacy of two states is seen as an instrument to remove the urgency of dealing with an unjust reality.
Even separate from the difficulty of removing settlements or not building new settlements in Israel itself, the Jewish public has moved to the right on this issue. There’s no doubt about that. Right now, the only reason people are talking about the possibility of a minority government that might even be centrist — not leftist, but centrist — is the fact that you have 20 percent of the Israeli population who are Palestinian Israelis and are now prepared to play a part in the game, and obviously they’re not even going to accept it.
When I look at it, I think that the discomfort with one state vs. two states is that it is being used as a device to divert attention from the unacceptable reality, which should be the starting point. There is an injustice on the ground that has to be addressed. And whatever outcome down the road might happen, it shouldn’t divert our attention from dealing with the humanitarian and political and rights-based issues on the ground. I think that’s why I’m frustrated with this whole idea of debating one-state, two-state. It diverts attention from the crucial issues.
DR. MATTAIR: People in the audience are asking if the outcome of the election in Israel will have any bearing on this. Benny Gantz didn’t really discuss these issues much during the campaign, but if he formed a government, would it make any difference?
DR. TELHAMI: Obviously, it depends on what happens. If you had to predict now — and I follow this very closely, including having conducted a poll in the spring among both Jewish and Palestinian Israelis — I would say that if you had to predict the most probable outcome, there would be another election. The second most probable outcome is that you’re going to have a national unity government before you have a minority-based government. The third possible outcome is, if there’s national-unity government, it is likely to exclude the 12 members of the Knesset who are Arab.
No matter how you look at it, it’s going to be centrist with support from the right. Therefore, it will be an improvement on many issues. I think that pragmatism is useful for politics domestically and globally. 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 being reversed is a good thing, a very good thing. If the Arab citizens are empowered and feel they’re participating in their government, their voice on the Palestinian issue is going to increase. That’s a good thing, so it makes a difference. Let’s not be cynical about politics; it isn’t going to transform these big priorities — unlikely under any circumstances. Because of the coalition that is likely to emerge, I can’t imagine that you’re going to have somebody say, I’m going to have a two-state solution and shut down some settlements in honor of the Palestinian state. I don’t see it.
AMB. WELLES: I would agree that the most likely outcome is some sort of unity government. 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 elections number one and two — which, again, brings you back to a unity government. The question will be whether that unity government is headed by Benny Gantz or Bibi. And it'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. A 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, the hard-right government we’ve seen recently on the more immediate issues — the question 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.
There might be scope, if there’s a unity government, for the Israelis and the Palestinians to take reciprocal steps on the West Bank and may reduce tensions. Not to produce an agreement, but it might make the environment more conducive to an agreement at some point in the future. I think that’s important, given where the U.S. administration is. And although 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.
DR. ZOGBY: The only possible scenario where you could get a government from the result of the last election is if Netanyahu is forced to step down or if there is a massive act of betrayal by members of one or another, or multiple, political parties. 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 has pledged not to include a religious component in their coalition. They’ve been very clear that this is going to be a secular government.
To have Likud break from its religious partners and join a secular government, that would then include Lieberman as well, which would create real tensions between the religious community and that government, not to speak of the tensions in the general society if the Arabs were then excluded completely, having become the third-largest political bloc in the country. I don’t see a unity government emerging, unless there’s an act of betrayal. I think it would be more likely to go to a permanent state of dysfunction — which is maybe another election or maybe not — and a caretaker government until somehow Netanyahu is disposed of by the attorney general.
The other interesting thing about the Arab parties is that they’ve been very sophisticated and have emerged as power brokers. When I hear the right challenge Gantz by 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. That’s basically what they’re saying. That was the argument against Rabin: He made peace with a minority government — meaning, he got his majority with Arab Knesset members. That’s very revealing, and it ought to be troubling to all of us, to call it a minority government, a term of art in Israel right now.
DR. MATTAIR: People in the audience want to know what the Palestinians want now? A two-state solution or a one-state solution?
DR. ZOGBY: They have largely lost hope in the two-state outcome. You have a significant number who simply see no solution at all, more like what Lara’s talking about. A significant minority just want to be left alone. They want their rights protected. They want the freedom to take care of their kids and have a future. They’ve almost stopped thinking and talking about politics. There once was significant support for the idea of an independent Palestinian state, but they no longer see that on the horizon.
We did this rather exhaustive poll of Israelis and 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 one state means, for Palestinians it means equal rights for everybody, and for the Israelis it means we control, and they either go or have no rights within that one state. That's two entirely different visions about what one state would mean. There’s no longer a decisive majority among Palestinians for two states.
DR. MATTAIR: Let me add one other element here. If the promise that Abbas made was carried out and there was another election for the Palestinian Authority, would that make any difference?
DR. TELHAMI: First, a point on the Palestinian position, separate from the public opinion Jim described, I think accurately. Remember that the Palestinian Authority still is committed to a two-state solution. That’s what it says it wants. The Arab parties in Israel also 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.
Obviously if you ask the public what they want, they want equality, whatever it is. Public opinion is much more complex here. If you give them a two-state solution tomorrow morning, they’ll grab it. So, the reason they don’t support it is not only that they no longer think it’s possible, but that they think the very people advocating it are essentially disarming them from standing up for their rights. They say, just wait until you have your rights, and every day they go backwards. The advocates of two states have not delivered, and in fact have regressed.
There are certain advantages to two states, and I’m talking for the Palestinian Authority. One state, obviously, it's a long stretch. I can’t imagine 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 support the return of refugees to that one state. If you have two states, and that had been the original mission, the Palestinian state could accommodate 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.
MS. FRIEDMAN: It’s useful to think about what this looks like for Palestinians. We have some friends from Palestine in the room, so I speak with some humility; they know better than I. When I talk to my Palestinian friends on the ground, nobody cares about two states or one state. You can sit in a restaurant and talk about it, but the reality is that neither of them are on offer. What has been on offer for 26 years is a process in which people suspended their disbelief and said, fine, we’ll see where it goes. It’s a process that has essentially dispossessed them every year of more of what belongs to them, more and more possibility of a better life.
I sometimes speak in synagogues and people say, the Palestinians don’t support two states, so they’re not a partner. This is like saying that if we shared two halves of a house, we would agree to paint the house the same color, right? But won’t let them in the house at all. It’s a discussion that is so disconnected from the reality on the ground for Palestinians, there’s a Flat Earth Society element to the discussion.
From the Israeli perspective, the Palestinians’ acceptance of two states was seen as a kosher stamp. We can sit with them because they agree on an outcome with us. But at this point, the Israelis don’t agree to that outcome anymore. And this is still treated as a requirement for the Palestinians in order to be seen a partner — when the United States and Israel say, we’ve taken that back. So, the discussion is past its expiration date. I don’t know if discussion over two-state, one-state is dead. I don’t think it is. But it’s not relevant right now to the realities that Palestinians deal with, in any way.
AMB. WELLES: 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. 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 for the Palestinians to have elections, Hamas must agree to allow elections to go ahead in Gaza and the Israelis have to agree to allow elections to go ahead in East Jerusalem. The likelihood that both of those things are going to happen is quite low. Hamas is insisting on both legislative and presidential elections, something that Abbas is trying to sequence for his own reasons. Seeing Fatah and Hamas come to an agreement about this is very hard. And, given everything that’s going on in Israel — the fact that there’s only an acting transitional government 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.
When the Palestinians are in the situation Lara was describing, where they’re not even debating one-state or two-state anymore because they don’t see it as relevant to their lives, they should be focusing more on their internal problems — on the divisions between Gaza and the West Bank, the divisions between Fatah and Hamas. They don’t seem to be able to deal with that, either. Again, it’s not a very pretty picture.
DR. MATTAIR: A number of you have said that the discussion really ought to be about alleviating the situation on the ground for the Palestinians, and the policy of the Trump administration has an impact on that issue. If Netanyahu were out of the government, would that have an impact on Trump administration policies and make it possible to deal with the issues you’ve been advocating?
MS. FRIEDMAN: No one has a crystal ball. As an analyst, I look at what this administration has done and 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 think what happens on the Israeli scene may tweak their timing a little bit, but I don’t see a sudden new energy to do something positive; they are not inclined to do something we would see as positive.
On the alleviating of human suffering side of it, this Congress passed legislation in a bipartisan way that has led to the cut-off of all aid to the Palestinians, separate from anything this administration did: 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 it dovetailed with an administration that says, screw ’em. I don’t see how that has anything to do with Netanyahu.
On alleviating the humanitarian problems, I want to be really clear: This is not a humanitarian crisis. There has not been an earthquake, or a tsunami, that has destroyed people’s houses. There is a political situation on the ground that leads to drastic humanitarian consequences for the Palestinians, particularly in Gaza. When we talk about the humanitarian side or rights, from an Israeli right-wing perspective, that's great. Now we’re denationalizing the conflict and talking about individuals and economic plans. That’s not what I think any of us mean.
If you talk about human rights and individual rights under national law, legitimate humanitarian needs, the only way to address them is to challenge the paradigm that allows these violations to exist. This is why, you know, the rights agenda is viewed by the Israelis as an anti-Israel agenda. Because if you’re really going to apply international law, and talk about rights, then you have to challenge the structures that create the situation on the ground.
DR. ZOGBY: That’s absolutely perfect, Lara. I would just add that in this discussion there are the Israelis and the Palestinians, U.S. public opinion and the Trump administration, and then there’s Congress, which has been the coat-holders, the cheerleaders, and they’ve put their shovel into 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 Democratic base. 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, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, educated women — 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, in contrast to the white born-again Christians who are about 41 percent of the Republican base right now. Those two worlds are totally separate. It’s red state-blue state, like gay marriage was 20 years ago when you looked at the two sides. In some questions on the Democratic side it’s 65-35, and on the Republican side it would be 35-65.
When we talk about presidential candidates, it’s not an urgent issue, but it becomes an authenticity issue. When they hear some of the candidates sputtering and stammering or saying the old thing — I stand 100 percent behind our ally, blah, blah, blah — to those particular demographic groups that we’re talking about, in particular millennials, they might as well be saying something about gay marriage, or a woman's right to choose. It’s so hackneyed it doesn’t come off as something I want to support.
Bernie learned in 2016 — when at the debate in New York he challenged Hillary Clinton and got whoops and yells and an incredible ovation — it was 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 candidate repeating talking points. You see the eyes roll back in the head: My adviser says that I have to, whatever, and they go on from there. There’s no passion or authenticity. It’s not good for the country that we’re so divided into unique demographic components as we are, but we’re tribes, and our tribes have separated. It’s a problem here, and it’s a problem in Israel. It’s a problem of illiberalism everywhere, and we’re dealing with it.
AMB. WELLES: 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 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 mediate between the Israelis and the Palestinians. You saw that, 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 actually been complicit in what’s been done. That’s the kind of thing that has to be turned around in a future administration, but, again, it’s not going to be easy to undo these things.
DR. MATTAIR: Coming back to your remarks, Jim, that something needs to be done about daily life on the West Bank, what is it that we could be doing? How can think tanks and the media contribute? How do we deal with the politicization of American public opinion? Trump said, if you are a Jewish American and you don’t vote Republican, you’re either stupid or disloyal to Israel. When you have that kind of thing being said — and criticism of Israel or advocacy for helping Palestinians being equated to anti-Semitism — what are we supposed to do at this point, after decades of diplomacy and education?
DR. ZOGBY: I’d say it’s simple: Support (Rep.) Betty McCollum’s bill. Make sure that (Reps.) Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar do not lose their next election. That becomes absolutely critical at a time when the weaponization of anti-Semitism and the sense that aid to Israel is exempt from any of the other concerns Democrats have traditionally had about human-rights violators being sanctioned or called to account for their behavior. And don’t let anti-Semitism become a political weapon for damaging those who get criticized. It ultimately ruins the effort we all must make to combat anti-Semitism. It distorts what anti-Semitism is and trivializes it in a very dangerous way
DR. TELHAMI: Just on this, I think we also have to be very careful about how we describe Democratic public opinion. It is not anti-Israel. Actually, there’s nothing in the public-opinion polling that shows it is anti-Israel. If anything, Democratic public opinion is as even-handed as you can imagine. As I said, over 80 percent of Democrats — 89 maybe in one of the polls — want the United States to lean neither toward Israel nor the Palestinians. Democrats are not anti-Israel. What we see is that they’re against the occupation. They want to respect human rights and international law, and they’re angry with the policies that are not addressing those issues. And we have to be careful. It’s not like people saying, no, we should stop supporting Israel. I also think they are against criminalizing actions that would punish policies they see as unjust or not in harmony with their values or with international law on human rights.
DR. MATTAIR: But are their positions mischaracterized?
DR. TELHAMI: Yeah, absolutely. 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, ignore Palestinian rights, you’re going to see those Democratic attitudes as anti-Israeli and define them that way. But that’s not the way they’re expressed. There is not — it’s not, in principle, opposition to Israel, or even 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 the violation of their human rights and international law.
MS. FRIEDMAN: The question of what to do is vexing because normal activism is sort of cut off. You can’t give aid now, even if the Trump administration wanted to. Activism is being delegitimized as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. Nonviolent protest is now seen as an anti-Semitic act. As Jim was saying about 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 it on Israel-Palestine. Israel-Palestine is being used as the hook for eroding political free speech.
We have a resolution in the House right now that is essentially reasserting the validity of boycotts as a legitimate tool of nonviolent protest. It has almost no cosponsors because it has been framed as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, even though it doesn’t mention Israel or the Palestinians. And almost all of the cosponsors are people of color. We can’t get white progressives on it because it’s seen as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic to simply restate the right to boycott. This is extraordinary.
I think if we’re going to be talking about what to do going forward on Israel-Palestine in this era of rising illiberalism, I believe the only frame that makes any sense is a global frame. 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 lands with 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, when they say, oh, you’re holding Israel to a higher standard, I want to say, “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, 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 the occupation by saying, oh, but those guys are worse. I don’t like what those guys are doing either. And I think in 2019, with this rising illiberalism and the generation of intersectionality is saying: We don’t want to hear your old talking points, why are you inconsistent? This generation is saying: We want consistent, values-driven positions. 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.
DR. ZOGBY: I served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and we brought the issue of the way Israel impedes free religious practice for Christians and Muslims in the territories. We had a brilliant group of young lawyers in the West Bank who had done the study for us — a 160-page book that they printed — comparing 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. We didn't get a single Republican and lost a couple of Democrats. The argument that was made was what Lara’s saying: Why are you singling Israel out? My response was, I’m not. You’re singling Israel out as the one country we can’t criticize. The result of Congress passing human-rights bills over the last 40 years and making Israel an exception means that legislation becomes honored only, in the case of Israel, in its lack of applicability. It creates impunity for Israel.
They know they can get away with it. American citizens are abused at airports, and our State Department refuses to do anything to defend them. When they’ve shown their American passport, the Israeli would say: “What do you want me to do, kiss it? It means nothing to me.” And our secretaries of state have said and done nothing to defend them. So the sense of impunity is the result of our absolute neglect of our values and our very legislation. That’s what we have to be challenging.
DR. MATTAIR: There is a question from the audience: Is there any way to use international discussions about the holy places in Israel and the West Bank as a bridge to larger discussions about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue?
DR. TELHAMI: I have already referred to the fear about infusing religion into the conversation. I think religion is central. I don’t ignore the fact that, whether for Israelis, Jews, Palestinians or Arabs, it has to be an important factor in the equation. But the question here is not one of religious conflict. Israel is accepted internationally because 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 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.
The more we bring in religion as a factor in the argument, the worse it becomes. One reason this conflict looked as if it lent itself to some resolution in the 1990s is that it increasingly was defined in nationalistic, realistic and international terms. The more infusion of religion into it, whether on the Palestinian or the Israeli side, the more it becomes irreconcilable, the more it becomes zero-sum, the more it becomes enduring.
So I would say, don’t base 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. But don’t make it the basis of resolution. That is why the kind of argument we have with the Trump administration’s ambassador in Israel — used to justify control of territory — appealing to faith, religion, history and the interpretation of the Bible is not conducive to a resolution. I respect religion; it’s important. People have to take it into account on all sides of the equation. But don’t base the international argument about what needs to be done on faith and the religious narrative of one side or the other.
MS. FRIEDMAN: Forget the narrative part for a second. I totally agree with Shibley. There’s been this idea that because you have these equities, you have churches, you have Muslim and Jewish shared sites, religion is a hook. People are going to have to talk, so we can use it as a hook for broader conversations; the parties are automatically interested. It hasn’t worked. Look at the state of affairs in Hebron, where you have a shared site, a contested site, a precious site. What has essentially happened is that negotiating over the condition of the site in Hebron has actually made it more contested and more problematic, all of which came in the wake of negotiations and changes to its status after a huge Israeli terrorist attack. The result is that Palestinians have less stake in the site than they used to.
In Jerusalem, this has been tried again. Each of the churches there has its own equities, and they don’t always play well together. Each church is looking to preserve its equities in the face of an Israeli government that is more than happy to use one against the other. This game-playing has gone on for generations in Jerusalem, long before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The effort to use these Christian equities in Jerusalem to try to help the Palestinians has not worked. Palestinians are losing more land in the old city because churches are playing games with Israel; they’re worried about their tax bills and about access to their sites. It’s an interesting technical hook that has been tried and has consistently failed.
DR. MATTAIR: We’ve talked about how this is not a burning issue for Arab governments, but is this unresolved conflict and this human-rights debacle still food for extremism? For al-Qaeda, or ISIS, or anybody else?
DR. TELHAMI: Let’s be careful in terms of how to describe the reality. I think it’s true that our governments are not preoccupied with this issue right now, and particularly in light of what happened in events that followed Iraq, or the Arab uprisings. They have their own issues. This is not a priority for them. But the public, as Jim pointed out, also doesn’t rank this issue high. This doesn’t mean it’s not important to them; it’s just not on the top of the priority list. But if you were to ask them what they want on Palestine, they know what they want, or think they do. They support the Palestinians. It’s an important issue, but it doesn’t rise to the top.
One reason governments have in some ways tried to lower the profile, deliberately tried to make it less important to the public, is that they see it as an opposition issue. Those who oppose the governments tend to mobilize over the Palestine question and use it against them if they’re not doing something directly. Therefore, any time where there’s tension, like over Jerusalem, the governments want to play it down; they don’t want their opposition to use it against them. I think one reason governments are deliberately trying to provide a different narrative to lower the profile of this issue among the public is that they very much fear it is there still and can be activated and used against them. You see what happened in Algeria or elsewhere in demonstrations against governments: They invoke this issue still to this day. It is not a priority, but it is still there, and it is not out of the question that it will be activated again.
DR. MATTAIR: And the extremist groups?
DR. TELHAMI: Extremist groups have used it for sure, maybe more than we have admitted in the past, including al-Qaeda initially. But I don’t think that’s really the source of the worry of governments. Extremists, with or without the question of Palestine, have their ways of mobilizing. I’m talking about the broader Arab public, the people who are disenchanted with governments, a sentiment that, as you can imagine, is pervasive. The type of energy we saw in the first round of Arab uprisings, and being activated in what could be the Arab uprisings 2.0, isn’t about Palestine, but Palestine is an issue that could be activated.
AMB. WELLES: When I was ambassador in Tunisia, I was surprised at the number of times Tunisians would bring up the Palestinian issue with me. Tunisia’s quite far away from the conflict, but maybe there are reasons going back to the PLO’s being hosted 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 people are going into the streets to protest on a day-to-day basis, but it’s easily something that could be activated, depending on events elsewhere. For example, if there were incidents around the holy places in Jerusalem, that would definitely provoke a kind of response around the region. So, I agree completely with what Shibley said. It’s a factor that has to be considered, and it’s something radical groups, al-Qaeda and others, have in the past taken advantage of. I think they would likely do so in the future.
DR. ZOGBY: One of the biggest factors that is not considered a high-intensity issue right now in the Arab world — and 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 even a vision of what the issue of Palestine used to be about and still can be. What we’re left with are, as Jake notes, incidents. I remember during one of the Gaza wars, speaking with a friend in an Arab country who hated Hamas and everything about it. And one might suggest, if you recall, when Bush dealt with the issue back in the first 2008 war, there were Arab governments that would like to have seen Hamas destroyed, just as they would have wanted to see Hezbollah destroyed. But there were pictures from Gaza in the media, and I remember a friend actually choking up on the phone because they looked like his kids and grandkids. And I thought, it’s still there. It doesn’t go away. But it requires something — hopefully not a tragedy — to provide momentum. What are you supporting right now? Mahmoud Abbas? Are you supporting Saeb Erekat, saying it's the last nail in the coffin? I have this image of nails on top of nails. There’s no place to put the nail anymore.
The conflict has become ossified and bankrupt, and not just financially. And Arab countries felt that they were subsidizing the occupation for decades. So there is a sense of weariness and frustration. But that can flip on a dime because Palestine remains the wound in the heart that doesn’t heal. However, Palestinians and the cause itself are not being served by a leadership right now that is more interested in its own survival than in securing rights. 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 it will come in response.
Right now, attention is going to be on Iraq, on Lebanon, and on what’s happening in Syria and Yemen. In Palestine, there are simply a people being abused and humiliated on a daily basis, shot at on a very frequent basis — 11 last week in the West Bank and 73 in Gaza. And yet, that’s it. There’s no vision, nothing to drive people to support the cause.
DR. MATTAIR: We’ve seen the United States 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?
DR. TELHAMI: I hear that now. Obviously, people are talking about a lack of American credibility and that Israel should worry. Frankly, I don’t see that in the foreseeable future. The only thing you could say is that the prime minister of Israel was hoping that Trump would use a military option with Iran. He would be supportive. But obviously that didn’t happen. And the latest poll that I just released shows 75 percent of the American people, including a majority of Republicans, opposed a military option even if Iran were found to be behind the attack on the Saudi oil fields.
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. It is hard to envision a short-term scenario where the Israelis really need the United States to intervene on their behalf. It doesn’t mean that they’re happy about what happened in Syria, particularly because it does shift the balance a little bit to their disadvantage, undoubtedly. Not that the American presence would have made such a big difference for them strategically. I think that point is exaggerated, used politically a little bit to push the point that the president has let down people who were counting on him.
AMB. WELLES: 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, that the United States is pulling back, that U.S. credibility is not what it was in the past, has an impact. And I think the impact of that perception is not good for Israel.
MS. FRIEDMAN: 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 that should worry them. I think that’s absolutely delusional. This administration, again, is ideological when it comes to Israel-Palestine and incredibly consistent in 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 that they are aiming at, and that hasn’t changed.
When it comes to the question of how much the United States would or wouldn’t support Israel if there were a real threat, we have an unbroken history of support for Israel when in a time of need. That hasn’t changed. I don’t see that changing. I hope it wouldn’t. Beyond that, we have legislation and the strategic partnership. We have everything now, short of a mutual-defense agreement — which now people are talking about — a limited mutual-defense pact. Legislation has passed in the House that would give a president the ability to provide Israel with “any military services or products” without any oversight or 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.
None of that’s changing; it is all moving ahead under its own steam. 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 Iran as the enemy and having the dangers on its extended borders to hold up as an excuse or a pretext for its military posture. Israel needs an enemy and always has. Other people can analyze whether they’re right or wrong about that.