Dr. Eid Mustafa:
Thank you, Dr. Ali, and I give him credit for my coming to Washington. He picks me up, so otherwise, I would still be somewhere in the Middle East. Thank you again. It’s my pleasure to welcome you all to the afternoon session, and I’m sure you’ll find it very enlightening like the morning was. So remember your cell phones — we don’t need any interesting music. The questions and answers, the rules have been explained earlier. Many of you have been here. Questions, crisp, clear questions, targeted to a specific panelist. Otherwise, I’ll take them, and that would be a problem. For the people watching us online, the — they can reach us through, send their questions to @PalestineCenter and can follow us at the Twitter handle of #PalCenter19. I like the morning set-up that Said started. The panelists have the option of coming to the podium or speaking from where they are. And I will introduce them as they get ready to speak.
Our first panelist is Lara Freeman — Friedman, sorry. She’s the President of the Foundation for Middle Eastern Peace with more than 25 years working in the Middle East foreign policy arena. She is (a) leading authority on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, specializing in the Israeli-Arab conflict, Israeli settlements, Jerusalem, and the role of the U.S. Congress. She’s published widely in the U.S. and international press and is regularly consulted by members of Congress and their staffs, by Washington-based diplomats, by policymakers in capitals around the world, and by journalists in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to her work at the FMEP, Lara is a non-resident fellow at the U.S. Middle East Project. Prior to that, she was the Director of Policy and Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now. And before that, she was a U.S. foreign service officer serving in Jerusalem, Washington, Tunis, and Beirut. She has a BA from (the) University of Arizona and a masters degree from Georgetown School of Foreign Service where we speak about media and Palestine. Please help me welcome her.
Thank you, and thank you for that far too long introduction. I was afraid we were going to talk about my first-grade teacher and the topic of my seventh-grade book report. It’s great to be here. Thanks to the Palestine Center for inviting me and for having me as part of this conference. I, first of all, come to this with a great deal of humility. I am not Palestinian. And I’m speaking before an audience of people, many of whom are Palestinian, any of whom have been working on this issue even longer than I have. So, I’d like to couch everything I say with the humility of knowing that we all know a lot about this, and we all have very deep feelings. I also come to this with the something of a — well, let’s puts me at — something of a disadvantage because I’ve been asked to speak about media, which I will talk about. I’m generally on panels talking about U.S. foreign policy, settlements, Jerusalem. I’m a substance matter expert — a wonk. I’m not an analyst of media. So, I’m going to be speaking, first of all, sort of topically and just giving you my impressions, which are, you know, the same. We all have impressions about this. And I’m also going to be speaking in such a way that I can talk about what I want to talk about, which is what we all are very good at doing.
So, with that in mind, I look at this as someone who has been a consumer of media on Israel-Palestine my entire life. And I am old enough to remember, and by the way I’m not a boomer, for those in the audience. I’m the Gen-X, the generation that nobody remembers exists. But I am old enough to remember, when, I as someone studying Israel-Palestine, was constantly infuriated by the fact that there was not coverage of what was happening on the ground. There were topical things from the Israeli perspective, there was sort of what I call the hasbara stuff, but you didn’t get coverage. I remember that. Fast forward to today when I am every morning opening Twitter and opening up the paper, and I’m infuriated, largely because I am reading about what’s happening, and I’m going to say that’s an improvement in the situation. I’d rather be infuriated because the facts are terrible and I’m reading them and I can forward them to people and I can analyze them, and I can document them and I can write things about them, than the fact that the facts aren’t getting out there and I have impotent frustration that people don’t know what’s happening.
So, I think it’s useful to start with the recognition that that is where we are today. There is an enormous amount of information out there. It is still enormously frustrating. It’s frustrating to me. I had a direct message from a friend of mine who works on the ground of Israel-Palestine, who works with human rights and settlements and all that, with pictures of a Palestinian taxi driver who was driving in the West Bank, and was hit by a rock – I think in the past twenty-four hours – that was thrown by apparently settlers. [He is] badly injured – it’s getting no coverage in the Israeli press. Right, so I get that moment of just being infuriated that stone-throwing can kill people, absolutely. It doesn’t seem to necessarily be as much of a deal when, depending on who’s throwing them and who’s being hit. So, there’s that constant tension that that information is there. He’s tweeting it out. I’m tweeting it out. I’m sending it to journalists, saying, “Hey, look at what’s happening.” And we didn’t have that in the past. And that is a significant shift.
We also, it wasn’t that long ago when, I’m just thinking about this panel here, when my colleague Yousef Munayyer, would not have had a feature in Foreign Affairs [magazine] where he broke through a lot of the stale analysis, and offered a very challenging and timely, lengthy, scholarly article, which has moved, it’s bounced far and wide, for people looking at this issue. [It’s] not long ago when Yousef wouldn’t have had that, or wouldn’t have had an op-ed in the New York Times. The space would not have been available to him as a platform. And it’s not long ago when, in the midst of say a crisis on the ground, say a lot of Palestinians being shot along the fence in Gaza, that you would not have had Noura Erakat, on cable news, speaking not just as a Palestinian and saying, “My feelings are hurt, this is painful,” but speaking as a subject-matter expert with enormous authority. And by the way, her book is getting great reviews all over the place. It is changing the discourse. So there are these very strong, positive things that I want to look at. I want to at least highlight [them] because usually I’m famous for, I’m very fact-focused. I give a lot of facts and the facts are really depressing, and people accuse me of being pessimistic, and I’m not pessimistic, I’m focused on facts.
I also want to highlight some folks on the media side that you may not know about. You probably know about IMEA [Institute for Middle East Understanding], great organization, pushing out a different narrative, amazing work. You may know about Al-Shabaka, it’s an organization that my organization funds. We love them. Al-Shabaka actually highlighting, elevating…, it’s an incubator for voices offering a different perspective, who are having an enormous reach. So, if you look at Tarek Baconi’s book on Gaza, [it’s a] game changer. If you look at the articles that are being produced on the situation for water, or tourism, they’re producing incredible stuff that is actually informing the discourse in a way that we didn’t have in the past. I’d also highlight 972, which is the Israeli online magazine which has Palestinian writers as well, and their sister publication, which is called Local Call, because 972 is the Israeli prefix for international calls, Local Call which has both Israeli and Palestinian writers [too]. So again, elevating, changing the discourse. That’s awesome.
The flip side is I think obvious but let’s talk about it. We still have problems of access. For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to what’s happening on twitter with Palestinian news services being suddenly, and there’s always been a problem this, but suddenly, apparently in line with what is supposedly going after voices of terrorist organizations, but you can define terrorist organizations narrowly or very widely. So, we’re seeing Palestinian voices quashed on twitter, and twitter today is for a large part of the world a primary source of news, if not THE primary source of news.
You have the same issue with the PA. So, we woke up a couple weeks ago to find out [that] a whole bunch of Palestinian websites, Facebook pages had been quashed, and that’s at the PA’s request. That’s very problematic. There’s an organization on the ground called Hamla, which is based out of Haifa, I believe. They are working on internet censorship, access to information and all of that, looking at both the Israelis and the Palestinians, both Israeli authorities and Palestinian authorities. And it’s fantastic that there’s a conscious effort to challenge this, but the fact that in 2019 we’re still actually dealing with direct censorship issues is very problematic.
That feeds into what I am most concerned about right now, which is, as we talk about what is the pretext for censoring voices, and this is censorship in the classical sense and in the more broad sense of delegitimizing, de-platforming. For me, what is happening right now, and what we all need to be more conscious of, I’m guessing that people in this room already are. I often speak to a different part of the community that is not – is this increasing conflation, because the conflation has always been there, but it’s gotten more energy today than it has certainly at any time in my lifetime, and it is the conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. It’s a conflation of non-violent, legal, peaceful boycott or any other kind of activism with anti-Semitism, and then you escalate very quickly to conflating [it] with terror.
We are seeing this play out across the board. We’re seeing this play out in, if you look at, for example, a number of ngo’s that are working on Israel-Palestine increasingly having a difficult time functioning because they are being de-platformed, being what’s called “de-risking”. So they are being pushed out of the banking sector. You see it with what happened on twitter, where major news sources are pushed out, ostensibly because someone says, what I call the “six degrees of terrorist contamination”. If you guys know the six degrees of Kevin Bacon thing…
If you have six degrees you can always find a connection. Alright, if you talk about Palestinians, somebody who wants to shut down a voice or delegitimize a voice, whether talking about in the media or in social media, or in the ngo space, or in the political space, you play your “six degrees of terrorist contamination”. It’s an enormously powerful weapon that I don’t think people are effectively grappling with yet, and I think we’re going to be grappling with it whether we want to or not because it’s coming home more and more. It’s coming [in] law suits against ngo’s, it’s coming in campaigns against people. Last week a Lawfare organization wrote a letter to US universities claiming that they were risking violating US anti-terror laws because they were working with Al-Haq, Al-Haq being the pre-eminent human rights organization. And let’s be clear, nobody, not even the people making the case are arguing that Al-Haq funds, incites, supports, endorses anything [associated] with terror. What they’re [Lawfare] doing is saying, “Aha, you have used our six degrees of terrorist contamination and now we’re going to use that” to shut down work which is actually trying to be democracy, pro-human rights, stabilizing, [and] all of that. It’s the antithesis of actually supporting terror, and yet we found this hook because we believe that this narrative is so intolerable.
The piece that I think is in some ways the most important in this room, is that I talked about the conflation between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, I talked about activism and terrorism. We’re reaching the point now, and you see this, in the discourse around Palestine-Israel, increasingly, is the argument that the Palestinian narrative itself is conflated with anti-Semitism. I am not Palestinian. The nakba is not my narrative. I grew up in a family, we were critical in the same way of the world in general, but Israel, 1948 “miracle” and all of that, as I’ve grown up I’ve learned to grapple with the contradictions of that period. But that is my narrative and I will grapple with it. We are entering now a period, or maybe re-entering something that existed pre-Madrid where even the existence, the articulation of a different narrative, a narrative that says that the creation of Israel was not a great miracle, or didn’t go well for the people on the ground, or the people who were there have claims, that narrative is increasingly being demonized in a way that I had not seen at any time in my lifetime. And that for me is a cause of great concern.
I will highlight one last thing, which is IHRA definition, I don’t know if folks are following this, but if you don’t know what that term stands for, this is the International Holocaust Remembrance-thing. I don’t know what the “A” stands for, [does] anybody [know]? Association. The idea here is that there was, look, anti-Semitism is ramping up all over the world. There’s not a question about this, if you don’t believe it, then you need to read the news and read about attacks on synagogues in this country and around the world, attacks on Jews in Brooklyn and whatever. It is real and it is problematic. Some years back an effort was launched to try to come up with a working definition of anti-Semitism, to use predominantly in Europe to help figure out how to deal with it. And this definition was largely crafted by a guy who worked at the American Jewish Committee, who is on the record, back and forth and up and down, saying this was never intended to be codified into law.
It could not be clearer, this was a very problematic definition. It’s a definition in law, or an effort to codify into law, a definition of anti-Semitism, which effectively says that criticizing Israel can be, and probably is, anti-Semitic. It codifies into law this idea that I, you know, I work on Israel-Palestine, I don’t work on the entire world. This is my area of expertise. But if I go up before a panel, or write an article just criticizing Israel that means by definition, I’m anti-Semitic. I said to a friend of mine, “It’s sort of like saying you can either care about everything or you can care about nothing, and if you care about everything it’s going to have zero impact, so excellent.” That’s not how the world works. I said to another friend of mine, “My father passed away not long ago from Alzheimer’s. I am deeply concerned with Alzheimer’s, I give money, I’m engaged with organizations. That does not mean I am discriminating against every other disease out there that needs work. This is something that I have a personal attachment to.
But this argument that if you’re focusing on Israel, it means you’re anti-Semitic, has got enormous traction, and there has not been, I think, effective or sufficient pushback. Looking ahead, I am, on the one hand, very worried about all of these things and more. On the other hand, I’m actually guardedly optimistic, because the reins of control of information are not in the hands of anyone, at this point, which by the way is also terrifying. We live in an alt-fact, alt-news world, [and] that is very scary. But it also means that it is not so easy to cut out information. So for me, when I was in college, you couldn’t find good information about what was happening on the ground in Israel-Palestine, or when I did find information I would be accused, “You’ve been brainwashed by pro-Palestinian sources and you can’t believe this.” Alright, nobody can say that now. You can watch for yourself. If you think the video of soldiers shooting a guy in the back with a bullet, “But yes it’s coated with rubber, so it’s not going to kill him, it’s just going to really hurt and possibly injure him”, shooting him in the back as he walks away. If you can find a way to create a hasbara narrative where that is not a problem, that speaks to you but you’re going to have make that case before the world. The video is out there and can’t be suppressed in a way that it could have been before.
And if you look at what’s happening in the American grassroots, that is having an impact. It’s having an impact on a generation, which isn’t looking for other people to tell them what to believe so much. They’re looking at news, they’re looking at information, and they’re I think in some ways overwhelmed with information but at this point they expect to find it for themselves. They’re not waiting for someone to digest it for them. And this is a generation that’s looking and saying, “We see people being shot in the United States without cause. We see people being shot in Gaza without cause. Explain to us how this is different.” That’s an incredibly powerful, powerful argument and it’s why I think you’re seeing at this moment the people who want to shut down the free movement of information, doubling down on this conflation, because they are worried, and in a sense they should be worried, because the images are indefensible. The policies that are behind them cannot be put into a context, which anyone will accept unless you are so inclined for ideological reasons. The case is harder and harder to make. So I will stop there.
Dr. Eid Mustafa:
Thank you very much. Before I introduce the next speaker, I would like to remind you that we have a cultural exhibit, calligraphy exhibit will open officially at six o’clock this evening. The artist will be with us for that. I don’t think you can find better calligraphy anywhere. So, with that, our next speaker will be Yousef Munayyer. We’re used to Yousef standing here and introducing people but life has a way of changing things. So, Yousef is a political analyst and writer, executive director at the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. Prior to that, he was executive director here at The Jerusalem Fund for several years, and has also served as policy analyst for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He frequently writes on matters of foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim world, civil rights and civil liberties. He received his Masters degree and PhD at the University of Maryland and has appeared on many media outlets in the United States. So, with that, please help me welcome Yousef Munayyer.
Thank you so much Dr. Mustafa. I want to thank Mohamed for the invitation to come and join you at the conference, here. It’s always a pleasure to be back at The Jerusalem Fund. I’ve continued to follow their important work and programs of the organization, which continues to be a testament to the dedication of the board of directors and the fantastic staff here that I always enjoyed working with during the time that I was here.
I have been asked to speak about BDS and “the deal of the century” – and you may wonder how these two things may be related, and I will get into that because I do think that there are important connections that are not often fully understood that are worth getting into. But I want to begin by talking a little bit about BDS first. I’m going to assume that there’s a pretty good understanding of what BDS is here in this room. How many people know what BDS stands for?
So BDS stands for, there’s obviously a lot of people in this room who know what BDS stands for, but also for the audience that is watching online, for anyone who may not be familiar, BDS stands for boycott, divestment, and sanctions. And, we often are conditioned through the conversation about BDS into thinking about BDS as a movement. We often hear the words, “BDS movement” and I would like to offer something of a corrective that narrative, and suggest that BDS is not a movement. The movement is for something. We had a movement in this country for civil rights. They used boycotts and divestment as well. Boycotts and divestment and sanctions, just as they were used in the civil rights movement, and in the anti-apartheid movement, are a set of tactics that movements use for strategic reasons.
And, in 2005, there was a call put out by Palestinian civil society for those working for Palestinian rights to use the tactics of BDS, to use the tactics of boycott, divestment and sanctions. Why is this important to understand? It’s important to understand because boycott, divestment and sanctions are not the goal. They are a tool to get to the goal. And the tools that you use sometimes need to evolve over time. Why we may use one tool today may be different from why we use a tool tomorrow. But the conditions that led to Palestinians focusing on BDS, I think are really important for us to understand because they have a lot to do with this conversation, how BDS relates to the deal of the century, and they have a lot to do with our understanding of where the movement for Palestinian rights is going to be going in the future.
So why is it that Palestinians decided to move in the direction of BDS – Palestinian civil society? The reality is that, and I will tell you as a supporter of boycott, divestment, and sanctions, this is not the preferable route. This is not the preferable route for accountability for human rights abuses. The preferable route in our international system, in our rules-based order, is that when states violate human rights, when states violate international agreements, when states are not treating those which they rule with respect and dignity, the international state system is supposed to hold those actors accountable. And there are tools and mechanisms in the international system, which often have been broken, but nonetheless are supposed to exist, to advance accountability.
And for years what we have seen in the case of Palestine is that when it comes to accountability for Israel, there is always an exception, constantly an exception. And the international state system has routinely failed in holding Israel accountable. Not only has it failed to hold Israel accountable, it’s often and routinely enabled its worse abuses against Palestinians. So while this approach of boycott, divestment and sanctions is led by civil society, I would really not want to see it fall on civil society actors to hold state actors accountable. It should fall on states to hold other states accountable. But because that has failed, and this is why this is so important, BDS has risen into the vacuum of demanding accountability, and accountability from civil society is a very, very different beast than accountability from the state system. It requires a completely different form of leveraging power. It requires collective organizing, popular mobilization. Where do people get power from? They get power from each other. We do not have at our disposal the Treasury of the United States of America or other governments or militaries, or the legal and diplomatic prowess to levy sanctions against other countries. But we have each other, we have our relationships with each other, we have our relationships with our communities and organizations, which together can create change in the spaces where we have influence, which is why you are seeing BDS campaigns succeeding in universities, and succeeding as divestment initiatives in church congregations, and so on.
Where its interesting to think about the moment that we’re in, and the deal of the century in particular as it relates to BDS, is that the state system, along with being very destructive towards Israel and Palestine, has also put forward this meta narrative that has allowed it to do what it’s doing, that has allowed it not to hold Israel accountable, and that is this meta narrative of the peace process. That meta narrative is there are basically two sides here, they’ve been fighting forever, they’re fighting over land, there’s only one party that can really bring them together, it’s the United States and what has to happen is we need to bring them together around the table, and peace can be made. Only the United States can do this, and the United States is an even-handed broker, and so on and so forth.
Over the years [US] presidential administrations have understood the value of maintaining this myth of even-handedness, and needing to elevate this myth from time to time. Thirty or so years ago, George HW Bush and then Secretary of State Baker understood that if they were going to pursue war in Iraq, if they were going to pursue war in the Middle East, it was going to be important for them to at least project the sense of even-handedness when it came to the Israel-Palestinian issue. The same thing was true of Bush the younger when he went on his campaign in Iraq and decided to elevate the roadmap for peace and speak about a Palestinian state and so on. They understood the value of the myth of even-handedness. What has changed so much in this moment, and why I think it’s so important for BDS and the movement for Palestinian rights and civil society accountability, is that that pretense doesn’t even exist anymore.
The Trump administration not only is no longer pretending to be even-handed, it’s making very clear it doesn’t want to be even-handed: [for them] being even-handed is wrong; and being 100 percent pro-Israel and pro-Netanyahu and whatever the most right-wing forces in Israel and in the United States want is the only game in town. What that has meant is that the people who were hiding behind the pretense of even-handedness, behind the pretense of the peace process, can no longer do so. And so what’s left? What’s left? We can no longer say we need to bring the parties to the table, we can no longer say the United States can be an effective mediator, we can no longer pretend that that path is possible. What remains is a path of accountability. What remains is the path that civil society organizations have been demanding for some time, whether that through boycotts and divestments, or through other methods that have been around before the boycott, divestment and sanctions [tactic] as well.
So, the Trump administration and their deal of the century, their entire approach to Israel and Palestine has been a dropping of curtain, a dropping of the mask, that has allowed so many people to understand why it is that Palestinians, for so long, have been saying, “We need accountability, we need Israel to be held accountable, and we need you people in the United States to stop waiting, and around the world, to stop waiting for your governments to do something that they’re not going to do. So, in this moment, this meta-narrative has essentially fallen apart, and you are seeing what I think is a tremendous growth in demands, for accountability even if people don’t necessarily want to call it BDS. The reality is that without BDS organizing, the conversation around accountability that is growing today in the United States, particularly the left and liberals, would not have been possible.
So I think, in many ways, we have a lot to thank President Trump for, for really showing us what US policy has been, and the fact that he’s not going to pretend [to care] anymore about what it’s all about. It’s a clarifying moment for people who have been reluctant to get involved as civil society actors, and they’re beginning to make their voices heard.
I will add that a compounding factor here, that both pre-dates President Trump, but has also really been agitated and amplified by him, is this issue of a partisan divide today, in US opinion on the question of Israel-Palestine. We are seeing that more pronounced today than ever before. All of the public opinion numbers that we look at on this question consistently show a wide gap between Republicans and Democrats on their views on this issue, whether it’s when you ask about the question of general sympathy, or the question of what the US position should be, or the question of BDS, the question of how do you hold Israel accountable, can you use sanctions and so on, the lines diverge very very very significantly.
What this has meant is that for the first time, we can start having a conversation about the “s”, we can start having a conversation about sanctions, we can start having a conversation about government level accountability for Israel’s abuses. Boycotts and divestments take certain kinds of decision-makers: people like you and I who are engaged in our communities at the university level, at the institutional level, and so on. The “s”, sanctions, that takes government level decision-makers. And what you are starting to see today is a conversation in places like congress, in places like the presidential debate arena, as recently as last week, about how US policy needs to shift in a direction of accountability, whether that’s through conditioning aid, whether that’s through specifying that the United States should not be sending money to specific human rights abuses in Israel or beyond, that includes the state of Israel.
And we’re seeing for the first time legislation in congress that is beginning to call for that kind of accountability, like HR 2407, which is Betty McCullum’s bill on the abuse of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention and demanding that no money go to those abuses. For people who have been working on this issue for a very long time, and there are many of you in this room and on this panel, you know revolutionary it is to be able to say that a bill like that exists today and that it is not political suicide for sponsoring it or co-sponsoring it. But the political space exists today to be able to do that, and one of the big projects that we have moving forward is to ensure that that political space grows.
I want to say a word briefly on some of the challenges facing movement for Palestinian rights and the use of boycott, divestment and sanctions. As I said, you can see from the conversation for presidential candidates around military aid that the conversation really is changing, but at the same time the challenges continue to exist. One of them is liberal Zionist anti-accountability politics. What do I mean by this? Groups that are still arguing that accountability is not the way that we should go, that we should stick to the old method, that we should revert to a peace process that, still, it’s the path of negotiation, not pressure that’s going to lead to some sort of agreed-upon outcome between the parties, groups like J-Street for example, who are not ready to get behind accountability at the congressional level, even though there is an energy today among a progressive base that is ready to push this forward. There is more safety within public opinion for politicians to take these kinds of positions. This is a challenge that I think is a real roadblock for the moment, in allowing this movement to generate that next level of momentum, to propel it forward.
Another challenge that I see is what could be called the potentially upcoming reset in US-Israel relations. If you have a new presidential administration here in the United States and if you have a new government in Israel that is not led by Benjamin Netanyahu, there will be many many voices here in the United States who will say, “Well, now we have an opportunity to reset the relationship, yes Democrats might have had a problem with the hard right in Israel, they may have had a problem with Netanyahu, but that’s changed now, there’s a new government”. Even if that government is no different in its policies towards the Palestinians, as the opposition to Netanyahu is, there will be voices here in the United State who will be saying, “Let’s put those partisan divide issues, let’s put that all behind us, let’s reset the relationship.” That is a major challenge that may be on the horizon and it is imperative that we in advocating about this issue, make very clear that a change in the figurehead at the head of the Israeli government, that doesn’t translate into a change in policy is no change at all. We in the United States and those who care about human rights, those who care about international law and accountability, should not be fooled by a change in figurehead if the policies remain the same.
A final word on challenges is continued state repression facing people who are doing this kind of work. Lara [Friedman] touched a little on the conflation of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, she’s done a tremendous amount of work in documenting the legislative efforts happening here in the United States and also internationally and beyond legislative as well that are attempting to make it illegal to engage in boycotts. This is having a ripple effect around the world. The other day, there was a story about the government of Australia putting forward legislation to make climate activism boycotts illegal in Australia. So this threat that has been posed to Palestinian rights activists is not a threat from states that is being contained to one area, and it never would be. Now its becoming a tool [used] by powerful interests to really silence debate, just as we have long warned that would be the case in Western countries around the world. We’ve seen a lot of people speak out against anti-BDS legislation and I think there have been important victories there that we can point to, and have seen a shift in public opinion as well on this, but this is going to continue to be a challenge. What I assure you is that as public opinion continues to shift in the United States, as more and more people get involved, and especially as you see members of congress begin to speak out about it, the Israeli state is going to think about new and additional and amplified ways to target activists doing this kind of work in the United States and around the world.
In closing, the next step is for us to redouble our efforts in creating the kind of political space around accountability that we’ve begun to pry open today in some parts of the political spectrum, so that lawmakers across the spectrum not just in the progressive space, but among liberals and moderates and one day, one day, even conservatives will have a conscience when it comes to Israel and Palestine, and understand that Palestinian rights are human rights and deserve to be respected and the United States should not be contributing to the abuse of them by the state of Israel. So, with that, I thank you very much.
Dr. Eid Mustafa:
Thank you Yousef, I admire your optimism. We need more of that and I also learned that throughout life, that consciousness and politics don’t get along very well, they don’t go along. Our next speaker is Grant Smith, he’s the research director for the Institute for Research Middle Eastern Policy, founded in 2002, he manages research and education programs including Polling, Freedom of Information Act, filing digital outreach and conferences. He is the author of several books about the Israeli lobby including, Big Israel: How Israel Lobby Moves America. He will be talking about confronting the deal of the century from the US perspective. Please welcome him.
Thank you very much. Thank you for having me come here and talk about confronting the deal of the century and were going to start with the confrontation part. If these were normal times, for the last year, we would have been subjected to a barrage of Gallup polling analysis. Saying what Yousef just said they are indications that Americans have great sympathy for Israelis when you ask them the following question, “In the Middle East situation are your sympathies more with the Israelis or more with the Palestinians?” and as I was sleeping last night I had a horrific nightmare that a child might actually download this presentation and see this chart of 30 years of Gallup polls indicating unequivocal majority American support for Israel and think that it was true so I put a warning label on it to ward them away from thinking that.
So confrontation, what does it mean in this case? The first step was for my organization looking at Gallup and Pews data on essentially the same question. The organization Pew Research has had similar polls for year after year indicating between 2001 and 2018 that Israelis and Palestinians basically, that public opinion was similar to Gallup but that there was no majority sympathy for the Israelis although it was close. And so the information has migrated out of these polls consistently. It’s used in extremely important places. It’s not only trumpeted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in numerous newspapers to show year after year in March, typically which coincidentally is when AIPAC has its annual meeting, that Americans support Israel unequivocally. And it’s used in the Congressional Research Service report by Jeremy Sharp, that comes out every year to say, essentially that Americans probably support massive foreign aid to Israel as well, because you know they prefer Israelis to Palestinians when we look at the Gallup data. And so this poll has had extremely dangerous uses in places where it matters including US foreign aid to Israel.
And so we began confronting Gallup in 2018, fielding their exact same polling formulation through the much more accurate Google online consumer services in statistically significant polls. And what we found in 2018, is that in fact when asked, most Americans express no opinion when they’re put to this question on the Middle East situation, “Do you sympathize more with the Israelis or more with the Palestinians?” They say, “I have no opinion on that matter.” They don’t say the Israelis, they don’t say the Palestinians. They say, “I have no opinion on that matter.”
And statistically-significant poles. Confrontation. We issued various reports saying, “You know what, Gallup’s data seems to overstate this whole sympathy thing. We don’t think Americans do sympathize more with Israel. Gallup has some ancient techniques and phone polling and modal biased, we just, we don’t think it’s accurate.” And even the Jewish Daily Forward started worrying about the issue a week later, saying, oh my my, they do indeed differ somewhat.
Confrontation. This year we field that the same question again and guess what the number of Americans who don’t express, don’t have an opinion on this matter, will not respond to this question? [They] increased, and so what can we make of this? The Bellwether, the number one polling device, for thirty years has been used knowingly and unknowingly by researchers, pundits, and lobbyists as a fundamental base of their argument, that Americans support all sorts of policies voiced upon them that support Israelis over Palestinians is wrong. And there’s also no need to ask Americans whether they support US aid to Israel or not, because if you ask them whether they support it, most of them consistently year after year since 2014, through the same Google Consumer Services polls, will say that they think it’s either too much or much too much. Gallup doesn’t poll on this specific question. Jeremy Sharp doesn’t look for polls on this specific question.
If anyone wants to google it right now, public opinion on US aid to Israel, at least the top three results will say, here’s some quantitative reliable polling data, you know what, most Americans don’t support it. So I did that for you too. March of this year. Confrontation. Gallup finally admitted that they were systematically biased, that they introduced a priming effect when they fielded their questions about sympathy for Israel in these polls. Basically, they said that when they asked country favorability, it tended to push people to later expressing opinions that they didn’t really hold about Israel, and that when they did a test without the bias that they found that people didn’t actually sympathize with Israel. They didn’t publish that poll. It was an internal thing, this admission was a back page item. AIPAC wasn’t tearing down 30 years worth of polling data from Gallup the next day, just so you know, but it was consequential. It was confrontation putting the information out where it counts, challenging and confronting. So while I’m firing this back up, a quick poll: how many people live in Virginia?
How many people don’t live in Virginia? And how many people don’t know whether they live in Virginia or not? Okay nobody, excellent. Why am I asking that question? It’s relevant, believe me.
Okay, so Pew stopped asking the question. They’re transitioning and trying to disabuse themselves of their own data, but the important thing is this [indicates slide on PPT]. This I think is why Mohammed talked to me about coming here today. There is a poll about the deal of the century that’s been done. It wasn’t done by Gallup, it wasn’t done by Pew, and it’s formulated in a way to put Americans in the positions of Palestinians. It decontextualized entirely regional issues, whether you like Palestinians, whether you like Israelis, everything. And it simply asks, [in] July 2019 after the economic part of the deal of the century was announced, “If you were expelled and re-settled into a resource restricted, area would you fight to return or would you forfeit legal claims for a new life under a promised economic development plan?” This is a say, by the way, this is safe for home use okay, 68 percent of Americans, this is the American perspective on the “deal of the century”, said that they would fight to return. So fair question, let’s use the case study of Virginia now. Let’s turn to Virginia because it’s kind of like a micro, I guess, case study, of the economic plan of the deal of the century.
Virginians have been kind of a test laboratory, for a mini deal of the century since 1996, because the Virginia state government first and the governor’s office later in the legislature, has a “deal of the century light” organization of pro-Israeli political appointees who have been put there on the back of campaign contributions. Mainly, they don’t particularly have any qualifications to do jobs and economic development and the key assumption is they’re going to do this with Israeli companies coming in because they’re innovators that can see that it could succeed anywhere. And Virginia should feel pleased to have them and they’re gonna do all sorts of beneficial MOU and economic development with the universities. This is called the Virginia Israel Advisory Board, so this is their logo. I think this is interesting, it’s probably the only state logo at this time with an Israeli flag on it. They’re part of the Israeli government, they were created by the local Jewish Federations, who also participate in the board of this state agency. Board membership are political players, they’ve given 1.5 million dollars to put this thing together, they are on the long term boards of directors and the rest of the board is mainly drawn from local Israel advocacy organizations.
So what’s actually happened over time, the actual results of this deal of the century, sold to the Virginians as economic prosperity, is massive ongoing predation and corruption of the state government. They’ve been looting the tobacco region, Opportunity Fund. There have been cases of outright embezzlement, they’re hiding the Israeli companies that they’re bringing in. They are targeting local companies such as Blue Ridge aquaculture for replacement with Israeli aquaculture companies. They’re tapping Pentagon information, in the case of Orange Safety Glass and then supplying out of spec products to the Department of Defense. They’re skimming all the cream off the product projects, distributing it to insiders, while basically giving non-existent milk to the rest of the Virginians. Some of the project names [are] “Project Jonah”, “Project Turbine”, “Project Biodiesel”. Why are they code naming projects? Because they’re bringing in Israeli settlement companies to open up companies in Virginia. Some of them are installing solar panels on the rooftops of public schools and state universities. I’m talking about Aloni hats and Energix. In some cases, they’re open about it, [like] Eenergix in the south of Virginia. In other cases, they’re hiding Aloni hats in Arlington Public Schools. They’re hiding behind limited liability companies because I think they would know that they would face resistance if anyone found out.
An MoU with Virginia Tech signed by Terry McAuliffe, has turned them into a marketing division of Strauss group, Sabra dipping company. And this is an innovative Virginia University that has its own tech portfolio and research but, they’re being turned into a marketing division, so it’s been terrible for Virginia. It’s going to increase their bilateral cumulative state deficit over seven billion dollars by 2024. And Virginia state media is kind of useless on this issue. They only basically release the press releases from Virginia’s Rail Advisory Board.
The Virginia Coalition for Human Rights though has filled the gap and done some of their own public opinion polling and here’s what they found. When they asked adult voters in the state of Virginia whether they would like to continue supporting this deal of the century, the plurality again, with this statement since Virginia had a 500 million dollar trade deficit with Israel in 2017, Virginia taxpayers should not continue to subsidize Israeli business projects in the Commonwealth, 38.1 percent said, “Yeah we don’t support it.” Most of them didn’t know they were supporting it until the poll. But they agree that it’s a bad investment. Their deal of the century is not that great.
So basically, we have US public opinion, Americans wouldn’t take the deal of the century. We have Virginia public opinion, they don’t like their own deal of the century. But unfortunately, and this was alluded to by Max and some of the others this morning, they’re just average citizens. And there’s a wonderful study out about the actual impact by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, the actual impact of public opinion by average unconnected individuals, versus economic elites and interest groups, lobbies, and basically we’re talking about they don’t have a lot of impact towards change, not like that.
So it doesn’t really matter that most Virginians would want this out. And we did a little test study and this is all compiled in the book you see on the left, of a best-case solution for a politician who wanted to go out with a hold “Israel accountable campaign” on a state level and we found that out of about 90 million dollars per year in campaign contributions, there was a 25 million dollar committed pro-Israel campaign contribution pool and about a thirteen million dollar potential. Hey, let’s hold Israel accountable, but they’re mostly unorganized and very hard to communicate with. And so the situation doesn’t look good.
Meanwhile naming names, who is the special interest? Who are the economic elites on the other side, who are behind at very least, the concepts driving the deal of the century? Well certainly AIPAC, and the organizations on their side of the issue, which represents a non profit Israel affinity ecosystem in this country, with 14 thousand employees, 350 thousand volunteers, and 6.3 billion dollars in revenue, according to our compilation of IRS Form 9-90s. So they matter a lot in this issue and AIPAC isn’t out front very much about this. They’re kind of in the background, but again I’m preempted this morning. Some of their think-tank thinkers are clearly in support of the political deal of the century. They want in the last book, by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky and AIPAC’s think-tank, they would like the US to accept the Israeli annexation of settlements. They’d like them to further compensate Israeli settlers who are in remote compounds. Bring them behind the green line or into newly annexed territories and the US pays for that, that’s what they would like. They’d like the US to pressure the Europeans according to Ross and Makovski, to agree to unilateral Israeli moves and increase, of course, defense aid to Israel.
I mean, because why not? So, the Israel lobby plan is clear, and so, that would be the heavy hitters. And we can make a, name a list of names for the economic elites who love this kind of thing, the interest groups, but there’s no need for that. So I think in conclusion, I agree with what was said this morning, this is a lovely plan for the pro-Israel ecosystem and if it doesn’t come out under Donald Trump, under the branding “deal of this century”, it’ll be reintroduced and relaunched at some time in the future, in which case, we will get another chance to see what can be done about it. But backing up, I think it’s important to remember that if we effectively confront some of the forces driving this in their vulnerable points, like Gallup, and Gallup has done tremendous damage to this country, at the right time, at the right knowledge and the right tools, you can effectively confront some of this. You can actually do something about it. And once again to give a shout-out to VCHR, they are on the case of buy-out. They don’t like their deal of the century. They want it to be gone. It’s not a good deal for them. It won’t be a good deal for the Palestinians. So with that, I think I’m over time. Thank you. Thank you.
Dr. Eid Mustafa:
Thank you Grant. So our last panelist is Abdel Razzaq Takriti. He’s the inaugural holder of the Arab American Foundation Chair in Modern Arab History at the University of Houston. We are very proud of that. His research focuses on the history of revolutions, anti-colonialism, global intellectual currents and state building in the modern Arab world. His book Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans and Empires in Oman, explores the history of the Dhufar Revolution in Oman, which was the lonest running major armed struggle in the history of the Arabian peninsula. He also co-authored and co-edited with professor Karma Nabulsi the Palestinian revolution website offering bilingual online tools, analytical essays and a wealth of primary resources on Palestinian history from 48 to 82 siege of Beirut. His opinion pieces on Arab affairs appeared in a variety of English and Arabic and media outlets, including The Guardian, Aljazeera, etc. He received his PhD or doctor of philosophy from St. Anthony College, Oxford, and his dissertation was awarded the Middle East Studies Association of North America’s Malcolm Kerr Prize for the best dissertation in the humanities and British Society Middle Eastern Studies Lee Douglas Memorial Prize for best dissertation in the social sciences or the humanities. His most significant accomplishment is being a member of the Palestine Center Committee here, and he’s going to talk to us about geopolitics and how it relates to Palestine. Dr. Takriti.
Dr. Abdel Razzaq Takriti:
Thank you very much Dr. Eid. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be here and an honor and a pleasure to be the last speaker on this wonderful panel. I’ve learned a lot from the panelists, and thank you very much. I really enjoyed this.
I’ve been asked to speak about the geopolitical shifts that took place in the Gulf region and that have resulted in some of the recent trends that influenced the deal of the century. Now, one of the aspects of this deal of the century that we spoke about so much today, one of the most interesting aspects the Gulf involvement in it. There is a huge amount of emphasis on that. There’s a huge amount of emphasis in this deal on the normalization of Israel within the Gulf Arab state system in particular. In fact, I would argue that that’s the main, recent aspect to this deal. That’s the main new thing about this deal. People have been talking about peace for economics for a long time. People have been talking about wide aspects of this deal: the destruction of the Jerusalem file for the Palestinians turning it into an Israeli city; the destruction of the refugee file; the destruction of Palestinian solidarity through the sort of laws and discourses that we heard about earlier. But there is an aspect of this deal which is very practical, and that has to do with getting the Arab states to agree to that process and to go along with it.
What is new about that is not the intent or the aspiration. What is new is amount of involvement. The fact that you had the big conference taking place in Bahrain for example. The fact that you’ve had pronouncements of a very public nature made by people like the current Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The fact that you’ve had a visit by an Israeli prime minister in a very public way to an Arab state, to Muscat in Oman.
Now, what accounts for this situation, what accounts for this shift in or seeming shift in Gulf policy, but also what accounts for this emphasis—and I want to start by saying that when it comes to the Israeli side and it comes to the American side, this hope is not new. It’s been there from the very beginning. The idea of getting the region to accept this, the establishment of a settler colonial project in Palestine started even before that settler colonial project began, because you had discussions, if you look at British discussions around the Balfour Declaration, the imperial aspect was very important in these discussions. There were people [who were] opposed to the Declaration certainly used to, regularly argue that this will be a problem for Britain. Britain is an empire, it has to manage lots of Arab lands, it has to manage Muslim lands. How is it going to deal with the anger that’s going to result from a project of demographic transformation in this territory. Remember the Balfour Declaration, which is the cause of all what you see today, stated that His Majesty’s government views will favor the establishment of a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine. So, the purpose there once you alter the demographic of the space, to move a large Jewish population from Eastern Europe and other parts of Central Europe into this territory and the logical byproduct of that is that they would either have to dominate the native population and turn them into a minority or a humiliated majority in their own land, or to expel them. There is no other option. And of course, we saw a combination of the two taking place.
The discussion around that pointed out that there could be this imperial dimension, and of course, we saw that there were regular expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians across the region, the areas that were dominated by Britain for a long time on the popular level. This was never a popular policy. It was faced with a huge amount of resistance on the ground in the grassroots movements within all parts of the Arab world and within all parts of the Islamic world. From very early on you had people like the Khilafat movement in India on Shaukat Ali and others from the 1930s. They were very strong on this question, they were very highly mobilized on it. The Palestinian leadership of course part of its attempt to struggle against the establishment of the state of Israel in the 1930s and in the 1920s, part of what they were doing was try[ing] to mobilize the sort of solidarity and especially for those who know the history of this, they know that the mufti Jerusalem, Amin Al-Husseini, held a major conference in Jerusalem in 31 on the subject to try to get the attention of the whole Muslim world this issue and to mobilize solidarity.
So we have a long history of solidarity with this cause, and we don’t need to rehearse it over and over again.
The Gulf rulers themselves were also historically not sympathetic to the idea of demographics transformation in Palestine, but it’s very important to understand their social location and their political location if we want to understand how their policies operated in relation to this question. All of these states were under the control of Britain, so it was a very complicated situation to be put in. If you are a ruler who derives their presence on the ground or derives their power on the ground from an imperial patron, in this case Britain, but at the same time you disagree with a central aspect of that patron’s policy in your region or neighborhood, that means that there is a contradiction, an element of contradiction in your relationship with this power. And we saw regularly the fact that these rulers consistently made it clear that they disagree with British policy towards the Palestine question but at the same time were going along with the imperial authorities at the end of the day because this is not going to be their number one priority. Their number one priority is political survival. So, yes, they may disagree with the policy. They will actually fight against it. There is a myth that it’s always been a history of treason and they never cared about policy, and so on, [but] that’s actually not true. I mean anybody that goes into the archives, you see many protestations on the part of rulers across region about this. But, rulers across the region also care about themselves first, and about their dynasties first. These monarchical regimes, they’re not republican regimes, they don’t derive their power from popular sovereignty. If it was derived from popular sovereignty, we would not have ever the possibility of any state in the region ever accepting the expulsion of the Palestine people from its homeland and the prevalence of a system based on a settler colonial state that governs through a combination of apartheid ethnic cleansing and a whole range of racist policies.
So, the first instance, and this illustrates for us complexities of this situation of a ruler, let’s say collaborating with Britain in a very clear sense, and this was of course Sherif Faisal, before he became king. When he did his agreement with [Chaim]Weizmann, the Faisal Weizmann agreement, he was given the illusion in 1919, Chaim Weizmann put him under the impression, and of course some of the British officials are trying to broker that agreement, that “I’m under the impression that if you agreed to the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, we’ll give you the rest of the Arab world for you as a unified kingdom.” So it was like, “Okay”, he gave a very vague agreement or an understanding with Weizmann on that. Of course, he never got an independent Arab kingdom from the British, so that part of the document never became relevant anyways, except that it was used by Zionist propagandists later on to say that “Look, there was an Arab agreement for our project.” They used it very effectively in London to promote to their supporters and to those that were not supporting them in London that “look, this project is feasible, we can get somewhere, the Arab rulers, we can bring them to our side under the correct conditions, this will not be an impenetrable wall.”
We see this happening over and over again. Of course they achieved some successes with Faisal’s brother, King Abdullah in Jordan, when he cooperated with him on the partition of Palestine. He believed that it was going to happen anyways, so he might as well take over the West Bank. There’s of course a huge literature on that now. Those that are interested can go back to, for example, Avi Shlaim’s Collusion Across the Jordan, which goes into great detail on the subject.
But the Gulf rulers were far away from these kind of machinations. They didn’t have borders at that stage, the 1930s, 40s, [British] mandate period. The only ruler that had any political independence anyways was the ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz. The rest could not control their foreign relations until independence, which in the case of Kuwait happened in 61, the rest of them got independence in 71. So, throughout that period, foreign relations of all the Gulf states were won by Britain anyway, so they didn’t have control over this question and in general. But the formula adopted by King Abdul Aziz in the 1930s set a precedent, precedents for them, and it shows us the dynamics that were going on. He was sympathetic to the Palestinians of course, he was actually vehemently opposed to the Zionist project in Palestine, but at the same time, he very much adopted the realpolitik position that all Arab rulers liked to adopt, and he saw this as an opportunity and as an arena in which he could project power in his relations with the outside world.
This became clear in 1936 when the great Palestine revolt happened because the British, when they needed to quiet down the Palestinian population, they found that they don’t have any more direct avenues to this population. They exhausted all their political credit in the past 18 years between 1918 and 1936. They had engaged the Palestinian leadership in negotiations throughout the period that totally failed, so the whole population was up in arms, so their next potential avenue for pacifying the space politically was to rely on surrounding Arab rulers. They went to of course Prince Abdullah in Jordan, Transjordan at the time, and they went to King Abdul Aziz in Saudi Arabia and of course to the Imam of Yemen. They all wrote a letter from the Arab kings calling upon the populations to trust their interventions with “Our friend, Great Britain” – that’s how the letter phrased it, and calling upon the population to retreat into quiet [Arabic phrase], that is a specific formulation.
Of course, people retreated into quiet and then we ended up with the Peele Commission [ironic], which was a Zionist plan in the first place, it’s a Zionist fantasy, telling the native population, “Oh, we’ll give the majority of the land, the prime real estate in this territory to the recently arrived colonists and you have to accept whatever pittance that remains for and you can set up, stay there, and we’ll of course ethnically cleans part of the population,” because that plan had also clauses around transfer of Palestinians. So, already, this is what the Arab role in that period yielded. But it’s very important for us to know that that role did not come out of opposition to the Palestinian cause, as some people say, it came out of the position of these rules in relation to the imperial project as a whole and in relation to empire. They are constrained and they have priorities. Their priorities are their dynastic and political survival.
So, we come to the period after the nakba. After the nakba, we had actually an intensification of sympathy on a popular level within the Gulf with Palestine, and that had to do with a variety of factors. One factor was that there were large Palestinian refugee populations that ended up in the Gulf. Another factor is that Palestinian intellectual and cultural influence in the Gulf was huge and was influential even from the [British] mandate period. To give you a simple example, in the 1930s when the education system was set up in Kuwait by Kuwaiti civil society because it was actually Kuwaiti merchants at first who set up the first elected education board there, they demanded that the first teachers be brought from Palestine. This coincided with the ’36 revolt, by the way, and they demanded that the mufti of Jerusalem select those teachers. So we had four Palestinian teachers sent to Kuwait. They educated the whole first generation of educated Kuwaitis, these are people who ended up in foreign service, these are people who ended up in ministries, these are people that ended up across the Kuwaiti social sphere. They were heavily influenced by Palestinian ideas.
A lot of people in that space joined also [political] parties that were founded by Palestinians or in which Palestinians had a big role: parties like the Movement of Arab Nationalists, parties like the Communist Party, the Baath Party or even the Muslim Brotherhood. All the political parties in this period used to be pan-Arab in nature and all of them had a disproportionate Palestinian influence. The Palestinians were very important as theoreticians in these parties, as cadres, as activists, they wanted political change and regardless of their political beliefs, they were active. This meant that they had an avenue of influence in these pan-Arab or pan-Islamic movements across the region.
So, this is a very deep connection with a place like the Gulf, and it meant that overall, the atmosphere was favorable for the Palestinian in this region and governments tended to be in favor of the Palestinian cause, however, they operated within the parameters set up by the imperial sponsors of the region, which mean that when the two-state solution was being proposed after ’67, most of these states took positions that were oriented towards that. They called it the moderate line, most of them sponsored this “line of moderation”, which is the solution to this is through negotiations and they were promising that the Americans would be honest brokers, and through their influence with the Americans they’ll be able to get somewhere. This was the role that certainly the Saudis were playing during this period.
Saudis in this period actually genuinely believed this, by the way I don’t have a reason to doubt that, again through archival research. It’s not an evil plan liquidate Palestine, but it is a reflection of their own politics, their own conservatism, their own outlook on the whole world, and their priorities around political survival. Their positionality in relation to empire, and this has to do with them being a monarchical regime again. So if you look at places like Kuwait, which had a bigger, active, popular participation in politics, for example, their politics on Palestine tended to be more radical traditionally. Even now, by the way, there’s a reason why Kuwait isn’t that welcoming of the deal of the century because they have an active parliament and there is a social movement on the ground, and on the popular level there is people mobilizing against this. If you listen to the speech of the Speaker of the Kuwaiti Parliament, it was a very strong speech in denunciation of this deal, so we can always rely on the people in this region because there is this depth of relationship, this historic context that I spoke about, there is this history of these movements that were active there.
There is this participation. The Dhufar Revolution, which I studied, in Oman was started by people who wanted to reverse the nakba. They wanted to, they basically were part of the movement of Arab nationalists, which was set up to reverse the nakba. That was their dream. They used to say, “We liberate the Gulf to liberate Palestine.” So of course they had very local demands but they were also very interested in combating colonialism across the region. They’re very interested in dismantling the entire settler colonial system. Nowadays what we see in the news are the government heads and the people that represent those in power, but of course on the popular level there is a very different reality across the region.
But like the rest of the region, there’s no avenue for participation. There’s no breathing space. There’s no scope for people to express their demands for solidarity with Palestine or anywhere else for that matter, because you get imprisoned, you get crushed if you do. So we have this problem.
Now, when it comes to the recent transformations in the official positions of Saudis and others, they’ve moved from operating from within the parameters of empire, they had an oppositional stance towards Israelis but within the parameters allowed by imperialism. Nowadays the picture has shifted in a different direction, and this is the result of the changing balance of power in the region. What we see especially after the first and second Gulf wars is a weakening of the position of the states in relation to their imperial sponsor. So if you look at the 1980s, the Americans were not the only player in the Gulf. They did not have as many bases as they do have now.
In fact, I’ll give you an example. When the Iran-Iraq war happened, the Kuwaitis demanded joint Soviet and American protection of the oil tankers. They did not just go with the American route. After the first Gulf war, and the invasion of Iraq later on, the American presence is the only presence in the region. And you only have within the Arab countries, they’re all in the American orbit. So, that creates a very different relationship between the client states and the imperial sponsor. It weakens the position of the client states much more than ever before even. What they end up doing is they compete in a race to the bottom for who can win the greatest amount of favor in relation to this empire. And here, the Israeli role becomes important.
I’ll give you an example that illustrates this and then I’ll end and we’ll do question and answer. Why did Sultan Qaboos receive Netanyahu when he received him? The answer has actually to do with the Port Duqm. It’s a big project. Oman has serious financial problems. The oil is running out. The state is practically bankrupt, certainly in the future it will be, many years they had this understanding with Saudi Arabia that it would be good for Saudi Arabia to have a pathway to the Indian Ocean, and there was a whole project to develop Duqm as the main port of the region on the Indian Ocean, and the Saudis had funded actually highways inside Oman to eventually connect to a highway in Saudi Arabia that would lead to the development of this project.
But Saudi-Omani relations went through a serious crisis after MBS came to power because he wants Oman to clash with Iran. And he wants Oman to take a particular line and relation to Qatar. And he wants basically to reposition Saudi Arabia in the region in certain ways and to reposition everybody else in certain ways. In many ways, by the way, he’s weakened Saudi supremacy in relation to its neighbors through this policy but that’s a different subject. Omanis feel the pressure and at the same time they want to make sure that they get somewhere with this project. Now, the Saudis stopped construction of the highway on their part. There is no longer linkage between, it’s not going to be linked to Saudi Arabia anytime soon. The Omanis need to find a way to get this project functioning, and they also need protection from the sort of Saudi bullying inside the Gulf that took place in relation to other small states like Qatar for example.
So what do they do? They turn to the Americans for protection but the Americans now demand a price. If you want to gain favor with the emperor, you need to have the emperor’s assistant happy. You need to make him happy. You need to make the Israelis happy. Israelis offer their services on this front, gladly, and Netanyahu is very open about this because Netanyahu’s own electoral platform inside the Israeli state is based on this idea that, “You know what, I’m the only one that can get you the Arab countries to sign a peace with Israel through my relationship with Trump,” and so on. He promotes this openly, that’s why, by the way, they exaggerate the amount of relations they have with the Gulf Arab states. Of course they do have relations, but Netanyahu exaggerates them even more because it’s an important point for him. He gains credit with it. He tells them “I don’t need to do anything with the Palestinians, in order to gain favor with these guys.”
So, Qaboos, who needs American sponsorship, American protection from the Saudis and he needs American sponsorship for the Duqm project, which of course they did because it’s not, it hasn’t been reported that widely in the news but it’s very important, by the way. Americans now have signed an agreement with Oman on Duqm, and that’s significant because next door the Chinese have Gwadar, by the way, which is only a few kilometers away, and that’s their own agreement with Pakistan. If you follow the geo-politics of this, it’s an important space for the Americans but it’s also important for the Omanis to gain that. Just before an agreement was set, in order to reach the agreement, he [Sultan Qaboos] needs to host Netanyahu. That’s the price.
And, as we’ve said before, the priority for these rulers is their own survival, it’s not the Palestinian cause, but at the same time, by the way, we shouldn’t go along with all these Israel lobbyists here that say the Palestinian cause is insignificant for them, or for the Gulf. The Palestinian cause matters for some of them who have some connection to it, and in the case of Qaboos, he doesn’t, but he needs legitimation within Oman as well, so the same cause is important for legitimation within the Gulf sphere. The argument of course, the people that Qaboos used, and their hosting of Netanyahu was to say, “Well, Mahmoud Abbas was with Netanyahu, so what’s the problem?”
So, we have a problem on the Palestinian side in dealing with this question. The Gulf is not a lost arena. We have an immense history there, and an immense amount of political credit there, an immense amount of popular support. Palestine is a consensus issue within Gulf society, regardless of what Gulf rulers do. They do have some twitterati now that are on the payroll of governments that go and say anti-Palestinian things in the social media sphere, and then of course the Israeli lobby comes and aggrandizes that and says it is evidence of now the Gulf becoming best buddies with Israel, and all that. But the fact of the matter is, anybody that knows this society well and its history well, will know that overwhelming support is with Palestine, and will always be the case. But we cannot be lazy about that. We have to be active about that, and that means that Palestinian policy has to change. Palestinian attitudes to the region have to change. At the moment Palestinian leadership has no active engagement there because it doesn’t have good policy in relation to the Palestinian cause itself.
As we heard today from first Massad and then others, if your own project is a project of collaboration and others go and collaborate, you’re in a very difficult position telling them, “don’t do it.” But the minute we change our policies, we can reactivate all the networks we’ve had there for a long time in this region. And I think the people will be with us there. Thank you very much.