Posted by Edy Semaan on November 05, 2019 in Blog

In a stark shift in priorities in the Arab World, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer a top-priority issue across the region, according to yet-to-be-released polls previewed by Dr. James Zogby. Speaking at a Hill forum held by the Middle East Policy Council on Oct. 25,  Jim underlined the need to refocus the Israel-Palestine conversation on addressing urgent needs, like the humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in light of changing regional priorities and a decades-long deadlock.

“With Lebanon and Iraq being broiled by protests, and with Syria and Yemen entering yet a new phase in their internal conflict supported by external players, there is no doubt that the Israel-Palestine issue is no longer a headline story in the Middle East,” Jim said. 

Although other developments have recently overshadowed the long-standing conflict, it’s no less critical today, considering the intermittent violence that is still causing the Palestinian death toll to rise. “Seventy-three were shot last week,” Jim said. “Nary a mention here, but certainly in the Arab world as well.”

As co-founder and president of the Arab American Institute, Jim has led Arab-American empowerment efforts in the U.S. and helped bring the community’s issues into the political mainstream. He has provided testimony and expertise to Congress and the executive branch, especially on the plight of Palestinians. 

Today, he acknowledges U.S. government shortcomings in addressing the conflict. “Legislation coming from this and previous congresses certainly have not made the situation any easier for — not only for Palestinians, but for the search for peace,” he said.

Jim has been an early proponent of the two-state solution in the past, but he recognizes that the extent of Israeli expansionism in the Palestinian territories has imposed a new reality. “The reality is that there is no two-state solution anymore,” he said. “And it pains me to say it, because I supported it back in the 70s when Palestinians didn’t support it.”

In 1978, Jim moved to D.C. to run the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. The goal, even then, was to call attention to violence and injustice. “While the debate is taking place over what happens, on a daily basis people are being brutalized,” he said about Palestinians. “If you look at it, there are these little Palestinian villages, and huge settlements surrounding them, strangling them, having taken their land and their livelihood and made them a captive people.”

With the continued lack of political will and interest in both Israel and the U.S. to address these human rights abuses, Jim considered it difficult, if not impossible, in such circumstances to envision a viable Palestinian state. “Except for a few presidential candidates who are willing to say that they would take action, one would wonder how you create a Palestinian state in that environment.”

Even setting Gaza’s isolation aside, expanding settlements have divided up the West Bank, making it more challenging to even have a contiguous Palestinian state there. “If you’re not going to move settlers out then what you’re left with are these little tiny circles of captive Palestinians with a network of roads and settlements and outposts that have taken their land and denied them freedom of movement,” Jim said.

He added that, at this point, it was “almost abusive” to exhaust energy talking about a solution with no prospect. “Something must be done about the daily situation in the territories. Someone has to assume responsibility.”

Despite common frustration with the current Palestinian government, Jim urged to prioritize the current humanitarian crisis as the most pressing of problems. 

“There are real people who are suffering real pain. And they’re suffering that pain at the hand of the Israeli, but also at the hands of the United States,” he said. “Attention must be paid to these people, to the daily needs that they have. And no one is paying attention.”

Due to the Trump administration’s halt of U.S. funding. the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has been forced in recent years to make severe cuts to food, education, and health programs established not only in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, but also in the West Bank and Gaza. Even U.S. NGOs have suffered the same fate. Accordingly, continuing to ponder over a one- or two-state solution is equivalent to running away from responsibility, according to Jim.

“What are we going to do about real people who are dying every single day and suffering a fate of an occupation that has now felt it has total impunity? It can operate with impunity to do what it wants, and no one’s going to raise a peep,” he said. “That, I think, is the challenge we face.”

The president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Lara Friedman, also spoke at the conference titled “The United States, Israel & Palestine: An Assessment,” as part of a panel that also included University of Maryland Professor Shibley Telhami and former U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem Jake Walles.

Friedman stressed the importance of running a reality check by looking at the facts and being realistically strategic. The first certainty is that the Trump team’s promises, stances, and actions on the Israel-Palestine conflict have been almost perfectly aligned, unlike on other issues. “This administration is chaotic and reckless and constantly doing random things on the Middle East, but on Israel-Palestine, they have been coherent, and cogent, and consistent,” she said.

But being coherent and producing sound policy are two different things. The Trump administration has sought to dismantle the peace process and succeeded in doing so by systematically undermining every sensible policy that restrained a bad situation from getting worse. In a main, controversial move that upended decades of U.S. policy, President Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017, moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv as Israeli soldiers killed dozens of protesting Palestinians. “Everyone knows the president took Jerusalem off the table. There is no peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians without Jerusalem,” she said. 

On top of that, settlements and land were also taken off the table. “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,” Friedman said. “And we will call it defending Israel against anti-Semitism.”

Beyond Jerusalem and settlements, the Trump administration has also gone after Palestinian refugees. The president abruptly eliminated all U.S. funding for the international refugee agency in September 2018. “The purpose of going after UNRWA is not about financial responsibility,” Friedman said, but “to say if we dismantle the organization that stands for the rights of Palestinian refugees, we erase the refugee issue.”

At the time of the announcement, the agency supported more than five million Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon through health care, education, and social programs.

On the best way moving forward, Friedman agreed with Jim on setting aside ideology. “If you want to be practical about what’s happening, all you can focus on is the immediate and the rights issue, because the two-state solution has been taken off the table in a very conscious and deliberate way,” she said.

Acknowledging that undoing the damage is not easy, Friedman laid out two possibilities depending on the result of the 2020 presidential elections: either five more years of the deliberately nullifying Trump policies or a return to status quo ante, based on the vision of current Democratic frontrunners.

Either way, “we have to base our analysis not on what we wish things were or how we hope they could be turned back, but in where they are and where we are can take them from there,” Friedman concluded.

According to Ambassador Walles, any new administration should look to restore the possibility of a two-state solution and restore bilateral relations with the Palestinians. “This would include reestablishing an independent diplomatic mission responsible for our bilateral relationship with the Palestinians, restoring our assistance programs, which will require some changes in existing legislation, and allowing the Palestinians to once again have a representative office in Washington,” he said, admitting that these steps will be complicated and politically dangerous but also necessary to conflict resolution.

At a time when advocacy for Palestinian human rights and criticism of Israeli aggressions are being smeared with false charges of anti-Semitism, Jim sees a solution of two parts: Support candidates who are willing to question U.S. support for Israel’s occupation, and “support Betty McCollum’s bill” seeking to protect Palestinian children from abuse in Israeli military detention.

Jim also warned against the weaponization of anti-Semitism, emphasizing that anti-Semitism was a real and rising threat, and that politicizing this charge was harmful to everyone. “Don’t let anti-Semitism become a weapon that it – number one, it’s damaging to those who get called it. It also ultimately ruins the effort we all must make to combat anti-Semitism,” he concluded.