Fifth Annual Conference

About the Conference

Political pundits have dubbed the 2020 elections as the most consequential in our lifetime, expecting the November 3rd presidential election to have a significant and lasting impact on US politics. Following four years of the White House’s isolationist policies and alliances with authoritarian rulers, the outcome of the 2020 presidential election is not only important domestically but also internationally, especially for US policy in the Middle East. Given the unprecedented challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), compounded by the global coronavirus pandemic and economic recession, future US policy in the region is destined to play a vital role in the post-pandemic era. As such, Arab Center Washington DC is dedicating its fifth annual conference to analysis of the November 3rd US elections, particularly the presidential component. Conference sessions and speakers will explore the likelihood of Trump’s reelection and ensuing policy decisions regarding the Middle East, potential policy reversals by a Biden administration, key issues and strategic challenges confronting US policy in the Middle East, US interests in the region, and policy recommendations for the elected president.

Day 1 – Monday, September 21, 2020
Domestic Issues, Voters, and Key Constituencies on Middle East Policy
Video | Summary

Day 2 – Monday, September 25, 2020
Strategic Challenges to US Policy in the Arab World
Video | Summary

Day 3 – Wednesday, September 30, 2020
The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Between Trump and Biden
Video | Summary


Day 1 – Monday, September 21, 2020
Domestic Issues, Voters, and Key Constituencies on Middle East Policy

Keynote Address
The 2020 US Election: The Domestic Context – Issues and Voters

Kyle Kondik
Managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Director of Communications at the University of Virginia Center for Politics

Khalil E. Jahshan – Moderator
Executive Director, Arab Center Washington DC

Voter Demographics and Political Issues in 2020 – The Middle East

Jason Husser
Associate Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies and Director of the Elon Poll, Elon University

Dalia Mogahed
Director of Research, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Debra Shushan
Director of Government Affairs, J Street

James J. Zogby
Founder and President, Arab American Institute

George R. Salem – Moderator
Member of the Board of Directors, Arab Center

Day 1 Summary

September 21st marked the first day of ACW’s annual conference. Speakers addressed the overarching themes of “Domestic Issues, Voters, and Key Constituencies on Middle East Policy.” In his opening remarks, the moderator, ACW Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan, stated that according to both the Republican and Democratic parties, the elections this year are extremely important, with 42 days remaining before the election. He said that more than 139 million Americans are projected to be voting on November 3rd. Jahshan welcomed the audience and opened the three-day conference, with additional sessions planned for September 25th and 30th. He also introduced Kyle Kondik, the keynote speaker for the first day’s morning session.

Kyle Kondik, who serves as managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball and director of communications at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, served as the keynote speaker. He agreed that voter turnout will likely be relatively high, up to 64 percent, even with the pandemic. Regarding the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he said that its effect is unclear at present but may have generated even more enthusiasm among the electorate to vote and increased partisanship and could have more ramifications down-ballot. To this point, Kondik explained that US polling averages have remained somewhat unchanged since March 1st, before the coronavirus pandemic hit and after Joe Biden cemented his role as the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Kondik stated that Biden’s leads in the polls “are not unassailable,” even as the numbers are rather stable. At the same time, he continued, one cannot assume that Donald Trump has an advantage in the electoral college. He said that the process of vote counting will be different for Democrats and Republicans in that the former tend to vote by mail whereas the latter tend to vote in person. Florida is key and will be a good indicator of who will win, according to Kondik, as the state counts votes quickly and the elections there are often close, indicative of the national outcome. Texas and Wisconsin will also be crucial states to watch. Senate races are competitive this year, he said, whereas the House of Representatives will most likely retain its Democratic majority. When asked about an “October surprise,” Kondik answered that it partially materialized with Ginsburg’s death, although other developments could play a role such as the report of the investigation into Hunter Biden’s dealings in Ukraine, new revelations from the Russian collusion issue, disruptions in other countries, or the trajectory of coronavirus—with a possible breakthrough that Trump could use to try to boost his chances.

A panel of four experts then considered key constituencies in the upcoming elections and the issues that drive their voting preferences. The moderator was George R. Salem, a member of the ACW Board of Directors and a highly regarded legal expert on labor and Middle East issues. Presenters were Debra Shushan, director of government affairs for J Street; Jason Husser, associate professor of political science and policy studies and director of the Elon Poll at Elon University; Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; and James J. Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute.

Debra Shushan started her presentation by noting that American Jews number around 7.5 million (which is about two percent of the US population). They are considered to be what she called “super voters” in that they have a very high turnout rate compared to other communities. Jewish voters constituted about four percent of all voters in the 2012 and 2016 election cycles; this is why they are usually courted by both Republicans and Democrats. But since American Jews identify, in general, as mostly liberal (51 percent) or moderate (36 percent), they constitute a reliably Democratic constituency. In the 2018 congressional elections, 71 percent of the Jewish vote went to Democratic candidates. As to the incumbent Donald Trump, Shushan said that a solid three quarters of Jews see him unfavorably while only 24 percent see him favorably. This year specifically, most American Jews are focusing on defeating the incumbent president.

Shushan stated that Jewish Americans are most worried about anti-Semitism in American society and consider President Trump to have trafficked in racist and anti-Semitic tropes. In fact, she added, they are not impressed by Trump’s Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner or other Trump Administration Jewish officials like Stephen Miller. Interestingly, Shushan emphasized, “the issue of Israel is a low priority for most Jewish Americans” and “less than 24 percent of [them] rank the US-Israeli relationship as a top priority in this election.” Only 32 percent of American Jews feel very attached to Israel. As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Shushan highlighted the fact that 78 percent of American Jews still believe in the two-state solution. A majority does not support the current Israeli government or Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran. As for the upcoming presidential vote, Shushan said that at least 67 percent of Jews plan to vote for Joe Biden. In answer to a question, she said that some rich right-wing Jewish donors do contribute heavily to Trump’s campaign, but heavier contributions come from wealthy liberal Jews to the Biden campaign.

John Husser’s presentation covered the evangelical vote in the upcoming election. He said that the issue with this group has to do with their identity as Christians. One in four Christians in the United States, he stated, belongs to one of hundreds of denominations of the evangelical persuasion, but their numbers are not really increasing by much; in fact they declined after 2014. The ones most dedicated are white Protestants who generally are members of the Republican Party. That reality set in since the 1980s when the Reverend Jerry Falwell established the Moral Majority that was committed to Ronald Reagan. Husser explained that church preachers have the most ability to push evangelicals to vote one way or the other, although the issue of their tax-exempt status may prevent them from being fully partisan sometimes. Their Republican identification has a lot to do with demographics and their geographic distribution in the country, which is mostly in the south. Another feature is that evangelicals are generally less likely to be affluent or to have a higher education.

Husser stated that in 2016, President Trump won a large majority of the evangelical vote, despite his violation of moral issues about which they care. Their priorities are very well lined up with the Republican Party, such as healthcare, abortion, immigration, the economy, and cultural issues. Husser cited a poll by Baylor University that showed that evangelicals believe the United States to be a Christian nation first and foremost. While there is not much polling on the specific issue of Israel among evangelicals, Husser stated that they are deep believers in the eventuality of Armageddon (end of the world prophecy). Eighty percent of them believe that God truly gave the Holy Land to Abraham. A majority believes “that Jews have the right to the land.” Husser finally emphasized that “there is fairly clear evidence that their religious belief is driving their politics.”

Dalia Mogahed began with some demographic information about the American Muslim community. She said that according to polling data, this group is the most ethnically and racially diverse of all faith communities, comprising Black Americans, Asians, Arabs, Latinos (who are the fastest growing segment), white Americans, and Native Americans. About half of American Muslims were born in the United States and half came from other countries, reinforcing the importance of the immigrant story within this community. About 86 percent are citizens. She noted the interesting statistic that of all the faith communities, the average age of American Muslims is about 20 years younger than the general public. In addition, 35 percent of American Muslims are living at or under the poverty line, so this group is economically diverse.

Mogahed stated that American Muslims are more likely to register as Democrats, least likely to vote Republican, and the most likely faith group to register as Independents. Data show that in 2018, 70 percent of American Muslims voted for a Democratic candidate in the midterm election. Polling results indicate that their political priorities are the economy, job creation, education, health care, civil liberties and civil rights, and fighting Islamophobia, racism, and domestic poverty. They are the faith community that is most likely to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Mogahed asked, why does American Muslim voter registration lag behind that of other communities? She cited reasons for low or lack of registration (about 15 percent are not registered and do not want to vote) as dissatisfaction with the choices or a distrust in the system and a belief that their vote will not matter—which is consistent with the feelings of other minority groups in this regard. The predictors of American Muslims’ likelihood to vote, she continued, are having contact with a local elected official in the last year, high income, being over 50 years of age, and attending religious services weekly; this last factor, Mogahed added, is not unique to Muslims and is a characteristic of other faith communities as well. She stated that Muslims tend to live in swing states and could make a difference in the election outcome. They need to build coalitions with allies who share their priorities, especially since Muslims constitute only one percent of the US population. Mogahed suggested that their focus of voting drives should be on mobilizing at mosques and working with economically disadvantaged and young Muslims who, according to polls, are a sizeable percentage of the Muslim community and are the least likely to vote.

James J. Zogby described the impending November 3rd event as the “Armageddon election” because it will be decisive in many ways. He said this characterization is borne out by the fact that 83 percent of the US electorate see this as a very important election. It is made even more powerful by Justice Ginsburg’s passing, he said. Zogby expressed concern about the potential for violence before as well as after the election and asserted that the intensity of voters’ feelings—as opposed to their enthusiasm—will make a big difference in the experience of the elections and the lead-up to them. Support for the candidates among Democrats and Republicans continues to be about even, Zogby stated, with Republicans registering intense support for Trump while Democrats exhibiting intense support for getting rid of Trump. The pandemic is playing a huge role in this process, especially since the conventions had to be held virtually and essentially “were very long infomercials.” Zogby asked why Trump’s base continues to believe that he is doing well despite the clear and obvious failures in his performance. “We have two different countries looking at each other” and seeing the world in two different ways, he explained, one of them largely white, rural, less educated, male, and evangelical versus a swath of the population that is largely younger, professional, educated, female, Black, Latinx, and Asian.

As for members of the Arab American community, which number about 3.7 million, Zogby said that many of them live largely in states that matter in the election: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. This has brought attention to the group of late. Although Arab Americans historically have been split between the two parties, like the rest of the country (though slightly leaning Democratic), starting in 2002 this switched and increased every year so that at present, two thirds of Arab Americans identify as Democrats and one third as Republicans. Further, those born in the United States, especially the second generation, tend to be Republicans and those born overseas identify more as Democrats. The issues that are important to them, Zogby said, are the economy, health care, education, the situations in Palestine and Lebanon, and human and civil rights. They want to be respected and not to experience discrimination and the racial taunting of the Trump Administration. However, he asserted that at the end of the day, this community’s members will vote on issues that affect them and their children growing up in the United States and not on US policy toward the Middle East.


Day 2 – Monday, September 25, 2020
Strategic Challenges to US Policy in the Arab World

Keynote Address
The 2020 US Elections: The Global Context – Strategic Challenges to US Policy

Tamara Cofman Wittes
Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, The Brookings Institution

Imad K. HarbModerator
Director of Research and Analysis, Arab Center Washington DC

Panel Discussion
Strategic Challenges to US Policy in the Arab World

Andrew J. Bacevich
President, The Quincy Institute

Amaney Jamal
Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics, Princeton University
Director, Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Non-resident Senior Fellow, Arab Center Washington DC
Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East, Rice University

Maha Yahya
Director, Carnegie Middle East Center

Laurie BrandModerator
Member of the Academic Advisory Board, Arab Center Washington DC
Robert Grandford Wright Professor of International Relations and Middle East Studies, University of Southern California

Day 2 Summary

The second day of ACW’s fifth annual conference was held on September 25th. Speakers explored the overarching “Strategic Challenges to US Policy in the Arab World.” ACW Director of Research and Analysis Imad K. Harb welcomed the audience and introduced Tamara Cofman Wittes, the keynote speaker for the second day’s morning session.

Keynote Address by Tamara Cofman Wittes:
“The 2020 US Elections: The Global Context – Strategic Challenges to US Policy”

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, delivered the keynote address. She said that the US role in the Middle East is at an inflection point during the presidential election as questions about American interests, military intentions, and the rhetoric regarding ending terrorism and wars are being debated. With the end of the United States’ intensive international engagement after the Cold War, Wittes examined the country’s current role around the world. Changes in the international scene and renewed geopolitical competition are now challenging the United States’ political, military, economic, and diplomatic primacy by powers such as Russia and China as well as by domestic forces. Wittes said that in addition to espousing honesty and clarity in assessing its role, it would behoove the United States to consider the rising opportunity costs of being deeply invested in one world area like the Middle East, especially in a heavily militaristic fashion. International economic interdependence, she added, has been reinforced by changes in global energy markets, especially as the supply of oil is shrinking and energy demands are shifting to non-fossil-fuel sources. Wittes explained that governments that survived the breakdown of the geopolitical order in the region, following uprisings caused by decades of slow change on many fronts, often turned to using coercive methods against their people.

The United States, which has been a dominant military force in the region, is seeing a profound shift in its role as new threats to security—such as mass migration, civil war, terrorism, insurgency, proxy conflicts, and many others—are now taking center stage. Such factors, Wittes stated, are helping to push forward the domestic debate in the United States about the country’s international role and engagement. Middle Eastern states are experiencing “push-pull dynamics,” she said, as they desire continued American engagement but worry about the United States’ abandoning its interests in the Middle East. For his part, President Donald Trump is not interested in communicating limits on the behavior of any country in the region (the only exception being when he bombed Syria after the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack on its people). Wittes said that both allies and adversaries have come to understand that Trump is capricious and changes his mind, leaving governments in the region to pursue autocratic behavior. As for Iran, she said, the Trump Administration believes that the policy of “maximum pressure means we want to push these guys to the wall so they have no choice but to concede.” The reality is that despite being subjected to heavy sanctions for years, Wittes stressed, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has demonstrated an ability to survive and continue Iran’s pernicious behavior in such places as Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf. This could also be dangerous, she continued, in that it could lead to unwanted confrontation. Regarding Saudi Arabia, Wittes stated it is important to recognize that the Saudis’ challenges are not restricted to one political party, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is viewed with great suspicion by many senior officials in Washington.

Wittes characterized the United States’ current stance toward the Middle East as one of being “in a kind of purgatory”; it would take a lot for Washington to impose some kind of order on the region, even if it could, she said. The coronavirus crisis has had a profound impact on stability and security in the area. Wittes asserted that the United States still has interests in the Middle East and could work with the people there in their “bravely persistent demands” for rights. She said that Washington could work to constrain geopolitical competition in the region, especially regarding Iran, using sanctions, intelligence, multilateral pressure, and, when necessary, some force; she advised a clearer path in this regard, one based on diplomacy and close collaboration with allies. The United States could further its interests in the region, she said, by finding opportunities to tamp down conflicts that have given Russia and Iran opportunities for influence; to actively pursue conflict resolution through diplomatic means; to reassess its partnerships in the region and ensure that its weapons sales do not facilitate aggression and regional adventurism; and to diminish US military engagement.

Panel Discussion:
“Strategic Challenges to US Policy in the Arab World”

A panel of four experts then explored the principal issues that the White House will confront in 2021. Serving as moderator was Laurie Brand, a professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the University of Southern California and a member of the ACW Academic Advisory Board. Presenters were Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute; Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center; Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University and a non-resident senior fellow at ACW; and Amaney Jamal, Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics at Princeton University, and director of the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice.

Andrew Bacevich began his presentation by stating that the United States tends to view the Middle East from the lens of the start of the Carter Doctrine in 1980. “Since that time,” he said, “US policy has been based on the assumption that American military power, whether positioned or employed, whether the employment is direct or through proxy, but nonetheless, that American military power is the key to advancing US strategic objectives.” The idea has always been to protect American interests. The problem, he said, is that the result has been the inverse. Different objectives such as defeating terrorism, promoting democracy and human rights, and helping the rule of law were not served. Promoting stability in the region as a practical matter was also pursued. None of these objectives, however, trumped the importance of protecting the US homeland. Bacevich added that American policy since the Carter Doctrine has failed, over the span of many administrations. The Trump Administration’s failure today is only a part of the overall lack of success.

Addressing the question of what to do, Bacevich said that US policy in the Middle East should be based on at least four principles. First, the US foreign policy establishment has to acknowledge this failure. He stated, “it would be appropriate to abrogate the Carter Doctrine and to end the US military presence in the Middle East.” Second, the United States should halt arms exports to the region and “should reassess the so-called special relationship with Saudi Arabia.” He admitted that this will be a long and complicated process, but that it has to be started. Third, the US should help the creation of a regional security architecture that resembles the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Fourth, Bacevich stated that regarding human rights, the United States should lead by example, and that means that it should begin by implementing human rights principles at home.

Maha Yahya highlighted the fact that the Middle East region has radically changed over the last few years. Many issues are becoming more complicated and still need resolution, such as the Palestine question, political and economic problems and failures, declining oil prices, and the coronavirus. She said that there is serious fragmentation in the region as the state system suffers from weaknesses and challenges. For its part, Syria is experiencing territorial fragmentation. As for countries that are on the verge of becoming failed states, she added, “Lebanon is a poster child of both internal mishap and external intervention.” She stressed that there has been what she called the “Qatarization of foreign policy” in the post-pax Americana period, where each country sees itself as an island unto itself. “This is more visible in Syria and Lebanon where pragmatism rules supreme, where Turkey is expanding its role in Syria, in Lebanon, and in Libya … versus the UAE and France and others.” Yahya stated that government mismanagement has been the norm in many countries, as have acute regional competition and rivalry.

Looking at US policy in Lebanon, Yahya said that increased pressure on Iran and Hezbollah contradicts the French initiative and threatens increased chaos in the country. She said that the policy of maximum pressure is “completely erroneous” because it impacts how Lebanon can rebuild and address its problems. She stressed that in the absence of multilateralism, “militias underground … will be able to move in and control territory” making controlling chaos much more difficult. Yahya referenced the US presidential election in November as an event that many in the Middle East are anticipating; but she said that whatever the outcome, Lebanon is not likely to be a quick priority for the winner. Moreover, she stressed that any new administration that comes in and wants to pursue regional stability in the Middle East should have a good political settlement for the Syrian conflict, one that should be based neither on the principle of “let’s forgive and forget” nor on leaving Bashar al-Assad in power.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen assessed how the upcoming election may affect US policy and involvement in the Gulf. The candidate who wins the presidency, he said, would have to focus on certain key issues. The first is the rift in the GCC and the blockade of Qatar, which is being addressed at present by the Trump Administration in hopes of being able to tout a resolution as one of Trump’s successes. (Ulrichsen noted that in the past, the United Arab Emirates has vetoed such efforts.) The second priority issue is the normalization agreements with Israel, which have so far focused on Gulf countries; indeed, Trump wants more countries to join to showcase his deal-making abilities. Ulrichsen said that a Biden administration would probably not roll back any of these agreements. A strategic UAE move now, he continued, would be to differentiate itself from Saudi Arabia, which faces bipartisan congressional pressure because of its missteps in Yemen. For their part, he said, the Saudis should make a bold statement about their positive intentions regionally, such as ending the blockade of Qatar and their military involvement in Yemen, thus preemptively obviating potential criticism during the next administration.

If Trump gains a second term, Ulrichsen said, it “will be a continuation of politics of transactional diplomacy.” If Biden wins, he would usher in a more traditional presidency, bringing some relief for Saudis and Emiratis because his administration would not be as disruptive to the US-Gulf relationship. Biden would continue arms sales to the region but would add more conditions and safeguards. He would not necessarily pursue policy reversals, but Biden’s administration would have to address unresolved issues like renegotiating the Iran deal, mitigating the GCC rift, and rebuilding confidence in the United States. Biden’s approach, Ulrichsen added, may well have elements of the foreign policy team from the Obama Administration. To be sure, the situation in the Gulf now is not what it was in 2015; limitations of power are more obvious, calling for a need for negotiations for more balance in the regional security architecture. No matter who the winner will be, the US election will be contested for a while, Ulrichsen asserted. Countries around the world will have to depend on themselves as the United States is mired in domestic issues and a vacuum of leadership. Going forward, he said that the United States would be advised to conduct relations on an institutional rather than a personal level, with re-involvement of seasoned experts from the State Department.

Amaney Jamal presented findings from the Arab Barometer Project, which has surveyed, from 2006 to 2019, over 70,000 people in the Middle East region about their perceptions of democracy and democratization and US policy as it affects them. She said that, in general, the data show that society’s views of basic freedoms as being guaranteed declined since 2016. When asked about political freedoms, respondents said they did not perceive them as guaranteed in the future; indeed, in only three countries in 2018 (Tunisia, Kuwait, and Jordan) is freedom of speech guaranteed. In addition, Jamal said that no majority in any Arab country feels that freedom of assembly is guaranteed, and the confidence in this has also declined. Concomitantly, there has been a massive decline in sensing a guarantee of freedom of association. Jamal said the data revealed that about one third of respondents said that democracy leads to instability; even the belief in the opinion that democracy is the best system of governance declined since 2016. For many people in the region, Jamal explained, the primary definition of democracy relates to a government’s ability to provide jobs and security; this is more important to respondents than freedom of the press and multiparty elections.

Nevertheless, she said, support for democracy remains high, as most Arabs link democracy to economic justice; however, Arab citizens who support Trump are often more suspicious of democracy and less concerned about violations of their civil rights. She said that there is a direct link between Trump’s effect on the decline of freedoms in that his administration has had no objections regarding human rights violations; further, Trump has emboldened authoritarian leaders in the region. She said that there is also an indirect link because over the last 50 years, the United States has touted democracy promotion; under the Trump Administration, however, people in the region do not sense a guarantee and support of such rights. Indeed, the data show that President Trump is deeply unpopular across the region, Jamal continued, with Putin more popular and Erdoğan favored more than both leaders combined. Jamal noted that the current data show there is the beginning of a decline of interest in having an economic relationship with the United States. Even with a possible new administration, she continued, Biden will be so bogged down in the pandemic and the economic crisis; all these international issues will probably be put on hold. The Trump effect in the region, she opined, would not be quickly reversed. She agreed with the importance of ending the Trump Administration’s conduct of self-interested diplomacy “behind closed doors,” characterizing it as a “disturbing cycle of personalism, economic contracts at the expense of sound political processes.”


Day 3 – Wednesday, September 30, 2020
The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Between Trump and Biden

Keynote Address
The Arab-Israeli Conflict in US Foreign Policy

Shibley Telhami
Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland, College Park

Tamara Kharroub – Moderator
Assistant Executive Director and Senior Fellow, Arab Center Washington DC

The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Between Trump and Biden

Peter Beinart
American columnist, journalist, and political commentator
Professor of Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and Professor of Political Science, The City University of New York

Lara Friedman
President, Foundation for Middle East Peace

Zaha Hassan
Human rights lawyer and Visiting Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Rashid Khalidi
Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, Columbia University;
Co-Editor, Journal of Palestine Studies; President of the Institute for Palestine Studies-USA

Yousef Munayyer – Moderator
Non-resident Senior Fellow, Arab Center Washington DC

Day 3 Summary

On the third day of ACW’s annual conference, September 30th, speakers discussed US policy toward Israel and Palestine within the context of American public opinion, the history of US engagement in the region, the upcoming elections, legislative priorities and policies in the US Congress, options for the Palestinian leadership, and the views and influence of the American Jewish community. Executive Director and Senior Fellow Tamara Kharroub introduced the keynote speaker, Shibley Telhami, who is Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a member of ACW’s Academic Advisory Board.

Keynote Address by Shibley Telhami:
“US Public Opinion on Israel and Palestine”

Shibley Telhami prefaced his presentation on American public opinion by relating his current perspective on US policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian question and highlighted two important points. The first is that historical experience has shown that the Arab-Israeli conflict has never represented a strategic priority for the United States. The second is that the current Trump Administration is an aberration, not because of an inherent knowledge of and interest in the issue but because it serves President Donald Trump politically. Telhami said that the president does not know much about foreign policy or about the Middle East, but he has a group of advisors––primarily his son-in-law Jared Kushner and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman––who are intimately invested in the issue of Israel and want to implement a specific agenda that is supported by evangelical Christians in the United States. He said that “[evangelicals] are not driving Israel-Palestine policy; they are applauding it. They don’t know what they want the policy to be … It is the team that is driving the policy and they are mobilizing the base.”

As to where American public opinion stands on issues relating to Israel-Palestine, Telhami stated that a poll his organization conducted in August showed that the American public does not look at the Arab-Israel conflict as a priority either. Rather, Americans are primarily interested in domestic issues, and the ongoing presidential campaign makes that clear. In fact, he said, “not only is the Arab-Israel issue not a priority … really no issue is. It is all about Trump.” Telhami also stated that there is a perceptible change in public opinion about Israel-Palestine: about two thirds of Americans do not want the United States to lean in favor of the Israelis or the Palestinians. Slightly over half of Republicans want the United States to lean in favor of Israel, and that is because of the effect of the evangelicals, he explained. This is not because the Democrats are anti-Israel, but they want the United States to be more fair on this issue; moreover, rank-and-file Democrats are better than their elected officials on this because of many factors such as diversity, ethnicity, youth influence, and education. What is also interesting, Telhami added, is that “even Republicans [65 percent] perceive Trump to be leaning more toward Israel than they are.”

Telhami highlighted that there is a values-based understanding of the potential solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He said that polling shows that only 23 percent of Americans (37 percent of Republicans, 12 percent of Democrats, and 16 percent of Independents) favor the Jewishness of Israel over its democratic character. In contrast, a solid 65 percent of them (51 percent of Republicans, 78 percent of Democrats, 62 percent of Independents) favor Israel’s democracy over its Jewish character. This reflects Americans’ position regarding a two-state or a one-state solution, particularly within the Democratic constituency. Telhami stated that “this is a values issue that goes way beyond BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] or sanctions or criticism of Israel.” He said that the issue is not whether people like or dislike Israel or Palestine, “it is about a worldview of human rights, democracy, international law, equity, civil rights at home. Those are the issues and Israel-Palestine has become a prototype for a large number of Americans, especially Democrats.” Referring to the 2018 midterm elections, he said that several members of the House were elected who were critical of Israel. In the last primary season, Telhami continued, there were many progressive challengers who beat incumbent Democrats despite their vocal advocacy of Palestinian rights.

Panel Discussion:
“The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Between Trump and Biden”

A panel of four expert analysts paid special attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict and Palestinian politics, particularly assessing US policy toward Palestine-Israel and the impact of the 2020 election on future policy decisions. Yousef Munayyer, ACW non-resident senior fellow, served as moderator. The presenters were Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, co-editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies, and president of the Institute for Palestine Studies-USA; Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace; Zaha Hassan, human rights lawyer and visiting fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Peter Beinart, professor of journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and of political science at The City University of New York.

Rashid Khalidi provided a historical perspective of how the United States has dealt with Israel and Palestine. He highlighted the fact that the current moment is climactic in that the Trump Administration has taken the United States in a specific direction as American society is beginning to exhibit a serious shift in perceptions. Looking at the recent normalization between the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and Israel, Khalidi said it is no more than a normalization between autocratic regimes that do not listen to their people and a state that denies Palestinian rights. He said that Palestinians are the biggest losers in this normalization. Referring to Telhami’s polling data, Khalidi stressed that “American politics will begin to change … One important reason is the right-wing Israeli government.” He stated that because of this, Israel is losing supporters and there are many young progressives entering Congress who are not afraid of criticizing Israel. This, he said, has never happened in American politics. There now is an “idea of conditionality” on aid to Israel instead of “how much more, how much higher I should jump.” Of course, he added, this is not going to change American policy quickly, but it is nonetheless a noteworthy phenomenon.

Khalidi spoke of a developing “sea change” and cited the example of a referendum that very recently took place on the campus of Columbia University in which 61 percent of students supported the idea of divesting from companies that support the Israeli occupation. He highlighted the significance of this occurring in New York City, which has the largest concentration of Jews “on the planet.” He said that “we are seeing something really quite remarkable … among people in the Jewish community, among young people from other communities.” Such change, Khalidi said, will obviously bring other changes. He was critical of traditional media coverage of the Israel-Palestine issue that repeated old and false claims. He also referred to the power of the pro-Israel lobby in American politics as being not as successful as it used to be. Khalidi said that the American broker of peace in the Middle East has finally been exposed as dishonest, noting that the “United States has basically ruled itself out as a constructive asset.” Commenting on the issue of normalization, he said that the UAE and Bahrain agreed to it because they are afraid of their people and want the United States and Israel to assist them to stay in power.

Lara Friedman examined the policies of the Trump Administration and the legislative issues in the US Congress regarding Palestine and Israel. She agreed with Telhami’s data analysis that Congress is out of step with the actual opinions and beliefs of American voters on these issues. Traditionally, she said, before the Trump era, Congress had pushed the White House to be more pro-Israel—and on a bipartisan basis—on such issues as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, punishing the Palestinians as they try to claim their rights, and clamping down on UNRWA funding. With Trump, Friedman continued, “the script was flipped from the get-go”: Trump came in with an anti-Palestinian agenda and completed many of these policy goals on his own.

An “aid bonanza” over the last four years is how Friedman characterized the Trump Administration’s support to Israel. She said that the National Defense Authorization Act, which may or may not be passed before the November election, is a huge bill that codifies the prohibition on placing any conditions on aid on Israel, with bipartisan support. She said that the “breadth of what is given to Israel in this bill is breathtaking,” despite the fact that Israel’s hard-line government is moving ahead with formal annexation. She noted that three major pieces of legislation that were not concluded in this Congress are the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, and the Combating BDS Act, which are “brazenly supporting policies that are unconstitutional” and quash free speech in the name of fighting anti-Semitism and protecting Israel from criticism. Friedman said that there is now some weak or limited support for conditioning aid to Israel, or at least having a conversation about it, which was impossible in the past. She explained that with the “old guard” (notably Reps. Eliot Engel [D-New York] and Nita Lowey [D-New York]) departing, significant changes are afoot, especially with victories at the grassroots level by challengers who won against those with hard-line positions on Israel. Even though these primaries were not about Israel, the progressives who are winning are more open to viewing Palestinian rights favorably. However, Friedman said that a Biden victory will not change Israel policy significantly and may roll back Obama Administration policies. Biden’s abilities will be limited by laws in place such as ATCA (the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act) and the Taylor Force Act. Friedman ended her presentation in pointing to a small hope in the Biden campaign platform, which gave a nod to upholding free speech critical of Israel— something she said has not been seen before.

Looking at Palestinian options for the future, Zaha Hassan said that it depends on whether Trump or Biden wins the presidency. There is a sense that there is no difference between the two regarding policy toward Palestine; but this is not true, she noted, because there are differences in principle. She stated that in the last three years, Palestine has been battling against an extremist fighter in the Trump Administration, one that has used all the tools it possesses. Trump believes in the principle of might makes right and Palestinians have been the “red meat” in the fight. Hassan predicted that if Trump wins, he will continue to squeeze the Palestinians financially and perhaps telegraph to Saudi Arabia not to fund them. He will continue to deprive UNRWA of its needed funding and block appropriations to Palestinian organizations. Further, the Trump Administration will be looking for a new Palestinian leadership it likes and will delegitimize individuals within the Palestinian Authority—although it will not want it to collapse. Hassan stated that Trump will push to “normalize settlements and to integrate settlements into the region through economic projects.”

With Biden, Hassan continued, this is not likely to happen, although the Palestine issue will not be resolved. “The Biden team has made clear that US foreign policy will have a sense of values, respect international legitimacy, and uphold the rules-based order.” But a Biden administration is unlikely to have “grand gestures on issues appear. You will continue to hear support and commitment to the two-state solution. But I will point out that the references to a viable state of Palestine … there will be no reference to sovereignty or some contiguity.” There will not likely be any talk of conditionality on aid, just urgings against annexation. Biden will resume economic aid to the Palestinians, but Gaza will remain under siege. In essence, Hassan concluded, there will be no rush to expend political capital here. Normalization will still be encouraged, although Israel will always be assured of its qualitative military edge. Hassan opined that the Palestinian response should be to renew and reorganize Palestinian institutions and civil society, noting that “Israel does not want to see unity between Fatah and Hamas because that would impede its separation policy with respect to Gaza.”

Peter Beinart focused on the views and engagement of the American Jewish community. He said it is experiencing intense polarization and a “collapse of center,” which historically has been fairly secular. Beinart explained that members of organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are part of this center; they have substituted a form of Jewish nationalism for traditional religious observance and are generally moderate-to-progressive Democrats who “code switch” on issues dealing with Israel and Palestine. This center, he added, is in decline, with more growth both on the left and the right, away from the middle.

Why has this center collapsed? Beinart offered two reasons, with the first being religious change. While the Jewish center has been affiliated with conservative and reform synagogues, he said, this religious and cultural center of American Jewish life is declining, with the numbers affiliated with it in free fall. Therefore, the number of moderate Democrats who support groups like AIPAC and the two-state solution are decreasing, too. At the same time, there is a dramatic growth in the Orthodox Jewish community, thus spawning a contest between a highly universalistic and a highly tribal group. The second reason for the collapse of the center is generational change: younger American Jews are more progressive on Israel (and on many other issues) than their parents and grandparents. But it is important to note, he said, that Orthodox Jews comprise a significantly higher percentage of millennials and Gen Z Jews; they marry earlier and have more children, they affiliate as Jews in a highly Zionist environment, and their intermarriage rates are low. They are a minority that punches way above their weight, Beinart explained, saying “this is the future” that is farther right of AIPAC. Moreover, this group is ensconced in the Republican Party with “many more Jared Kushners” growing up now. Beinart added that for many young American Jews, being progressive means that they care about a host of other concerns besides Israel, which has become an abstract issue for many of them. This universalism is refreshing, he said, yet ironically it may pull them away from being active for Palestinian rights.