Yesterday the New America Foundation (NAF), a center-left think tank located one block north of big, bad K Street, hosted a discussion about the 1948 war, the expulsion of Palestinians from what would become Israel, the new state’s imposition of a draconian military regime upon the Palestinians who managed to stay inside the armistice lines, and all that this painful history implies for the present and the future.
The event, moderated by Lisa Goldman, director of NAF’s Israel-Palestine Initiative and a contributing editor of +972, featured MERIP editor Shira Robinson and Palestine Center executive director Yousef Munayyer. The trio focused heavily on Robinson’s new book, Citizen Strangers, a social history of ‘48 Palestinians under Israeli military rule. A big takeaway of Robinson’s book is that the tools and tactics of the post-1967 occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip were developed inside Israel’s de facto borders during the new state’s first two decades of sovereignty. Among her broader arguments are the twin propositions that Israel is now and always has been built on a foundation of Jewish racial privilege and that Israeli state policy is consciously aimed at perpetuating that state of affairs.
Such ideas are neither new nor especially radical (outside the United States), though Robinson articulates them with exceptional clarity and thorough archival documentation. No doubt the likes of yesterday’s discussion occur all the time in Haifa, Jerusalem and Ramallah, in the Arab world, in Europe and in the classrooms of non-Zionist Israeli Jewish professors. And the Palestine Center, the Institute for Palestine Studies and other Middle East-focused organizations in Washington have been hosting similar events for decades, as have the Institute for Policy Studies and the handful of genuinely left-leaning multi-issue think tanks in the US.
But for the discussion to take place at a multi-issue think tank like NAF is remarkable.
The president of NAF is Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former Princeton professor and State Department Policy Planning head who is probably the doyenne of liberal internationalism in the United States. Slaughter is well known now for advocating armed intervention in Syria; in the 2000s, along with John Ikenberry, she headed a series of workshops directed at generating a US grand strategy that would be less belligerent than the Bush administration’s blood-and-soil nationalism but still marketable in the heartland. Among the ideas this task force adopted was a “concert of democracies,” a term coined by Clintonite policy intellectuals to refer to a new global institution that could, when necessary, circumvent the UN and act in its stead. NAF board members include James Fallows, Francis Fukuyama, Walter Russell Mead, Daniel Yergin and Fareed Zakaria. NAF-sponsored wisdom, in other words, is about as conventional as Washington wisdom gets. The foundation’s blog is literally named In the Tank. (NAF does have a Middle East Task Force that is on the liberal side of the spectrum and has done some worthy and interesting work. The initiative run by Goldman is based in the foundation’s New York office.)
Despite this overall positioning, Goldman facilitated a frank and forthright conversation devoid of the throat clearing and flushed faces that often afflict public airings of Israel’s dirty laundry in the US. All three participants simply told it like it is. There was no nod to “balance.” There was no ritual obeisance to the need for US leadership in Middle East diplomacy and no obligatory reference to the two-state solution as “the only game in town.” In fact, the two-state solution was spoken of as a sort of artifact, one of some historical interest but no relevance to the real questions of Palestine. As Munayyer put it, “Solution to what? What is the problem?… The two-state solution is a solution to a problem that Israel has, primarily.” Instead, the discussants clearly, patiently and persistently pointed out that the central problems are the settler-colonial origins of Israel, the lack of equal citizenship and equal rights under the law between the river and the sea, and the fact that 67 percent of Palestinians are refugees, many of them stateless.
So what is to be done? Well, as Robinson said, “I wouldn’t want to be considered a problem, so I wouldn’t treat someone else as a problem.” (Here she may have been channeling former MERIP editor Moustafa Bayoumi, who titled his terrific book on Arab Americans, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?) A genuine solution has to start with a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between the Israeli state and the peoples under its control.
It is certainly noteworthy that such honesty is trickling into the Washington mainstream. This development is an indicator of how quickly and completely the arbiters of permissible debate realized the bankruptcy of Secretary of State John Kerry’s half-hearted attempt to revive the Oslo process. Kerry’s own blunt diagnosis of why his attempt failed played a major role. In all likelihood, yesterday’s event would not (or could not) have taken place at an “idea incubator” like NAF five years ago.
Meanwhile, outside official Washington, the BDS movement is attracting more and more attention. There is an ambient sense that younger generations, Jews and non-Jews, will not be able to tolerate the contradictions inherent in “the only democracy in the Middle East” insisting on being a “Jewish state.” The needle of the sayable-inside-the-Beltway is twitching in response.
Is it progress? Here one is reminded of Chris Rock’s cutting riff on the notion of “progress” in US race relations. What has happened, he says, is simply that “white people have gotten less crazy.” To call the integration of lunch counters “progress” is to imply that segregation was just a lower level of social achievement rather than an unfathomably cruel and stupid injustice.
“Progress” in acceptable-in-Washington discourse about Palestine invites the same sort of circumspection. It is not just that this discourse lags 20-25 years behind the facts on the ground. It is not just that the gap between what can be said in Washington and what the White House will do can be yawning. It is that the human cost of this “progress” is so very high and will almost certainly continue to mount.