THE ISRAEL LOBBY AND AMERICAN POLICY
Janet McMahon: When I first interviewed our next speaker in 1991, Khalil Jahshan was the executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans, or NAAA, which lobbied Congress and the executive branch on behalf of immigrants and their descendants from 21 highly diverse Arab states. A lobby, he explained, must keep track of every decision, every piece of legislation and be plugged into the process on day one. NAAA’s research arm monitored everything in Washington, Khalil said-hearings, votes, speeches, think tank activities, etc. That’s quite an undertaking.
I didn’t ask at the time, but I suspect that his organization operated on something less than AIPAC’s staff of 451, and annual budget of $89 million. Is that a fair assumption?
Khalil Jahshan: Very fair.
Janet McMahon: Okay. Today Khalil, who was born in Nazareth, Palestine, is executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC, a position he has held since its founding in 2014. He previously was a lecturer in international studies and languages at Pepperdine University, and executive director of its Seaver College Washington, DC internship program. He also has served as executive vice president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, or ADC; vice president of the American Committee on Jerusalem; and national director of the Association of Arab American University Graduates.
Khalil has brought his wealth of experience and expertise to the Arab Center-a nonprofit independent and nonpartisan research center focusing on the Arab world. Those of us who live in the DC area have also benefited from the center’s many excellent and thought-provoking programs on timely and important issues.
One of the issues we seem to hear about incessantly these days is fake news. At this gathering, Khalil will discuss the Israel lobby and fake peace processing. Please join me in welcoming Khalil Jahshan.
Khalil Jahshan: Thank you, Janet. I’d like to begin by thanking IRmep and the American Educational Trust and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs for organizing this great event for the fourth year, and for inviting me this time to participate in this very specific panel, an important panel, dealing with peacemaking in the Middle East. I have great personal respect for this organization, its founders and current leaders, for their principled positions and unwavering commitment over the years to real, just, and lasting peace in the region. Actually for more than 37 years, since I first came to town and met Dick Curtiss and Andy Killgore. We worked together from the very beginning. So I am indeed personally very honored to be with you today.
On June 5, 2017, in 72 days precisely, the world marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 occupation by Israel of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, including Jerusalem. The occupation, initially portrayed by Israeli leaders at the time as a temporary measure, has become clearly, particularly for all those who visit the area—for all practical purposes, it has become permanent.
Of course, notwithstanding the arrogant statement at the time of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in an interview in 1967, on the last day of the war, on the BBC that became infamous as he displayed his intoxication with his own Pyrrhic victory at the time. He was saying, and I’m quoting him, “We are waiting for a phone call from the Arabs” looking for a peace deal.
Needless to say, the phone never rang, for good reasons and clear reasons. Dayan is no longer with us, but Israel’s military occupation remains as pervasive and as deeply entrenched as ever, to the detriment of Arab, Israeli and American interests alike. Realistic expectation of just peacemaking today has become an expression of utter naiveté and a total disregard of facts on the ground. The situation in Palestine as we speak today is quite dismal. Most experts agree that the economic-and I’m sure you’ve heard today from different people on the subject—most experts agree that the economic, humanitarian, political and security situation in occupied Palestine is quite untenable.
The protracted dehumanization, internal colonization and dispossession of the Palestinian people cannot be sustained indefinitely. This is not stemming purely in a selfish way from Palestinian analysis or interest, but even some Israeli scholars and officials have come to the same conclusion. As a matter of fact, I was surprised to read an article on Tuesday this week by former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, no peacenik by any stretch of the imagination, declaring on the 21st of March that, and I’m quoting him, “Israel has chosen not to choose, hoping the conflict will resolve itself. Perhaps the Arabs will disappear. Maybe some cosmic miracle will happen. One day we will become a binational state because it will be impossible to untie the Gordian knot between the two peoples. This is not the way to decide.”
Pardo stated in Haaretz, “Israel has one existential threat, it is a ticking bomb. We have chosen to stick our head in the sand, creating a variety of external threats.” Israel, he concluded, “must deal with the demographic reality and decide which state we want to be. Life”-and I hate that he borrowed from Trump–but “life with alternative facts harbors a disaster for the Zionist vision.” I’m glad he did, actually, because it kind of puts it in terms we’re familiar with in this town. A serious predicament indeed—but who’s responsible for this predicament?
In order to be fair, objectively speaking that is, there is an abundant amount of blame to assign to all the parties to the conflict. One, Israel: Israeli intransigence and insatiable appetite for land, particularly other people’s land-land that does not belong to Israelis-I think has been one of the main reasons for the impediment that we are facing today.
Two, on the Palestinian side, I believe that weak leadership and lack of vision and political will to end Israeli occupation, instead of contributing to it in many different ways, has also contributed to the protracted nature of this predicament.
Three, the Arab world: the Arab world cannot escape some responsibility for what’s happening today, particularly with its current preoccupation with internal narrow interests and collective resignation from the historic Arab commitment to the Palestine cause.
Four, the world community itself, including the United Nations: it has given us more evidence in the past few days, in terms of even refusing to support an internal report by a U.N. agency with regards to discrimination and apartheid in Israel. Neglecting its responsibilities under international law by the United Nations and its agencies, I think, has also contributed to this predicament.
Last but not least, which is the subject of our discussion today, is the U.S. and U.S. policy. The United States, by losing track of its own national interest, despite the warning that our first president warned us of—not to fall in love or to hate any other nation where you can become a slave to that love or hate relationship and you lose track of your interest—we have done exactly so in that bilateral relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv. By losing track of its own national interest, by reducing itself to a biased active party in the Arab-Israeli conflict, thus, the United States disqualified itself from playing any constructive role in any potential political process, with all due respect to people who are addicted to peacemaking à la U.S. in the Middle East.
As we all know, the U.S. of course is not a newcomer to Middle East peacemaking. The U.S. has been dabbling with trying to find a solution, a political solution, to the Palestine question since 1937—11 years before the creation of the state of Israel. This is one of those unique weird conflicts where peacemaking started 11 years before the actual conflict started, in the sense that the international community began to anticipate trouble brewing in Palestine as they began to talk about ending the [British] Mandate. The Peel Commission was formed and proposed its first partition plan in 1937, followed 10 years later by the other partition plan that was considered by the United Nations.
Arab-Israeli peacemaking, as far as the United States is concerned, has been an American national sport for every U.S. administration since 1948. For those of you who are not aware of the history of peacemaking in the Middle East, the threatened peace plan that is supposed to be released in about three weeks or so—I’ll talk about it in a few minutes—is going to be the number 76, the 76th attempt at resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1937. Many of these plans were American plans that were proposed by almost every administration. You guys might remember. Old-timers remember the Johnson administration, the Carter administration, the Reagan administration, the Rogers Plan. Name it. Every administration since 1948 has had a plan named after its secretary of state.
Yet, where do we find all these plans? At this huge cemetery of peace processes in the Middle East. It behooves us as students of history, as political activists, as active citizens, as historians, as political scientists to ask why. Why this huge cemetery? Why this dismal failure over the years? As I said, Washington has proposed more peace proposals during this period than any other stakeholder in the conflict. Yet, in practical terms, the American contribution to affecting a peace solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict has been lackluster at best, lacking in vitality, political force, and moral conviction above all.
Since its inception, AIPAC has been the great facilitator, the advocate, the enforcer of Israeli policies and American peacemaking efforts between Israel and Palestine as part and parcel of its, of course, larger agenda dealing with U.S.-Israeli bilateral relationship. AIPAC’s platform on Middle East peace is essentially very simple. Although the organization has been gradually-for those of you who have been noticing-downgrading its commitment to a two-state solution—it has kind of quietly in the past couple of years, the term has disappeared, at least from the front page on the website. It’s still in there, but you have to look for it these days—in order to reflect basically, or out of deference to, change in Israeli policy downplaying, if you will, the two-state solution.
So AIPAC’s lobbying efforts remain focused on essentially, at the risk of oversimplification, I would say a four-pronged approach. One, two states for two people. It’s still there. It’s not the number one priority, but it’s still in the background. But their definition of it is slightly different than most of us in this room, if not all of us. A Jewish state of Israel-Jewish state of Israel-living in peace with a demilitarized Palestinian state. Two, only direct talks between the parties can lead to a real and lasting peace. Okay, fine. It depends on what you mean by real and lasting peace, but that’s another story.
Three, the U.S. can play an important facilitating role, but it cannot dictate the terms of peace. AIPAC wants to have its cake and it wants to eat it too. It wants the U.S. to dominate the process as the sole legitimate peacemaker in the Middle East, but it doesn’t want it to dictate. I don’t know if Trump will change that. He keeps saying if you pay the bill, you have the right to dictate. But we’ll see. I doubt it.
Four, Arab states must take an active and constructive role by normalizing relations with Israel. This is a very important and dangerous item that was added more recently on AIPAC’s agenda in an attempt to finally kind of liquidate, if you will, the Palestinian cause and replace Palestine as the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict with basically Arab-Israeli peace; peace between Israel and Arab states, where there is no territorial compromise involved and there is no solution to the Palestine problem, in other words.
Let’s talk just for a couple of minutes about the failure of past U.S. efforts. Why? I think basically as an observer of these series of processes, fake or otherwise, most of them are fake, I could summarize probably the reasons into five main reasons.
One, American lack of even-handedness and bias toward Israel from the very beginning. For various domestic, political, cultural and ideological reasons, Washington is not, has never been, and will never be, a neutral arbiter or mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict, ladies and gentlemen.
Two, vague objectives with regards to ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, establishing a Palestinian state, confronting all the permanent status issues such as boundaries, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, water. Without these core issues being at the heart of a process, that’s not a genuine peace process. That’s why many of these processes we have seen, they might have started on the right track, but they quickly ended up being fake peace processes rather than realistic ones.
Three, the open-ended and protracted nature of American peace processing lacking clear and enforceable mechanisms and timelines. I missed Hanan’s speech earlier, but she has made this point year after year clearly for many, many years in her book, in her presentations, in her interviews-this absence of mechanisms, enforcement mechanisms, and timetables have been the enemy of peacemaking and negotiations in the Middle East as a negotiator.
Four, consistently allowing Israel to dictate the terms of reference governing the process, and vetoing any attempt, whether by the Palestinians or the international community, to change that pattern. That has dogged us from day one and will continue, I think, unless there is a serious change in policy by whatever party is trying to mediate the conflict in the future.
And fifth, acquiescence to Israeli demands at every difficult juncture in the process. How many times have we seen and witnessed throughout these negotiation processes where the Israelis would say no? It doesn’t matter who it is-Rabin, or Shamir, or Sharon, or Netanyahu. Whenever an Israeli leader comes in and says no, the U.S. tucks its tail between its legs and takes a step back and lowers the ceiling of the terms of reference and the expectation. That has been also detrimental to attempts at peacemaking in the Middle East.
What’s next? With the rest of the balance of my time, let me just quickly speculate about what I anticipate over the next three or four years—three or four weeks, not years; otherwise, we’ll be here until next week—with regards to the rumored, I call it the Trump-Kushner-Greenblatt plan. So there is a new one for you. Number 76, okay?
As all of you are aware, President [Donald] Trump dispatched his envoy to the Middle East peace process, Jason Greenblatt, to the region for about four days to listen, learn and explore-according to the White House-with various sides the potential for resumed American-led process. As if after all these years we still need to listen, to learn, and to explore.
We are told that the White House Energizer Bunny, Mr. Greenblatt—who lacks any diplomatic experience, by the way-convinced the parties of Trump’s seriousness and solicited enough support in principle to justify-they just concluded yesterday-talks secretly held here in Washington between an Israeli security delegation and the administration with regards to what is possible down the road, particularly with regards to settlements. Of course Netanyahu, who is in China, was quick to say no change in settlement policy. So make sure that nobody misunderstands what his delegation did here in town.
In addition, of course, the Arab side has also responded positively to the Trump administration, and you’re going to see a rush of Arab leaders coming to town. King Abdullah of Jordan, after, of course, the Arab Summit in Amman; before is, of course, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt; and then, of course, Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine to follow by mid-April.
The administration is talking about a draft paper. What’s in this draft paper? Of course, as you know, most plans that Trump has come up with, whether during the campaign or since his arrival at the White House, are still secret. We don’t know any of his plans. He hasn’t announced anything. But there is a draft paper and people in town are talking about it. Let me tell you what I heard through the rumor mill in town as to what it involves and compare that with what I said earlier about the detriments to peacemaking in the Middle East, because it looks like this administration is about to repeat the same mistakes, but maybe in a more intensive way than what we have done over the past 58 years. So there is no change at all.
One, Trump basically in his paper tells his counterparts in the Arab world, and in Palestine, and in Israel, he wants to assure them that he is seriously committed to Arab-Israeli peace and will personally—personally—get involved in the process. If that doesn’t convince you to stay home, I don’t know what will. That’s the scariest part of the plan.
Two, the paper talks about pursuing sustained security for Israel and a provisional entity. There we are. After all these processes, we’re back talking about, like 15, 20 years ago, a provisional entity for Palestinians, without even a definite article. Not a two-state solution retreat—because after all he is for one state, two states, whatever you guys want. Hence only, hence in the paper, at working within that framework. I mean, even Oslo did not get that low in doublespeak.
Three, the Palestinians will be promised continued financial and technical support in return for full cooperation with Israel if they end incitement and they resume their counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. and with Israel. Palestinians will be asked, of course, also, or are being asked in the paper, to cease all-this comes from pressure from Congress, actually-all legal campaigns against Israel in international courts and fora at this time. No complaining about Israeli occupation anymore.
Four, the plan seeks a phased and transitional approach. Not an end of conflict arrangement, another major retreat from previous processes that failed.
Five, the plan expresses general concern about continued Israeli settlements, but falls short of calling for a freeze. Indeed, the Israeli delegation negotiating here in town that I mentioned earlier with the Trump administration talked about “a construction slowdown,” but insisted without distinguishing inside the settlements or outside-sometimes they do that, they go into these technicalities-but this time even without bothering to distinguish, just a construction slowdown—but insisted that settlement freeze, particularly in Jerusalem—I’m quoting Mr. Netanyahu and his team here—“is off the table.” So tell me who wags whom?
Six, the Arab Peace Initiative that came a few years back in the early ’90s from Arab sources-the Arab League, Saudi Arabia and so on—the Arab Peace Initiative will be given this time a central role, a central prominence in this plan—in order not again to balance things, but in order to refocus the process away from being focused solely on Palestine, which is the problem at stake. I mean, we’re not going to go have a peace process about Palestine and discuss Puerto Rico. It’s not relevant. So remove Palestine as the core of the process and put the Arab Peace Initiative instead. My advice to you is to watch the deliberations of the 28th Arab Summit that will be held on the 29th of this month, because that is going to be where the preparation is going to take place before announcing this plan.
Ladies and gentlemen, lots of mistakes have been made. The reasons are very clear to any objective student of peacemaking in the Middle East. Lessons have not been learned. So don’t blame me for not being optimistic about this next plan over the next few weeks. Thank you.
Questions & Answers
Janet McMahon: If people have questions and want to write them on the cards and pass them to the ushers, they’ll bring them up here. I’ll start by asking what might be a very naïve question: What is the origin and the general acceptance of the idea that the U.S. has to be involved for there to be a viable peace process? Where did that come from?
Khalil Jahshan: Arrogance. If you allow me to be frank about it, basically the U.S., in order to assert itself as the protector of Israel, has declared itself many years ago-when peace plan after peace plan was emerging and as Israel kept basically turning down these offers—the U.S. decided to arrogate to itself the role of the sole legitimate peacemaker in the Middle East, and has refused to even allow our closest allies-Europe-whenever the French popped their head, shut up. Carry the dustpan and the broom and clean after us, that’s what Europeans are being told. Unfortunately, they have abided by that. That’s one of my criticisms of European policy. It has a much more progressive policy on Palestine than the U.S. policy, but they are not willing to take initiative.
The U.S. prevented also the U.N. from doing so and we’re facing the same question today-should there be a peace process over the next few weeks? Again, rest assured that the U.S. will not allow any other party to share in basically directing, if you will, or mediating or participating in the management of that process.
Janet McMahon: Do you think that this idea originated with the Israel lobby or with just the U.S. wanting to be a superpower?
Khalil Jahshan: Frankly, the Israel lobby and its influence-let me tell you something. My first lesson as a lobbyist when I arrived in town, a somewhat still innocent young man, my first meeting with a senator-Sen. [Mark] Hatfield. I was not with any Arab-American organization yet at the time, I was basically serving as an academic advisor to a group of church leaders in this country. I participated with them in advocating for, basically, peace and justice in the Middle East, and they asked me to accompany them as a resource person to a meeting with a series of leaders in Congress.
The late Senator Hatfield of Oregon listened to us and then he asked me to stay after the group decided to leave. I did. He looked at me. He said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “Well, I’m moving to town and I’m going to work on behalf of Arab causes and particularly my cause, the Palestinian cause.” He looked at me like, you know, he established eye contact with me, and he said, “Young man, this is a very difficult task you’re embarking on.” And he said, and I will never forget these words as long as I live, he said, “In this great distinguished institution of the United States Senate, when the Israel lobby says jump, 90-plus of my colleagues say how high? They never ask why.”
So with that type of control, particularly in Congress, you can’t tell where the idea came from-whether it’s volunteered by these people who are more than willing to sell out morally and politically, or from the lobby, or how the two kind of feed, if you will, on each other.
The second point, quickly, the issue of the two-state solution. Why is it that most of the time in recent history I have a higher percentage of Knesset members in Israel that support the two-state solution than I do in the U.S. Congress of America? Ask yourself that question. We’ve never exceeded 60, 70, 80 members of the U.S. Congress out of 535 in both Houses. Right? In Israel, the number was at 70 or 80 at one point—out of 120. It shifts, and people mean different things, of course, by two states. They are not all in harmony. But it’s a good question to ask, I think. As American citizens, it behooves us to ask and to understand the answer to that question. Thank you.
Janet McMahon: Let me ask you this final question then. How do we move from conflict management to conflict resolution? BDS, the Arab Initiative? What other routes are available to us?
Khalil Jahshan: I don’t think so. We haven’t moved yet. It will probably, unfortunately, take much longer to do so. But BDS is a very interesting concept that is having its effectiveness and its impact, at least on the Israeli psyche. Some Israelis have problems [but] support it in terms of targeting the settlements. Some Israelis do not, because they see it as a disguised attempt to boycott all of Israel together. But it’s beginning to have an impact. I mean, today it is not accidental that the prime minister of Israel and most of its national security leaders view the BDS as the number one national security threat to the state of Israel, because it’s exposing it worldwide, in no uncertain terms, to the fact that occupation has got to end, occupation cannot be tolerated. The more clarity there is associated with that, I think, the more effective the campaign would be and the more attractive it would become, particularly here in the U.S.
Janet McMahon: Well, thank you very much.
Khalil Jahshan: Thank you.
Janet McMahon: Khalil Jahshan.