The premise of WINEP’s agenda was that successive U.S. administrations had paid too much attention to the Palestinian problem and to Arab public opinion, writes As’ad AbuKhalil.
The Hamas attack (with the loss of civilian lives) shook the Middle East and shattered many assumptions and misconceptions about the region.
It’s not that Israel was shocked at the daring nature of the attack, but that Israel had long assumed that the Palestinian problem is dead and that there is no need to engage in a so-called peace process — even if managed by the U.S., the least neutral party in the Arab-Israeli conflict outside of Tel Aviv.
Reflecting the belief in the death of Palestine as a question, the Biden administration was the first U.S. administration since Lyndon Johnson to not even attempt to launch a peace process regarding the Palestinian problem, demonstrating its belief that the issue is over.
Joe Biden fully subscribed to the Jared Kushner school of thought and diplomacy, which believes Arabs don’t care anymore about Palestine and Israel can simply reach peace agreements with individual Arab states, after which Arab public opinion would follow. Little is being said about Biden adopting Kushner’s view of Middle East politics, which makes Palestine irrelevant in U.S. foreign policy in the region.
But there are historical roots to this view. In 1985, American supporters of Israel (with ties to the Israeli lobby, AIPAC) founded the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). I was in D.C. at the time and the organization was regarded as a small shop which was unlikely to cause an impact in a city teeming with think tanks and research centers.
Furthermore, the Institute was regarded as too pro-Israel to be able to emerge as an influential think tank. Most of the Middle East-oriented centers had a pro-Arab bent (pro-Arab in the conservative sense of the Arabists who were close to oil companies, arms industry and Gulf embassies). Gulf embassies were then opposed to AIPAC because it opposed their arm purchases’ requests, and Gulf regimes were, at least publicly, advocating on behalf of the Palestinian people.
The Arabists controlled several influential centers and organizations, like the American Educational Trust (which published the once influential Washington Report on Middle East Affairs), the Middle East Institute, National Organization of Arab Americans, among others. The Arabists were mostly retired U.S. foreign service officers who believed that U.S. foreign policy neededto be “even-handed”.
This view was associated with the Republican Party before the Reagan “revolution.” At first, the Washington Institute would be invited to represent the Israeli point of view, and not to provide “objective” analysis of the region.
I remember in Washington, that I would be paired often with Robert Satloff (the current WINEP director) in debates on TV and radio. Once, a WINEP expert was cited in The New York Times but the writer (Jane Parlez) did not identify the institute — as was standard at the time — as a pro-Israel think tank. I called the reporter and complained and she agreed with me and said she normally identifies as such.
Today, almost daily, newspapers in the U.S. and Europe carry analysis about the Middle East by experts of the Institute, but without identifying the organization as pro-Israel and close to the Israel lobby.
But the Washington Middle East scene later changed radically, especially with the advent of the Clinton administration. Clinton appointed Martin Indyk, who founded WINEP as the research arm of AIPAC, as his chief Middle East advisor (he did not have U.S. citizenship at the time and his papers were rushed in to meet the confirmation process).
The administration then cleansed all Arabists from the State Department and anybody who was identified as titling to the Arab point of view was sent to Siberian posts. The message was loud and clear: the U.S. government would no longer tolerate anybody daring to express the “Arab point of view” in the Arab-Israeli question.
That quickly elevated the status of the Washington Institute and many of its researchers served in high positions of government, especially at State and Defense. At least three of its “experts” served as assistant secretaries of state for the Near East (the top Middle East post at the Department of State). The reputation of the Institute as the organization which staffs Middle East posts at the National Security Council in the White House, State, and Defense grew.
Former diplomats flocked to serve as researchers in retirement, and serving diplomats would take a year of absence to serve as fellows. The Institute mixes Israeli and U.S. experts and would often bring a token Arab (Tahseen Bashir, spokesperson to Anwar Sadat told me he refused a generous offer by Indyk to serve as a fellow there.)
The premise of WINEP’s agenda of was that successive U.S. administrations paid too much attention to the Palestinian problem and to Arab public opinion.
Senior fellow Barry Rubin and others argued that Arab public opinion does not matter because governments that are friendly to the U.S. could take care of them, and that the Palestinian problem is not as central to Arabs as it was during Nasser’s days. The focus shifted to replicating the Camp David accords by encouraging bilateral negotiations and agreements between Arab despots and Israel.
After Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the U.S. pushed the Lebanese government to sign a peace treaty with Israel (but it did not last and it was not ratified because a popular revolt forced its cancellation).
Another shift occurred in Washington at the same time. Gulf regimes changed their priorities after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and many of them entered into negotiations with Zionist organizations in D.C. Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia invited Zionist leaders to the Kingdom, when the antisemitic royal family did not even allow Jews to enter into the Kingdom.
Syrians and Lebanese entered into direct peace negotiations with Israel, but Israel, typically, did not accommodate Arab demands because it viewed the parties as weak protagonists. Gulf countries, on their own, made their relationships with Israel less secret (Saudi Arabia cooperated with Israel in the Yemen war of the 1960s).
WINEP pushed the U.S. administration (with the full support of Congress, which reflects AIPAC’s view of the Middle East) to ignore the Palestinian question, or to bury it in the Oslo accords and process. Yasser Arafat went to Ramallah where the U.S. later allowed Israel to kill him. Israel never respected the terms of the Oslo accords and the lands that were supposed to be liberated were in fact under a tighter and more brutal occupation as the settlements grew.
There was always the fig leaf for the occupation: the U.S.-led peace process, which supposedly (since 1970) was working for a comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis. The peace process was a mere U.S. (and European) cover for Israel to continue to occupy and commit aggression while spreading the fantasy of a deal being worked out behind closed doors. The U.S. was never serious about reaching a comprehensive settlement and colonial mindsets expected the Palestinian national flame to be extinguished by force.
Kushner did not see the need for a peace process and WINEP agreed (the chief Middle East expert at State was a graduate of WINEP in the Trump administration). Instead, Kushner thought that WINEP’s plan was brilliant: Palestine is not politically salient and Gulf regimes could willingly reach peace treaties with Israel in return for advanced weapons and U.S. praise.
Furthermore, Gulf regimes were finding that military and intelligence cooperation with Israel was beneficial for internal repression (Israeli technology was (and is) used to spy on and hunt down dissidents in those countries).
The Gaza breakout was a forceful message (albeit violent and resulting in the deaths of civilians) that Palestinian militants wanted to assert (on behalf of most Palestinians, actually) that the Palestinian problem is here to stay and that no normalization deal can smash Palestinian national aspirations.
That message would have been stronger had the lives of civilians been spared, although if the killing of only Israeli occupation soldiers at the hand of Palestinians is also considered terrorism by the West).
The U.S. wanted to believe that its well-armed despots could subjugate their own population as well as the Palestinians if they were to protest the normalization trends.
But the Palestinians often engage in revolts against Arab governments themselves when they feel their hands are tied; and Hamas (regardless of one’s view of it, especially the view of secularists) is not a mere tool of Iran despite Iranian arming and financing of Hamas.
Hamas broke with Iran, and even with Hizbullah, after 2011 when it supported the Syrian rebels against the regime. It was only recently that the reconciliation between Hizbullah and Hamas was completed.
There was a Palestinian liberation movement before the PLO, and after the PLO; and there was a liberation movement before Hamas and will be after, although the path of liberation for Palestinians seems shorter than ever, or so many Arabs believe.
As`ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002), The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004) and ran the popular The Angry Arab blog. He tweets as @asadabukhalil