Sep 21st 2011

On a Collision Course with Arab Opinion

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

It took mass demonstrations followed by the take-over of their embassy in Egypt last week for some in Israel to wake up to the fact that the Palestinian issue remains a flash point for Arab public opinion. The U.S. Congress and policy-makers in Washington, on the other hand, appear to remain oblivious to this rather obvious reality.

Reflecting this "new" awareness in Israel, an article in the Washington Post ("Israel faces a new consideration: The Egyptian public"), discusses the debate these developments have provoked within Israel. The article cites comments by Elie Podeh, described as "an expert on Egypt and its relations with Israel" at Hebrew University, calling for a "substantive peace initiative" to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. Podeh is further quoted saying, "if we want to somehow soften the criticism in the Arab World, and specifically in Egypt, we should adopt a different policy. Sometimes we don't understand the depth of their commitment to the Palestinian issue".

The importance of Palestine to Arabs is not exactly news. Our public opinion polls across the Middle East have consistently demonstrated the central role this issue plays in shaping the Arab world view. And it has long been known (though not always acted upon) by U.S. policy makers. It was, for example, acknowledged twenty years ago by then Secretary of State James Baker when he challenged a Congressional committee to understand the important role played by the Palestinian issue for Arabs. Then shortly after the end of the first Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf again reminded Americans of this fact when he noted that "the most important factor to stability and peace in the Middle East is the resolution of the Palestinian question...this is the major impediment to peace".

And more recently, General David Petraeus caused some discomfort in Congress when he further developed Schwarzkopf's views, observing that the Israeli-Palestinian "conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples...and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support."

So the importance of Palestine is known. But what is shocking is the degree to which politics in Washington still fails to fully grasp and/or act on this point. For decades the Congress and successive Administrations have behaved as if they could pursue a blindly one-sided pro-Israel policy and still successfully win support in the Arab World, ignoring the region's strong sensitivity to the Palestine issue. To some degree, they got away with it. Arab public opinion became embittered turning against the U.S. over our ignoring Palestinian rights. But the fall-out was contained, for a time, by "moderate" Arab leaders, who, as General Petraeus noted, "lost legitimacy" in the process.

In the midst of the dramatic upheavals that are rocking the Arab World, however, all bets are off. Now Arab public opinion matters to their leaders, and it should matter to us, as well. President Obama recognized this new reality, when in his remarks to AIPAC last May he cautioned that "a new generation of Arabs is reshaping the region. A just and lasting peace can no longer be forged with one or two Arab leaders. Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained."

With this as a backdrop, I worry that both Congress and the Administration are on a dangerous collision course with Arab public opinion.

This week the Palestinians will bring their just demand for recognition to the United Nations for a vote. The Obama Administration has not only gone on record saying that they will veto a resolution in the Security Council and vote "no" in the General Assembly. They have also expended vast amounts of political capital pressing the Palestinians and Arab states not to introduce the measure and urging the Europeans to join us in opposing the effort.

For their part, Congress has made it clear that should the Palestinians go forward with their plans, U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority should be terminated. Not satisfied with passing resolutions to this effect, one-fifth of the Congress traveled to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian land to personally deliver this threat to the P.A. And last week Congressional leadership sent a letter to E.U. allies urging them to vote against the Palestinian resolution.

All of this points to a looming and most unnecessary disaster. With our most recent polling across the Arab World showing U.S. standing at an all-time low, we can ill afford to be so deliberately and aggressively flaunting Arab sensibilities, especially when we know better. Trying to pull Israel's "chestnuts out of the fire" is one thing; getting our fingers burned in the process, is something else. The stakes are too high for such self-inflicted wounds.

Those wise to Washington's ways will feign impotence, claiming that domestic politics (meaning Congress' fear of AIPAC's revenge), will inhibit the Administration from acting differently in order to protect our interests. They will point to the brazenness of Netanyahu's display of dominance over Congress and the White House last May, and ask "what else can the Administration do?"

For starts, we could begin by recognizing that not only do the U.S. and Israel face domestic political pressures, Arabs do too. After two decades of failed negotiations, during which time settlements in the West Bank doubled, Palestinians need a moral boost. And after decades of anger at the failure of the U.S. to take seriously Arab concerns with Palestine, our actions are being closely scrutinized across the region.

With that in mind, even at this late date, the Administration could make a sharp strategic pivot from opposition to constructive engagement with the Palestinians to help craft a resolution that would give them what they need while laying out the parameters for meaningful negotiations to occur. At the same time instead of fueling their angst, we could help talk the Israelis and their supporters down from their panic making it clear that the recognition of the Palestinian right to a state in no way preempts the need to negotiate the implementation of that right.

There are no guarantees this will work, but such an approach would enhance our standing, strengthen our diplomacy, and give us a much needed boost instead of a humiliating loss we can ill afford.

Alas, this change in direction is not likely to occur. And so, in all probability later this month, the U.S. will vote "no" on a resolution to recognize a Palestinian state; Israel will seek retribution against the "uppity" Palestinians by adding new settlements and placing new pressures on the occupied lands; Congress will then call for a suspension of aid; and the Arab World will be enraged.

There will be consequences, because Palestine matters and Arab opinions matter. And in the context of the Arab Spring, they matter more than ever.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "