America And The Middle East After The US Election: Looking Back, Looking Forward – Global Connections With Robert Siegel

American Friends of Rabin Medical Center’s monthly Zoom Leadership Forum series captures unfiltered conversations moderated by preeminent host Robert Siegel with an august group of guest speakers.

November’s Global Connections Forum spotlighted issues related to America and The Middle East After the November 2020 Election. The conversation highlighted three prominent speakers, former Ambassador Dennis Ross, Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist Thomas Friedman, and Senior Fellow Ghaith Al-Omari, who each discussed his own perspective about the current state of, and future for, Israeli-Arab relations given the upcoming changing political tide.

Ambassador Dennis Ross.

The program begins with a conversation between Robert Siegel and former Ambassador Dennis Ross, a Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, who has had a long and distinguished career in Middle East policy and diplomacy. Robert Siegel opens with a question posed to Ambassador Ross about his expectations for the Biden administration, specifically pertaining to what will be emphasized and prioritized in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Siegel frames the question through the lens of policy goals of previous Presidential administrations by saying that both the Clinton and Obama administrations spent ample time trying to solve the conflict. In response, Ambassador Ross explains that incoming President Biden will have bigger “fish to fry,” with more important issues, such as the pandemic and its economic consequences, that will need to be addressed and resolved. Ross stating furthers that Biden likely understands that present circumstances will prevent any resolution to this issue but that he can take steps to facilitate diplomacy talks. Siegel then turns his focus to whether Ambassador Ross believes that a single democratic Israeli-Palestinian state is achievable or even a desirable solution. Ambassador Ross grounds his answer in the reality of two peoples, each with a strong national identity competing for the same land. Ambassador Ross argues that the very idea of a single joint state is impossible. Further, Ambassador Ross concludes the viability of any solution hinges upon both a willingness and a faith in a process, amongst both sets of leaders and citizenry, which is noticeably absent at this time.

However, not being a pessimist, Ambassador Ross ends his reflections with a message of hope. He asserts that Israelis and Palestinians have worked together before, and with certain Arab leaders currently reaching out to Israel with the goal of diplomatic relations and normalization, there is hope for the future that the two sides will come together. Siegel then directs the conversation toward the efforts of the Trump Administration, how a Trump reelection would have affected Middle East politics and diplomacy, whether Saudi Arabia has the will to create a peace deal with Israel, and lastly, whether the Iran nuclear agreement can be reconstructed. Siegel ends by asking Ross to talk about Yitzhak Rabin, a close friend with whom Ross worked side-by-side, resulting in the Oslo Accords peace agreements between Israel and the PLO in 1993 and 1995.

Thomas Friedman.

The next speaker is Pulitzer Prize winning and New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Thomas Friedman. Siegel opens the conversation by asking Friedman the reason why Friedman wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed that he considers the UAE-Israel Peace deal to be a “geopolitical earthquake” and how the Biden administration can build on its success. Friedman first reveals that President Trump had called him to thank him for writing this particular op-ed. That aside, Friedman explains the multi-faceted importance of this peace accord. Friedman states that because the deal was between the most powerful Arab and non-Arab countries in the Middle East, it could set a precedent for further talks and successful deals in the future for peace. He continues by saying how because the population demographics of Arab countries have changed (youth bulges), the desire for peace has grown. Friedman then moves to talking about the relationship between Arabs and Jews and how the conflict that has stained the relationship is not a natural historical occurrence. Through peace agreements, the conflict would be defused but would still exist until a stable resolution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is found.

Siegel then asks whether “Kushner had it right” because of the success of the normalization efforts. Friedman explains that Kushner played a role, but so did “accident and fortuna.” Friedman concludes by detailing the events leading up to the peace plan’s original construction and those leading to its eventual rejection and restructuring. It is important here to note that in his New York Times op-ed (“A Geopolitical Earthquake Just Hit the Mid East“, August 13, 2020), Friedman cites his own adage: “In the Middle East, you get big change when the big players do the right things for the wrong reasons,” Friedman argues that the original Trump peace proposal was dramatically different from that which emerged. Supporting this is Friedman’s quotation from former Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, who places the complexities of this deal into historical context: “Instead of Israeli annexation for a Palestinian state, they made it Israeli non-annexation in return for peace with the U.A.E. [which] generated an asset out of nothing, which Israel could then trade for peace with the U.A.E. It was peace for peace, not land for peace”

Ghaith Al-Omari.

The final speaker on this topic is Ghaith Al-Omari, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute who has held a wide variety of senior positions within the Palestinian Authority. Siegel asks Al-Omari a question similar to that which he asked Ross, posing whether peace process fatigue should lead to a single democratic state with both Jews and Arabs living side-by-side. Al-Omari begins by agreeing with Ross, explaining how the conflict is between two national movements, each of which wants a state of its own. Al-Omari therefore believes, from his long and studied position that a one state solution would fail. He buttresses his opinion with a metaphor that even simple, but fundamental, questions such as the colors of the flag and determining a national language would be heavily debated and divisive.  Due to the strong ideological beliefs of both nations, a one-state compromise would never work without fundamental and far-reaching compromise.

Siegel then directs Al-Omari to consider incoming President Biden’s experience with the Middle East region and to opine about what Biden will encounter that has changed since Biden’s participation in policy and politics there in the 1990s. Al-Omari affirms that much has fundamentally changed since Biden was involved in the Middle East. Al-Omari cites the nature of the rising threat of Iran as a dominant power in the region, which has altered what the Middle East conflict is. He also pinpoints the growing youth bulge in the area as a principal factor. The youth, aware of the global disparity in opportunity, desire to leave the traditional ways of the old world behind to embrace modern ideas on the global stage. Finally and most importantly, Al-Omari states that there has been a shift of the political center of gravity from the Levant to the Gulf. This shift has caused the Gulf to become the “driver” of the Arab world. Siegel’s final question to Al-Omari centers on Saudi Arabia-U.S. relations. He asks how the Biden administration should negotiate with the Saudis despite its authoritarian rule and commission of glaring human rights atrocities. Al-Omari states that U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis the Saudis should continue to reflect both its democratic values and strategic interests. Support for the fact that the U.S. cannot ignore Saudi Arabia is Al-Omari’s acknowledgment of the large and looming role that Saudi Arabia plays in the Middle East. Balancing this acknowledgment is Al-Omari’s hope that the U.S. will successfully cultivate a relationship while simultaneously exerting a positive and reform-based influence upon Saudi Arabia and its authoritarian rule over its citizenry.

Article by Jonas Plaut, Columbia University

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