After the August 15, 2020 announcement that the UAE would recognize Israel in return for not annexing any of the West Bank area, the PLO and the PA reacted with anger, calling the UAE action a ‘stab in the back of the Palestinians.’ Subsequently, the Arabic written media and analysts in the Middle East and elsewhere poured out their thoughts about what this action meant to the future of the Palestinian community worldwide and to the Palestinian issue in general. One of the many responses was presented in a webinar by the Brookings Institution on August 27, 2020. After listening to the thoughtful presentations by four analysts and writers, our Center transcribed their remarks. Those participating included Shibli Telhami, Nour Odeh, Mouin Rabbani, and Khalil Jahshan. Shibley Telhami is a nonresident senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, as well as the Center for Middle East Policy, and the Foreign Policy program at Brookings; Nour Odeh is a political analyst and public diplomacy consultant; Mouin Rabbani is co-editor of Jadaliyya; and Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC and Omar Rahman, is a visiting fellow at the Brookings, moderated the event. No commentary is provided here to the remarks of the presenters and moderators. Copyright for these remarks belongs to the presenters and to Brookings. Ken Stein 11, 4, 2020, The original webinar was posted at https://www.brookings.edu/events/palestine-and-the-arab-world-a-relationship-in-crisis/
Omar H. Rahman: Again, welcome everyone. We have an excellent slate of panelists to discuss, what is a very important topic that is both key to understanding some of the major news that has broken in the region over the past couple of weeks, as well as significant in its own right. So, we should all be in for a very fascinating discussion.
I’m going to start. By introducing our panelists, then I’ll give a brief introduction of the topic and its various facets. We will then move straight into questions with our panelists for about 45 to 50 minutes, and then open questions up to our audience for the last half an hour. You can submit questions directly in the Q&A box at the bottom of your screens. I’ll be monitoring those throughout the discussion, and we’ll pose them to our panelists when the time comes. You can direct them to a specific panelist or to the group. Obviously, we have many, many people on this call, and so you won’t be able to pose them directly, so I’ll do that.
Today we are joined by Dr. Shibley Telhami, who is the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland in the US, as well as a senior non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy. Shibley has been a senior advisor to the US government and as a leading expert on public opinion in the United States, as well as the Middle East where has been conducting polling for many years.
We’re also joined by Nour Odeh who is a Palestinian media professional and communications consultant, specializing in public diplomacy and the founder of Palestine’s first strategic consulting firm. Nour previously served as a spokesperson for the Palestinian authority, as well as the senior communications advisor for the Palestinian leadership. Prior to her role in government, she was an award-winning journalist in Palestine, including for Al-Jazeera English, as the only English language journalist based in (?) in 2006. And she still regularly appears as a fixture on television.
We’re also pleased to welcome from the Netherlands one of the brightest minds I know on the Palestinian issue Mouin Rabbani. Mouin is an independent researcher and analyst of Palestinian affairs, the Arab Israeli conflict, and the contemporary middle East. He’s a co-editor of the online magazine Jadaliyya and a contributing editor to the Middle East report.
Last, but certainly not least. we’re also lucky to welcome Khalil Jahshan, the executive director of the Arab Center in Washington, DC, which is doing excellent work on producing analysis of the Arab world for the US audience and on US policies in the region. Between 2004 and 2013 Khalil was a lecturer in international studies at Pepperdine University in California. He’s also a tireless advocate on behalf of the Arab-American community in the United States. He’s served as executive vice president, of ADC, the American-Arab anti-discrimination committee, as well as holding positions in numerous other organizations representing Arabs and Palestinians, so we hope to rely on his extensive experience on the issue of the Palestinian diaspora during this panel. So, welcome everyone.
Since its inception, the Palestinian cause has been a defining issue in the Arab world and a source of unity that Arabs could rally around. This cause captured the attention, the respect, the support of the Arab people who treated it as a top priority in a region beset by many other problems. And it has been, and often acted as, a litmus test in a way, and had the power on occasion to threaten or even topple regimes that were perceived as less than committed. This is a dynamic that’s held true for almost three quarters of a century and one that has governed the Arab world’s relationship with the Palestinians, and consequently with Israel.
I know it can be problematic to frame the Arab world as a monolithic block, as each Arab country is driven by its own set of interests, but they made at least a show of unity and support of the Palestinian cause, throughout this history. And in this context where the Palestinian issue was seen as the core of the conflict, peace between the Arab States and Israel would only come after the Palestinian issue had first been resolved.
And this is true despite the fact that Egypt and Jordan both have long standing peace treaties with Israel. And this position and sequencing was ultimately enshrined in the Arab peace initiative of 2002, which proposed full normalization with Israel in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, and a fair and just resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue.
In recent years, however, we’ve seen this commitment and unity tested, I think. We can see a break from this unity and the sequencing as another sort of litmus test, to the point where I think we can reasonably ask, is this a relationship in crisis? The answer is likely a complex one. So, what we want to do with this discussion is take a critical look at the status of the Palestinian cause, how this relationship has evolved, and what have been the catalysts to that change. Has it been the result of broad, regional and global forces outside of the Palestinians controls such as the end of the Cold War or the Arab spring? Or has it been the outcome of Palestinian decision-making or both? How did the peace process, for example, and all of the decisions made along the way open the doors to the changes that have brought us to the point we are at today? How has the replacement of the young daring Fedayeen, literally those who sacrifice themselves with the aging bureaucrat affected the image of the Palestinian national movement and its capacity to inspire in the region. And, how about the inarguably dire state of internal Palestinian politics with its deep fissures and dysfunctions? does that matter to the Arab world and to the Palestinian diaspora in the face of ongoing Israeli oppression, and confiscation of Palestinian land?
Obviously, what’s on most people’s minds today is the agreement between Israel and the UAE. While that will inevitably be part of our discussion it’s not our focus today. We want to look at the underlying context, mainly from the Palestinian perspective, which I think should shed light on how we got to the point where the UAE took a calculated risk in normalizing its relations with Israel. And while I doubt most of the region will follow the UAEs lead, I think we can expect that the UAE may not be alone in its decision to normalize relations with Israel. And if that’s the case, then the United Arab front that has underpinned the Palestinian cause will have collapsed in a fundamental way. And how this issue is dealt with in the future will likely be different than how it’s been preceded.
I think I’m a firm believer in, in context, shaping and governing how events occur. Contexts are fluid, and I think the current environment is liable to change and we’re going to look to the future in this discussion as well. So, with that, uh, we’ll begin with our panel. I’m going to direct a question to one panelist and then open it up for the rest of our panelists to either add or dispute what’s been said before.
There’s no need for everyone to speak, but if you have a question or you have something to add, please do. Let’s keep the answers on the briefer end so that everyone has time to speak. I want to start with the overarching question that will kind of set the stage for this discussion and I’m going to direct it to Shibley.
Basically, Shibley, where do you think things stand today and how have regional shifts, new geopolitical realignments, and the strategic environment affected the commitment to, and the attitudes to, the Palestinians and their cause and the region. And have we seen the same type of shift among various Arab publics or is there a growing divergence between the Arab streets and the leadership?
Shibley Telhami: Well, thanks. thanks for holding this session, I t’s really timely. Obviously, there should be a lot of the conversation and thinking about this issue. You know, historically, obviously, Palestine has been important to the Arabs to varying degrees both to governments and to the public, but especially to public over time. But, one of the things that we actually ignore is that Arabs have been very important for Palestine, meaning for the Palestinians. And what I mean by that is that frankly, the importance of the Palestinian issue strategically at the global level, at the Western level, the American level, at the European level, emanated from, the assumption that it’s important to other Arabs, because Palestinians are a small people, it’s a very small piece of land, and therefore, it was all about the strategic consequences and implications of policy toward the Palestinians for the region broadly, but especially for Arabs. So, Arabs have been a cornerstone of the importance of the Palestinian issue globally. And this should be understood. Obviously, it’s not the only reason; there are issues like human rights, international law, normative reasons that have inclined people to support. But at the strategic level, there can be no confusion here.
The importance of Palestine is partly derived from its assumed importance for other Arabs. If this assumption diminishes over time, there is no question that the importance of Palestine to other nations outside would also decline, even though it wouldn’t recede completely because of what I said about other issues that kind of galvanize some communities across the world independently from the Arab world, such as human rights communities.
That’s why I think, I’ve said this before, I have been puzzled over the past couple of decades about sort of the lack of understanding of that in a way among Palestinian leaders, about how important it is to shore up their backing and support in the Arab world among—by building alliances in the Arab world, and also by shoring up public opinion, and keeping—not taking it for granted, not assuming that it doesn’t shift. So, I think this is really important. So, the question now—we have what we have—has the strategic environment and public opinion shifted dramatically recently? I would say, I don’t think it’s a recent development, to be honest. And I don’t think Arabs have been universally focused on Palestine to the country. I think there are many episodes when Arabs essentially didn’t pay attention. Remember 1982, when the PLO was defeated and had to withdraw out of Lebanon, and nobody came to its help.
In fact, the Palestinians ended up going, stopping first in Cyprus to make a point. The point is… if you look historically at the strategic importance of Palestinian question in the Arab world, it has diminished over time. And, I think there are many reasons why it has diminished. One, obviously, the camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, and then a decade later, the end of the Cold War that reduced the focus on this issue, the divide within the Arab world, and obviously the many crises that have emerged since the 2003 Iraq war, the Arab uprisings, the counter-revolution that has taken place and so forth.
So, I think what you see is some strategic reduced importance of the Palestinian issue among Arab governments. The question is, most Arab governments, even when they were not focused on Palestine, when Palestine was not an issue of importance to them, assume that it’s still resonated with their public, and therefore in some ways paid at least lip service, and sometimes more than that. Many Arab countries have supported the Palestinians a lot, to be fair, over the years in material or other ways. I think when you, when you look at the shift in public opinion, the question now is whether even public opinion is shifting. That’s really a big question: whether in fact, there is no question that the Palestinian issue is not a priority for Arab publics. And they’re probably very objective reasons for not caring about Palestine. But, since the Arab uprisings, if you look at what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Yemen, what’s happening in Libya. I mean, obviously you can understand why people are not particularly focused on Palestine, regardless, and also the Palestinian division makes it harder for people to know, what does it mean to support Palestine? It used to be when Yasser Arafat was the head of the Palestinian Authority, people looked at him as a flag. Arafat represented what the Palestinians wanted. Obviously, you have a Palestinian authority, but the fact that you have a deep divide makes it harder, even for the publics to know, what does it mean to support Palestine? What is good for Palestine? There’s no symbols. So that has receded.
My own view is if you look at our public opinion, broadly, I’m sure it could have shifted. As you know, I’ve done a lot of public opinion polling in the Arab world, but really only through 2012. Up until then, the Palestine question was certainly important to, or at least perceived to be important, across the Arab world. And in many ways, it provided the prism through which many Arabs formed opinions on international issues. I think that has shifted. I think it has shifted because of the things that I’ve described but has not gone away. And one way for us to measure is Egypt. Egypt, particularly because Egypt obviously is a very important country, the largest country in the Arab world. It made peace with Israel. It has a very good relationship strategically with Israel— a collaborative one. And yet, public opinion is still very supportive of the Palestinians, and very kind of confrontational even, I would say, with Israel against normalization, despite the fact that they’ve had a peace treaty—it hasn’t shifted.
What you have now though, is that the unanimity among the leading Arab States. In this particular case, I would say Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf States… some of the North African States the public opinion on Palestine is somewhat threatening to them. It’s more of an opposition public opinion. The question is whether they can control public opinion or recraft it, or redirect it, or reframe it, or influence it in significant ways. We don’t know yet that there is… it’s an open question… I think all we have now is a lot of social media debate.
I don’t think social media is going to tell us a lot about where the public is broadly. You need very good public opinion polling to do that. I do think that it’s a fluid environment. I have not seen evidence that there has been a dramatic shift in public opinion. I have not seen that at all.
And, I have reason to think that it has not been dramatic, but it has been lowering of the priorities. But it’s a fluid environment and it could shift. And I think that the Palestinians, and Palestinian leadership, Palestinian elites, have not paid enough attention to reaching out to Arab publics and to building coalitions.
I’m not sure if you were to ask me who is the biggest ally of the Palestinians in the Arab world, I don’t know what the answer to that is. That really tells you a sad story.
Omar H. Rahman: Great. And I think that’s another issue that we’re going to take up in terms of how the Palestinian leadership has facilitated these relations, how have they bolstered them. As you said, have they shored them up or did they take them for granted? So, does anybody else want to jump in on this issue? Nour?
Nour Odeh: I just wanted to add, perhaps another dimension, when we speak of Arabs publics of course we’re not talking about something monolithic, but I think one issue that we have to recognize is the fact that the majority of the Arab publics are young, disenfranchised, and they’re not accessible through traditional tools of measuring.
Where they stand, what they want to do, how they connect with other Arabs and with others in the international world. I think this is the new dimension that has not received enough study, enough analysis, and in a way, it is happening—these alliances and these conversations are happening outside the scope of traditional political analysis and political examination. And, in a way, that makes it a lot more difficult to figure out where the Arab public is going back to what should be said.
But I think it does, probably, impose, new questions on what the meaning of Arab public opinion is, and can we really rely on traditional tools to measure it given the fact that most Arabs are disenfranchised. Most of them do not believe in the establishment. They don’t want to be accessible to that establishment and they don’t want to use their organizations, their organizational ability, their networking in the traditional way.
Something is happening on a very parallel track to the traditional Arab regimes and Arab conversations and elites and civil society and the mostly symbolic political actors, to be honest. I mean, we have to remember what the limitations of Arab political parties are in their countries. How much influence do they really have on Arab leaders’ decision making in most of these countries?
I think that makes it a lot more complex and we need different tools to measure it. I know in Palestine… a lot of scrutiny has been given to where do the Palestinian youth stand? And the fact is more than 40% of the public are fed up with everybody, with all the actors.
And so these are the big unknown, and that makes it a lot more difficult, but I think a lot more interesting. For me, it’s a sign of hope, really, even though it might get a bit confusing for us to analyze. But that is, I think, where the breakthroughs will happen outside the realm of control of traditional Arab politics and control and censorship, if you will.
Omar H. Rahman: Is there a place you see certain access points? Where that might happen today? In the future? I mean, certainly, one thing that occurred to me—and I was going to bring it up later in the conversation, but I can bring it up now—is that at least the political center of Palestinians once existed on the outside, it was more accessible, both to the Palestinian diaspora, but also to the larger region. Once it came inside it’s blocked off by the Israelis, to an extent, and less accessible in that way. Obviously, there are sources of media that transcend those kinds of borders. But you’re saying even those sources are maybe not as accessible to a huge bulk of younger populations. Where might those access points be today?
Nour Odeh: Well, I’m saying that I think that the younger Palestinians, the younger Arabs in general, don’t want that access. They’ve reached the point where they feel so disenfranchised and so frustrated with the traditional systems of power and decision-making that they are operating on a completely different and parallel wavelength.
They don’t want to have that conversation with the establishment. They’re having it with one another. I don’t kno, to be honest, and I’m not an expert on polling and studying public opinion, and I don’t know how we can measure that. But when you see different areas of activism, where it is Pan-Arab, where the conversation happens between Arab youths and Arab human rights advocates, you see that there is a thread that unites them together on ideas, on principles, on things that they want to happen in their societies that they share with one another. That’s happening, irrespective of Arab governments, irrespective of political parties. I’m not sure how we can measure it, but I am convinced, and I do know that it is out there. And I think with time, this will be the force of change. It will be not traditional, it won’t play by the same rules, it might get a bit messy, but I don’t think that people, the youth, in general—and they are the majority of our peoples—see any hope in the status quo or in changing it or affecting it or improving it so to speak.
Omar H. Rahman: Right. Does anybody else want to jump in? Khalil, please.
Khalil Jahshan: I do share the concerns expressed by both of my colleagues with regards to the division in Arab society between… [inaudible]… and Nour about the importance—and her doubts—about the validity how to analyze, if you will, public opinion, in the Arab world in light of the lack of political participation, and the lack of democracy in these societies. However, I think we should be careful not to conclude that somehow public opinion surveys are irrelevant in the Arab World. There is a relevance for Arab public opinion, and it should be measured and it should be analyzed regardless of that discrepancy, if you will.
In terms of what Shibley said earlier about why—I guess the best term here is why are we witnessing this out of fatigue in support for the Palestinians. It’s almost a reminiscent in the early 90s of donors’ fatigue that we all are aware of and engage in analyzing after the initial phases of the Oslo process, and when people had to begin to foot the bill for that process. So, that donors fatigue seems to have changed a bit and hasn’t become a support fatigue. Part of it is a natural result of a protracted conflict. This is a conflict that has lasted more than 72 years, since the creation of the state of Israel, plus many years before that in preparation for that. And people get tired of protracted conflict. Frankly, the Palestinian side was not innocent in that. I know we’re going to be discussing death in a bit, but I wanted to refer to a particular turning point in Palestinian politics that contributed to this trend, which is the period when the Palestinians became obsessed with something in Arabic—we called it at that time; it’s the (????)—when we began to pursue, and decision-makers in Palestine, began to pursue this independence of the Palestinian decision-making process. The message that was sent to the public and to Arab officials is that we don’t want you as a partner. And that was the beginning of the loss in the Arab depth of the Palestine question. And I don’t think we have recovered from that ever since.
With regards to public opinion, I know Shibley referred to his, and his work is great on this, I just would like to add that the Arab opinion index that is conducted by Arab Center in Doha—our colleagues in Doha—has done the last survey was of course, 2017-18. We haven’t been able to finish the surveys since then. That’s a survey involving more than 18,000 people in the Arab world, involving more than 12 countries, and so on. And, basically the results are still significant. I would expect some minor deterioration in those numbers.
At the time, we basically—the aggregate in terms of attitude toward the Palestinian cause, which we did by country—but the aggregate for all the Arabs interviewed, 77% said that Palestine belongs to them as to the Palestinians. So, that is very important. In terms of actual opposition to normalization with Israel in the absence of peace, again, an aggregate of 87% of all Arabs polled at the time—including countries like Saudi Arabia, where the percentage was close to 80%—by the way, ironically, the least, in terms of who owns the Palestine question, the lowest numbers were in Palestine at the time. Only 64% wanted to share Palestine with other Arabs, so that gives you also another angle of complexity in this issue. Somehow, some Palestinians, a significant number of Palestinians, tend to view ownership of the cause as a zero-sum game. It’s all mine. I don’t want to cede it to others. Thank you.
Omar H. Rahman: Thank you, Khalil. Mouin, do you want to jump in on this or should we move on?
Mouin Rabbani: Maybe one brief comment; I think Shibley gave a very concise overview of the issue. I would perhaps just add one thing, which is, at least through the mid 1970s, Arabs were not engaged solely in support and solidarity with the Palestinians, but they also viewed it very much as an Arab-Israeli conflict.And viewed the question of Palestine as very much an Arab issue. And that perhaps also explains the point Shibley made that international parties—the degree of attention they paid to the question of Palestine—was in many ways a function of the extent to which they believed that it was an Arab concern. And I think it genuinely has been an area of concern in the sense that people see it as affecting the entire region. And, their own society is rather more narrow in the context of an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That I think has also begun to change in recent decades, in significant part because you’ve had the emergence of local nationalisms in very many Arab States. But that was really just a small point I wanted to add to Shibley’s points.
Omar H. Rahman: Okay, so we have Khalil saying this protracted conflict of 72 years has maybe induced a certain fatigue that’s natural. I mean, is it unreasonable to have that fatigue in the Palestinian issue for that long through changes of generation. But he also is pointing the Palestinian national movements decision, or obsession, as he called it to take agency over their own national movement, and that led to kind of the initial break with the Arab world, and maybe seeing it as an Arab-Israeli conflict. Obviously, you have peace treaties with the two main players outside of the Palestinians, which are Jordan and Egypt, which pulls back even further from this being an Arab-Israeli conflict. And we have Shibley and Mouin pointing to the fact that this basic assumption, which I brought up in my introduction, this assumption that this issue matters to all Arabs and that kind of checked—kept certain regimes in check—in terms of how they behaved on the Palestinian issue, but also informed the Europeans and the Americans and others in terms of where they placed the Palestinian issue within the larger Israeli context at the center of it. This needs to be resolved first. Maybe that assumption is weakening.
I think a very important point was brought up in terms of decision-making, and I’d like to kind of move into that a little bit on the Palestinian issue. And, I’ll go to mine actually on Palestinian decision-making and how it’s affected the relationships with the Arab world. Can you address that? Do you want me to get into specific questions? Are you able to kind of tackle that issue or raise it for us?
Mouin Rabbani: I’m not sure precisely what the question is.
Omar H. Rahman: Well, I think that the Palestinian national movement made decisions along the way, Some, I think obvious decisions—we know in, in Jordan, when it was based in Jordan, how it related to the regime there, when it was based in Lebanon, vis-a-vis the civil war—there are other decisions that have been made in its entrance into the Oslo Accords, its decision to remain committed to the Oslo Accords, even as it was collapsing, have those kind of decisions affected the relationship with the Arab world? Have they told the Arab world, you know, “we remain committed to this relationship in terms of our security cooperation with Israel or whatever? It’s okay for you to discuss—”
Mouin Rabbani: Yes, very much so. I think despite the discussion we’ve been having just in this session; I think Oslo was an absolutely key turning point. Well, let’s go back a bit. I think the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was a key turning point, because it not only removed the Arab military option, but it also took off the table a credible Palestinian diplomatic option, because I think without the leverage of a potential new Egyptian-Israeli confrontation, the Palestinians lost, I think, their main element of diplomatic leverage they could have had. And while it’s true that there have been covert Arab Israeli-ties through the decades, with Morocco stretching back to the 1960s, and Oman after the 1970s and so on, I think Madrid, and particularly Oslo, were key turning points because it was essentially sending a message to Arab governments of you don’t need to be more Catholic than the Pope. And I think when we look at the broader issue of Arab public support for the Palestinians, how can you mobilize Arab support around issues like security cooperation? Or land swaps? Or these increasingly petty issues in a broader context?
I think this also builds a little on the point Khalil was making that the Palestinians seem to transform from being the main proponents of their own cause to being, let’s say, the sole owners of it… in making clear that it was not for the Arabs to have input into Palestinian strategy; this would be something that Palestinians maintain the right to determine independently of the regional context. That, in effect, legitimized other Arab governments doing so.
Now there’s another issue when you talk about previous Palestinian conflicts, for example, with the Jordanian monarchy or during the Lebanese civil war, whatever one may think of Palestinian conduct during those periods, at least these were conflicts and confrontations that directly involve the Palestinians themselves.
I think one significant change we’ve seen in the past two decades is that Palestinians have become part of regional coalitions that do not directly involve the Palestinians. And it’s gotten even worse because you’ve had the schism within the Palestinian national movement, and what you now have is rival Palestinian leaderships aligning themselves with rival regional coalitions in an increasingly polarized Arab world and Middle East. I think that’s worked very much to the detriment of the Palestinians.
Omar H. Rahman: Thank you, Mouin. Does anybody else want to jump in on this?
Shibley Telhami: Well, if I may, I do think that, it’s not only that we’ve had diversity across the Arab world, as Nour points out it’s whether it’s public opinion or governments. It’s also the nature of the relationship. It’s not just symbolic that there was an Arab-Israeli conflict and a Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it was materially true after 1967. I mean, after 1967—you can say before ’67 the conflict was there mostly politically, it wasn’t active since 1948, except in ‘56, which was over something really a bit different—And ‘67 transformed the conflict in some ways because Israel controlled state Arab state territory, and they had bilateral interest in a particular kind of relationship with Israel. And, and so we’ve had this transformation take place over a long period of time, and I’ve always viewed the 1974 recognition of the PLO as a sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people coming after the ‘73 war as something like “you are now partly on your own… it is not only that we’re going to support you, but you represent yourself.”
And, and this has evolved over time to varying degrees, but one thing that’s been interesting historically about the Arab world and Palestine is that there was always some competition within the Arab world dating back, obviously, to the Nasser era—what Malcolm Kerr called the Arab cold war—where the tension played into the importance of Palestine because one faction can use it against the other with public opinion. There has been a competitiveness that we’ve seen even after Egypt made its own peace with Israel. It was expelled from the Arab League and there was a coalition of forces allied against Egypt.
So, there has historically been some different powers in the Arab world that had competitive interests that animated the importance of Palestinian issue. We have not seen that in recent years. Really after the Iraq war with the decline of Iraq as a powerful state, and then the Arab uprisings that have sidelined Syria and Libya and so forth… the cluster of powerful States in our world are roughly on the same side of this issue to varying degrees, and therefore, there isn’t as much contention, among the governments on this issue, and that actually diminishes in some ways the importance of the issue.
The only time there was total support—unanimous support—where Arab States came together was really after the ‘67 war on the Khartoum conference, over the issue of Palestine, but that was in large part because everybody was on the defensive because of the Israeli win and occupation of, not only, additional Palestinian lands, but also Egyptian lands, Jordanian lands, Syrian lands.
And I think we have to put this in perspective. We do have a little bit of a change environment, and more than that, I think it’s wrong to read everything that happens in the Trump years as only happening because of what’s happening in the Arab relationship. This is an administration that has highlighted the Palestine question, used the muscle of the superpower to implement a particular interpretation of what should be done on that issue in ways that we had never seen before with many Arab governments who are dependent on the United States. And that relationship has a lot to do with, what’s been transpiring within the region itself.
Omar H. Rahman: I agree with that point and I’ll come back to it here in a second, but on the issue of competition in the region, do you not—at least my reading of the region is there seems to be intense competition between rival factions in the region, especially after the Arab spring for influence for determining outcomes. Obviously, the Palestinian issue hasn’t been there in the same way some people thought. People thought if you did come to the table with Israel that would allow a rival faction to tarnish your reputation on that front, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. Is that because—
Shibley Telhami: No. What I meant was state competition, because I mean, there’s of course competition, as I said, the Palestine question in some ways has become an opposition question in the Arab world. So yes, opposition groups, secular or Islamist, you can see in multiple places where they’re voicing themselves, whether it’s in Indonesia and Egypt, or elsewhere. The oppositional groups embrace it and therefore it’s more threatening to governments.
But within the Arab world among governments, there really isn’t substantial—there’s some, obviously, some aberration state here or there, but of the influential States that have that hold weight in the international community, there has been far less competition. And that’s why, I think it’s maybe perhaps like no other period in recent history that we have seen.
Omar H. Rahman: Thank you. Does anybody else want to jump in on that?
Mouin Rabbani: Well, maybe just to add to that… another dynamic… I mean, Shibley was referring to the Arab Cold War, and if you remember the Saudi-Egyptian competition, in the 1960s or the Egyptian-Syrian competition, they’re always trying to outdo each other in terms of proclaimed support for the Palestinians, or what was then seen as, as the Arab cause if you will, and trying to besmirch the reputations of the rivals.
If you look at the situation now, it’s almost the opposite about who can brag about having the best relationship with the United States and to a certain extent with Israel. But also, if you look at the Palestinian dimension, one problem is that not only have the rival Palestinian leaderships become enmeshed in these rival, and polarized, regional coalitions, but also their main objectives in these coalitions seems to be support for their factional rivalry, with their Palestinian competitors with much less thought being given to how they can mobilize Arab and regional and international support for the confrontation with Israel. And I think that’s an important divergence as well.
Nour Odeh: I just wanted to go back to the issue of the independence of the Palestinians staking control and having agency over their political decisions. I don’t agree with Khalil that this was a departure or one of the reasons why Arab regimes stopped supporting Palestine. I think it’s very important to remember that since the beginning of the modern day Palestinian national movement, its leadership has acted to play a very tough, almost impossible balancing act, to stay clear of attempts by different Arab countries to assert the Palestinian cause to assert the Palestinian voice to take control over the PLO and its agenda.
And, there have been many episodes, some of them quite bloody, where Arab regimes attempted that. So, I think 1974 provided Palestinians with enough strength to be able to defend having their own agenda, irrespective of what geopolitics could introduce in the Arab agenda, the wider Arab agenda. And in that sense, I think we also need to read Oslo as a product of those dynamics, the Palestinian leadership. It has to take responsibility of course, for its own decisions. But at the same time, I think reaching Oslo wouldn’t have been possible the way it was done. The text that was agreed on, the formulations that were agreed to, wouldn’t have been possible had the Arab dynamics been more supportive and more positive and prioritized Palestinian rights.
The fact is Palestinians were never, I mean, the endorsement of Palestine was like, should we set in the context of that competition? And in many, many Palestinian circles, you hear a lot of—there’s a lot of literature on this, a lot of poetry on this, how much Palestinians are loved when they die. Not when they’re alive, not when they have an agenda for resisting the occupation that was alive. And that goes back to the idea that the Arab regimes that want to claim that they are the most supportive of the Palestinian cause jump in when there’s a conflict, when there’s a bloody conflict, when there are air strikes and so on and so forth.
But in terms of political support, in terms of being able to align your strategic goals and weight with the Palestinian cause… that’s always been a problem. I mean, I think it’s important not to talk about official Arab support as if it was always iron-clad, as always unquestionably with Palestine, and always put Palestine at the front. There have always been other strategic considerations and a balancing act that Palestinians have had to make. It was nearly impossible to make those that balancing act leading up to Oslo, going back to Lebanon, going back to Jordan, the list goes on and on. There’s a long history of that back and forth. I don’t want to call it an antagonistic relationship, but definitely there was always tension and competing interests in, in that regard. That’s why I disagree with the thinking of the1974 recognition as a setback, rather than as a protection, from that competition. But again, these are different interpretations, different opinions.
Khalil Jahshan: I did not imply that the ‘74 decision was necessarily a setback. The dilemma of Palestinian leadership, the dilemma of the Palestinian cause, has been this inability to reconcile, leadership wise, between what is needed internally to assert, if you will independence, and the decision-making process and to protect the cause from countries and governments, by the way, who have not been supportive of the Palestine cause long before even the Palestine problem existed. Wavering on the Palestine issue existed even long before the state of Israel was established in 1948. So, Palestinians are used to that. What I was referring to is the fact that this period, the debate, particularly the public debate that took place among Palestinians, particularly Palestinian intellectuals, politicians—as if the Palestinians insist on their own total independence, they don’t need their Arab death.
And that takes us back to what you Shibley said earlier, being the weakest of links, Palestine is not necessarily the strongest of the 22 Arab entities in the Arab World, has never been, and probably never will be.
Omar H. Rahman: Khalil, do you mind if I jump in just to switch the conversation a little bit?
Khalil Jahshan: Sure.
Omar H. Rahman: Okay, because I’m hearing a common thread involving the competition between Arab States and the use of the Palestinian issue, but also Palestinian weakness. Is there a reason that we’ve seen the abandonment of the use of the Palestinian clause in terms of competition between States? Where does that weakness among Palestinians—obviously we know where it stems from—but are the Palestinians getting weaker in the sense of their ability to influence regional events as they once were? They were once a regional force and it stemmed from that, and that that weakness they’ve been kind of penned in and to the state building project and their ability to influence events in the region has dissipated. I mean, is that a consequence of that?
And I just want to bring up one more point as we kind of transition. Again, I think the Palestinian national movement in its heyday in the ‘60s and ‘70s was led by a different group of people. It had a different kind of liberation movement to it. We’ve transitioned into something else, a state building project. We have bureaucrats and these kinds of people that maybe failed to inspire in the region. There are issues of corruption, issues of dysfunctional governance and all that kind of thing. What is the impact of all that; I want to get into that issue.
Mouin Rabbani: Could I maybe give a brief comment to that. Also to build a little on Khalil’s previous comment, I think it’s fair to say that more or less until Oslo, Egypt and Camp David, of course being the very prominent exception, the Palestinian leadership was in a position to compel at least formal Arab support for its core demands and a kind of formal Arab unity that began, I think, to shift… first after the Gulf crisis of the early nineties, and even more so after Oslo.
And a second point I would make is whenever we have these discussions, we shouldn’t always automatically assume that Palestine is a center of the universe, in the sense that many of these issues that we’re discussing, governments are taking decisions that have an impact, and sometimes a very significant impact on Palestine and the Palestinians, but they’re making these decisions for reasons that have little and sometimes nothing to do with the Palestinians. They’re taking them for—on the basis of—completely different agendas and different objectives. Therefore, I think it’s important to keep in mind the motivations that regional parties have in formulating their policies, which may or may not be related to the Palestinians.
The only connection here I would make is the extent to which they’re able to disregard Palestinian interests and objectives, and making such decisions is I think increasingly a reflection of Palestinian weakness, the vision, and to a certain extent, self-imposed powerlessness.
Shibley Telhami: Omar, I think that’s a good point that Mouin made, but if I may add in relation to your specific question about the Palestinian influence. I’ve already said obviously the division is critical because people don’t know; there’s a confusion even about what it means to be pro-Palestinian at the public level in the Arab world.
But I think if you look at what happened institutionally to the Palestinians since Oslo you have a Palestinian authority that is speaking for the Palestinians that is accepted and represented in the Arab world, and it is under Israeli occupation. So, think about that relationship.
But there is a pretense of a statehood. And so, even at the public level, even while you under occupation at the pretense… a statehood there’s, a pretensive of symmetry… at the same time that you’re very limited. So I think there’s no question that if you look at that structural situation in the perception of our public, if you want to analyze how the public may perceive it, coupled with the fact that the Palestinian issue has not been really active in terms of large-scale violence —except in the episodes of war with Gaza in recent years. In comparison to the dynamically active and horrific and really painful way in many parts of the Arab world.
And I think that Mouin’s point about Arab’s are going to obviously first and foremost act in their own interests, whether it’s governments or the publics. The Palestinians have to understand that in sorting out their own priorities and also in, in building relations with the Arab world, mindful of the interests of the others, because otherwise, obviously people are going to move out without you.
Omar H. Rahman: Thank you. I also second Mouin’s point, I think it’s absolutely right. The point I’m trying to make, or get at, is again, of course, Arab States are pursuing their interests that often happen. No connection to the Palestinians per se, but I’m talking about the disregard for the Palestinian issue, or the ability to disregard the Palestinians in pursuing those interests is maybe different than it once was.
So, we’re trying to get at what has caused that weakness that allows Arab States to disregard the Palestinians. I want turn to Nour because I wanted to get into internal Palestinian politics, the fragmentation, the disarray, and how it’s affected that. Obviously, we have a long-standing fissure between Fatah and Hamas, obviously there are many other political factions and political parties within the Palestinian context to take consideration of, but you know, different States don’t have maybe a singular address anymore to deal with the Palestinian issue. There’s Hamas on one side, there is Fatah and the other… how has that affected the relationship?
Nour Odeh: Well, I mean legally speaking, internationally speaking, the address for Palestinians remains the PLO and I think Palestinians would be thankful that at least that political standing hasn’t been put into question because that would be detrimental and devastating to the Palestinian cause, the Palestinian representation. Having said that, I think that when we talk about the state of Palestinian affairs, we often talk about the fact that Hamas divide, but really, I think what we’re living is a completely unraveling political system.
We have 14, 15, 16—I don’t know—political factions in Palestine, but Hamas being the largest, of course. But what do these factions really mean to the Palestinian people? That is the question we haven’t asked ourselves yet as Palestinians. It is, I’ve often written about how tribal Palestinian factionalism is. So, you belong to the tribe of Fatah, you belong to the tribe of Hamas, you belong to the tribe of the PFLP; maybe in terms of social relations and even voting in universities or municipality watching, or when we have elections for parliament. But, at the same time, I think increasingly opinion, polls and studies are showing that more and more Palestinians, especially the youth, who are the absolute majority of Palestinians—not just in the occupied territory, but in the diaspora as well—more and more of them are disenfranchised and they don’t want to be part of any of those political tribes. Many of these political factions exist in name, quite frankly, and the fact that they continue to be present and have a seat at the table only adds to the burden, in my opinion, that Palestinians are having to bear about how to go about fixing their political system.
In my humble opinion, what we need is a reformulation of the social contract. In the past, 20 years before—and you know, a lot of these players have been there for 40-50 years, it’s not like we’ve changed too many faces—but these were actors who had weight in the Palestinian political scene. Now that weight is symbolic, and it’s detached from what Palestinians want, the kind of conversation they want to change, and who they want to be at the table. That requires a lot of soul searching, and I don’t think we’re anywhere, frankly, near where we need to be to start that conversation domestically.
I say that because Palestinians are always mindful of what the external factors are, and how any of these demands might reflect or factor into or facilitate outside agendas—especially now with the UAE-Israel deal, and with renewed talks of Palestinian rejectionism and so on and so forth.
So, there’s always that fear that Palestinian need for reform would be used for other reasons, other external agendas. But I don’t think that that should inhibit us from having the kind of soul searching that we need to have as Palestinians everywhere, not just in the occupied territory. How do you reformulate the PLO so that it is not just the politically accepted address of the Palestinians, but that it is the politically relevant and active and meaningful actor and representative of the Palestinian people? How do you move from traditional rules of engagement in the Palestinian scene to something completely new? And who are the actors who will take charge of that change? Because, again, the figures matter, the names matter, who introduces these ideas and charges ahead with that change will matter a lot in the, inter-Palestinian dynamic.
Palestinians are fed up with the Hamas-Fatah polarization because it has been the debilitating, and quite frankly, it’s been exposed more and more for the farcical division that it is. Hamas has endorsed a two-state solution. There isn’t really a political rift between the two agendas. Everybody’s looking to talk about the two States formula. Hamas was even looking forward to talking with the American administration before Trump came along and even with Trump… before all the other steps that he took.
So, there isn’t really a huge rift in terms of political goals or agenda. There is almost a consensus among present political actors about the two-state formula, about the need to end the occupation possibly through negotiations or a combination of negotiations and resistance, whether it’s popular resistance or otherwise.
But I think the question that all of these actors haven’t asked themselves is how relevant they are to Palestinian youth; how much they have acceptance among the Palestinian youth. Again, I have to remind again and again, they are the absolute majority of Palestinians. Palestinians are now ruled—and this is not about ageism, but I think this is one of the many ironies we live—we’re ruled by the 1% in terms of age group. Okay. And the feeling that you are not just not heard, you have no seat at the table, you have no way to enter the door, has led to what I think is often misread as apathy among ordinary Palestinians. And I think it’s not apathy. My reading of it is that it’s a heightened sense of frustration that has led to complete disengagement and searching for other ways of doing this—even if it is in the cool-headed calculation of strategic thinkers, risky and dangerous and possibly rocking the boat too much. But I think that’s where we’re at as Palestinians, inside Palestine, historical Palestine, and throughout the diaspora. That’s where things get tricky and it will take a lot of strength and a lot of wisdom, perhaps, to move along the conversation and the change that is needed in a very unconventional way, departing from all the rules of Palestinian politics.
Omar H. Rahman: Great. Now, I want to pivot off your discussion of both the youth, alienation, also the diaspora… we have a question from the audience on how young Palestinians might affect change outside of the establishment. I think you’ve touched on a lot of that. One thing I’m curious about is, you see the dysfunction within the Palestinian authority and among Palestinian factions, and the divisions obviously, which are debilitating. There are other parts of the Palestinian national movement, in a way, that are younger or more dynamic or more inclusive.
But in a sense, you have, let’s say, the BDS movement, which is operating mostly abroad and mostly in the West, right? So do the young Arabs of the region or diaspora Palestinians in the Middle East, are they alienated from those dynamic parts of the movement? Because BDS, for obvious reasons, doesn’t operate in that part of the world. It’s more in the West where it’s more engaged.
Is that something—as I mentioned earlier, I think the center of Palestinian political life has shifted inside. It’s under occupation, as Shibley said, and it’s, you know, disconnected from the Arabs, from young Arabs, from the region from diaspora Palestinians—so how does that all affect the regional relationship to the Palestinian cause or identification or connection to it?
Nour Odeh: Well, I think that the BDS is an exception because there is a Pan-Arab BDS connection. It is the minority, if you will, it’s not necessarily groups who are supported by governments.
And of course, officially, there isn’t a lot of Israeli Arabic exchange in terms of goods and so on. But the idea of resisting normalization is very much present among Arabs throughout the region and Palestinians even inside occupied Palestine. I don’t think that the fact that the leadership is inside occupied Palestine should have been a reason to disconnect with the region. I don’t think that that necessarily should have been the outcome.
Omar H. Rahman: Shibley mentioned earlier that the Palestinian leadership has taken for granted, maybe, its relationships and has not fostered them. Is that true in your eyes? Is that something you see as having affected those relationships?
Nour Odeh: I think that that is true to a large extent. I think that it’s not just taking the public for granted, it’s the fact that these Arab political scenes changed and shifted. And the ability for the Palestinians to officially engage in those circles became more and more limited because of the polarization, because of the divided camps in the Arab world, so to speak. So, you have Syria with its alliances, and you have Saudi Arabia with its alliances, and now with the Arab spring it became even more complicated.
So, a lot of things went into that. I think it’s a combination of so many things that ended up with Palestinians, officially, at least, where they are right now. And part of it is the fact that when you’ve been doing something for so long, you stop being creative. Frankly, that’s part of the problem that we have as Palestinians. You can’t be doing something for 20, 30, 40 years and still find new ways of doing it. It’s just, it’s not natural.
The fact that less and less actors in the scene have been involved, I think, contributed to the lack of creativity in dealing with the Arab world, but also with international public opinion at large, with mobilizing in various capitals as well. With the new and emerging actors and analyze for Palestine that we could have, we should have been, working with for at least the past four or five, 10 years, in some cases, to the benefit of the cause.
Omar H. Rahman: Let’s bring in some of our other panelists. Khalil, do you have your mic off? Did you want to jump in?
Khalil Jahshan: Whoa. I frankly don’t know where to start so many good points were made, and I’d like to kind of weigh in on some of these.
I think Nour raised the issue of the PLO kind of remaining the main address for the Palestinians. The problem that we face today as Palestinians is the fact that the PLO is dysfunctional. Like it or not, it is our only address. It’s our only unifying institution that represents the Palestinian, it is the base of whatever remaining support we have in the Arab world and in the international community, that was secured over the years by PLO institutions and PLO diplomatic activity. But the PLO is a semblance of its former self. I don’t know where it is right now. So that’s number one.
Number two—so you have a dysfunctional institution speaking on behalf of a cause—number two it’s that dysfunction has also spread internally. I mean, who’s in charge in Palestine. Is it the PLO or the PA? There are a lot of contradictions in the decision-making process.
To the relationship that you wanted me to discuss, which is the issue with the diaspora. Definitely, there is a dysfunction in the relationship with the diaspora. I remember the days when the PLO had a major department dealing with the diaspora, had a significant chunk of its agenda, its time, its resources, directed at that. That doesn’t exist anymore. As a matter of fact, I even blame the PLO—current and past leadership—for distorting and displaying that relationship. I think what our leadership has done over the years, in terms of relations with the diaspora—and the diaspora is so important, you’re talking about more than half of the Palestinian people are in the diaspora. And if they’re not involved, then more than half of your people, in addition to half internally under the control of the Palestinian authority are not involved. So, who’s deciding? I mean, we go back to what Nour said, a minority is deciding. Maybe the 1% is ruling the 90%. That is not functional.
The blame goes back, frankly—in the old days, even when Yasser Arafat was involved, he did focus a lot on the diaspora. Except, he did the opposite of what Kennedy used to advocate… do not ask what your country can do for you… it was the opposite. Instead of making the Palestinian diaspora ask, what can we do for our country, the PLO kind of tried to control the diaspora. And that spoiled efforts, particularly in the West, where the diaspora needed to identify as American as European as, as what have you, and make an impact on its own. Instead, it has become a tool [inaudible] before it was totally dismantled. But it drifted into a tool of the PLO. And unfortunately, that disease that Nour referred to earlier—factionalism—spread to the diaspora and helped destroy it.
So, right now there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in terms of diaspora-PLO relationship. We have been discussing that every time we meet Palestinian leaders, but, frankly, the resources, human, financial, and the political will is not there to heal that relationship at this time.
Omar H. Rahman: Thank you… very important. Mouin, you wanted to jump in?
Mouin Rabbani: I think, just to add to that, I think there are several dynamics at work here. In addition to the institutional dysfunction of that Khalil described, I think it’s fair to say you’ve also had a disintegration of the national movement as a whole.
A second factor—
Omar H. Rahman: Let me stop you very quickly. I just, you know—this is very important—but we want to keep framing this within the topic at hand, which is also the relationship with the Arab world and how it’s been affected by that dysfunction.
Mouin Rabbani: Yeah. Well, I would say part of the explanation for this is that, at least since Oslo, and I think going back sometime before, is that the Palestinian leadership has oriented itself primarily on legitimizing itself in the West, and particularly on establishing a formal relationship with the U S government. And, one effect that that has had is that it has very much diminished the previous importance that the Palestinian leadership attached to mobilizing its own people, including the diaspora, and maintaining that web of Arab support.
And, the third point I would make about the diaspora is if you look at the actual implications of the Oslo Accords, I think it was you, Omar, who said that it refocused the Palestinian leadership or transferred it from exile to the occupied territories. I think that’s overstating a bit because it wasn’t so much the physical location as the political relocation. You have, for example—now the main legislative body is the Palestinian Authority’s Legislative Council, which formally represents less than half of Palestinians, but yet it has become kind of a supreme legislative body for the Palestinian people as a whole. And the problem was that the PA was established as a subordinate agency of the PLO, but over time, that relationship has become completely inverted so that today the PLO is effectively an appendage to the PA, which has become the locus of decision-making as well as the primary agency for Palestinian-Arab relations. And I think this helps explain not only the marginalization of the diaspora, which as Khalil pointed out, comprise more than half the Palestinian people, but also the increasingly narrow focus of Palestinian-Arab relationships.
Omar H. Rahman: Right. Thank you. We have about 13 minutes left. Shibley, did you want to jump in on that? Or ask another question?
Shibley Telhami: I don’t want to specifically talk about that because as you suggested, I think we’re really talking about Palestinian relations with the Arab world, much more than about what’s happening among Palestinians.
I think one of the things I really want to point out is the fluidity of the environment. I think at the core there’s still a huge reservoir of support in favor of the policies in the Arab world. Everything that I have seen suggests that even if it has diminished in its importance, in some places based on the immediate priorities, the core support for Palestine and attitudes toward Israel have shifted only a little bit, but I think there’s a lot of reservoir support for the Palestinians.
We see that in a way it’s mobilizing among opposition. Remember though that all of this period that we talked about, this is not new, we have been there before, you know, after big junctures where the Palestinians are on the other side of governments in the Arab world, and sometimes targeted. But I think when you look at the fluidity of the past decade, it’s particularly unique because of the Arab uprisings and what it has done, not only in terms of making regimes more insecure than ever given the nature of the uprisings, but also because of the devastating internal wars. Both civil wars and proxy wars. And obviously Yemen, Syria, and Libya are only examples, but this is a fluid environment, we don’t know how it’s all going to play itself out and in the coming months and years, and there’s a fluid international environment that’s shifting and an American policy environment that is shifting.
I think it isn’t like, you can say this is a fixed, one directional relationship, of Arab abandonment of Palestinians. I don’t believe that. I think there’s a reduction in importance and I think the way to formulate a strategy is to engage. And one of the ways—you can’t sit outside—even if there are parties in the Arab world who want to bypass you for their own strategic interests, survival interests, for pressure from the international community, you’ve got to engage them because the Arab world remains the principal reservoir of support for the Palestinians. And, by engaging them, you have to take them into account, you have to make compromises, you have to understand their issues, but above all, you have to project empathy with the suffering of the Arab people everywhere… Separate from the question of Palestine because you can’t be too self-centered despite the fact that Palestinian issue is relatively unique and the Palestinians have been under occupation in the West bank and Gaza for 53 years. There’s a lot of suffering in the Arab world and the Palestinians are going to have to find a way to connect with people in the Arab world who are suffering as well.
Omar H. Rahman: Well said. You know, I brought up in my opening remarks the fluidity of context. I very much agree that the context is fluid. Regimes are making decisions based on the current context, and the risk analysis involved in that. But those contexts can change and obviously there’s a reservoir of support among the Arab publics for the Palestinian issue, and that may be fundamental in determining what comes next.
So, let’s with our last 10 minutes, try to focus on the future, and look at where is headed or what the Palestinians need to do. Obviously, Shibley you just touched on it. I was going to take one more question from the Q&A.
Someone brought up the fact that the Arab world is, obviously, 20% of the Muslim world, and that the Palestinian issue doesn’t just resonate among Arabs, it resonates globally, but also among Muslims for their connection. Maybe you can touch on this, Shibley, quickly while I have you. How impactful is all of this to the larger Muslim world and the connection—
Shibley Telhami: There’s no question that is resonates among Muslims globally. It also, by the way, resonates among a lot of people on the left who are secular globally. As I say, human rights communities in Europe, US, elsewhere. It’s also important in Muslim identities. We’ve seen this play itself out in multiple ways over the years, separate from the Arab world, even though I think the Arab world remains to be critical for the Palestinians as their key anchor. And I say that because I think as someone who studied identity in the Arab world, a lot of my polling has been about how people identify themselves, and there’s no question that most people in the Arab world identify themselves as all these things—meaning Arab, Muslim, and with their own state.
So, all of these issues have to be engaged because the Arab world, isn’t just an Arab world, it’s mostly a Muslim world. And this is separate from being secular or non-secular, wanting to have governance that intruded to religion or religion intrude into politics. The vast majority of Arabs are religious, and polls show that. And, and so it’s important to religious identity as well. You have to engage it.
This is separate from States. I’m very uncomfortable with the notion that there is a Muslim world. By defining 1.2 billion Muslims around the world in so many countries that are diverse in their interests and culture and history and to identify them strictly by their religion.
Imagine if we pull out Venezuela, the United States, Russia, and France and call them a Christian world or something of that sort, how helpful would that be? Religion’s important. It’s a critical issue. Palestinians are important. We do see something really interesting though that I want to point out, which is separate from the Arab States. It is fascinating that the two countries that are saying they are speaking for the policies and against normalization are the two middle Eastern countries that are not Arab and that is Turkey and Iran. And it’s kind of interesting to look back historically how this has come around.
So, yes, I mean, you can see countries that want to speak in the name of Muslims. You have in this case, Turkey in the name Sunnis and Iran in the name of Shi’a, and both of them are latching onto this issue as a critical issue but be careful not to play that game. That would be a disastrous game.
Omar H. Rahman: Alright, let me stop you. I just want to give two minutes—so we can stop on time—to the other three panelists, just for final thoughts and about the future. Khalil, why don’t we start with you? Go ahead.
Khalil Jahshan: Well, I do agree that it’s very important relationship with the Muslim world, and you’re talking about a core of about 50 plus countries regardless of how united they are or how homogeneous they are. That’s not the… [inaudible]… ocean of support has been ignored for years. And not only that, when you look at the political factor today and the fatigue that has spread and impacted the Arab position on Palestine. There’s a discrepancy between that I’d say, and the fatigue in the Muslim Islamic States around the world. It’s probably less. It’s a guess. I haven’t done surveys in either one. I would say that there is more support to tap, so I understand that essentially the question that was asked by the audience, because they felt that our focus on the Arab side and on the Palestinian side is kind of denigrating if you will, or diminishing, support for Palestine in the Muslim world. It’s still there and it needs to be addressed in.
Omar H. Rahman: Thank you very much. Nour, do you want to—just final thoughts, it doesn’t need to be on this specific question. Two minutes, please.
Nour Odeh: Look, I think Palestine is a magnet for so many groups for support from so many different perspectives. We cannot tie Palestine to one perspective, whether it’s the Arab dimension, the Muslim dimension, the Christian dimension. We cannot forget that Palestine is tied to Christianity in such a profound way. This is the birthplace of Jesus after all. But it is a rallying cause for progress, for people who really believe in human rights and not just use them as a prop or a tool to achieve political means.
And I think if we go back to the peak of Palestinian engagement worldwide, it is when we understood the centrality of the Palestinian cause to all those groups, to all those perspectives. And when we engaged all of them with the due respect and the due sincerity that is required. Palestine is important to all of them. And that’s why it’s always been on the international agenda. Not just because it is important to you politically. This is a question that was born in the hallways of the United Nations. It means something to the history of the members of those States, even though geopolitically in terms of military power and population, sure, Palestine is small. But the question is not. The weight, the burden the question of Palestine poses on the international community, on international consciousness, if we can say that, it’s quite grand. It has played an influential role in shaping the discussion on the applicability of international law. How do we achieve accountability? And we need to take all of that into consideration. If we’re going to move forward to a place where Palestine goes up on the agenda rather than them.
Omar H. Rahman: Thank you. I’ll stop you there. Mouin, you have the last word and then I’ll close.
Mouin Rabbani: Well, I think Nour makes the very valid point that Palestine is an international issue and is, and should be, the premier international question of our time. And this takes me back to Shibley’s opening remarks where he pointed out—and I’m paraphrasing, I hope accurately—that Palestine has historically made its greatest gains on the world stage where it was seen as a representative of collective Arab concerns.
The problem for the Palestinians today, or rather the challenge for them, is to find a way to once again bring the Arabs around a common agenda that supports their rights, their interests, their objectives. In order to do this, I think they—the Palestinians themselves—need to themselves determine a collective national agenda rather than seeking factional support for the purposes of internal rivalry. I’m afraid that in their current disposition, the Palestinians simply do not have the capacity or the means to formulate such a national strategy. Their main challenge is determining the institutional mechanisms and the rejuvenation of the national movement so that they can do so.
Despite all the challenges and difficulties that we’ve discussed today, I nevertheless remain confident that if the Palestinians are able to take this initiative successfully, they will eventually be able to succeed in once again mobilizing the Arab state system, as well as Arab public behind their cause.
Omar H. Rahman: That’s an excellent thought to end things on. Thank you to all the panelists for a lively discussion. I was experimenting a little bit with the format here, which was a little more unwieldy and unstructured, but I think led do a very robust conversation. So, thank you all for doing very well with that.