“Previous administrations, Republican and Democrat, very sharply resisted” the Middle East foreign policy outlook of America’s new president, Donald Trump. So argued George Washington University Middle East studies professor Nathan Brown during the February 7 presentation “Trump’s Foreign Policy Positions on Palestine and the Middle East” at Washington, DC’s anti-Israel Jerusalem Fund. The hackneyed views of the panelists and, presumably, the largely leftist audience of about fifty, including two women in Code Pink attire and “pussy hats,” strengthened the case for Trump’s anti-establishment approach.
Brown skeptically referenced Trump’s “conviction that the United States is in a civilizational battle.” Trump considers the “necessity to eliminate radical Islamic terrorism” a “very, very core theme,” thereby raising a “suspicion on some people’s parts that ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ is really a synonym for Islam.” As an example, Brown cited Trump’s references to global Muslim support for executing apostates, a factual observation of Islam’s political pathologies.
Brown condemned the “extremely pugnacious tone” of Trump and his administration, particularly forthcoming ambassador to Israel David Friedman, to whom he attributed “very, very strong, even deeply offensive statements about people who disagree with him.” He fretted—seemingly without irony—that “it is difficult to think analytically when you have so many verbal fireworks and, sort of, bombs being set off.” Brown ignored whether an unorthodox approach might improve upon the recurring failures of the Middle East foreign policy establishment.
The never-ending Arab-Israeli conflict exemplifies this uncritical acceptance of the status quo. Brown noted the past decade’s “ineffectual flailing in the context of a peace process that was created in the 1980s and 1990s.” He maintained that the Oslo Accords peace process had “viability in that time,” but “died in the mid-2000s, around the time of the Palestinian elections of 2006,” which ultimately brought Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip. The conflict in recent years has “metastasized” into a “generational struggle between two societies,” he maintained, disregarding the Islamic supremacism underling Palestinian rejection of Israel. At least now, Brown rightfully recognizes that the conflict is “not one in which some sort of concerted diplomatic push” will succeed.
Although wrong to demand that both sides undertake reforms in equal measure, Brown grasped the truth that there should be a
focus on developments within these societies, ways in which a younger generation of Palestinian political activists are just fundamentally different and check out of the questions and the structures that are answerable to the past, one in which the Israeli political spectrum is shifted in some important ways. . . . It makes sense to take a much longer perspective and not worry about what the administration said last week.
University of Maryland professor and longtime Middle East pollster Shibley Telhami, meanwhile, clung to tired, failed Middle East foreign policy concepts, including the traditional two-state solution. He was distraught at the thought of Trump initiating a “shift in paradigm” whereby policymakers could entertain ideas such as “it’s not an occupation in the West Bank; we shouldn’t support a Palestinian state; support annexation of blocs of settlements.” Reiterating the myth that Israeli settlements are key to peace, he wondered “how much damage will take place” under Trump and whether the U.S. will “be permissive of massive change on the ground” in the disputed territories from the 1967 war.
Telhami condemned Israeli “occupation” of the ancestral Jewish heartland in Judea and Samaria and rejected out of hand any connection between Islam and violence. “When someone says it is not occupation, who is going to spearhead the fight that it is occupation? When you say Islam is terrorism, who is going to spearhead the fight” against this claim, he asked.
Telhami drew hope from polling data suggesting that the Palestinians’ supposed “demand for justice actually is resonating more to America than in the past.” Similarly, he lauded the disgraceful United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which falsely called Israeli building in the West Bank and even East Jerusalem illegal, for restating “that every single inch of the territories were to be considered occupied territory.” For Telhami, it demonstrated an “international public opinion that is still very strongly on the side of fairness,” a “fairness” that apparently includes labeling Judaism’s holiest site, the Wailing Wall, “occupied.”
The panelists may have legitimate concerns about the Trump Administration’s impetuosity, but possibilities for change are preferable to the dead end policies they proffered. The dangers of Islamic supremacism deserve fresh scrutiny after years of policymakers’ politically-correct willful blindness. Likewise, rather than rote sloganeering about “land for peace,” Israel deserves the chance to apply the pressures necessary to defeat an enemy that has consistently opposed its existence. Trump will receive plenty of advice, but he would do well to avoid such Middle East studies establishment figures such as Brown and Telhami.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a J.D. from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project. Follow him on Twitter at @AEHarrod. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.