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Nathan Brown on the Campbell Conversations

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Nathan Brown
Nathan Brown

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Nathan Brown, a Political Science Professor at George Washington University and a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Brown is a scholar of the Israeli - Palestinian conflict, and of the politics and governance of the Arab world.

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. One of the most intractable conflicts in the world is that between Israel and the Palestinians, peace has been promised only to break apart over and over again. My guest today is a scholar of that conflict and of the politics and governance of the Arab world more generally. Nathan Brown is a Political Science Professor at George Washington University, and a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He's the author, coauthor, or editor of a number of books, including, Arguing Islam After the Revival of Arab Politics. On February 28th at 2pm, he'll be giving a virtual talk on the future of Palestine at the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship. For more information on that event, go to the Moynihan Institute's web page. Professor Brown, welcome to the program.

Nathan Brown: Thanks for having me.

GR: Well, it's great to have you. So let me just start with a couple of basic questions and we'll go from there. But at this point, as I mentioned in the introduction, it seems like a stable solution to this conflict seems unattainable. And the best we seem to be left with is some kind of long term manageable conflict that doesn't escalate beyond certain boundaries however they're defined. Is that impression of mine correct?

NB: I think the first part is definitely correct, that the idea of any comprehensive settlement is just not on the table right now and probably won't be for some years. Whether the current situation is manageable or not really depends on your perspective. So I think for many Israelis, essentially it is not a great situation, but it's a livable one. For the United States, there are other problems, and this is one that should be contained for a lot of the surrounding states, it's sort of the same attitude. For Palestinians, it's not. And that's actually sort of probably the crux of the matter right now is the status quo in place is unacceptable to some people but perfectly acceptable to others.

GR: We'll get into some of that in a little bit. Let me just to set the groundwork, though, (I’ll) ask a couple of other questions first and come back to that. It seems to me in my lifetime anyway, that every American president and every presidential candidate says that they're going to make some kind of lasting progress on peace. You know, that they're going they're going to do something significant to try to bring this about. But it just may seem like a dumb question, but why is this something for America and an American president to fix?

NB: Well, that's a great question. The answer partly depends on how long your life has been. I would say that since the late 1960s, most American presidents have really focused on this. And before that, they didn't so much. This was a conflict that was among many others in the world and not one that required immediate solution. But I think sort of in the Cold War period, there was a fear of superpower confrontation. The United States, the Soviet Union really were backing opposite sides and had a confrontation in 1973 that threatened to escalate. And I think after that point there was a sense that this conflict was related to many others in the region, so that if the United States wanted to do anything in the region, it ran up against the Arab-Israeli conflict. When it tried to mobilize some Arab states, for instance, to evict Iraq from Kuwait back in 1990 as an Arab state said, well yes, but you really got to address this. So that kind of got them sucked into it. And I think as well there's a close American relationship with Israel which probably become closer and closer and closer over the years. So the idea of cementing Israel's place in the region, it's also something that's been attractive to some American leaders.

GR: And Donald Trump as president obviously took some measures in this area. Some of them controversial over here, at least. What would you say is the overall effect of the Trump presidency on this issue?

NB: It may not be that much, although a Republican presidency returned with a similar kind of orientation then you might be able to discern some permanent effects. What the Trump administration did was essentially give up on two state diplomacy, it didn't put it that way. But again, it took the idea that, hey, the situation is kind of livable, as is for most parties. Let's see what we can do to make it permanent. So let's stop talking about, stop emphasizing a two state solution. This idea that Palestinians have leaders in the Palestinian Authority that should be the kernel of a Palestinian state, well, we don't really need to work with them. You know, the idea of Jerusalem, the traditional American stand was that has to be determined by negotiations, and the Trump administration moved the US embassy there. And different Trump administration officials gave different signals but some of them seemed to have some openness to the idea of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, which is this territory that would be part of a prospective Palestinian state. So there weren't necessarily any permanent changes. But what that did, I think, was to communicate to Palestinians, essentially, you can't trust the United States anymore. They're on Israel's side, they're trying to bring about a solution that we don't like and from the Israeli leadership's point of view, I think, again, it's a divided leadership there as well. But it communicated something about the partisan nature of American politics that the Israeli right half of the spectrum and the American right half of the spectrum might be might be partners. This wasn't a country to country relationship, this was sort of a partisan relationship.

GR: Interesting. One of the things that struck me when I have spoken to people from Israel is their impression of the Trump presidency. And it's quite positive for many of them. I don't know if you have any knowledge of data on how popular different American presidents were in Israel. But I at least in that very anecdotal sense, I have the sense that Trump was quite popular at least among, as you say, at least maybe perhaps among the more conservative Israelis.

NB: Yes, that's definitely the case. I mean, I remember being in Jerusalem, this was in 2018 and seeing sort of, “Thank You Trump” billboards because of the relocation of the embassy. Again that really varied for some Israelis, especially those who were particularly attached to the West Bank, who really feared the idea of a Palestinian state. Trump was, you know, for them an American who finally got what things look like from an Israeli point of view. On the Israeli left, I think there was still appreciation that a Trump presidency was pro-Israel, but not necessarily so much attachment to him and to a lot of his policies.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with George Washington University professor Nathan Brown. So has President Biden made any significant changes in the situation so far?

NB: No, and I think he's almost determined not to. What he's done is revert back to the traditional American formula about this is a need for a two state solution. One very, very subtle change is that the previous American presidents before Trump talked about restarting the peace process, about continuing the peace process, keeping up the peace process. The Biden administration says we need to build the groundwork for a new peace process. So they recognize that existing diplomatic processes just are broken, don't work, they're not there anymore. But fundamentally, I think there is an odd continuity between the Trump and Biden administration, their perception of the conflict, where it should be going, that's not necessarily all that different. But both of them are focusing on other things in the region and want this matter sort of pushed off to the side. So the Trump administration was trying to negotiate treaties between Israel and other Arab states. The Biden administration is not pushing so hard, but they liked that idea. Real big focus on Iran, the rights of Saudi Arabia in the region, other kind of regional powers like Turkey, those are getting an awful lot of the Biden administration attention. So it's not that they subscribe to the Trump administration worldview, but at least for the four years of a Biden first term, there's only one term, it's contained this, make sure it doesn't get out of hand.

GR: And of course, the other side of this equation is what's happening in Israel. And Benjamin Netanyahu, once again, the prime minister of Israel. What does that do for the prospects going forward? He's obviously associated with a particular point of view on this.

NB: Yes, it's actually wreaking pretty dramatic effects both domestically within Israel and then in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, So essentially this narrow coalition on the right won in the last Israeli election. There’s a very narrow majority in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. And they're really united around two ideas, nut the emphases are different. From Netanyahu, there is the idea of what he would call kind of reforming the political system. Through his opponents, and there are many opponents, he's not talking about reforming and he's talking about reshaping it in a way that looks like a lot of, you know, East European authoritarian leaders bringing the judiciary under control, essentially taking a narrow electoral majority and bringing the entire state apparatus under his control. So it's a lurch towards authoritarianism in their view. He's got the support of the full coalition, but for other members of the coalition, this is a golden opportunity to annex the West Bank to essentially atomize the Palestinian population. Instead of viewing the Palestinians as a national community, that the Israeli state has to come to terms with, viewing them as a bunch of inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza that have to be contained in some way and managed and also sometimes given a very, very harsh, message. So for somebody like Netanyahu, the status quo is acceptable. For his partners on the right however, no, this is a time to move the ball forward in terms of annexation of territories that would be a prospective Palestinian state. So the combination of those two things and the dramatic nature of both moves, I mean, annexation of territory or redrawing the political system has deeply divided Israel. But it's also alarmed an awful lot of Israel's friends who are saying, wait a second, you know, the Israel that we knew last year, we could deal with even if sometimes it did things we didn't like. This is a different Israel and we're really worried about where the country is going.

GR: Interesting. You know, I was thinking about Netanyahu’s background and the fact that his early professional experiences were as a soldier and he saw a lot of dramatic combat. And sometimes those experiences can make the later politician more leery of armed conflict, more keen on seeking peace. But it doesn't seem to have had that effect on him. Is that a particular dynamic politically that is in Israel that I'm seeing there?

NB: He was part of an elite commando unit. But I think the pattern is not necessarily influenced so much on that. The pattern sort of seems to be that things are kind of okay as it is. And I don't know where that comes from. He certainly, you know, was raised on the Israeli right, his father was on the right. He grew up within the right wing political movement. But if you look at his record in politics, he was a diplomat, he was U.N. ambassador and so on. He was a prime minister for a long time. It's really extremely cautious. It's essentially long term trends are working in our direction, I've just got to manage internal politics, I’ve got to manage the relationship with the United States, as long as nothing gets out of control, friends are working our direction. And that's one reason why the dramatic nature of the steps being contemplated by this government are such a shock to some people. They think this is not - the Netanyahu we knew talked tough, but never did anything dangerous or hotheaded. And now they seem to be really kind of trying to redraw the map.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Nathan Brown. He's a Political Science Professor at George Washington University and a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And we've been discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Professor Brown, I want to go back to something that you intimated near the beginning of our conversation when you were talking about what might seem sustainable from an Israeli or an American perspective versus the Palestinian perspective. And you've argued, if I understand it correctly, that although the Palestinian national movement has historically been oriented around statehood for Palestine and the two state solution, you mentioned the two state solution a little bit earlier, and that two state solution has animated the efforts of international diplomacy. That vision may no longer be appealing or persuasive to the parties in the conflict. And you've talked about some of the movements on the Israeli side of this. But could you just elaborate on where we are with a two state solution, why that might not be where things are going?

NB: Yes, certainly on the Palestinian side, if you use the term two state solution, people look at you funny. It's like what, you know, eight track tapes you know, I remember those with my youth, but no, that's not where things are. Sort of collapsing history of the Palestinian national movement very quickly, I would say for most of the 20th century, it was really oriented around the idea that Palestinians form a nation and they deserve their own state. And that state should be in all of historic Palestine. Then gradually coming to terms with the fact that, well, Israel is there, we're not going to do anything about it. So in the 70’s and 80’s, the idea of partition really took over the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement. There were people who rejected the two state solution, but the dominant force in Palestinian politics says, okay, it's time to negotiate a partition, a Palestinian state, and an Israeli state. And I think a couple of things undermine that. Number one, the sort of state like thing that seemed to be emerging, this Palestinian Authority didn't look so great. It was authoritarian, it was for some Palestinians it was collaborating with the Israelis, so statehood didn't necessarily look so exciting. But the second thing is, things were moving in that direction. Even if they were moving that direction, it was a state that was so truncated in terms of its territory, control and airspace and water and even tax revenues being collected by Israel. This wasn't a state for them. And so what was the alternative? The interesting thing, I think about Palestinian political discussions right now is when I hear them, they're not about alternatives so much, not about do we want a single state, do we want to revive the two state solution, it's kind of what do we do now to secure our rights? We need, as Palestinians to have our individual rights to travel, to work, to live and so on. And we need our national rights, some kind of way that we can exist as a people. But how that will occur, we don't know. We just know that we need to move things in an appropriate direction. So a lot of the Palestinian debates right now are really about strategy and tactics. They're not about ultimate goal anymore. But the idea that there will be a state called Palestine at the end of this doesn't excite people anymore.

GR: Huh. So what would excite them as an end goal? And what would it take to, I mean, this is a loaded term, but to actually solve this conflict.

NB: I'm not sure it will be solved. And perhaps even by this generation. I mean, my guess is that's for the next generation to worry about. What would excite Palestinians would be that what they will say is an end to occupation. But what does that mean? Does that mean that, you know, Israel completely withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza? Well, there are some Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, what happens to them? There are some Palestinians who are refugees in exile, what happens to them? So those are the kind of questions that come up that nobody necessarily has a practical answer to. So in that case, I think what excites them is just moves in a positive direction, moves towards national unity. In May 2021, you saw this outburst of violence that really worried a lot of world leaders. And this diplomacy sort of kicked into gear to try and calm the situation down. Palestinians remember that, also as a little bit of a hopeful because you had Palestinians in Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank, Palestinians in Jerusalem, Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, all kind of on the same page. And so they called that the Unity Intifada, the Unity Uprising. So I think anything that brought about kind of national unity, that brought Palestinians on the international agenda as a national unit would also excite them.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, and my guest is Middle East expert Nathan Brown. So in all of this, realistically, what can the United States do at this point, in your view, to most help the situation?

NB: Well, that's tough because you say what should the United States do, and realistically. And that's pretty hard because American policy has been very, very consistent. And that is essentially the Israel that will make concessions will be the Israel that feels very, very secure. I think at this point, the reality of the fact that there is a state of Israel that controls all of this territory, is one that has to begin to sink in. And what the United States should do would be to say, okay, if you're in control of this territory, whether you annex it or not, there's international law that governs, there’s international diplomacy that has to address this. There's a price to be paid for essentially incorporating this territory, but not giving its inhabitants any rights. That would be a sea change in American policy. It would be perceived as very pro-Palestinian. But I think it would be the only thing that would begin to dislodge this current reality.

GR: And do you foresee any fundamental changes in the orientation of the United States toward Israel?

NB: Not in the short term, no. In the long term, I think this is something that probably should concern Israeli leaders because two things have happened. Number one, it's become a partisan issue in the United States. So the Biden administration is kind of pro-Israel, like its predecessors, but it's got to answer to other forces in the Democratic Party who say, wait a second, remember the Palestinians? And the second thing this happened is I think I detect some generational change. When I talk to younger people and when I talk to older people, perception is very, very different. The idea of peace is what sort of set the peace for older conversations. The idea of justice sometimes for younger conversations and that means, I think the Biden administration, whether it's one term or two terms, and certainly any Republican administration, is not going to find a mentally rethink the American relationship with Israel. But a future Democratic administration might. And certainly the steps that the Netanyahu government is contemplating are ones that will push those tendencies within the United States in a very strong direction. So, no, I don't think anything right now, but ten years from now, if we talk again, we might be explaining the great shift in American policy.

GR: Well, I want to come back to that time frame you just put out there in a minute. But three things popped into my mind while you were talking about that. The first one is, do you think maybe we got the first inklings of that during the Obama administration, that potential shift there among particularly among the Democrats? And it seemed like there was a dramatic Israeli reaction to that whiff of that that was maybe or maybe not coming from Barack Obama.

NB: I don't think it was coming from Barack Obama himself and it wasn't coming from sort of the most senior people. But again, you did see the beginnings of this kind of pressure within the party and the Israeli leadership, as you say, it was sort of allergic to it. So they were just, you know, Obama's personal relationship with Netanyahu was very negative and sort of a fear that this was where things were going, absolutely. You heard those voices really probably more within the Bernie Sanders camp and people really to Obama’s left. But, yeah, there was some Israeli concern about that.

GR: And this generational aspect to it as well is something that I've picked up on, too, in my conversations with students versus colleagues and others in the community. I wonder if you could elaborate on that a little bit. Why is the younger generation, particularly the more progressive side of that younger generation changing in that way? I mean, I've seen, for example, some of the activists among Native American communities making an explicit link between themselves and the Palestinians and talking about settler colonialism and other kinds of phrases. But I just wondered if you could think about the generational aspect of that.

NB: Yeah, I don't know if I can explain exactly why, but I think, yes, there's been a vocabulary shift. So, settler colonialism and apartheid, those are words that older generations just didn't use, or nearly as much or it sounded shrill when they did it. And now they're just part of normal conversation. Is Israel an apartheid state is suddenly a question that people talk about. And I think the other thing that has happened is, and it's a very subtle change, if you go back 20, 30 years or so and you were to have a program saying, we're going to have the Palestinian point of view, you'd have no trouble getting a Palestinian official. Now you tend to get activists, you tend to get, and they may not even be Palestinian. They might be with the BDS move, a boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel. And so there's been sort of a shift to social movements, to activism and to, again, kind of away from high level diplomacy about a two state solution and more about a movement for social justice, kind of Black Lives Matter to a Palestinian Lives Matter too kind of approach.

GR: Yeah. And we've only got a couple of minutes left or so, but I wanted to come back to that time frame that you put out there very tantalizingly a few seconds ago, because I was going to ask you about time frame. And maybe this is my older person's mindset, but I was going to give you a 50 year time horizon and then a hundred year one, but let's take your ten year time horizon. You think there could be a fundamental shift as short as in ten years, which from the standpoint of this issue is like a blink of an eye.

NB: Yes, I think that not a resolution, but I think, again, the idea of sort of a diplomatic resolution, some return to Camp David where they wrap everything up, that's probably not going to happen. But a fundamental shift in Israel's international position where suddenly under all kinds of pressure in international law, in diplomacy and so on, and where there's a lot more sympathy for the Palestinian cause, I don't think it's inevitable. But I think there are some trends that are moving in that direction. A lot of those trends are internal to the United States.

GR: And we've only got just a few seconds left, but let's take my 50 year time horizon. What is this place going to look like 50 years from now? I know political scientists hate to make predictions like this, but I'm going to put you on the spot.

NB: I don't mind because I won't be there to be proven wrong, right?

GR: Right, neither of us will be. (laughter)

NB: I would say there will be a state there will be a single state, what it will be called, and what provisions it makes for Jews and Palestinians, I don't know. But I think the idea of a two state solution is not going to be implemented in the next half century.

GR: All right, that's fascinating, we'll have to leave it there. That was Nathan Brown, and again on February 28 at 2pm Professor Brown will be giving a virtual talk on the future of Palestine at the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship. And for more information about that, just simply look up, Google the Moynihan Institute's Web page, that's the Moynihan Institute at Maxwell School. Professor Brown, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

NB: Thanks for having me.

GR: You've been listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.