The following is an edited transcript of remarks by Stephen Walt to the Middle East Policy Council's 72nd conference on Capitol Hill about expanding the debate on U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine. Dr. Walt is a professor of international affairs at Harvard University.
It’s a pleasure to be here this morning, and I want to thank the Middle East Policy Council for sponsoring the event. In his essay on democracy, John Stuart Mill famously argued that the liberty of thought and discussion was essential to a healthy democracy because suppressing ideas or debate made us more likely to commit errors, to keep repeating past mistakes. If you want to know why Middle East policy here in the United States has been replete with failures over the past several decades, one reason has been our inability to have a candid and honest discussion about it. And as long as our public discourse on this topic is warped, our foreign policy is going to be warped too.
So I want to make three quick points today. First, I’m going to argue that the two-state solution is either dead or on life support, and that its failure is going to require us to start thinking about alternatives.
Second, I’m going to explain why it’s still hard to have a frank discussion about these issues and consider whether that situation has started to change and are we starting to get a more open debate.
And third, I’m going to offer a few suggestions for what could be done to keep expanding public debate on this very important topic.
So let me start by why I think we’re going to need a more open discussion. For the past 15 years or so, the idea of a two-state solution has been the consensus goal of the foreign policy establishment. And just remember, this was not true before then. The Oslo Accords do not mention a Palestinian state. First Lady Hillary Clinton got into trouble in 1998 when she openly called for the creation of a Palestinian state. She was too early.
Since Camp David in 1999, however, the two-state solution has become the default. This is a convenient fig leaf for politicians. Even if we aren’t making any progress, they can always say that our ultimate goal is two states for two peoples. I might add, I’ve been a consistent advocate for a two-state solution as well.
But the problem, as you all know, is that this goal is further away than ever. Indeed, many serious analysts in the United States and in the Middle East, including Israel, believe it is now impossible. The number of settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem exceeds 600,000. Settlements like Maale Adumim cut the West Bank into separate enclaves. The Palestinians themselves remain weak and divided, cannot put meaningful pressure on Israel or negotiate in an even way.
The current Israeli government is dead set against the creation of a viable Palestinian state, and politics there have been drifting to the right for a couple of decades. Moreover, Israel is now dependent on water from aquifers in the West Bank, which makes it harder and harder to imagine how a viable, genuine Palestinian state could be created. Obama’s failure to make progress on this issue or to slow the expansion of settlements has made it clear that the United States will never be a truly honest broker.
And you put all that together, and it’s why Secretary of State Kerry recently told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that, quote, “The window for a two-state solution is shutting. We have a year to two years and it’s over.”
If Kerry’s right, then we’re going to need to start thinking about alternatives. At some point, you won’t be able to say you support a two-state solution without making people laugh. It just won’t be credible any longer. And sooner or later, that will be true for members of Congress and secretaries of state and for presidents. The fig leaf of a two-state solution won’t cover them up anymore. When that day arrives, people will want to know what the United States is in favor of instead, which in turns we need — means we need to be able to have that kind of honest discussion of where we’re headed.
And remember, if the two-state solution is gone, there are only really three alternatives: A one-state democracy, one person, one vote in the entire area; or ethnic cleansing, to remove both Palestinians from greater Israel; or some form of permanent apartheid, as Jimmy Carter, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have all warned about. Although it would have been better if discourse on this subject had been more honest and open long ago, we are now facing a situation where a more open discussion is really going to be imperative. And the problem is, it’s still very hard to have that conversation here in the United States.
Let me turn to the second problem. Why is it so hard to talk about this? Well, the main obstacle to open discourse on this subject is the Israel lobby, which works very hard to shape what Americans hear, read and know about the conflict. And it does this in two ways, one of them completely legitimate, and one of them completely illegitimate.
The legitimate activities are its own efforts to portray Israel in a favorable light, to blame the region’s problems on others and to convince Americans that unconditional support is in America’s national interest. Groups like AIPAC, the Washington Institute, the Conference of Presidents and many others work overtime to promote their side of the story, and they’re very good at it. They’re aided by various publications like the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post op-ed page, the Weekly Standard and others, and of course by various think tanks in Washington that receives lots of support from people or groups sympathetic to Israel. Some of you might think this is undesirable, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong or illegitimate about this sort of behavior. It’s how our system works.
Unfortunately, some individuals and groups in the lobby also do some things that I regard as wholly illegitimate and contrary to that liberty of thought and discussion we’re supposed to have here. And I refer here to the repeated efforts to silence, smear or marginalize anyone who criticizes Israel’s actions, questions the special relationship or points out the power of the lobby itself. Anyone who does this is certain to be accused of being an anti-Semite, or if they’re Jewish, accused of self-hatred. Any organization that invites people with different views to speak will get flooded with phone calls, demanding either that additional speakers be put on for the sake of balance or asking that the original speaker be disinvited. Sometimes people who question the current situation lose their jobs or have their careers sabotaged unless they are lucky enough to have tenure or have employers who will stand up to the heat.
This is why Jimmy Carter has been repeatedly smeared, including being called a Jew-hater, even though he did more to secure peace for Israel than any other president. It’s why Chuck Hagel was accused of being an anti-Semite after he was nominated to serve as secretary of defense and why he had to grovel in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation process. It’s why MJ Rosenberg, a long-time supporter of Israel, was forced to step down from his job at Media Matters for America for using the term “Israel-firster.” There is no other public issue in America where one side attacks the other so predictably, so viciously and so relentlessly. Why do they do this? First, to deter people from speaking out, and second, to marginalize them in the public arena. If you can get someone labeled as an anti-Semite, politicians won’t go near them and people will tend to ignore what they have to say.
The goal here is simply to make everyone understand that it could be professional suicide to question the special relationship, talk openly about the lobby or discuss alternatives. And I believe the other side, these zealots used these tactics because they know that a more open discussion might cause Americans to question the special relationship and to conclude that a more normal relationship would be better for everyone. If the two-state solution is gone, they don’t want people using the word apartheid, even though key Israeli leaders have used it repeatedly. They don’t want people talking about a single state where Palestinians have the right to vote because the idea of one person, one vote is hard to argue against here in the United States. I should say I think there are big problems without that outcome too, but it’s where we may be headed.
Now finally, these tactics have been around for a long time, and it’s worth asking whether the situation is now changing. There are some encouraging signs. I think we are getting more open commentary in parts of the media, especially the blogosphere. I’m thinking here of people like Andrew Sullivan, Nicholas Kristof and even Tom Friedman, on a good day. (Laughter.)
You see the emergence of groups like J Street or Jewish Voice for Peace, which are also having an impact on discourse. The publication of Peter Beinart’s book, The Crisis of Zionism, was another sign of a more open discussion. And yes, it’s true that Chuck Hagel got smeared during his confirmation, but he also got defended, which is important as well and very encouraging.
The bottom line here, is although politicians in Washington and especially on Capitol Hill are still intimidated into silence or encouraged to take absurd positions on these questions, I think we are seeing the beginning of a somewhat more open climate.
So let me wrap up by just laying out several things that might encourage a further broadening of the debate over time.
The other side, I think, has to smear and silence people because they’re defending a weak case — not the case for Israel’s existence but the case for giving it unconditional support no matter what it does. And those of us who want a more open debate and more flexible U.S. policies should stick to facts and logic and not throw a lot of mud back ourselves.
Second, we need to confront the gatekeepers of opinion. The Internet and the blogosphere has opened up things up, but we need to keep challenging editors, reporters, committee chairs here on the Hill and anybody else who helps shape discourse. And we have a strong case here, too. We’re not trying to silence anyone. We’re just asking for the opportunity to be heard.
Third, we need to expose how the other side works. Free speech is a very powerful principle in the United States, and most Americans don’t like the idea of suppressing debate. When groups in the lobby try to suppress free speech, it’s important to publicize that that’s exactly what they’re doing. When people like Elliot Abrams or Alan Dershowitz make ludicrous charges, they should be publicly scorned; their employers should get letters and phone calls condemning what they’re doing. But please note, the goal is not to silence them, to keep them from participating: The goal is to deligitimate the use of smear tactics and make them backfire.
Jewish Voice for Peace has done this very effectively through websites like MuzzleWatch. It would be great if those activities could be expanded.
Two more and then I’m done. Solidarity is another important step here. It’s hard to challenge taboos. It takes a long time to open up a debate. It is easy to get discouraged, especially when the other side has the upper hand. So it’s important for those of us who are seeking to open the debate up, support and defend each other and not get distracted by our occasional differences.
The other side’s very good at standing together, and we need to be just as cohesive, which occasionally means defending people with whom we disagree on some issues as long as they are also part of that group that promotes open and honest discourse. In other words, we want the reasonable people to be front and center in this conversation and move the unreasonable people to the margins.
Lastly, those who favor a more open discourse should defend the moral high ground. We’re not arguing in favor of one group over another. We are arguing for policies that would be better for the United States, better for Palestinians, better for other Arab societies and better for Israel, too. They are also policies that are much more consistent with American values. We have nothing to apologize for
It seems to me if we keep making that case in a calm and nonconfrontational way, current taboos will continue to erode, we will have a more sensible discussion and a Middle East policy that works rather better than the one we have followed for the past several decades. Now, that’s a very low bar to clear, but I believe in starting with achievable goals.