“The future of relations with the Muslim world” was the UN-sponsored event hosted at the New York Times building in central Manhattan on 21 July. Filled with journalists from Egypt, China and Turkey and the foreign policy establishment, roughly 150 people came to hear Roger Cohen, Joe Klein, Martin Indyk, Reza Aslan, Dalia Mogahed and Marc Lynch chew over issues related to Barack Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 and efforts to re-engage the Muslim world. The general consensus was that Obama had failed, even if his intentions were noble.
The primary focus was Israel/Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan were mostly ignored, Iran was briefly mentioned and Muslim views of America were highlighted.
Foreign Policy blogger and participant Marc Lynch wrote that it was disappointing but unsurprising that Israel/Palestine was the key area of discussion as his “main concern was the dangerous resilience of ‘clash of civilizations’ narratives in American and global discourse about Islam.” Such views remain disturbingly common in the US.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the evening and there was an air of unreality about the event, a troubling distance from addressing the crux of Washington’s problems in the Muslim world. The presumption of the evening was that America could noticeablychange its image while still occupying Iraq, Afghanistan and backing Israeli occupation in Palestine. Most Muslims would regard the premise as a joke.
As Rami Khouri wrote in this week’s New York Times: “One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change."
Pollster Mogahed revealed that a forthcoming Gallup study of the Arab world finds Iraq still topping even Israel/Palestine in issues of concern related to US foreign policy in the region. The open wound of the Iraq conflict, the millions of internal and external refugees – the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948 –and daily brutality put paid to claims that America will soon be withdrawing. Just this week the Obama administration announced an expansion of paramilitary forces in Iraq to replace the forthcoming declining troop numbers.
Roger Cohen, a usually thoughtful writer who has sadly recently embraced Salam Fayyad’s economic “miracle” in the West Bank (essentially a police state with Western aid), was a considered moderator, probing the guests about the profound separation between rhetoric and reality. Time’s Klein was effusive in his praise for Fayyad, called for immediate engagement with Hamas, chastised Obama for not pressuring Israel far more and threatening to cut aid, vehemently opposed a “mad” attack on Iran, damned the colonies in the West Bank and the bullying Zionist lobby. Klein is a colourful and slightly arrogant speaker, proud of telling an audience he’s spent time in the Middle East and mixing with the people there.
The most revealing part of the evening was when Reza Aslan told the crowd, near the end of the event, that a two-state solution was dead due to ongoing Israeli colonisation. He urged consideration of a one-state solution. He wrote strongly months ago about the impossibility of a viable Palestinian state and this week urged more imaginative ways of framing a nation that “would be shared by both Palestinians and Jews.” Aslan also outlined the Likud charter, a racist document that does not allow an independent Palestinian entity in Palestine.
Former AIPAC employee, Vice President for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution and former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk shook his head and said these were “lies”. He argued that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said last year that he accepted a two-state solution and people should “wait until the end of Obama’s third year and you will see some major progress on Middle East peace.”
Indyk angrily rejected a one-state solution as “guaranteed to bring never-ending conflict” and said the two-state solution was the only game in town. Aslan didn’t give up, reiterating his request for Indyk to explain how two, viable states would develop.
This testy exchange was symptomatic of the anaemic state of establishment thinking on the Middle East in America. Indyk was asking to be rewarded for ongoing failure, a man and idea that had been tried for decades and brought increased settlement activity. Like J Street, Indyk and his ilk can only conceptualise a racially exclusionary state, partition in the name of “two states for two peoples”.
I remember thinking during the J Street conference in Washington last year about the blind faith in Barack Obama bringing peace to the Middle East. What happens if he doesn’t deliver? J Street and Indyk have nowhere to go, no intellectual or moral framework from which to offer alternative perspectives.
For them, a Jewish state must be maintained at any cost. Democratic values will always come second.