On October 14, 2016, IPS-USA held its annual panel in Washington, DC, moderated by Journal of Palestine Studies Editor Rashid Khalidi, and featuring panelists Tareq Baconi, Visiting Scholar at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University; Toby Jones, Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University; Bassam Haddad, Director of the Middle East Studies program at George Mason University; and IPS Senior Fellow, Mouin Rabbani. Each panelist addressed the question, “Does anyone still care about Palestine?” offering perspectives grounded in his respective field of expertise and research.
The question was particularly timely not only because of the long-standing Israeli occupation of Palestine, but also because of the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape in the Middle East, as well as its likely implications for the upcoming US administration. Here, it is fitting to recall last year’s panel when Paul Pillar, former CIA analyst and Fellow at the Center for Security Studies, assessed Israel’s geostrategic status as a US ally in the Middle East, noting that it was neither an energy exporter nor a contributor to regional security.
But the reality today looks very different, according to Baconi, who focused on the newly emerging geopolitical dimensions resulting from Israel’s recent gas finds in the Eastern Mediterranean. Baconi made the case that this particular development highlights the demotion of the question of Palestine in regional and international affairs, specifically in two intertwined contexts: the United States’ promotion of economic peace, which is likely to continue into the new administration; and the growing energy demands of Israel’s neighbors, such as Jordan. Ultimately, Baconi argued, while economic peace may provide some benefits, albeit at the risk of further reducing interest in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict head-on, it will never replace the Palestinian call for sovereignty and independence.
Jones painted a far more depressing image of a Palestine downgraded in regional and international calculi, stating that “there has been no more enthusiastic abandonment of the Palestinian cause than by Saudi Arabia.” The historian noted several critical junctures over the past twelve years that clearly indicated the extent to which Saudi Arabia is no longer “performing a commitment” to Palestine, as he put it, after having done so throughout the second half of the last century. Jones argued that where it was politically convenient in the past, today Palestine has become the object of Saudi Arabia’s hostility. With its growing anxiety about Iran’s influence, Saudi Arabia is now gravitating towards Israel, making Palestine “an easy sacrifice.”
In contrast to Baconi and Jones’s views, Haddad juxtaposed the Palestinian question and Syria, making the case that Palestine remains critical to all regional and international actors. Examining the various battles surrounding Syria and the wide range of actors that are fighting against each other and together all at once, Haddad argued that while the question of Palestine has not come to the fore in the Syrian case, it is likely to gain significance in the future as exit formulas begin to take shape.
Rabbani wrapped up the conversation with an historical look at the panel’s question, assessing the roles of Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon in particular. “We’ve been here before,” he said, pointing to the Palestinian experience in Lebanon during the early 1980s. Yet, he argued, as revealed by subsequent events culminating in the First Intifada, Palestinians retained the capacity to keep Palestine important. As much is true today, to the extent that Palestinians are able to achieve a unified voice.