Yes We Can't: Arab Americans and the Arab-Israeli Dispute in the 1970s

By Salim Yaqub
Submitted to Session P4910 (Arab, Jewish, and Arab Jewish Critiques of Zionism, 2017 Annual Meeting
Arab-Israeli Conflict;
My paper examines Arab American activism regarding the Arab-Israeli dispute during the 1970s. In this decade, Arab American activists were far more visible and engaged than in previous years, and they gained a modicum of influence within American discourse on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Key to this achievement was a growing moderation within Arab American ranks, reflecting, in turn, a political transformation occurring in the Arab world itself. Over the course of the 1970s, and especially following the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the center of gravity of both Arab and Arab American politics shifted--away from a complete rejection of Israel's existence and toward acceptance of a two-state settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute. The emergence of this pragmatic position made it easier for U.S. opinion leaders, including some within the Jewish community, to recognize that Palestinian national claims lay at the heart of the dispute and to concede that no diplomatic settlement would be viable if it failed to address those claims.

Ironically, simultaneous developments in U.S. foreign policy set forces in motion that sharply diminished the likelihood that Palestinian claims ever would be satisfied. After the 1973 war, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urged Egypt and Israel to enter into a bilateral peace process whose ultimate aim was a separate peace agreement between those countries--an objective accomplished when President Jimmy Carter brokered the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. In exchange for recovering the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt became the first Arab nation to recognize and make peace with Israel. The removal of Egyptian military pressure made it possible for Israel to consolidate its hold over the remaining Arab territories it had occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In subsequent decades, Israel was able to alter the demographic and territorial configuration of the Palestinian areas in ways that reduced their viability as a future Palestinian state.

Thus, by the start of the 1980s, a strange pattern had emerged whereby the centrality of the Palestinian issue was increasingly recognized within American political discourse while the means of addressing that issue drifted ever further out of reach.