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The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: The Academic Legitimacy of Israeli Discourse

Misbar's Editorial Team Misbar's Editorial Team
25th January 2024
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: The Academic Legitimacy of Israeli Discourse
Dennis Ross is a member of the Washington Institute's Board of Directors (Getty)

On January 21, the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies released a paper delving into the reasons for the relative quiet in East Jerusalem amid the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza and heightened tension in the West Bank. In the paper, Israeli researcher Derek Lief argued that this quietness is an extension of broader conditions and empirical trends from before October 7, despite the presence of what he termed "violence, terrorism, and incitement against Israelis."

According to the author, these trends suggest "less hostile" attitudes by East Jerusalem Palestinians towards Israel. Citing a poll conducted by David Pollock from the American Washington Institute for Near East Policy among 300 East Jerusalem Palestinians, it was revealed that 48% of the city's Palestinian residents expressed a preference to become citizens of Israel rather than a Palestinian state if they had to choose.

A research paper from the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies
A research paper from the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies

Several years ago, "The Jerusalem Post," an English-language Israeli newspaper, featured a report celebrating the accomplishments of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on its thirtieth anniversary. The highlighted achievements included the initiation of the groundbreaking "Amman Conference" in the Jordanian capital, shortly after the signing of the Wadi Araba Treaty. This conference successfully gathered politicians from both Jordan and Israel. Moreover, the institute orchestrated the initial meeting between the right-wing Likud party and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1998, among other notable achievements.

What Is the Washington Institute’s Stated Mission?

According to the institute's official website, the mission of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is to "advance a balanced and realistic understanding of American interests in the Middle East and to promote the policies that secure them.”

Established in 1985 by American Jewish businessman Larry Weinberg, the former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the world's largest Israeli lobbying organization, along with his wife Barbi Weinberg. He then appointed Martin Indyk, an academic researcher trained in Australia and the former deputy research director, as the institute's first executive director. At that time, Indyk described the think tank by saying, "The image I would like to convey is that we are friendly to Israel but doing credible research on the Middle East in a realistic and balanced way."

Frequently, the media cites speakers from the institute or relies on its statistics and research as an independent source. However, connections between the institute's administration and AIPAC, along with testimonies from former AIPAC researchers or employees, suggest that it serves as a "research front" for the lobbying organization. According to American writer and researcher M. J. Rosenberg, Steven J. Rosen (a high-ranking AIPAC official later indicted for alleged violations of the Espionage Act, though the charges were subsequently dropped) astutely proposed the creation of an AIPAC-controlled think tank. The purpose was to propagate AIPAC's perspective, but in a manner that obscured its direct connections.

According to Rosenberg, the approach entailed enlisting individuals with no direct ties to Israel to serve as a legitimate façade for the institute's objectives. These individuals were prompted to express their views freely on matters unrelated to Israel. One of the founders relayed to Rosenberg, "Say what you want about Morocco, kid. But when it comes to Israel, never deviate more than a degree or two."

Dennis Ross: The Blatantly Pro-Israel Director Among Institute Directors

On the Institute’s official Board of Directors page, Dennis Ross is listed as one of its members. He is an American diplomat and a former negotiator known for his distinct pro-Israel stance. Currently, Ross serves as the chairman of the Center for Peace Communications, another civil society organization funded by Israeli lobbies. Previous reports by Misbar have shed light on the activities and connections of this organization to the Israeli government.

Board of Directors of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Board of Directors of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Ross has played a prominent role in shaping U.S. policies in the Middle East on multiple occasions. He assumed a crucial role in the Oslo II Interim Agreement in 1995, participated in the Hebron Agreement in 1997, facilitated the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1994, and was extensively involved in efforts to reconcile Israel and Syria.

In their influential 2006 research paper, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," John Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, and Stephen M. Walt, the academic dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authored a seminal work that critically examined Israeli lobbying groups in the United States and their impact on the country's foreign policies.

In their 83-page working paper, the two researchers characterized Dennis Ross as an active member of the "Israeli Lobby" in the United States. In response, Ross criticized the professors behind the paper, stating to The New York Sun newspaper that the paper displayed "a woeful lack of knowledge on the subject." He described it as "remarkable for its lack of seriousness" and labeled it "an effort to take a point of view and give it academic legitimacy."

However, in memoirs released by the United States Institute of Peace, featuring comments from Samuel Richard "Sandy" Berger, Clinton's Deputy National Security Advisor, regarding peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians, Dennis Ross was cited. Berger stated that during the negotiations at Camp David in July 2000, Dennis Ross commented, stating, "If Ehud Barak offers anything beyond the terms outlined in the treaty, I will be entirely against this agreement."

Dennis Ross

In 2008, Time magazine reported that Ross's former colleague, former Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer, published a study highlighting dissatisfaction among various Arab and American diplomatic negotiators. The study asserted that Ross was seen as exhibiting bias towards Israel and was not regarded as a "neutral mediator."

Furthermore, Ross penned a portion of Barack Obama's speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign. In the speech, it was stated that "Jerusalem is the capital of Israel" and should not be divided again. In November of the same year, The Jerusalem Post reported Ross’s acknowledgment of these statements as "facts."

A Compilation of Justifications and a Book Celebrating Israeli Leaders

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy serves as a platform for representatives of pro-Israel lobby groups to disseminate Israeli propaganda and enhance its credibility through its Washington-based think tank. For example, during the Second Intifada in 2001, an article in the Near East Report, a periodic newsletter issued by AIPAC, featured experts from the Institute asserting that "Palestinian violence and President Yasser Arafat's inability to make concessions led to the current impasse." This narrative aimed to divert attention from settlement issues or Ariel Sharon's visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

On September 9, 2019, Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, both members of the Washington Institute's board of directors, published a book titled "Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel's Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny." This book applauds the "ethics" of four Israeli leaders: David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon, attributing to them the transformation of Israel into a "strong and self-assured state."

Dennis Ross and David Makovsky review the book "Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel's Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny"
Dennis Ross and David Makovsky review the book "Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel's Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny"

The book credits David Ben-Gurion’s greatness to his steadfast commitment to Zionism, particularly mass Jewish migration, and his tactical acumen. For Menachem Begin, his greatness is said to stem from his belief that "Zionism must be consistent with civil liberties," his successful negotiations for a permanent peace treaty with Egypt, and his thoughts on autonomy. Although the latter "did not go far enough," it is acknowledged for successfully "setting the template" for the Oslo Accords.

In concluding their analysis of the achievements of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, Makovsky and Ross argue that both leaders demonstrated "political courage and did what was right" for the benefit of Israel and the region.

Unbiased Researchers

In the aforementioned research paper, the researchers describe the Washington Institute for Near East Policy as "intrinsic" to the pro-Israel lobby in the United States. The paper asserts, "Despite the Washington Institute claims to downplay its ties to Israel and purports to provide a 'balanced and realistic perspective on Middle Eastern issues,' this is not accurate. In reality, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is funded and managed by individuals deeply committed to advancing the Israeli agenda... While many of its staff are legitimate researchers or former seasoned officials, they do not maintain neutrality on most Middle East issues, and there is little diversity in perspectives on this matter."

A research paper published in 2006 titled The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.
A research paper published in 2006 titled The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.

In 2011, The New York Times described the institute as a "pro-Israel think tank," a description that prompted Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute, to criticize the newspaper’s characterization. He argued that the title "projects two false impressions: first, that the institute does not value U.S. interests and places them above the advocacy for a foreign power, and second, that the institute is hostile to the region's inhabitants, including Palestinians and Arabs."

It is worth noting that both the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and AIPAC oppose calls for a ceasefire in the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Despite recognizing the need to expedite humanitarian aid to Palestinians as "understandable," a ceasefire, according to the Institute, would "keep Hamas in control of Gaza, and they will certainly be able to rebuild and rearm, preparing themselves for future attacks." This stance ignores almost entirely all calls to set aside political considerations in the face of the humanitarian crisis in the region, which is worsening day by day.

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