Loy Henderson,Director of the Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs, who fostered the Arabist culture at the State Department.
After World War II, Loy Henderson, director of the Office of Near Eastern, African and South Asian Affairs, developed the culture that would define the State Department's entire Middle East outlook. Henderson filled his Office with specialists known as "Arabists" because of their love of the Arabic language and Arab culture. They suffered from what Robert D. Kaplan, in his seminal work on the topic, calls "localitis" and "clientitis," and their sympathies with Muslims were often accompanied by a rejection of the West and especially of Israel. In his Memoirs, Harry S. Truman wrote that State's "specialists on the Near East were almost without exception unfriendly to the idea of a Jewish state," adding, "some of them were also inclined to be anti-Semitic."
After the Six-Day War, when most Arab countries severed relations with the U.S. and closed American embassies, many Arabists found themselves without foreign posts. Their domination of the State Department subsided, and they were replaced by a new group – the "peace processors" – who were not immersed in Arab culture but rather in diplomatic culture. By the 1980s, they dominated the State Department, and they still do.
Though their motives may differ, the peace processors share the Arabists' trust that the Palestinians will negotiate rationally. In pursuit of the ultimate peace deal, they ignore or excuse Palestinian diplomats who insist that Israel has no right to exist, as though Palestinian irredentism was a negotiating ploy rather than a deeply-felt principle.
The cohesion of the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein in Desert Shield/Storm, heralded as a major diplomatic achievement, spurred a renewed faith that the diplomatic process itself can solve even the most intransigent of problems, of which the Israel-Palestinian conflict loomed large. The peace processors have always been driven by the theory that the right combination of Israeli concessions (land, water, money) will end Palestinian hostilities. They continue to downplay Palestinian rejectionism while emphasizing Palestinian cooperation.
Even the 2003 bombing of a State Department convoy in Gaza...elicited little more than a perfunctory telephone call from Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Palestinian Authority (PA), urging it to crack down on militants.
The peace processors thrived during the Obama years, especially during the tenure of Secretary of State John Kerry. In a 2016 Oxford Union speech Kerry waxed poetic about peace-making, or as he called it, "the art of diplomacy – [which] is to define the interests of all the parties and see where the sweet spot is that those interests can come together and hopefully be able to thread a very thin needle." The problem, to continue Kerry's mixed metaphor, is that under Kerry's leadership, the State Department expended most of its energies massaging the Palestinian sweet spot and trying to thread its very thin needle. Israeli interests, on the other hand, were largely ignored, and Israel was often blamed for Palestinian hostilities.
Donald Trump campaigned promising a different approach to Israel. He chose Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, a diplomat with no foreign policy record and few known political opinions. Tillerson began his tenure at the default State Department position – treating the PA and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, as legitimate and trustworthy peace partners, and ignoring or downplaying evidence to the contrary...
There's no doubt that Donald Trump's election initiated a major disruption at the State Department.
Then, in November, Tillerson announced the closure of the PLO mission in Washington, D.C., in compliance with a U.S. law prohibiting any Palestinian attempts to bring a case against Israel at the International Criminal Court. But when the PLO responded by threatening to cut off all contact with the U.S., the State Department rather obsequiously caved, announcing that the mission could remain open for a 90-day probationary period...
Subsequent events suggest a change in U.S. Israel policy, especially the announced plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and the cutting of U.S. funding to UNRWA. Trump has also threatened to cut all aid to Palestinians. At Davos in January, he said that Palestinian disrespect for Vice President Mike Pence would cost them as well. Under normal circumstances, one might infer that these are coherent policy redirections. But it is not unreasonable to believe that they are impulsive reactions to perceived insults. They may also be bargaining chips in the president's famed deal-making art.
But these moves from the top down are not necessarily permanent. No one really believes Abbas will terminate all contact with the U.S. In fact, the PLO's man in Washington, Husam Zomlot, signalled in an interview just days ago that he's ready to talk: "It's not like I am not speaking to them. My phone is open."
Like Trump, Abbas is positioning for a better deal. When he comes back to his senses and apologizes, perhaps even personally thanks Donald Trump for reengaging, the State Department's peace processors will awaken from their drowse with a new Oslo, a new Road Map to Peace, and Israel will be squeezed again. As Daniel Pipes writes, "the American door is permanently open to Palestinians and when they wise up, some fabulous gift awaits them in the White House." Maybe next time there will be pressure for Israel to repeat Ariel Sharon's mistake and force all Israelis out of the West Bank, and after that out of East Jerusalem, and after that, who knows? Pressuring Israel to give up more land and money and make their nation less secure is the only strategy the peace processors know.
There's no doubt that Donald Trump's election initiated a major disruption at the State Department. Many long-serving senior officials resigned immediately before or after inauguration day. The hum of diplomats complaining that their expertise is being ignored has continued. When Elizabeth Shackelford (lauded by Foreign Policy a "rising star at the State Department") resigned very publicly in early December, she complained that State had "ceded to the Pentagon our authority to drive US foreign policy." The question is, will disruption lead to genuine change?
If outgoing senior diplomats are replaced with careerists and entrenched junior peace processors, the Trump shake-up will be just sound and fury. On the other hand, bringing in qualified experts from outside the State Department rank-and-file might lead to meaningful and important changes. If the rumor is true that David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy will be the new Deputy Assistant for Near East Affairs, it's a good start.
Genuine change at the State Department will require more than one year of the unpredictable Trump administration. U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman recently began urging the State Department to stop using the term "occupation". When the State Department complies, we'll know something big has happened. Until then, celebrations are premature.
A.J. Caschetta is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.