Dr. Jeremy Pressman is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Middle East Studies Program at the University of Connecticut. His third and most recent book is The sword is not enough: Arabs, Israelis and the limits of military force (Manchester University Press, 2020). He has written magazine articles on a wide range of topics, including the 2000 Camp David Summit, the Second Intifada, the intersection between stone throwing and (non) violence, and annual Israeli and Palestinian speeches at the United Nations. Pressman is also a co-director of the Crowd Counting Consortium and has authored articles in the Washington Post and elsewhere on the geographic scope and peaceful nature of the 2020 anti-racism protests, the size of the 2017 women’s march, and other aspects of the protests in the States. He was a Fulbright Fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute and was awarded the UConn Provost Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Community (2019).
Where do you see the most exciting research / debate in your field?
What is the future of Israel-Palestine? What’s the best way to get to this endpoint? There is an incredible amount at stake for the people, the Palestinians and the Israelis. The situation is not symmetrical. Most Israeli Jews and some Palestinians are able to lead normal lives in terms of their social life, career and political rights (caveat: the previous sentence is a generalization that deserves a lot more nuances in a longer explanation) . However, this does not apply to the millions of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip who live under repressive military control, let alone some Palestinian refugees who involuntarily live abroad, for example in Lebanon.
The consensus solution has been a two-state solution for two decades. The European Union, the Federation of Arab States, Norway, Russia, the United Nations, the United States and others have approved the idea. From 2000 onwards at the Camp David Summit, the conflicting parties tried to reach two states, but they failed. If not two states, what? Israeli annexation of everything between the Jordan and the Mediterranean and the ongoing denial of Palestinian rights? The January 2020 Trump plan is called the two-state solution, but it is much closer to continued Israeli rule over Palestinian life. Or a single state in the same geographic location with equal rights for anyone? A confederal solution that may or may not work? It remains to be seen; The debate is in flux.
In my own work, I also focus on a question that deals with the historical side of the field. Was the peace process – the US-led negotiations that have taken various forms since the 1970s – ever designed to actually resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, including Israel-Palestine, in an amicable manner? Or has the process always been so focused on Israel, Washington’s close ally, that a friendly solution was structurally impossible? Those interested in these questions could start with William B. Quandt’s classic book. Peace processbut there is much more to read and digest.
How has the way you understand the world changed over time and what (or who) triggered the most important changes in your thinking?
I keep being hit by one fundamental question: Does the way we talk about the world affect how the world is? Is there a material reality that is beyond our control, or are our perceptions and conceptual frameworks reshaping and reshaping the world? I probably started out much more as a materialist, but heard constructivist and other academic arguments that challenged my thinking. When I teach Introduction to International Relations, this is one of the key questions that I want students to think and reflect on.
In my work on Israel-Palestine, for example, I reflect on the question of the proposed two-state solution, which would place a state of Palestine next to the state of Israel. Some analysts say a two-state solution is dead. Is it dead because of the physical structure of the huge Israeli settlement project? Or is it dead when we say it and all (or mostly all) people agree that it is no longer a viable option?
Donald Trump puts a different twist on how our rhetoric affects our reality because I saw the question more as the result of academic debates. But here is a right-wing politician, not a scholar, trying to force his invented understanding of reality on the country and the world. He and his speakers rarely seem constrained by the facts or science, or even what they have said themselves before. He makes up stories and people that go back to his time calling journalists but pretending to be someone other than Donald Trump. The Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was an epic failure, but he said he did “a phenomenal job”. He has convinced tens of millions of people to share his perspective, which apparently is strong evidence of how an influential leader speaks about the world, how many people see this world.
You are co-director of the Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC), which collects data on political masses in the US such as protests and strikes. What trends did you see before the COVID-19 pandemic?
We have been collecting data since January 2017. This was a time of tremendous social mobilization in the United States. Think of all the massive protests over the past four years. The 2017 Women’s March, the Science March, the 2018 Women’s March, the March for Our Lives, the National School Walkout and climate strikes. We could see this in response to the Trump administration and, at least in 2017-2018, right-wing control of the three branches of the US government (until the US House moved to democratic control in the 2018 midterm elections). But we should also think about longer-term trends, such as massive economic inequality, denigrating science, voter suppression, and the flood of arms in US society. Sometimes people are skeptical that protests are important. However, there is evidence that these massive waves of protest usually have an impact on policy outcomes such as voting in future elections. For example, the latest Larreboure and González working paper makes this argument in relation to the women’s march and the 2018 elections.
I was also amazed at the multitude of things that make people protest. Yes, some of these issues have to do with national politics. But other people and groups also protest against a number of local problems, e.g. For example, asking for more homework at school, saving trees instead of building pickleball courts, or even expressing displeasure with your professional sports team.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the protests in the US?
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick and I have a preprint (early draft) examining how the subject, and in some cases tactics, of demonstrations shifted during the April-May 2020 lockdown in the US. Most of the protests were about either better public health measures or more PPE [personal protective equipment] or pushing for health regulations to be relaxed and many more businesses reopened quickly. Unfortunately, the issue has usually been referred to as protecting public health or reopening the economy, rather than a reality, but rather a better way to reopen the economy. We need both, not one or the other. At the tactical level, public health protesters practiced social distancing, held small protests, and sometimes turned to safer caravans rather than people protesting on the streets. The protests against Black Lives Matter and anti-racism this summer were staggering in size and scope, despite – or perhaps because of – the pandemic
They recently published a new book called The sword is not enough: Arabs, Israelis and the limits of military force (2020). Why was the use of military force counterproductive in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Let me highlight two reasons. Since the use of military force often backfires, threatening and applying the situation can make the situation more unsafe, unstable and dangerous. Depending on how exactly it goes, this can lead countries to be more prone to confrontation than to reconciliation. In the book, one such example was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the rise of Hezbollah; Tensions and uncertainties between Israel and Hezbollah persist to this day.
Perhaps more importantly, a consistent commitment to violence and a lack of interest in negotiations and mutual concessions does not create a receptive conceptual and political environment for the introduction of diplomatic off-ramps. The countries are very suspicious and are undermining or denigrating the prospect of negotiations. They fear diplomatic offers are a trick, a Trojan horse. Even the great example often used to show a brave Arab leader stretching out his hand in peace, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, shows this point. First, in 1977 some in the Israeli establishment were initially skeptical when he made an offer to come from Cairo to Jerusalem and speak to the Israeli parliament to go the diplomatic route. Second, although Sadat’s diplomatic move was ultimately successful when Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, some Egyptians were so angry with Sadat’s abandonment of the military route that they dramatically murdered him in 1981.
Why was “the sword” (i.e. military force) a more attractive option than diplomacy to all sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Part of it are the institutions and thought patterns that have been built up over decades. Part of that, as I note in Chapter 2 of the book, is that there are some historical examples that add to the value of the threat and use of military force. Part of it is the way a realistic world, a world of competition, captures much of what the world looks like today, which makes it easier to convince people of the need to be forceful. Part of it is that in a cacophony of voices – Hamas and Fatah, several Israeli political parties, many Arab interlocutors – it can be difficult to hear the conciliatory amid all the noise, anger and threats.
What needs to be done to make diplomacy more attractive to all parties involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict?
In Chapter 6, I look at the ways that negotiations can gain importance, and here are two examples. One way is through leaders in strong political positions who want negotiation and demilitarization. Leaders willing to compromise. This first point raises questions about the respective roles of bottom-up or base change versus top-down breakthroughs led by executives. A second possibility is mutual, cooperative steps that start small but create a cooperative escalation spiral (e.g. think of tit for tat).
Recently, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords in the White House. What are your first thoughts or impressions? What are the strengths and limits of the agreement?
In other posts I have addressed two points about these normalization agreements. Firstly, I argue on the LSE’s International History Blog that the agreements regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict have so far not been particularly historic. It was rather a modest diplomatic achievement. I admit that many other analysts see a much greater impact, including on religious dialogue in the region. That they can be historical in relation to regional strategic machinations is, in my view, a separate point. Second, in another article at Political Violence @ a Glance, I wonder if they actually open or strengthen a clear path to real Israeli-Palestinian negotiations or peace. I do not see it.
I would like to quickly add a third point that does not deal specifically with these agreements. Most of the international agreements Trump officials announced were grossly exaggerated when the real impact became clear, such as: B. NAFTA 2.0, US-North Korea nuclear affairs, and the trade deal with China. President Trump came into office and said the Middle East deal was Israeli.Palestinian. Instead, US-Palestinian relations have collapsed. They don’t even speak to each other. These recent normalization agreements may be the exception compared to other “agreements”, but we have reason to keep a close eye on how the agreements develop and whether other Arab states such as Saudi Arabia are involved.
What advice would you give to the winner of the upcoming US foreign policy in the Middle East?
That is the toughest question so far. I’ll keep it simple US policy in the Middle East is littered with failures and mistakes that have resulted in great human suffering. Find out how you can change that track record. When I think about the ideas in my book The sword is not enoughA stronger emphasis on negotiations and mutual concessions would be an important option, not only with Iran, but certainly also in Yemen, where the civil war was utterly brutal.
What is the most important advice you can give to young international relations scholars?
Understand why you believe what you believe, or argue what you are arguing in a particular piece, but be open to reconsidering your concepts and your evidence. Do your best to be constructive when talking about your job or the work of others. Talk to a lot of different people. read far. Value your family and social relationships. We often talk about the disappointments, say article rejections, but don’t forget to celebrate the triumphs as they come. Let older scholars advise you with a grain of salt. The world is dynamic.
Further reading on e-international relations