WASHINGTON – In the fall of 1995, after Israel and Jordan signed an historic declaration of peace in Washington , a group o f scholars down the street sought to strike while the iron was hot.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) planned to be the first group to bring Arabs and Israelis together on the ground.
They faced several hurdles, first and foremost the lack of a formal border. So they had one erected, temporarily, for the purpose of busing top Israeli national security officials through to Amman.
“Nobody had ever done this before, had an American- style conference in Jordan,” said Robert Satloff, the institute’s first researcher, who now serves as its executive director. To entice the Jordanians to stick around all day, Satloff catered lunch at the Royal Cultural Center, a first for the venue.
The Amman Conference, as it is known, is one of several firsts for the scholarly group. In September of 1993, the institute hosted the first-ever joint Israel-PLO conference, mere days after that famous handshake on the White House lawn. And the institute hosted the first meeting between the Likud and PLO leadership in 1998.
Since its founding 30 years ago, one of the Washington Institute’s primary goals has been to demonstrate to the US foreign policy establishment that debate on the Middle East is not a zero sum game – that the United States can, in fact, engage broadly with both Israel and the Arab world.
Publishing scholarship from top thinkers in Democratic and Republican administrations, from Israelis and Arabs, Jews and Muslims, the institute’s objective has been to prioritize intellectual rigor over politics and to serve as an indispensable resource to policy-makers on matters concerning the Middle East.
“It could only work if we focused solely on what America’s interests are in the Middle East, with no hint of special pleading from any foreign power. So from the very beginning, we don’t take a dime from any foreign government, individual, foundation or corporation,” Satloff said in an interview at the think tank’s offices on L Street.
The group will soon move to a larger space around the corner, marking an upgrade from its current space and a significant increase from its original staff of five.
When Martin Indyk, recently Secretary of State John Kerry’s special envoy to the peace process, became the institute’s first director, research universities across America were taking the opposite approach to “seedy” foreign policy research by reducing their scholarship after the Vietnam War. Think tanks filled the void, growing in size and influence in Washington alongside the expansion of the federal government.
Now the institute fills a unique space in the pantheon of foreign policy tanks along Washington’s northwest corridor. It is less ideological than most, smaller than some, yet growing in influence as crises in the region bleed American resources.
If its primary institutional goal has been to convince Washington to reject a false choice between Israelis and Arabs, the Washington Institute has been largely successful.
Debate now revolves around the nature of a strategic alignment between Israel and Sunni Arab states, Satloff noted, taking advantage of a cold peace.
And yet, as Satloff quipped, its staff has “achieved lifetime employment” as Middle East structures have fractured in corners, disintegrated in others.
“Washington has come to grips with the idea that, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is important... it is not the Alpha and Omega of American interests in the Middle East,” he said.
With that realization, the institute has evolved with the times, hiring research teams and scholars specializing in conflicts from Algiers to Islamabad, from Ankara to Aden.
In 2005, the institute issued a formal study group report calling on the US to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. A year later, a program devoted to Gulf energy policy was formed.
“I think we’ve had some considerable policy successes in various administrations.
But failure is not solely due to errors here in Washington, not by any stretch,” Satloff said. “It doesn’t mean our policies have gotten more intelligent,” he continued. “But the policy debate has gotten more intelligent.”
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