Leading thinkers struggle to influence US administration over Gaza war

Renowned filmmaker Ethan Coen is among hundreds of signatories who have called on President Joe Biden to change course

Lebanese law professor Chibli Mallat, author of a proposal for Palestinian-Israeli peace, in a post Gaza war scenario. Courtesy Image
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The US government has not responded to a letter signed by five Nobel laureates and hundreds of prominent figures, asking President Joe Biden to halt support for Israel’s invasion of Gaza, a scholar said.

American Jewish history professor Shira Klein emailed the letter to the White House in December. “I never heard back,” she told The National.

Among the signatories Christopher Pissarides, a 2010 Nobel economics prize winner, filmmaker Ethan Coen, best known for making 1996's Fargo with his brother Joel, and Stanford Emeritus professor Joel Beinin, a prominent historian.

Their efforts came as the Gaza war sharply dented popular support for Israel, particularly in the US, where most of the signatories are from.

Many of those who signed are also Jewish.

Israel, they wrote to Mr Biden, commits “apartheid” and other transgressions in the West Bank because the US allows it to flout UN Security Council resolutions.

Pointing out that ideas to solve the conflict abound, they called for a policy shift in Washington from managing the conflict to solving it within a short and reasonable time frame”.

“Two peoples live and will continue living between the Jordan river and the sea,” they wrote.

“The only way forward is recognising the right of both to self-determination and full equality.”

But the group is facing a struggle, and in some ways a dilemma, on how to make their ideas politically relevant.

“What we have is our words, our brains, our connections and our ability to articulate things well, which we are using to try and influence public opinion,” Prof Klein said.

She teaches Holocaust history and other topics at Chapman University in California.

One of only a few Arab signatories is Lebanese law professor Chibli Mallat, who has published a plan on how to end the conflict.

His proposal is based on treating the conflict as a century-old civil war between Israel and Palestine, which could help “seek the accommodation of two people fighting over the same land”.

First, the two sides would need to agree on non-violence as the “exclusive means” to solving the conflict.

If peace talks convene in a post-Gaza war scenario, each side should be allowed to choose their own representatives, even if hardline Israelis or members of Hamas are among them, Prof Mallat said.

The process has to encompass all Israeli and Palestinian factions, with the aim of an end to the conflict “under the two-sovereign-states banner, or one federalised system”.

Prof Mallat said the group of more than 2,000 signatories can play a role as soon as there is a ceasefire in the Gaza war because “the next day people will be looking for a political solution”.

Their approach, however, needs to become “a little bit more political”.

“The jump into the political arena is one which it seems to me worth trying,” Prof Mallat said, suggesting approaching US Senate members critical of the Biden stance on the war.

Prof Beinin mentioned Jeff Merkley, the senator from Oregon, where the professor lives.

In January, Mr Merkley visited the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, where aid to the besieged enclave is mostly stuck because of Israeli restrictions.

He later called for an end to US “complicity in this humanitarian catastrophe”.

Prof Beinin, a specialist on the history of labour movements in modern Egypt, has campaigned for years for equality of education in Israel. In retirement, he has helped mobilise synagogue congregations in Oregon against the war.

After witnessing an unprecedented level of support for Palestinian rights in the US, he is sanguine about the prospects of a fundamental change.

“There is a tremendous opening,” Prof Beinin says, citing strong backing, particularly in among under-30s, for a ceasefire.

But he does not “get excited about positive things that could happen because things have gotten progressively worse”.

Updated: March 11, 2024, 1:22 PM