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Reviewed by Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco
Beacon Press, 2013. 167 pages. $25.95, hardcover
Rashid Khalidi has written a relatively short, readable and frankly depressing overview of the more than 35 years of U.S. diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The noted Columbia University historian provides important empirical evidence and sobering analysis that shatters the mythology that the United States has a genuine desire for a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Khalidi analyzes three distinct periods in the U.S.-led "peace process." He acknowledges omitting some other important historical moments, but these three typify the betrayal by successive administrations of their responsibilities as the principal mediator in the conflict. The first case is the Reagan Plan of 1982, a failed initiative to interpret, in a more balanced manner, the sections of the 1978 Camp David accords dealing with the Palestinians. The second failure covers the two-year period following the 1991 peace conference in Madrid, in which the United States brokered talks between the Israeli government and Palestinian representatives. The third is President Barack Obama's failure to follow up on his initial calls for Israel to halt the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
He uses these case studies to reveal how, despite occasional minor disagreements on specifics, the policies of the Israeli and American governments towards the Palestinians have been so closely intertwined that, by virtually any objective reckoning, the United States should have no credibility as an intermediary between the two parties. Indeed, as Khalidi observes, the asymmetry between an occupied, disempowered, oppressed and scattered people and the regional superpower that occupies their land remains unacknowledged under the pretense that the United States is simply trying to broker an agreement between two warring antagonists.
Khalidi resists the temptation to further document the cruelties and injustice of what successive Israeli governments have inflicted upon the Palestinians in their ongoing occupation and colonization policies, and instead emphasizes American culpability in the imposition of this regime. He highlights how, from the Camp David agreements to the Madrid framework to the Oslo accords, the U.S.-Israeli agenda has essentially been that of making the prospects of Palestinian self-determination — even on just the 22 percent of Palestine seized by Israel in the 1967 war — not only elusive, but increasingly difficult to achieve. Khalidi recognizes the differences between successive U.S. administrations and between various Israeli governments while still acknowledging the continuity in the underlying opposition to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
In damning detail, Khalidi demonstrates how, rather than being an honest broker, the U.S. role since taking leadership in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 1978 has essentially been — as acknowledged by a former chief U.S. negotiator — that of "Israel's lawyer." Washington operates "increasingly in defense of Israel's interests, and to the systematic detriment of those of the Palestinians" while using "high-sounding but dishonest language" (pp. xxxvi). The very use of the term "peace process," Khalidi argues, "has served to disguise an ugly reality: whatever process the United States was championing, it was not in fact actually directed at achieving a just and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis" (p. xviii). It was a process, according to Khalidi, in which U.S. officials would deliberately "ignore the basic elements necessary for a lasting peace, even as they obsessed about details of the negotiating process" (p. 65).
Khalidi deconstructs other language used to rationalize the consistent U.S. prioritization of Israeli demands relative to the Palestinians. One is the U.S. obsession about what is commonly referred to as "Israeli security interests," concerns that go well beyond any reasonable definition of that term, such as restricting the importation of generator parts or even pasta into the Gaza Strip, preventing Palestinians struggling with inadequate water supplies from placing cisterns on their roofs, or conducting air strikes against crowded civilian neighborhoods. Indeed, as Khalidi observes, it is the Palestinians — having suffered decades of oppressive military occupation, diaspora and denial of their most fundamental human, civil and political rights — for whom concerns about security should take priority. Indeed, he provides quite a few examples of how terms such as "terrorism," "self-determination" and "autonomy" have been repeatedly distorted to Orwellian proportions.
And despite Israel's longstanding overwhelming military superiority over any combination of Arab adversaries, successive U.S. presidents — ironically, Obama even more than others — have evoked some of the images from tragic episodes of Jewish history to disingenuously portray modern Israel as the victim, existentially vulnerable and on the verge of imminent destruction. This serves the purpose, as Khalidi observes, of making it easier for Israel to engage in practices that would be considered unjustifiable if committed by ordinary states.
He notes the series of broken promises successive U.S. administrations have made to the Palestinians, particularly regarding a freeze on the construction of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. He goes on to make the argument as to how the naïve trust in the United States by the Palestine Authority played a major role in alienating the Palestinian people from their leadership. He further notes how this has contributed to the rise of the militant Islamist group Hamas, and how this, in turn, is now being used as an excuse to forestall an Israeli withdrawal or the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Khalidi provides a number of striking examples of how, even as the Palestinian leadership became more moderate and willing to compromise, the U.S. position has hardened. For example, he takes note of the often-overlooked significance of President George W. Bush's acceptance in 2004 of Israel's expansion of its territory by force and the concomitant legitimization of Israeli colonization of large swaths of West Bank land recognized by the rest of the international community as territory under belligerent occupation. He also observes how recent Republican leaders, such as 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, have used hyperbolic language to attack Obama for taking supposedly "anti-Israel" positions that are virtually identical to those advocated as far back as the 1980s by the administration of their party's idol, Ronald Reagan.
Other salient analyses the author provides involve the current administration: Dennis Ross and other pro-Likud elements in the Obama administration outmaneuvering George Mitchell and the moderates; Obama accepting flagrant violations of universally recognized principles of international law by Israel that were unthinkable even under Republican administrations; and Obama now insisting that documenting Israeli violations of international humanitarian law somehow constitutes an attempt at the "delegitimization" of the state itself. Khalidi goes so far as to claim that the president's October 2011 speech before the United Nations was "the most pro-Israeli speech any U.S. president has ever made to the UN General Assembly, adopting an unprecedented range of standard tropes in Israeli discourse on the conflict" (p. xvii), and notes how a recent summit between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was the first summit in memory in which the Palestinian issue was not even raised once.
Khalidi knew Obama personally when they both taught at the University of Chicago. He presumably knew that Obama, while aware of and sympathetic to the Israeli narrative, was aware of and sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative as well. Indeed, as the first African-American president and the first president to have no memory of pre-1967 Israel, Obama was far less susceptible to the sentimental view of Israel that had distorted the perspectives of many white liberals of an earlier generation. It would have been interesting, therefore, if Khalidi had explored that angle in regard to Obama's initial challenges to Israeli policies in 2009 and his quick capitulation when the rightist government rejected it.
A particularly intriguing argument of Khalidi's is that Palestinian "statehood" under the parameters currently advocated by the United States is actually not too different in substance from the very limited "autonomy" proposal first agreed to in principle by rightist Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in in 1978: Palestinian leaders would be allowed to govern their own people, but the Israelis would effectively have control over the land.
In terms of understanding how such policies have evolved, Khalidi recognizes that the Israel Lobby is but one factor — albeit an important one — responsible for this distorted application of U.S. leadership. He recognizes that other domestic influences, such as the ideological attachment so many Americans traditionally have had towards Israel, geopolitical concerns during the Cold War and afterwards, and the rise of Christian fundamentalists and other rightists in the Republican Party, have influenced U.S. policy as well. Furthermore, he notes how external factors made it possible for the United States to get away with it: serious miscues from the Palestinian leadership and the failure of Arab governments to effectively challenge U.S. policy, for which good relations with Washington trumped defending the rights of their Palestinian brethren.
Still, Khalidi's bottom line is that the United States has largely followed Israel's lead throughout the process. One has to question, however, whether Washington is simply surrendering to Israeli demands or whether Washington might have its own agenda in preventing the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Might the United States, like other great powers seeking to control the Middle East, have an interest in pursuing a divide-and-rule strategy that precludes a just and lasting peace in favor of a Pax Americana?
In his section on the negotiations between the 1991 Madrid conference and the 1993 Oslo accords, Khalidi acknowledges that the U.S. position on several outstanding issues was actually to the right of that of the Israeli government. He provides revealing anecdotes on the anger and disbelief of some U.S. officials when they learned of certain Israeli concessions to the PLO they had been telling Palestinian negotiators were impossible, and how a U.S. proposal to supposedly bridge the differences between the two parties was far less generous to the Palestinians than what had been offered in secret by the Israelis themselves. Khalidi implies that such episodes were simply a matter of U.S. officials being unaware of the Israeli shift in position rather than considering the possibility that Washington may have had its own reasons for opposing Israel's willingness to compromise. Indeed, there have been a number of subsequent episodes involving both Syria and Lebanon in which the U.S. position was more hard-line than that of the Israelis as well. One episode missing from this otherwise strong section on the 1991-93 period is the time when Israeli negotiators quietlyasked the Clinton administration to publicly push Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to make some major concessions in order to give his Labor government political cover from the Israeli right, but they refused.
Khalidi mentions in passing, but unfortunately does not develop in detail, the ways in which the United States was determined to control the peace process. This would explain the upset, which he does document in some detail, when U.S. officials learned in 1993 that Israeli and PLO officials were so frustrated at the lack of progress under Washington's auspices that they decided to engage in their own direct negotiations. The result was the Oslo accords.
Despite his incessant criticisms, in certain ways Khalidi is too easy on U.S. administrations in underestimating their ability to push back against the Israel Lobby and other pressures. From Eisenhower's successful demands for an Israeli withdrawal from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in 1957, to Carter's successful demands for a partial withdrawal from Lebanon in 1978, to Obama's successful demands that Israel halt its ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2012, presidents have had their way with the Israelis when they have decided to. Furthermore, Khalidi fails to take seriously the possibility that U.S. presidents could have threatened to suspend U.S. aid at any time.
These are but minor quibbles, however, in what is by any measure a very important book that deserves wide circulation. It is just what is needed to challenge the fatalistic assumptions that the failure to establish peace between Israel and Palestine is due to the intractable nature of the conflict, rather than the role the United States has played in undermining the peace process. As Khalidi puts it (p. xxxvii), "American policy under a succession of presidential administrations has served neither the long-term U.S. national interest…nor the interests of international peace and stability, nor the true interests of the peoples of the Middle East, including both Palestinians and Israelis."