In marked contrast to a substantial body of literature on U.S. policies toward Zionism and Israel, very little has been written about the evolving American stances vis-à-vis Palestinian nationalism and the Palestinian Arabs during the past century. In light of the currently moribund Middle East peace process and the pursuit of unprecedented anti-Palestinian policies by the Trump administration, the publication of Blind Spot could not have been more timely. Authored by Khaled Elgindy, an adviser to the Palestinian leadership on negotiations with Israel from 2004 to 2009 and current fellow at the Brookings Institution, the volume contains perceptive analyses and scathing critiques of America’s persistent insensitivity to Palestinian interests from the end of World War I to the present.
The blind spot in the book’s title refers to two faulty assumptions held by American officials that explain why every administration since Truman’s has failed to act as an effective peace broker between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The first is that peace can be achieved by ignoring and then exacerbating the huge power imbalances between Israelis and Palestinians. The second is that in the pursuit of peace, U.S. mediators can safely misinterpret and/or disregard internal political conflicts within the Palestinian side while being sensitive to, and accommodating constraints emanating from, Israeli domestic politics.
Elgindy identifies ambiguity and an ever-widening paradox between declared commitments and actual behavior as recurrent and dominant themes of American policies toward the Palestinians during the past century. These trends, he argues, are due primarily to ever-present tensions between the need to pursue U.S. national interests in the Middle East, on the one hand, and the constraints generated by American and Israeli domestic politics, on the other. Such tendencies are clearly exemplified by the gradual erosion and attrition undergone by American policies regarding the Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlements in the West Bank during successive presidencies.
Initially, the Truman administration viewed UN General Assembly Resolution 194, calling for repatriation and compensation of Palestinian Arabs who either fled or were ejected by Israel before and during the 1948 war, as a sine qua non for reaching a just and durable Arab-Israeli peace. By 1949, the White House backed down due to stiff opposition by both Israel and the Pentagon, and instead sponsored a mission whose report led to the creation of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In essence, the refugee issue was redefined as a humanitarian problem requiring socioeconomic aid for displaced Palestinians, who were to be resettled in neighboring Arab states.
While expressing sympathy for the refugees and ostensibly adhering to Resolution 194, Eisenhower was less committed to repatriation than his predecessor. He backed instead resettlement of refugees in Arab countries that would be aided by various economic development projects. For officials in his administration, “Israel’s existence was an irreversible reality with which Arab states ultimately would have to come to terms.”
The Kennedy administration proposed in 1961 a plan that would have given Palestinian refugees a choice between returning to their homes in Israel and resettlement elsewhere with compensation for lost properties from a special UN fund. A year later, the plan was shelved because it was regarded as unrealistic. American commitment to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem continued to recede even further under President Lyndon B. Johnson. He made no attempt to address the issue and eventually accepted the official Israeli position that the Palestinians had no legitimate grievances against the Jewish state. Elgindy laments, “Within less than two decades, American policymakers had lost sight of the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict and allowed the basic guidelines for Arab-Israeli peace to be rewritten as well.” Shortly after the signing of the Oslo Declaration of Principles in September 1993, the Clinton administration laid Resolution 194 to eternal rest by declaring it “obsolete and anachronistic.”
A similar process of gradual attrition ending in denial is evident in America’s policies regarding Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank from the end of the 1967 war to the present. Officials in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations often criticized the continuous building and expansion of Jewish cities and villages in the occupied territories but seldom backed such admonitions with any punitive policies. While the Reagan Fresh Start plan in mid-1982 called for an immediate settlement freeze, his administration in fact adopted the Israeli position that Jews have a historic right to live in what they referred to as Biblical Judea and Samaria.
It was in mid-1991, a quarter of a century after Israel’s capture of the West Bank, that Washington for the very first time used a tiny portion of its vast economic aid package to Israel as a stick against Jerusalem in regard to settlements. When Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir announced plans to settle thousands of Soviet Jewish immigrants in the West Bank, Secretary of State James Baker persuaded Congress to pass legislation to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees sought by Israel to help absorb Russian immigrants, until it agreed to freeze settlement construction in the occupied territories. The punishment was purely symbolic; the loan guarantees were restored shortly after Israel had agreed to take part in the Madrid peace conference.
By referring to settlements as a mere “complicating factor” instead of “obstacles to peace,” the Clinton administration in essence gave its tacit approval for additional Israeli settlement construction in the occupied areas. Clinton looked the other way as successive Israeli governments justified expanding existing settlements as “natural growth.” From 1993 to 2000, the settler population in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip grew from 270,000 to 370,000.
The administration of George W. Bush was one of the sponsors, along with Russia, the UN and the European Union, of the 2003 quartet “road map,” which required Israel to cease all settlement activities in the territories, including those intended to accommodate natural population growth. However, the total building freeze was never implemented, as the White House reached a secret agreement with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon allowing Israel to continue settlement construction on the basis of natural growth.
Shortly after taking office, President Obama made it clear that he expected Israel to stop all construction in the occupied territories without any exceptions; he viewed settlements as a critical obstacle to a two-state solution. However, when Mahmoud Abbas made it clear that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would not restart negotiations with Israel without a full freeze, Obama managed to extract from Bibi Netanyahu only a 10-month moratorium on new construction in the West Bank, but not in East Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the White House was able to restart the peace talks with only three weeks left before the expiration of the moratorium, and its efforts to secure Netanyahu’s agreement to a 90-day extension in return for a multi-billion-dollar military aid package utterly failed.
Instead of being rebuked, Israel was rewarded for its obstinacy when the administration vetoed an anti-settlement resolution in the UN Security Council in February 2011. However, a few weeks before ending his second term, Obama conveyed his disappointment and frustration with Netanyahu by ordering the United States to abstain on a balanced Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli settlements and Palestinian terrorism as illegal and threats to peace. Coming three months after the United States signed an unprecedented agreement providing $38 billion in military assistance to Israel, Obama’s decision was denounced by Israel and numerous Republican leaders, including then-president-elect Trump.
The Trump White House has been more lax and permissive in regard to Israeli settlements than any previous administration. Tellingly, each member of Trump’s Middle East peace team — son-in-law Jared Kushner, chief negotiator Jason Greenblatt and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman — have political and economic ties to the settler movement in the West Bank. In marked contrast to any preceding Republican president, Trump has not once acknowledged that the presence of some 150 Israeli settlements on the West Bank, now populated by approximately a half million Jews, is an obstacle to peace.
Elgindy identifies various fundamental flaws in America’s role as the lone mediator in the Middle East peace process. He maintains that the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel has frequently led American officials to lose sight of the fact that it is Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, not Palestinian terrorism or weak political institutions, that stands at the very heart of the conflict. In addition, successive U.S. presidents have tended to reward Israeli intransigence with carrots while extracting concessions from the Palestinians with sticks. Unfortunately, the vast amounts of perennial American economic and military assistance have helped Israel to defray the costs of the occupation, thereby exacerbating the power imbalance between the parties.
American officials have also held the faulty assumption that the peace process could be advanced despite internal political divisions within the Palestinian camp. Elgindy notes that the Bush administration welcomed the split between the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-dominated PA in the West Bank as an opportunity to advance peace negotiations from 2006 onwards without having to take account of an Islamist faction ruling more than 40 percent of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. The author concludes that “the experiences of the last half century have shown that a weak, dependent or fragmented political leadership is not an asset to the peace process but a major liability — not only because a credible and durable peace deal will require leaders with a modicum of political legitimacy but also because periods of Palestinian political fragmentation and dysfunction historically have been accompanied by an increase in violence and terror.”
Elgindy does not exempt the Palestinians from some of the blame for the current impasse. He notes that Arafat’s encouragement of violence during the second intifada, and Hamas's resort to missile barrages from Gaza against Israeli civilians, eroded international sympathy for the Palestinian cause and strengthened rightist political forces in Israel. Likewise, the ongoing schism between Hamas and Fatah has encouraged violence and political instability, thereby providing Israel with excuses to delay progress in peace negotiations. In addition, the PA leadership has placed unwarranted faith in Washington's ability and willingness to exert political pressure on Israel, and seldom brought to the bargaining table creative counterproposals of its own.
Elgindy makes it abundantly clear that, in its approach toward the Palestinians, the Trump administration has failed to draw a single lesson from errors of omission and commission by many of its predecessors. On the contrary, by formulating a still-unannounced peace plan without any input from the Palestinian side, forcing the closure of the PLO mission in Washington, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing the disputed city as the capital of Israel, reducing and then eliminating all American financial contributions to UNRWA, and refusing to acknowledge Israeli presence on the West Bank as an illegal occupation, the Trump White House has inflicted upon itself total blindness in its quest for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Certainly, no Palestinian leader would agree to approach a negotiating table from which Jerusalem, refugees, the end of the Israeli occupation and hopes for any semblance of Palestinian sovereignty are deliberately missing.
In the epilogue of Blind Spot, Elgindy joins a growing chorus of Middle East scholars who predict that with the death of the American-led peace process, the status quo will win by default as the Israeli occupation of the West Bank continues into the foreseeable future. He notes that political support for a two-state solution continues to decline among the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships and publics, and that the emergence of a single, binational state is not currently a politically viable option. He concludes that, “unless and until the United States can overcome its blind spot to Israeli power and Palestinian politics, its policies will be doomed to failure.”
The careful reader of this otherwise well-written book will be surprised to learn that the Palestinian people include “5 million refugees displaced during Israel’s creation in 1948” (p. xi), while the actual number of 750,000 displaced Palestinians appears on page 48. Likewise, the second of two maps following the preface, initially drawn in 1997, is now headed by the misleading title “Territories Occupied by Israel since June 1967” because it depicts the Gaza Strip as territory still occupied by Israel. In the same vein, the terse summary of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (p. 62) should have been expanded to include the restrictive proviso that limited the right of return and compensation only to those Palestinian refugees willing to live in peace inside Israel.
Elgindy deserves praise for treating an incredibly controversial subject matter with highly original and provocative analysis. Based on extensive research of American, Palestinian and Israeli sources — the notes alone account for one quarter of the book — the author presents an objective and readable account of a decades-long, failed American quest for a Middle East peace. This volume should be required reading for any future occupants of the White House.