Last week in New York I had breakfast with Rashid Khalidi, a leading Palestinian intellectual who has written extensively on the development of Palestinian identity and served as an advisor to the Palestinian delegation to the negotiations with Israel and the U.S. from 1991 to 1993.
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Khalidi, who is Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia and directs its Middle East Institute, is not very optimistic - to say the least - about the prospect for Middle East peace. On that point we connected rather easily, as neither of us is sanguine about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
My own pessimism is based on the one hand on my reading of Israel’s internal dynamics and the deep level of fear and distrust Israelis feel vis-à-vis the Arab world, and on the other hand, the Arab world’s difficulty to express its acceptance of Israel more clearly - among other reasons, because its regimes do not want an open conflict with the increasingly powerful Islamist ideology.
In Khalidi’s view, the whole peace process has been a sham to begin with. He thinks Israel never intended to allow a viable Palestinian state to emerge, and that the U.S. has never acted as a fair broker in the Middle East.
Khalidi told me he believes the complex intertwining of U.S. and Israeli domestic politics has led to the point where the U.S. does not really oppose Israel’s settlement policy even if this policy runs counter to American long-term interests.
Back in Israel I wanted to understand Khalidi’s position more in depth, so I read his new book Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. has Undermined Peace in the Middle East, which was an emotionally difficult experience. Most of the facts in his book were already known to me, though Khalidi has unearthed new documents that show the inner workings of various U.S. Administrations regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The book in a sense complements two other recent books written by Israelis that show how all Israeli governments since 1977 actively promoted the West Bank’s gradual colonization: Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar’s Lords of the Land: the War over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories and Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel.
Brokers of Deceit is a very angry book, and that anger is primarily directed at Israel. Khalidi repeatedly emphasizes former Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s stipulation that no peace process should lead to the creation of a Palestinian state. Khalidi aims to show that Israel’s policy since 1977 has been to create facts on the ground that would indeed preclude the possibility of a Palestinian state while playing the charade of a “peace process” that was basically meant to lead nowhere. (Khalidi uses the term with ire and irony).
The Columbia professor is also angry with the Palestinian leadership for accepting Israel’s terms of reference for such a vacuous peace process. But most of all, he is angry at successive U.S. administrations that, under the guise of being fair brokers have been, as long term negotiatorDavid Aaron Miller wrote, essentially Israel’s lawyers.
Khalidi argues that American administrations never really cared about Palestinian rights. Until the early 1990s their policies were primarily determined by the Cold War, during which Israel was an important ally, and by the need to safeguard relations with Saudi Arabia with its immense oil reserves. Since then, Khalidi claims, no U.S. administration truly put pressure on Israel to stop settlement expansion, but rather perpetuated the farce of a peace process.
One of his recurring themes is that the language around the so-called peace process was an Orwellian exercise in obfuscation, a charade meant to create the illusion that there was a peace process leading to Palestinian self-determination, when it really was a cover-up for Israel’s gradual colonization of the West Bank. Khalidi highlights Israel’s constant expansion of Jerusalem as designed to gradually cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, thus slowly but surely making the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital impossible.
The book is well written; he keeps his narrative fast-paced, and his anger is felt on every page. He keeps returning to the high-handedness of Israel’s approach that, for years, never saw the Palestinians as actual partners, but as vassals that were meant to follow Israeli dictates. And his basic argument is that Israeli governments since 1977 consistently accepted Begin’s idea that Palestinians were to achieve nothing but administrative and cultural autonomy without sovereignty over their land.
Reading Khalidi’s book was difficult for me because it showed, once again, how catastrophic the settlement policy has been not only for Palestinians, but also for Israel. Khalidi at some points mentions Israeli fears of extinction and the fear that another Holocaust is around the corner. While, as a historian, he takes these fears seriously, he mostly emphasizes their use as a pretext for a colonization process that has nothing to do with Israel’s security, but is just a means of manipulating the international community, and particularly the U.S., into acquiescing to Israel’s expansionism.
I can attest to the fact that Israeli fears are genuine. There is hardly a social gathering at which the question whether Israel will still exist in a few decades does not pop up. Israel has been and is a society under constant mobilization, and this is not based on sheer paranoia: Hezbollah is armed with 60,000 rockets aimed at Israel; Hamas has made life in southern Israel a nightmare, and the jihadist desire to wipe Israel off the map is found throughout the Muslim world.
As Khalidi knows, I do not say this to justify Israel’s settlement policy, which, along with many others, I take to be Israel’s moral, political and strategic catastrophe that might potentially lead to the country’s demise. The rhetorical abuse of these fears to justify settlement expansion has led to the point where average Israelis’ genuine fears and concerns of are no longer credible to the outside world at large, and certainly not to Palestinians.
I could quibble with Khalidi on a number of points: He writes as if there never was an Israeli government that seriously intended for Palestinians to have a viable state, and as if there was no genuine peace camp in Israel. This is not true: Ehud Olmert’s intentions were genuine, and by the time he was forced to resign because of corruption charges, he and Mahmoud Abbas were very close to an agreement.
Furthermore Khalidi only chastises the Palestinian leadership for cooperating with what he sees as a farcical charade of a peace process. But he does not take into account how disastrous Palestinian decision making has been in other respects: The suicide bombings in the 1990's brought Netanyahu to power, and the second Intifada made most Israelis reluctant to take further risks for peace.
One might well argue that this is not Khalidi’s topic: The book is about the U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And as a Palestinian, Khalidi is entitled to disregard the nuances of Israel’s internal dynamics: for him it is the bottom-line that matters: Hundreds of thousands of Israelis living east of the 1967 borders, and Palestinians living under Israeli rule without political rights, their dignity shattered. But this is not meant to be a review of his book. It is rather meant as a description of what it evoked in me.
I was primarily saddened: Along with many others, I have invested much of my time and energy in fostering a genuine peace with the Palestinians. Khalidi’s book shows to what extent Israel’s governments and the Messianic settler movement have so far undermined our efforts – and might end up turning them into naught. And it shows how difficult it will be to bridge the enormous chasm between the Israeli and the Palestinian experiences and arrive at peaceful coexistence based on mutual understanding.