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Palestine, Place Not Your Hopes in America

Nearly twenty years ago, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, with a towering Bill Clinton  nudging them together, consummated their famous handshake on the White House lawn.  Even for those with more than casual  interest in the Middle East, the event seemed to signify that the conflict which had torn apart the Holy Land since the Balfour […]

Nearly twenty years ago, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, with a towering Bill Clinton  nudging them together, consummated their famous handshake on the White House lawn.  Even for those with more than casual  interest in the Middle East, the event seemed to signify that the conflict which had torn apart the Holy Land since the Balfour Declaration was heading for conclusion.  Of course there were naysayers—the Columbia professor and Palestinian intellectual Edward Said most prominently—who warned that the Oslo process, codified by Clinton, did not actually advance Palestinian national aspirations; meanwhile the neoconservatives grouped around Commentary (including many of my then friends and political allies) were doing all they could to rally opposition against the Rabin government’s readiness to deal with Arafat’s PLO. In this symmetry it was easy to conclude that the accords, with their lawyerly timetables and details about Areas A, B, and C, could lead to no other conclusion but a Palestinian state—if under less favorable circumstances than the Palestinians might have had forty six years earlier.

There is not yet a comprehensive account of how that calculation—shared at the time by probably by tens of millions of others—would prove so woefully naive and wide of the mark, but in the meantime Rashid Khalidi’s short elegant work Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East provides suggestive answers.  If you wonder how it is that President Obama has been reduced, twenty years after the famous handshake, to pleading with Israeli university students that Palestinians really do deserve a state—while apparently having given up trying to push the issue with Israel’s leadership, this book is an excellent place to start.

There are critical nuggets throughout. One justification for the accusatory title is the secret letter to Israel’s leaders Henry Kissinger prepared for Gerald Ford’s signature in 1975, stating, with regard to any comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement: “Should the US desire in the future to put forward proposals of its own, it will make every effort to coordinate with Israel its proposals with a view toward refraining from putting forth proposals that Israel would consider unsatisfactory.” So much for Washington as an “honest broker” between the parties. Khalidi notes that Kissinger refrained from mentioning this item, which quite literally granted  Israel a veto over American diplomacy in the Middle East, in his voluminous three volumes of memoirs.

Faced with Israeli obduracy, American presidents and diplomats invariably retreated. Even post-Oslo, the Israelis remained wedded to a concept of the negotiations laid out by Likud leader Menachem Begin in the 1970’s—a readiness to speak about “autonomy for the people” on the West Bank but never actual Palestinian sovereignty over the land itself. Rabin, widely considered the Israeli leader most interested in a genuine peace, surrounded himself with Likudnik figures who could never imagine the Palestinians in other than a subservient role. “Arafat has a choice, he can be a Lahd or a super-Lahd” once observed Rabin’s chief negotiator Shlomo Gazit: the reference was to Antoine Lahd, a leader of the collaborationist forces of South Lebanon which did police work for the Israeli army of occupation.

Khalidi reserves much of his scorn for Americans who readily adopted Israeli narratives about Israel as an eternal victim—desperately seeking peace while  perpetually  on the verge of being attacked by  Arab armies—a depiction of the situation always considered  fanciful by American intelligence and military analysts. Condoleeza Rice once responded to Palestinian insistence about talking about the refugee issue and the ethnic cleansing which took place in 1948 by telling Palestinian negotiators, “Bad things happen to people around the world all the time. You need to look forward.” Khalidi wonders if an American in her position would ever similarly dismiss traumas central to the collective past of Jews, or African-Americans.

This work was published before Obama’s recent visit, but it explains fully why so little is expected of it. Obama, a social friend of Khalidi during the former’s Chicago days, has  fully internalized the narrative about Jewish state’s eternal victimhood, its and  vulnerability—no matter how remote that narrative is from reality. Khalidi believes  the failure of Obama’s peace initiatives of 2009 to be almost overdetermined—even without the GOP’s House victory in 2010 and Netanyahu’s triumph, there simply is not enough diplomatic weight on the Palestine side of the ledger. A fair portion of  blame for this falls on the Arab Gulf states, wealthy, self-centered, vulnerable to their own populations,  ever ready to fall in line behind the American superpower whose protection they need. Obama, in retreating before Netanyahu, bowed to force majeure.

Khalidi, a participant himself in the Palestinian side in the Oslo era negotiations, has long believed that the Palestinians have no chance until the locus of diplomacy moves away from the United States. What remains open for the Palestinians is  a long game: a prospect that the Arab spring eventually yields regimes more responsive to Arab popular aspirations, that Israel’s isolation in Europe’s capitals will continue to grow, that the balance of political power will change within the US. He argues convincingly that Israel’s leaders have never intended to allow Palestinians genuine self-determination. In discussing the discourse which has been created around the occupation—one of  “administered territories,” a “reunited” Jerusalem, violence which is alternatively called “terrorism” or “self-defense” depending upon whether its provenance is Palestinian or Israeli, Khalidi finds Orwell apposite, noting sardonically how deeply a linguistic inversion of reality has suffused American discussion of his people and homeland. And, as in Orwell’s dystopia—the powers that be seem so deeply entrenched and powerful that resistance can seem almost futile.