By Rashid Khalidi (Beacon Press, 2013)
Reviewed by Robert Joyce
President Barack Obama is being widely praised after yesterday’s speech in Jerusalem. One observer, Hussein Ibish from the American Task Force on Palestine, called it “without question the strongest ever made by a senior American politician on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Ibish may be right in his evaluation, but given what has been said and done by American leaders in the past that may not say much.
Until yesterday Obama had largely ignored any mention of a “peace process,” leaving it out of his state of the union and second inauguration address. Given his capitulations to Netanyahu in his first term, both on settlements and by allowing Iran to dominate the agenda between the two countries, Obama lacks legitimacy. Yesterday’s speech is unlikely to make a difference.
Should Obama come through with his call and try to restart negotiations, he faces resistance at home. Pro-Israel interests in the United States can still make governing difficult for Obama, as we saw during Secretary Chuck Hagel’s confirmation. Even after the last election of his career, it’s unlikely that Obama wants to spend political capital fighting the Israel lobby and their many Congressional allies on both sides of the aisle.
Rashid Khalidi’s new book, Brokers of Deceit, adds to the skepticism following Obama’s speech. Khalidi’s book is a brief history of American mediation between Israel and Palestine, drawing on newly declassified and recently uncovered documents. Focusing on three specific instances of American involvement, Khalidi demonstrates how American diplomats became “Israel’s lawyer”—not an even-handed mediator.
The three episodes Khalidi selects are largely absent discussion in the United States. The first is in 1982, when a ceasefire ended the Israeli war on Lebanon. Initially, Ronald Reagan asked the Begin government to enact what it agreed to at Camp David. Begin, however, as an intelligence assessment often quoted in Khalidi’s book predicts, is far too “inflexible.” Reagan, who Khalidi quotes describing a Palestinian state as a “peril to the free world,” simply folds to Israel.
In part of its pattern of useless diplomatic assurances to the Palestinians, American officials ensured the safety of Palestinians in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion and occupation. Khalidi cites the bloody Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which Lebanese militias allied with Israeli forces murdered 800 Palestinians within sight of Ariel Sharon’s troops.The American promises, Khalidi writes, were “utterly worthless.” Khalidi later added when we spoke by phone that U.S. is “culpable” in the massacre.
The second selection is in 1991 under President George H.W. Bush. After the first Gulf War and with the Soviet Union in free fall, Bush and his secretary of state James Baker bullied Arab states and Israel into coming together for the first time in Madrid. In the lead up to the talks, the United States in finalizing a aid deal with Israel demanded a guarantee that the loans would not be used to pay for settlement activity. Khalidi commends this move as the first and only time the U.S. has made Israeli aid contingent on responsible behavior. Khalidi writes that the elder Bush’s administration was “the last time there was what Aaron David Miller called ‘adult supervision’ of the people who have made such a hash of our policy.” Adding, “they understood that you have to have a comprehensive settlement and you can’t just do what the Israelis want and mug each weak Arab party in a corner by itself.”
Khalidi, an adviser to the Palestinian delegation during these talks, writes that negotiations were crippled by Israeli objections to Palestinian delegates. He also cites American assurances made in letters to the Palestinian and Israeli delegations to prevent “unilateral acts” that would endanger the “final outcome.” The Palestinian side took this to mean that the U.S. would prevent further settlement expansion. Clearly, it did not. Regardless, the parallel “track two” negotiations, taking place at the same time between the PLO and the Israeli government proved to be more important. Khalidi cites Arafat’s continuation of talks without first stopping settlement expansion as “one of the gravest” mistakes the leader made as it allowed Israel to continue colonizing the West Bank under the legitimacy of the peace process.
Obama’s first term failure forms Khalidi’s final example. In 2009, Obama took a fresher approach than some of his predecessors. Khalidi notes his speeches in Cairo and Istanbul as having symbolic importance and the appointment of George Mitchell as adding credibility. The book argues that it wasn’t only the 2010 elections but Obama’s own staff that caused him to cave on his initial demand for a freeze in settlements. Dennis Ross in particular as singled out as advising the president toward “pre-emptive capitulation” to Netanyahu’s “red lines,” in effect letting the hard-line leader set the parameters of negotiations regardless of Palestinian input.
Khalidi’s narrative repeatedly demonstrates an old Washington trope: people equal policy. While the Ross example stands out, Khalidi provides less discussed examples such as the Israeli government during the Madrid talks vetoing Palestinian negotiators who were too close to the PLO or were simply too knowledgeable in international law. Talking about American policy makers, Khalidi later said, “We have had so many people working in the top reaches of this government who really are much more attune to Israeli domestic politics and how those things interconnect with our politics than they are with inter-Arab or Palestinian politics and I think that’s a mistake.”
Second, Khalidi stresses that language matters. Throughout the book, he attacks the descriptions of talks between the U.S., Israel and Palestine as a “peace process.” He cites the doubling of settlers under the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and utter lack of progress towards “final status” to call the idea a sham. Other phrases, like “facts on the ground” are roundly mocked. Khalidi brings in references to Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” to discuss the real damage that nonsensical phrases used by Israeli and American negotiators such as “autonomy for people but not the land” do to reaching a solution.
Khalidi’s book tempers any expectations following Obama’s speech. Despite the stirring words, Khalidi argues that the imbalance between strong domestic Jewish and Evangelical communities and weak or nonexistent international Arab pressure result in an American policy that is openly anti-Palestinian. The money and power from the “pro-Israel” community—meaning pro-continued occupation and expanding settlements—further creates an ingrained political sensitivity, mandating American deference to the Israeli government.
For Khalidi, change would involve “a sense of the long term interests of this country,” which he said was “something that’s hard for politicians to act off of.” While he’s harsh on past American personnel and actions, he avoided any suggestions for immediate improvements both in the book and later comments.
For Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority and the person Obama just called “a true partner,” Khalidi’s advice is blunt: “resign” asking rhetorically, “why should Palestinians be complicit in their own occupation?”
“The Palestinian Authority should be dissolved. It was an interim arrangement negotiated in 1993, that’s 20 years ago, that’s a hell of a long interim.” Adding, “it is a complete and utter failure in serving Palestinian interests, and everyone involved in it should pack up and go.”
Robert Joyce is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.