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New Texts Out Now: Rashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East

[Cover of Rashid Khalidi, [Cover of Rashid Khalidi, "Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East"]

Rashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. Boston: Beacon Press, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Rashid Khalidi (RK): I had long wanted to use the large number of documents—position papers, minutes of meetings, internal memos, official proposals, and so forth—that I had collected as an advisor to the Madrid and Washington Palestinian-Israeli negotiations from 1991-1993, but I never found the right opportunity to do so. The research of one my graduate students on American policy during the 1970s and 1980s revealed a trove of newly declassified American and Israeli materials that cast a fascinating light on what my colleagues and I had experienced in the early 1990s, and together with my experience watching the Obama administration’s failures in dealing with the Palestine issue, inspired me to write this short book.

It is not a comprehensive history of US Middle East policy, or even of US policy on Palestine. Instead, it focuses on three “moments”: one is the period 1978-82; another is the 1991-93 negotiations; and the third is the last two years of Obama’s first term. I saw that the specific patterns of US bias in favor of inflexible Israeli positions, which we had seen in our negotiations with the Israelis under Bush and Clinton, were precisely mirrored before that in the Carter and Regan administrations, and that little or nothing has changed under this president.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

RK: The book addresses some of the common distortions of language that are so prevalent where the Palestine issue is concerned in Israeli-American official and media discourse. I deal with thoroughly corrupted terms like “peace process,” “Palestinian autonomy,” “Israeli security,” and “terrorism,” all of which in this parlance have heavily loaded meanings. I thus am challenging both those who use these terms in policy-making, political discourse, and the media, and the vast literature that reproduces them without critical analysis of what they actually mean. As I suggest in the book, this is truly Orwellian, and this corrupt language has a profound impact on reality.

I go in some detail into the fact that an “autonomy” scheme for the Palestinians that was devised by Menachem Begin in the late 1970’s defined every essential feature of the regime that was first laid down by the Israelis with American connivance in the negotiations I participated in from 1991-93 in Washington. The Palestinian delegation there, headed by Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi and Faysal Husayni, would not accept this scheme. The delegation objected forcefully to the bias of the US in favor of Israel, to the point of counseling the PLO to break off the negotiations over the issue of unfulfilled American assurances in relation to settlement expansion and Jerusalem, advice which of course was not accepted. This same scheme, in its essentials, was later tragically accepted by the PLO at Oslo, and it has been in force since then. This is the basis of the so-called “Palestinian Authority,” a body with no sovereignty, very limited jurisdiction, and no real authority. This scheme was designed to provide permanent Israeli control, and finally sovereignty, over the entirety of “greater Eretz Israel.” In practice, this has meant ultimate Israeli control of security, land, and water, unlimited settlements, and exclusive Israeli possession of Jerusalem.

The US and Israeli documents I cite in the book are damning in this regard. The book shows that this was not just Begin’s wish list. It has become the bedrock of the policy of every Israeli government since, and even worse, is the ceiling of what US policy since Carter will allow to the Palestinians. Needless to say, such a scheme cannot produce peace, but is rather designed to prolong occupation, settlement, and the subjugation of the Palestinian people, which it has successfully done for the past twenty years.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

RK: I have written about aspects of modern Palestinian history that link to these issues in Palestinian Identity (1996) and The Iron Cage (2006), and about American (and Soviet) policy in the Middle East in Sowing Crisis (2009) and elsewhere, but I never before focused on American policy in Palestine, which is the main topic of this book. This is a much more systematic, albeit limited, attempt to analyze some of the sources of this policy, including the part played by strategic issues in policy-making; the role of the domestic political factors and Israel lobby; and the crucial contribution of Saudi Arabia to the negative nature of this policy for the Palestinians.  

One element of continuity between this book and some of my previous work, notably Under Siege (1986), is that it shows how worthless have been US pledges and assurances to the Palestinians, from 1982 until 1991, and up to the present.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

RK: I have written this book for a general audience, but I would hope that it would be of use to students, academics, people in the media, and even people in government (who might have to cover it with a dust jacket from 50 Shades of Grey or some such book to conceal it from their censorious peers). As to impact, who knows? I would hope that it might play a part in changing the corrupt and utterly dishonest public discourse on Palestine, in the US in particular. When and if it is translated into Arabic, I would hope that it would reinforce the critical attitude towards the Oslo-derived regime among most Palestinians.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

RK: I am currently preparing an updated edition of Under Siege, a book about the PLO during the 1982 war, with a new introduction that addresses some of the revelations in newly declassified documents from the Israeli and American archives about the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and other events during that war.

I am also working on what I hope will eventually be a book about Arab nationalism, in which I will revisit work I previously published on the topic. I have come to see many of the issues related to Arab nationalism that I treated in articles beginning in the late 1970s, in my first book, British Policy towards Syria and Palestine (1980), and in a co-edited volume, The Origins of Arab Nationalism (1991), in a very different light than I originally did. I hope to use this opportunity to rethink a number of these questions, and to reflect on some under-appreciated aspects in our understanding of this ideology and its many offshoots.

J: What methodologies did you use in your research toward this book?

RK: I had a solid documentary base, in the large number of documents that were produced by the Palestinian delegation from 1991-93, for what became the second chapter of the book, and I was pleased to be able to use these documents, some of which have never before been published. I have put up the originals of all the documents from this source that I cite in the book on a page on the Institute for Palestine Studies website under the title “Papers of the Palestinian Delegation.”

For the long introduction and the first chapter, I used declassified US and Israeli documents, all of them publicly available, and many of them first discovered by Seth Anziska, a doctoral student currently finishing his dissertation at Columbia University on US policy under Carter and Reagan. Finally, for the last chapter, where I briefly treat the end of the Clinton period and the Bush administration, I used the documents leaked by members of the PLO negotiating team that were posted by the Guardian and Al-Jazeera under the title “Palestine Papers.” Not surprisingly, they showed that the broad patterns I discerned under previous administrations continued through the early 2000’s. There was some variation, of course, given the George W. Bush administration’s extraordinarily favorable attitude towards Israeli expansionism. Finally, regarding the past four years, I used open sources.

Of the six US presidents whose administrations I look at, that of the younger Bush was the only one that did not at least try to push back at the highly restrictive Israeli position on what would actually be allowed to the Palestinians, whether the deceptive and dishonest term for the scheme in question was “autonomy,” self-determination,” or a “Palestinian state.” The other five did try in some measure to resist this restrictive scheme, without any success, for reasons I enumerate in the book.

My methodology was simple: I read these documents carefully, looked at the precise language used, and described the clear pattern that I found in American policy on Palestine, and how it echoed key Israeli desiderata in most of its essentials, from 1977 until 2012. The result is that the United States never was, and could not be, an “honest broker.” In fact, most of the time it served as “Israel’s lawyer,” a description by Aaron David Miller of how he and his colleagues involved in policy-making under several administrations actually operated, citing Henry Kissinger, of all people!

Excerpt from Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East

In this book I attempt to pierce one aspect of a carefully constructed realm of obscurity, a realm in which the misuse of language has thoroughly corrupted both political thought and action. I will do so by focusing primarily on three sets of events, each to be treated in a subsequent chapter, which constituted moments of relative clarity in the fog of obfuscation that has surrounded US policy on Palestine for more than three decades. These are crucial junctures when unusual circumstances worked to draw back a veil masking underlying realities, underlying structures. The eminent French historian Fernand Braudel noted that even a minor event “could be the indication of a long reality, and sometimes, marvelously, of a structure.” I am arguing that these three moments likewise signify beyond themselves, however relatively minor they may have been in and of themselves.

The veil I am most concerned with in this book, however, does not primarily conceal basic verities about the situation in Palestine per sealthough it is certainly true that the unpleasant realities of this situation are carefully hidden from the American public. Having dealt with historical dimensions of the situation in Palestine in earlier works, I want to examine here instead the veil that conceals how the policy of the United States toward the Palestine question has actually functioned to exacerbate rather than resolve this problem. My primary objective is to reveal how closely entwined have been the respective policies of the United States and Israel toward the Palestinian people over recent decades. Logically, this should have disqualified America from playing the role of intermediary between the two antagonists: needless to say, it did not. This aim is thus quite limited: my purpose in what follows is not to chronicle or analyze the entirety of American diplomacy in the Middle Eastern arena, or to provide a comprehensive history of efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict in all its aspects. A number of books attempt to do this: this is not one of them. Although I will necessarily touch on the larger American role in the Middle East, and will consider the issue of Palestine against the context of the broader dispute between Israel and the Arabs, my focus throughout will be on how the United States has dealt with the Palestine question.

A second objective of this book is to examine how constant have been certain key elements in US policy on Palestine over many decades. Much has changed in this policy over time. However, there are underlying continuities that have allowed the United States and Israel—whose overwhelming might enables them to dominate the entire Middle East—to control and shape outcomes in Palestine. The three revealing sets of events I focus on in this book show how central the support of the United States was for the enduring system of control of the millions of Palestinians living under military occupation, a system that was conceived, constructed, and maintained by Israel. In June 2013, this complex but largely invisible structure, consistently upheld and defended by the United States, will enter its forty-seventh year. The Israeli occupation has been made so (politically) invisible in the United States that then presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney apparently could not, or would not, see it while in Jerusalem on a campaign visit in July 2012. The existence of this structure explains in large part why the Palestinians have not been able to achieve their national objectives of liberating themselves from occupation, unifying the scattered segments of their people, and exercising self-determination. It also helps to explain why the continued survival of the Palestinians as a people has been in question since at least 1948, and remains so today.

The assertion that the continued existence of the Palestinians as a people is endangered requires some explanation, in light of the ubiquitous invocation of the precarious existence of Israel in American and Israeli public discourse. Since memory of the most somber chapter in all of Jewish history, the Nazis’ genocidal destruction of much of European Jewry, is still vivid, it is understandable that existential fears are often evoked where Israel is concerned. This tragic past notwithstanding, the state of Israel has in fact been a resounding success story throughout its sixty-four-year history. But the fears provoked by this grim recent history obscure the fact that as Israel has gone from success to success, victory to victory, the Palestinian people have been repeatedly shattered and dispersed as a social and political entity. This sequence of tragedies for the Palestinians was most often a result of these very Israeli successes and victories. Thus it is understandable that the Palestinians confront profound existential anxieties as a people, for very real reasons rooted in their experiences over more than three quarters of a century. Nonetheless, in American public discourse it is the existential angst of the Israelis that is continually emphasized, and their anxiety-driven quest for security that is consequently paramount, never that of the Palestinians. This is a matter of political realities, of course, which allow one people to be highly visible and another to be virtually invisible, but it is another instance where flawed political ideas are powerfully reinforced by the employment of subtly distorted language.

Examining how American objectives were achieved in the three instances I will focus on provides insight into some of the reasons why a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace, which would satisfactorily and finally resolve the problem of Palestine, has never emerged. Although other crucial aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict were settled, via peace treaties between Egypt and Israel in 1979 and between Jordan and Israel in 1994, peace has not been achieved between Israelis and Palestinians. There is no peace in spite of decades of futile initiatives that were ostensibly directed at achieving this aim, under the Orwellian rubric of a “peace process.” I place this ubiquitous term in quotation marks in my text because whatever concrete effects this process may have had—whether it marginally ameliorated a colonial status quo in the occupied Palestinian territories or exacerbated it, and whether it has improved the strategic position of the United States and Israel in the region or harmed it—it is manifestly clear that it has not brought peace to the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, nor has it resolved the conflict between them.

Looked at objectively, it can be argued that American diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have, if anything, made achieving peace between Palestinians and Israelis even more difficult. These endeavors go back to the US-brokered 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, which constituted the first American attempt following the 1967 war—indeed the only serious effort since soon after the 1948 war—to address the Palestinian-Israeli component of the larger conflict. They encompass initiatives of the Carter, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations. These initiatives were necessarily affected by the prior policies of the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations, which, like most of their predecessors, never attempted to deal in a fundamental manner with the Palestine problem.

The first of the three moments of clarity I propose to focus on came in the late summer of 1982 when it briefly appeared as if there might be an opportunity to put into effect the unimplemented provisions of the 1978 Camp David Accords relating to Palestinian autonomy. As mentioned, those accords, which had been incorporated into the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, amounted to the only serious American effort since the Truman administration to address the question of Palestine and the Palestinians, and constituted the first effort to address certain of its political dimensions. However, in a series of follow-up negotiations that took place between the 1978 Camp David Summit and 1982, the three parties to the accords, Israel, Egypt, and the United States, had been unable to agree on the interpretation of their provisions relating to the Palestinians.

In the latter year, Reagan administration policymakers perceived an opportunity to address this impasse in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. After two months of bombardment of besieged West Beirut, an American-brokered cease-fire on 12 August finally halted the carnage, which had produced nearly fifty thousand casualties. This ceasefire was linked to the evacuation of the leadership, civilian cadres, and military forces of the PLO from the Lebanese capital, which took place at the end of August. Washington viewed this dramatic change as reinforcing the American position regionally and globally. It was thus considered the appropriate occasion for the release of a US proposal later known as the Reagan Plan, which was publicly announced by President Ronald Reagan on 1 September 1982.

Particularly revealing in this context is a recently declassified confidential memo, most likely written by a senior officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, which predicted that Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin would react with extreme inflexibility to the Reagan Plan. This US intelligence analyst predicted that in response to President Reagan’s effort to resolve the conflict via reframing the Camp David autonomy accords more objectively and more favorably to the Palestinians, Begin would adamantly refuse to budge from his own narrow, reductive interpretation of these accords. This assessment proved to be highly accurate. Equally revealing was the eventual unwillingness or inability of the US administration in the subsequent weeks to hold firm to the positions publicly enunciated by the president, or to overcome Begin’s strongly worded objections to any change in the American posture supportive of Israel on the issues in contention with the Palestinians. As we shall see, this was not the first time that American policymakers were to acquiesce unwillingly in the Israeli position on Palestine, nor was it to be the last.

The second set of events to be examined occurred during the nearly two years of bilateral negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian delegations in Washington that followed the October 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. These talks were ultimately rendered moot by the secretly negotiated Oslo Accords, which were signed on the White House lawn in September 1993 by Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, PLO chairman Yasser ‘Arafat, and US president Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, the confidential documents and public statements produced by the Palestinian delegation to the pre-Oslo Madrid and Washington negotiations—to which I had access as an advisor to this delegation—expose much about the fundamental positions of the United States and Israel. These documents, especially minutes of meetings with the American and Israeli sides, are revealing in showing the high degree of coordination between the positions of the two countries. Most striking here was the unmistakable continuity of the restrictive Israeli position on Palestinian autonomy—which in its essence remained unchanged from the time of Begin though the governments of Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and all of their successors. Equally importantly, these documents reveal the acquiescence of American policymakers in this position. Just as little noticed in the euphoria over the signing of the Oslo Accords was the utter unreliability of what appeared to be unequivocal American commitments made to the Palestinians at the outset of the Madrid talks. One can contrast this with the faithfulness of Washington to its pledges to Israel regarding the question of Palestine, and its unremitting responsiveness to Israeli demands in this regard.

The third moment is much more recent. It emerged during the latter part of the Obama administration’s first four years in office. Over this period President Barack Obama faced relentless pressure from Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, acting in concert both with the Republican leadership in Congress (newly energized after its Tea Party-fueled victories in the 2010 midterm elections) and with the potent congressional lobby for Israel. The latter is composed of an archipelago of organizations rooted in the older, more affluent, and more conservative sectors of the Jewish community and headed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), allied with a range of right-wing Christian evangelical groups passionately supportive of Israel. The tripartite pressure of Netanyahu, the Republicans, and the Israel lobby forced Obama into humiliating retreats from the positions he had staked out during his first two years in office. Notable among these positions, all of which had been standard fare for most of the preceding administrations, were his stress on halting the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as a precondition for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations; his assertion of the necessity for the rapid achievement of full statehood by the Palestinians; and his insistence that a return to the 1967 frontiers with minor modifications, as per Security Council Resolution 242, was the only suitable basis for negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel.

In the fall of 2011, the embarrassing abandonment of all these positions culminated in a major campaign led by the United States to obstruct a Palestinian bid for recognition of a Palestinian state as a full member of the United Nations. In this context, Barack Obama in October 2011 delivered perhaps the most pro-Israeli speech any US president has ever made to the UN General Assembly, adopting an unprecedented range of standard tropes in Israeli discourse on the conflict. Thereafter, Obama received Israeli prime minister Netanyahu at the White House in early March 2012, for a discussion of several hours that was mainly focused on Iran. So little attention was devoted to the Palestine issue, Israeli settlements, the “peace process,” or related matters which had been the central topic of all their previous meetings, that there was barely a mention of them in the official White House statement on the meeting. An Israeli analyst wrote in amazement: “When [Netanyahu] came back his adviser was asked what was new about this meeting. And his adviser said, ‘This is the first time in memory that an Israeli Prime Minister met with a US president and that the Palestinian issue was not even mentioned, it never came out.’” Indeed, matters related to Palestine had been central to virtually every previous meeting between a US president and an Israeli prime minister for many decades. It was not these issues, on which the president had focused almost entirely during his first two years in office, but the question of Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu’s preferred topic of discussion, that predominated. Obama’s climb-down was complete, and was only confirmed in the succeeding months of 2012, as the presidential election campaign gathered steam and both candidates pandered shamelessly to win the approval of fervent supporters of Israel.

[Excerpted from Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East, by Rashid Khalidi, by permission of the author. © 2013 Beacon Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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