Seth Anziska, Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018)
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Seth Anziska (SA): As I explain in the preface, this book emerged from questions I began asking in 2001-2002, during a formative year I spent living in the West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion, not far from Bethlehem. I had grown up in an American modern Orthodox Jewish community with strong attachments to Israel and little engagement with, or knowledge of, the Palestinians. The reality I witnessed on the ground forced a confrontation with that elision. In traveling between Israel and the West Bank during the height of the second intifada, the image of a place cultivated at a distance came up against a very different experience of everyday violence and the mechanics of the occupation. As an undergraduate, I turned to history as a means of making sense of what I had seen and experienced, which led to graduate work in Middle Eastern studies and international history. Broadening my perspective and spending time in Syria and Lebanon, while also returning to Israel and Palestine, helped me interrogate questions that had surfaced about the persistence of Palestinian statelessness and led to the research for this book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SA: Preventing Palestine traces the fate of the “Palestinian question”—the diplomatic negotiations over Palestinian self-determination—from Camp David in the late 1970s to the Madrid and Oslo peace process in the early 1990s. As I write in the book’s introduction, an American tendency to canonize Camp David has obscured the structural deficiencies enshrined by these early negotiations, and the link with what transpired fifteen years afterwards, during the Oslo Accords. While an Egyptian-Israeli settlement was indeed a significant achievement, it was reached at great and recurring expense. Alongside the advancement of Palestinian autonomy provisions and settlement expansion plans in the occupied territories, Camp David can be tied directly to Israel’s deadly invasion of Lebanon in 1982. What began as a political and diplomatic effort to suppress Palestinian national aspirations evolved into a military effort to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and occupy Beirut. Of course, Israel’s actions had unintended consequences. Even as the PLO was expelled to Tunis and farther afield, the persistence of Palestinian self-determination was clear in the wake of Lebanon, whether in the Arab diaspora or in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where local activists led the opposition to the Israeli occupation with the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987.
Taken together, these successive developments reshaped Israel’s relations with the Palestinians as well as broader regional politics in the Middle East during the late twentieth century in very troubling ways. In recounting this history, Preventing Palestine demonstrates how a confluence of global and regional politics, as well as shifting local developments on the ground, has produced an outcome of indefinite occupation, statelessness, and deep fragmentation for Palestinians. Beyond the particularities of the Palestinian question, the book also addresses histories of decolonization, human rights, and US internationalism in the 1970s and 1980s. Although often obscured by subsequent events, Camp David and the war in Lebanon were crucial components of an American turn to military force in the wider region. Coupled with the revival of a Cold War framing of politics in the Global South by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, this period helps us rethink the consequences of US-Middle East relations in the late twentieth century. A broader look at the Palestinian question can enable a necessary reassessment of the uneven trajectory of self-determination in the postwar era.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SA: As a student of Israeli and Palestinian history, as well as US foreign relations, I was shaped both by the debates of Israel’s “New Historians” over the 1948 War and the new international history of the global Cold War. The opening of the Israeli archives on Camp David and Lebanon, in particular, and the availability of a range of new sources in the United States, United Kingdom, and across the Middle East, led me to consider how these fields might be put into conversation with each other. If historians apply a transnational lens to examine the post-1967 era, what might they find? The collision of domestic politics and the rise of human rights rhetoric in 1970s America, an evolution within Palestinian politics, Israel’s first Likud government, and the shifting Cold War concerns of Egypt, for example, all suggest new avenues of inquiry that are too often viewed in isolation from one another.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SA: Along with readers who have an abiding interest in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and policymakers who focus on the Middle East, I am eager to reach non-specialists seeking to understand how and why the political situation in Israel and Palestine has persisted in such a damaging manner, and those who are searching for alternative ways of thinking about where things might be headed in the future. Having just marked forty years since Camp David and twenty-five years since Oslo, I am struck by how the historical context of the 1970s and 1980s is so often missing from conversations about the “peace process” and how quickly we forget the recent past. Many of the concepts that have served to demarcate the extent of possible Palestinian political horizons—autonomy rather than sovereignty, for example—emerged at a particular moment and are recurring today.
I am also hoping that the book will find an audience in the region, hopefully in Arabic and Hebrew, given the relevance of this history to Palestinian, Lebanese, and Israeli readers, among others. Access to previously untapped or classified sources can be a gift for the historian, and I was lucky to have the opportunity to revisit seminal events like the Sabra and Shatila massacre with crucial new material in the course of my research. However, access also comes with obligations, especially given the sensitivity of this history and its political significance. I have therefore worked to create an online repository for fellow researchers and a wider public who may be interested in consulting these sources as well.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SA: In writing Preventing Palestine, it was clear to me that the story of what happened in Lebanon in 1982 has far more resonance than what one chapter allowed. I have started interviewing military veterans and survivors of this war in Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel, with plans to write a broader account of the international history of 1982. By accounting for local transformations brought on by the invasion, as well as the regional reordering and global repercussions of the war, we can better understand how events in the 1980s shaped the post-Cold War Middle East, and also affected domestic politics in the United States, from American Jewish engagement with Israel and Zionism, to Arab-American activism and the rise of neoconservative thinking in US foreign policy. There are also the social and cultural dimensions of 1982, and the internal ruptures within Lebanon and Israel fomented by the war. I have been working on another project that involves a tale of military refusal and rumor, concerning an Israeli pilot and a Lebanese artist who documented the invasion. I am eager to explore the possibility and limitations of historical research across national borders, given the afterlife of political violence.
J: How might the period you write about in Preventing Palestine shed light on the current predicament facing Palestinians?
SA: In crucial ways, I think we are seeing a revival of ideas that were bandied about in the 1970s and 1980s, from "limited autonomy" to "economic peace" for Palestinians. Unlike US administrations in the past, the Trump administration has made clear that it is not interested in a sovereign outcome, while Palestinians themselves are shifting to a rights-based conversation rather than one focused on the attainment of a state. Israeli political developments have accelerated this trend, with a host of politicians talking about 2019 as the year of annexation in key parts of the West Bank. The recent developments with the Golan Heights may very well pave the way. Along with the continued blockade of the Gaza Strip, and the wider regional politics of normalization, it is a very grim picture. If the lessons of Camp David were not quite heeded in the context of Oslo, however, there is a far greater popular awareness today of the pitfalls of negotiations that allow for settlement expansion and deprive Palestinians of meaningful sovereignty.
Excerpt from Book
From Chapter Three, “Egypt’s Sacrificial Lamb,” pp. 106-110:
“This is perhaps the first time we sit together since Moses crossed the waters not very far from here,” Anwar al-Sadat proudly told his guest. “Let us here teach the world a new way of facing problems between two nations let us tell them that sincerity, honesty, goodwill and, above all, love can solve any problem.” It was Menachem Begin’s first trip to Egypt, and Sadat’s warm welcome underscored its historic nature. “When Moses took us out of Egypt, it took him 40 years to cross the Sinai desert,” a reverent but jovial Begin told his Egyptian counterpart. “We did it in 40 minutes.” The Christmas Day visit to Sadat’s presidential residence on the banks of the Suez Canal in Ismailia provided the Israeli prime minister with a chance to formally present his autonomy plan to the Egyptians after its announcement to American and British leaders.
Begin sought out Sadat’s approval for his approach to the Palestinian question, as distinct from the broader discussions over the Sinai Peninsula. After first laying out the Israeli position on withdrawal from the Sinai, the Israeli leader turned to his proposal for “self-rule for the Palestinian Arabs.” He opened with the issue of sovereignty, which he acknowledged neither Israel nor Palestinians were willing to cede. Rather, by dealing with human beings and leaving the question of sovereignty open, Begin described the essence of his idea. “We give the Palestinian Arabs self-rule and the Palestinian Jews security.” He read out the details of his proposal, which Sadat said he would take into consideration, pleased to have moved from procedural concerns to substantive negotiations.
Later that evening, having reviewed the Israeli proposals, Sadat returned to the second meeting with the Israelis and was more critical. On the question of the Sinai, Sadat opposed any restrictions on Egyptian sovereignty. He rejected Begin’s suggestion to keep airfields or Jewish settlements behind after a withdrawal. “If I tell my people that my friend Begin said there will be settlements in Sinai and some defense force to defend them, they will throw stones at me.” As for the Palestinian question, Sadat continued, it was “a step, a real step. … But it is not sufficient as yet.” He went on to describe the aspirations of Palestinian moderates for independence and the tight spot Egypt found itself as their defender in the Arab world given all the opposition to his trip to Jerusalem. The two leaders agreed this difference was a “problem.” In revising the joint statement to the public about their meeting, Begin raised the issue of invoking 242 and withdrawal from the territories, which he could not sign onto given his divergent interpretation of the resolution. He also objected to the word “self-determination,” if it signified a state. “This is the mortal danger of which I speak. We can use the word ‘self-rule.’”
Despite Sadat’s rhetorical support for the Palestinians, his talks with Begin revealed a great deal of Egyptian antipathy toward the PLO and Palestinian nationalists. Begin expressed fears about security and the growing influence of the PLO on Israel’s borders, framing his explanation in Cold War terms and appealing to Sadat’s hostile view of the Soviet Union. “Some of the PLO men are Soviet agents,” Begin remarked. “All of them,” Sadat replied. The Egyptian president nevertheless upheld his commitment to representing Palestinian aspirations. “Still I must lead the Arab world. It is the leadership of Egypt historically that has always prevailed. It is in your interest as well as ours.”
The symbolic claims of leadership belied Sadat’s narrower interests and willingness to concede to Begin in private, which Egypt’s newly appointed foreign minister later criticized. In concluding their talks, both leaders returned to the concept of self-rule, and Begin reiterated his opposition “to a Palestinian state of Arafat and [Fatah leader] Kaddumi.” Sadat agreed, “As you know I have always been in favor of a link with Jordan—a federal or a confederal—would be decided before Geneva.” It was a startling and crucial admission, paving the way for significant concessions in future negotiations. Begin was relieved to hear it, and insisted the final Ismailia declaration only mention “self-rule” from the Israeli point of view. “We will not wound them by saying anything else,” Begin added. “Self-determination means a state and that we cannot accept.” Sadat again agreed, “But tomorrow I will be accused of having sold the Palestinian Arabs to Mr. Begin.” Begin assured him it would not happen. “We must have the courage of decision,” the Israeli prime minister concluded.
Both the Israelis and the Egyptians were flatly dismissive of the Palestinian national movement and the existing leadership in the occupied territories. Dayan stressed that neither side wanted a Palestinian state, nor were there existing leaders in the territories that could make one. If either side committed in public to statehood, Dayan emphasized, Arafat would seek to come back to the territories, and the refugees would be transferred to Jericho, “a first stage for an attack on Israel.” Sadat again concurred, having his own doubts about elements within the PLO: “I quite agree with you about the question of security and that the extremists should not be permitted, since they will cause trouble for all of us, especially after the Tripoli Conference. There is Arafat and that fanatic [George] Habbash [sic]. He has declared himself a Marxist-Leninist.” In the same breath as he dismissed Palestinian hard-liners, like the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Sadat was clearly conflicted given his role as a nominal protector of Palestinian rights. “The difficulty is for me that I have to solve the Palestinian problem by self-determination.”
Aware of Egypt’s discomfort with the PLO, the Israelis saw an opening. They pressed Sadat to negotiate the Palestinian problem independently with the Jordanians and the “Palestinian Arabs” in a manner that avoided self-determination. “We always speak with candor,” Begin remarked. “All of us understand that self-determination means a state. Therefore, we shall suggest self-rule or home-rule or autonomy.” In the context of a first official visit to Egypt, the Israeli prime minister was seeking out an alliance on the Palestinian question. He wanted Sadat to agree to a statement “in general terms about a just settlement of the Palestinian Arab problem” without specifying further. Dayan added that Sadat could tell the Palestinian Arabs that Egypt would fight for self-determination as a face-saving mechanism. After further consultations, a decision was ultimately made to announce two different views of the Palestinian problem at the closing press conference and hold further meetings in Cairo and Jerusalem led by Egypt’s new foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel.
Sadat’s acquiescence to Israel’s firm agenda for dealing with the Palestinians at Ismailia was a telling indicator of his overall approach to the elements of the negotiations that did not concern Egypt’s bilateral interests. His mirroring of Israeli language and open use of Begin’s term for the West Bank was clear in the public statements the next morning: “The position of Egypt is that in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip a Palestinian state should be established. The position of Israel is that Palestinian Arabs in Judea, Samaria and Gaza should enjoy ‘self-rule.’ We have agreed that because we have differed on this issue it should be discussed in the political committee of the Cairo Preparatory Conference.” In settling the Palestinian question via committee, while preparing bilateral Egyptian-Israeli negotiations at a subsequent conference in Cairo, the two parties had agreed to disagree on the question of Palestinian self-determination, deferring a decision but also giving Begin effective room to push forward with his own plans. Sadat’s own advisors were appalled at the discussions, as well as Begin’s relentless style. In his memoirs, Kamel later wrote with disdain how he watched the Israeli prime minister “bargaining and bartering (like a petty shopkeeper), dealing with things that did not belong to him in the first place, just as if the offer of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace were a passing summer cloud!”