You shouldn’t need a book to tell you that the Palestinians have gotten pretty much zilch out of the Middle East peace process.
So readers of “Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East” are unlikely to be astonished by what they find there. The core argument of the author, Rashid Khalidi, is that for at least the last 35 years, Washington has insisted on the central role in the peace process and used that role to act not as an honest broker but as “Israel’s lawyer.”
Bottom line: The United States has “reinforced the subjugation of the Palestinian people, provided Israel and the United States with a variety of advantages, and made considerably more unlikely the prospects of a just and lasting settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs.”
Khalidi, who has written seven other books on the Middle East and is a one-time adviser to Palestinian peace negotiators, is the Edward Said professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University. Looking at his detailed arguments and the moribund state of the peace process, it’s hard to argue with him, even if he oversimplifies a bit and glosses over a few key facts.
Khalidi repeatedly insists that the US is ignoring its own interests in unfailingly taking Israel’s side. Washington’s true interests, he argues, lie in straightforwardly aligning itself with Palestinian rights and a solid peace deal. He faults a long line of American presidents, going back to at least Jimmy Carter, for refusing to recognize that their “long-term enlightened national interest” should have required them to put distance between themselves and Israel and to go out on a limb in defense of Palestinian rights and Palestinian statehood.
He makes a good case. But even he acknowledges that it’s not that simple. It is obvious that the US is serving its own interests as well as Israel’s when it backs the Jewish state. American presidents don’t act in a vacuum. Regardless of how this plays out in the world at large, Washington is Israel’s closest ally — and biggest sugar daddy — not out of perversity or stupidity but because its electorate and its elected officials overwhelmingly embrace a Judeo-Christian worldview, identify with the storybook version of the early history of the Jewish state and are to some degree uncomfortable with the Arab world. Big oil and the arms race are also major influences.
As Barack Obama has repeatedly discovered over his four and a half years in office, those realities can easily tie a president into knots, particularly if he is as diplomatically inept as Obama.
Khalidi focuses on his learning of a 1982 memo, sent by a CIA analyst to the US director of central intelligence disclosing that Israel’s prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, had flatly and forever ruled out the possibility of a Palestinian state. Since then, Khalidi argues, regardless of who was in power in both Israel and in Washington, that fundamental belief has prevailed, although not always publicly.
While it is undeniable that there is as yet no Palestinian state, that does not mean that Begin’s 1982 views are all that significant today. Polls show strong popular support in Israel for a Palestinian state even as its people continue to elect right-wing governments seemingly dead-set against one.
On the other hand, the Begin theory may be as good an explanation as any for Israel’s ability to expand its settlements on what most of the world sees as illegally occupied Palestinian lands, whose ultimate fate is crucial to any peace deal.
But wait. Washington — along with the United Nations Security Council and most of the rest of the world — has been pleading with Israel for decades to freeze its settlements. True, these pleas appear to carry no weight as the Jewish state continues to gobble up strategic chunks of occupied territory, steadily eliminating a geographical basis for Palestinian statehood.
What we are actually seeing today is that the US can walk in opposite directions at the same time, with the new secretary of state, John Kerry, fiercely struggling to resuscitate peace talks even as Obama leans over backward to reassure Israel that he isn’t really asking anything of it.
Elsewhere, Khalidi gives only a cursory look at the impact of the cold war on US policy, and he barely touches on the roles of the Palestinians themselves and their Arab neighbors. Strikingly, he dismisses the importance of the repeated Arab invasions of Israel after its 1948 declaration of statehood, arguing they were no big deal because Israel repelled them. He does call out the Arab nations on their feeble support for the Palestinian cause and faults the Palestinian Liberation Organization for betting on Saddam Hussein over Washington in the 1991 Gulf war.
Only in its final 20 pages does Khalidi come to the point of the book, when he urges the Palestinians to go around Washington and make the case directly to Israel that it must acknowledge the Palestinians’ suffering and accept that it must share its homeland with them. To paraphrase Einstein, why continue doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result?
The peace process is “irremediably bankrupt” and Israel’s Arab population is steadily growing, approaching the point where there will be more Arabs than Jews in the combined territory of Israel and the occupied territories, Khalidi says. Given this state of affairs, he encourages the Palestinians to remake themselves under unified leadership and launch a brand-new quest for “real liberation, self-determination and equal rights with the Israelis” within the two people’s current boundaries.
“The objective of these negotiations would be to achieve an immediate end to occupation, self-determination of the Palestinian people including the return and compensation of those desiring to return [to the homes they lost in 1948], and a lasting peace, and nothing less. If this were refused, as it undoubtedly would be, the only remaining option for the Palestinians would be a unified demand for full, equal democratic rights in a single state of all of Palestine/Israel.”
Such an approach, Khalidi admits, would require “uncommon courage in the face of the furious resistance” to be expected from Washington and Israel. But if they fail to stake out this new path, “the Palestinians cannot complain about American bias, Israeli oppression, the two-facedness of the Arab regimes or international indifference,” he says. Without such a sharp break from the status quo, “nothing can begin to change in their situation, nor can anyone be expected to act on their own behalf.”
“Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East,” by Rashid Khalidi; 978-0-8070-4475-9
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.