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Autumn 2020

Preventing Peace

Three new books argue that American policy has consistently failed the Palestinians and the wider cause of Middle Eastern rapprochement.
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n a recent and typical example of hasbara in the age of social media, David Harris, the longtime CEO of the American Jewish Committee, listed on his Twitter feed the years in which the Palestinians supposedly said “no” to peace with Israel: 1947, 1948, 1967, 2000, 2008, 2014, and 2020. Several questions come to mind when considering this selective reading of history, its partial accuracy making it all the more effective as propaganda. What happened before 1947? What exactly were the Palestinians “offered” in these instances? And, perhaps most important of all: Who initiated or led those efforts, and were they partial to the interests of one side over the other’s?

The publication of the Trump administration’s manifestly pro-Israel framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace in January (“2020,” in Harris’ list) shines a penetrating light onto these questions. The plan, titled Peace to Prosperity, is deeply rooted in the narrative Harris promoted in his tweet, the same story told by the Israeli government, its supporters, and some former American officials: Israel, in its unrelenting pursuit of peace with its neighbors, has repeatedly and generously offered the Palestinian people fair and just solutions to their plight. In this telling, the Palestinians have rejected all these overtures, oftentimes returning Israeli magnanimity with brutal violence.

To its more honest proponents, the Trump Plan is not a vision for peace, but rather the Palestinians’ comeuppance. As Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview with Israel Hayom, “All the diplomatic plans proposed to us in the past asked us to concede swathes of the Land of Israel, return to the 1967 borders and divide Jerusalem. To take in [Palestinian] refugees. This is a reversal. We aren’t the ones being forced to make concessions, rather the Palestinians are. Regardless of negotiations.”

The dubious historical account described here not only absolves Israel of all responsibility for the failure to resolve the conflict, but also siloes off the role of the United States, which is treated as an “honest broker,” or at least an able mediator whose biases towards Israel are justified by its supposedly unique ability to persuade Israel to make “painful” concessions. As the three books under review here argue, the first iteration of the treatment of the American role has never been true, and the US has never quite found the political will to validate the second one. Even if Joe Biden defeats President Trump in November, there are many reasons to expect general continuity in US policy towards the Palestinians.

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The US encounter with the Holy Land is typically dated to President Harry Truman’s decision to defy the advice of his State Department and recognize the State of Israel shortly after it declared independence on May 14, 1948. In the pre-state years, the world power to which the Yishuv always looked was Great Britain. Although the American relationship did not become a “special” one until after the June 1967 war, as Khaled Elgindy writes in Blind Spot, “Britain’s experience as a superpower attempting to mediate two groups with competing national claims while leaning heavily toward one of them in Palestine offered a preview of many of the problems that would later confront American peacemaking between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

Although the actual history is more complicated, there is something attractive and quintessentially American about a scrappy politician like Truman—still the most recent president not to hold a Bachelor’s degree—standing up to the well-pedigreed Arabists of Foggy Bottom who didn’t understand the struggle of poor Jews, on the cusp of realizing their people’s dream of returning to their homeland. Elgindy—a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a former advisor to the Palestinian leadership—has written a meticulous chronicle of America’s “blind spot” toward Palestine’s Arabs dating back to the 1920s. The road to the Trump Plan’s high-handed contempt for the Palestinians has been paved for a century.

The setting was a hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives in April 1922, which at the time was debating a resolution endorsing the Balfour Declaration, which promised a “national home” for the Jewish people but only promised to protect the civil and religious rights of “non-Jewish communities.” Before the congressmen were two Arab-Americans from Palestine—one a surgeon in Brooklyn and the other a law student—stating the arguments against promoting the Zionist goal of a majority Jewish state in the region. In December of the same year, the findings of the 1919 King-Crane Commission, which recorded extensive opposition to Zionism among locals in Palestine, were finally revealed to the American public. Appointed by President Woodrow Wilson in the spirit of his strong support for self-determination, the commission sought to gauge the views of people in the region on various possible post-Ottoman settlements.

But in the committee room, a familiar sentiment was taking hold among the elected officials on the dais. They responded unsympathetically, even contemptuously, to the witnesses’ testimony about what they saw as the Zionist movement’s unwarranted designs on what they saw as Arab land. One Congressman, Ambrose Kennedy of Rhode Island, said: “These Jews are making this land fertile where it was sterile.” From the start, there was little serious engagement with the Arab Palestinian perspective of the situation. It was dismissed as the benighted xenophobia of a people who had neglected their land under Ottoman rule. As Arthur Balfour himself had indicated by omitting the national rights of Arabs in Palestine, the land’s destiny was one for the Jews. In 1919, Balfour wrote: “In Palestine we do not propose to even go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.” “Zionism,” he added, was “of far profunder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit the ancient land.”

Blind Spot documents the transplantation of this “Balfour Lens” from the British Mandate that emerged from the Great War to the American-led Western order after 1945. Although the argument is hardly seamless and involves accounting for American nuances—for example, the pro-Israel lobby’s comparatively greater success in winning support among members of Congress than the foreign policy establishment that has traditionally advised presidents—Elgindy persuasively presents a strand of general continuity in American policy that has rather consistently overlooked the politics, interests, and desires of the Palestinian national movement—even when the movement moved closer to a position of compromise with Israel.

The story of American involvement in the Palestinian issue specifically picks up steam after 1967 when, in Elgindy’s words, “Washington’s new role as chief arbiter in the conflict imbued the Arab-Israeli peace process with the idiosyncrasies of U.S. policymaking, including its characteristic ambivalence.” By the time Israel wrested control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Palestinian issue in Washington was viewed through the prism of the Cold War. With the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) supported by the Soviet Union and allied with militant leftist and anti-imperialist groups around the world, the organization was firmly identified as a threat to American interests by Henry Kissinger by the time the Nixon administration took over in 1969. Looking past the Palestinians, Kissinger sought to engineer agreements between Israel and neighboring states which sidelined the Palestinians. The Ford administration’s much-ballyhooed 1975 “reassessment” of American Middle East policy ultimately involved a push on the Israel-Egypt track, prioritized since the Yom Kippur War two years earlier, with a commitment from Kissinger not to officially engage the PLO until it recognized Israel’s right to exist. The Carter administration, with its commitment to reintroducing human rights into American foreign policy, represented an early hope for Palestinians; this eventually was tempered by a combination of the strength of the pro-Israel lobby, the endurance of the Balfour Lens, and Arafat’s weak political position vis-a-vis the PLO’s hardline Syrian sponsors.

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When, in college, I first began seriously reading about American-led mediation efforts to actually resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the focus seemed largely trained on events from the end of Gulf War to the present day. Although Israel did not join that war, it did not escape the occasionally shrewd Saddam Hussein that America’s special relationship with the Jewish state was a potential fissure point in the US-backed Arab coalition that had been assembled to eject Iraq from Kuwait. In 1990, Hussein publicly committed to withdrawing from Kuwait if Israel left the territories it had occupied after the 1967 war. This was a vivid display of the now discredited notion of “linkage” between the perennial woes of the Palestinians and tumult in the region. Saddam’s gambit failed, but following the victory of the coalition the George H.W. Bush administration, and particularly Secretary of State James A. Baker III, turned its focus to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until 9/11, the Palestine issue dominated the attention of Middle East policy makers and experts in Washington.

However linear or convenient this story is, it takes little notice of crucial events and decisions that were made in the previous decade and during the Carter years and affected America’s relationship with the Palestinians. Elgindy’s book covers this area succinctly, but as a general survey of US policy toward the Palestinians it is limited in breadth. Seth Anziska, who studied under Rashid Khalidi while earning his doctorate at Columbia University, has written the groundbreaking Preventing Palestine, which directs a laser focus on those years.

The euphoria that accompanied the recent agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations was at least partly a result of the legacy of the Camp David Accords, when Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat became the first Arab leader to openly break with the regional consensus against making bilateral peace agreements with Israel. The fierce Palestinian rejection of the Israeli-Emirati rapprochement recalled the visceral reaction in the region to Sadat’s “betrayal,” which led to Egypt’s decade-long suspension from the Arab League and Sadat’s assassination.

That the Camp David Accords, overseen by President Carter, shunted aside the interests of Palestinians in favor of an Israel-Egypt agreement is rarely disputed. But Anziska asks a more confounding question: “Might Carter’s great diplomatic success have helped ensure the prevention of a Palestinian state?”

Anziska is clear that this result was not preordained. Carter entered the White House with a determination to move away from the strict realpolitik of the Kissinger years, and to seek what his national security advisor, Zbignew Brzeziński, characterized as “combin[ing] principle with power.” In the first few months of the Carter administration, the State Department of Cyrus Vance issued an ambitious secret proposal to advance Middle East peace. The plan did not quite spell out an independent Palestinian state—at the time, Jordan was still seen as the probable sovereign for any Palestinian entity—but Carter was the first American president to see the Palestinian question in political terms, and not as just a humanitarian problem or a security concern. He was committed to pursuing an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict that would incorporate a solution for the Palestinians.

A pity, then, that President Carter would soon be dealing with Israel’s first prime minister from Zionism’s Revisionist camp, which countenanced no possibility of withdrawal from any part of the West Bank. Begin did not see the Palestinians as a distinct nation with a right to self-determination, but as a minority within territory that Israel would always control. It was in his early dealings with the Carter administration that Begin first broached the notion of cultural and economic—but not political—autonomy for the Palestinians. Begin also regarded the PLO. as the historical successor to the Nazis, despite the organization’s evident moves toward a diplomatic solution, including outreach to the Americans. While the PLO in the mid-1970s could hardly be described as a peaceful national movement, it was plainly grappling with both strategic and ideological question, that would eventually lead to its 1988 endorsement of the two-state solution. Despite Kissinger’s commitment to the Israelis to shun the group, American officials often met with the PLO during this time to, for example, coordinate security for American diplomats in Lebanon. While the argument can be easily overstated, the first signs of moderation from the PLO were already visible in 1977.

Carter also faced considerable domestic opposition to his dovish stance on the Palestinians. In March 1977, merely referring to the possibility of a “Palestinian homeland” in response to a town hall questioner in Clinton, Massachusetts, set off alarm bells in American Jewish organizations. A joint US-Soviet communique restating the language of UN Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 war and mentioning the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinian people, was met with an apoplectic reaction from Jewish leaders and conservatives. If Carter entered office as someone with the potential to shift America toward independence for Palestinians, it was soon clear that he would not be able to do so. That he would unwittingly contribute to a major setback in that cause was much less obvious.

In November 1977, Egypt’s Sadat stunned the world by landing in Jerusalem and speaking before the Knesset, setting off a series of events that would eventually lead to the Camp David Accords. Although Carter was still fixated on a regional approach that would include the Palestinians, Begin was already feeling out Sadat’s interest in an agreement that sidestepped them. While publicly committed to the Palestinian cause, Sadat was growing frustrated with the PLO and was eager to strike an agreement with American backing—at least in part due to the anticipated economic infusion that would follow.

Carter would eventually relent to the joint Israeli-Egyptian desire for a bilateral agreement, and Begin’s autonomy plan, which Sadat failed to meaningfully challenge, became the basis for future discussions on the Palestinian question in the 1980s. The “autonomy talks” that would follow excluded the Palestinians. If there had been a brief period in which American indifference to the Palestinians could have changed, it was now closed. The Reagan administration which followed turned out to be one of the friendliest to Israel as far as the Palestinian issue was concerned. Anziska’s account of the First Lebanon War, and US support for pummeling the PLO into leaving Lebanon, is riveting and no summary would do it justice.

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By the time Madrid and Oslo, the peace process familiar to all of us, rolled around, the notion of limited Palestinian autonomy as the basis for a final status agreement had become the accepted wisdom. Both Elgindy and Anziska tie these ideas back to the autonomy talks of the 1980s (the latter, obviously, in greater detail). What arguably allowed the Oslo Accords to move forward with both Israeli and Palestinian consent was their ambiguity. As Elgindy puts it, “both sides had a very different understanding of what the agreement meant and where it should lead.” Crucially, at no point did Israel commit to supporting a Palestinian state, or even ceasing settlement construction in the West Bank.

Here, again, the US demonstrated its inability to serve as an impartial mediator. At no point did it apply pressure on Israel to stop sabotaging the chances of a Palestinian state through settlement construction. When “permanent status” negotiations broke down at the ill-advised Camp David summit in the summer of 2000, the dominant narrative to emerge from Washington and Jerusalem was largely uncritical of the American decision to proceed with a high stakes summit when neither side was remotely ready to make the necessary concessions. Instead, a highly slanted view portrayed Prime Minister Barak’s offer as the best the Palestinians would get (an erroneous but enduring description from American negotiator Dennis Ross), and Arafat’s position as totally intransigent by comparison. This version of events does not account for the fact that Barak’s offer did not include an inch of sovereign Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem, only “functional autonomy.” Additionally, it is often glibly assumed in this telling that a hardline Palestinian position on the Right of Return was a major sticking point; in fact, the talks never really advanced to such a stage and there is documentary evidence pointing to Palestinian willingness to compromise on refugees at Camp David (albeit floating numbers that would have still been a nonstarter for Israel). In the end, the dominant—and convenient—black-and-white narrative of Camp David informed the approach of the George W. Bush administration which, although putatively committed to the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state, continuously placed the blame for the lack of progress on the Palestinians, with little-to-no critical evaluation of the American role or that of Israel’s continued occupation.

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Rashid Khalidi, a scholar at Columbia University and an indisputable influence on countless Middle East and Palestine studies scholars, has a new book of his own, this one covering what he calls The One Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. Khalidi’s new book does not break new ground and won’t receive nearly the number of citations as his landmark works Palestinian Identity and The Iron Cage. But, as in his 2013 title Brokers of Deceit, it seems Khalidi is stepping back and allowing a new generation of scholars to take up the arduous academic work to which he has dedicated most of his working life. Khalidi’s objective here is to tell the Palestinian story, including that of his family, drawing on copious extant research and scholarship.

Itamar Rabinovich criticized Brokers of Deceit as “a polemical book, affected by the flaws of polemics.” While true, there is undoubtedly a place for the learned polemic in this age; and there may be no more appropriate target of that genre’s biting ware than the dominant narrative of the peace process that has itself been sustained for over twenty years almost entirely by polemic.

What differentiates The Hundred Years War on Palestine from Brokers of Deceit is its macro focus, as indicated in the book’s subtitle, A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017. Much of the book does not deal directly with the considerably more recent American role in the peace process; but where it does, Khalidi’s analysis is withering and essential reading. Overall, his insistence on viewing Israel through a colonial lens will prove grating to many readers sympathetic to Zionism, but his process and reasoning is anything but simplistic.

No one party can be fully blamed for the continued statelessness and plight of the Palestinian people. Indeed, all three authors identify different missteps by the leadership of the Palestinian national movement—among them inexplicably rejecting Britain’s 1939 White Paper, failing to reign in (and at times even encouraging) extremists such as those in the Abu Nidal Organization, taking over two decades to accept UN Resolution 242, and for failing to make a substantive counteroffer at Camp David.

Nevertheless, America’s blind spot for Palestinian interests, politics, and desires has undoubtedly played a deleterious part in this story. Optimists such as myself pine for the brief embers of hope that emerged from the Carter years and, to a lesser extent, the two terms of Barack Obama. But were they really reasons for hope or a comfortable mirage concealing deeply rooted and structural biases toward Israel? Reading the work of these three distinguished writers—two Palestinian scholars and a sympathetic Jewish American one—in the era of Trump, Jared Kushner, and David Friedman should prompt those with a Panglossian conception of America’s ability to reconsider their prior assumptions, and begin to see the reality on the ground with clearer eyes. Perhaps that, more than any tonic of false hope, will raise spirits. As Khalidi concludes:

“While the fundamentally colonial nature of the Palestinian-Israel encounter must be acknowledged, there are now two peoples in Palestine, irrespective of how they came into being, and the conflict cannot be resolved as long as the national existence of each is denied by the other. Their mutual acceptance can only be based on complete equality of rights, including national rights, notwithstanding the crucial historical differences between the two. There is no other possible sustainable solution, barring the unthinkable notion of one people’s expulsion or extermination by the other. Overcoming the resistance of those who benefit from the status quo, in order to ensure equal rights for all in this small country between the Jordan River and the sea – this is the test of the political ingenuity of all concerned. Reducing the extensive sustained external support for the discriminatory and deeply unequal status quo would certainly smooth the path ahead.”

*Seth Anziska, Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo, Princeton University Press, pp. 464

*Khaled Elgindy, Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, From Balfour to Trump, Brookings Institution Press, pp. 345.

*Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017, Metropolitan Books, pp. 336

 

 

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Abe Silberstein

Abe Silberstein is a freelance writer focusing on Israeli politics, U.S.-Israel relations, and the American Jewish community. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Forward, Haaretz, +972 magazine, and the Jerusalem Post.

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Silence is Golden