A forensic analysis of the collusion between the U.S. and Israel, dispelling the view of the U.S. as an “honest broker” in the negotiations with the Palestinians. By VIJAY PRASHAD
DOES Palestine exist? Not for the Israeli government. It has been a resolute part of Israeli state policy to deny the existence not only of the place called Palestine but also of its people. Golda Meir, Israel’s Prime Minister (1969-1974), famously said as she ascended to the top post: “There was no such thing as Palestinians….. They did not exist.” It was based on this general understanding across political lines that the Likud Party in its 1977 platform would argue, “The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is eternal and indisputable and is linked with the right to security and peace. Therefore, Judea and Samaria will not be handed over to any foreign administration. Between the sea and the Jordan river there will be only Israeli sovereignty.”
The Palestinian claim on the land was invalid, and only Israel would control all of it, “between the sea and the Jordan river”, including the land occupied during the 1967 war. It was not trivial that the Likud platform referred to “Judea and Samaria”, for one of the express means by which Israel erased Palestine was to remove the old Arabic names for towns and villages, streets and lakes and replace these with Hebrew ones. Control over geography is as important as military control.
If Palestine could be made to vanish, there was no need to seriously negotiate with the representatives of an imaginary land. The Israeli authorities encouraged the United States, which had insinuated itself into the “peace process” as an “honest broker”, to eschew any dialogue with any organised Palestinian group. Founded in 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was recognised by the United Nations a decade later as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. (One of the first non-Arab governments to formally accept this recognition was India, which encouraged the PLO to open an office in New Delhi in 1975.) In 1979, Israeli Minister Yosef Burg and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Samuel Lewis met U.S. presidential envoy Robert Strauss in New York where they agreed that talking to the Palestinians was counterproductive. “There is no need for Palestinians at the table, but we, yourselves and ourselves, can talk to residents of the West Bank and Gaza,” said Lewis. Burg underlined the message: “If the U.S. woos the PLO less, their appetite will be smaller.”
By the end of the 1970s, the basic grammar of what would be called the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” was established. The Israelis would concede nothing, and indeed encroach via the settlement policy on land that they had occupied (a contravention of the Geneva Conventions). Neither the Israelis nor their “attorney”, the U.S., would talk seriously with the Palestinian leadership, who would instead be hounded from Beirut to Tunis following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Meanwhile, syrupy language about peace would allow the Israelis to pose as reasonable and “European” while turning the Palestinians into terrorists and backward “Asiatics”. Only when the Palestinian leadership’s link with its people had been sufficiently broken by its long exile in Tunisia would the Israelis offer them a simple deal: “Arafat has a choice: he can be a Lahd or a super-Lahd.” Major General Shlomo Gazit, chief of Israeli military intelligence, referred here to PLO chief Yasser Arafat and the Israeli vision that he would become like General Antoine Lahd, who ran the Southern Lebanese Army on behalf of Israel—doing Israel’s dirty work during its occupation of its northern neighbour.
The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) that emerged out of the Oslo Accords was not to be a free state, but something like the Bantustans that ran along apartheid South Africa’s northern border.
Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, U.S., has written a number of crucial books to explain the predicament of the Palestinian people. Five of which have provided the long history of Palestinian nationalism, from his first book that opens in 1906 (British Policy towards Syria and Palestine, 1906-1914, 1980), through his wide-ranging study of Palestinian national consciousness (Palestinian Identity, 1997) to his more recent attempt to understand how that striving ended up with the P.A. (The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, 2006). Alongside this exploration of Palestinian exertions, Khalidi has traced the role of U.S. foreign policy in West Asia with two important books about the U.S’ power in the region during the Cold War (Resurrecting Empire, 2004, and Sowing Crisis, 2009).
In the book under review, Khalidi brings to bear these two concerns, the complicity between the Israel and the U.S. to throw Palestinian nationalism into an iron cage that is gilded on the outside with language that appears conciliatory but is in fact its opposite. It is a forensic analysis of the collusion between the U.S. and Israel, dispelling the view of the U.S. as an “honest broker” in the negotiations (hence the book’s title).
Having written several comprehensive books on the Palestinian struggle and on its limitations, Khalidi here turns to a useful narrative device. He looks at three moments in the “peace process” to illuminate the complicity of the U.S. with Israel’s project of settler-colonialism.
The first is occasioned by a 1982 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report that shows how the government of Menachem Begin would reject the Reagan Plan, and as a consequence how the U.S. henceforth decided to synchronise its policy proposals with Israel’s. The CIA report noted that Begin “effectively rules out any exercise of Palestinian self-determination except one that continues Israel’s pre-eminent position in the West Bank.” In other words, Israeli state policy would not budge from the view that the West Bank (captured in the 1967 war) was to remain under occupation or at least under the suzerainty of Israel. The failure of U.S. actions in the 1970s led to the view articulated by President Gerald Ford to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1975: “Should the U.S. desire in the future to put forward proposals of its own, it will make every effort to coordinate with Israel its proposals with a view to refraining from putting forth proposals that Israel would consider unsatisfactory.” This has been the standard typically followed by the U.S. government. It is hardly the way for an “honest broker” to act in a negotiation. Why does the U.S. kowtow to the Israelis? Khalidi does not enter this fraught question. Instead, he suggests what this means as a consequence, “The spectacle of a superpower near the apogee of its global dominance being inhibited from taking actions that might be of its self-interest, and being obliged to tiptoe around because of fear of offending its smaller ally, is a demeaning one.”
The second moment studied by Khalidi is one in which he himself was a participant as an adviser to the Palestinian delegation in the talks in Madrid during the early 1990s. These talks were circumvented by the Oslo Accord that was inked on the White House lawn in September 1993. Khalidi shows how during the entire process the U.S. and Israel coordinated their views against a prone Palestinian leadership, cut off from the Palestinian masses by its decade-long exile. Promises made were not kept, and control of the media allowed the U.S. and Israel to define the process against the interests of the Palestinian people.
The P.A. that emerged was under the palm of Israeli military control and it was unable to stop the illegal settlement programme that ate into the rump lands on which the Palestinian state was to be constructed. “The sanctity not only of the continuity of the settlement enterprise, but of uninterrupted settlement expansion, in occupied Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank, was at that time an absolutely non-negotiable Israeli bottom line,” he writes. The promises from the White House to put pressure on Israel are empty, but even these empty promises are part of an agenda. As Richard Nixon put it to his consigliore Henry Kissinger in 1973, “You’ve got to give [the Palestinians] the hope. It’s really a—frankly, let’s face it; you’ve got to make them think that there’s some motion; that something is going on; that we’re really doing our best with the Israelis.”
The third moment, the Barack Obama presidency, provides Khalidi the opportunity to show how U.S. decision-making on Israel is not simply a product of an Israeli lobby in the U.S. but has become concerned with Israeli domestic politics. It is almost as if Israel is the 51st state of the U.S. The capitulation of the U.S. to Israeli policy is complete.
This chapter is the least satisfactory only because by now the pattern is clear and there is so little to add. The cliches of the U.S.-Israeli policy were set in place 20 years ago. When a U.S. President speaks about the region, it is a whiplash against the Palestinians. Henry Kissinger once called the U.S. “Israel’s attorney”. That is a view that suited the 1970s. It is more accurate now to talk of the U.S. as “Israel’s ventriloquist dummy”, with the U.S. President increasingly reading from a script given to him not by his own advisers or even the Israel lobby but by the Israeli government. The consequences of this for the Palestinians have been catastrophic.