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Palestine's Struggle Can Teach America About the Middle East

Historian Rashid Khalidi discusses what the history of the Palestinian struggle for statehood can teach Americans about our wrong-headed approach to conflicts in the Middle East.
 
 
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With inter-Palestinian violence on the rise, and the Bush administration's hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rashid Khalidi's new history of Palestine calls for a retrospective look into the major decisions -- both within and outside the Middle East -- that sculpted the Palestinian conflict during the last century.

Khalidi, the Edward Said Chair of Arab Studies at Columbia University, asks a simple question: In the wake of the colonial Middle East, why have Palestinians failed to achieve statehood? A cursory look into Palestinian history shows that it's not for a lack of desire. But as their Arab neighbors have gained independence, it remains an elusive goal for the Palestinians.

In " The Iron Cage," Khalidi argues that since the British took administrative control of Palestine in 1922, Palestinians have been forced to play politics with some of the world's most significant powers. In their uphill battle for statehood, Palestinian leaders have faced not only the British, but the well-organized Zionist movement, and what Khalidi calls the "shark-infested waters of Arab politics."

Khalidi visited San Francisco recently during his national book tour, and met me at Union Square to discuss his new book.

Liv Leader: Your last book " Resurrecting Empire" was published a year into the war in Iraq. Many of your dismal predictions about the Iraq war have proven true. So why did you choose to write about Palestine when Iraq is on everyone's mind?

Rashid Khalidi: You're right, Iraq is a timely issue. I've been working on "The Iron Cage" for more than 10 years. I actually interrupted this book to work on "Resurrecting Empire" because I just couldn't focus on this issue in the wake of 9-11. I saw that a number of disastrous wars were coming at us and that people were going into them completely, totally and utterly blind. I wrote "Resurrecting Empire" as an attempt to affect the public debate on the Iraq war.

In a way The Iron Cage doesn't fit as well into the current political season as would another book on Iraq. In a way I think it's germane. Our policy in the Middle East is so utterly wrong-headed and our policy on Palestine is a part of it. American policy is not just rooted in the history of American policy towards Palestine since the 1940s, but in the history of great powers policies since the 1920s.

One of the things that has to be looked at is the responsibility of the international community and of the dominant powers, whether Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, and the United States since World War II, to creating this situation. So I think it actually is timely and speaks directly to what I think should be a major issue.

Why is the U.S. so loathed and hated by the people in the Middle East, who actually have nothing against our freedoms, democracy, and love our economic system They are dying to go to Disneyland, but they cannot stand our foreign policy. Could it possibly be that fact that they think that what we do in terms of Palestine is stupid and morally wrong?

Leader: I've been traveling to Palestine since the later years of the Oslo peace process and the change in public opinions towards America has been remarkable.

Khalidi: It goes far beyond Palestine. I've been spending more time in the Gulf, Egypt and Lebanon, and the degree to which people judge us -- not just our utterly misguided Iraq policy -- but also our policy on Palestine and Israel is astounding.

There has been an important majority of Americans opposing this administration's policies on Iraq since a year into a half of the occupation. The American people have figured it out, but our policy hasn't changed a whit, nor will it under this president. That leads to enormous misunderstanding and anger and frustration worldwide, but also in the Arab world and in Palestine.

Leader: Looking at the path of Israel's separation barrier, it's not hard to understand your metaphor of the "Iron Cage." But this is really a book about Palestinian history and not contemporary politics. How have the Palestinians faced previous incarnations of this cage?

Khalidi: What I'm referring to is the way I see the British Mandate as creating a whole series of constraints around the Palestinians which proved to be inescapable. In a book in which my focus is the decisions that the Palestinians made -- the good, the bad, the indifferent -- all of this takes place in a context that I would argue is one of extraordinary constraints. That's really what the title is a reference to. The constitutional structure the British created to prevent the Palestinians from getting self-determination and statehood.

Leader: One of the most important concepts your book touches on is the question of agency for the Palestinians. When have Palestinians been able to make real decisions to affect their future?

Khalidi: Within extraordinary constraints there were some moments when I think the Palestinians did have some choices. In the late 1920s and early 1930s is one point where I think they could have done things differently than they did. Another is in the 1936-1939 great revolt against British rule, when the British issued a white paper in which they revoked some of their commitments to Zionism. It was very disadvantageous to the Palestinians in a variety of ways, but I think they would have been well advised to accept it. This is not a great choice, but this is a distinction between a bad and a much worse choice.

Under the Palestinian Liberation Organization and during the Oslo period the Palestinians had really important choices that they could have made differently. I argue that in 1947-1948 there was not much they could have done, the leadership had been scattered, the backbone of the armed resistance had been crushed by the British, and they had made the wrong decisions before and during World War II.

I argue that the Palestinians were defeated in 1936-1939 and the after-effects included the Nakba, the catastrophe wherein half the Palestinian population was driven from their homes of forced to flee in 1948. There were not many choices the Palestinians could have made; it was too late.

Leader: In 1948 when Israel achieved statehood, Palestinians lost both their national struggle for control of the land, but also their physical cohesion as a community. How did they manage to build a sense of identity and continue the national movement in exile?

Khalidi: To some extent I address this in my book " Palestinian Identity." What I focus on is the achievements and failures of the PLO leadership. The people who led Fatah and came to dominate the PLO and later created the Palestinian Authority.

If you were to point to one great achievement of this generation of leadership it was managing to resuscitate Palestinian nationalism on an entirely new social basis in the wake of this catastrophic defeat. To reknit a Palestinian identity that had shared collect a national trauma in 1948, but which could have easily been dispersed. It didn't happen, partially because the social resilience of Palestinian society, but also because of the efforts of this generation of leaders who managed to reknit, restructure, rebuild the Palestinian national movement in the extraordinary disadvantageous conditions of exile, operating in what I call the shark-infested waters of Arab politics.

Leader: What were the key components that allowed the Palestinian leadership to build a national movement while being scattered across the Middle East?

Khalidi: It's the typical classical national movement: an obsessive focus on armed struggle, self-reliance. "The independent Palestinian decision" was the Fatah slogan. There was a deep addiction to clandestine activity that was absolutely necessary in the environment of Arab politics. The Arab regimes were terrified of being dragged into a conflict with Israel. From their perspective, Israel was a very powerful local rival. In the United States we think of tiny, isolated Israel amidst the seas of fanatical, raging Arabs. In fact Israel had decisively beaten the Arab armies in 1948, and that joined the British and French crushing Egypt in 1956, and that handily destroyed the armies that faced it in 1967. So the Arab governments were right to be scared.

The Palestinians had to operate in this difficult environment. And the sad thing is that the clandestine activity and the forms of organizations that developed in exile proved to be particularly ill suited to the process of state-building.

Leader: From the failure of Oslo Accords, and the subsequent Palestinian uprising, it's pretty clear that the PLO's clandestine ethos didn't prepare them to skillfully play the negotiating table. It seems there's been a legacy of poor decision-making in the peace process. Where did such poor decision-making come from?

Khalidi: It came from an obsessive desire to maintain control of everything that transpired and a lack of ability to delegate and to trust subordinates. It was a characteristic of Yasser Arafat, and it was a disaster for the Palestinians. There was a terrible misjudgment of what was happening in the Occupied Territories by this leadership that has not been there since the 1960s.

The PLO leadership didn't understand when the leadership of delegation to Washington [in the early 1990s] said to them that under no circumstances should we continue to negotiate in a situation where American assurances are ignored. The Israeli settlement expansion continues, and this disastrous closure of Jerusalem is being implemented as we negotiate. When the PLO leadership ignored the recommendation of the delegation, they were making a colossal mistake.

Leader: But after 1995 when the PLO leadership returned to the West Bank and Gaza, couldn't Arafat see that the negotiations were going on while Israel was expanding settlement of the West Bank?

Khalidi: But Arafat was already trapped in another iron cage. This appallingly bad accord which he himself had signed in 1993 -- which not only allowed Israelis to continue settlement, and not only allowed Israel to build these Israel-only bypass roads that turned the West Bank into tiny little open-air prison camps -- but he was himself committed to accepting the deferral indefinitely of the negotiations of everything of importance: statehood, sovereignty, settlements, water, Jerusalem, refugees.

Arafat was obliged to negotiate the details of the management of the expansion of the occupation. Because that is what the interim self-governing authority was. All the Palestinians were allowed to do was a means for managing the affairs of the Arabs while the occupation of the West Bank continued, and continues. Arafat was in a situation largely of his own making, but which he was unable to effect positively. It was a terrible, terrible mistake accepting Oslo.

Leader: Since the failure of Oslo, it's been a downward spiral for the Palestinians: the corruption of Fatah, the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the failure of Camp David, the international sanctions against the Hamas government and now the increased violence between Hamas and Fatah. What next?

Khalidi: I think firstly that if the trends that are ongoing in the Palestinian territories -- continual Israeli enforcement over every decision in the lives of three million people, of the expansion of settlements -- if these trends are not reversed, there is no possibility of a two-state solution.

Hamas and Fatah have about equal shares of the Palestinian electorate. Fatah does not have a god-given right to rule and to steal -- which they seem to think that they do. And Hamas does not have a god-given right to rule just because they won 40-odd percent of the vote in the election. Moreover, in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections of 2006, Hamas agreed to operate within a certain set of rules. They are not rules I would have chosen; I didn't agree to the Oslo accords. But certain things are incumbent upon them when they accept those conditions. And they have behaved in my view, utterly irresponsibly in terms of allowing enormous harm to the Palestinian people because of their inability to get their act together within Hamas. Certainly some leaders in Hamas understand the responsibility, they have a duty to the Palestinian people to see to it that certain governmental services function and that means accepting some things that they don't want to accept.

Israel is behaving just the way the British did, exploiting differences between the Palestinians, selective targeted assassination here, a selective provocation there. But in the last analysis this is a Palestinian issue and it's up to the Palestinians to show forbearance, as Hamas did for 18 months in observing a unilateral ceasefire. Clearly things are falling apart on the Palestinian side.

Leader: You've recently been involved in the controversial debate over the role of the Israeli lobby in the United States. How does that fit in between teaching at Columbia and a national book tour?

Khalidi: I think it is important that the debate not be squelched about what the U.S. does in the Middle East. There are those who really are doing everything possible to label anyone who criticizes American policy in blind support of Israel or Israeli policy as anti-Semitic, which is the ultimate silencing tool. They don't want the debate to be opened up.

I think it is symptomatic; there are certain things that should be said about a one-state solution, about a two-state solution, about Zionism, about colonialism, about settlements, about suicide bombings. Palestinians should be critical of themselves, Israelis should be critical, American Jews should be critical, and Arab Americans should be self-critical. There should be an open debate about how our foreign policy grossly disserves our national interests, as well as any possible human interest in the Middle East.

We have a grossly misshaped, misguided, wrong policy, not just in Iraq, not just in support of the most evil dictatorships in the Middle East, and also in respect to Palestine. And those who would shut down this debate are doing everyone dissolved a terrible, terrible disservice.

Liv Leader is a San Francisco-based writer. She has previously reported from Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

 
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