IOA Exclusive Interview – Rashid Khalidi: “Inform People”

IOA Exclusive interview with Rashid Khalidi – 3 May 2010

Rashid Khalidi

Rashid Khalidi (photo: Asiya Khaki)

The IOA sat with Professor Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, to discuss US-Israel relations, The Obama Administration’s Middle East policies, and effective strategy and tactics for those fighting for justice for the Palestinians.


IOA: A historical question first. The United States has long opposed a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Even when Washington came to endorse a two-state solution, its conception of what that entails has resolutely not been what the world understands by it: full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the establishment of a free and independent Palestinian state. What explains the United States’ persistent rejectionism of an equitable peace?

Rashid Khalidi: I would say very largely domestic factors:  the fact is that whatever those within government may think would be best for US interests in the Middle East, is more than balanced by others in government who worry about the difficulty of selling such an option domestically over the objections of Israel and its many friends in Congress and the media. I think that explains the difficulty of selling an equitable and just solution, domestically in the US, because every Israeli government since 1967 was resolutely opposed to complete withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries.  And they were equally opposed to a Palestinian state that would be completely independent and not controlled by Israel; have open borders with the Arab world; have no settlements; and have its capital in East Jerusalem.

I think that the opposition of Israeli governments to such an outcome, and the likely opposition, in consequence, of a very large segment of American political opinion to it, is what has inhibited US administrations since 1967, even if they did think this was a good outcome. In other words, even if there were those in government who said that it would suit American interests best to have such a resolution, they faced and face today the extraordinary domestic difficulties of pushing that through because of the resolute opposition of Israeli governments and their friends in the US.

IOA: So to what extent is or was an inherent interest in this sort of resolution of the conflict within US administrations?

RK: The first President to even talk about a Palestinian state was Clinton. And I’m not sure how serious he was about it. And the first one to talk about it explicitly, really, was George W. Bush. So you haven’t had a very long time that American administrations have even been willing to utter the words “Palestinian State” and, in fact, they were behind the Israelis in doing so in some respects.

Presidents are not foreign policy makers in the first place: presidents lead domestic electoral machines, and they have to move congress to get anything done and they have to get reelected, and that’s all they really care about in the first instance.  Everything else follows. If they negotiate a treaty with Russia or broker a Middle East agreement, it’s in order to get something through the Congress and to get reelected.

So, as I see it, from Truman until now, and even before, the great success of Zionism has been in understanding how to approach and appeal to a domestic political situation.  In each of the countries that became patrons of the Zionist movement and later of Israel, they did the same thing:  for example, in the case of the Balfour Declaration; or in the case of French military support for Israel in the period between 1948 and 1967 – the crucial Peres and Ben-Gurion nuclear weapons reactor and arms deals with France in the fifties and the sixties.  And, of course, then American strategic interests came into play at the height of the Cold War.

Thus, it was a strategic calculation that drove the alliance, an Algerian calculation in the French case; a Suez Canal strategic calculation in the British case; and a Cold War strategic calculation in the American case.

But if you’re talking about specifics, such as a Two-State solution, then it comes down to the domestic level. We’re no longer talking about the basic strategic relationship.

Strategically, Israel “proved itself” in terms of the Cold War. It proved itself as a proxy against Soviet proxies in 1967, in a Cold War context. From some point in the sixties, the argument started to be made to Johnson, even before the ’67 war, by Cold Warriors like Walt Rostow and McGeorge Bundy: the argument was that Israel was an invaluable ally to the United States against the dangerous Arab clients of the Soviet Union.  It was Cold War terms that determined this strategic alliance during the really important period of the 1960’s and 1970’s when the alliance between the United States and Israel was shaped.

Before that, I defy anybody to see in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, and even in the Truman administration, a sense of Israel as strategically valuable, or as the most important state in the Middle East. But, from that point on, it becomes, after Iran and Saudi Arabia, the most important state.  Once the Cold War is ended, however, what’s the strategic justification for the very special relationship that has developed in the interim?

IOA: The justification might be radicalism and opinion in the Middle East…

RK: Well, that’s a lot harder case to make. George W. Bush made it, and it was a very weak case.

IOA: On CNN recently, you talked about a discursive shift and compared Obama to Eisenhower. But during Eisenhower’s time Israel wasn’t seen as a strategic asset. Since the mid-60s, Israel has been a central part of US grand strategy in the Middle East, undermining radicals and nationalists in the region.

RK: Since the mid-sixties, Israel’s been an essential part of US foreign policy, that’s correct. But, going back to the earlier answer, that was part of a Cold War logic.

The nationalists and the radicals in the Middle East were dangerous because they were seen as proxies of the Soviet Union. People in the Middle East tended to look at this as American hostility to Arab nationalism or to Arab socialism per se. But that does not reflect the perspective of Washington.  America was only hostile to Arab nationalists and Arab socialists because they were aligned with the Soviet Union. It was a Cold War perspective that drove that. The United States would get in bed with the devil himself – or herself – if the devil were anti-Soviet. That’s all they really cared about. That was the bottom line. They were willing to deal with Sadat because they thought they could get him to get the Soviets out. That’s what mattered to them. Now, he was smart enough to see that moving Egypt towards a nominally free market system through Infitah – the “opening-up” – and through a simulacrum of democracy would make the Americans even happier. But the main present he gave them was the elimination of Soviet advisors in 1972, followed by an understanding in his negotiations with Kissinger, and later Carter, that Egypt would move from the Soviet camp to the American camp.

That meant that the US won the Cold War in the Middle East, and that’s what they cared about most. The Arab Socialist Union still existed in Egypt for a while, but who cared in Washington; Egypt was no longer radical, but radicalism is solely seen in Washington in terms of whether a country does what the United States wants or not. A country that was not aligned with the Soviet Union was by definition not radical, whatever their domestic system was – the US didn’t care.

So, it’s true, starting in the sixties, Israel was perceived as an asset because of the Cold War.

The problem for the Israelis and their friends in Washington, and for the American political system, since 1990, has been to find a role for Israel.  They thought that during the global war on terror, under George W. Bush, they had found a role.  The US was at permanent war with much of the Islamic world rhetorically, and in much of the Islamic world physically: covert and overt campaigns were going on in Somalia and Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen and so forth, and so for Israeli governments for a while all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.  Israel had a strategic role again, it was a strategic asset. This was true even though it was doing absolutely nothing in the actual war on terror. Quite the contrary – Israel fueled the terror.  Israel helped, pushed, or justified some people in opposing the US even more, because the United States was seen as being so closely aligned with Israel, which was toxic in the Muslim world because of what it was doing to the Palestinians and in Lebanon.

Now that the logic of the global war on terror has diminished, I think the crisis of the post Cold War era is back for Israel: What is the strategic value of Israel to the United States? I would argue that the discursive shift in this administration has partly functioned with Israel increasingly coming to be seen as a huge albatross around the neck of American policymakers in the Arab world, in the Islamic world, and in the rest of the world. I don’t think it’s just Arabs and Muslims who cannot understand the foolishness of American policy in adhering to whatever ridiculous position is taken by whatever ramshackle coalition happens to be in power in Jerusalem.

Thus, blanket US support of Israel during the Lebanon war of 2006 was inexplicable to most people the world over. Not just to Bangladeshis and Egyptians, but to French women, to Ghanans, to Japanese, I mean, what do you think you’re doing fully supporting the killing of all those people and the wreaking of all that destruction, and with Condoleeza Rice talking blithely about the “birth pangs of a new Middle East”? Or the US fully supporting the Gaza attack in 2008 – 2009 with its 100 to 1 death ratio?  So Israel is seen as an albatross now: it has no strategic value whatsoever to the US.

You can argue in favor of the current skewed American-Israeli relationship in terms of shared democratic values, or in terms of shared Judeo-Christian values.  You can argue in favor of it in terms of how many Americans sympathize and identify with Israel, or feel residual guilt for the Holocaust, or see a similar pioneer spirit there; you can cite the Bible or evangelical Christianity as a justification for this relationship.  You can argue in terms of any number of things, and the lobby is very good at producing these bromides. You can argue until the cows come home. There are fifty perfectly good arguments, arguments I haven’t even brought up.  They’re all reasons why the United States is very sympathetic towards Israel, but however good or bad they are, those are NOT strategic arguments.

There are no strategic arguments left. The strategic arguments in fact are now beginning to be made on the other side. How big a liability is Israel for the United States?  How big of a diplomatic albatross is it? To use the recent words of several senior American policymakers, how much of a cost in blood and treasure does the United States pay for this skewed relationship? I don’t know the answer to that: it may not be measurable, it may not be very great, but there’s certainly nothing on the plus side of the balance sheet.  To whatever degree it goes, it’s in the negative.

IOA: How is the Obama administration different from its predecessors on the Israel-Palestine question? How do you evaluate its Mideast policy so far?

RK: Well, the Middle East is not just the Arab-Israeli conflict. I don’t think that this administration has fully absorbed the fact that the United States will not be able to keep bases in Iraq after its withdrawal, according to the American-Iraqi treaty. And I don’t think that they have yet fully “operationalized” the realization that they probably can’t stay in Afghanistan for a very long time either. And those are very important aspects. The extensive basing of US forces in the Middle East generally, and this enormous emphasis on direct US military intervention in this region, are a legacy of the post-Cold War era. It started under the first President Bush and continued under President Clinton, it led to two wars under George W. Bush, and it has now become a fact of life that the overwhelming preponderance of American military forces outside the frontiers of the United States are in the Middle East.  I don’t think that this administration has come to grips at all with that. I frankly don’t think it’s the military that’s behind this – I don’t know what forces are behind it, but it’s a problem. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing is, I don’t think they have figured out how they want to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and their performance in the first fifteen months of this administration shows it.  So, I don’t think they get a very high grade so far.

IOA: Judging by the level of US military infrastructure investments in Iraq, it would appear that no one is planning to ever leave Iraq…

RK: Well, they’re going to leave. The only question is how quickly they realize it and how quickly it takes place. No Iraqi government that is in any way representative will ever, under any circumstances, countenance permanent, enduring, whatever you call them, American bases in Iraq. Iraqi factions may temporarily utilize the US presence to achieve advantage over their rivals, but Iraqi public opinion – for years, since the occupation began – has been overwhelmingly against the continuing presence of US bases in their country. And all the governments that have been created by the United States, and all the governments that have emerged from a sectarian system implanted by the United States, have reflected that opinion. No representative Iraqi parliament, even one elected in the shadow of US military occupation has accepted or would accept a permanent American military presence in Iraq. Anyone who thinks otherwise knows nothing about modern Iraqi history.

IOA: How does that, or does it, affect Israel’s role in the longer term, for the American strategic interest in the Middle East?

RK: I think that the immediate post-Cold War context answers your question: Israel became a strategic liability during the first Gulf war; it had to be restrained from responding to Saddam Hussein’s rocket attacks because for Israel to have gotten involved in a war with an Arab country at that moment would have been a catastrophe for US interests.

The idea that the United States could base itself directly in Israel and intervene from there in the Arab countries, is folly. It simply cannot do that. The United States uses Israel for certain exercises, for naval bases; and naval visits. Fine.  But the idea that Israel is a forward base that the United States can use to intervene in the Middle East and the Arab countries – absolutely not.

And I think the United States, which fought the Cold War mainly with an over-the-horizon military posture and by the end of it had very few military bases in the Middle East, may have to learn to go back to that posture.  Whatever American influence needs to be projected, in terms of power, that can probably best be done from bases outside the Middle East. Those inside the Middle East are an enormous liability. And I don’t think Israel is a substitute for that. But it’ll take a long time before all of that sinks in in Washington.

IOA: How do you explain the current US-Israeli tension over new settlements in occupied East Jerusalem?

RK: The Administration seems to have decided it wanted to draw a line over settlements and decided they wanted to be principled about it; they wanted to stress, for the first time in a very long time, that East Jerusalem is occupied territory – which, of course, it is.  I don’t think they thought through what they would do after the Israeli government did the obvious thing, which was to tell them to go jump in a lake.  So, I explain it because they hadn’t very carefully thought about what they were doing.

I don’t know why they chose East Jerusalem and focused on it –, they’re still focusing on it. I gather that Sen. Mitchell talks to the Israelis about things like Sheperd’s Hotel.  Clearly, the US is involved in details, in nuts and bolts. And, to tell you the truth, I don’t have a good explanation for this.  I see what happened, but I really don’t know why it took this course, and I don’t understand where they think they’re going with it, given that this is the kind of Israeli government it is: the most right-wing and the most dominated by settlers and extreme chauvinists in Israeli history.

IOA: In a recent interview with the Institute for Middle East Understanding, you said that the Palestinian national movement and leadership today are in worse shape than in 40 or 50 years, but that Palestinian civil society is in some ways more vibrant than ever, and quite resilient.  You then raised the question of whether Palestinian civil society will produce a leadership capable of spearheading a national movement worthy of the name.  What might be effective strategies for Palestinian civil society to pursue in order for that to happen?

RK: I stand by what I said. I think the Palestinian national movement is in its worst shape in five decades. I also think the Palestinian society is light-years away from where it was after the Nakba – it’s more resilient, it’s much more together. It’s what carries the Palestinian cause right now. It’s not the current mediocre leaders, God knows, or these quite bankrupt political movements that are carrying the Palestinian cause. It is not enough for civil society to be vibrant, however: a national movement has to have leadership and, ultimately, people will have to play political roles. It’s fine to talk about academic A, or NGO leader B, or union leader C, but those people have to become political leaders in order for them to lead the Palestinian national movement.

I think a lot about what the Palestinian society is doing; it has yet to produce a new leadership cadre; it has yet to challenge the broken down, corrupt and politically bankrupt movements that have provided no vision, no strategy, and no leadership, and have impotently overseen a movement away from liberation and towards entrenchment of occupation and settlement.

So, there is a long way to go.  But, some of the strategies that Palestinian society has produced, like nonviolent resistance, like BDS, like cooperating with Israelis – although still at a low level, and so far only with a limited number of them – are exactly right. They have a long way yet to go. Many people understand already, however, that you don’t win this conflict on a battlefield.

The Algerians fought hard, but they didn’t win on the battlefield. The Vietnamese fought even harder but they didn’t win on the battlefield.  The Algerians won in France and the Vietnamese won in the United States. The French army won anywhere it fought. The American army in Southeast Asia won anywhere it fought. The Israeli army will win anywhere it fights (except perhaps in South Lebanon). And the Arab countries are out of this war – there is no longer a war between the Arab countries and Israel, unless Israel attacks Syria.  And I don’t think there is – I hope, I pray there won’t be – an Iranian-Israeli war.

Ultimately, this is now a different kind of conflict, and it will not be won by killing people. It will be won when enough of the Israeli and American peoples change where they are, and when they see things differently. And that requires a lot more thought about strategy than anyone has given this for a long time.

I think that a lot of people involved in BDS and in non-violent resistance basically have the right end of the stick.  They understand that you have to somehow do things that will have a positive impact, and are not war crimes or violations of international law, like slaughtering innocent civilians.  Especially against this enemy.  It’s wrong anywhere and anytime – but it’s particularly pointless, fruitless, and counterproductive against this enemy.  If you have a country like Israel and an ideology like Zionism that has developed on the basis of an understandable sense of persecution, then the last thing you want to do is give this people a sense of, “We’re still persecuted, they’re killing our children, or they’re blowing our buses up in Tel Aviv” – it’s totally counterproductive.

Israel is also a great nuclear power and one of the greatest military powers in the world – how exactly is blowing up buses or firing unguided rockets – many of which fall on your own people’s heads – and producing a 100-to-I casualty rate, going to liberate anything?  So against this specific enemy, that whole approach is clearly inappropriate, besides it being illegal and immoral to kill innocent civilians.

So I think they have the right end of the stick. But they have a long way to go in terms of understanding how to get to American opinion and how to get to Israeli opinion.  Those are the two key places you have to win:  domestic Israeli opinion and American opinion.

In most of the rest of the world, the Palestinians have already won, in spite of themselves. There is not very much left to do in Europe or much of the rest of the world: they already see the basic justice of the Palestinian cause.  It is true that the European political class is as yet impervious to this message, but look at the European parliament and at European civil society – they are way-ahead of their own politicians.  That’s not the case with Israeli civil society, that’s not the case with America – and those are the only two arenas that now really matter and where important work remains to be done, besides the domestic Palestinian arena, where a consensus on strategy must be developed, and, to a lesser extent, the Arab world.

IOA: What strategy and tactics would you recommend for those in the United States who seek justice for Palestinians?

RK: Well, they have to be really different and really well thought out tactics, because this is not Europe. You can’t talk in the US about boycotting Israel. You can talk, however, about boycotting products made in the settlements, or boycotting military industries that serve the Occupation.

Of course, if you want to be sanctimonious and holier-than-thou and do not care about political effectiveness, you can talk about anything you want. But if you want to be effective in the US, I don’t think we’re at the stage where you can have the kind of conversation you can have in Israel or in Europe:  for example, about the nature of Zionism, about Israel as a state of its citizens, or whether we’re leading towards one state or two states.  It’s very hard to have that kind of discussion productively in the United States because most people are extremely ill-served by the media and have no idea whatsoever of the situation on the ground. Many still think we’re living in a world shaped by their reading the book Exodus, or seeing the film. That’s the world most Americans inhabit when they talk about Palestine-Israel.  There are people who went on a magical mystery tour of Israel where they went from indoctrination point to indoctrination point – where they were sold a bill of goods. Whether it was on their Bar Mitzvah, a heritage tour, an anniversary, or a package tour, that’s the kind of thing most people know.

You can’t discuss the finer points of a one-state or a two-state solution or whatever, with people who know almost nothing, and what they think they know is distorted and skewed. You have to start from the ground up. So you have to start with issues like human rights, you have to start with issues like the Occupation.  You can talk about more sophisticated or complicated issues, but any campaign that you launch in the US or, for that matter, in Israel, in the first instance has to be directed at building coalitions and informing people, so that they have the tools to make an informed judgment, which most people in the US don’t, especially older people.  With younger people, it’s a lot easier.  Younger people don’t believe most of the lying propaganda that passes for reality when Israel/Palestine is concerned because they don’t believe anything that their elders tell them – and they know the mainstream media is biased and useless, they know and can immediately identify propaganda.  They’re smarter than their elders, and they have infinite alternative sources of information with the internet.

This is particularly the case in the American Jewish community.  Because the younger generation – at least among those I see in lectures around the country and those in universities – they’re open-minded in a way that the older generation, what I would call the 1967 Generation, by and large, is not.  The 1967 Generation is made up of people who see things in the context of the Holocaust; of Israel having been a sort of divine miracle after the Holocaust.  They’re not going to change.  And those are matters of faith, cemented in 1967 when it was sincerely believed that Israel was on the brink of another Holocaust.  If you were to ask most Americans my age and older who know about this, that is what they would tell you. I saw this with my own eyes in New York, in June 1967: I saw people collecting money for Israel in bed-sheets outside of Grand Central Station, four guys barely able to hold up a bed-sheet, as people were throwing money in. Well, people who have their consciousness shaped by that searing Holocaust fear in 1967 (although unfounded, as we know those fears to have been) are not going to change their minds in 2010.

Today’s kids don’t have that.  Some of them are very pro-Israel in a certain way, some in another way, some not at all, but they’re almost all much more open minded than their elders. And a lot of them are radical and unequivocally committed to Palestinian rights, especially the ones who have seen reality in occupied Palestine for themselves, without the distorting filters. And so, there’s a potential here for proper action in the United States, but it’s going to take a lot of work and it’s going to take a lot of sophistication. I’m not in favor of arguing how many states can dance on the head of a pin. I don’t think it’s fruitful right now because I don’t think we’re going to have an ideal one-state or an ideal two-state solution any time soon.  It’s productive for the people concerned to discuss this among themselves over there: Arabs and Israelis and, in particular, Palestinians and Israelis.  But, in the American domestic sphere, what’s the point?  Talk about occupation, talk about settlements, talk about Jerusalem, talk about refugee rights, talk about human rights, talk about the basics – inform people. That is what needs to be done here, as a basic first step.

IOA: Thank you, Professor Khalidi!

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