Rashid Khalidi in Brooklyn Pt. 1: “If you want to understand anti-Americanism in the Arab world, look first and foremost to the Palestine issue.”

10 Nov

The first time you see Rashid Khalidi launch into one of his strident cri de coeurs, punctuated by fierce hand gestures and presided over by an intense, indomitable gaze, it can be a little unnerving.

But Khalidi’s indignation at the widespread misconceptions and propagandistic falsehoods which inform both popular and governmental understandings of Israel-Palestine in the US is tempered by an amiable and generous pedagogic spirit. After hearing the veteran Columbia historian speak last Wednesday at a Brooklyn For Peace-organized talk in downtown Brooklyn, I have little doubt as to the primacy of that educator’s spirit.

As I stumbled in a few minutes after 7pm, I noticed that the audience–predictably large, filling the capacious meeting hall nearly to capacity–was on the whole much older than I’d expected. Mostly folks in the 60s-and-up demographic–what I’d call “retirement age,” if such a thing could still be taken for granted–wearing the frowny, impatient countenances of veteran New Yorkers. The middle-aged crowd marginally outnumbered millennial BDS booster types among the rest.

The lecture centered on the malign American role in the past three decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Khalidi published a groundbreaking book on the subject in March of this year called Brokers of Deceit. You can read a reliable and insightful review of the book by historian Vijay Prashad here; and here is a clip of Khalidi answering questions about the book in, fittingly enough, Jerusalem.

For the last leg of the talk, Khalidi bridged the exposition of his book with some (partially extemporaneous) commentary on John Kerry’s ongoing efforts to jumpstart that interminable farce we call the “Peace Process.” The professor’s take was, predictably, almost wholly negative (“A fool’s errand!”)–and rightly so.

For Khalidi, these latest negotiations represent the continuation of a policy that dates back at least as far as the aftermath of Menachem Begin’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Khalidi characterizes this policy as one of US diplomats rhetorically posturing as unbiased mediators while actively closing ranks with Israel. This game, he informs us, of necessity always ends badly for the Palestinians.

Looking backward, on the basis of what I’ve just talked about, it’s pretty clear that the United States up to this point has in fact made a settlement much less likely. I’m very wary of making predictions…but I would offer that it is impossible to build anything lasting on the kind of rotten foundation that the United States has already established through its orchestration of this process.

We have a situation here where parties are negotiating on the basis of gaping inequality. One is occupier, one is occupied. The ostensible mediator overtly favors the stronger party. You have to know that it’s a big fat American thumb pushing the scale down even further on the side of the overwhelmingly dominant party.

The Olso accords and all the agreements thereafter, which form the basis of this process, are entirely based on Israeli blueprints–Begin’s blueprints for expansive Israeli settlements, actually–that were intended to prevent an equitable two-state settlement.[1]

I think Begin has basically succeeded. I don’t think a Palestinian state is very likely. Whatever transpires with…Secretary Kerry…these conditions seem to guarantee the outcome will not be a just and lasting peace in which the Palestinian people end their century-long odyssey and where both peoples end up living in peace and justice and security, whether it’s in one-state or two-state or some kind of federal arrangement …

The process that the Secretary of State is engaged in cannot produce such an outcome. It can only extend into the future the entirely unsatisfactory status quo.

As to whether we might hope to see any positive change in this state of affairs (of which “unsatisfactory” is a pretty understated assessment), Khalidi would by night’s end address several key sticking points. Regarding the role of the Arab states, he made the following diagnosis:

This [US] policy can only continue as long as undemocratic governments continue to dominate the Arab world. Governments like that of Saudi Arabia. These governments have basically capitulated on this issue. They talk a good game where Palestine is concerned, but in no case have they been willing to put the Palestine issue at the top of their agenda with Washington. In no case have they been willing to jeopardize their relationship with Washington over this issue. And the main reason that this is the case is that none of these are democratic governments. They don’t respond to the wishes of their people. People in the Arab world are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Palestinians and completely baffled as to why the United States should follow the policies it does.

If you want to understand anti-Americanism in the Arab world, look first and foremost to the Palestine issue. It poisons everything else.

In a follow-up post I’ll include a transcript of Khalidi’s remarks on the transformative potential of changing popular opinion vis-à-vis Palestine. The sound on my recording is a little fuzzy here and there, so it might be a few days before I’ll have time for the painstaking work of jamming an earbud into my osseous labyrinth while I relisten to the same 4 second chunks of audio ad nauseam.

[1] Here’s the same analysis explained more carefully in Brokers of Deceit:

If one examines them carefully, there can be no question about it: the Camp David agreements, the Madrid framework, and the Oslo Accords on the one hand, and the Palestinian Authority and the permanent occupation and settlement regime that resulted from this structure of commitments on the other, all of these things, summed up in the term “the peace process,” are in the end one single construct. This construct is and was always designed by its Israeli architects (and their American subcontractors) to be an impermeable barrier against true Palestinian emancipation, rather than a route in that direction. Thus, this construct does not, cannot, and is expressly meant not to, address the roots of the conflict, which lie in the unending subjugation of the Palestinians, and their refusal to accept their lot. We should not be surprised: all of these elements are inextricably bound to a scheme originally devised by Menachem Begin to avoid such emancipation, and to ensure permanent Israeli control of, and settlement in, the occupied territories, the core of what Begin called “Eretz Israel.” Israel’s pitiless occupation regime not only guarantees more oppression and Palestinian resistance to this oppression. It also guarantees continued, bitter resentment of the United States for helping to devise, uphold, and defend this regime, a resentment felt particularly acutely in the Arab and Islamic worlds, in much of Europe, and beyond, where these realities are concealed from almost no one. (135)


One Response to “Rashid Khalidi in Brooklyn Pt. 1: “If you want to understand anti-Americanism in the Arab world, look first and foremost to the Palestine issue.””


  1. Rashid Khalidi in Brooklyn Pt. 2: Shifting Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy | Nomad Sun - November 16, 2013

    […] educator's spirit I alluded to in my first post on Khalidi's talk was very much on display during that night's […]

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