Rashid Khalidi on the Israel lobby

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Last night historian Rashid Khalidi spoke about his important new book, Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East, at the International Peace Institute in New York and repeatedly downplayed the role of the Israel lobby in American policy-making across the Middle East. A video of his appearance is here.

While Khalidi acknowledged that the U.S. has for 20 years acted as Israel’s lawyer in the Israel/Palestine conflict, thereby foreclosing the two-state solution, he argued that that conflict represents the very narrow arena in which the lobby can throw its weight around. On Palestine, American presidents are responsive to a domestic lobby “because there’s no counterweight.” On general strategic matters, the lobby has little influence.

Khalidi’s book contains a similar argument:

“As Noam Chomsky has argued convincingly in an interview in the Journal of Palestine Studies… Mearsheimer and Walt’s ‘realist’ international-relations perspective does not recognize that US support for Israel is entirely compatible with many basic American corporate and strategic interests, rather than being mainly the result of the action of this lobby.” 

While readers know that I hold the Walt-Mearsheimer view, it seemed most helpful to try and convey Khalidi’s view of the matter, as stated last night.

For his book, Khalidi undertook a historical investigation of negotiations over the last 30 years and found that American presidents have often set out to put pressure on Israel vis-a-vis the occupation but they invariably give up before long and adopt Israeli “desiderata,” as Obama has, with the result that the U.S. has continually pressured the weaker side, the Palestinians, to accept Israel’s terms. But Palestinians have been incapable of renouncing their rights; and so there has been no peace, no justice, no resolution. There was a window in which the two-state solution could actually have been effected, in the early 1990s, in the trusting and imaginative spirit that followed the Oslo accords, but once Oslo’s actual measures were put in place — checkpoints, the wall, and the end of freedom of movement, with resultant violent resistance — both sides hunkered down and the U.S. merely stood up for the Israeli regime and portrayed the Israelis as the victims.

This U.S. imbalance was not strictly a result of domestic pressure. “To suggest that the Israel lobby has arcane influence over American policy is a terrible mistake,” Khalidi said. Yes it has “enormous weight” on the Palestine issue, but whenever the U.S. has “an overwhelming strategic objective” in the region, American presidents dismiss the lobby and pressure Israel. 

Khalidi gave two examples. The 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was in the interests of the U.S. because the U.S. wanted to take Egypt away from Soviet influence during the Cold War. So Nixon, Ford, and Carter insisted that Israel talk; these presidents had “no hesitation in forcing Israel to do things that American policy makers wanted.”

The same goes for the sale of a “major weapon system to Saudi Arabia” during the Reagan administration. In that instance, far more powerful lobbies than the Israel lobby prevailed– the oil lobby and the aerospace lobby aligned with US policy makers, and the sale went through “without the slightest difficulty.”

Even during the ’73 oil embargo, when it seemed that U.S. material interests were being damaged by the US attachment to Israel, Henry Kissinger said, per Khalidi’s research, that while the rhetoric of Saudi diplomats was intransigent, privately they were willing to play ball with the United States.

The lobby can exercise power in its bailiwick, Khalidi said, because the arc of force in the region is the U.S. alignment with the Arab oil monarchies, and they don’t really object to Israel. And therefore there is no contradiction between American strategic interests and American policy toward Israel.

(Khalidi went on that the U.S. has successfully decoupled oil policy from Israel/Palestine. For if Israeli intransigence actually affected Arab oil supply, European, South Asian and East Asian governments would be “howling” at the U.S. to change its policy, because they are the principal beneficiaries of Arab oil. The U.S. gets its oil chiefly from West Africa, Latin America, and North America. But those other nations don’t push us because we have made sure that oil markets are unaffected by the conflict.)

“It is really not the Israel lobby that drives American policy,” he said. Yes there are occasions when the lobby “prevails,” but these are rare occasions– when the cost of US alignment with the Israel lobby is so small that the U.S. can get away with it. And here Khalidi meant U.S. support for the unending occupation. In that case there is “exaggerated attention to domestic political concerns”– be it voters, donors, or pro-Israel media.

This calculus is now at risk. Arab public opinion is overwhelmingly concerned with Palestine and against U.S. policy. But Arab states are generally not democracies, so there has been no problem for the U.S. in ignoring public opinion. “That policy would become untenable if [Arab states] are democratized,” Khalidi said. “If Arab governments begin to reflect popular opinion then American policy will be in jeopardy.”

In the Q-and-A, Jeff Laurenti of the Century Foundation somewhat questioned Khalidi’s view of the lobby. He said that Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were both closer to Khalidi’s “mythical ideal of an honest broker” in the conflict–and both were one-term presidents. We all know that there were other reasons for Carter and Bush’s political defeats, Laurenti said, but “there’s a mythology in Washington that it ain’t unrelated.”

(Myself I believe that mythology; certainly it is interesting that Laurenti acknowledges that this belief is widespread, including, I would say, on the part of George H.W. Bush and his son and his son’s successor; the Washington Post underlines this belief with respect to Bush, as does Michael Desch in Security Studies.)

Seeming to acknowledge the power of the lobby, Laurenti spoke of changes inside the American Jewish community; he mentioned J Street.

Khalidi responded to this point. He said that the U.S. was changing swiftly, far more swiftly than he could have imagined even ten years ago– chiefly on campuses.  “There was no debate 20 years ago. There was no other voice, to be frank,” he said. At that time it was hard even to say the words Palestine or Palestinian on college campuses. Today he is part of the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia

Yes, there are far more centers devoted to Israeli studies. But young people have access to far better information than the myths purveyed by “stodgy media” in the last generation. Khalidi spoke of a burgeoning awareness including among young Jews fostered by Peter Beinart’s book, Students for Justice in Palestine chapters, Jewish Voice for Peace, and “shock journalism.”

But, he said: “I see absolutely no effect whatsoever on American politics at this point.”

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