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Rashid Khalidi: Under Obama ‘there has been no real change in the fatally flawed policies of the U.S. in the region’

Israel/Palestine

As Palestinians prepare to commemorate the Nakba and Israelis celebrated their Independence Day, tension between the U.S. and Israel over settlement construction in occupied East Jerusalem continues. To make sense of these and other developments, the Institute for Middle East Understanding sat down in New York City with Professor Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University. Khalidi is the author of six books on Middle Eastern history including Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, and most recently Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East. He is the editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies and a former adviser to the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid and Washington peace talks.

IMEU: Israel just celebrated its Independence Day. What are your thoughts on the state of the state? Is there a shift in Israeli society, and in the perception of Israel, or perhaps a questioning of Israel’s historical choices and her current policies?

RK: Well I am not in Israel so I can’t say really. From a distance, and through the lens of the Israeli press, it seems there is something unusual going on, perhaps a process of questioning as you say. But I would say that there has been a real shift in the Jewish Diaspora, and in terms of the perception of Israel internationally and in the U.S. Something is changing there. This process started to unfold after the 2006 Lebanon war and even more after the 2008-09 Gaza war. A lot of people said ‘this is too much’ and it opened their eyes to the injustice and blindness of Israeli policies, not to mention the brutality.

IMEU: Earlier this week Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak made a statement in which he essentially said the occupation must end. He said: "The world isn’t willing to accept…that Israel will rule another people for decades more…It’s something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world." He went on to say that Palestinians aspire to a state of their own and that "there is no other way, whether you like it or not, than to let them rule themselves." What are your thoughts on this?

RK: Barak in many ways represents the more rational element in Israeli decision-making, the element which doesn’t seek to bend reality to an Israeli vision at every turn. He represents an element of the leadership that is not totally detached from reality in other words. It should be obvious to anyone in their right mind, for example, that Israel cannot rule the Palestinians forever. Unfortunately most of those in power in Israel now really do think that they can bend reality to their will.

In some ways Zionism is and always has been this quite remarkable effort to shape reality to the will of its philosophy, to the will of the movement. It has been amazingly successful at doing this through brilliant PR and through creating facts on the ground. As I said, most Israeli current leaders are still living in this fantasy world, the apogee of which was during the Bush years. Throughout Bush’s tenure reality could be skewed and twisted more easily than ever before.

But we also should note that many among the Israeli elite, and many Israeli intellectuals are well aware of this dangerous strand of thinking in Israel and they are opposed to this idea that reality is alterable. Unfortunately many of these people, these more sensible Israelis, are outside of Israel living in the U.S. or in Europe.

IMEU: Elie Wiesel took out a full-page add in the NYT to say Jerusalem is for the Jews and the Jews alone. What’s your response to this?

RK: How does one respond to such narrow thinking? The idea that Jerusalem is the province of this or that exclusive tribal nation-state (which is in effect what Wiesel is arguing) represents a quite peculiar reduction of Judaism. Tony Judt, in a recent piece, talks about the same clash between this tribalism on the one hand, and the more universal principles of Judaism on the other.

Wiesel’s seems to be a very primitive vision indeed, and one that is intended to stir up atavistic tendencies. My guess is that this thinking increasingly only really appeals to a dwindling band of older folks. I think Wiesel’s view turns off a large number of younger Jews, especially in the Diaspora.

A lot of Israelis buy some version of this stuff, yes. But what is important, and in some ways this ties back to your first question, is that the Zionist movement and later the state of Israel used to be able to appeal universally to all or most Jews and to many others regardless of their differing viewpoints. Now it seems the hardcore Zionist establishment is really beating one drum which only attracts a hardcore and homogeneous segment of Jews in Israel and around the world, those people who actually believe this way of thinking.

Whether or not this is sustainable depends a lot on what happens here. If there continues to be growing dissent against this worldview – a worldview largely detached from reality – then people like Wiesel and Avigdor Lieberman will be more and more isolated. They will of course still have important allies in the Christian right and in the military-industrial complex, and on Capitol Hill, but they will be isolated increasingly from the growing number of people here in the U.S. who refuse to swallow every fantasy that AIPAC feeds them.

Of course, we could see the right wing Republicans make big gains in 2010 and 2012, and then return to a faith-based fact-free foreign policy in this country, which in turn fuels the delusional people involved in the conflict.

IMEU: What about the Palestinian National movement? How do you view the current situation in relation to other historical moments in the Palestinian national project?

RK: This particular moment is discouraging. It is a very bad time for the Palestinian national movement. But 1948 was much worse. The society and the economy were shattered then, and the population violently dispersed. It was a catastrophe for the Palestinian people in every sense of the word.

With that said, the national movement today is in worse shape than it’s been for 40 or 50 years, especially the leadership, but Palestinian civil society is in some ways more vibrant than ever, and quite resilient.

The question is whether this civil society will produce a leadership capable of spearheading a national movement worthy of the name.

Right now the Palestinian leadership (Fatah and Hamas) are divided and essentially made up primarily of clapped out hacks with no real strategic plan to get from point A to point B. It is clear that despite their rhetoric and their supposed plans, both factions have for years had no really viable vision of where to go.

On the one hand Hamas has this fantasy of violent resistance from within Gaza creating a state. The unilateral pull out of the Israelis from Gaza unfortunately fueled this fantasy and gave it more life. But a plan that consists of liberating Palestine with clumsy homemade rockets is not to be taken seriously. To Hamas’s credit they have largely abandoned this course of action and held their fire for more than a year, but they are still deluded in thinking that their line will create two states.

Similarly delusional is the policy promoted by Fatah, which seeks to negotiate from a position of abject weakness and internal division, and seeks to build a state while still under occupation. How do you create a state under military occupation? This was true before Arafat’s death as well. He thought for many years that he was building a state but the occupation persisted and after the 2nd intifada began he was frozen out and isolated by Israel and the Bush administration, and the fantasy he had bought into was shattered. The second intifada was in many ways a spontaneous popular reaction to that unacceptable status quo (settlements were mushrooming, for example, and the settler population doubled from 1990 to 2000). In this sense it was much like the first Intifada at first, but was hijacked and spiraled into a suicidal and violent lashing out, which was disastrous for Palestinians.

Somehow there persists today among Fayyad and others this fantasy that a state can still be built under occupation.

So the two factions respective policies’ today, besides being at odds, are in themselves not viable and do not challenge the status quo in any meaningful way. The Palestinians are today quite bereft of leadership. This is partly Israel’s doing of course, as they have imprisoned, exiled or assassinated many of the best potential leaders in the movement for years, and today they are still actively pursuing a policy of undermining and neutralizing potential leadership, especially at the grassroots level. This is one challenge that civil society is facing. The cards are stacked against the Palestinians but as I said, they are a resilient and creative people, even if their leaders today are not.

IMEU: What is your reading of the Obama administration’s handling of the conflict over the past year and a half or so?

RK: Contrary to the nutty right wing elements in the blogosphere which see me as an evil genius pulling the strings of Obama’s policy I do not have much good to say about his policies thus far.

Obama has yet to jettison the past administrations’ failed policies for new ones that will lead to success.

There has been some change, but it has been essentially discursive and nothing more. People cite Obama’s words on settlements and his Cairo speech as evidence of change, but that and 5 cents won’t get you a cup of coffee. There has been no real change in the fatally flawed policies of the U.S. in the region. The questioning at the highest levels of the administration and the military establishment of aspects of the American-Israeli relationship, important though it is, is still only rhetorical and has not shifted policy in practice.

There still exists this accepted conventional wisdom in D.C. which says that you cannot ask the Israelis to change the status quo, in fact the wisdom states that only that which the Israeli government of the day dictates is doable, given its domestic political constraints, is within the realm of possibility. This means that the ramshackle nature of this or that governing coalition in Israel effectively dictates American policy towards Israel and the Palestinians.

So whatever policy makers may say that is different, the U.S. in practice still supports the siege of Gaza, the expansion of illegal settlements, and every other destructive and often illegal policy of the Israeli government.

Some people argue that the U.S. is in fact genuinely working to change these Israeli policies, such as the siege of Gaza. Well, if that is true then the U.S. is not a superpower because it has so far been unable to change a single thing on the ground and those policies persist unfettered. Lichtenstein could be a superpower if that was definition of a superpower and those were the kind of results expected from a superpower throwing around its weight.

If the administration REALLY wanted to oppose settlement building in Jerusalem and other occupied territories, for example, all it would take would be for the Treasury Department to enforce US law and remove the 501c3 designation from the so-called “charities” which are funding this illegal activity at the expense of the taxpayer and the US national interest (not to speak of the Palestinian people). That would not require a negotiation with Mr. Netanyahu, or so much as a by-your-leave from Congress. That would just be the executive branch enforcing US law, which is its job.

IMEU: What can the U.S. do in this respect, short of forcing a change in Israeli policy?

RK: The U.S. cannot force Israel to behave in a certain way but it can make Israel bear the consequences of what it is actually doing, which is breaking international law, and harming the national interest of the United States.

These are the things that need to change for a real break from the failures of past American policy, and for the slight changes so far to more than merely rhetorical. It can be done, but it will take great courage on the part of the administration. If this happens it will be good not only for the U.S. and the Palestinians, but for the Israeli people as well.

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