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‘Blind Spot’ on Palestine is consistent feature of US policy for past century

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America and the Palestinians
from Balfour to Trump
by Khaled Elgindy
345 pp. Brookings Institution Press $25.99

The Trump administration’s often delayed and much hyped “deal of the century” to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace may never see the light of day thanks to the chaos into which Israeli politics has been plunged following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inability to form a governing coalition and the subsequent decision by the Knesset to dissolve itself and hold new elections in the fall.

No serious analyst gave the plan a snowball’s chance even in the absence of concrete details about its content. As presidential adviser Jared Kushner made clear in remarks last month to the pro-Israel think tank Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the plan revolves around contenting Palestinians with economic betterment while denying them their political rights under perpetual Israeli domination.

Kushner’s recent interview with Axios, during which he averred that Palestinian freedom from Israeli military occupation would be a “high bar” to achieve, reinforced the wholly untenable nature of whatever the Trump administration is cooking up. Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conceded that others may legitimately perceive the plan to be “unexecutable” and “a deal that only the Israelis could love.”

The cover of Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians from Balfour to Trump

The cover of Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians from Balfour to Trump

Against this backdrop, Khaled Elgindy’s conclusion in his important new book Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians from Balfour to Trump (Brookings Institution Press, 2019) that “the Trump era signaled a notable shift in US policy from ambivalence toward Palestinian leaders and Palestinian statehood to total indifference” (p. 246) seems a measured understatement.

And while the Trump administration may differ from its predecessors in its bombast and flair for the dramatic policy announcements, as Elgindy persuasively demonstrates, “Trump’s radical policy reversals on Jerusalem and refugees,” by moving the US embassy to the contested city and cutting US funding to UNRWA, “were not so much a ‘new approach’ to resolving the conflict, as his administration has claimed, as they were the culmination of the old approach.” (p. 249)

“Long before Trump arrived in the White House, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and other presidents going back to Lyndon Johnson had already been working to sideline the issue of Palestinian refugee rights” and were guilty of “steadily chipping away at UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the ‘land-for-peace’ formula by lending tacit approval to Israeli settlement construction,” (p. 250) Elgindy notes.

As US policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue reaches its logical apotheosis under the Trump administration, Elgindy’s book hit the shelves at an opportune moment to remind, or instruct, readers that US concern for the rights, aspirations, and dignity of the Palestinian people has always been an afterthought, if thought of at all, in its policy formulation.

Reading Blind Spot, one is struck by the coherence of US policy toward the Palestinian people over the past century even as political realities have continued to dramatically change. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun.

For example, the Trump administration’s attempt to placate the Palestinian people with economic development in lieu of their political rights has many antecedents in US policy, as Elgindy documents. In 1953, the Eisenhower administration launched the Johnston Plan to employ and resettle 300,000 Palestinians in the Jordan Valley, a move through which the State Department hoped “the back of the Palestine refugee problem will have been broken.” Elgindy notes the “striking resemblance” of this initiative to Zionist “transfer” plans premised on the notion “that given the promise of land, jobs, and other economic benefits, Palestinian refugees would agree to be resettled in neighboring Arab states.” (p. 60)

This Orientalist policy approach, rooted in the racist idea that the venal Palestinians could be induced to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage, echoes throughout the decades of US policymaking to this day. In the 1980’s Secretary of State George Schultz “proposed focusing on improving the ‘quality of life’ of Palestinians” under Israeli military occupation “in place of a political settlement”. (p. 115)

And the George W. Bush administration touted Fayyadism—the peculiar mixture of state building, good governance, and economic development under Israeli military occupation named after Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad—as a way to meddle in internal Palestinian politics by “promot[ing] stability and prosperity in the West Bank” and “prompt[ing] Palestinians” in the Gaza Strip “to rise up against Hamas” due to “a simultaneous decline in economic and political conditions” there. (p. 191)

Elgindy’s critique of US biases in its attempts to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” will be familiar to those already having read Naseer Aruri’s Dishonest Broker or Rashid Khalidi’s Brokers of Deceit.

Elgindy provides value added by unearthing long-buried gold nuggets of solid advice to US policymakers that unfortunately went unheeded, such as when the House Foreign Affairs Committee invited Palestinian-American surgeon and Jaffa native Fuad Shatara to testify about the Balfour Declaration in 1922. “This is our national home, the national home of the Palestinians,” Shatara told the committee, “and I think those people are entitled to priority as the national home of the Palestinians and not aliens who have come in and have gradually become a majority.” (p. 18) Congress went on to pass overwhelmingly a resolution supporting a Jewish “national home” in Palestine nonetheless, an early manifestation of the unwillingness of the United States to factor Palestinian perspectives into its policy.

Blind Spot also makes an important contribution to the literature through original interviews Elgindy conducts. For example, Fayyad’s frank admission that “there’s nothing bilateral about our relationship with the United States,” summarizes the futility of the US-backed “peace process.” “We are incidental really. It was because of their interest in Israel. We sort of got in the way, and so they had to deal with us,” (p. 254) Fayyad concluded, in what serves an encapsulation of US relations with the Palestinian people over the past century.

Elgindy is the perfect combination of vested insider and detached scholar to write this story. He served on the negotiating team for the PLO during the 2007-2008 Annapolis negotiations, gaining a behind-the-scenes perspective into the unbalanced power dynamics that doomed the talks. And he wrote the book from the unlikely perch of fellow at the otherwise staunchly pro-Israel Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, a lone, critical dissenting voice against “peace process” orthodoxies.

Blind Spot contains a few historical inaccuracies, such as referring to King Hussein of Jordan as the son, rather than grandson, of King Abdullah (p. 81) and discounting the number of Members of Congress who supported Rep. Betty McCollum’s (D-MN) groundbreaking legislation in support of Palestinian children’s rights in the previous Congress (p. 257). However, such minor errata do not detract from the readability of the book and the cogent, persuasive, and well-documented argument Elgindy makes that the United States has always and continues to suffer from a blind spot in its policymaking by denying the agency and rights of the Palestinian people.  

Josh Ruebner

Josh Ruebner is the Senior Principal at Progress Up Consulting. Former Policy Director at the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights and Middle East Analyst at the Congressional Research Service. Author of "Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State?" and "Shattered Hopes: Obama's Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace".

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5 Responses

  1. CHUCKMAN on June 5, 2019, 12:54 pm

    “‘Blind Spot’ on Palestine is consistent feature of US policy for past century
    Opinion Josh Ruebner on June 5, 2019 0 Comments”

    Yes, of course, but when have empires been free of blind spots?

    It just cannot happen, or you wouldn’t build an empire in the first place.

    And Israel is effectively an American colony in the Middle East. A rather specialized one, but still a colony.

    It serves virtually all the purposes of a colony, and it is heavily subsidized as are most colonies.

    It truly has very little meaning as an independent state because it really is not one.

    That, too, is an illusion, just like the Republican-Democrat divide inside America.

    Note that both those parties embrace Israel as if it were a region of the United States.

    All while claiming some kind of humanitarian credit for helping Jewish people who have been so abused in the past.

    Of course, few remember that America was no help at all to the people abused by Hitler and indeed shared, to a considerable extent, his views, albeit in somewhat attenuated terms.

    And the politicians who do this, all while collecting substantial political benefits in terms of campaign funds and press support, offer a kind of reimbursed humanitarianism, you might cynically say.

    The Israel Lobby in America, many members of it I think, secretly do remember what America was really like and that is part of why they work so hard to maintain the present set of arrangements which benefit Israel.

    So, we have a kind of secret political pact in which Israel gets to continue with its show of being a strong independent state so long as it serves American imperial interests. American politicians, individually and not by party, support the arrangement so long as it assists their careers, as it currently very much does.

    Groups and lobbies inside the United States do their best to keep the arrangement going.

    Every once in a while, the arrangements are threatened by events, as when Israel attacked the USS Liberty in the Six Day War or today, in a more peripheral fashion, when Saudi Arabia’s blood-drenched Crown Prince – a much-beloved figure in both Israel and establishment Washington – was caught, more or less red-handed, having a prominent journalist cut into pieces while still alive.

    When these kinds of events happen, every covert effort is made to restore arrangements and pretend nothing untoward has happened. But it may not always work out that way, as we have yet to see in the case of the Crown Prince. There is fragility in arrangements involving so many differing objectives.

    • Georgios on June 5, 2019, 4:46 pm

      Well-summarized Mr. Chuckman!

    • Misterioso on June 6, 2019, 10:21 am


      Well and truly stated.

      However, as history attests, in the long run, the borderless, expansionist, racist, colonialist, beggar entity known as “Israel” will suffer the same fate as other colonies, e.g., Britain’s Rhodesia, France’s Algeria and Belgium’s Congo, i.e., abandonment by the U.S.

    • Blake on June 6, 2019, 3:16 pm

      Well stated. An excerpt from a book I am currently reading:

      “ The US currently gives support to 73% of the world’s dictatorships. Thus, rather than being an exception, or a “departure from democratic ideals” as the NYT puts it, the US’s intervention in other countries in the interest of promoting dictatorship is in fact the rule…..

      THE FOREIGN POLICY OF THE UNITED STATES IS INTERVENTION: …In thinking about particular instances of foreign meddling, intervention, and invasion, it is critical to realize that none of these instances were somehow aberrations Rather, they have been, and continue to be, part and parcel of a consistent, seamless, and unwavering policy of the United States dating back to colonial times, and are firmly supported by an ideological belief system which rises to the level of religious faith.
      This faith has a name, and its Manifest Destiny – the belief of that the expansion of the United States from the Arlantic to the Pacific of North America, and beyond, was and is not only inevitable, but is in fact a God-given moral right.
      Put in more crass terms, this is the notion that, as white, Christian, and freedom-loving people, we are uniquely good, and therefore have the unique right to expand throughout the world and intervene where we please without imitation. Indeed, any resistance put up to our expansion and intervention is unacceptable, immoral, and punishable by extreme violence. This part of the faith was explicitly set forth in 1845 by the person who coined the term “Manifest Destiny.” John L. O’Sullivan, then-editor of the Democratic Party newspaper, who condemned England and France “for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfilment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
      A key tenet og this faith holds that we are uniquely good, and therefore privileged to do as we wish anywhere in the world, even when we do uniquely bad and horrible things to other peoples in the process of our international endeavours. It is not our actions and their effects which should be looked at, the faith provides, or even the specific intentions motivating particular actions. Rather, it is our inherent and profound goodness, and our general desire to do good, which matter and which justify our expansion and foreign interloping.
      And so, the fact that US expansion in North Anerica was carried out through the mass removal, plunder, rape, and physical elimination of millions of native Americans and Mexicans occupying the land which God gave us, and through the oppression of hundreds of thousands of Africans brought over as slaves to build our country, in no way takes away from the goodness of us as a nation or a people, or from rightness of our expansion project.
      As the Encyclopedia Britannica explains, “the idea of Manifest Destiny was used to validate continental acquisitions in the Oregon Country, Texas, New Mexico, and California. The purchase of Alaska after the Civil War briefly revived the consent of Manifest Destiny, but it most evidently became a renewed force in US foreign policy in the 1890s, when the country went to war with Spain, annexed Hawaii, and laid plans for an isthumian canal across Central America.”
      And, while the words “Manifest Destiny” have rarely been uttered in decades – most likely due to sheer embarrassment with the obviously Messianic notions these words evoke – the belief system represented by these words continues unabated to justify US intervention and aggression to this day. Indeed, as the devil himself, this doctrine goes by many names, such as American Exceptionalism.
      Those who have experienced the wrath of this religion, on the other hand, call it by names such as Colonialism, or neo-Colonialism, or Imperialism. However, such words are simply verboten when speaking about the United States.
      Indeed, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who would soon become UN Ambassador under President Reagan, stated as much in 1979, explaining in what would become a famous and quite influential piece in ‘Commentary’ magazine: “[i]f, moreover, revolutionary leaders describe the United States as the scourge of the 20th century, the enemy of freedom-loving people, the perpetrator of imperialism, racism, colonialism, genocide, war, they are not authentic democrats or, to put it mildly, friends. Groups which define themselves as enemies should be treated as enemies.” In short, if you use the “C” word of the “I” word talking about the US, you are an enemy, plain and simple.
      Imperialism especially in a word which dare not speaketh its own name. one of the few American intellectuals who was willing to utter this term, however, was Mark Twain who indeed helped to found the Anti-imperialist League.” – “The Plot to Control the World: How the US Spent Billions to Change the Outcome of Elections Around the World” by Dan Kovalik (2018)

  2. Hemlockroid on June 16, 2019, 10:32 am

    It’s easier to consider Protestants’ & Protestantism’s involvement in the Holy Land since Lord Shaftesbury’s time then to exclusively discuss America’s interference.
    Follow the Protestantism.

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