Washington and the Peace Process: Assessing America’s Role, Past and Present


Video and Edited Transcript
Rashid Khalidi
Transcript No. 404 (17 April 2014)


“Washington and the Peace Process: Assessing America’s Role, Past and Present”


Rashid Khalidi
Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies,
Columbia University

Rashid Khalidi: It’s always a pleasure to be in our nation’s capital. It’s always a pleasure to be here. I love being in an imperial capital that calls itself a town, I’m getting a big kick out of this town. False modesty is so unbecoming. We all had been following, I am sure everybody in this room and people watching the live-feed, is obsessed with this topic. We’ve all been following Secretary Kerry’s efforts, and I am sure we are all aware of the widespread skepticism about Secretary Kerry’s efforts. There are many reasons given for this skepticism, one is the weakness, feebleness, I might say, of the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, the lack of Palestinian popular support for its approach of negotiating from a position of weakness and in a situation of Palestinian internal division. The bigger reason for skepticism has been the uncompromising stand of the Netanyahu government, which has, as far as one can tell, what has been published about this, these negotiations have not budged on any one of the substantive issue, the take on some of these tough, uncompromising stance that every one of his predecessor has. These are daunting obstacles to an agreement, but I would argue there are deeper reasons to look very, very skeptically, not only at this round of negotiations but at what the United States has done, and will, I am afraid do, if it continues on the path it has been on, and I think there are structural reasons worth looking at that explains why the United States has systematically failed, not only for 22 years, 22 plus years, since the Madrid Peace Conference on October, 1991 all the way back to Camp David, 1978. Ever since 35 years ago, the United States has supposedly been “trying to solve” this. My argument is that there are structural reasons why not only it had not solved it, but it has, in fact, exacerbated it.

I am going to explicate this by going back first to 1991. In preparation for everybody going to Madrid in October of that year, Secretary Baker sent letters of assurances to all the parties. The letter was addressed to the Palestinians, it wasn’t addressed to the PLO because the United States at that stage would not write that kind of letter to the PLO, because Israel would not have agreed to the meeting under Shamir. The letter to the Palestinians promised that the United States would oppose actions that were “prejudicial” or “precedential” to negotiations. In other words, the United States said in its letter of assurances to persuade the Palestinians to attend that it would oppose anything that establishes a negative precedent or that would prejudice the outcomes. One action explicitly mentioned in Baker’s letter was the expansion of Israeli settlements. The prejudicial and precedential language was linked in the letter specifically to Israeli settlement expansion.

As we all know, the United States did not keep Secretary Baker’s promise, and ever since then, as far as one can tell, it’s done little or nothing to stop the ceaseless colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This is unfortunately only one of several unfulfilled American commitments had been made to the Palestinians, whether it’s in this letter or at other times. In 1982, the United States committed itself to protect the civilian population of the camps during the PLO’s withdrawal. That commitment was not fulfilled. There are others that I mentioned in this book, Brokers of Deceit.

Among the other things that this letter included was a promise that, “the United States will act as an honest broker.” This is about the only time the United States resorts to this language. In 2008, during a subsequent phrase of U.S mediation between the Palestinians and the Israelis, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, according to the Palestine Papers released by The Guardian and Al Jazeera, promised Palestinian negotiators a number of things and stress that the United States’ “role as a honest broker.” Both of the uses of this term reiterate what I think is a central myth about this conflict: that the United States serves as a disinterested intermediary between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

This book is, among other things, dedicated to showing that far from being such thing, for many many, many, many years, the United States has behaved in a thoroughly one-sided way. This is why it has not only not resolved the conflict, this is why, in fact, it has exacerbated, and I think prolonged it. The United States had made this conflict worse. This is not just Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab countries, this is this country acting in a specific fashion for reasons that I am going to go into. In ways that have significantly hardened and made more difficult the lines of conflict.

This is one of a number of myths, this idea that the United States is an honest broker. According to another one of these myths, this is a conflict between two victimized tragic peoples, the Palestinians and Israelis, who each have their narrative and who in some sense have to be seen in rough equality. In reality, that’s not the way things are. In reality, this is an entirely asymmetrical conflict between a very powerful Israeli state, one of the superpowers in the Middle Eastern region, which is strongly supported by the greatest power in human history, this country. And on the other side, the Palestinian people who Israel has fully and completely dominated for 65 years; there’s just no sense of symmetry in it.

As we all know, the Palestinians have never enjoyed self-determination, never enjoyed statehood for the entirety of a century since 1918. The Palestinians have lived under various forms of imposed alien rule, they have never ruled themselves. Or they have been dispersed in exile. There is clearly no symmetry here and yet this myth would have it that there is and that these two people have to be seen as somehow on the same scale.

I argue in this book, in fact I begin this book with an epigraph from George Orwell. I argue in this book that language has great importance in the construction of all of these myths. In 1946 in an essay called “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell wrote that, “The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts because what we think is determined by corrupt, imprecise language.” He goes on, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” These terms, “honest broker,” and, “Peace Process,” are thoroughly dishonest, corrupt terms emptied of their meaning in the way in which they are used.

They have corrupted thought in this case by concealing how very closely the policy of this country on the Palestine question has been entwined with and in some senses driven by Israel’s policy to the point of virtual identity between the two countries. This complicity actually has specific historical roots, it doesn’t actually go back to 1947, it doesn’t go back to 1967. It’s grounded in a secret letter or then secret letter sent in 1975 by President Ford to then Prime Minister Rabin. By the terms of this letter, which was actually first revealed on the Israeli Foreign Ministry website, Kissinger never mentions anything, thousands of pages are never touched on and it was not revealed in the Foreign Relations of the United States series until much after the Israelis put it up. In this letter Ford committed the United States to and I’m now quoting President Ford’s language, “To coordinate with Israel with a view to refraining from putting forth proposals that Israel would consider unsatisfactory.” In other words, the president of the United States secretly committed this country to refraining from proposing any language on the Palestine issue, not on every issue.

Refraining from putting forward any language on the Palestine issue, which did not have a prior approval of the Israeli government, The United States has been faithful to this commitment for as far as I can tell. Given this self-imposed unity of views between the United States and Israel on the Palestine issue, it was obviously impossible for the United States to play the role of impartial intermediary between the two sides. Now we have seen examples of what I would call this complicity in Secretary Kerry’s recent efforts regarding two issues. One was the brand new, never-before-revealed Israeli demand, it was absolutely vital to the Israelis , which is why they never mentioned it decades and decades in negotiations with any other party including the Palestinians, the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. And I would argue even more importantly the question of security as this term is expansively defined by Israel as we know, security includes not letting macaroni into the Gaza Strip. Security in Israel depended on a certain caloric intake of Palestinians.

In this case, this concentration on security has been embodied in an Israeli insistence, as far as we know the Israeli position of these negotiations, which has never been publicly contradicted by the United States. On the continuation for an indefinite period, there are different number of years given, thirty years, fifty years, fifteen years, but for the continuation of an indefinite period of Israeli military control of the entire Jordan River Valley Region. This is a region with enormous agricultural potential, this constitutes as much as forty percent of the West Bank, this is an area with considerable water resource, and this is an area that includes all the crucial border crossings between the West Bank and Jordan. Control of the Jordan Valley by Israel translates to the indefinite continuation of Israel’s occupation, not just of the Jordan Valley but of the entire but of the entire West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem. This completely rules out any possibility for that indefinite period, and the Israeli’s have a habit of turning an indefinite period into something permanent and then saying at the end of whatever end there is by saying, “And now we’ll start negotiating,” again. I would argue this means indefinite deferral of any possibilities of statehood, of sovereignty, of self determination for the Palestinians. Only via Orwellian use of language can this continued subjugation for the Palestinians be interpreted as compatible with the kinds of things that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his famous political speech at Ben Gurion University or American presidents going back for several administrations have claimed would involve Palestinian independence.

These things are not compatible. I explain a lot of this in the book by talking about what I call three moments of clarity in the way in which the United States had operated on Palestine. The first was in the summer of 1982 where it seemed as if there might be an opportunity to implement the Palestinian autonomy provisions of the Camp David Accords. Camp David had two parts, the Egyptian-Israeli part which ended up producing the peace treaty and the Palestinian autonomy part which was stillborn and has never really been implemented except in a way that I’m going to touch on. These provisions were stillborn, the Palestinian autonomy provisions because at the Camp David Summit, Prime Minister begin had insisted against the objections of President Carter and President Sadat on denying the Palestinians self-determination or control over security or land or water or an end to Israeli settlement expansion. In other words, Begin was offering them autonomy without allowing them anything worthy in the name of autonomy. It was another example of Orwellian language. As a result of this position, nothing came of the Camp David Autonomy Accords and the Palestinian issue festered even as Israel withdrew from Sinai and eventually reached a peace treaty with Egypt that has been enforced ever since.

Four years after Camp David, in 1982 which is where I start the book, after the forced evacuation of PLO from Beirut, the Reagan Administration perceived an opportunity to revise the autonomy provisions of Camp David with some modifications. And after consultation with the administration the president publicly announced what came to be called the Reagan Plan on 1 September. Now, the Reagan Plan would have slightly more favorably reframed the terms of what had been negotiated in Camp David. What was Reagan trying to do? He was trying to escape the straight-jacket that Begin had imposed in 1978. A recently declassified confidential CIA memo produced a couple days before the president gave a speech, which was actually found by one of my graduate students in the book he published it himself. The CIA analyst predicted that the president’s efforts would be meant by Begin’s absolute refusal to budge from his hardline position. The memo stated, and I want you to listen to this language because this is the Israeli position in 2014. This is 1982 language; nothing has changed. In Begin’s view, “[the agreements] guarantee under no condition can a Palestinian State be created,” In practice Begin effectively ruled out any exercise of Palestinian self-determination except one that continued Israel’s preeminent position in the West Bank. That is what continued Israeli occupation over the Jordan River Valley means: self-determination without self-determination. It means Palestinians get a “state” but Israel continues to have its preeminent position in the West Bank guaranteed.

The memo is of course right about Begin’s position. It’s amusing to read the Israeli prime minister getting on his high horse and protesting Reagan, he quotes the Bible. Begin is wonderful. Of course Reagan ended up backing down and failed to go beyond the restrictive Israeli position on what could be allowed to the Palestinians. And Begin actually held the president to account in terms of President Ford’s commitment. He said, “You didn’t run this language by us. You had the temerity as the president of the United States to make a proposal that hadn’t been vetted by us.” Imagine that. And he got away with that. In backing down, President Reagan was just like five of the past six presidents, up to and including the present incumbent. All of whom I think, and I show in the book briefly, had tried to modify this Israeli stand on Palestine without success. The only American president of the last six who did not even try in my view was George W. Bush.

That’s the first moment of clarity and I mention that not because it’s this amusing historical antidote but because the language that this analyst used in 1982 is as true in 2014 as it was in 1982. This is not history, this is current events, this is tomorrow or today. The second set of events that I focus on in the book occurred in set of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations following the Madrid Peace Conference. There were ten rounds of them, the first was in Madrid and the other nine were here in Foggy Bottom. I use documents produced by the Palestinian negotiation to which I was privy because I was an advisor to them, and all of them have been posted on the Institute for Palestine Studies website. So the fourteen confidential documents, some of them Palestinian negotiating position, some of them documents produced by the Israeli side, some of the most interesting of them are transcripts of meetings with various American diplomats. They’re all up on: www.palestine-studies.org/ppd.aspx. These documents in particular expose the continuing complicity in this pattern going back to 1975.

It shows something else. The extraordinary timidity of American diplomats in refusing to go beyond what they, in many cases, mistakenly believe were Israeli redlines. In other words, if they thought the Israelis would only accept this, that was as high as the United States was willing to go. We even had instances, and I talk about these in the book, when the United States faced an impasse between the two sides and reluctantly we don’t like to impose anything said, we will put forward a bridging proposal to bring the two sides closer. The bridging proposal was less forthcoming than the last position we had had from the Israelis, if you can believe it and you can believe it. If you look at the Palestine Papers put online by Al Jazeera and The Guardian, you’ll see another instance of the same thing happening in 2006 when so called American mediators were less forthcoming than the Israelis themselves. In other words, the Americans in these instances were more Israeli than the Israeli negotiators.

Another striking figure that emerged during these negotiations was the remarkable continuity in the restrictive Israeli position on Palestinian autonomy. Now this took place in spite of the fact that Prime Minister Rabin had shifted the Israeli position on a number of important issues. He accepted that there was such a thing as Palestinian people. Given the previous Israeli position this was a remarkable change. He accepted that the PLO represented these people. They had been terrorists, now they were legitimate representatives of a people and he accepted to negotiate with them directly and ultimately allowed PLO leaders to return to the Occupied Territories. In spite of these major and quite significant changes that Prime Minister Rabin introduced into the Israeli position, the position on what was allowed to the Palestinians in my view was almost unchanged from the time of Begin to the time of Shamir through the time of Rabin.

I would argue that core position has not changed since. All of the Israeli governments from Begin’s to the present day have opposed what I would call real Palestinian independence and sovereignty because they’ve refused to end key elements of Israel’s control over or limitations to its colonization of much or most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Again and again American diplomats, up to and as far as we can tell up to Kerry have acquiesced to this. That’s the second moment and I think it’s extraordinarily revealing of the American role in all of this. The extraordinary thing is the same peace processers, the same people who have been responsible for much of this going back to the Reagan administration for some cases, are still on the job today. Martin Indyk is still on the job today. Others have dropped out. Dan Kurtzer is now at Princeton and Dennis Ross and David Miller are elsewhere. Some of the key people as I say are still on the job.

I’ll say less about the third moment which emerged the last couple of years of President Obama’s first term because I think it’s familiar to you. You all will remember that the president faced relentless pressure on the Palestine issue from Prime Minister Netanyahu. You will all remember that when he came into office the president called for an Israeli settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations. He called as the 1967 lines for the basis of future borders and he called for rapid progress towards a Palestinian state which he said should be created within a year. These were not new policies, they had been put forward at different times by previous administrations. But under intense pressure from the Israeli prime minister with his cheering section in both houses of congress and his powerful friends in the Israel lobby, the president was forced into humiliating retreats from all of these positions. None of them formed the basis of Secretary Kerry’s effort that began five months ago. I go into this in a different chapter of the book. These were what I call three moments of clarity. I think they illuminate policies that are thoroughly obscured in American public discourse.

There is no peace process, there has never been a peace process. This is not a process that’s produced peace. It’s produced war, misery, suffering, occupation, colonization, and intifadas. You can call it any of those things but it has not produced peace since 1978. Why is it called a peace process? These policies, I argue, are thoroughly obscured in public discourse by this corrupt, deceitful language. The United States has not been working for peace on the basis of equality between Palestinians and Israelis. Its policy is driven by domestic pressure and its aimed at forcing the weaker party, the Palestinians, to conform to the objectives of the stronger party. Those objectives have not really changed in my view since Begin. You can go back and look at the platform in which Likud first came to power in 1977. That’s really a Greater Land of Israel platform. You can look at the policies that Israeli governments have followed, you can look at the positions they’ve taken, and in fact nothing has changed. In real terms, Israel intends to maintain effective control one way or another of the current Occupied Territories.

When they agreed in 1993 to the Oslo Accords, in my opinion the Palestinian leadership made a historic mistake. They accepted a deal which was essentially crafted to fit the bottom line of the most expansionist party in Israel’s political history, The Likud. They foolishly thought in signing that deal with all its flaws, that this would be a temporary arrangement. It has constituted the basis of a status quo that has only gotten worse for the past 20 plus years. In my eyes, it appears as if it’s going to continue to form the basis of the situation into the indefinite future. In effect, what we have created or what the Palestinian leadership, Israelis and the United States have created is a bastardized one-state solution. There is one state between the sea and the river. That state is an Israeli state with all of its policies towards the Palestinians. This pattern of acquiescence to Israeli wishes, I should make very clear, is almost exclusive to Palestine. In does not extend into other aspects of the Arab Israeli conflict. We are so used to, those of us obsessed with the Palestine question, to this pattern of American complicity with Israel that we sometimes ignore the fact that on almost every other Middle Eastern issue, where Israel is involved, where major American strategic and economic interests are in play, little attention has been paid, either to domestic factors such as Congress, the Israel lobby or elections. And there has been no reluctance not only to confront Israel but to force Israel to conform to America’s wishes. In the book I go over a number of these instances. I go over the war of attrition from 1968 to 1970, I talk about the Egyptian-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreements of the mid -seventies, 1973, 1974, 1975. I talk about the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Negotiations of 1978-1979, I talk about the end of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In every one of these instances where major American strategic interests which in that period were Cold War interests, American policy makers repeatedly overruled Israeli preferences and ignored the protests of the Israel Lobby. Those policy makers took those actions either to diffuse superpower conflict; in 1973 the United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of a nuclear confrontation. This was undesirable. The idea of the United States being annihilated in a nuclear exchange was not something that the then-administration, the Nixon Administration and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in charge at that point, was prepared to make hostage to Israeli whims.

So Israel was ignored in these kinds of instances, or when it was a matter of winning major strategic advantage at the expense of the Soviet Union by winning over Egypt. In those cases, a treaty was forced through, or disengagement agreement that was forced through, over the virulent objection of Prime Minister Meir and her successors. The documents are now available, we can read what the Israelis said and see what the United States did. We paid in the end no attention, or very little attention, modified details of course, there was cordiality, of course, it’s a major ally, of course, but in the end, the United States did exactly as it pleased on all of these issues for whatever reason. More recently, the Obama Administration ignored intense pressure from the Netanyahu government either to allow Israel to attack Iran or for the United States to attack Iran itself. Similarly over Syria, United States made policies that had absolutely no refraining attack on Syria, with absolutely no consideration of the Israeli point of view on this issue, or the point of view of other countries like Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

Instead, the United States has gone ahead and completely ignoring all its allies, including Israel, and begun negotiations with Iran. In both of these cases, the Iran case and the Syria case, its pretty clear what happened. The President decided that involving the United States in a third land war in Asia in the twenty-first century was not a good idea, was not in the national interest and was politically suicidal. This is a man who, of course, among many other things, came to office in 2008 by opposing the first and second, especially the second, American land war in Asia in the twenty-first century, the Iraq War, to have his legacy being involved in the United States in some kind of endless conflict. Syria was obviously something that was not going to appeal to him.

I argued, therefore, that policymakers since really Nixon have repeatedly overridden the opposition of Israel and its American supporters to not only policies that involved major interests like war and peace, or strategic advantage over the Soviet Union, but also issues that are of real economic importance like big arms deals with the Gulf countries. These are often cases where the strategic interests, such as the American mini cold war with Iran, were in play. In other words, selling weapons to an Arab Gulf state was seen as relating to that. They were also important because they involved, what I would call, the Saudi lobby, which is to say oil, aerospace and defense. I mean we talked about AIPAC, we talked about the Israel lobby. Saudi Arabia has a stealth lobby, nobody talks about it. In fact, you don’t talk about Saudi Arabia in this town, except in the most respectful of tones, because they don’t need a big bully lobby on the Capitol Hill. They have three of the most important interests in the American economy, the American society, batting for them and they do it very quietly. You can see why the United States might pay attention to these kinds of issues, major arms sales. If you look at arms sales of 2011, in that year, arms sale to the Arab Gulf monarchies came to more than two-thirds of the record total of the U.S arms exports of that year, of over $66 billion, almost $45 billion in arms sales to the Arab Gulf monarchies. This is in a period of declining defense budget, it is important to a lot of people in this town. It’s important to a lot of people concerned with those big chunks of the U.S. economy.

By way of contrast with these economic and strategic issues, where Palestine is concerned, U.S. policy has been made only exclusively with an eye to domestic political supervisions. I would talk if I have more time about the Arab countries, because in my view they are, they can be compared to Sherlock Holmes’ dog that did not bark. It’s as if they don’t exist, and the reason they don’t exist is because, in fact, there is no contradiction between the interests of the Arab Gulf elites and many important Israeli interests. This is simply a function of the mutual hostility both have towards Iran, and there are many other reasons. But there is no contradiction between America’s strategic interests that are aligned with the Arab oil producing countries and autocracies, and fulfilling U.S. support for Israel. I argued in the book that eventually there will be a long term cost for these policies. I argued that these are policies that are only possible in a situation like the present one where most countries in the Arab World are not democratic, and where their people’s views are not taken to account by their rulers. Most people in the Arab world, whatever other things they think about on this issue, are sympathetic towards the Palestinians. Most people in the Arab world felt that the United States is unduly biased, but their governments don’t reflect that. Their governments are much more concerned with continued support from Washington then they are with what their people think, and I think that is why I argue that Arab countries basically don’t count in this equation, in effect, some of them in fact, I would argue, are on Israel’s side. Until there is a change in this situation in Palestine among the Palestinians, until more pressure has been put on Israel by things like BDS and other tactics and strategies, Palestinian strategies and strategies of their supporters, this situation is going to continue. Outcomes like increase in the settler population from under 200,000 in 1991 to close to 600,000 in East Jerusalem and West Bank will continue. All of this, in my view, will not only make impossible the two-state solution, dictate in fact that into the future that we are going to have to grapple with a one-state solution. These realities have been screened to the American people by Orwellian language, “peace process” and “honest brokers.” This process hadn’t brought peace, it’s made the situation considerably worse. Rather than acting like a honest broker, the United States has been acting as it is Israel’s lawyer. Those are Aaron David Miller’s words, and he was quoting Henry Kissinger, who should know. I’ve talked about the patterns that had created this situation, I won’t repeat them. I would suggest that this looked backwards to suggest the chance that Secretary Kerry coming up with a solution to this problem are close to nil. I am a historian, I don’t like to make prediction, but its impossible to build anything lasting on such a rotten foundation of dishonest language and bias and bad faith. The Palestinians are weak and disunited, they are negotiating with a powerful nation-state from a position of weakness and division, and the mediator favors the stronger party.  The Oslo Accords were based entirely on Israel’s terms, Israeli blueprints, basically Begin’s blueprints.

Those blueprints were basically intended to make impossible a two-state solution. Whatever transpires, whatever the Secretary of State does, this is not going to lead to a just and lasting peace. That would be one in which the Palestinians and their nearly century long odyssey of wandering, it would be a future in which the Israelis and the Palestinians living in equality, justice, and security. The keywords here are not security first, but equality and justice first. Whatever solution, one-state, two-state, multiple states, no state, there has to be equality, there has to be justice, or it won’t be lasting, and it won’t be sustainable. Those are things that are unfashionable to talk about, equality and justice, in this town, but because they don’t talk about them, we have made this problem worse. If the history I summarized today and that I tried to tell more details in this book, tells us anything, it is that this so-called peace process cannot produce any such outcome. It will do what it is designed to do, which is to provide an extension into the future, an indefinite future of a completely unsatisfactory, entirely unsustainable, and entirely unjust status quo. Thank you very much.


Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University. He received his B.A. from Yale University in 1970, and his D.Phil. from Oxford in 1974.  He is editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies, and was President of the Middle East Studies Association, and an advisor to the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid and Washington Arab-Israeli peace negotiations from October 1991 until June 1993.

Khalidi is the author of Sowing Crisis: American  Dominance and the Cold War in the Middle East (2009); The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (2006); Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in  the Middle East (2004), which was awarded the Albert Hourani Prize of the Middle Eastern Studies Association; Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (1996), which also won the Albert Hourani prize; Under Siege: PLO Decision-Making  During the 1982 War (1986); and British Policy Towards Syria and Palestine, 1906-1914 (1980). He is the co-editor of Palestine and the Gulf (1982) and The Origins of Arab Nationalism (1991).

He teaches courses on Modern Middle Eastern History; The United States, the Middle East and the Cold War; Islamic Movements in the Modern Middle East; The Modern History of Palestine; and Nationalism in the Arab World.