Rashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013), 167 pp. ISBN 978-080704475-9
As the title and subtitle of this book clearly indicate, this is an angry denunciation of U.S. policy towards Israel and the Palestinians. It is a polemical book, affected by the flaws of polemics. Khalidi is straightforward about his agenda. As he puts it:
Looked at objectively, it can be argued that American diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have, if anything, made achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians even more difficult. (page xiv)
Instead of trying to achieve these goals the process actually undertaken by the United States was aimed primarily at pressuring the weaker Palestinians into conforming to the desiderata of their much stronger oppressor. Israel’s main objectives were to maintain permanent effective control of Jerusalem and the West Bank and to prevent the Palestinians from achieving any of their own national objectives. The Palestinian leadership was eventually forced to acquiesce unwillingly in much of this as a result of its own feebleness and the impact of the American supported Israeli pressure. […] (page xviii)
In order to substantiate his arguments, Khalidi takes a close look at three case studies (which he calls “moments”): Menachem Begin and the Palestinian Autonomy Plan in 1982, the Madrid-Washington negotiations from 1991–1993, and Barack Obama and Palestine from 2009–2012. This is a peculiar choice. Why not deal with Jimmy Carter’s ambitious effort to resolve the Palestinian- Israeli conflict as part of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement, the Clinton years and the collapse of the Camp David summit, and the Clinton parameters, and the Bush administration’s treatment of Ehud Olmert’s negotiations with Abu Mazen? The Reagan Plan of 1982 was a half-hearted initiative during a difficult period for U.S. policy in the Middle East after Alexander Haig’s removal from office and the debacle in Lebanon. The Madrid conference was predicated on downsizing Yasser Arafat, who had supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. It would have been much more interesting to analyze Jimmy Carter’s failure despite his deep conviction and sincere intentions to resolve the Palestinian issue. It was not the lack of good will but a total misunderstanding of Middle Eastern politics that produced a separate Egyptian-Israeli peace instead of the comprehensive settlement that Carter had in mind. Khalidi’s treatment of Barack Obama’s failure to produce an Israeli-Palestinian settlement during his first term is particularly interesting. Khalidi shares with the readers the fact that Obama was criticized during his candidacy for his relationship with Khalidi (at the time, both were part of the faculty at the University of Chicago).
Obama began with a sincere effort to push the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation to the head of his foreign policy agenda, and in order to be an effective broker, distanced himself from Israel and sought to break the intimacy the relationship had had under his two predecessors. This policy was reinforced by the fact that at the same time, Benjamin Netanyahu was reelected as Israel’s Prime Minister, replacing Ehud Olmert, who, in September 2008, had made a far-reaching offer to Mahmud Abbas for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama’s own mistakes, Netanyahu’s choices, and Abu Mazen’s refusal to come to the table when Netanyahu agreed to a settlement freeze combined to obstruct Obama’s policies. Obama then abandoned his original policy, motivated by electoral considerations as well as by his disappointment. Indeed, if one wants to understand the failure to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and the failure of successive U.S. administrations to accomplish such an agreement, one has to look at the combined impact of American, Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab States’ conduct. But to accuse the United States of ongoing “deceit” is out of place. Khalidi knows Palestinian politics intimately, but his familiarity with U.S. and Israeli policies and policymaking is less impressive. On page 113, he writes that Yitzhak Rabin could certainly have adopted a more expansive vision of Palestinian autonomy and self determination, but, Khalidi notes, he seems at the very end to have seen Arafat’s role in this scheme as no more than a glorified policeman for Israel, a super “Lahad” in the words of one of his closest advisors, Major General Shlomo Gazit. Gazit had been a very close advisor to Moshe Dayan, but certainly not to Yitzhak Rabin. More significantly, Khalidi is absolutely wrong in seeing Rabin’s policy toward Arafat and the PLO as a mere extension of Begin’s Autonomy Plan. Rabin began his tenure with an effort to negotiate the autonomy agreement, but he learned in late 1992 and early 1993 that he was negotiating indirectly with Arafat, who controlled the Palestinian delegation to the Washington talks. Rabin finally came to the conclusion that he had to recognize the PLO and seek a historic compromise with Palestinian nationalism. Khalidi is critical of the Oslo Accords, which he views as an act of Palestinian capitulation. As in other aspects in his book, it reads like a mirror image of the Israeli right-wing criticism of Rabin’s policies. We now know that the Oslo process failed, but one of its most important aspects, the mutual recognition between Israeli and Palestinian nationalism, is still valid.
On page 55, Khalidi takes two members of the American peace team, Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron Miller, to task for their treatment of the Palestinian issue and the Palestinian delegation to the Washington peace talks. The reader would not know that within the American diplomatic team, Kurtzer and Miller were consistent advocates of the Palestinian issue, seeking to promote it and to give it precedence over the Syrian one. In this context, Khalidi’s book would have had more depth had he also chosen to look at the question of a twenty year-long American effort to bring about an Israeli-Syrian settlement.
In conclusion, Khalidi offers the reader an eloquent indictment of U.S. policy towards Israel and the Palestinians over the years, but readers interested in a full, nuanced understanding of U.S. diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli arena will have to find it elsewhere.
Published in: Book Reviews / Bustan: The Middle East Book Review 4 (2013) 205–207