Ron Radosh

Why Rashid Khalidi is Happy: The Obama Middle East Policy and the Palestinians

A few weeks ago, when discussing the Obama administration’s policy towards Israel, I linked to this 2008 Los Angeles Times report on how Rashid Khalidi and other supporters of the Palestinian cause regarded Barack Obama as their friend. Obama’s warm words at a going away party for Khalidi in 2003, when he was about to leave Chicago for New York City and a position at Columbia University, had “left some Palestinian American leaders believing that Obama is more receptive to their viewpoint than he is willing to say.”

On Sunday’s Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, Khalidi was a guest along with Bret Stephens, the pro-Israel columnist from the Wall Street Journal and former editor of the Jerusalem Post. During the discussion, Zakaria asked whether or not it was “a shift for the — the United States to be suggesting that this stalled peace process [between Israel and the Palestinians] hurts America’s ability to pursue its interests.” What the administration is now saying, Khalidi responded, “is that Israel is a drag on the United States. It’s not a strategic asset, and this is a discursive shift of some significance.” (my emphasis)  To put it a bit differently, Rashid Khalidi, who in 2008 worried that because of American politics Obama had to appear to be a supporter of Israel, now believes that Obama’s promise to move U.S. policy towards the Palestinian perspective is coming true.

Khalidi again emphasized his main point: “that Israel is not the strategic asset it was touted as during the Cold War” and that the  U.S. had returned “…in effect, to the Eisenhower administration’s view of the Middle East as an area where the United States has problems, and Israel is, in some small way, one of those problems.” Clearly, all the boilerplate assurances coming from the Obama camp in the past few weeks — assuring Americans that the U.S. commitment to Israel as a major ally is as firm as ever — have not dissuaded Khalidi from reaching a quite different conclusion.

Khalidi’s perspective, of course, comes entirely from that of the Arab world and its perpetual narrative: that Israel alone is at fault for the failure to attain peace or a Palestinian state. He explained: “If Israel continues to act in a way that antagonizes opinion all over the Muslim world, all over the Arab world, and in other parts of the world, to tell you the truth. You go other places, people say, why is the United States supporting this crazy policy? Then it becomes a liability instead of an asset.”

The debate became sharp, as Stephens retorted that rather than moving a peace process forward, everything the Obama team has been doing is moving things in the opposite direction. As Stephens said, “It basically sends a signal to Israel that this administration is not reliable, there’s no longer a kind of a hug-me-close mentality, which has — which has, in fact, moved Israel to, for instance, remove its settlements, its settlers from Gaza.”

When Khalidi challenged Stephens by arguing that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was entirely due to a unilateral act by Sharon, Stephens pointed to the fact that Sharon “obtained a letter from Bush saying that in the event that Israel withdraws from Gaza, the Bush administration would not expect Israel to withdraw from all of the settlements that would accept the so-called realities …on the ground.” That letter was what led Israelis to accept Sharon’s act of withdrawal.

But to Khalidi, it has been  “the American embrace of Israel” that had led to decades of standoff, and he is now pleased that at present, we seem to be going back to the Bush 41 years, when Secretary of State James Baker complained about Israel. As he so famously put it, “f… the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway.” Khalidi also hoped that U.S. policy would make it clear, as he thought it once did, that Israel has to elect a different Prime Minister more amenable to US policy — or as some would put it, engage in an open policy of “regime change” in Israel as the major US goal.

Among other things, Khalidi is adamant that the U.S. must accept Hamas as part of the solution, and change its policy to include forcing Israel to accept them as a negotiating partner even though Hamas’s  charter denies Israel the right to exist.  As Khalidi sees things, “the United States can stop saying, this is a deal breaker if you include Hamas. You have to figure out a way to bring a Palestinian consensus to the table, and that includes, necessary and inevitably, Hamas.”

A full-length argument by Khalidi and Stephens is available in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, in which both analysts offer a more lengthy defense of their positions. Khalidi defends his position that “Washington’s overt bias toward Israel became a growing liability for the United States” since 1991, and Stephens argues that Obama’s “new tone on Israel” is self-defeating, given both the truth that “America remains an instinctively pro-Israel country,” and that any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state without any final settlement agreement with Israel “would destroy the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

One thing is apparent: the gap between the two views is huge, and the Obama administration cannot straddle the differences, hoping for the best. In fact Stephens believes Obama has made things worse:

“Indeed, by turning up the heat as he did, the president may have accomplished the opposite of what he intended. Israelis are now increasingly convinced that the administration is hostile not just to Netanyahu but Israel itself. At the same time, Palestinians now have reason to hold out for concessions on Jerusalem that they never previously expected to get and which no Israeli government is ever likely to grant.”

That policy, of course, is precisely why Khalidi and the Palestinians see grounds for optimism. Khalidi is pleased that “the current Israeli government” is now “extremely uncomfortable,” and he continues to advocate not any compromise for his side, but rather, a U.S. policy that makes demands only on Israel, including what he calls “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force,” and the “illegality of settlement in all occupied territories.” Not one word, as expected, about decades of Arab and Palestinian intransigence, rejectionist policies, and a continual unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state.

Friends of Israel should be deeply concerned that Israel’s sworn enemies now see hope in Obama’s policies, and are certain that contrary to administration assurances, the United States has embarked on a new policy that will put an end to the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel that has been in place since Harry S. Truman recognized Israel in May of 1948.