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.”