Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump

Video & Transcript
Khaled Elgindy
Transcript No. 521 (May 2, 2019)

Khaled Elgindy:
Thank you to Mohammed and all my friends at the Palestine Center. It’s my pleasure to be back here, and thank you all for being here. Since Mohammed basically summarized my book, I don’t really need to say anything. [audience laughs] So… I have very little to say. I’m just joking, I actually have a lot to say. So much, in fact, that I wrote a book about it.

I thought I would start by defining what exactly is the “blind spot” and where does it come from. So let me, by way of answering that question, let me zoom out to generalities. I think we all understand intuitively that the success of any negotiation process depends as much on factors outside the negotiating room as whatever happens inside. We all know, for example, that power dynamics are very important. Clearly, the more powerful side has more leverage over the weaker side, has more options, and so forth. And I think we also understand intuitively that both sides have internal politics, and that is to say that when we are negotiating with someone, you are not simply negotiating with the people sitting across the table. You are also negotiating, and they themselves are negotiating, with their political opposition, their public opinion, their national narratives. All of these things are also at the table. So, an effective mediator has to juggle all of these moving parts to be able to come up with ways to encourage the two sides to behave in ways that support the goals of the peace process, and to avoid actions that harm the peace process.

That’s the theory; that’s the ideal. But it’s not at all how American mediation worked. The tendency by the United States has been, essentially, to treat the parties as co-equals, as though they were Egypt and Israel, for example, sitting around the negotiating table, two sovereign states talking about how to effect a withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, where there’s some parity — even though there’s always going to be a gap in power — and a balance of power. There’s at least a parity between two sovereign states. The reality, of course, is that not only are Palestinians not a sovereign state, but they are under Israeli occupation. So the tendency has been for U.S. policy makers to downplay the effects, and especially the negative effects, of Israel’s occupation on the peace process. On the other side of the equation, in terms of the internal politics, I think we all know that American politicians tend to have enormous sensitivity and deference when it comes to Israeli politics. We can’t push the Israeli Prime Minister too hard on a settlement freeze, because it will bring down his ruling coalition, so we have to carve out these loopholes to allow them to continue building settlements. We can’t have Jerusalem on the agenda in the negotiations because so-and-so in the Cabinet will bolt. So there’s enormous deference to Israeli politics. And, in contrast, there’s virtually no deference to Palestinian politics. It’s as though Palestinians don’t have politics.

And that’s sort of how I came into this project, really. The “a-ha moment” for me was when I was an advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team in the lead-up to the Annapolis negotiations. In that moment, in the early fall of 2007, when President Bush announced that he would convene this conference, President Mahmoud Abbas had been in power for two and a half years. He’d been agitating for a return to Permanent Status negotiations virtually from the day he took office, and yet there was no process, there was no return to negotiations, except in this moment. And what was interesting about this moment was that, only a few weeks earlier, Hamas had taken control over the Gaza Strip [and] had routed the PA’s forces after a brief civil war in the Gaza Strip that Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah-dominated forces had lost. And a year before that, his Fatah party had lost an election to Hamas. So here was the Palestinian leader, in his absolute weakest in terms of his domestic political situation, and this was the moment. It was very striking to me that this was the moment that the American administration decided would be the opportune moment to move forward on negotiations.

This approach to the peace process, of course, is not accidental. The American approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict is shaped by its own power and politics, specifically two key assumptions. The first is that peace can only happen if Israel feels secure militarily, politically, and otherwise. We need to reassure Israeli leaders so that they can “take risks for peace.” That has been one of the operating assumptions of the Oslo process, really, since the early 1990s. And the other is the assumption that it’s possible, and, in some ways, desirable, to insulate the peace process from Palestinian politics, either by ignoring Palestinian politics altogether or perhaps even reshaping or re-engineering Palestinian politics to fit the needs of the peace process. As Mohammed mentioned in the bio, and as I discuss in the book, this approach has deep historical roots, and the “blind spot” goes back to the time of the Balfour Declaration. And the reason I spent so much time on the history is because — and I’m not going to delve into a lot of the history, except to make a couple of points and shed light on why I chose to look at the entire hundred-year period as opposed to, say, just since 1967 or since 1948 — and the reason is because I think there’s an extraordinary amount of continuity in how the United States approaches the Palestinians and Israelis, primarily because it has always kind of seen the issue through a distinctly Zionist/Israeli lens.

So we can identify three constants throughout this whole hundred-year period. The first is an influential Zionist lobby, politically. That’s always been true. [The] Zionist lobby in the 1920s was nothing like AIPAC or the pro-Israel lobby today in terms of its power, its reach, [and] its influence, but it was there and it was a political force. The second constant is related to that. You have a very sympathetic congress. The congress was always sympathetic to the demands of the Zionist movement, even when it was a minority strain within the American Jewish community, which is interesting to note. And it was a minority strand, really, until the Holocaust, until the early 1940s or late 1930s. The third constant, and I think this is in a lot of ways the most important, is a highly conflicted executive. What does that mean? Well, usually that’s manifested in a kind of tension between the State Department and the intelligence community on the one hand, and the White House and the president on the other. So we have a pattern where US policy is kind of in tension with itself. There is a tendency to take positions both for and against the same thing at the same time. And so, from the very outset, during the Mandate, for example, we saw the official US stance with regard to the situation in Palestine was that this was a British matter, the United States was officially neutral [and] did not take sides. And yet we saw, consistently, President Wilson and his successors, as well as congress, consistently express very vocal support for the Zionist project and the Jewish national home. So that ambivalence is deeply rooted in American history. Probably the most famous example of this ambivalence is Harry Truman, who before 1947 was against partitioning Palestine, because the State Department and the CIA thought it was contrary to US national interests [and] that it would alienate the Arab states especially. And then he was for partition, and then immediately after the outbreak of civil war in Palestine following the partition vote, he was against partition again, and then of course he was for it. And so there’s this constant flip-flopping. But we also see it in other manifestations at various stages as well. One example is the roadmap. The United States wrote the roadmap on behalf of the quartet. The quartet adopted this as its peace plan. But then it immediately abandoned the roadmap. So we always have this tension between what is seen as [being] in the US interest based on an assessment, usually of the State Department and the intelligence community, and then the demands of domestic politics, which pull US policy in a different way. And so we get this very schizophrenic, very often, US policy. And that has a lot to do with US policy failure.

The other trend that emerges in this period is, very early on, we see a distinct aversion to Palestinian politics — both political actors and Palestinian political aspirations — during the Mandate but especially in the period after Israel’s creation, the period between 1948 and 1967. [It] was a crucial period, I think it is one that is very often overlooked. But it’s a period when the US approach to the Palestinians and their political leaders were put in place. So even before 1967, even before 1968, when the PLO was taken over by Palestinian guerilla groups, Fatah being the dominant one, you already have a State Department policy in place that [says] “We will not deal with the PLO,” even before the PLO was part of the “armed struggle.” So a lot of those policies just get carried over from one period into the next.

Like I said, I don’t want to dwell too much on the historical part, but one of the most important aspects of the historical period, and why I chose to look at the entire hundred-year period, is the period after 1967. Because this is when the PLO really registers onto the scene. This is when American policy makers begin to see that there is, in fact, a Palestinian dimension to the Arab-Israeli conflict. That it’s not strictly a conflict between Arab states and Israel, and that Palestine and Palestinians are at the root of that conflict. So there’s a kind of epiphany that happens after 1967 and especially after 1973. And in that period, you have the PLO dramatically rising in its stature and its prominence in 1974. The PLO is officially recognized by the United Nations, and this creates a dilemma for American policy makers, because they don’t want to deal with the PLO. Both because of Israeli rejection of the PLO, and any manifestation of Palestinian nationalism, but also because people like Henry Kissinger, who is a staunch cold warrior, see the PLO as a Soviet puppet, and as a radicalizing force on the Arab states, and therefore very problematic and needs to be neutralized. And so … his worldview is that the PLO is likely to radicalize Arab states, so if they’re going to be brought into the peace process, which hopefully they won’t, it needs to be at the very end of the process, after they’ve been weakened. And so this concept that Kissinger introduces is very important to understand how Americans go about the peace process. Because this principle of the PLO as a negative force, and Palestinian politics as a pathology, something that needs to be corrected and cured rather than acknowledged and dealt with, is one that figures very prominently thereafter.

So, from there I’m going to skip right into the Oslo process and talk about the most important part, which is how this “blind spot” worked in practice in the context of US-led peace processes since 1993. Again, these same themes keep cropping up. Every US administration, since 1993, has worked both for and against the goals of the peace process at the same time. I gave some examples, like the roadmap. This was not out of ignorance or malice, but basic political arithmetic. The United States and Israel have a close special relationship. They are also the two most powerful parties in this dynamic, whereas the PLO and the Palestinians are obviously the weakest party. And as close allies, they have an interest in deflecting as many of the costs and risks associated with the diplomatic process as they can away from themselves and from each other. And what ends up happening, time and time again, is that those costs and risks are pushed onto the Palestinians, mainly because of the power dynamics. And I’ll give some examples. The other component of this has to do with the nature of the Oslo process itself, which wasn’t simply a conflict-resolution process, like Northern Ireland or Egypt-Israel negotiations. It was also a state-building process, where one party was being prepared for statehood, and therefore needed to build its institutions and so on.

This led to what I refer to as the Oslo trade-off. The Oslo trade-off was basically an unspoken agreement between the Palestinian leadership and the Americans (as the chief sponsor of this process) that, from the Palestinian side, the expectation was that the United States would deliver Israel, eventually leading to a Palestinian state. This is a policy, or a strategy, that emerged in the 1970s, sort of banking on US deliverance as the key to Palestinian statehood. And the other side of this equation from the Palestinian standpoint was that, in exchange for the United States putting pressure on Israel and eventually leading to an end to the occupation and allowing the creation of a Palestinian state, in return the Palestinians were prepared to give up a degree of control over their own politics and decision-making. The PLO, as you will remember, is now transferred out of the diaspora from Tunis into the West Bank and Gaza Strip directly under occupation. And so what this has done, the Oslo process has given, for the very first time, the Israelis and Americans as well as the broader international community, a direct say in Palestinian politics, which hadn’t happened before. And so this is the dynamic that emerges after Oslo. So it’s not entirely a US problem, or a US deficiency. There is Palestinian agency here, and this is a conscious decision on the part of the Palestinian leadership to give up a measure of control over its own politics as part of that Oslo process.

As I said, every US president worked both for and against the goals of the peace process at the same time. President Clinton, I think, to my mind, stands out as the one who represented both the best and the worst of what American mediation had to offer. On the one hand, he shattered taboos: he invited Yasser Arafat to the White House, the first American president ever to receive this “arch-terrorist”, Yasser Arafat, at the White House, something like a dozen times over the course of the Oslo process in the late 1990s. He occasionally would use his leverage to boost Arafat, particularly after the election of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Benjamin Netanyahu, in 1997, and they had a very contentious relationship, Clinton and Netanyahu. And we all remember that famous visit by Clinton to Bethlehem and Gaza, where he addressed the Palestinian public. So he understood, better than any president before or since, the need to boost the Palestinian leadership, given the power disparities with Israel. At the same time, he was also the first president to seriously erode US policy and UN precedent in a major way. Specifically on issues like settlements and Jerusalem, but also on issues like refugees. So he was, for example, the first US president to not ratify, or not vote in favor of, UN Resolution 194 from 1948 that stipulated that Palestinian refugees have the right to return to their homes. So he ended the practice of affirming that resolution. And he also created these carve-outs for the first time on Israeli settlements. You could go ahead and build in the settlements for things like natural growth, build in East Jerusalem, and so on. So that was the first time we saw major erosion on policies on settlements in Jerusalem as well.

But I think Clinton’s biggest contribution came after the Camp David summit of July 2000, and subsequent to that, the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising, the Al-Aqsa Intifada, in September of that year. Even though all sides made mistakes, and I think it’s clear from the record, whether you’re looking at Israeli, Palestinian, or even American sources, that all sides made mistakes going into Camp David and coming out of Camp David. And that both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, took actions that sort of led to an escalation of violence. And yet, the Clinton administration pinned all of the blame for the failed Camp David summit on Arafat and the Palestinians, and also put most of the blame, in terms of the violence, on the Palestinians as well. We understand why, at least I understand why, he did that. It’s much easier to blame the Palestinians than it is to blame the Israelis in terms of our domestic politics. But there were repercussions nonetheless. Among the repercussions was the fact that doing so narrowed the political space available to the leaders in terms of trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution in the remaining period that Clinton was in office, and it also emboldened opponents of the peace process. And most of all, it cemented this narrative that the Israelis put forward that the Palestinians were not a partner.

And then we get George W. Bush, who comes in in the midst of a very violent situation on the ground: a Palestinian uprising, increasing suicide bombings, [and] growing Israeli repression, very often amounting to war crimes according to many human rights groups. So, on the one hand, we have an intensification of this dynamic, which is even more conflicted than his predecessor. The Bush administration represents very much a return to the Kissinger notion of Palestinian politics as pathology. So, on the one hand, Bush was the first president to officially call for the creation of the Palestinian state. He made the two-state solution official U.S. policy. At the same, in the context of the Intifada, Bush also gave Sharon a relatively free hand to systematically destroy the Palestinian Authority and its governing and security institutions under the umbrella of fighting terrorism. On the one hand, Bush demanded that Palestinians have to elect new leaders and end the violence before there could be any hope of a diplomatic process, but actually did nothing to push for a diplomatic process after Arafat passed away and Mahmoud Abbas was elected president, which also coincided with an end to the Palestinian uprising in 2005. So, even though we have this reduction in violence and a new leadership, there is still no political horizon on the table.

Most telling of all is the roadmap. The Quartet Peace Plan then was, really, spearheaded by the United States in 2003, which was supposed to correct the flaws of the Oslo Process by laying out parallel obligations for both sides and mutual accountability. Instead, the Bush administration, as I alluded to earlier, abandoned its own peace plan in favor of Prime Minister Sharon’s unilateral Gaza disengagement plan. The failure of the Gaza disengagement plan eventually weakened Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership and led directly to the outcome of the Palestinian elections that were held in early 2006. And this was really, I think, the biggest test for the United States, because the election of Hamas that took place in January 2006, like the Intifada, was a sign of a very troubled peace process and an opportunity for course correction. Instead, the Bush administration again demanded that all the costs be paid only by the Palestinians. And so we saw this boycott of the Palestinian Authority, undermining the very institutions that the international community and especially the United States had spent years trying to build up, especially after the Intifada. As in any similar circumstance, when you put sustained pressure on a fragile object, it tends to break. That’s precisely what happened with the Palestinian Authority. We had a civil war in 2007 and then, of course, we had the Annapolis negotiations that I alluded to at the outset, which of course also collapsed in late 2008 when fighting broke out between Hamas and Gaza.

That brings us to President Obama. By this time, by the time Obama came to office, both the peace process and Palestinian politics were in shambles and what they needed more than anything else was a radical new approach that would either correct or at least arrest all of these negative trends. We have the massive death and destruction that took place in Gaza: fourteen hundred Palestinians killed [and] massive destruction to Palestinian infrastructure; we still had a very divided and dysfunctional Palestinian leadership; very shortly after Obama took office, we saw the return of a right-wing Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was very committed to settlements; and in the intervening years since Oslo we saw massive growth in the settlement project overall. Obama was genuinely, I think, in a position to reverse or at least arrest these trends and perhaps even break some new ground, but he consistently chose instead to sort of maintain [a] holding pattern, to do as little as possible that he could get away with politically. So there were attempts at negotiations, but more or less ignoring the most important realities on the ground like ongoing settlement activity, the divided and dysfunctional Palestinian leadership, the instability that came from that in Gaza in particular, [and] the fact that Hamas is a free agent beyond the scope of the peace office and now beyond the control of the Palestinian Authority and therefore consistently acts as a spoiler. All of these things were things that Obama initially hinted at trying to change but he quickly abandoned. So when he first took office he talked about a comprehensive settlement freeze. If you remember, George Mitchell was appointed as special envoy for Middle East peace, I think on the second day [after] Obama’s inauguration. And it looked like the Obama administration was going to take a very, very different approach. They would close these loopholes that previous administrations had allowed on things like settlement growth. Obama even hinted at some sort of change with regard to Gaza policy. But at the end of the day, when he got pushback from congress in particular and from members of the pro-Israel community, but even within his own administration, there [was] some dissent there, he basically abandoned the effort. [He] went back to the old loopholes: Israel can continue to build, and Jerusalem, natural growth, all of these kind of carve-outs that previous presidents had done, and Gaza was sort of left to its own devices, really until 2014.

By the time Obama begins his second term in office there really is no peace process. The idea of a peace process really exists only in name. For example, despite the success of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s state building and institution building project which brought corruption to an all-time low, improved the efficiency and governance of the Palestinian Authority, [and] dramatically reformed the security services in a way that led to a massive reduction in violence against Israelis–there was not a parallel reduction in violence against Palestinians, however–despite this success, we saw no movement toward ending the occupation or [creating a] Palestinian state. In 2014, we saw another attempt at negotiations that again collapsed, followed shortly thereafter by renewed violence again in Gaza and also in Jerusalem which, interestingly enough, are also the two areas that were both outside of the scope of the peace process. They were excluded from this process for various reasons and [they were] outside of the reach the Palestinian Authority. So it’s not a coincidence that they are also the main sources of instability. By this time, the state building project has collapsed, negotiations have collapsed, [and] violence has become a recurring phenomenon, so we really have neither peace nor process.

We used to talk about the peace process as all process and no peace but by this stage, really, there’s not even really a process to speak of. The parties are simply left to their own devices and the administration is sort of a bystander even at this stage, even as the clock wound down on the Obama administration, with a president-elect Donald Trump waiting in the wings. Here was another opportunity to do [something], take some radical step to bookmark the two-state solution, to move the ball forward since we already knew quite a bit about the inclinations of the incoming Trump administration. Some people had speculated that maybe Obama would put forward final status parameters that would include issues like Jerusalem to sort of put a pin in a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, but he didn’t do that. Some also suspected that maybe, just maybe, he would recognize a Palestinian state, perhaps as a last-ditch effort. He also did not do that. Instead what he did was, again, the absolute bare minimum of what a president could do, which was to approve an abstention at the United Nations. His first and only abstention. He’s the only president to abstain only one time in a resolution against Israeli settlements or other Israeli actions. It was an important resolution, and it was allowed to pass the Security Council as a result, but that was the absolute minimum that could be done.

And so then we come to Donald Trump. The inertia of the Obama years left the door wide open for Trump and his administration, which as we now know is much less committed to a two-state solution and is much more committed to radically changing the rules of the game. We’ve heard a lot of talk about Trump’s peace plan. My view is that the details [of Trump’s peace plan] actually don’t matter, which keeps getting delayed — you know, they keep kicking the can down the road. But it actually doesn’t matter if the plan is released or it isn’t released because we know the broad outlines already. We know that Jerusalem is off the table. Those are the words that Trump used. We know that refugees are also off the table because we’ve cancelled, well, Clinton had already sort of taken the issue off the table, but Trump put the final nail in the coffin of the refugee issue by defunding UNRWA, which had been a policy in place even since Israel’s creation in 1948 and 1949. We know that their policy does not include a sovereign Palestinian state, much less a capital in East Jerusalem. Instead, what we hear is that the Palestinians will get some form of expanded autonomy and probably the infusion of some massive economic assistance program, most likely from Arab states. In a very real sense, though, Trump is not a new approach to the peace process, as he very often tries to claim, but [rather] the culmination of the old approach. So Trump is no longer committed to the land for peace formula enshrined in UN Resolution 242 — we saw that most recently in the announcement with regard to the Golan Heights — but the basic ground rules of the peace process and the land for peace formula had already been eroded by presidents before him repeatedly, specifically by presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

The current administration doesn’t recognize the occupation. They’ve scrubbed that term, “occupied territories”, from the official lexicon of the State Department and [from] official reports, but already for years we’ve seen US administrations downplay the significance and centrality of Israel’s occupation and even, frankly, the Democratic Party refuses to acknowledge, at least in their 2016 platform, [they] declined to talk about Israel’s occupation. At the same time, the Republican Party had removed any reference to the occupation and, in fact, sort of entered a new realm of occupation denial. This is the new rhetoric of the Republican Party [and it] is grounded in denial that Israel is in fact an occupying state at all. So we see these policies reflected in the statements and actions of the current Trump administration. But even things like the move of the embassy, the American embassy to Jerusalem, and the closure of the PLO mission, [were] very dramatic departures from past US presidents. These were laws that were passed in the 1990s and that finally were implemented, or came to fruition, under Trump. So there is a lot more continuity than change, I believe, in terms of the Trump administration. In my opinion, the Trump administration is trying to redefine the conflict and its resolution by turning back the clock not to the pre-Oslo period before 1993 but to the pre-1967 period, perhaps even [the] pre-1948 period, when the Palestinians were viewed mainly as an economic, humanitarian, and a security problem rather than a political one.

The bottom line, and I will end here, is that the Middle East peace process failed under US management because it was fundamentally detached from reality. It was more focused on things like reassuring Israel and reforming the Palestinians than it was on challenging the basic conditions that define and sustain the conflict, namely Israel’s now 51-year-old occupation. We see this in the failure to implement any sort of accountability, particularly when it comes to the stronger party, Israel. The absence of pressure on Israel did not make Israeli leaders more likely to “take risks for peace” but instead defrayed the costs of its occupation in military, economic, and political terms. Likewise, attempts to neutralize or re-engineer Palestinian politics did actually make Palestinian leaders more pliant but also made them too weak to serve as effective peace partners. Thank you.