Book Review – Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East

brokers of deceitRashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (Beacon Press: 2013)


On Wednesday, Barack Obama will travel to Israel for his first official visit as President of the United States. The day after he arrives, he will deliver a speech to Israeli students at the International Convention Center that is expected to tread conventional ground regarding the peace process while gently reminding his audience that respecting Arab public sentiment on the occupation is a necessary condition for achieving a two-state solution.

Such modest objectives may seem anathema to true believers in Middle Eastern peace. But they are perfectly in keeping with the “peace process” industrial-complex portrayed by Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi in his new book, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.

“I want to examine here…the veil that conceals how the policy of the United States toward the Palestine question has actually functioned to exacerbate rather than resolve this problem,” writes Khalidi in his introduction. Central to this disguise is the use of deliberately misleading language that wraps the decades-long stalemate in the ennobling lexicon of progress, before smothering it in the bureaucratic technobabble of “road maps” and “facts on the ground.” (If this sounds familiar, the bloodied remains of innocent drone strike victims have now attained the similarly reverential status of “collateral damage.”) Indeed, the all-encompassing term “peace process,” which Khalidi deems an “Orwellian rubric” obscuring “decades of futile initiatives,” is itself a figment of erstwhile imaginations warped beyond recognition by enough conferences, talks, and accords to fashion world peace several times over.

A question naturally presents itself: why bother with this charade at all? For Khalidi, much of the answer can be found in the goals of the various parties. He defines a successful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one entailing complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a “just resolution” for Palestinian refugees, and national autonomy for the Palestinian people. That all of these outcomes have failed to materialize is a product of Israeli and Palestinian deficiencies, of course. But it is also an indictment of American foreign policy on the subject, which has unfailingly taken Israel’s side as the prospects for peace slide with increasing urgency into history.

The reasons for the American-Israeli two-step and the United States’ consequent inability to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are threefold, Khalidi argues. The oil-exporting Gulf states have exerted almost no pressure on the United States over the plight of the Palestinians, domestic politics (especially the overwhelmingly hawkish Israel lobby) has prevented a change in strategy, and American policymakers demonstrate virtually no sympathy for the political and psychological duress of the Palestinians. On this last point, Khalidi quotes Richard Nixon, who in 1973 confided to Henry Kissinger: “You’ve got to give [Arabs] the hope…You’ve got to make them think that there’s some motion; that something is going on; that we’re really doing our best with the Israelis.”

“Doing our best,” it is no surprise to learn, meant something quite different to the Americans than it did to their Palestinian interlocutors. Behind Nixon’s Machiavellian scheming lay a rather simple truth: the domestic constituency for Palestinians was nonexistent, while Israel’s supporters regularly raised an unholy clamor. Forty years later, the Oval Office has occasionally changed hands but the calculation remains maddeningly identical. If anything, the din of the hawks has grown even louder: Khalidi accurately notes that an “increasingly formidable constellation of obstructionist forces” confronted Obama’s every timid attempt at course correction.

In order to analyze American complicity in the Israeli project of modern-day colonization, Khalidi zeroes in on three key moments that unraveled over the past thirty-five years or so of rollercoaster American diplomacy. The first, and the one that laid much of the groundwork for the myriad disappointments that followed, began with a Begin: Menachem, to be precise, whose ascension to the premiership in May 1977 presaged the Likud Party’s permanence as a locus of power within the Israeli political establishment.

Menachem Begin took office under the banner of a party platform that read, in part: “…Judea and Samaria will not be handed over to any foreign administration. Between the sea and the Jordan River there will be only Israeli sovereignty. Relinquishing parts of the Western Land of Israel undermines our right to the country, unavoidably leads to the establishment of a ‘Palestinian state,’ jeopardizes the security of the Jewish population, endangers the security of the State of Israel and frustrates any prospect of peace.” (Begin’s personal notes the following year on a proposed solution to the conflict echoed this platform: Palestinian statehood, he wrote, represented “a grave peril to the free world.”)

The radical ideology undergirding this text is immediately recognizable today as the one that animates the public (and, presumably, private) proclamations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But while this position is today met less with anger than with mildly raised eyebrows, in 1977 the odds were considerably more even as to the pragmatism of such naked dogma. That October, Jimmy Carter, probably the American president the most sympathetic to the Palestinians’ dilemma, issued a joint communiqué with the Soviet Union that called for an international peace conference. But as Khalidi recounts, “the Israel lobby and the considerable cadre of right-wing Cold Warriors were gradually converging at this time,” and Carter was forced to renege on virtually all of his promising initiatives.

This was simply one in a long parade of public humiliations for presidents of the American hegemon by its ostensible client state, a succession that continues in earnest today. At the time, Carter’s flip-flop primarily resulted in the toothless portion of the Camp David Accords devoted to Palestinian self-determination, a section whose authors and advisors notably excluded the Palestine Liberation Organization itself.

The following scene in Khalidi’s triptych actually concerns a two-year period from 1991 to 1993, during which the Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans convened first at the Madrid Conference and later at a series of meetings in Washington. America had seemingly reached the zenith of its influence, and the disintegrating Soviet Union served as the global backdrop to President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker’s spectacularly successful operation to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. The PLO had made the “extremely ill-advised” miscalculation of supporting Saddam Hussein, a decision that infuriated the Palestinians’ financial patrons in the Gulf and contributed to a general American sense of increased leverage for pushing through a peace deal.

This inkling was quite unsubstantiated, writes Khalidi. The American insistence on pursuing peace most intensely during periods of Israeli strength “led one American administration after another to give Israel virtually whatever it asked for, only to meet with unbending rigidity in its negotiating position.” Yitzhak Shamir, Begin’s successor both in political form and in ideological fervor, confirmed the veracity of Khalidi’s critique. Speaking of illegal Israeli settlements upon losing his premiership in 1992, he boasted: “I would have conducted negotiations on autonomy for 10 years and in the meantime we would have reached half a million people.”

Khalidi’s account of this period is especially revealing, as it relies not merely on the memoirs and memories of others, but on his own personal documents and recollections as an advisor to the Palestinian delegation. His descriptions of Baker are especially enlightening, as they present a portrait of the rare high-level American diplomat who clearly empathized with the Palestinian insistence on cessation of settlement-building, yet pled impotence in the face of political constraints. “I cannot wave a wand,” Baker once said, “and stop the settlements.”

Not that many American officials particularly tried. Bush the father proved himself the rare exception, having suspended $10 billion of loan guarantees in 1991-1992 in order to gain confirmation that Israel would not use the sum to erect new settlements. But even this unprecedented resoluteness in the face of Israeli intransigence and intensive domestic lobbying eventually succumbed to political careerism: “…After Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor coalition came to power in June 1992, and as the November 1992 American presidential elections approached, Bush chose to take a less confrontational approach.” And so it goes.

For the third and final revealing moment, Khalidi chooses Obama’s public positions on Israel-Palestine, a period which the author further divides into three phases: from 2003 until his presidential election in November 2008; the beginning of his first term until his “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms; and, finally, the period stretching from that point until the present.

As Khalidi demonstrates time and again, nearly all of the six most recent American presidents (with the lone exception of George W. Bush) attempted to at least slightly alter the balance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of a more equitable solution, only to be rebuffed by their Israeli counterparts (often in humiliating fashion) until the lesson had been thoroughly learned: deviations from the status quo are not welcome here. (The precise location of “here” is itself increasingly muddied: “There is thus almost no longer a significant distinction between ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ policy where Israel is concerned,” declares Khalidi.)

In Obama’s case, this pattern once again played out in a trajectory of “peace process” idealism that began with the promising climax of his June 2009 speech in Cairo and more or less died an ignominious death at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2011.

One year earlier, on the same stage, Obama had declared: “This time we should reach for what’s best within ourselves. If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

What a difference a year makes. On September 21, 2011, Obama recanted: “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side.” The speech had all the trappings of a hostage tape, for that was precisely what it was. Faced with his looming reelection campaign, an Arab street preoccupied with its collective uprising, a brazen Israeli prime minister in Netanyahu, and a domestic evangelical-Likud alliance whose hawkishness rendered Dick Cheney a Ban Ki-moon doppelgänger, Obama took the road more traveled by American presidents past. He punted.

As the United States’ 44th president prepares to visit Israel this time, then, the stakes could not be higher for Palestinians’ diminishing hopes for a conventional two-state solution. Equally, the stakes could hardly be lower for the “peace process:” no matter what incremental nudge Obama deigns to proffer in his speech on Thursday evening, it is the process itself – and not its varying executions – that has cursed the peoples of the Holy Land. Israeli newspaper Haaretz is reporting that Obama has deliberately rejected the notion of proposing a new peace plan while in Israel, out of exasperation with Netanyahu’s unworkable coalition of hawks, racists, and miscellaneous riffraff. The emperor has long had no clothes, but only now has the situation lasted long and openly enough to prove embarrassing.

In discussing Jewish fears, cultivated over generations, of the next Holocaust, Khalidi writes: “Zionism is, among other things, a response to these fears. No one would seriously deny that even if irrational or inflated, fears can become powerful political realities and must be dealt with as such. But they are notoriously susceptible to exploitation by politicians, and they must never be confused, as they are by too many people, with the situation in the real world.”

Cynical men like Menachem Begin and his spiritual heir, Benjamin Netanyahu, mastered the art of manipulating historical horror for short-term political objectives. All too often, American presidents, too, have fallen prey to the domestic fallout from these ruses. Khalidi’s response is thus a clarion call for a fundamental break from this soft bigotry of low expectations (to draw from a frequent George W. Bush line) and toward a genuine effort to emancipate the Palestinians, rather than further entangling them in a web of lies and obfuscation.

Disentangling from this snare will require the United States to resign its position as Israel’s lawyer. Failing this, Khalidi suggests a unilateral Palestinian disengagement from the sham that is the “peace process” framework: “What would emerge again in such a situation,” Khalidi insists, “is the hard underlying reality of Israeli occupation and control, which has been successfully masked for all these years by the fictions of Oslo.” It is unclear, however, if such an unmasking would provide sufficient impetus to move American policy in the Palestinians’ direction. Considering all that has failed to generate this outcome thus far, it seems naive to assume a suddenly opposite reaction to what amounts to nonviolent nonresistance.

As is often the case in books whose tone is primarily critical, Khalidi’s falters somewhat in the advisory conclusion. In addition to suggesting this radical departure from the current Palestinian approach, he assumes a future with a unified leadership (in contrast to the Fatah/Hamas fracture that exists today). He also states, with some credulity, that the “little-understood secret of the US government’s enduring bias in favor of Israel…[is that] policymakers in Washington are guided almost exclusively by the pressure exerted on Congress, the executive branch, and the media by the Israel lobby, or the stubborn obduracy of Israel’s leaders in preserving their regime of colonization and occupation.” Six years after the appearance of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s tome The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, however, it is difficult to conceive how Khalidi’s assertion could be deemed a secret.

In one lengthy, tangential paragraph, Khalidi also jumps feet-first into the Syrian fray and emerges less persuasive than ever. “Obsessively concerned almost exclusively with the rivalry with Iran,” Khalidi laments, “no policymaker in Washington…appears to be particularly concerned about the potential consequences of their actions (and inaction) in Syria.” But nowhere to be found is any policy prescription for ending the conflict, especially given the already-dismal history of the United States in regional interventions.

But these are all mere trifles in comparison to the remainder of the book. The title, Brokers of Deceit, powerfully alludes to the perversion of language which Rashid Khalidi forthrightly excoriates in his introduction: the notion of the United States as an “honest broker” is, by the end, thoroughly swept away. Gone, too, is any semblance of sincerity to Likud Party bromides, echoed by American officials, on the “peace process” and Palestinian self-determination. Left to one’s own estimation, finally, is whether the potential for real peace has vanished along with everything else.

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