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US President Barack Obama walks with Rabbi Israel Meir Lau during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial last week, where he made an appeal for Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks. Jason Reed / Reuters
US President Barack Obama walks with Rabbi Israel Meir Lau during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial last week, where he made an appeal for Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks. Jason Reed / Reuters

Book review: Rashid Khalidi's detailed account on the relationship between the US and the Middle East

Rashid Khalidi's new book contends that the US has
become little more than Israel's lawyer, writes Joseph Dana

Brokers of Deceit
Rashid Khalidi
Beacon Press

By most accounts, Barack Obama delivered a masterful speech to a group of Israeli youth in Jerusalem last week as part of his first tour of Israel and the West Bank. Amid rounds of cheering, he outlined why an independent Palestinian state is a necessity for Israel's long-term security interests, and compelled the young crowd to place themselves in the Palestinians' shoes. Appealing to Israeli benevolence, he fell short of imposing concrete requirements for resolving the conflict.

Given the desperate status quo that hangs over the lives of Israelis and Palestinians after nearly 45 years of occupation, the speech was a tragedy. Instead of a diplomatic show of force, Obama's visit was little more than a whistle stop tour in which every opportunity was taken to reinforce the sanctity of the Zionist dream. While in Ramallah, Obama could only muster praise for the Palestinian Authority's American-trained security forces, who were busy suppressing protesters in the centre of town.

Few expected anything positive to come out of the president's trip in the realm of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but many, especially on the Palestinian side, were surprised at the intensity of Obama's reinforcement of Israel's narrative. Given the president's established pedigree on the issue of Palestine - including firm statements about Israeli occupation in his 2009 Cairo address and a very public spat with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - some harboured hopes that Obama's second term would bring real pressure to bear on the Israeli- Palestinian negotiations.

No such American pressure will be exerted and, given the complexion of Israel's next government, in which radical settler leaders occupy positions of power in the housing ministry, a surge unlike any other in Israeli settlement activity is expected to sweep the West Bank.

Is this anything new? Is Obama, like many American presidents before him, perpetuating the cycle of violent status quo, Israeli domination and Palestinian dependence? Rashid Khalidi, the distinguished Middle Eastern historian and professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, might have the answers to these questions in his new book.

In Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East, Khalidi sheds light on how and why America has become, in the words of Aaron David Miller, Israel's lawyer. Not only does Khalidi's research demonstrate the need for some fresh thinking on Israel and Palestine, it attempts to explain how the situation has become so hopeless in the first place.

The book examines how Israel has become a domestic issue in American politics and how the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, America's other ally in the region, effects the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Khalidi doesn't mince words when it comes to the attitudes of certain Arab states with regards to American and Israeli positions on Palestine. Underlying American devotion to Israel, manifest in aid and structuring of geopolitical alliances, is a pattern of almost complete ambivalence about the fate of Palestinians.

When Menachem Begin became Israeli prime minister in 1977, he made it near policy to ensure that a Palestinian state would not come into existence. Driving Khalidi's arguments is the notion that every Israeli prime minister after Begin followed his lead, regardless of whether they were adherents of his firebrand "greater Israel" ideology.

For example, when Yitzhak Rabin and the Israeli leadership allowed exiled PLO fighters to return to Gaza and the West Bank, they did so in order to use them as an internal Palestinian police force with full knowledge they would not be serving in an independent army. For Khalidi, what is crucial is the extent to which the US was fully aware and complicit in Begin's programme. Citing a recently declassified 1982 American CIA memo, Khalidi shows conclusively that the US was under no illusions about Israel's clear rejection of Palestinian independence.

Begin envisaged a system in which Palestinians would police themselves without the auspices of state independence and move to ensure that a Palestinian state could never become a reality. America's forceful rejection of Palestinian statehood recognition at the United Nations is the latest incarnation of clear support for this policy. Indeed, Obama's praise for Palestinian Authority security forces, which have taken over some of the heavy lifting of administering a military occupation, surely won over some of Israel's most right wing political advocates.

America's acquiescence to Israel's programme of blocking, at all costs, a Palestinian state leads Khalidi to bluntly assert that "the incessantly repeated American mantra about a 'peace process' has served to disguise an ugly reality: whatever process the United States was championing, it was not actually directed at achieving a just and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis."

Such statements allow Khalidi to comment on the present deadlock on the ground with unbridled freedom. In the introduction, he notes that the establishment of Israeli settlements in the West Bank constitute "daunting obstacles to the prospects of a two state solution, obstacles that, in the view of most objective observers, are now well nigh insuperable." More harmful is that "the establishment of the settlements was intended by Israeli planners to produce precisely this result."

After reading Khalidi's revelations, a Western liberal in favour of the Two State solution, as envisaged in the Oslo Accords, might well feel as though he has been sitting at the children's table at a wedding for the past 20 years oblivious to the fact that the adults have been busy entrenching a system of Israeli occupation on the West Bank, which makes a Palestinian state a near impossibility.

Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, the debate about America's role in the Middle East and especially in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has taken perhaps its most honest hue to date.

Mainstream media outlets are increasingly focusing on the exact nature of Israeli domination over Palestinians from the Palestinian viewpoint. Rashid Khalidi's addition to the debate is crucial, providing factual data exposing the unequal role America has played in the conflict.

Yet, if what Khalidi demonstrates is true - and he provides ample sourcing to support his argument- - then what should Palestinians do? It feels beyond the scope of the volume to determine the correct course for the Palestinian leadership to move forward but the book does demonstrate exactly how many mistakes were made and how easily Palestinians allowed the tables to be stacked against them. Division within the Palestinian spectrum is certainly not a positive sign for the future.

While in Israel, Obama underlined that the US will continue to support Israel with significant military aid and diplomatic cover, but Obama didn't signal that he would return to the region anytime soon in search of a lasting presidential legacy.

The question remains, if the US has been an unfair broker operating as Israel's lawyer and Israeli settlements have made the realisation of Palestinian independence and self determination impossible, why would Palestinians pay lip service to any form of a two-state solution as outlined by the Oslo Accords? A new paradigm, with a diminished American role, is clearly the most pressing requirement for Israel and Palestine.

Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah.

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