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Reviewing US policy on Palestine, with Professor Rashid Khalidi

Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and the director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs.

February 10, 2021 at 10:45 am

Professor Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University joined MEMO for a live conversation on Wednesday to discuss what the Joe Biden administration holds for Palestine and to review the past four years under Donald Trump. The discussion opened with the Palestinian American historian fielding questions about his most recent book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, which was adjudged to be the Best Academic book at the 2020 Palestine Book Awards.

The book divides the Palestinian struggle for statehood into six stages, which Rashid describes as six “declarations of war”. Asked if he would have included the four years of the Trump administration as a seventh if he was writing the book now, he said that the Trump era could certainly be considered as such. “Like earlier declarations of war sponsored by great powers such as the US, Britain and others, Trump’s peace plan envisaged a series of measures that were designed entirely to further the Israeli colonial project and to prevent Palestinian self-determination,” he explained. The six decisive periods in the takeover of Palestine and the supplanting of its population since the 1917 Balfour Declaration were designed to further Zionist objectives in terms of seizing Palestine and to block Palestinian rights. The Trump era, he added, shared that characteristic.

Placing the current stage of the Palestinian struggle within a historical context, Prof. Khalidi observed that the situation for Palestine can appear bleak. “Israel’s settler-colonial project is quite different from any other, and like every other such project it has engendered resistance.” He agreed that Palestinians have been more successful than other native populations in resisting their extinction for over a century. The Zionist project to take over Palestine requires external support, and he is optimistic that this support is neither eternal nor unshakable.

An earlier book by the Professor of Arab and Middle Eastern studies was Brokers of Deceit, which looked at how the US has undermined peace in the Middle East. He was asked to comment on whether he thought Trump represented a continuation of the same US policy that has blocked Palestinian statehood or an aberration.

“Trump is a continuation in the sense that the Zionist project has, since Woodrow Wilson’s term in office as 28th President of the United States from 1913 to 1921, enjoyed the support of successive US administrations, US politicians and the bulk of the American people” explained Khalidi. “He represents an aberration in that his administration ended all restraints on American assistance for the project that became Israel.”

He pointed out that Trump’s support for Israel was not just unlimited by being tied to the aspirations of the most extreme government in Israeli history. Under Trump, Washington had no policy on Israel other than to keep in lockstep with Tel-Aviv.

Khalidi rejected the idea that the Biden administration will lead to a “radical reset” in US foreign policy, as claimed by members of his cabinet and Democrat Congressmen and women. He suspects, though, that human rights may be used as a club against recalcitrant Middle Eastern governments. Predicting a change in rhetoric, he said that there will be “no more almost slavish imitation by the US of the most extreme followings of the most extreme doctrine spouted by Israeli politicians.” However, “cosmetic shifts” can be expected, none of which will have any real impact.

The discussion then turned towards the limitations of US presidents towards Israel and Palestine. Prof. Khalidi was asked about a number of sensational admissions by Barak Obama in his autobiography published last year. The former US president mentioned his relationship with Khalidi in the book while speaking about how heavily the Palestinian issue weighed on his shoulders.

Palestine prof: Zionists had European, US backing, Palestinians didn’t have that advantage

“Members of both parties worried about crossing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC),” wrote Obama. “AIPAC’s clout could be brought to bear on virtually every congressional district in the country, and just about every politician in Washington — including me — counted AIPAC members among their key supporters and donors.” Remarkably, the former president claimed that, “Normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister exacted a domestic political cost that simply didn’t exist when I dealt with the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, or any of our other closest allies.”

Khalidi was asked if blaming AIPAC was an easy way to cover Obama’s failure to restrain Israel. “Obama’s failure related to an unwillingness to exert America’s political muscle that an American president has,” he pointed out. The former president, he said, used that muscle in matters that were seen to be vital to US interest such as pushing through the Iran nuclear deal. “So where vital interest is perceived to be at stake, he [Obama] was willing to brook the ferocious opposition of Netanyahu and the Republican Party who together conspired to undermine the foreign policy of a US president.” Obama’s team was willing to suffer the backlash and fight tooth and nail, but they were not willing to do that on the Palestine issue. Senator George Mitchell, he recalled, was shut down when he tried to open a path towards Palestinian resistance movement Hamas. “Obama was not willing to fight that fight amongst a number of other fights,” said Khalidi.

The conversation ended with a discussion about the future of the Zionist project and whether cracks are beginning to appear in the pillars of its success. Khalidi has written eloquently about how the success of Zionism rests on three pillars: the weakness and division amongst Arabs is one; the recruitment of foreign patrons such as the US and before that Britain is a second; and the third is the support that Israel has managed to garner from Jewish communities in the diaspora. He agreed that cracks are appearing, especially on the third of those pillars, with the younger generation of Jewish Americans who are turning away from Israel. They no longer view the Zionist state as the small, beleaguered and endangered country that their parents once did. Crucially, they don’t see Israel as a victim. Instead, they see it as the stronger and more aggressive party. This trend, though, is not universal in Jewish communities.

In closing, Prof. Rashid Khalidi also warned of a countervailing development whereby Israel has enlisted the support of the wealthy and influential Evangelical Christian community in the US. Nevertheless, Zionism’s three pillars of support are not as solid as they once were.