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Brokers of Deceit: As Obama Visits Israel, Scholar Rashid Khalidi on How the U.S. Undermines Peace

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As the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is marked around the world today, President Obama is heading to Israel for the first trip there of his presidency. Obama’s three-day tour also includes stops in the occupied West Bank on Thursday and in Jordan on Friday. The White House has taken pains to play down expectations of Obama’s visit, billing it a “listening tour.” Obama’s supporters say that mission reflects the reality of the Middle East conflict, with the United States unable to forcefully change an intractable dispute. But in his new book, the Palestinian-American scholar Rashid Khalidi argues that the United States could in fact play a decisive role in achieving Middle East peace if it simply reversed decades of policy backing the Israeli occupation. In “Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East,” Khalidi draws on his research as a historian, and on his own experience as an adviser to Palestinian negotiators, to argue that far from being an impartial broker, the United States has effectively acted as Israel’s lawyer. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: As the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is marked around the world today, President Obama is heading to the Middle East. He’ll be visiting Israel, making the first trip there of his presidency. Obama’s three-day tour also includes stops in the occupied West Bank on Thursday and in Jordan on Friday.

After brief tensions at the outset of Obama’s first term, the Israeli government is seizing the opportunity to celebrate its improved relations with Obama. Israel has given Obama’s trip its own branding, dubbing it “Operation Unbreakable Alliance.” A specially designed logo for the trip shows the Israeli and U.S. flags merging into one.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama visits the West Bank, meanwhile, at a time of renewed protests against the Israeli occupation. The plight of the thousands of Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons has recently prompted demonstrations across the West Bank. Residents of villages and towns across the West Bank have also continued their nonviolent acts of civil disobedience as they seek to stop Israeli settlements from taking more of their land. Obama will not be visiting Gaza, which continues to languish under an Israeli blockade and recover from the most recent Israeli assault in November.

The White House has taken pains to play down expectations, billing Obama’s trip a “listening tour.” Obama’s supporters say the mission reflects the reality of the Middle East conflict, with the U.S. unable to forcefully change an intractable dispute. Speaking on MSNBC, former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the onus is on Israelis and Palestinians to make peace.

ROBERT GIBBS: The process is always aided and helped when we are involved in it, but we cannot construct Middle East peace for the Israelis and the Palestinians. We can help the process. We can foster that dialogue. But as Eugene said, people have seen the maps for 20 years, right? We know exactly where the borders would be. We know what has to happen within each of these two territories to make it happen. It is a political will, on each side, to make it happen.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs speaking on MSNBC.

Well, our next guest argues the U.S. could in fact play a decisive role in achieving Middle East peace if it simply reversed decades of policy backing the Israeli occupation. Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University’s Department of History and the author of a number of books. His newest, just out, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. He also just did an op-ed piece in The New York Times called “Is Any Hope Left for Mideast Peace?”

Professor Khalidi, welcome to Democracy Now! What should Obama do in Israel and the Occupied Territories?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, what he should do is probably what he won’t do, which is to reverse, as you suggested, several decades of policy. The approach that’s been followed until now has failed comprehensively. It was never designed to achieve independent Palestinian statehood. It was never designed to end the occupation. I try and show in the book that it really was designed, of all people, by Menachem Begin, to make permanent Israeli control over the Occupied Territories. And that is what it has succeeded in doing up ’til now.

So, I think what the president should do is lay down a couple of markers: The United States is fundamentally opposed to occupation, which has to be ended, and the United States is fundamentally opposed to the absorption of territory into Israel through this settlement process. I don’t think that, by and of itself, that will solve the problem, but at least it would separate the United States from Israel and would make it clear that we will no longer bankroll policies that have, in my view, already made a two-state solution virtually impossible, and that have created obstacles that will be almost impossible to overcome in the short term.

AARON MATÉ: I’m curious to hear your response to Robert Gibbs. We just played a clip of him—


AARON MATÉ: —basically saying the conflict is intractable—


AARON MATÉ: —the U.S. can only do so much.

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, the U.S. could do a lot more than it’s doing. What it has done up 'til now, in my view, certainly for the past 35 years, is to exacerbate the conflict, to make it much worse, by, in effect, supporting an Israeli position which really wasn't directed at ending the conflict or at ending the occupation or at stopping settlement. By supporting that, in a variety of ways, we have made this thing infinitely more intractable. So, yes, the United States could play a role, but it has played a very negative role up ’til now.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking on Democracy Now! in 2006, former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin never expected Oslo would result in the creation of a Palestinian state.

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Arafat in Oslo reached an agreement that didn’t even mention the right of self-determination for the Palestinians, doesn’t even mention the need of the Israelis to put an end to settlements. If the Israelis, after Oslo, continued expansion of settlements, they were violating the spirit of Oslo, not the letter of Oslo. There is nothing in the Oslo Agreements that says that Israelis cannot build settlements. …

It was an exercise in make-believe. The Palestinians didn’t even mention self-determination so a leader like Rabin could have thought that, OK, we will have an agreement that will create something which is a state-minus. This was Rabin’s expression. He never thought this will end in a full-fledged Palestinian state.

AARON MATÉ: That’s former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami speaking on Democracy Now! in 2006. Professor, I’m wondering if you could respond to what he said and also talk about your experience. You were in adviser to Palestinian negotiators before the Oslo deal was made.

RASHID KHALIDI: Correct, correct. Shlomo Ben-Ami is completely right. Unfortunately, the people who negotiated Oslo from the Palestinian side didn’t take advantage of the experiences and lessons that we had gone through in Washington for two years, and did negotiate an agreement which did not lead to statehood. In fact, as he said in the clip that you just played, there was nothing in there about recognition of the Palestinian right to statehood or self-determination, which is one of many, many flaws in this agreement. This is why I said to Amy a minute ago, this was not a deal. This is not a structure that was designed to lead to a resolution of the conflict. This is actually conflict maintenance, at best, that the United States is engaged in. And you can blame the Israelis, but I think we should blame our own government for going along with this charade. This is a travesty. This is a grotesque, Orwellian process. They use the word “peace process.” There is no peace. You’ve been at it for 35 years, and you haven’t produced peace, and you still talk about peace? Say this is a process in which the United States will, you know, do a Monte game in front of people, but don’t pretend that it’s a peace process.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama, what did he represent before he became president? What were his views? And you knew him in Chicago. You were both at the University of Chicago. He was a state senator from there before senator. And what he represents today?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, when I left Chicago in 2003, he was still a state senator, had not yet announced even for U.S. Senate. So, his publicly expressed views, with the exception of one speech he gave opposing the Iraq War just before it started—his publicly expressed views, at least, had nothing to do with the Middle East. And even privately, he was not someone who was expansive on the subject. He listened. We had had—there were various conversations. And this is a man who was worldly and knew something about the world, very intelligent, and I had the sense that he had some kind of understanding of things.

But he was a politician with eyes on higher office, and he understood perfectly well what the political train in Chicago, in Illinois, in the United States was. And so, long after I ceased to see him, after we left Chicago, it was very clear that he was an extraordinarily careful politician in not stepping on the various land mines that would have absolutely prevented his reaching higher office. So, I had very low expectations. And I think those expectations have been fully realized, unfortunately.

AARON MATÉ: Well, a key moment for you in the book comes in September 2011, when President Obama goes to the U.N. and delivers a speech, focuses on his rejection of the Palestinian effort for statehood recognition. In his remarks, President Obama claimed to support a Palestinian state, even as he sought to convince international diplomats to reject one.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We seek a future where Palestinians live in a sovereign state of their own, with no limit to what they can achieve. And there’s no question that the Palestinians have seen that vision delayed for too long. It is precisely because we believe so strongly in the aspirations of the Palestinian people that America has invested so much time and so much effort in the building of a Palestinian state and the negotiations that can deliver a Palestinian state.

AARON MATÉ: President Obama went on to suggest that refusing to recognize Palestinian rights is justified because of Israel’s security needs. In a glaring omission, Obama made no mention of Palestinian security nor of Israeli torture and killings of tens of thousands of people in the Occupied Territories and Lebanon.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable. Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day. Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses.

AARON MATÉ: That’s President Obama speaking in September 2011. Professor Khalidi?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I think you could hear in that speech a repetition of some of the traditional tropes of the Israeli narrative of victimization. And if you start from there, that Israel is the country that needs security, Palestinian security is never mentioned, if you start from the idea that this is a country that represents the latest in a long line of persecution of the Jews, going back into history from the Holocaust all the back through the Inquisition and so forth, which the president actually, unfortunately, has done in many, many of his speeches. I mean, one of the things I go through in the book is the difference between expectations of President Obama and what he has actually said on this topic. And those are—that’s a perfect example of it.

The Palestinians are a people who have lived either expelled from their homeland under authoritarian Arab governments or under occupation for the entirety of the past 60 years. And nobody talks about their security. Of course the Israelis need security. But the expansive nature of that term in the Israeli lexicon includes things like keeping poor villagers in the southern part of the West Bank from getting water. That would threaten Israeli security. It includes preventing pasta from getting into the Gaza Strip. I mean, those are the kinds of things that are done in the name of security, because this term is so expansive in the Israeli-American lexicon.

So, starting from that point, you’re not going to get to a resolution. If the United States continues to adopt this one-sided Israeli narrative, which it has under several presidents—I don’t just fault this president; I talk about President Carter, President Bush Sr. and so forth—you’re not going to get to a resolution. You’re going to get where you are: a pro-Israel position that leads to further consecration of a very, very bad status quo.

AMY GOODMAN: You argued for a two-state solution for years.


AMY GOODMAN: You say it is almost impossible now. Why?

RASHID KHALIDI: Because for decades Israeli planners have systematically acted in ways to make a state impossible, by building settlements in regions that make it impossible to create a contiguous, viable Palestinian state—the settlement of Ariel, the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. These are designed to cut the West Bank into strips, such that Israel controls most of it, if these so-called settlement blocs stay where they are.

And we are bankrolling this. We give Israel $3 billion, with which it defends its occupation. I mean, these are weapons supposedly just for self-defense, but defending an illegal occupation is not self-defense. And a lot of those weapons are used for that purpose. And through 501(c)(3) so-called charities, which funnel money to extremist, violent, radical, racist settlers in the Occupied Territories. We—our tax dollars, in effect, are being used to subsidize the very settlements themselves.

So, all of this has created a reality, which—I mean, Tony Judt once said, what any politician has done, another politician can undo. Any one of our politicians could stop those policies. Any Israeli politician could start to reverse that process. I just don’t see that happening. That’s why I say it’s virtually impossible. We’re stuck, in effect, with a one-state outcome right now. There’s one state between the Mediterranean and the sea—sorry, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.

AARON MATÉ: So what should people who want peace be pushing for, then, here in the U.S.?

RASHID KHALIDI: We should be pushing for a change in our country’s policies, OK? You can’t force the Israelis to do anything at this stage. You can’t force the Palestinians to do anything, either. But what you can do is change your own policies. I mean, are our weapons being used for self-defense? That’s $3 billion a year of our weapons. $115 billion in aid have gone to Israel, most of it since 1973. That’s the most any country has gotten. Don’t we have the obligation to investigate how that money is being used, for what purposes?

The second thing we can do is to see to it that tax dollars that are going to these so-called charitable organizations are in fact going to charities. I mean, if it’s going to a hospital in Tel Aviv, fine. If it’s going to the Occupied Territories, I don’t understand why the IRS and the Treasury Department aren’t cracking down on that the way they’re cracking down on other things. So, I think there many things we, as citizens, can do to ensure that the United States is no longer the enabler and the bankroller of policies that most Americans—and, for that matter, most Israelis, actually—find reprehensible.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about President Obama’s actual trip, who he will be meeting with and where?

RASHID KHALIDI: He’s apparently—I mean, this is a trip to Israel, with a side trip to Jordan and the Occupied Territories. In Israel, he’s going to be meeting with all and sundry. He’ll be meeting, of course, with the new government. In the Occupied Territories, apparently, he’s going to meet with President Abbas in Ramallah, and he’ll be paying a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. And I believe he’ll be meeting King Abdullah in Amman.

AARON MATÉ: The issue of the split between Fatah and Hamas.


AARON MATÉ: To what extent do you think Palestinians can actually have any effect over resolving the conflict, or are they just powerless? But if they can have an effect, how big of an obstacle is this split?

RASHID KHALIDI: It’s a huge obstacle. And it’s a terrible, divisive issue. And this is the Palestinians’ fault. I mean, you can blame the United States or Israel until the cows come home for exacerbating the split, but you can’t blame them for the split. This is the Palestinians’ responsibility. And until this split is healed—and, in fact, until the policies that both of these groups, in my view, represent, which are bankrupt, are changed—the Palestinians have no hope of changing their situation. And that is—that’s down to them. That’s up to the Palestinians. And there’s enormous dissatisfaction with the policies of the PA in Ramallah. There’s enormous dissatisfaction in Gaza with the Hamas government, and public opinion, really, is very much against them. The problem is, these are people strongly supported from outside and who have vested interests in the status quo, whether they’re sitting in luxury in Ramallah or whether they’re enjoying the perks of government in Gaza. So, this is a Palestinian responsibility, and without changing these realities, the Palestinians are not going to be able to get off square one.

AMY GOODMAN: Your latest book, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East, is about the Occupied Territories, about Israel-Palestine. But on this 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, you’ve written extensively about Iraq, as well.


AMY GOODMAN: What are the effects? What have we seen in the Middle East?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I think your reports earlier today did a really good job of talking about the impact on Iraq. The effect on the Middle East has really been quite terrible. Iraq is the second of three Middle Eastern countries that’s been devastated by civil war and external intervention. Lebanon was the first. It went through 15 years of hell. Iraq was the second. It has been through 10 years of hell, which are not over. And the sectarian system that was installed—Raed Jarrar is completely right—by the United States, by Paul Bremer, is like injecting more poison into an already bad situation. We have put in a confessional system, I think probably based on that of Lebanon, which produced three civil wars in a hundred-odd years in Lebanon, into Iraq. So, that effect has had all kinds of ripples in the region, increasing an already fraught sectarian situation.

And what we’re now seeing in Syria, sadly, is a third Arab country devastated by civil war. This doesn’t just mean the terrible human cost. It means destroying infrastructures of government. It means breaking down a rule of law. It means breaking down habits, that have taken literally generations, well back into the Ottoman period, to create, of governance and so forth. You know, you can talk about how bad the Syrian regime was or the Iraqi regime or the Lebanese confessional system, but there were some good things in the structures of government that were completely devastated in Iraq. And that—so, we’re now seeing, sadly, a third Arab country, in the case of Syria, destroyed by civil war and external intervention, because, like Iraq and like Lebanon, it’s a proxy war. It’s not just a civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, in Brokers of Deceit, you refer to the U.S. as “Israel’s lawyer.”

RASHID KHALIDI: Right. Well, I’m quoting Aaron David Miller, who was talking about himself and his fellow American diplomats, who in fact were not doing the job that they were supposed to do nominally, which was to be, you know, disinterested mediators, but instead were shilling for Israel, in effect. And he, in turn—Miller in his book and in an article he wrote with that title—was quoting Henry Kissinger. So, this is not my description; this is Henry Kissinger and Aaron David Miller’s description. And I heartily endorse it.

AMY GOODMAN: Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University’s Department of History and the author of several books. His latest, just out, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. We’ll continue our conversation post-show, and we’ll post it online at democracynow.org.

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