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A Dismal Jubilee

Rashid Khalidi’s new book surveys a century of colonialism and resistance in Palestine
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In America at least, the state of play about Israel and Palestine has never been so interesting. Bernie Sanders has made it possible for a Democratic presidential candidate to mention the rights of Palestinians. That even consistently see-no-evil supporters of Israel like Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar could suddenly join him in declining invitations to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), suggests just how far opinion in the Democratic party has shifted.

All those kneecappings of unarmed demonstrators along the Gaza border seem to have had a real effect on what large numbers of young and progressive Americans think of Israel. But if public consensus here has indeed strayed irrevocably from the standard Zionist line, it is also because of academics such as the late Edward W. Said, author of Orientalism, and Rashid Khalidi, Columbia’s Edward Said Chair in Modern Arab Studies, whose scholarship has had a trickle-down effect on the public sphere. 

Now seventy-one, Khalidi has for over forty years been researching and writing about the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, a cause he has also directly aided as a diplomat. In Under Siege (1986), he drew on his year of living dangerously in Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War to analyze the war’s implications for the Palestinians, whose resistance put pressure on already volatile Lebanese politics as well as on the Israeli military. The award-winning Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (1997) charts how Palestinians have emerged as a national community, economically, organizationally, and in self-consciousness, under the Ottomans and the British—which is to say, largely before Zionism’s project of ethnic cleansing under cover of “making the desert bloom” had provoked a Palestinian response. Resurrecting Empire (2005) and The Iron Cage (2006) laid out the ways in which Great Power interests permitted and promoted Israel’s slow strangulation of Palestine’s original inhabitants.

After decades of scrupulous objectivity, Khalidi has now written a very personal book. The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine begins with the author digging deep in a Jerusalem archive established by his grandfather in 1899—the oldest such archive, he says, that is still in the hands of its original owners. The story of his great-great-great uncle, Yusuf Diya al-Din Pasha al-Khalidi, a scholar of Islam (and Judaism) who was elected deputy from Jerusalem to the Ottoman parliament established in 1876, starts off a series of family narratives intertwined movingly with the nation’s own history. Showing himself to be a worthy heir of this noble line, Khalidi writes about his own career as a diplomat, describing frustrating but illuminating interactions with the famous and powerful, like Yasir Arafat, James Baker, and King Faisal. His book is a roller-coaster ride through Palestinian history, one hundred years without a moment of solitude.

Rashid is a good friend and colleague. The following conversation, which we recorded in Manhattan, has been condensed and edited for clarity.

—Bruce Robbins 


Bruce Robbins: Perhaps we can begin with the title of your book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. Why do you describe the past one hundred years as a war? 

Rashid Khalidi: I am trying to replace a false view of the conflict as a relatively even struggle between two peoples over the same land with one where it is seen as a highly unequal conflict between a settler colonial movement, backed at every stage by the greatest powers of the age, against an indigenous people fighting for its rights in its homeland.

The war is also ongoing on a metaphorical level, in that from the Balfour Declaration through United Nations Security Council 242 and the Trump plan, a key objective has been to “disappear” the Palestinians, to elide them. They are not even mentioned by name in the first two documents, which are foundational for the course of the conflict

BR: As its title suggests, violence is central to the story told in book. You write about big wars—1947, 1948, 1967, 1973; the invasion and bombing of Gaza in 2012 and 2014—but also about smaller scale violence, like the Second Intifada. If I read you correctly, you are opposed to violence on both sides.

RK: Well the violence during the Second Intifada wasn’t small scale. I cite some casualty figures. A large number of people were killed, many more Palestinians than Israelis, but a lot of both (six thousand six hundred in total, five thousand five hundred of them Palestinians). It was only small scale compared to the invasion of Lebanon, where nineteen thousand Palestinians and Lebanese (and several hundred Israeli soldiers) were killed, which is a bigger scale, certainly.

Boycotts serve a dual purpose in terms of forging a kind of unity as well as resisting repression. They are as much about fighting as it was about organizing

Now to your question. No, I am not ethically opposed to violence, as long as it remains within the framework of international law. I believe that in situations of occupation and in colonial situations, the occupied or the colonized should be allowed to use violence if need be, within certain boundaries determined by international law, though the international law gets really gray. There is, after all, a UN-mandated right to use armed struggle to oppose colonial domination (United Nationals General Assembly Resolution 3246 of 29 November 1974). Look at the Irish War of Independence. The Irish Freedom Fighters mainly targeted British military and official targets. It was effective. I have no objection to that kind of use of violence.

My objection to violence in the Palestinian-Israeli situation is not so much ethical—though killing noncombatants in my view is illegal and stupid and amoral, a violation of the rules of war, and maybe a war crime—as political. Violence in this context does not serve a political purpose; it is in fact politically harmful.

BR: Would you say that after a century of war, it’s clear that Palestinian victories tend to come, and in the future will have to come, not on the battlefield but in the court of public opinion?

RK: Yes.

BR: So not militarily, but diplomatically?

RK: Well, I wouldn’t say only diplomatically. There will also have to be political campaigns, and many other forms of nonviolent resistance. Those would be aimed at public opinion, both in Europe and the United States, and ideally in Israel as well. As importantly, they would also have an effect within Palestinian society. If you look at the noncooperation movement in India, it was directed at the British but also self-directed. The same is true of successful boycotts in Ireland (where boycotts began of course), in the American South during Jim Crow, in South Africa, and so forth. These movements had a dual purpose in terms of forging a kind of unity as well as resisting repression. It was as much about fighting as it was about organizing, or perhaps reorganizing society in a way that made it worth fighting for.

BR: One of the critiques of the Palestinian leadership you offer in the book is that they have been unable to play skillfully in the game of American public opinion.

RK: The Zionist, and later, Israeli leaderships—members of whom, in many cases, were born and grew up in Western societies—understood full well what it required to influence American and European public opinion. Golda Meier grew up in Milwaukee; of course she knew how to address Americans. Abba Eban was born in South Africa; of course he knew how to address the British—and so on and so forth.

By contrast, the Palestinian and Arab leaderships are, generally speaking, on an abysmally lower level, especially as far as the United States is concerned. It has been an extraordinarily unequal contest between people who are adept at influencing opinion, and people who are new to the game.

The Palestinians weren’t always on such a bad level, vis-à-vis Europe and vis-à-vis other parts of the world. They actually had a relatively good understanding of international public opinion during certain periods, for example, in the 1960s and 1970s. But as far as the United States is concerned, there is a black hole here. The Palestinian leadership has never really grasped the American political system or understood how to influence it. They have this illusion that you talk to the top person, and that’s it. “Oh, I talked to George Schultz and the problem was solved.” The problem is not solved. In fact, you haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the problem.

BR: The 100 Years War in Palestine is more narrative than your previous books, which have been quite scholarly. Much of it draws on archival research, familial and otherwise. What was it like working in those archives? What sort of things did you dig up?

RK: True, this book is something of a departure for me. I write in the first person; I talk about my family history and personal history, the things I’ve observed firsthand and participated in. For example, you will notice there are a lot of assassinations in this book: of Palestinian leaders and writers, of local politicians and diplomats. Well that reflects our experience in Beirut, where I lived from the late 1960s, on and off, though the 1980s. Our lives at the time were punctuated by assassinations. I’ve dealt with this matter academically before—in my first book on the siege of Beirut. Now I’m trying to more directly reflect on that experience.

As for the stuff that I discovered in archives, let me cite one example: John Gunther Dean, an American Ambassador to Lebanon, gave me a selection of his private papers. He was the target of an assassination attempt in Beirut and always claimed that the Israeli intelligence services were behind it. Of course, nobody in Washington was willing to believe him, or at least they weren’t willing to go on the record as saying they believed him. Now Ronen Bergman, presumably a former operative of Israeli intelligence, who’s written the definitive book on Israel’s assassinations, has revealed that the group that attacked Dean was a front for the Israeli intelligence services. So I put two and two together there. Of course, this should come as no surprise. The Israelis were essentially trying to close down lines of communication between the United States and the PLO.

I’ve also drawn on documents that I had access to in the PLO Archives in Tunis (later bombed by the Israelis), as well as materials like the secret annexes to the Kahan Commission Report on the Sabra-Shatila Massacres.

BR: The book offers fascinating glimpses into the inner workings of Middle East diplomacy, including moments when the diplomats, including yourself, were excluded from the secret channel talks that turned out to be unfortunately decisive.

Nationalism is a reality, obviously. But to believe what nationalism tells you . . .  that’s almost a mental disease

RK: My father worked in the United Nations Secretariat, in what was then the Political and Security Council Affairs division, which means he was constantly involved, on a day-to-day level, with international diplomacy. Specifically, he dealt with the Security Council—and half of what the Security Council did was Middle East, so he was busier than everybody else in his division! That was what was we discussed at the dinner table every night in the Khalidi household.

Later, I would get involved in diplomacy myself. I was a part of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in Madrid and Washington from 1991 to 1993. At different points in my life I met King Faisal; I met King Hussein. I met Arafat and the rest of the Palestinian leadership. I met Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers, several of them. I’ve met many, many Lebanese politicians at every level. I’ve had to work with them. So yes, I write from a position of having been inside Arab/inter-Arab politics, from having listened to it and lived with it.

I once sat down with a former Lebanese Prime Minister—I quote this discussion with him in the book—who’s related to us by marriage. That connection enabled him to speak frankly with me and then say, “Don’t publish it.” Now he’s dead. So I’ve published it. The connections help.

BR: One of the things the book talks about extremely well is nuances and shifts in public opinion. But do these things matter to diplomats? Or are the diplomats simply powerless in the face of the usual dark forces?

RK: That’s a really good question. Most of the time, structural forces control what happens as far as foreign policy is concerned. In the United States, the foreign policy establishment essentially does whatever it pleases, paying no attention to public opinion. However, there are turning points. There are moments when public opinion grows so overwhelming that it affects the foreign policy establishment, as happened over Vietnam and South Africa. I think we’re approaching such a moment with Saudi Arabia today.

The Saudi lobby includes almost every major economic interest in the United States: real estate, banking, oil, defense, aerospace, you name it. Each of these interests I’ve mentioned has its hooks into a dozen or so senators and twenty or thirty members of the House. At the same time, Saudi Arabia today is very close to becoming a pariah in American public opinion, which, at the very least, begins to limit the freedom of action of the foreign policy elites, who would under no circumstances change the status quo if they didn’t have to.

BR: Do you think something similar is happening on the Israel-Palestine front? Bernie Sanders has said he won’t go to the AIPAC conference, and (before they dropped out) so did Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Warren. 

RK: There are positive developments, but let’s be realistic here. There has been a shift in popular opinion on the Israel-Palestine front, but it is largely limited to young people, people under forty. And we know another thing about young people: they don’t vote, as a general rule. The important question to ask is: Will those young people hold the same views ten to twenty years in the future, when (a) they’ll vote, and (b) they’ll have all the money? They might. They might not. (Amy Kaplan is a scholar I cite repeatedly in the book, particularly her work Our American Israel, in which she very subtly charts the shifts in American public opinion on Israel.)

BR: Despite your sympathy for the Palestinian cause, you maintain that Palestinian national identity, like Israeli national identity, is a construct, rather than a preexisting essence. Let me quote you here, “Palestinian identity, much like Zionism, emerged in response to many stimuli, and at almost exactly the same time as did modern political Zionism.” This is a point also made by the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, author of The Invention of the Jewish People. When I interviewed him in Tel Aviv, he said, “You know, the Palestinians were invented too.”

RK: Look, I am a great believer in the artificiality, in the constructed nature, in the entirely modern nature, of nationalism and nations. I don’t think they have the ancient roots they all claim. I’m not denying that people might have a preexisting sense of identity. It’s not like there’s no sense of Jewishness, or there’s no sense of loyalty to the land, or attachment to a place. Those things, of course, exist. But they’re completely refashioned by modern nation-state nationalism. Anderson, Gellner, Hobsbawm: every thinker with any brains who’s ever dealt with nationalism comes to the same conclusion. Nationalism is a reality, obviously. But to believe what nationalism tells you . . .  that’s almost a mental disease.

Now some historians argue that there always was the idea of a Jewish state. That’s rubbish. I want to deal with the equally ridiculous idea that there always was a Palestinian national identity. If you talked to the great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers of Palestinians (or Israelis) who live in that land today, you would see that none of them believed what their great-grandchildren do about the eternal nature of the modern political constructs they are part of.

BR: I’d be curious to hear what you think about the term “settler colonialism” and its contemporary political usage. I have no objection to the term, which accurately describes a historical reality. At the same time, to speak of “decolonize X” and “decolonize Y”: that seems a bit cruder than, or perhaps at odds with, your political thinking.

RK: For all the differences between Israel and every other case of settler colonialism, it is an instance of a settler colonial project. Israel’s founders and framers, if I can use that term for Herzl, Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Ben Gurion, were proud of the fact that they were allied with the great imperial powers, allied with colonialism, and were themselves colonialists.

Now, I understand that it’s possible to take this historical fact, at least my version of what I think is historical fact, and use it in various ways as the basis of a policy or politics or activism or whatever. That I might not agree with. People who don’t see the—I don’t want to say sophistication—people who don’t acknowledge the subtlety of my analysis may do things with it that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with. Nothing I can do about that.

BR: People often claim that Israel doesn’t conform to any historical principle. It’s not like anything else. You disagree.

The United States has done everything it can to ensure that there’s no unity in the Middle East. Arab disunity has to be maintained because of strategic importance of hydrocarbons.

RK: Yes. I want to argue two things, though. I want to say that there are ways in which we have to understand that Israel is comparable to other settler colonial projects. Yet I also want to acknowledge that Israel is unique in several ways, notably in that it was pioneered by people who were not citizens or subjects of the metropole. That’s never happened before. What settler colonial project, instead of wanting to be part of the metropole—like the French in Algeria, or the British in Kenya—wanted to have their own separate national entity?

BR: Well, the United States, I suppose.

RK: True. But I don’t want to go to the North American models because they were eliminationists—which Zionism wasn’t, at least in the sense of destruction of the indigenous population. The number of Palestinians killed was not that huge. It’s very large, but it’s not huge. There was never this same “Kill all the savages” ideology that you had in the United States. Zionism was more about, as Herzl put it, spiriting “a penniless population across the border,”  pushing them away, pushing them out, rather than annihilating them.

BR: Security Council Resolution 242 [which allows Israel to remain in the occupied Palestinian territories until a final political agreement is reached] plays such an infamous part in Palestinian history. Do you feel any enthusiasm for the idea of a reform of the Security Council that would actually make a difference?

RK: Yes, if we leave aside all practicalities, which includes the fact that no Permanent Member of the Security Council with veto power would ever voluntarily give it up.

Realistically, you’d need a different kind of world order for meaningful change to occur. It would have to be more multi-polar, and it would probably involve coalitions of smaller countries and multiple, major players—I mean Brazil, India, and so on. That’s the kind of direction in which people should be thinking. Now, how you do that, I don’t know. There are coalitions—ASEAN, for example—that might serve as models. It requires a subordination of the nation too, and this is the problem. Nationalism, as we have discussed, is an incredibly powerful force. And it has not run its course yet. In fact, it’s taking on some more virulent forms even as we speak.

There’s also another thing. Kissinger once mentioned as an aside—I refer to this in my book—that American policy was opposed to Arab unity. And the United States has done everything it can to ensure that there’s no unity in the Middle East. Arab disunity has to be maintained because of strategic importance of hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are a plague on the peoples of the region. But they’re a boon to the oil companies and to the kleptocrats who run most Arab countries. In any case, the Americans have been very successful. Today, the region of the world that is the most atomized (and the least democratic), in my view, is the Arab world.

Arab disunity is why the Americans broke Abdul Nasser in 1967 and why they got involved in the Yemen War before that. It has long been a strategic goal of the United States, and that’s one main reason Israel was so favorably welcomed in Washington at that time. The U.S.-Israel alliance had little to do with Zionism, or the Zionist lobby, or anything like that, as it’s often claimed. The lobby was insignificant in 1967. The U.S.-Israel alliance, at the outset, had everything to do with the fact that Israel had served this enormously important purpose of breaking up the Arab powers, in the context of a Cold War rivalry with the USSR where this was very important.

Now I’m not saying Nasser’s approach would have necessarily led to something good; I’m not sure it was or is the way to go. But that’s not the point. The point is that Arab unity is something that really scares Washington: just as unity scares them in Latin America, just as it scares them everywhere. It’s not just the Americans who are scared; the Russians are scared as well. Any power that seeks advantage is going to be scared by any coalition that would limit those advantages.