Walid Khalidi: A Conversation on the Current Middle East Situation

On October 18, 2012, MEI hosted a conversation with renowned Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi. Introductory remarks were made by Kate Seelye and the Q&A session was moderated by Amb. Phil Wilcox. You can find the full transcript of the talk, as well as participant bios, below:

Kate Seelye:  I’m Kate Seelye, Vice President of the Middle East Institute. Thank you all so much for joining us today. I’d like to welcome you for this very special occasion, a conversation with Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi. I cannot underscore enough what an honor it is to have Mr. Khalidi here from Cambridge today to share his thoughts on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the general Middle East situation. As the preeminent scholar of Palestinian history, Mr. Khalidi has done more to record the rich culture and lives of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who inhabited pre-1948 Palestine. He has done so perhaps more than any other scholar. His books, such as Before Their Diaspora, which is a photographic history of the Palestinians from 1876 to 1948, and All That Remains, a book which documents in great detail the destroyed and depopulated Palestinian villages of pre-1948, really document and recall a vanished past – and remind us why finding a just and durable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is so important to healing the scars of the past. If you don’t have his books, I encourage you to go online to Amazon and add them to your collection.

I want to thank Middle East Institute Board Member George Salem for making today’s event possible, through the George and Rhonda Salem Family Foundation. George has long been a big supporter of Palestinian causes and his commitment has enabled MEI to program a series of lectures on Palestinian-related events. In fact, next week we are hosting a panel, on October 23, about the political and economic implications of the fiscal crisis faced by the Palestinian Authority. That’s October 23 at SAIS, featuring Oussama Kanaan, who is the IMF expert on the Palestinian economic situation; Robert Danin of CFR; and Khaled Elgindy of Brookings. So please sign up for that one and join us next week as well.

I also hope you can join us for our upcoming annual banquet and conference, on November 13-14. We are hosting on the 13th three outstanding individuals from the region. We are awarding Hanan Ashrawi, who needs no description; Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, a Saudi philanthropist who has done extensive work in the area of poverty reduction and employment creation in the Arab world; and Naguib Sawiris, who is an Egyptian business leader who is the largest private-sector employer in Egypt and has done a lot to promote democracy and pluralism in Egypt. That night we are also hosting a very fine American diplomat, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who recently left Afghanistan. He has also been ambassador to Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. He will be joining us in conversation with NPR’s Steve Inskeep. It will be an exciting night. It’s MEI’s biggest fundraiser of the year and it helps fund our free annual conference the next day, a series of policy panels. I hope you can join us for that.

Now I’d like to turn to today’s program. I’m very fortunate to be joined by the head of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and MEI Board Member, Ambassador Phil Wilcox, who will introduce Mr. Khalidi and moderate today’s Q&A. Mr. Wilcox served thirty-one years in the Foreign Service, with his last overseas assignment being as chief of mission and US consul-general of Jerusalem. That undoubtedly has shaped his view of the conflict and in his retirement he has been very active in seeking to foster peace between Israelis and Palestinians. In addition, he is on the ANERA Board and he is chairman of the Board of Directors of the American Friends of UNRWA. Phil, thank you so much for joining us today. I’d like to hand the event over to you.

Phil Wilcox:  Thank you, Kate. Thank you for making possible this very special occasion, where we have the honor and pleasure of hearing Professor Walid Khalidi. It is a special occasion because of his preeminent place among historians of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a conflict which has often been clouded with propaganda, false history and partisanship. Dr. Khalidi’s many books and articles are distinguished by the integrity of his scholarship and his deep capacity for research. He has helped promote the whole profession of Palestinian historiography and has helped to make it better understood in the United States and the Western world.

He was born in Jerusalem in 1925. He was educated at Oxford, where he taught until he resigned in protest when the British invaded the Sinai in 1956. He then taught at the American University of Beirut and at Princeton, and for many years he has been a visiting professor and senior research fellow at the Harvard Institute for Middle East Affairs.

I think there is no one who has done more to nurture the field of Palestinian scholarship and Palestinian history. One institution which he created is the Institute for Palestinian Studies, long ago in Beirut, in 1963. I think many of you are familiar with the Journal of Palestine Studies, which is published by the Institute, and based in Washington, four times a year. It is a very serious publication which I think is unmatched anywhere in the world.

Dr. Khalidi’s presence here, I don’t have to tell you, is very timely, at a time of deepening concern and even despair about a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and at a time when the Middle East is undergoing new and unprecedented turmoil, for better or worse. He will address the events in the region but especially how he views the Israel-Palestine conflict and the possibility, about which there is growing skepticism, I have to admit, in the US and elsewhere, about the future of a two-state peace between Israel and Palestine. Dr. Khalidi, it is great to have you with us.

Walid Khalidi:  Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Ambassador Wilcox, for your very kind, generous and effusive words. I have the great honor and privilege of addressing this very distinguished audience, which also happily contains so many friendly faces too.

I have the greatest respect for the Middle East Institute, which to me is a tree of a special species in this forest of ‘belief tanks’ in this metropolis. Since its establishment in 1940, the Middle East Institute devoted itself to the education of American public opinion in a balanced, nonpartisan, non-polemical mode, based on the field experience of generations of Americans from all walks of life, and on their extensive human relations with the peoples of the region, and on their understanding of the hopes and the flaws and the grievances of these peoples, all in the service of the national interest of the United States. In 1963, when some colleagues and I were considering the establishment of the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut, we had two models in mind: Chatham House in London and the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Ladies and gentlemen, to someone of my age, time seems to be in quite a hurry. It is swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. But it is extraordinary what a begetter of facts it is in its speedy passage. I was born within seven years of the Balfour Declaration. Yet consider just how much has happened in the Middle East in this single lifetime. Consider too the change of status of the United States in the Middle East during this self-same period, from King-Crane in 1919 to 9/11.

From my own perspective, shared by millions, three major watersheds in the 20th century created the Middle East of today: one, the Balfour Declaration of 1917; two, the Nakba in 1948; and three, the June war of 1967. The role of the United States in these three watersheds was one of increasing intrusiveness. In 1917 there was the marginal benediction of Wilson. In 1948 there was the significant, relentless pressure of Truman on a war-weary and bankrupt Britain that led to the termination of its mandate in Palestine in the way that it happened, with the consequent Nakba. In 1967 LBJ’s role was formative and decisive in his endorsement of the Israeli strategy, basing the negotiations for a so-called peace settlement on the ceasefire lines that were created by the Pearl Harbor of June 5th.

I’m going to distribute my remarks in four sections: one about the Arab world, one about Israel, one about the Palestinians, and one about the United States.

As far as the Arab world is concerned, never has the Arab world been in the state of flux that it is in today. Much of this is to the good, particularly the revolutionary change in the relationship between ruler and ruled. May this spread farther afield. But since Nasser’s death there has been no moral or political center of gravity in the Arab world – no North Star, no compass and no helm. The Arab country with inherently vast spiritual potential, in addition to its affluence, has not and is not rising to the occasion, while its junior co-affluent mini-city-states continue their genuflection to the golden calf. In the Fertile Crescent, the post-World War I Sykes-Picot state system is crumbling. This is not bad in itself except that it is being replaced by a centrifugal reversion to the primordial, sectarian, ethnic constituent blocs of these societies, with all the attendant dangers. This process in Syria is ongoing before our eyes and is fraught with horrors yet to come. Concurrently, irresponsible Arab leadership is fanning the flames of Sunnite-Shiite discord, the most explosive and destructive divide within the Arab Muslim world.

Overlapping with this flux, two regional phenomena predominate: one, the steady decline of secular pan-Arabism, which is fast approaching and may have already reached its terminal state; two, the steady rise of political Islam, hard on the heels of its predecessor.

Secular pan-Arabism does not have many fans in the Western world because of its hostility to Israel and to Western colonialism. What is forgotten in the West is the major role that secular pan-Arabism had in blocking the tide of communism and preventing it from spreading throughout the Middle East, and via the Middle East into Africa. Arab regimes which dealt with the Soviet Union, particularly in the arms field, brutally crushed their communist parties at home.

The failure of pan-Arabism has many causes. One cause which I don’t think has received much attention in the West is theoretical/organizational. At the time of the collapse of the Egyptian-Syrian union in 1961, there wasn’t one single piece of serious writing in Arabic about union or federation – nothing, not one single piece. I vividly remember how stunned we were at the collapse of the union. We started asking ourselves, why did this happen? Then it struck us: there was nothing in writing, nothing anywhere near the Federalist Papers. The founders of this great country spent I don’t know how many hundreds of hours on the mechanics of federation: how to get there and how to keep it going. There was nothing of this sort in the Arab world. Actually what happened is that we got together and looked at a massive comparative study of federation that had been compiled by Robert Bowie and Carl Friedrich, professors at Harvard. It was a comparative study of the five major federal systems in the West: Canada, the United States, Switzerland, Federal Republic of Germany and Australia. We translated this vast volume into three volumes in Arabic soon after the 1961 breakdown of the Egyptian-Syrian union. At the same time, some of you may know the much-lamented and great Jamal Ahad [phonetic], the Sudanese who actually translated the Federalist Papers in full into superb Arabic, just after the 1961 breakdown of the union.

Arab political theory concentrated and to a very large extent still concentrates on the objective at the expense of the means. There are voluminous writings on objectives. Writings on how you get there, what you do once you get there – writing on these aspects is very slender. The contrast with Zionist thought is absolutely remarkable. I spent hundreds of hours reading the resolutions of the Zionist Congresses, which started in 1897 with the First Zionist Congress at Basle and continue to this day (the last congress was very recent). These congresses took resolutions. These resolutions are to be found in at least 2,000 pages since 1897, and probably more. I don’t know how many times I’ve read these resolutions. In these resolutions you see the same thing: the exact opposite. The objective is very briefly stated and the bulk of the resolutions is on the instrumentality, the modality, the mechanics, how to get there.

Another reason for the failure of pan-Arabism is the super, Himalayan egos of the dictators. Witness what happened between Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, the decades wasted in conflict although these two belonged to the same Ba’ath Party. Of course the death blow to secular pan-Arabism was the brilliant, ruthless, humiliating, devastating Israeli victory in 1967.

The last stronghold of secular pan-Arabism is Assad’s Syria. Despite Assad’s dictatorship, Syria was exemplary throughout the Arab and Afro-Asian countries in the treatment of minorities and women. It is ironic that some Arab countries championing the downfall of Assad are doing it in the name of reform, which is not quite super-abundant in the departments of women and minorities within their own frontiers. Under Nasser and Hafez al-Assad, membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was punishable by death. Sadat used the Muslim Brotherhood as a counterweight to his Nasserist secular opponents. Israel initially encouraged Hamas as a counterweight to Fatah.

The 1967 Israeli conquest of the holy places in Jerusalem had profound reverberations within the three monotheistic religions, for different reasons: Judaism everywhere; Christian millenarianism, especially in the United States; and throughout the Muslim world. With regard to Christian millenarianism and Judaism, I was a member of the Iraqi delegation to the United Nations after the June war. It wasn’t Saddam Hussein, it was the pan-Arabist Arif, before Saddam, whom Saddam fought to the death. In New York there seemed just a little more than usual people with black eyepatches. Of course the jubilation, the triumphalism, the Israeli songs, reverberated throughout the city. It was as if, as a historian, I recalled the jubilation in Christendom after the defeat of the Ottoman fleet in Lepanto, in 1571, when church bells throughout Europe reached the highlands of Scotland in celebration.

For Islam, this was the first time since the Crusades that the Muslim holy places themselves were under non-Muslim military occupation. You may say, wait, what about the British Mandate? Actually the Brits, because their empire had so many Muslims, in a sense the British Empire was a Muslim Empire. They were extremely scrupulous with regard to the holy places. In Jerusalem itself they were scrupulous in maintaining the religious status quo. For example, as you remember there was the 1936-1939 rebellion, a big rebellion in Palestine against British rule, against the massive Jewish immigration, against the policy of the Balfour Declaration. The highest political authority was the Arab Higher Committee, and its chief was Hajj Amin al-Husayni. The Brits decided to dismantle the Arab Higher Committee, dismiss Hajj Amin from the supreme council, and had issued a warrant for his arrest and were determined to get him. They arrested his colleagues, sent them off to the Seychelles and were now trying to get Hajj Amin. He lived in a house next door to the Haram al-Sharif. What he did was to slip into the Haram al-Sharif from his house. The British did not send a policeman to get him. That is how he escaped subsequently and ended up in the Axis countries during World War II. Compare that with Sharon invading the Haram with 1,000 troops in 2000, triggering the second intifada. Compare it with the furious digging of tunnels under the Haram al-Sharif by Bibi Netanyahu.

As far as Israel is concerned – this is my next stop – parallel to the decline of secular pan-Arabism, there has been a steady decline of Labor Zionism in Israel. It is as if Labor Zionism had a specific historical role – the establishment of the infrastructure of the Jewish state under the Mandate – and once that had been completed it had become superfluous. This is particularly tragic because Labor Zionism seemed to be going through a learning process under the leadership of Rabin, the very personification of Sabra militarism. The assassination of Rabin was not an isolated event. Jewish fundamentalism had come to Israel and had come into its own. There had always been a religious presence alongside Labor Zionism; indeed, at a deeper level Labor Zionism was in itself a form of secular messianism. But Labor Zionism had its own way of dealing with the religious Zionist groups.

Take Ben-Gurion, for example. He was boss of the bosses from the mid-1930s onwards, with the Jewish Agency and subsequently in Israel well into the 1950s. All the cabinets that he formed had a mizrahi, a religious Zionist component. Mapai never had a majority – it had a plurality. What Ben-Gurion did was use that plurality to build a coalition, not with the secular right wing, not the revisionists, not Jabotinsky’s group – who subsequently became Begin’s group, who subsequently became Bibi’s group. He allied himself with the mizrahi, with the religious group. But there was a covenant between them: he would give them a free hand as far as Sabbath is concerned, as far as the conscription of religious young Jews is concerned, as far as issues of personal status was concerned, as long as they left him strategy and foreign policy.

But the floodgates of fundamental religious Zionism again opened with the conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967. Why? Because this is the first time since Titus and Hadrian that Jewish soldiers were walking on the Temple Mount. Zionist religious triumphalism took off at that point. An episode will illustrate this. As soon as the Temple Mount had fallen, the chief rabbi of the Israeli army, Shlomo Goren, rushed to the site and took the Israeli commander, Narkiss, on the spot by his lapels. “Do it now, do it now!” Narkiss said, “Do what now?” And Goren said, “Blow up the two mosques! Blow them up – this is the time to do it. It can be done with a hundred pounds of TNT.” Narkiss had actually to threaten to put the chief rabbi in jail if he did not stop this nonsense. But such was the feeling of triumphalism.

It is not a coincidence that the Likud and the Gush Emunim appeared after 1967, the first in 1973 and the second in 1974. It is not a coincidence that the first right-wing government since the beginning of Zionist colonization was after 1967, led by Begin in 1977. Begin himself was no secularist. He basically deserted his youth movement in Warsaw and ended up via Russia, after the German invasion of Russia, in Palestine. In February 1944, during the Second World War, before Hitler was defeated, Begin had become the leader of the Irgun Tzvai Leumi, a terrorist organization. In his declaration of war against Britain in February 1944, he invoked “the God of Israel, the God of the hosts.” In May 1948, at the end of the British mandate, he again rallied his Irgun troops by invoking “God of Israel, keep thy soldiers and bless their swords.”

If Rabin was the personification of Sabra Labor militarism, Bibi is the personification of right-wing Zionist triumphalism. He is in competition not only with his contemporaries – Benny Begin, Olmert, Lieberman, Barak – but he is also in competition for entry into the Zionist pantheon with his predecessors. Weizmann obtained the Balfour Declaration. Ben-Gurion obtained the state. Eshkol conquered East Jerusalem, including the Temple. Begin neutralized Egypt under Sadat. Shamir, thanks to the presidential ambitions of Henry Jackson, obtained one million Russians. How is he going to join this very distinguished group in the Zionist pantheon? For Rabin, the portal to the pantheon was a peace settlement. For Bibi, it was the consolidation of Israel’s stranglehold on western Eretz Israel, this side of the Jordan. His major asset being a perfect American accent and his American football vocabulary. Bibi does not see himself only as an Israeli leader. His self-perception is of a Janus-like Israeli-American political maestro with a single constituency, divided into two halves: one on the shores of the Levant and one between the two shining seas of this hemisphere. I doubt if Bibi sees any limits to his bipartisan plausibility in this country. Why should he, considering how often and how easily he has outmaneuvered and outmatched first Clinton and now Obama.

Iran’s nuclear program does pose a threat to Israel’s nuclear monopoly. It does pose a threat to Israel’s regional superpower status. What it does not do is pose an existential threat to Israel. That it does not do. The military and intelligence establishments of Israel know this. Bibi’s focus on Iran’s nuclear program is a monstrous red herring. He needs to divert attention from his top priority: his unfinished Zionist business in Palestine. It is unfinished. That is why out of 3,300 words in his recent UN speech, 70 are dedicated to the four million Palestinians living under his thumb.  An additional bonus for Bibi in focusing on Iran is the fuelling of the Shiite-Sunnite divide and the cooing signals it sends to some Arab dynasts. So far Bibi has succeeded brilliantly, but he is probably the most dangerous leader in the world today.

I now turn to the Palestinians. The most obvious aspect of Palestinian-Israeli relations is the colossal asymmetry between the two in power. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza collectively are de facto prisoners. Abbas travels to New York, but he can travel to New York because Bibi allows him to travel to New York. Abbas can return to his headquarters in Ramallah, but he can only return to his headquarters in Ramallah if Bibi allows him to return to his headquarters in Ramallah. How can there be direct negotiations between the jailer and the jailed? One possible, partial, symbolic counterweight is in the international community, some kind of membership for Palestine in the United Nations. But Bibi does not want that, and of course because Bibi does not want that, neither does Washington.

I have personally known Abbas for three decades. I have also known very intimately his three predecessors: Arafat, Shukairy and, yes, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, despite the disparity in our ages. The strategic thinking of Abbas is qualitatively, antithetically, radically, completely different – the polar opposite of the strategic thinking of his three predecessors. I know this. He is not a pacifist. He is not a Gandhian. For him it is a matter of deep conviction, based on field experience, self-criticism, introspection and deep reflection. Diplomacy for Abbas is the one path, the one and only path – the ‘open sesame’ – to a peace settlement. He was willing to stick to this despite provocation from the Israelis and despite bitter criticism from his own people. In many respects Abbas is a tragic figure: the last of the founding fathers of Fatah, he stood Fatah on its head. His troops defend Israel against the Palestinians instead of defending the Palestinians against Israel. To me as a historian, I see some resemblance with the Jewish patriot and historian Josephus and his relationship with Vespasian and Titus in the 60s of the 1st century AD. De facto, Abbas is a collaborationist – and he knows it. His American/Israeli/Jordanian-trained troops are in the good old Victorian native tradition: native troops hold down the natives in the service of the occupier.

Abbas is no traitor and he is no fool, but he is a trifle naïve. He sincerely, authentically, genuinely believed that if he unambiguously proved his exclusive dedication to diplomacy, Israel and the United States would reciprocate. Very recent contacts with him indicate that he is reaching the end of his tether and is probably on the threshold of the acknowledgment of the bankruptcy of his strategy.

As far as the United States is concerned – and this is my last station – as one listens to the political discourse on the Middle East in the Congress, in electoral debates and even in statements by the executive, one is struck by the centrality of the concept of “no daylight between Tel Aviv and Washington.” This of course is directly related to what the role of the United States in the conflict should be: an empire, honest broker, outside observer, or as Albright coyly put it, a handmaiden?

It is also related to whether it is permissible to raise an eyebrow, criticize or, god forbid, pressure Israel. It is obvious from ongoing discourse that the concept of “no daylight” has acquired in the United States the status of a moral imperative which totally precludes any such steps. Concurrently, the concept of “no daylight” requires the constant and repetitive celebration of the value of our ally. Indeed, the word “ally” has become by itself synonymous with Israel, without the need to mention Israel specifically. This idealization of Israel has led to a peculiar Zoroastrian outcome: if Israel is Almos [phonetic] then by definition the Palestinians, the Arabs and the Muslims are Ahriman, the god of evil.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am a Palestinian. But I have been an American citizen too, since 1990. With your permission I am going to take off my turban and put on my Red Sox cap, to point out that a policy of “no daylight” has very practical consequences for the United States. It not only enhances Israel’s sense of license on the ground but also of leverage, entitlement and purchase in Washington. More to the point, it inevitably reinforces the notion of American complicity with Israel in Arab and Muslim minds.

I would like to conclude my remarks by quoting from George Washington’s “Farewell Address”: “A passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, infusing into the one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.” Thank you for your patience.

Walid Khalidi is an Oxford University-educated historian who has written extensively on topics including the Palestine problem and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is general secretary and co-founder of the Institute for Palestine Studies established in Beirut in December 1963 as an independent research and publishing center. Khalidi's first teaching post was at Oxford, a position he resigned from in 1956 in protest at the British participation in the invasion of Egypt. He was professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut until 1982 and thereafter a visiting professor of government and senior research fellow at the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard. He was also a visiting research professor at Princeton University. Khalidi was co-founder of the Royal Scientific Society of Amman. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Ambassador Philip C. Wilcox, Jr. is president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He served as chief of mission and consul general in Jerusalem.

Kate Seelye is vice president of the Middle East Institute.