Donald Trump says his “Deal of the Century” is a new basis for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But, ironically, he’s driving hopelessly divided factions in the Arab world to unite against the plan, says Arab Studies professor Rashid Khalidi.
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Greg Wolpert: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Greg Wolpert in Arlington, Virginia. The Trump administration’s so-called deal of the century, that is its plan for a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, which the Trump administration announced last week, continues to make waves. First, the response to the plan has been one of rejection practically everywhere in the world. The UN, the EU, the Arab League and the International Organization for Islamic Cooperation have all rejected the so-called peace plan. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, however, have expressed themselves more favorably towards the plan. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu originally tried to take advantage of the plan’s rollout by announcing that over the weekend, Israel would annex large parts of the occupied West Bank in accordance with the plan’s proposal. That is, the plan would allow Israel to claim sovereignty over 30% of the occupied West Bank. The announced annexation however did not happen after all because, according to the New York Times, the Trump administration urged Netanyahu to wait until March 2nd Israeli elections.
Joining me now to discuss the Trump administration’s Middle East plan is Rashid Khalidi. He is Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, and his most recent book is The Hundred Years War on Palestine, a history of settler colonialism and resistance, 1917 to 2017, which came out just two weeks ago. Thanks for joining us today, Professor Khalidi.Rashid Khalidi: Thanks for having me.Greg Wolpert: So let’s start with what effect this plan is having on Palestinians. Clearly the rejection has been unanimous, but it seems to be serving to unite the Palestinians. Is it? I mean, is it uniting them who have been so divided for so long?Rashid Khalidi: Right. It seems to be having that effect. One hopes it will have an even more galvanizing effect. You had the first contacts between the Ramallah PA and the TA in the Gaza Strip, the Fatah dominated segment in the West Bank and the Hamas dominated segment in the Gaza Strip for the first time in a long time. This was a galvanizing shock for the Palestinians, and one hopes that it will force these two factions to overcome their selfish, narrow, sectarian interests and unite in the common interest of the Palestinian national movement. It certainly is a moment that should serve to unify the Palestinians because there is completely unanimous Palestinian rejection of every single feature of this plan.Greg Wolpert: Now, as I mentioned in the introduction, it seems that the UN, the EU, the Arab League, the International Organization for Islamic Cooperation have all been very critical of this peace plan. Now, the Israeli government, however, seems to be acting and speaking as if the US is the only country in the world that matters, and that, in other words, they can do what they want as long as the US approves. Does that mean that the US has the unassailable hegemonic power in the Middle East?
Rashid Khalidi: Well, Russia and China, by the way, have also opposed the plan. So there’s been, as you said, completely unanimous rejection of it by every single country except, as you also mentioned, one or two of the absolute monarchies of the Gulf, Arab monarchies of the Gulf. I think that the United States and Israel behave as if there’s only one global power, the United States, and I think that’s, at least in the Middle East, increasingly no longer the case. The United States has been ineffectual or absent from a number of arenas, Libya, Syria. It’s had almost no impact on outcomes in those and many other areas of the Middle East. It’s still obviously very, very powerful. One can see that vis-a-vis Iran. One can see that in terms of the American military presence in the Gulf and in Iraq, but I think that its role has somewhat diminished. And I think that one of the things it will cling the most desperately to is its absolute monopoly over what is called peacemaking in the Middle East.
I say that with scare quotes because the United States has been at this since 1967 and has systematically not only not made peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, has significantly exacerbated the conflict. So this has been conflict management to the benefit of Israel, which is why the United States is clinging to it. It will try to remain the sole interlocutor between the Palestinians and Israel, tipping the scale with its big heavy thumb in favor of Israel as much as it can. And I think the question is, can the Palestinians, can the Arabs, can other actors who agree in rejecting this ludicrous, completely unimplementable plan, can they agree on a different format for dealing with this conflict than the United States dominating it and continuing to prevent it from being solved by constantly catering to Israel’s whims.
Greg Wolpert: Do you think that the fact that the US is being so unilateral in this plan and in the way it was rolled out, don’t you think that would endanger the situation and make the, that is the potential for conflict greater in the Middle East?
Rashid Khalidi: Well, I think that the United States actually has acted in a variety of ways if you go all the way back to 1967. At times it sought to diffuse the conflict because it thought that it would lead to an escalation of the rivalry with the Soviet Union. At other times it supported Israel or supported other Arab actors against the interests of the Soviet Union and its allies. But as far as the Arab Israeli conflict was concerned, the United States acted to diffuse it when could win countries over to its side and bring them away from the Soviets, as it did with Egypt with the peace treaty or when it could otherwise favor Israel. But as far as the Palestine issue is concerned, the United States has, I think systematically made the situation worse.
There are some exceptions to this. I think George H. W. Bush and Secretary Baker tried to diffuse the conflict. I think there were other efforts to do that, but by and large over the past 53 years, at least since 1967, the United States has acted mainly to impose the Israeli views on Arab States and has been very successful in doing so, at least as far as the Palestinians are concerned, from UN Security Council resolution 242 until today. And I’d say it has constantly favored Israeli versions of international resolutions like 242, or has tried to push Israeli views as happened, for example, in the negotiations after Oslo, which led to the so-called Oslo Accords in ’93 and ’95. In all of these cases, the United States was shaping the game and moving the goalposts in Israel’s direction.
And this is a very extreme example of that. And I think that this is something that there should finally be some pushback against, not just by the Palestinians, but by the Arab countries and by other powers. I don’t see how the irresponsibility of the United States in exacerbating this can be allowed by other countries that are negatively affected by this conflict. European countries, countries dependent on the Middle East for energy, like India and China, Russia and so on. Letting the United States play with fire as it’s doing by constantly favoring Israel is harmful to everybody else’s interests, let alone the interest of the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves.
Greg Wolpert: I want to turn back to the Palestinian government. It has threatened to cancel all their agreements with Israel, including the Oslo agreements, as well as its security coordination. But why hasn’t President Mahmoud Abbas cut security coordination with Israel a long time ago given the unilateralism of the Netanyahu government until now?
Rashid Khalidi: Right. Well, that’s a very good question and I think it starts with the fact that this is not a government. It does not have sovereignty. It does not have jurisdiction. It does not have real authority over anything. Israel has absolute security control of the entire territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, has now, has always had since 1967. Will continue to have into the future. And this plan cements that in trenches that consolidates it and makes it, again scare quotes, legal, or would do that. And so, this is not a real government. This is an authority set up under Israel’s umbrella to serve specific purposes, most importantly, protecting Israeli settlers and the encroachment and expansion of the Israeli settlement enterprise, which has grown enormously to now over 600,000 settlers from zero in 1967, and protecting the Israeli military occupation, which controls most land, all water resources, all entry, all exit, all trade to and from and in the occupied territories, whether the West Bank or the Gaza strip.
So the Palestinian authority, whatever the Palestinians thought they were doing when they set it up, was intended to serve by Israel and the United States, to serve those purposes. And in fact, those were among the major purposes that it does serve. And it’s a very good question, given that that authority has not been allowed to set up a state, given that the Netanyahu and previous governments have systematically failed to keep to their part of the bargain that was made in the Oslo Accords. It’s an open question why the authority has continued its security cooperation with Israel. Mahmoud Abbas has said that he’s going to cut off contacts both with the Israeli security services and with the American intelligence services, but the head of the CIA, Gina Haspel, was apparently in Ramallah a day or two ago.
Greg Wolpert: Many scholars and journalists, including pro-Palestinian ones, say that President Abbas didn’t handle the police plan’s announcement very well, that he should have participated in the negotiations. They also argued that cutting ties now is a bad strategy because Abbas should use the opportunity to speak to the public and explain the critique that Palestinians have of the plan. What do you think of that criticism of Abbas?
Rashid Khalidi: Well as I argue in my book, The Hundred Years War, I don’t think that the PLO, PA, the Palestine Liberation Organization or the Palestinian Authority have handled negotiations very well for a very, very long time. When the United States is coming up with a plan that’s manifestly unacceptable, the elementary thing to do is to come up with a plan that is acceptable, not to allow the initiative to be taken by your enemies, the United States and Israel, and allow them to flood the airwaves with this ridiculous plan for the fulfillment of every wish that the Israeli right wing has ever had. But to put forward something which represents Palestinian aspirations, which is based on international legality, which offers an optimistic future, not only for Palestinians, but also for Israelis. And then to sell that very hard to the Arab world over the heads of unrepresentative Arab regimes that are connected more to the United States than they are to their own people, to the Arab public, which is still very sympathetic to the Palestinians.
Whatever the media tells you when they say the Arabs, what they mean is unrepresentative undemocratic monarchies and autocracies that suppress their people’s pro-Palestinian sentiment. And also putting that forward globally. Telling people the Palestinians have a vision of their future, which is a future which would be better for the Israelis than continued hegemony and suppression and sending their kids to police the West Bank into eternity, and which enables Palestinians and Israelis to live on a basis of equality in this country that is the home to the Palestinian people, but also now to the Israeli people. They haven’t done that. And I think that that’s been a failing that goes quite aways back.
In its heyday, the PLO put forward a vision. It put forward several successive visions. However good or bad they were, they were at least trying to reach people and make them understand that the Palestinians existed and had a vision for the future. I don’t think that these governments, and I blame the people in Gaza, the Hamas leadership, as much as I blame the people in Ramallah, the Fatah leadership, for their failure to put forward such a vision. I think this is an opportunity which they should take to do that into the future.
Greg Wolpert: Okay. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University and author of the book The Hundred Years War on Palestine. Thanks again, Professor Khalidi for having joined us today.
Rashid Khalidi: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.
Greg Wolpert: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.