Book Review

"No Light Between the U.S. and Israel”

Shaul Magid reviews the scholar Rashid Khalidi's latest book, and finds that the author agrees with some unexpected figures.

Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of History at Columbia University, is frustrated. For more than two decades, he has researched the Palestinian people and their cause. His book Palestinian Identity pointed to a distinct notion of “peoplehood” among those living in Palestine to the latter decades of the nineteenth century—around the same time as the emergence of Zionism—to put to rest the mythic notion that the Palestinians were not a people, an idea that was common parlance in Israel until the late 1970s (and is still used by some today). His book The Iron Cage explored the ways the British Mandate created conditions that made a Palestinian State almost impossible, and the way Palestinian leadership consistently abandoned their people in crucial moments for their own benefit. Brokers of Deceit is the third part of Khalidi’s trilogy, honing in on U.S. presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama to show that, in almost every administration, the U.S. was acting as Israel’s “lawyer” more than the honest broker it claimed to be, that it was involved in “conflict management” rather than conflict resolution.

A solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict (the term itself is biased, as it excludes “the Palestinians”) was always founded on the notion that both sides needed a mediator and “honest broker” that could push them toward a final agreement. When U.S. presidents and legislators continually voice the idea that “there is no light between the U.S. and Israel,” Khalidi suggests we take them at their word; and that is precisely the problem. Although not mentioned in his book, in some way Brokers of Deceit is a critical response to John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt’s The Israel Lobby (2008), which argued the Israel lobby has disproportionate influence on U.S. policy against U.S. interests. Khalidi writes, "[I]t is not primarily the Israel lobby that drives U.S. Middle East policy.” Rather, it is the trifecta of “the total lack of pressure from the Arab Gulf monarchies; the impact of U.S. domestic politics driven by the Israel lobby; and an unconcern about Palestinian rights” that lies at the core of the U.S.’s deceitful claim to be an honest broker in favor of a just peace for the Palestinians, and by extension, a secure peace for the Israel. President Truman said in 1945, “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism: I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.” Khalidi implies this statement filters through every subsequent administration, suggesting U.S. policy is not driven by any overly influential lobby; it is U.S. self-interest that lies at the core of the “no light” dogma between the U.S. and Israel.

The book is divided into three moments: Menachem Begin and Palestinian autonomy in 1982, Madrid-Washington in 1991 to 1993, and Obama and Palestine in 2009 to 2012. In each moment, Khalidi claims, with small deviations of Carter toward the Palestinians and George W. Bush away from them, each administration basically took the same position; keeping Palestinians on the margins of all negotiations and keeping Israel at the center, fused at the hip to the U.S. Even at Camp David II (where Khalidi participated as a consultant), almost all U.S. positions were first vetted with the Israelis.

Critics may view this as anti-Israel but, in effect, it is not, at least not in any conventional way. When Abraham Foxman wrote an entire book, The Deadliest Lies, contesting The Israel Lobby and calling it Anti-Semitic, he never quite addressed the question that AIPAC was acting as all Washington lobbies do; to say they are too successful is incoherent as that is what lobbies aspire to. Whatever we may think of the NRA, on their terms it is not weakness but strength that they are as successful as they are. Underlying Foxman’s claim is that it is the U.S. and not the Israel lobby that drives Israel policy. And here Khalidi couldn’t agree more! In fact, Foxman’s critique of The Israel Lobby is founded on the “no light” dogma Khalid describes in depth. In other words, descriptively, Khalidi thinks Foxman is right.

Khalidi argues that almost every Israeli administration acted in accord with the Begin/Shamir position that sought to curtail any resolution to the conflict and, as Shamir famously, and honestly, said in 1992, he would use negotiations as a stalling tactic “for ten years and in the meantime we would have reached half a million people [in the territories].” Khalidi quotes Aaron David Miller who played key role in the Carter and Bush administrations, “If you want to succeed in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, you must be an advocate for both sides. Far too often the small group with whom I have worked… had acted as a lawyer for only one side, Israel.” In short, Khalidi argues the U.S. continues to fall into the Israeli trap, for its own interests, capitulating to almost every Israeli action with little more than a diplomatic finger-wagging (aside from threatening to withhold loan guarantees in the first Bush administration), enabling Israel to act as it will not because it agrees with it but because “no light” has becomes a U.S. legislative dogma. When the U.S. criticizes Israeli action, even action blatantly against previous agreements, they are labeled “anti-Israel.” That is, to be an honest broker is to be anti-Israel

Here Khalidi is not faulting the Israelis; they are a sovereign state acting in what they determine is their best interest, even if one views it as unjust, immoral, and at the expense of legitimate Palestinian rights. More importantly, Israel is only able to act with such impunity because they understand the power of the “no light” dogma. The U.S. accepts the perpetual “existential crisis” of Israel that makes the occupier the victim and gives them a free pass to act as they wish.

Khalidi is as hard on the Arab Gulf States as he is on the U.S. (his critique of Palestinian leadership is the subject of Iron Cage). In short, for him, the Palestinians have embodied the “Jews” in Tom Lehrer’s song “National Brotherhood Week”: “Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics, And the Catholics hate the Protestants, And the Hindus hate the Muslims, And everybody hates the Jews.”

Who is Khalidi targeting in Brokers of Deceit? It is not the Israelis nor is it the Israel lobby. AIPAC is simply doing what lobbies do, maximizing their influence among legislators, whatever one may think of the message. It is, I suggest, those center-left pro-peace groups who believe in the U.S. as an honest broker (perhaps J-Street?). At the same time they claim the U.S. is crucial to any peace agreement, they submit to the “no light” dogma as sacrosanct, while in fact it makes any resolution impossible. “No light” means no just resolution for the Palestinians and thus no secure resolution for Israel. For Israeli legislators such as Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennet and even Yair Lapid that is fine; when they determine security is breached they can just turn the screws of the occupation like they did last week by legalizing four “illegal” settlements because they know that there is no honest broker that will do a damn thing.