The United States and the Palestinians, 1977-2012: The Key Moments
This essay, based on the author’s talk presenting a recent book, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East, examines the dynamics of U.S. policy formation on Palestine, mainly through the lens of three ‘‘clarifying moments’’ in the history of U.S. involvement in the Arab-Israeli conﬂict. The ﬁrst of these moments concerns efforts to revive and modify the Palestinian autonomy provisions of the 1978 Camp David Accords as an element of the 1982 Reagan Plan. The second examines Israeli-U.S. connivance during 1991–93 Madrid/Washington Palestinian-Israeli negotiations as revealed in conﬁdential documents, and the third focuses on President Barack Obama’s retreat during the second half of his ﬁrst term from positions staked out earlier. More generally, the essay looks at the underpinnings and continuity of U.S. policy and how it has evolved.
THE U.S.-SPONSORED ‘‘PEACE PROCESS ’’ between the Palestinians and Israel feels like it has always been with us, much as zombie ﬁlms are always with us on the silver screen. Just as there seems to be an insatiable audience, hungry for the walking dead, U.S. policymakers cannot seem to resist resurrecting this stale formula. Yet this long dead process, like the zombie, is still capable of producing mayhem.1
Indeed, far from producing peace, more than thirty-ﬁve years of this process has made peace harder to attain. Among the many reasons for this are political red lines concerning Palestine that are essentially determined by Israel, but which U.S. politicians have for decades chosen to be constrained by. Given that Israeli governments since 1977 have mainly been dominated by right-wing parties committed to an annexationist ‘‘Greater Land of Israel’’ philosophy, denying real Palestinian self-determination and expanding Jewish settlement of Palestinian land without limit, it is no wonder that this process has come to resemble the undead, all the while serving these Israeli aims.
U.S. ASSURANCES—TO THE PALESTINIANS AND TO ISRAEL
As part of the preliminaries to the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker sent a separate ‘‘Letter of Assurances’’ to each of the parties to the Arab-Israeli conﬂict invited to participate: Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and unspeciﬁed ‘‘Palestinians.’’ The letter to the Palestinians was sent to Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi as unacknowledged representatives of the PLO.
This letter promised, among many other things, that the United States would oppose actions prejudicial or precedential to negotiations, with an explicit reference to Israeli settlement activity.2 The ceaseless Israeli colonization of their land was of particular concern to the Palestinians, and Baker’s letter rightly singled it out as problematic in the context of negotiations. This was one of a number of unkept U.S. promises that have been made to the Palestinians, or about Palestine, since the mid-1940s.
The Letter of Assurances to the Palestinians also solemnly promised that ‘‘the United States will act as an honest broker.’’ This claim has remained a constant of U.S. diplomacy on the issue. Thus, during a later phase of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under U.S. auspices in 2008, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Palestinian delegation during a private bilateral meeting that she wanted to tell them ‘‘what I think of your positions, without hurting my role as the honest broker.’’3
Both secretaries of state—Baker in his Letter of Assurances and Rice in her comment—reiterated a crucial myth: that the United States serves as a disinterested intermediary between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Yet, as my recent book Brokers of Deceit makes clear, far from acting in any such fashion, the United States for many decades has behaved in a thoroughly one-sided manner that has been highly pernicious to Palestinian rights and aspirations.4 In consequence, U.S. policy has exacerbated and prolonged a conﬂict which, according to another set of potent myths, is one between near equals and where, if either party is a victim, it is the Israelis. In reality, the conﬂict is a highly asymmetrical colonial struggle between, on the one hand, a militarily dominant and economically powerful Israeli state acting with the full support of the greatest power in world history, and, on the other, a divided, dispersed, and oppressed Palestinian people living either under occupation or in exile, and enjoying very limited external support.
Language has had great importance in the construction of these myths. George Orwell wrote in 1946 that ‘‘the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts ...if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’’ The framing of the conﬂict using mendacious terms such as ‘‘honest broker’’ and ‘‘peace process’’ has masked the reality of U.S. complicity over successive administrations in the continued absolute dominance of the Israeli state over the Palestinians. This covert collusion has made the prospect of a just settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conﬂict far less likely. The concomitant distortion of language has made a crucial contribution to this process by ‘‘corrupting thought.’’ This veil of dishonest language conceals in particular just how closely U.S. policy toward the Palestine question has been entwined with that of Israel.
The close collaboration between the two countries was formally grounded in a then-secret 1975 letter from President Gerald Ford to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Under the terms of the letter, the United States agreed that on matters relating to the peace process it would ‘‘coordinate with Israel ...with a view to refraining from putting forth proposals that Israel would consider unsatisfactory.’’5 This undertaking, which has come to be known as the ‘‘no surprises rule,’’ and which concerns mainly the issue of Palestine—the issue of paramount importance to Israel—has been faithfully upheld by U.S. diplomats ever since. The result has been that from 1975 onward, the United States has given Israel an exclusive conﬁdential preview of all its efforts relating to the Palestinians, which generally led to a veto of any U.S. initiative to which Israeli diplomats objected. This obligatory alignment of the U.S. position on that of Israel where the Palestinians are concerned should have disqualiﬁed the United States from playing the role of intermediary between the two antagonists. Needless to say, it did not.
It is important to emphasize that this ‘‘Israeli veto’’ has not applied to other aspects of the Arab-Israeli conﬂict where serious Cold War strategic considerations or other important interests were seen by U.S. policy-makers to be in play. In such instances, both domestic political factors and the usual reluctance to confront Israel became far less salient. This was the case for the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal in 1968–70, the case for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s mediation efforts during the 1973 war and in the ensuing Sinai and Golan disengagement agreements of 1974–75, and the case for the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David Accords and subsequent peace treaty in 1978–79.
These U.S. initiatives of the late 1960s and 1970s did serve Israeli interests —as they also served those of the Egyptian and Syrian governments—but their primary purpose was to serve core U.S. foreign policy interests. These included defusing a dangerous potential superpower conﬂict and winning Egypt away from the U.S.S.R. while neutralizing Syria and the PLO.
What concerns us here is that in all of these instances, U.S. policymakers repeatedly overruled Israeli preferences in order to achieve key U.S. goals. In the process, they shrugged off the vociferous protests of both Israeli leaders and the Israel lobby. They did so because of the vast strategic advantage that was obtained: indeed it was during these years that U.S. ascendancy in the Middle East in its Cold War rivalry with the Soviets was deﬁnitively established. Policymakers have similarly overridden the strong opposition of Israel and its U.S. supporters to major arms deals with Saudi Arabia and other Arab petro-monarchies, where strategic concerns related to Gulf security, oil production, and the spending of oil revenues were in play, and where major economic interests such as those of the oil, defense, and aerospace lobbies were engaged.
By way of contrast, given the shortsighted conviction in many Washington circles that no major U.S. strategic interests are involved where Palestine is concerned, U.S. policy on that issue has been made almost exclusively with an eye to domestic political considerations. U.S. policymakers have acted as if their primary interest was Israel’s well-being, and the United States has meekly allowed itself to be endlessly hamstrung by President Ford’s 1975 commitment to Israel. Largely in consequence of this grotesquely skewed approach, there has been no peaceful resolution to the conﬂict, which continues unabated despite over thirty-ﬁve years of U.S. initiatives ostensibly directed at ending it. And all of this takes place under the Orwellian rubric of a ‘‘peace process.’’