Christison: Perceptions of Palestine
There is no shrewder observer of the American-Palestinian-Israeli triangle than Kathleen Christison. A former CIA analyst, Christison has written a masterful treatise on how it is that the United States managed to ignore the Palestinians for a century. In her considered view, it was not the Israeli lobby, although it was enormously influential, or a "conspiracy of interests groups" (p. 288), or the media, but a general mind-set of Americans, influenced by the Bible, that created favoritism toward the Jews in Palestine and a stereotype of Palestinians as ignorant and violent.
Her most powerful accomplishment is in vividly demonstrating how the United States managed decade after decade to avoid the true grievances of the Palestinians, the loss of their land, and that the core of the conflict in the Middle East was between the Israelis and Palestinians and not the larger Islamic world. Instead of empathizing with the distressed Palestinians as victims, sequential presidential administrations managed to ignore them, considering them troublemaking refugees not worthy of attention. It took the period from Israel's establishment in 1948 to the Carter administration (1977-81) for the United States to recognize in a serious way the Palestinians. It took another decade for the Bush administration to bring them directly into the mainstream of peacemaking.
Perhaps most enlightening is Christison's documentation of the indifference or ignorance of most presidents and secretaries of state about the reality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In an insightful review of President Harry Truman, she writes: "Truman was a true lover of the Bible and knew it intimately. . . . He clearly considered himself something of an expert--not only of Jews and their history but Arabs, who he said had shown a deplorable lack of enterprise about developing the area. As with his predecessors and so many of his contemporaries who were steeped in the Bible, a Jewish return to Palestine seemed to him historically appropriate" (p. 63).
Truman's successor, Dwight Eisenhower, "stands out as the only president who ever exerted heavy pressure on the Jewish state for a territorial withdrawal. . . . But distance did not make Eisenhower a friend of the Palestinians" (p. 96). Eisenhower relentlessly leaned on Israel to surrender the Sinai Peninsula captured from Egypt in the 1956 war until Israel finally caved in. His secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, prohibited U.S. diplomats from going to see Israeli officials in Jerusalem for more than a year because U.S. policy opposed Israel's claim to the city, but there was never any outreach to the Palestinians.
Israel has not received such rough treatment since then. John Kennedy "did not have a good understanding of the [Palestinian] refugee issue or a real appreciation of the depth of feeling on both sides" (p. 105). He made a pro forma effort to engage the Arabs, but not the Palestinians. Kennedy opened the floodgates of weapons sales to Israel by approving the transfer of Hawk antiaircraft missiles to Israel in 1963, breaking a two-decade-old prohibition against arms sales in the region. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, brought "a new degree of warmth in relations with Israel, reaching new depths of hostility in relations with the Arab states, and ignoring the Palestinians so totally that he never even made a show of addressing the refugee problem" (p. 109). Johnson gave the Jewish state increased diplomatic and financial support, basically ignored Israel's occupation of Jerusalem, gave Israel's supporters open entree to the Oval Office, and, at the end of his presidency, began the transfer of sophisticated technology by approving the sale to Israel of F-4 warplanes, then America's most advanced fighter jet.
Richard Nixon "came to office in 1969 intending to pursue an impartial policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, but he had no interest in, and knew little about, the Palestinian situation or its political ramifications. . . . Neither Secretary of State William Rogers nor National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger was any better informed or any more deeply interested in the Palestinians than Nixon" (p. 124). Plagued by crises and scandals and blinded by his global view that regional tensions grew out of the American-Soviet cold war, Nixon basically handed the Middle East portfolio to Kissinger, who became secretary of state in 1973. Under Kissinger's pro-Israel perspective, the Palestinians continued to be ignored and Israel's aid skyrocketed from $30 million in 1970 to $2.2 billion in 1974. Gerald Ford, under Kissinger's guidance, was "even more inclined to deny the significance of the Palestinian issue" (p. 144).
The president who finally recognized the centrality of the Palestinians was Jimmy Carter, who "changed the vocabulary of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the United States and to a great extent changed the frame of reference for the Palestinian issue. Ultimately, of course, Carter deserted the Palestinians at the Camp David summit, where they had no representation, and Egypt's Anwar Sadat reneged on his pledge to look out for their interests.
The Palestinians lost most under Ronald Reagan and his Israeliophile secretary of state, George Shultz. Reagan "brought a quantum leap in efforts to promote Israel and delegitimize the Palestinians in the United States. . . . Pro-Israeli propaganda, fueled by an efficient Israeli public relations machine and welcomed by a sympathetic public, press, and Congress, reached a near fever pitch. . . . Reagan came to office a strong admirer of Israel, had no sympathy for the Palestinians, and was disinclined from the beginning to take an even-handed approach to Middle East policymaking" (p. 195). Christison adds: "The Reagan team did not simply ignore the Palestinians but was actively hostile to the notion of Palestinian nationalism and cooperated with Israel throughout its eight years to undermine the legitimacy of the PLO" (p. 202). According to Christison, "The important point about Shultz's automatic rejection [of the PLO] . . . is that his inability to move beyond his reflexive hostility to everything about the organization effectively closed off the principal avenue toward a peace settlement for the entire six and a half years in which he was in office" (p. 230).
George Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, seemed finally to break the American mind-set focusing totally on Israel. "The Bush administration not only started the peace process but forever altered the framework that shaped both public discourse and policy on Palestinian-Israeli issues" (p. 270). Still, during their four years in office, they never exerted the kind of pressure required to prevent Israel from increasing its settlements in the occupied territories.
Bill Clinton took the whole opening to the Palestinians backward again. Settlements no longer were "illegal," as under Carter, or "obstacles to peace," as under Reagan, but mere "complications." For the first time in more than forty years, the United States refused to support UN General Assembly Resolution 194 calling for the return of the Palestinian refugees. Clinton even tried to rewrite the United Nations' record, calling through his UN ambassador (Madeleine Albright) in 1994 for the "elimination" or "improvement" of resolutions condemning Israel.
Christison forcefully concludes her fascinating book by noting that the Palestinians were "particularly ineffective in advancing their own cause" (p. 285). The problem was that they were shackled by the lack of a national political organization and that they failed to mount a public relations effort to combat the effective Zionist campaign. As for America's role, Christison sharply observes: "In purely practical terms, the United States cannot be a peacemaker if it continues to underwrite measures, such as Israeli settlements and Israeli land expropriations, that prevent peace from evolving. It cannot honestly maintain that its own intervention is impossible because the parties are not ready to make peace when U.S. support has a direct bearing on Israel's readiness to make concessions. It cannot expect peace in the Middle East if it supports only one side in a conflict that cries out for reconciliation" (p. 293).
Donald Neff is author of Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy Towards Palestine and Israel Since 1945 (Washington: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1995) and Fifty Years of Israel (Washington: American Educational Trust, 1998).