Akiva Eldar
December 5, 2008 - 1:00am

No one stopped Rashid Khalidi, the Columbia University professor of Modern Arab Studies, at Ben-Gurion airport. Having just landed after the long flight from New York, the professor was anticipating the traditional reception from airport security personnel reserved for visitors with "suspicious" names. To his surprise, he entered the airport like anyone else, with no problems or delays. Perhaps word had gotten around at Ben-Gurion that he was the Palestinian friend of United States President-elect Barack Obama.

Khalidi, 60, who spent three weeks in Israel and the territories before continuing on to Beirut this week, doesn't like all the fuss surrounding his relationship with the president-elect. Up to now, he had avoided speaking about it publicly, for better or worse. The reason may be, as reflected in my interview with him at his hotel in Jerusalem, overlooking Damascus Gate, his disappointment in his Chicago friend's treatment of the Arab and Islamic community in the United States. Or maybe it's also discomfort with the Democratic candidate's response during the campaign to reports about the ties between them. "He is a respected scholar, although he vehemently disagrees with a lot of Israel's policy," said Obama in a widely publicized comment from a May campaign event, in response to a question about their relationship. His spokesman made certain to add that the president-elect has been "clear and consistent on his support for Israel."

"Obama was my colleague at the University of Chicago, a family friend, neighbor and my district representative in the Illinois State Senate," says Khalidi. "Since I moved to New York in 2003 and he moved to Washington a year later, we've had much less opportunity to remain in contact." In April, The Los Angeles Times reported that, at the farewell party at an Arab-American community center, Obama noted that they had shared frequent dinners and interesting conversations, adding, "I'm hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation - a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid's dinner table," but around "this entire world." The article further related that Obama said he hoped to give the Palestinians hope with a new American policy in the Middle East. Another one of the guests reportedly likened the settlers in the territories to Osama bin Laden, asserting that both are "blinded by ideology."

Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, took the story and ran with it, seeking to score some points with Jewish voters. "Obama is a friend of a Palestinian hater of Israel," proclaimed McCain. Palin attacked The Los Angeles Times for refusing to make public a videotape of the farewell party. Their people "discovered" that, during the 1980s, when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was considered a "terror organization," Khalidi was the organization's spokesman in Beirut.

Khalidi, considered the successor to Prof. Edward Said among the Palestinian intelligentsia, studied and taught for 12 years, until 1983, at the American University of Beirut and the Institute for Palestinian Studies there. While he did maintain connections with foreign reporters, he was never a PLO spokesman. Later on, between the Madrid summit in late 1991 and the Oslo Accords in September 1993, Faisal Husseini got Khalidi added as a consultant to the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid summit and to the bilateral talks with the Israeli team, headed by Elyakim Rubinstein. That was when Khalidi formed his opinion of the coordinator - the U.S. mediator Dennis Ross, who is one of Obama's advisors on foreign affairs. Khalidi alludes to him when he says in the interview that he hopes the new president will not bring back the same people who contributed to the failure of the peace process here. Nor was Khalidi thrilled to hear that Obama has appointed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Clinton's courting of Israel during the darkest days of the intifada made her a darling of the Jewish community and distanced her from the Palestinian community.

Obama's campaign went on the counterattack against McCain-Palin: This is yet another attempt, they said, to recycle controversy and divert public attention from the fact that McCain supports Bush's economic policies. Obama's spokesman suggested that instead of berating the media's supposed double standards, McCain ought to explain why, during the time he was chairman of the International Republican Institute, for years it helped fund the Center for Palestine Research and Studies, an organization that sponsored some of Khalidi's lectures and published some of his work.

Khalidi, who wanted the black Democratic candidate to win, kept his head down and avoided the media. As the son of a political family, he is adept at swimming in such murky waters. His family tree in Jerusalem on his father's side dates back at least to the 15th century. He says it's quite likely that some of his ancestors, who were Chief Judges in Cairo during the Mameluke period, are buried in the Muslim cemetery in the Mamila area (the designated site of the new Museum of Tolerance). His uncle was the mayor of Jerusalem from 1935 to 1937, until he was deposed by the British Mandate authorities and exiled to the Seychelles. In the 1950s, the uncle was appointed foreign minister of Jordan and, for a brief time, also served as prime minister under King Hussein.

Khalidi, who is married and has one grandchild, speaks with eloquence and firmness. He was born in New York in November 1948. His father, a university student at the time, married a woman from Lebanon and developed a diplomatic career as an international civil servant working in the UN Secretariat. After his return from Beirut, Rashid Khalidi earned a place of honor among the Palestinian intellectual elite, alongside professors Edward Said, Walid Khalidi (his cousin) and Ibrahim Abu Lughod. His book Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking during the 1982 War, was translated into Hebrew and published by Ma'arachot Press. He is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and served as the Director of the Middle East Institute there for five years, before stepping down last year. In 2006, he published his most recent book, "The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood" (Beacon Press).

After being around for about two weeks, after quite a long time away, what kinds of changes have you sensed in Palestinian society?

"It would be presumptuous of me, after an absence of over two years, and not having been able to go to Gaza, to pronounce myself on this subject. I will give some impressions nevertheless. I sense even greater anger than before in Jerusalem at the systematic choking off of the city from its West Bank hinterland, the unceasing pressure of new settler strongholds and property expropriations, and the denial of a minimal level of basic municipal services to Arab neighborhoods. Just compare the miserable state of the roads or the schools or the parks in East Jerusalem to those in the West. On a broader level, I detect enormous popular frustration and disgust with both wings of the national leadership, Fatah and Hamas. In spite of this crisis at the political level, there is an irrepressible dynamism, ingenuity and vitality in the Palestinian economy and society, whether in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem or the Palestinian community inside Israel. This is the underlying strength of the Palestinian people: it is like water that cannot be dammed up, but finds a way to get through. This resilience is there no matter what new refinements the occupier devises to torture his captive."

Do you believe that the current PLO leadership will be able to cut a deal with Israel on a two-state solution that will be accepted by the Palestinian people?

"The current PLO leadership does not and will not properly represent the entire Palestinian people until it can achieve a historic compromise with the other wing of the Palestinian national movement, and until a renewed, unified leadership can agree on minimal national goals and a strategy, whatever they are. This requires resisting the internal and external pressures that are intent on keeping the Palestinians divided. Only if they are unified do the Palestinians have a chance of achieving their national goals. Thereafter, to be binding and legitimate, any agreement that might be reached would have to be submitted to a referendum of the entire Palestinian people, inside and outside the country."

How do you see the future of the Palestinian territories?

"Both the occupation regime and the settlement enterprise have gotten constantly stronger since the negotiating process began in 1991 - after being weakened by the first intifada. These twin processes went on steroids after the second intifada started in 2000. If these two bulldozer-like endeavors are not rapidly reversed - not halted, reversed - then there is no possibility whatsoever of a two-state solution. These processes - the consecration of the occupation regime and the expansion of settlements - have been ongoing for 41 years. I suspect that because of them, combined with the blindness of Israeli leaders and the weakness of Palestinian leadership, there is little chance for a two-state solution to be implemented. And anyone who wants to implement a real, equitable two-state solution would have to explain in detail how they would uproot all or most of the settlements. Equally difficult will be overcoming the powerful interlocking complex of forces in Israeli society that have extensive material, bureaucratic, political and ideological interests in the Israeli state's continued control over the lives of 3.5 million Palestinians, a control that is exercised under the pretext of security."

As someone who has long been involved with the PLO and Palestinian politics, what can you say about the current Palestinian leadership?

"The Palestinian people have certainly not always had the leadership they deserved. Israel worsened this situation by systematically liquidating Palestinian leaders - generally the most effective and intelligent among them - going back to the early 1970s. Several Arab regimes also played a part by assassinating key PLO leaders. Historians have pointed to similar efforts by the Zionist movement in the late 1930s and 1940s.

"That said, the current leadership seems to me to be lacking in several respects, and certainly does not seem up to the difficult tasks at hand. It is time for a wholesale renewal of the Palestinian leadership, and the replacement of the few remaining members of the founding generation of the modern Palestinian national movement and their entourage with younger individuals with new ideas. This requires a major effort to confront the failed policies of the current leaders of both major factions, and to find new approaches to the grave problems the Palestinian people face."

How do you assess the last eight years of U.S. conduct in the Middle East and specifically in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

"It has been catastrophic. It made a bad situation worse, undermined democracy all over the region by helping to sabotage the results of the 2006 Palestinian elections, played a major role in splitting the Palestinian national movement, and helped Israel dig itself even deeper into the hole of a permanent occupation. The administration's other foolish Middle East policies, like the occupation of Iraq, the 'cold war' with Iran and Syria, and encouraging Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in the region, have all been negative in and of themselves, but they also had a profoundly harmful effect on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Many American historians say George W. Bush may have been the worst president in American history, but his impact on this region has certainly been little short of a disaster."

What are your expectations of Barack Obama's administration in the Middle East? Do you believe he will stick to his promise to put it at the top of his agenda?

"I have no special insight. I do believe that the president-elect takes this problem very seriously, and will give it his attention. Obsessed as we are with our own issues, however, we should not ignore the fact that he faces the greatest American and global economic crisis since 1929, and must necessarily give that priority.

"In any case, much will depend on who is chosen for the key positions relating to the Middle East. If some of the unimaginative, close-minded and biased advocates of conventional thinking who bear a major share of the responsibility for the mess we have been in for over 20 years - from the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations to that of Clinton, even before George W. Bush made things even worse - are appointed to important posts, my expectations will be low. I was involved in the negotiations as an advisor to the Palestinian delegation from Madrid in 1991 until June 1993, before Oslo. Those American officials who helped get the Palestinians and Israelis into the mess they are in via a deeply flawed negotiating process, and a cowardly refusal to confront occupation and settlement head-on when it would have been far easier to do in the 1980s and 1990s, do not deserve another chance to ruin the future of the peoples of this region."

Can Obama save the two-state solution, or is it too late? What would you suggest he could do in order to accomplish this?

"It may well be too late, as I have said. The new administration would have to prevail on the Israeli government to put into reverse the twin bulldozers of occupation and settlement. This would mean removing walls and barriers inside the occupied territories that separate Palestinians from Palestinians and allowing free movement instead of restricting the population to segregated inferior roads. It would mean ending land confiscation and the building of new residential units for settlers all over the occupied territories, and the return to the population of these territories of the land stolen from them on various 'legal' pretexts or without a pretext at all. In sum, it means ending Israeli security control over the occupied territories, and scrapping the whole overarching structure of the occupation regime that has constantly grown more deeply rooted for 41 years.

"Doing this would require a lot of the new president's political capital. Despite the immense significance of Barack Obama's victory in terms of American history and politics, I do not think things have necessarily changed in terms of the balance of forces in Washington where Israel/Palestine issues are concerned. This balance of forces is and has long been an obstacle to progress toward ending occupation and settlement and achieving peace."

Are you disappointed with Israeli intellectuals and the peace camp?

"I respect what many Israeli groups and individuals do. However, their efforts are insufficient in light of the looming prospect of a permanent occupation and the continuation into the indefinite future of what exists today. This is a de facto one-state solution, wherein the State of Israel rules over the entirety of Mandatory Palestine and over more than 5 million Palestinians, most of whom have no rights at all in the polity that takes all the important decisions, the Israeli polity. Although the responsibility of Israel in this matter is paramount, the efforts of Palestinians and of outsiders have been insufficient as well, and we will all be affected by such an outcome, so we all have an urgent responsibility to act. More immediately, targeting a civilian population of 1.5 million people of the Gaza Strip with hunger, deprivation and effective imprisonment, whatever the nature of their leaders, is criminal and is a violation of international law, as are all attacks on civilian populations, Jewish or Arab - something I have said repeatedly in talks here. That people, whether in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, the Arab countries, or the capitals of the world, can remain silent while Gazans are punished on this scale is beyond belief."

What have you learned from the political-media affair in regard to your relations with Obama?

"It proved once again that to be of Palestinian origin and to be publicly opposed to the occupation and critical of U.S. policy is grounds for public defamation as a 'terrorist.' It attests to the survival of McCarthyite tendencies in the U.S. media and politics. It also reaffirmed that Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians specifically are still the 'other' in American society. A higher percentage of Arab-Americans voted for Obama than any other ethnic group besides African-Americans, and they voted in record numbers too, I believe, and yet they are still pushed aside, almost literally. For instance, two Arab-American women in hijab were removed from the camera's gaze at one of Obama's rallies during the election. Obama did not visit one mosque or Arab community center throughout the entire two-year campaign, and he never mentioned Arab- or Muslim-Americans in his speeches. Whatever may have been the 'strategic' political reasons for these actions, they show the kind of atmosphere we in the U.S. live in.

"This situation is linked to the problematic notion that it is acceptable to create a U.S. Middle East policy which caters to Israel - and specifically to the Israeli right - and to the concerns of powerful forces like the Israel lobby that are allied to the Israeli right, but hardly at all to Arab- and Muslim-Americans. Such a policy is based on the opinions, 'expertise' and allegiances of Washington insiders who are not knowledgeable about all the complex realities of the region, and are mainly sensitive to Israeli concerns. Just as an Obama administration aspires to reflect the entire country in all its diversity, so should its Middle East policy-making reflect a comprehensive set of interests and concerns, and not just one narrow range of them."

Do you believe that J-street and Arab-American peaceniks can contain AIPAC and Jewish right-wing organizations?

"They appear to have begun to make some headway. They need to convince American politicians, Democrats in particular, that where Israel and Palestine are concerned, leaders of the main institutions of the American Jewish establishment, notably AIPAC, do not represent the views of the majority of the American Jewish community. In fact, the hawkish views of most of these leaders are far closer to those of the 24 percent of that community who voted for McCain than they are to the 76 percent who voted for Obama.

"Arab-Americans of course have a long way to go before they have significant influence, although this is already beginning on the local level in some states. This is still largely a first-generation immigrant community, although more and more of the young have been born, brought up, and educated in the U.S., and will play a much larger political role than their elders. Part of the problem is that the range of opinions that is permissible in the United States is far narrower than those voiced in politics and the media in Israel, or anywhere else. And the general level of ignorance in the U.S. about Middle Eastern realities, in part due to the unceasing propaganda bombardment, is higher than any place in the world."

As an historian - why did Oslo fail and why does it look like our conflict is reaching a final deadlock?

"Oslo was doomed to fail for several reasons. It was never an agreement between equals, granting statehood and self-determination to the Palestinians, nor was it intended to allow that outcome, Palestinian illusions about it notwithstanding. It did not deal with the key issues between the two sides - Jerusalem, refugees, land, borders, sovereignty and water - and failed to halt settlement or end the occupation. It was an agreement that in effect allowed one side to continue eating the pie that the two were supposed to negotiate over dividing. Indeed, the decade of negotiations that began with Madrid saw a doubling of the settler population, the implementation of plans to parcel up the West Bank into cantons, and the consecration and strengthening of the occupation regime. The 2000 intifada then gave [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon a chance to accelerate those already ongoing processes.

"There is no such thing as 'final' in history. The current situation is inherently unstable, with intolerable pressure being put on the Palestinians. This pressure will sooner or later produce a reaction, unless it is relieved. The Palestinian national movement is currently in eclipse, as has happened before. Who can say what will come next, but the past 60 years have shown that Palestinian society, whether the part that remained behind in the Jewish state in 1948, or that currently under occupation, or that in the diaspora, has shown enormous vitality and a remarkable capacity to re-knit itself and resist enormous pressure. Look at the Palestinians in Lebanon, who have suffered and suffer more than any segment of Palestinian society, except the people of Gaza. In spite of the serial atrocities committed against them, the multiple external foes they have faced, and the many terrible mistakes and failures of the political leadership, like the Gazans they manage to maintain their social cohesion in conditions of indescribable difficulty."W


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017