A Reset for U.S. Policy? Not Now, But Watch the Base

Al-Shabaka Commentary

Al-Shabaka Policy Advisor Rashid Khalidi assesses the position of the United States towards Palestine-Israel in the wake of the Palestinian bid for membership of the United Nations. Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, is also the Editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies.

In this wide-ranging interview with Al-Shabaka Program Director Victor Kattan, Khalidi has some harsh words for President Barack Obama, describing his UN speech in September as the worst ever by an American president. Khalidi also reviews the way in which U.S. policy toward the conflict was transformed over decades, including through the efforts of Dennis Ross, and discusses why AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) is far more effective today than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Although he sees no hope at present for a just U.S. policy, this could change if public opinion – which is much more enlightened than that of U.S. policy makers – is expressed through the media and at the political level.

Victor Kattan: What did you think about the Palestinian strategy to become a member state of the United Nations? Some Palestinians think that it was a mistake to have gone straight to the Security Council.

Rashid Khalidi: I would argue that it depends on what objective you are trying to achieve. If your objective is a narrow diplomatic one to obtain maximum benefits at minimum costs, which is a perfectly rational approach, it might have been advisable to have avoided the Security Council and to have gone directly to the General Assembly. If, however, this was part of what I would call a declaration of independence from the United States, and the idea was to illustrate the fact that the United States is an obstacle to a just resolution of the conflict, then I don’t see why a defeat in the Security Council, by a U.S. veto or a lack of necessary votes, doesn’t serve that purpose and then that could be followed by going to the General Assembly and achieving the same objective. Obviously you don’t want to suffer a defeat if you don’t have to and another argument would be why should the Palestinians accentuate their differences with the U.S..

VK: What did you think of Abu Mazen’s speech before the UN General Assembly?

RK: I thought that it was an unexpectedly good speech. I think that a not fully appreciated result of the whole initiative was the re-opening of questions that have been ignored – especially in the U.S.

It generated an enormous amount of interest in the Palestine question, and I don’t think the PA/PLO capitalized on it at all, as much as they should have, and might have, and ought to have. But, nonetheless the media frenzy around the UN effort opened up issues having to do with the role of the U.S., having to do with the moribund so-called peace process, having to do with going back to the UN and international resolutions as a basis of a resolution, having to do with the anomaly between Israel getting sanctioned as a state in 1947 by UN General Assembly resolution [GA 181, the November 29, UN partition plan] and the Palestinian state being disallowed. All these things have been opened up and I think the whole discussion has moved on a little bit.

Now obviously it requires capitalizing on that. One of my constant regrets is that there has never been a serious Palestinian official effort to effectively make the case. Every time a Palestinian delegation comes to New York, if they spent a tenth of the time they spend in the UN delegates’ lounge on American television, on American campuses, and talking to people they would be doing the cause a great deal of good.

VK: What did you think about the position adopted by some Palestinians and Palestinian organizations, including many in the U.S., who opposed the Palestinian strategy to go to the UN because of the question of refugee rights among other issues?

RK: I think those were unwarranted fears. I cannot see how the continuation of a strategy at the UN, in which the PLO has been engaged for a very long time, would necessarily jeopardize the status of the refugees. I think you can argue that the two-state solution is problematic among other things because it does not fully take into account the refugee issue. But that is a problem some people have been talking about since 1974 when it was first floated by the PLO. That is a fundamental problem of the two-state solution. How is that made compatible with a just resolution of the Palestine refugee issue along the lines of GA resolution 194? I don’t think that is something raised by going to the UN in September 2011, that’s raised by a strategy that has been adopted since 1974. And that’s a legitimate concern. I just did an interview with Ha’aretz and the journalist said what do you have against the two-state solution and I said one of the problems with the two-state solution is that it does not address the refugee issue. It does not address the issue of Palestinians inside Israel and it does not address the refugee issue. Those both have to be addressed.