“Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump,” by Khaled Elgindy, Brookings Institution Press, 2019, 323 pages.
Palestinians knew well before U.S. President Donald Trump announced the “Deal of the Century” that his proposed “peace plan” would be a farce. Yet even the most cynical observers could not have predicted how bone-chilling the event would be. The racism of Trump’s remarks, the grin on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s face, and the applause of the dignitaries in the room, may go down as one of the most harrowing political moments in Palestinian memory.
What many Palestinians experienced in that moment was the same dread their ancestors likely felt when they heard that British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour had promised their land to another people in 1917. Or when the UN decided — despite Palestinian opposition — that their country would be partitioned in 1947. Or when Israeli forces victoriously drove into Palestinian towns and farmlands in June 1967, and never left. Or the countless other moments in which the fate of Palestinians was decided by forces other than themselves.
It was therefore a jarring experience to read Khaled Elgindy’s book “Blind Spot” as the “Deal of the Century” was being unveiled. Published in 2019, Elgindy’s book chronicles how the United States not only enabled this historical path, but actively designed its trajectory. Beginning with the Balfour Declaration and ending with Trump’s ascension, the book traces America’s century-long alignment with the Zionist movement and the State of Israel, which came at the direct expense of the Palestinian people.
Elgindy’s thesis — that the U.S. suffers a “blind spot” in its diplomatic efforts in Israel-Palestine — rests on two simple but elegant pillars. First, the U.S. has always prioritized and bolstered Israel’s position in the conflict; and second, the U.S. has cared little for internal Palestinian politics. These pillars, Elgindy argues, have profoundly distorted American policy to the extent that Washington “effectively reversed the standard model of mediation: it alleviated pressure on the stronger party and increased pressure on the weaker party.”
Put bluntly, the U.S. made Palestine an exception to the most basic rules of peacemaking.
Stripping Palestinian agency
Although the book’s arguments and historical account are not necessarily novel, the metaphor in Elgindy’s title creatively captures the seemingly oblivious nature of American debates on Israel-Palestine. The blind spot, however, is not simply a product of ignorance: it is consciously designed, maintained, and protected by American and Israeli policymakers alike. In other words, Washington knows it has a blind spot, but refuses to heal it.
The first pillar — that America has “consistently put its thumb on the scale in Israel’s favor” – is well-known; if anything, it is touted as a requirement by mainstream Washington analysts and officials. The second pillar — ignoring intra-Palestinian dynamics — is much less acknowledged, arguably making it one of the book’s more valuable contributions.
“Unlike its relationship to Israeli politics,” observes Elgindy, “the Oslo peace process [and other peace efforts] was not agnostic toward Palestinian internal politics.” On the contrary, he argues, these processes “often became a platform for reforming, and occasionally even re-engineering, Palestinian politics and governing institutions to align with American or Israeli preferences.”
The concept of “re-engineering” encapsulates how the U.S., in line with Israeli policy, has spent the last century stripping Palestinians of any voice or agency in the pursuit of their rights. They were not the only ones: Arab states like Jordan, Egypt, and Syria had long engaged in a “bidding war” for control of the Palestinian cause and its leadership, routinely clashing and betraying Palestinian interests both militarily and diplomatically (Trump’s audience last week included the ambassadors of Bahrain, Oman, and the UAE).