Lecture, Rashid Khalidi: "The United States as an Honest Broker in the Mideast?"
Guest Writer: Chase Dimock

Monday, October 1, 2012

[On September 26, 2012, the Unit for Criticism hosted "The United States as an Honest Broker in the Mideast?" a lecture by Rashid Khalidi, Nicholson Distinguished Visiting Scholar at UIUC and Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University.]

Written by Chase Dimock (Comparative & World Literature)

Considering that the title of the up-coming book upon which Rashid Khalidi based his talk is Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. has Undermined Peace in the Middle East, it was safe to assume before the lecture that his answer would be a resounding NO. Or, as Khalidi himself put it, "Any other nation would be a more honest broker than the US."

For Khalidi, the main question is why the United States has maintained a rhetoric of neutrality on the Israel/Palestine peace process when it has not so subtly favored Israel as an ally over the past decades. To get at the heart of this question, Khalidi deconstructed the politics of language and the language of politics. Citing George Orwell's classic essay "Politics and the English Language," Khalidi charged that the veil of language conceals an American policy aimed at exacerbating the conflict instead of resolving it.

Fulfilling Orwell's prophesy about the slovenliness of our language, terms like "peace process," "terrorism" and "security" have become estranged from their dictionary definition and altered to fit a specific political ideology of what is possible in the Israel/Palestine conflict. "Security," as Khalidi argued, has become an endlessly expandable term that governs all aspects of civil society. The priority to secure the existence of Israel as a state has made "security" the ruling directive that guides all questions from the importation of pasta to deciding whether or not Palestinians can build cisterns to collect water. "Terrorism," as Khalidi argued, in an Israeli context is used only to refer to the aggression of the Palestinians or Arab nations. Thus the term has no self-reflexive quality—it is never used to put one's own or the US's actions into question, but instead it always already places Israel into the morally righteous dichotomy of the term.
Beyond the politics of language, Khalidi pointed to "three moments of clarity" over the past four decades that prove that the United States has failed to maintain their professed neutrality as a broker of peace between Israel and Palestine. These moments in history are: 1. The breakdown of the 1978 Camp David Accords on the Palestine question and the subsequent refusal to recognize a Palestinian state according to the 1982 "Reagan Plan" 2. The 1991 Madrid Peace Conference and the 1993 Oslo Accords in which the American negotiators coordinated their strategies with Israeli officials before coming to the table. 3. President Obama backing down from his (uncontroversial) prerequisites for a two state solution over the last two years and his subsequent speech before the United Nations. In all three of these examples Khalidi maintained his thesis that the ultimate effect of "peace talks" was to maintain a status quo believed to be favorable to Israeli security while parroting the principled language of peace and self-determination.

In contrast to the hollow rhetoric of the "peace process," Khalidi offered his own list of conditions that could create a lasting peace between Palestine and Israel. Khalidi advocated the complete reversal of the occupation and settlement by Israel of Palestinian territory, granting Palestine the freedom of self-determination as a state, and finding justice for the Palestinian refugees who were displaced from their homes during the occupation. This question of displacement is an especially sticky issue because withdrawal would not only mean Israel then displacing hundreds of thousands of its own settlers that it encouraged to move there, but it also means going against the economic interests of corporations that have profited from the development of the land.

Instead of working to broker peace in the Middle East, the United States, as Khalidi argued, has actually worked as a hindrance because it supports and in some instances exacerbates an Israeli policy that will concede none of the aforementioned conditions. Peace cannot be reached by forcing the Palestinians to accept Israel's terms, and because the United States has placed Israeli policy above all other priorities in the region, it has functioned as though it was "Israel's lawyer." But such policy, in turn, reflects the interests of reactionary regimes such as Saudi Arabia and of the economic beneficiaries of oil and the military industrial complex more than either the Israeli or American peoples. (Yet another factor is the growing influence of money in US and Israeli politics with billionaire supporters such as Sheldon Adelson as supportive of the Netanyahu administration in Israel as he is of neoconservative Republicans in the US.)

Khalidi concluded with a kind of warning for the future of America's interests in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Although the political costs of the pro-Israel bias have been relatively low and the economic gains have been huge, the entire landscape of the Middle East could change should the neighboring nations democratize. While they do not like the favoritism that the United States shows to Israel, Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia have acquiesced because the US is not only a valuable trading partner for oil, but also because our patronage keeps the monarchical and dictatorial regimes in power.

Although the US claimed to be spreading democracy to Iraq, in reality it is the US's record of supporting reactionary social actors and totalitarian regimes which has kept our Middle East policy afloat and, by extension, our advocacy for Israel. With this observation, Khalidi provided perhaps the most compelling evidence of the US's political manipulation of language—that the "peace" they are pursuing in the Middle East is contingent upon denying the democracy and self-determination that Americans have been taught to believe are essential to the lasting "peace" and "freedom" of their own nation.

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