Rashid Khalidi, the Columbia University professor whose friendship with Sen. Barack Obama is raising questions, says he was never a spokesman for the PLO, but his strong PLO leanings were evident at a time when Yasser Arafat's group was mounting terror attacks in Israel and causing mayhem in Lebanon.
And while Khalidi may not have been speaking on behalf of the PLO, during interviews he occasionally used the word "we" when speaking of the organization.
In one 1981 interview, Khalidi referred to the exiled PLO's growing standing among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, saying "we have built up tremendous links with the Palestinians ‘on the inside' in different ways. We can render them services … we've never been stronger there, and the trend is continuing."
Sen. John McCain's campaign has urged the Los Angeles Times to release a video reportedly showing Obama speaking at an event in Chicago about his friendship with Khalidi.
The newspaper last April reported on the 2003 event, which took place when Khalidi was leaving Chicago for a new job, a professorship of Arab studies, at Columbia University.
"Speaking to the crowd, Obama reminisced about meals prepared by Khalidi's wife, Mona, and conversations that had challenged his thinking," the LA Times said.
"His many talks with the Khalidis, Obama said, had been ‘consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases … It's for that reason that 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 newspaper said Khalidi had praised Obama, "telling the mostly Palestinian American crowd that the state senator deserved their help in winning a U.S. Senate seat."
The report also mentioned that the event had been filmed and said that "a copy of the tape was obtained by The Times."
After conservative bloggers raised questions about the unaired videotape, the McCain campaign issued a statement Tuesday.
"A major news organization is intentionally suppressing information that could provide a clearer link between Barack Obama and Rashid Khalidi," said campaign spokesman Michael Goldfarb.
"The election is one week away, and it's unfortunate that the press so obviously favors Barack Obama that this campaign must publicly request that the Los Angeles Times do its job – make information public."
LA Times editor Russ Stanton in a statement said that paper had not published the video "because it was provided to us by a confidential source who did so on the condition that we not release it. The Times keeps its promises to sources."
Obama's relationship with Khalidi has become an issue because during his campaign for president, the Illinois senator has portrayed himself as strongly pro-Israel.
Khalidi has denied being a spokesman for the PLO during his years in Lebanon, when he taught political studies at the American University of Beirut in the second half of the 1970s and the early 1980s.
During that period, the PLO was based in the Lebanese capital, having been expelled from Jordan after an abortive attempt to topple King Hussein. In Beirut Arafat's group established a "state within a state" taking over entire residential areas, setting up roadblocks, and extorting protection taxes. The PLO became a party to Lebanon's civil war, backing Muslims against Maronite Christians.
PLO atrocities against Christians reached a climax in early 1976, when PLO fighters killed 582 inhabitants of the Christian town of Damour, south of Beirut, before turning it into a stronghold. According to published accounts, the terrorists pillaged and ransacked the town and its churches, desecrated a Maronite cemetery by digging up and robbing corpses, and used the interior of the St. Elias Church for a shooting range and a garage for PLO vehicles.
From its Lebanon stronghold, the PLO mounted cross-border terrorist attacks against Israel, culminating in a deadly assault that cost the lives of 35 Israeli civilians. Israel retaliated by sending in the army in 1978, pushing the PLO out of southern Lebanon. PLO shelling of northern Israel continued until Israel's invasion in 1982 led to the PLO's final expulsion from Lebanon, and it relocated to Tunisia.
Khalidi began teaching in Beirut in 1976, the year of the Damour massacre.
Over the following years, he was quoted a number of times in media reports, giving a Palestinian perspective on events.
On June 11, 1979, a New York Times report assessed Palestinian views of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty signed that March, following the Camp David accord the previous year.
Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat was the first of Israel's enemies to sign a peace deal with the Jewish state, officially recognizing Israel, and many Palestinians worried about the implications for the PLO's armed campaign.
The New York Times story, by Youssef Ibrahim quoted Khalidi – whom it called "a professor of political science who is close to [Arafat's faction] Fatah" – as saying, "We are in a make-it-or-break-it period."
"If we don't turn the tide, if what Sadat is doing is not decisively repudiated, if the idea that Sadat has brought peace is allowed to stick without regard to Palestinian rights, then we are done in," Khalidi said.
‘We've never been stronger'
On January 6, 1981 the Christian Science Monitor quoted Khalidi – a professor of political science "with good access to the PLO leadership" – in a report examining the incoming Reagan administration's Mideast options.
If a "hard-line anti-Palestinian view" dominated the Reagan administration, he said, then "[t]he PLO will probably perceive the new administration as basically hostile – possibly more hostile than the Carter administration."
Khalidi in the story appeared at least highly supportive of the PLO, if not actually speaking on its behalf. He also seemed to refer to the PLO as "we" on occasion.
"All you'll see during the coming period of stalemate, which is all you can attain without the PLO, is the PLO getting stronger and stronger internally," he said.
"It is already happening. When was the last time people inside the Palestinian movement solved their differences with guns? A long time ago – apart from executing traitors. We are much more mature these days – the most sophisticated political constituency in the Arab world."
Arguing that the PLO's standing among Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza had grown, he said, "Quite apart from the politics of it, we have built up tremendous links with the Palestinians ‘on the inside' in different ways. We can render them services, often through our compatriots in the West, that King Hussein, for example, could never match. We've never been stronger there, and the trend is continuing."
Another Christian Science Monitor story, on June 2, 1981, referred to "Rashid Khalidi of the Institute of Palestinian Studies" (apparently a reference to the Institute for Palestine Studies, an institution set up in Lebanon in the 1960s. In 1971 it launched its Journal of Palestine Studies, a publication Khalidi has written for on occasion since then. He is its current editor.)
Khalidi was quoted again by the New York Times in April 26, 1982 – two months before Israel invaded Lebanon – when a report by Thomas L. Friedman described him as "a Palestinian professor at the American University of Beirut."
At the time the PLO was under pressure from the Lebanese government not to provoke an Israeli reaction to its attacks. Khalidi commented on PLO strategies, again using the word "we."
"If we break the cease-fire now it would not only play into Israel's hands but would also divert world attention away from the popular uprising on the West Bank, which is equally important to the PLO's long-term objectives," Khalidi said.
On June 9, 1982, three days after Israel invaded, another Friedman report for the New York Times described Khalidi as "a director of the Palestinian press agency, Wafa," and quoted him as saying the Israelis were out to "crush the PLO."
Wafa was a PLO-owned and PLO-funded news agency. Khalidi's wife, Mona, worked for Wafa when they lived in Beirut. She currently works for Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
Wafa remains today the news agency of the Palestinian National Authority, the self-rule administration set up by Arafat after the Oslo Accords enabled him to return to the disputed territories.