RASHID KHALIDI has been targeted by pro-Israel activists and caricatured by Republican politicians, but those who know his work have great respect for the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University. In his latest book, titled "Sowing Crisis", Mr Khalidi explores how the cold war shaped America's role in the Middle East. With that topic in mind, we asked him some questions this week.
DIA: If, as you say in your new book, George Bush's adventures in the Middle East were no more than an unusually aggressive continuation of an imperialist US policy that dates back to the 1930s, then do you think Barack Obama represents a fundamental shift or merely a softer version of the same thing?
Mr Khalidi: I don't actually say that: the United States only truly became a world power (and a Middle Eastern power) during and after World War II. Moreover, outside the narrow sphere of the Caribbean and the Philippines, it was never a colonial power in the classical sense. Rather, I argue that in invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq and in attempting to restructure their governments from the bottom up, the Bush administration launched the United States on an unprecedented venture in a part of the world where, unlike Britain and France, it had never attempted any such thing.
It remains to be seen whether George W. Bush has set the United States on an ultimately futile neo-colonial course in this region (under the guise of "nation-building"), one that the Obama administration will be unable or unwilling to break with, or whether this was an aberration that will be corrected by the new president. Also yet to be determined is whether the massive American military and naval deployments of the past couple of decades in the region running from north Africa and the Middle East through Central Asia, which are far larger than they were at any time during the Cold War, will be continued under the new administration.
DIA: You have said that in America there is only one side to the debate over Israel policy. Why is that?
Mr Khalidi: In the American political sphere there is a blanket refusal to accept that Israeli actions—such as occupation and settlement, and wars like those in Gaza and Lebanon—are harmful to the American national interest. This consensus of the willfully blind is aggressively enforced by a lobby that does not represent the actual views of many of those whom it purports to speak for, notably the American Jewish community. Most of this community is more open-minded than the hard right-wing views represented by the leading components of the Israel lobby. The lobby was perfectly in tune with the neo-conservative approach of the Bush administration (and of Republican candidate John McCain) on a range of issues ranging from policy towards Iran, to the war in Iraq, and all aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But this community overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama, in spite of assiduous attempts to depict him as a closet Muslim, pro-Palestinian, and "soft" on Israel. I doubt that this disconnect, which is one of many subtle signs that things may be changing, has been missed by the able political operators around the president, and that may lay the groundwork for a change—if it ever becomes possible to overcome the enduring consensus of idiocy in Washington where Palestine and Israel are concerned.
DIA: If the Obama administration wanted to encourage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, what tools should it use?
Mr Khalidi: A wholesale change in approach is necessary. First the United States would have to encourage Palestinian unity instead of fostering division among Palestinians, as it has done since 2006. Secondly, it would have to make clear to Israel that the continuation of occupation and settlement are illegal, untenable in the long term, and harmful to American interests, and will no longer be tacitly (and financially) supported by the United States. The entire illegal Israeli settlement grid all over the West Bank and the 42-year old matrix of control over 4m Palestinians will have to be rapidly and fully dismantled if the dwindling hopes for a two-state solution are to be revived (many realistic observers have argued that the time for such a solution is long past).
Finally, the United States would have to embrace a comprehensive, multilateral approach with international involvement that links an end of occupation and settlement and a Palestinian-Israel accord to peace between Israel and Syria and Lebanon. All of this would have to be linked to détente with Iran and an end to the ongoing mini-cold war between Washington and Teheran. This is a daunting task, not least because it involves many unpredictable and powerful regional actors, and because it goes up against many of the mindless conventional pieties about the Middle East that pass for wisdom in Washington, DC.
DIA: What do you think of the "Syria first" peace proposals? Is this another attempt to make Middle East peace by bypassing the supposed object of that peace, the Palestinians themselves? Or does peace with Syria stand some chance of a) happening and b) improving the state of play for an eventual deal with the Palestinians?
Mr Khalidi: Resolving the outstanding issues between Israel and Syria would not be very difficult to achieve in and of itself (the parties were fairly close to a resolution on two occasions in the past). But in order for it to succeed it must be part of a comprehensive approach to a resolution of the overall Arab-Israeli conflict, and a complement to a Palestinian-Israeli settlement. However, if the Syrian track is exploited to avoid addressing Israel's unwillingness to halt its victimisation of the Palestinians or to negotiate with them, and to achieve cheap gains in the form of separating Damascus from Teheran, it will be harmful, and will inevitably fail and make the regional situation even worse.
DIA: Is there any chance of a united and stable Palestinian political leadership, and can outsiders do anything to make it happen?
Mr Khalidi: The Palestinian national movement faces its gravest crisis since 1948, one that ultimately must be resolved by the Palestinians themselves. This is something that the fragmented Palestinian leadership does not currently appear to be able to do. If Palestinian unity cannot be restored on a new and stable basis, the Palestinians may be threatened with political eclipse, as happened after 1948, although the stubborn Palestinian reality will endure.
That said, the United States and most major regional actors, including Israel, Iran, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have ruthlessly exploited and exacerbated Palestinian divisions for their own ends (not to speak of Israel's systematic elimination of generation after generation of Palestinian leaders). This fostering of Palestinian disunity by all concerned was foolish and counter-productive and must end if there is to be any hope of Palestinian unity. It was in part a function of the American-Iranian confrontation that must be ended as well if anything is to change for the better in this region.
DIA: How would a nuclear Iran change the dynamic in the region?
Mr Khalidi: A nuclear-armed Iran is an outcome to be avoided if at all possible, as is any further nuclear proliferation in this volatile region. However, this problem must be addressed in the context both of a reduction in the nuclear arsenals of the major powers, and as part of a regional non-proliferation effort. The latter would perforce have to place on the table not only Iran's nuclear ambitions, but also the considerable nuclear arsenals of Israel and Pakistan, both of which concern Iran and other regional powers. All of this would require ending the ongoing American-Iranian mini-cold war, itself a tall order.
However, if such an ambitious approach fails or is sabotaged (whether by Israel, Iran or in the corridors of power in Washington), as may well happen, the most likely alternatives are unpalatable in the extreme: a nuclear-armed Iran, which would be on a hair trigger, especially if regional conflicts are not defused; and an attack on Iran, whether by Israel or the United States. The latter option would lead to several grave outcomes, among them an unquenchable determination on the part of an embittered Iranian leadership to obtain nuclear weapons, whatever the cost, an effort that would probably eventually succeed, with incalculable consequences.