Thirty years ago when I was in graduate school, we had a phrase to describe an assertion whereby the author had tried to use razzle-dazzle to get unsuspecting readers to accept the argument as true. The phrase was "sleight-of-hand". I think it is an apt description for the type of argumentation Rashid Khalidi puts forward in his book, The Iron Cage.
The obfuscation of which Khalidi is guilty is not in the inaccuracy of his arguments. There is plenty of that. For example, he cites Article 4 of the 1924 League of Nations Covenant on four separate occasions, yet that article is completely irrelevant to his argument. The text is also full of assertions bordering on the mendacious. For example, the implied claim that the allies made specific promises to the Palestinians. They did not. Instead they promised a specific family control of the of the region in return for assistance in fighting the Ottoman Turks – an agreement that, as the Karshes argue in their book Empires of the Sand the Hashemites never lived up to even as they repeatedly sought a better deal from the Constantinople.
Khalidi's conjuring is much more subtle. He repeatedly declares that he will not argue a certain thing, detailing his reasons in the most flowing language, and then turns around and makes precisely that argument. So, for example, he tells us at the beginning of the book that he will not blame outside forces, but rather look at the reasons that the Palestinians themselves failed to achieve a state. But then he does exactly what he said he wouldn't do. The failure of the Palestinians according to Khalidi results from what amounts to a conspiracy between the British on behalf of the Western Powers and the Zionist movement. So, for example, the Zionists created a Jewish Agency in Palestine, while the Palestinians did not establish an "Arab Agency" to counter it. However, this is proof of nothing because there was no reason that the Palestinians could not have established the institutions of a state during the Mandate. As further evidence, Khalidi blames the British for completely breaking down the religious and administrative hierarchy of the Ottoman Empire. Yet the British had no intention – and here they had the full support of the League of Nations – of maintaining the structure of the Ottoman Empire, any more than they desired to maintain the two empires in Europe that they had just defeated in the war.
Another example of Khalidi's artifice is the way he deals with the Palestinian leadership in the critical years of the 1930s and 40s. Khalidi argues that during much of this period, the
…British and Zionists made efforts to play Palestinian leaders off against one another in order to exacerbate old rivalries, or create new ones as part of a strategy of divide and rule…. It is difficult to verify the scope of such efforts, however, as the underhanded methods employed by officials in inflaming local tensions were generally considered highly confidential [emphasis added]
Here we see a combination of the search for a post-modern, neo-colonialist narrative with the type of conspiracy theory rampant in the Middle East. Yet while Khalidi blames outside forces for undermining the efforts of the notable families to lead, he leaves us asking just who was leading and who was being led. It seems that every time the Arabs could be perceived as having a success (for example, in the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam uprising or the general strike) he gives credit to the Palestinian masses. Perceived failures, he attributes to the notable families. Yet, in fact, the successes were not nearly as successful as he would have us believe, nor did the Arab masses – particularly in the cities – lack any responsibility for the failures.
Which brings us to a final sleight-of-hand: landless peasants prior to 1948. Khalidi would have us believe that "Arabs owned nearly 90 percent of the country's privately owned land" in 1947. On what basis? Well, because Khalidi simply asserts this based on UN figures that Jews owned only 10.6 percent of the, unspecified, privately owned land. However, without going into the various classes of land tenure, this would appear to only include land that was classified as miri land under the Ottoman Law. Further, Khalidi makes the claim that the urban areas were filled with dispossessed peasants, while at the same time admitting that Zionist "land purchases… amounted to a small fraction of the country's total area". These two claims appear to contradict one another.
Ultimately, Khalidi gives us nothing new here. (Indeed, in the introduction he doesn't even promise to offer us any new material.) Rather, he simply rehashes the same old apologetics to excuse the Palestinian Arabs of any responsibility, placing the blame on others. Khalidi says it best when speaking about Haj Amin al-Husayni:
But the larger defeat of the Palestinians was certainly not solely his [the Mufti's] fault. It was a function of nearly two decades of leadership failure, the absence of national and representative institutions, and the inherent weakness of Palestinian society facing more powerful, more coherent, and better-organized foes.