Rashid Al Khalidi, professor of Arab studies at Columbia University and a leading Palestinian-American scholar and advocate for Palestinian rights, says the international community, which supported Zionism and decided to give most of Palestine to a Jewish state and did not do anything when the Palestinian state was destroyed and Palestinians were driven out of their homes, has to wake up and take it upon itself to correct the errors it made in acting in an unjust fashion towards the Palestinian people.
"The world community created by its decisions a source of unending instability in the region. Maybe somebody is going to wake up and realise that the people who played a large part in this instability can take it upon themselves — whether it is the United States or other actors in the international community — to resolve this," Al Khalidi told Weekend Review in an exclusive interview.
Al Khalidi said he did not expect that to happen soon. "But it will be part of the settlement — the responsible correction by the world community of the errors it committed in this part of the world."
Al Khalidi said the two-state solution is very difficult for reasons including the half million Israelis living in the occupied Arab territories after 1967, the decade-old matrix of control over four million Palestinians, divisions among the Palestinians and ineffective Arab and Muslim stand.
While stressing the two-state solution might take long years to realise, Al Khalidi added that "there are also flaws in the alternative, grouped under the rubric of the one-state solution. The Palestinian people want freedom in their sovereign state."
Al Khalidi called on the Palestinian people to decide what they want and form a united front. Blaming the US, Israel, Iran and others for fostering Palestinian disunity, Al Khalidi held the Palestinians responsible for their own disunity. "This is a Palestinian problem and the Palestinians must resolve it themselves. And I think it should be a primary, if not, the primary priority for the Palestinians."
He added Palestinians should adopt a policy of non-violence. Violence doesn't serve them, partly because they are dealing with a people which sees itself as the ultimate victims, and anything they do involving violence reinforces and strengthens that sense of victimhood. So it increases sympathy for Israel.
If you were to advise the American administration on a new approach to push forward the Middle East peace process, what would you tell it?
I would tell them that such an approach has to be based on international law, on decisions of the United Nations and on American commitments to the Palestinians in the past. For example, to oppose actions that would [lead to] prejudice, such as (colony) activity. This was the position of the administration of president George H.W. Bush in 1991 when it gave the Palestinian delegation a letter of assurances, opposing (colonies), the annexation of Jerusalem and stressing the illegality of the acquisition of territory by force.
These are principled positions that the UN and the US have taken in the past but which many American administrations have moved away from.
I am unlikely to be chosen as an adviser to any American administration, partly because the balance of forces in the US unfortunately does not favour a balanced and objective policy. I think the American president has changed something in his opposition, for example, to (colonies), in his opposition to Israeli measures in occupied Arab East Jerusalem. But the balance of forces in the US is still not favourable. So I don't expect an American administration, neither this one nor perhaps the next, to do all that is required.
Do you think the US and major regional actors have fostered Palestinian disunity?
The Palestinians are responsible for their own disunity. This is a Palestinian problem and the Palestinians must resolve it themselves. And I think it should be a primary, if not, the primary priority for the Palestinians. But there is no question that external forces — the US, Israel, Iran and others — have played a role in reinforcing divisions among the Palestinians. And this has been extremely unhealthy. Only when the Palestinians liberate themselves from these external influences or these powers reach some kind of understanding — unfortunately both are unlikely at the moment — will the Palestinians be able to resolve this issue. But I would say it is up to the Palestinians in the first place to do something about it.
How does the US-Iran confrontation function in this regard?
The US-Iran confrontation is playing the same role as the Cold War. Polarisation and driving different actors in the region to one or the other side are playing an extremely unhealthy role in Lebanon, Palestine and several other areas in the Gulf.
I believe this polarisation, this mini-Cold War going on in the region, is going to stop only when the US and the countries in the [Middle East] region reach a point when they are able to deal with the differences between them in a mature manner — not a unilateral manner — and when Iran begins to behave in a responsible manner. It is extremely harmful and it means that even relatively limited or should-be-limited conflicts over Lebanon or Palestine have become regional conflicts. It is very, very unfortunate.
The Palestinian national movement faces its gravest crisis since 1948, one that ultimately must be resolved by the Palestinians themselves, in your words. How would they do this?
Well, this is the gravest crisis the Palestinian national movement faced since 1948. I have said that many times. The key thing is to understand that, fortunately, the Palestinian cause is not only in the hands of politicians, who I think have shown themselves not to be at the level of responsibilities on their shoulders. And I mean across the board.
The Palestinian question is also in the hands of Palestine's people, society, economy and civil society. Fortunately, Palestinian civil society and its institutions and the country's economy are resilient, strong and able — without adequate political leadership from the national movement — to resist the extraordinary pressure on them. I mean you see the dire situation in Palestine but there is social solidarity, which manages — whether in Gaza or in the refugee camps, in the West Bank or villagers who had their lands taken away. You see a degree of social solidarity, which is right now protecting the Palestinian cause. It is not [being done] by the leaders or the national movement, the two wings. Neither I think has performed adequately. And the divisions between them, which is the biggest problem we face. Fortunately, there is a strong social solidarity and there are institutions within the Palestinian society and the Palestinian economy which enables the Palestinians to continue to resist the pressures on them. Otherwise, why has Israel not simply achieved its ends and closed the doors and ended the Palestinian question?
After 20 years of on-and-off negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, they turned to be proximity talks. What are the prospects for Middle East peace?
I would argue that an Israeli government that is the most racist, the most extreme, the most expansionist, the most coloniser-dominated government in Israel's history, and with the Palestinian national movement, as your question said, at its weakest point in years, it is not the best moment for resolution.
There are some factors, [such as] when the president and military leadership in the US appear to understand the extremely negative effect of America's continued and unlimited support for Israel on American interest in the region.
Another is the beginning of a change in American public opinion towards Israel and in the opinion of the American Jewish community. It is a beginning — maybe a process that could be aborted or will take a long time to have a positive impact on the political process in the US, because the political process in America has not been affected by these changes. And if you look at the leadership in the American Jewish community, it is farther to the Right — more pro-(colony), more pro-occupation than anytime since 1976. If you look at the Congress, the Senate, they passed the same resolutions that are basically drafted for them by America's pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.
So the political situation in the US is not better though the president and leadership understand the problem.
But you do have shifts in public opinion. Israel no longer enjoys the kind of support that it used to. This was evident during Gaza and the 2006 war and the negative effect of American public opinion on the second Intifada, which had a very negative effect because of suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. Those effects have diminished and people now see the reality much more — a powerful Israeli state that crushes, represses and occupies the Palestinians.
So how soon will the Iron Cage in which the Palestinians have been put be pulled down?
Almighty Allah knows. I am not a futurologist. I am not even a political scientist. I am a historian. So I can tell you how we got from where we were to where we are. I would say, however, that whatever the case, a continuation of the status quo is impossible. The status quo is one that is not sustainable or stable. This is what Israel wants — the status quo.
I don't think it can expel the Palestinians and I don't think it can tolerate the continuation of the status quo because ultimately the status quo is an apartheid status quo. Israel cannot continue to maintain the support of Europe and the US as long as it maintains that status quo. So it's not stable and not sustainable.
How it will change, when and in which direction, I don't know. But the alternative to further ethnic cleansing — expulsion — I don't think it is an alternative that Israel will be able to maintain. The world won't accept it in 2010. It accepted it in 1948. But remember [that] after the Second World War, millions of people were forced out of their homes all over eastern Europe — six million Jews had been killed, 20 million Soviet citizens had died. Those kind of things had somehow diminished the importance of what happened to the Palestinians.
Today I don't think the situation is the same. So I think that is not something not to worry about. It is something I would worry about, but something that if Israel does, it will suffer from, much more than that it suffered in 1948. And as I have said, the continuation of the status quo is unsustainable, it is unstable, whether that means another war, whether that means finally the world is taking its responsibility.
Who created Israel? The Balfour Declaration, the partition resolutions, the international decisions.
The international community decided to support Zionism, establish a Jewish national home in Palestine, give most of the country to a Jewish state and decided not to do anything when the Palestinian state was destroyed and the Palestinians were driven out of their homes.
The world community created by its decisions a source of unending instability in the region. Maybe somebody is going to wake up and realise that the people who played a large part in this instability can take it upon themselves — whether it is the US or other actors in the international community — to resolve this. I don't expect that to happen soon. But it will be part of the settlement — the responsible correction by the world community of the errors it made in this part of the world in acting in an unjust fashion towards the Palestinian people [and] in creating a situation which is inherently unstable.
How it is to be resolved, I don't know. It could be via international law or by opposing (colonies) and the acquisition of territory by force or by urging states in the region to live in peace or calling for the return of refugees. Implementation of those international principles could be a basis. If that does not happen, then maybe another basis.
How would you explain the recent America-Israel tension over building of colonies in occupied East Jerusalem?
I would explain it as the result of realisation on the part of several levels of this administration that the Palestinian question does matter, that the conflict is a source of instability and that the American bias in favour of Israel costs the US. I mean among the many statements of the president, the vice-president, the secretary of defence and General Petraeus. Some later on retracted or denied.
One of them said in effect our support of Israel is costing us blood and treasure. This means there is a realisation even if that was not exactly what was said. This realisation was certainly not there in the president of the last administration or the administration before. Maybe president Bush had seen that James Baker understood this but this [American bias toward Israel] is something that cannot be allowed to continue. Are they able to stop it? I don't know. I myself am very sceptical.
Achievements beyond academics
Rashid Al Khalidi is a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University and a leading Palestinian scholar and advocate for Palestinian rights.
Widely published and frequently featured in the media, Rashid Al Khalidi is one of America's prominent Middle East scholars. He is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and the Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. He is also President of the American Committee on Jerusalem and is editor-in-chief of the 'Journal of Palestine Studies'.
Born in New York City to a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother, Al Khalidi served as an adviser to the Palestinian delegation during the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in Madrid and Washington from 1991 to 1993.
Al Khalidi's most recent book, 'The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood', came out in 2006. His previous books include 'Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East', the award-winning 'Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness', 'The Origins of Arab Nationalism' and 'Under Siege: PLO Decision-making During the 1982 War'. Besides authoring books, Al Khalidi has published over 75 academic essays and appeared on several television and radio programmes such as 'Nightline', 'All Things Considered', 'The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer'.
Al Khalidi earned his Bachelor of Arts from Yale University in 1970 and completed his PhD in modern history at Oxford University in 1974. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Al Khalidi was professor of Middle East history at the University of Chicago from 1988 to 2003 and the director of its Centre for International Studies. He was formerly the president of the Middle East Studies Association, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars and a Fulbright research award recipient.