Rashid Khalidi's rigorous history is one of the great books on the Israeli-Palestinian question.
Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian-American scholar and intellectual heir to Edward Said, has written a definitive addition to his already canonical writings on one of the seemingly irredeemable conflicts of the past 100 years. His lapidary narrative questions whether there was ever any prospect of sharing the eternally combustible Holy Land of Palestine and Jerusalem between Jew and Arab (and Christian), once Zionism won the support of first Britain, then France and — decisively — the US during and after the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel captured the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
The author of The Hundred Years' War on Palestine comes from a family of prominent scholars and Palestine notables dating back to before the Crusades. In this book, Khalidi takes the risk (for an academic historian) of weaving personal and family anecdote into his history. It works well, because so many of his relatives have been at the heart of the history.
Khalidi himself was a negotiator in the Madrid-Washington talks with Israel in 1991-93. He makes the undeniable point that while these talks came to nothing in the face of Israeli obduracy, Arafat and his circle were clueless improvisers. As Said used to expostulate, it took the Palestinian leader "one whole year to realise he didn't have a state".
Khalidi begins his story with a prescient and premonitory letter his great-great-great uncle, Yusuf Diya al-Din Pasha al-Khalidi, an Ottoman governor, mayor of Jerusalem and professor in Vienna, directed in 1899 to Theodor Herzl, the Viennese journalist and founder of the Zionist movement. Deploring European persecution of the Jews, acknowledging their emotional ties to the biblical land of Israel, he nevertheless said: "In the name of God, let Palestine be left alone," warning that its Arab majority (then 94 per cent) would not consent to being supplanted and any attempt to do so would imperil well-rooted Jewish communities all over the Middle East.
Herzl did not reply, but four years earlier had written in his diary of emptying Palestine of its "penniless" Arab population. "Both the process of expropriation [of land and property] and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly," he wrote.
Khalidi argues that what is in essence a late 19th-century settler-colonial as well as national movement "adorned itself with a biblical coat that was powerfully attractive to Bible-reading Protestants in Great Britain and the United States". Ergo, how could Jews be colonising the land where their religion began, irrespective of an Arab majority going back many centuries?
The Balfour Declaration of 1917, whereby Britain called for a "national home" for the Jews in Palestine without mentioning indigenous inhabitants as Palestinians with national rights, was seminal. British support for Jewish state-building, suppression of Palestinian representation and recruitment of Zionist paramilitaries to put down the Arab uprising in 1936-39, were essential to the triumph of 1948 — the creation of the state of Israel.
So too, Khalidi notes — in this and later periods — were the disunity and backbiting in Palestinian ranks, and the back-stabbing manipulation of the Palestinian cause by the emerging Arab states. Zionism, which he calls "the coddled stepchild of British colonialism", managed fleetingly to rebrand itself as anti-colonial when the Irgun and the Stern Gang, launched a terror campaign against a UK that, absorbed by war against the Nazis and its aftermath, resisted demands for Jewish immigration to Palestine.
But except when President Dwight Eisenhower kiboshed the Suez invasion of 1956, the last hurrah of Anglo-French imperialism in cahoots with an expansionist Israel, Israel has had a fair wind behind it internationally. It had a US shield at the UN Security Council as it colonised the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem after 1967 and bludgeoned its Arab neighbours (Khalidi reminds us the Israeli air force has bombed seven Arab capitals, some of them several times).
Khalidi is rigorous and lucid in assembling his argument, piling up evidence but fair-minded to his opponents and withering about the shortcomings of his side. You will not come away from this book feeling admiration for Arafat or the PLO. He emphasises the pathetic Palestinian response to slick Israeli spin; there is a comparison with Ireland, that before and during the 1919-21 war of independence against the mighty British empire built up credible institutions from a parliament to courts and — above all — seized control of the narrative.
The Hundred Years' War on Palestine could lay claim to join the handful of great books on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Khalidi researches, reports, writes and analyses with great skill. He is as good at the detail on the ground as on the intrigue and nuance of policymaking in Washington. But the book lacks a real conclusion.
Khalidi must have seen all the signals that Donald Trump's recent "deal of the century" would essentially greenlight Israel's annexation of the heart of the occupied territories and bury the idea of an independent Palestinian state. Yet, while insisting on equality of all citizens between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, he is reluctant to contemplate a single state — as are the Israelis.
But that is the reality, forecast by former Israeli premiers such as Ehud Barak: an apartheid-style struggle for equal rights that will sap Israel's legitimacy. Anyone reading this book will read the signs.
The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonial Conquest and Resistance, by Rashid Khalidi, Profile, RRP£25/Henry Holt, RRP$30, 336 pages
David Gardner is the FT's international affairs editor