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A functioning Middle East mediator?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 03 - 2019

“American peace-making in the Middle East has assumed that peace could be achieved without addressing the negative consequences of Israel's occupation or the realities of internal Palestinian politics. This blindness to the unequal power dynamics between the Palestinians and Israelis and to the internal politics of both sides has critically hampered the ability of the United States to serve as an effective peace-broker.”
This is how Khaled Elgindy, a former advisor to the Palestinian Authority (PA), sums up the issues raised by US mediation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in his forthcoming book Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians from Balfour to Trump.
Kissinger with then king Faisal and prince Fahd
Elgindy's book is scheduled for release in the US in early April and is divided into three parts. The first takes the reader through the first five decades of the conflict from the Balfour Declaration in 1917 to the June Defeat in 1967. It has the title “Origins of the Blind Spot: 1917-67”.
In this part of his book, Elgindy reminds readers that “although the idea of transforming Palestine into a Jewish national home remained highly controversial and the subject of intense debate both inside and outside of [the US] government, for a variety of sentimental, cultural, and political reasons both the White House and Congress came down in favour of the Balfour Declaration and Zionist plans to colonise Palestine.”
Arafat, Peres and Rabin accept the Nobel Prize after the Oslo accords
“In keeping with the State Department's policy of neutrality, president Woodrow Wilson's administration stopped short of officially endorsing the Balfour Declaration, although the president personally communicated his sympathies to leaders of the Zionist Movement, and occasionally did so publicly as well. Wilson's thinking was heavily influenced by prominent Zionist figures such as Louis Brandeis, a close confidant whom he later appointed to the Supreme Court, as well by his own religious upbringing,” Elgindy writes.
From Wilson to Roosevelt and Truman, Elgindy writes in the first part of his book, consecutive US presidents continued to lean heavily towards the Israeli point of view, despite the repeated warnings made by the State Department about the impact of this bias on the perception of the US in the Middle East.
Elgindy recalls the explanation that US president Harry Truman chose to offer for his policies before a group of American diplomats posted in the Middle East in November 1945. He quotes the US president as saying that he has “to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”
US policies, Elgindy argues, were only challenged in the wake of the 1948 War as Arab rulers were removed or assassinated by populations angered over the loss of Palestine. These changes, he adds, forced US president Dwight Eisenhower to try to cut the losses caused by the perception of the US in the Arab world as being biased towards Israel.
“Eisenhower and his secretary of state John Foster Dulles expressed the US desire to maintain favourable relations with both Israel and the Arab states. In contrast to Truman's sense of ‘historic responsibility' toward Israel, the Eisenhower administration made clear ‘that Israel will not, merely because of its Jewish population, receive preferential treatment over any Arab state.' Like its predecessor, the Eisenhower administration expressed sympathy for Palestinian refugees. In a June 1953 radio address to the American people shortly after returning from his introductory tour of the region, Dulles spoke passionately of the plight of the refugees and of the challenges it posed for American interests,” Elgindy says.
However, he promptly notes that while the Eisenhower administration acknowledged that the “Arab refugee problem” required a political settlement between Israel and the Arab states, “the onus was primarily on the latter.”
It was as early as the late 1950s and early 1960s that the US was proposing the resettlement of refugees in other states, preferably the neighbouring Arab states with an economic package to support them. The book also notes that as early as the beginning of the second half of the 20th century, a few insightful US diplomats were warning that this scheme could not succeed.
Bush, Abbas and Olmert during the Annapolis Conference

THE 1960S: With the rise of pan-Arabism and the Palestinian resistance, which both aimed for the creation of a “Palestinian entity”, there came the US administrations of presidents Johnson and Kennedy, with Israel and the US getting close enough for the US to be unhesitant about blocking Arab attempts to secure Palestinian representation in the UN in 1961 under the pretext that such representation could “upset present calm in the region”, Elgindy says.
Then came the defeat of the Six-Day War in 1967, putting both the Palestinians and the Arabs in a much worse situation, while the US was a lot more open about its pro-Israel bias, as the book details.
The second part of Elgindy's book is dedicated to the next quarter of a century as it looks at the years between the defeat of Arab armies by Israel, the loss of the whole of historic Palestine, to the signing of the Oslo Accords by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli politicians Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in the presence of US president Bill Clinton. It comes under the title of “The Evolution of the Blind Spot: 1967-1993”.
In this part, Elgindy notes that the expansion of the Palestinian freedom movements, in all their political shades, prompted the US to realise that the struggle was no longer between Israel and the Arab countries, but rather between Israel and both the Palestinians and the Arab countries. “But as Washington's awareness of Palestinian nationalism grew, particularly after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, so, too, did the drive to keep the Palestinians out of the diplomatic process,” Elgindy writes.
This attitude was engrained in the making of the Middle East Peace Process that was designed in the years between the defeat of the Arab armies by the Israeli army in 1967 to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Elgindy argues. He adds that the current Peace Process today was scripted in these years under the influence of then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger who was “both the godfather of the Middle East Peace Process and the architect of US policy towards the Palestinians.”
“The three pillars of Kissinger's strategy —American and Israeli preeminence, incrementalism rather than a comprehensive approach to peacemaking, and, most important, the strategic exclusion of the PLO —would continue to define American diplomacy well beyond his time in office,” Elgindy writes. He adds that a subsequent attempt by Carter to challenge those parameters was defeated by the weakness of both the US president and of Arafat.
“Through Kissinger's ‘step-by-step' diplomacy, as it became known, Israel would deal with the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian tracks separately. Palestinian participation would be decided at the end of the process, preferably after the PLO had been weakened. To help get Arab leaders on board, Kissinger held out the prospect of US recognition of the PLO or even the possibility of a Palestinian state, neither of which he ever seriously considered,” Elgindy writes. He quotes Kissinger's memoirs on those years as saying that “the idea of a Palestinian state run by the PLO was not a subject for serious discourse.”
But as Elgindy notes, Kissinger's attempt to isolate the PLO only went so far, given the UN recognition of the organisation in the wake of the Arab League's recognition of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. This, Elgindy adds, prompted the subsequent Ford administration to reassess US policies towards the Palestinians.
In 1975, a report issued by the US Brookings Institution called for an end to Kissinger's step-by-step approach in favour of a more comprehensive peace process that could eventually allow for some sort of Palestinian self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza, Elgindy says. This, he adds, was the core of the Regan Plan that was offered after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It was also the core of the Oslo Accords signed in the autumn of 1993.
However, as Elgindy reminds readers, the Oslo Accords were not just about limiting Palestinian expectations to the West Bank and Gaza. They were also about the final and official inclusion of the Palestinians as a party in their own right.
Arafat's first speech at the UN General Assembly
This was not something thought of in the earlier decades of the struggle, the author suggests. Nor, he adds, would it have been necessarily possible had it not been for the First Intifada of 1987 that allowed for direct Palestinian representation in the October 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.

AFTER THE ACCORDS: The third part of Elgindy's book, “Consequences of the Blind Spot: 1993 -2018”, is dedicated to the Oslo trade-off and consequences after the accords were moved to American diplomacy.
Elgindy reminds his readers that the most obvious and even most immediate outcome of the Oslo Accords was that “in return for a seat at the negotiating table, the PLO was expected not only to live up to its security and other obligations under the Oslo Accords but also to work to neutralise political opponents of the Peace Process and other problematic aspects of their politics.”
“Palestinian leaders were prepared to give up a degree of control over their internal politics and decision-making in the hope that the United States would ultimately prevail on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to enable the creation of a Palestinian state,” he adds.
The Palestinian leaders would also have to give up for a few years any agreement on the most critical issue of their cause: the refugees and Jerusalem and any firm Israeli commitment to suspend the construction of settlements in the Occupied Territories during the first phase of the Oslo Process, which was supposed to take no more than five years.
This approach of agreeing to far-reaching concessions, Elgindy suggests, eventually became a trait of the Palestinian negotiators until the end of the Annapolis Process, where it became effectively impossible for further concessions to be made.
The reason is simple, he says. “Despite its emphasis on state-building, the Peace Process did not provide Palestinians with either the means or the incentives to rectify this situation. If anything, the Oslo Process helped to accelerate the decline of Palestinian institutional politics that began in the 1980s while reinforcing the exclusionary and authoritarian impulses of the PLO leadership.”
Consequently, when president George W Bush was trying in 2002 to offer a “road map” towards picking up the pieces of a much-fragmented peace process it turned out to be “a road map to nowhere”, Elgindy writes.
This was the beginning of a long state of stagnation of the negotiations that president Barack Obama failed to reverse and that is unlikely to be changed by the “all sticks and no carrots” approach that current US president Donald Trump seems to be adopting while preparing to unleash a mysterious peace deal that is likely to be almost fully tailored to fit Israel's prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu.
This is especially so after Trump announced in December 2017 that he was moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem in keeping with an electoral promise he had made and breaking traditional US policy guidelines.
Elgindy's book is intended to explore “the dynamics of US policy with respect to the Palestinians, how it has evolved over the decades, and how these matters have affected the United States' role as the sole mediator between Israelis and Palestinians,” Elgindy says, given that the US has been the sole mediator of the negotiations since the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 in a qualitative change in the struggle from the way it started a century ago.
Blind Spot
“During the period of British rule over Palestine from 1917 to 1948, the conflict centred on a struggle between Zionist Jews who sought to transform the country into a Jewish national home through immigration and colonisation and an Arab majority that demanded that Palestine be given its independence, just as neighbouring Arab states had. After the creation of Israel, during which some two-thirds of Palestine's Arab population fled or were expelled from their homes, the conflict was transformed from a communal struggle between two competing national groups into a war between the nascent Jewish state and neighbouring Arab states, while the Palestinian refugee crisis was treated as a humanitarian problem rather than a political one,” Elgindy writes.
He adds that “with the emergence of an autonomous Palestinian National Movement following Israel's conquest of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in 1967, American and Israeli officials could no longer ignore the political dimension of the Palestinian question, though US and Israeli policy-makers continued to marginalise the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the umbrella organisation representing Palestinians worldwide, and keep it out of the peace process.”
“The Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, against Israeli military rule between 1987 and 1992 forced Israeli and American leaders to come to terms with Palestinian nationalism and ultimately with the PLO itself. With the signing of the Oslo Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, better known as the Oslo Accords, in 1993, Israel and the PLO agreed to resolve their conflict peacefully while laying the groundwork for Palestinian self-rule in the Occupied Territories and the creation of the Palestinian Authority, an administrative body to govern the Palestinians.”
According to Elgindy, since its full takeover of the struggle's mediation, the US has at points come close to the point of clinching a deal. He argues that this certainly happened in the year-long negotiations of the Annapolis talks that started in 2007 and ended with failure in December 2008, despite the direct involvement of Bush and the willingness that both sides had shown to reach a final deal that could have allowed for a Palestinian state.
It was not impossible for a deal to have been announced. The showstopper, however, he argues, was the US-incited dynamic. “As most politicians and diplomats understand, the success of a negotiation process depends as much on the dynamics and conditions outside the negotiating room as on what gets discussed inside, including the power dynamics between the parties and the internal politics of each of them,” Elgindy says.
He adds that although “no outside actor could completely level the playing field, US mediation between Israel and the Palestinians has generally been in the opposite direction: the United States has consistently put its thumb on the scale in Israel's favour while simultaneously discounting the importance of internal Palestinian political realities.”
In the view of Elgindy, this attitude was consistent with the profile of US engagement in the mediation of a negotiated end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “Since the start of the Oslo Peace Process in the early 1990s, successive US administrations have largely avoided applying pressure on Israel to advance the goals of the Process and have actively worked in the United Nations and other international forums to prevent such pressure being put on Israel. This preference stemmed from the theory, long espoused by the pro-Israel community, that Israeli leaders would be more willing to ‘take risks for peace' if they felt secure politically and militarily,” he writes.
“As part of the perennial quest to reassure Israel's leaders, US presidents from both political parties have often been prepared to deviate from the established ground rules of the Peace Process and even from official US policy on several core issues of the conflict, such as withdrawal of settlements, control of Jerusalem, and the return of the Palestinian refugees.”
He suggests that while “Israel's special relationship with the United States remained immune to the ups and downs of the Peace Process, the opposite held true of the Palestinians.” Consequently, in its “mediation” moves Washington “was not only or strictly trying to resolve the conflict but was rather trying to customise Palestinian politics to make it suitable for a peace deal that would be designed upon the parameters of the special relations between the US and Israel.”
He says that inevitably the US, as the chief if not sole mediator of the struggle, along with the donor countries and certainly with Israel, became in a position to have an “intrusive” take on internal Palestinian politics that have since Oslo have been conducted from the West Bank and through a Palestinian Authority that has become the de facto replacement of the PLO.
“As a result, the PA, which remained heavily dependent on foreign aid and Israeli goodwill for its survival, was subject to an ever-widening assortment of conditions and restrictions regarding its security performance, internal governance, and even diplomatic activities, many of which were enshrined in US law,” Elgindy writes.
This has meant that “the legitimacy of Palestinian leaders would now be intimately bound up with the success or failure of the Peace Process.”

CONSEQUENCES: While Elgindy does not dismiss either the Israelis or the Palestinians from contributing to the sad fate of the peace process, he argues that in its clearly biased approach the US has ended up sparing Israeli leaders from the necessary requirements of a two-state solution and has in the meantime disabled the Palestinian leaders and made them too weak to be effective partners.
“Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians all had equal agency, but they did not have the same ability to shape events or impose outcomes. Israel, possessing the most powerful military in the region and being the occupying power, could, and frequently did, use its power to impose its own preferences or pre-empt outcomes through settlements, brute military force, and other coercive measures,” he writes.
“This unchecked power imbalance was also why the principle of ‘constructive ambiguity', a mainstay of Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy in the 1970s and a pillar of the Oslo Process, ultimately did more harm than good, since any ambiguity would naturally be interpreted through the lens of the more powerful side.”
“The unique power dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process may also help explain why the United States could be an effective broker in other conflicts, such as between Egypt and Israel in the 1970s. Egypt was a sovereign state and the largest Arab military force in the region, which the United States had been working to pry away from the Soviet Union's sphere of influence…[and] while the Sinai Peninsula also contained important religious sites for Jews as well as a few thousand Israeli settlers, these paled in comparison to the centrality of Jerusalem to Jewish identity or the half million settlers living in the biblical lands of ‘Judea and Samaria',” he explains.
Throughout his book, Elgindy is concerned not just to show how the US has been managing the peace process, but also its posture on the matter since the onset of the struggle in the wake of the Balfour Declaration. “It was also during the period of the British control of Palestine from 1918 to 1948 that current American political attitudes toward Palestinians first began to take shape. As early as the 1920s, well before the advent of the PLO Charter, or Hamas terrorism, American politicians were already dismissing Palestinian opposition to the Zionist project as either artificially generated or the product of an irrational hatred of Jews, rather than a manifestation of Palestinians' own political aspirations,” he notes.
“Whether it was the Balfour Declaration, the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, UN Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967, or the 2003 Roadmap for Peace, official US policy seldom aligned with the actual policies pursued by the White House and Congress. But rarely was the gap between official and unofficial US policy more pronounced than in the period immediately following Israel's creation in 1948.”
Washington, he explains, “decried Israel's refusal to address the issue that was widely seen as the source of the conflict and the key to a political resolution: the Palestinian refugees. As time wore on, however, American policy-makers gradually acquiesced to Israeli-imposed realities on the ground while deferring a political resolution of the refugee problem and focusing instead on economic and humanitarian ‘solutions'.”
“Within less than a generation, on the eve of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, both the political significance of the Palestinian refugee problem and the roots of the conflict were all but forgotten in Washington, to the extent that even the president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, denied their centrality,” he writes.
Elgindy argues that there were only a few moments in the history of the century-long struggle of the Palestinians where the US showed a decent acknowledgement of Palestinian leaders. The time of the First Intifada in the late 1980s was one.
However, for the most part, the US never managed, or possibly never intended, to pursue a balanced approach or at least a less-biased approach towards the struggle. “Neither the short-lived US-PLO dialogue of 1998-90 nor the signing of the Oslo Declaration of Principles in 1993 was enough to alter Washington's ambivalence toward the Palestinians and the Israel-Palestine conflict, which continued throughout the US stewardship of the Peace Process,” he says.
The obvious example is how “American policy-makers routinely decried Israeli settlement construction in the Occupied Territories as an obstacle to peace but devised various loopholes and exemptions for ‘natural growth,' for settlements in East Jerusalem, and for the large settlement blocs in the West Bank.”
Moreover, he adds, “the United States and Israel had both the incentive and the means to shift as many of the risks and political costs onto the Palestinians as possible, especially when things went wrong.” This, he says, applies to all US presidents, including those who came very close to striking a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, including Clinton and Bush, who came closest in the final months of his second presidency.
Both presidents, Elgindy says, chose to put the blame for the failure of reaching a deal in Annapolis and Camp David on PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas after the death of Arafat. The Palestinian intifadas were also subject to US presidential blame in both cases. Neither president made reference to “Israeli unilateralism”.
Any aggression from Israeli settlers went un-criticised, “Hamas's surprise victory in the January 2006 parliamentary elections and Washington's response to it marked the beginning of the slow demise of the Peace Process,” Elgindy says. “The American and Israeli refusal to recognise a government headed by Hamas or to consider any scenario short of Hamas's removal from government ensured a lose-lose outcome for Abbas and his leadership, ultimately paving the way for civil war and the current division between Gaza and the West Bank,” he adds.
While Obama's early days in office offered hope for a more balanced US management of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, this soon disappeared. “For a time, Obama seemed to be inclined to do so, taking a tough stance on Israeli settlement construction, insisting on the primacy of the 1967 border, and even hinting at a possible policy shift toward Gaza. When faced with resistance from Israeli leaders and their allies in Congress, however, the administration backed down, and Obama focused his energies on the path of least resistance: resumption of bilateral negotiations,” he writes.
Indeed, the Obama administration “approved a ten-year US$38 billion military aid package to Israel, the largest single pledge in US history, despite the collapse of a second round of negotiations in 2014, fresh violence in Gaza and East Jerusalem, and its repeated warnings that Israeli actions were endangering a two-state solution.”
Then there came the Trump administration that has been “far less committed to a two-state solution and far more blatant in its willingness to tip the scales in Israel's favour.”
“Much as Lyndon Johnson had done more than a half century earlier, Trump seems determined to rewrite the basic ground rules of the Peace Process in Israel's favour. Just as Johnson denied both the centrality of the refugee problem and Israel's responsibility for its creation, the Trump administration has been largely oblivious to the central reality of Israel's half-century-old occupation and its role as the primary driver of the conflict,” he says.
“Trump's decision to break with seven decades of US policy and international consensus by recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital surrendered a major point of American leverage over Israel and removed one of the few remaining incentives the Palestinian leadership had for participating in an American-sponsored Peace Process.”
In the final analysis, Elgindy's book is both a spot-on profile of US policies on the Middle East and a detailed account of how the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations started and were made to fail.
Khaled Elgindy, Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians from Balfour to Trump, Washington: Brookings Institution, pp333.

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