POMED Notes: A Conversation on the Current Middle East Situation with Walid Khalidi
The Middle East Institute hosted “A Conversation on the Current Middle East Situation with Walid Khalidi” on Thursday. Khalidi is a renowned Palestinian historian and co-founder of the Institute for Palestine Studies and the Royal Scientific Society of Amman. Khalidi’s remarks focused on contextualizing the “Palestine Question” by investigating the prevailing views in Israel, Palestine, the Arab World and the U.S. In the Q&A period, Khalidi also outlined an interesting one-on-one conversation that he had with Bashar al-Assad in December 2010.
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Khalidi, who was born in Jerusalem in 1925, identified three “watershed moments” in his lifetime that have shaped the Israel-Palestine conflict and the region as a whole: “the Balfour Declaration, the Nakba, and the 1967 June War.” Khalidi said that this period has also been marked by increasing U.S. intrusiveness.
Khalidi devoted the remainder of his time to discussing the Israel-Palestine question with regard to the present situation in the Arab World, Israel, Palestine and the U.S., respectively. “Never has the Arab world been in the state of flux that it is today,” Khalidi said. The post-WWI nation states are crumbling, which is not necessarily a bad thing except for the “primordial sectarian tensions” that have sprung up in their wake, Khalidi said. The modern Arab World is characterized by the steady decline of pan-Arabism and the rise of Political Islam, according to Khalidi. Pan-Arabism failed in part due to the fact that there is no Arab writing on federalism—there are no Arabic Federalist Papers, Khalidi said. Arab thought focuses on objectives at the expense of means, in stark contrast to Zionism, which is based on the strong historical mechanics that underlie more than a decade of Zionist Congresses, according to Khalidi. Failure can also be traced back to the “huge egos” of Arab rulers, including the Assad family in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. However, many also forget that Syria under Assad was characterized by “exemplary treatment of minorities and women,” Khalidi said.
Khalidi drew a parallel between the decline of Pan-Arabism in the Arab World and the decline of Labor Zionism in Israel. The subsequent right-wing governments in Israel after 1967 have dominated relations with the U.S., including Netanyahu who “outsmarted both Clinton and Obama.” The overwhelming focus on Iran is a “red herring,” according to Khalidi, overshadowing much more important issues including Palestine. In Palestine, Khalidi said that Mahmoud Abbas is the opposite of his three predecessors with regard to his relations with Israel. Abbas is a collaborationist, Khalidi said. Finally, in the U.S., the long-running policy of putting “no daylight” between the U.S. and Israel is a strategic mistake, Khalidi argued. The word ally has come to mean Israel, Khalidi said, and this has allowed Israel to drive U.S. policy toward the region for decades. Furthermore, it enhances Israel’s entrenchment and increases the perception in the Middle East that the U.S. and Israel are conspiring against the Palestinians.
In the Q&A period, Khalidi recommended that Palestine close ranks politically in an effort to move forward toward sovereignty. “If Hamas and Fatah come together, the landscape will be different,” Khalidi said. “The important thing is remaining on the land and fighting.” There is a lack of seriousness on the part of Arab rulers in their dealings with Washington, Khalidi said, and there has been a “total failure” to impact the political elite in the U.S. on the Palestine Question. If anything, U.S. policy toward Palestine has deteriorated since 1976. To explain this failing, Khalidi argued that there is no strong Arab voice that participates in political discourse in America, even though there are approximately 100 ambassadors from Muslim-majority countries in the U.S. The PLO office in Washington does not participate either, Khalidi said. Khalidi suggested establishing a new fulltime institute in the U.S. to combat Islamophobia and inject Muslim voices into the popular conversation. Perhaps this would help reverse the “total misunderstanding” of the relationship between the three Abrahamic religions in the West, which has only been worsened by the increasingly close relationship between Likud and Evangelical Christian groups.
Turning to the Arab Spring, Khalidi said that there will be more focus on Palestine in Arab capitals that are now controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. The “total absence” of Egypt from the Israel-Palestine dialogue under Mubarak “was disastrous to the cause,” Khalidi said. Khalidi discussed a fascinating meeting that he had with Bashar al-Assad in December 2010, in which al-Assad expressed deep curiosity in the U.S. and pursuing a closer working relationship with America. When Khalidi asked al-Assad about improving Sunni-Shi’a relations by perhaps organizing a summit between Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei and King Abdullah, Assad expressed support and excitement at the prospect. (Khalidi now sees a “Labanonization” of Syria as the most likely scenario.) Khalidi said that he was “extremely struck by how accessible and attentive Assad was.” Al-Assad was relaxed, genuinely interested in America, and offered high praise for John Kerry, according to Khalidi.