How the U.S. made Palestine the exception to the rules of peacemaking

Israel has only ever offered Palestinians two things over the past century — submission or devastation — and the Americans have always backed them.

“Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump,” by Khaled Elgindy, Brookings Institution Press, 2019, 323 pages.

Palestinians knew well before U.S. President Donald Trump announced the “Deal of the Century” that his proposed “peace plan” would be a farce. Yet even the most cynical observers could not have predicted how bone-chilling the event would be. The racism of Trump’s remarks, the grin on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s face, and the applause of the dignitaries in the room, may go down as one of the most harrowing political moments in Palestinian memory.

What many Palestinians experienced in that moment was the same dread their ancestors likely felt when they heard that British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour had promised their land to another people in 1917. Or when the UN decided — despite Palestinian opposition — that their country would be partitioned in 1947. Or when Israeli forces victoriously drove into Palestinian towns and farmlands in June 1967, and never left. Or the countless other moments in which the fate of Palestinians was decided by forces other than themselves.

It was therefore a jarring experience to read Khaled Elgindy’s book “Blind Spot” as the “Deal of the Century” was being unveiled. Published in 2019, Elgindy’s book chronicles how the United States not only enabled this historical path, but actively designed its trajectory. Beginning with the Balfour Declaration and ending with Trump’s ascension, the book traces America’s century-long alignment with the Zionist movement and the State of Israel, which came at the direct expense of the Palestinian people.

Elgindy’s thesis — that the U.S. suffers a “blind spot” in its diplomatic efforts in Israel-Palestine — rests on two simple but elegant pillars. First, the U.S. has always prioritized and bolstered Israel’s position in the conflict; and second, the U.S. has cared little for internal Palestinian politics. These pillars, Elgindy argues, have profoundly distorted American policy to the extent that Washington “effectively reversed the standard model of mediation: it alleviated pressure on the stronger party and increased pressure on the weaker party.”

Put bluntly, the U.S. made Palestine an exception to the most basic rules of peacemaking.

How the U.S. made Palestine the exception to the rules of peacemaking
President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen at the White House in Washington DC, following Trump’s unveiling of the U.S. ‘peace plan.’ January 28, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Elgindy is well-placed to explain this phenomenon, especially to Washington insiders who have preserved the blind spot for years. An Egyptian-American, he served as an advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team in the mid-to-late 2000s, including at the 2008 Annapolis negotiations hosted by President George W. Bush. After a decade at the Brookings Institution, he is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute where he heads its Israeli-Palestinian affairs program. Elgindy is one of the few analysts in Washington’s think tank establishment who center and amplify Palestinian narratives, in stark contrast to the industry’s Israel-centric discourse.

Stripping Palestinian agency

Although the book’s arguments and historical account are not necessarily novel, the metaphor in Elgindy’s title creatively captures the seemingly oblivious nature of American debates on Israel-Palestine. The blind spot, however, is not simply a product of ignorance: it is consciously designed, maintained, and protected by American and Israeli policymakers alike. In other words, Washington knows it has a blind spot, but refuses to heal it.

The first pillar — that America has “consistently put its thumb on the scale in Israel’s favor” – is well-known; if anything, it is touted as a requirement by mainstream Washington analysts and officials. The second pillar — ignoring intra-Palestinian dynamics — is much less acknowledged, arguably making it one of the book’s more valuable contributions.

“Unlike its relationship to Israeli politics,” observes Elgindy, “the Oslo peace process [and other peace efforts] was not agnostic toward Palestinian internal politics.” On the contrary, he argues, these processes “often became a platform for reforming, and occasionally even re-engineering, Palestinian politics and governing institutions to align with American or Israeli preferences.”

How the U.S. made Palestine the exception to the rules of peacemaking
President Clinton (left) speaks at a press conference concluding a Washington summit alongside PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jordanian King Hussein, Washington DC, March 10, 1996. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

The concept of “re-engineering” encapsulates how the U.S., in line with Israeli policy, has spent the last century stripping Palestinians of any voice or agency in the pursuit of their rights. They were not the only ones: Arab states like Jordan, Egypt, and Syria had long engaged in a “bidding war” for control of the Palestinian cause and its leadership, routinely clashing and betraying Palestinian interests both militarily and diplomatically (Trump’s audience last week included the ambassadors of Bahrain, Oman, and the UAE).

Still, as a global superpower and regional benefactor, the U.S. played a central role in thwarting the Palestinians’ ownership of their own struggle through a combination of exclusion, delegitimization, cooption, and violence.

This systematic assault took multiple forms since the early 20th century. In 1922, during a Congressional hearing regarding a resolution to endorse the Balfour Declaration, U.S. representatives brushed aside the testimonies of two Palestinian-born Americans urging them to respect the native Arabs’ right to their national home. Suggesting that the witnesses’ opposition was due to racist intolerance, one Congressman retorted, “The lands those Jews have taken… have been lands that were sterile when they got them and they have turned them into fertile lands,” echoing the Zionist myth of Palestine as a barren and empty territory. The resolution passed.

It would take five decades before any Palestinian opinions — those of public intellectuals Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, among others — would be heard again on Capitol Hill. By then, Palestinian nationalism had catapulted onto the global stage with the PLO at its helm. But in Washington, the thought of Palestinians as a political community was viewed as a “subversive, even radical” idea. Henry Kissinger in particular — who Elgindy describes as “the godfather of the Middle East peace process” — made the exclusion and weakening of the Palestinians a centerpiece of American diplomacy, viewing the PLO as pawns of the Soviet Union and saboteurs of the region’s balance of power.

How the U.S. made Palestine the exception to the rules of peacemaking
U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (left) seen with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the balcony of the State Department, Washington DC, November 9, 1974. (Moshe Milner/GPO)

The Palestinian armed struggle of the late 1960s and 1970s — including plane hijackings and guerrilla rocket attacks — forced the U.S. to reckon with the political problem it had largely ignored after 1948. It was at this time that Washington began subscribing to Israel’s labeling of Palestinians as “terrorists,” with Congress formally defining the PLO as such in 1987. Ironically, these were the very labels U.S. officials had used to describe pre-state Zionist militias just a few decades earlier. (Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the former Irgun leader responsible for the infamous bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, and campaigns to expel Palestinians during the Nakba, called the PLO “the most barbaric organization since the Nazis”).

As Elgindy notes, America’s adoption of this narrative was largely “not a response to PLO violence but to its growing political stature.” It sought to disfigure the PLO’s image — and that of the Palestinian cause — as a legitimate anti-colonial movement, attributing their actions instead to racist blood-thirst.

The lexicon has dominated U.S. views ever since. During a briefing on intra-Palestinian politics, President Ronald Reagan asked, “But they are all terrorists, aren’t they?” Under Bush’s “War on Terror,” Palestinians were lumped with the “Axis of Evil” and jihadists like Al-Qaeda. Last week, Trump associated Palestinians with “terror” nine times in his speech. Today, keffiyehs, stone-throwing, UN resolutions, and boycotts have all become variations of Palestinian “terror.”

Undeserving of statehood

The decisive coup came with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Far from putting forth a novel agenda, Oslo in fact consolidated a longstanding proposal, promoted by Israel itself, to grant Palestinians a form of autonomy that would apply “solely to people and not the land.” This was often couched as part of the “Jordanian solution” — the hope that the Hashemite kingdom would re-absorb the West Bank and become the Palestinians’ sole interlocutor. The Jordanian solution was “a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy” until King Hussein cut the state’s ties to the West Bank in 1988. Although Washington reluctantly dropped the idea, it remains a frequent policy discussion in Israel today.

The autonomy plan derives from a political goal and a racist premise: that Israel should have strategic primacy in the region, and that Palestinians are incapable or undeserving of owning their own state. In November 1948, despite months of scolding Israel for breaching the parameters of the UN Partition Plan, Truman’s State Secretary George Marshall ultimately changed his tune: “Arab Palestine standing alone could not constitute a viable independent state. It is desirable, therefore, that Arab Palestine be transferred to one or more of the neighboring Arab states… taking into account the wishes of the inhabitants of Arab Palestine.” The latter had not been consulted of course, adds Elgindy.

Even Jimmy Carter, perhaps the most sympathetic president to the Palestinians, was complicit in undermining their right to statehood. Like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Carter had hoped to make the Palestinian question a key part of the negotiations between Egypt and Israel; however, facing Menachem Begin’s opposition, Carter eventually dropped the demand to reach a larger strategic agreement between the two states.

How the U.S. made Palestine the exception to the rules of peacemaking
U.S. President Jimmy Carter (center) shares a toast with Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, following the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords in Washington DC, March 26, 1979. (Ya’acov Sa’ar/GPO)

The 1978 Camp David Accords instead included a vague suggestion of Palestinian autonomy, which mirrored Begin’s diluted proposal and effectively allowed Israel to continue building settlements in the occupied territories. Advisor William Quandt later confessed that the U.S.’s neglect in freezing Israel’s settlement growth was “the biggest error of Camp David.”

Angered by the results of Camp David, Arafat once claimed, “I was on the mountaintop, but Sadat threw me into the valley.” But in fact, it was Arafat himself who entrapped Palestinians in the confines of autonomy. The PLO leader had reached out to the U.S. as far back as 1973 with the aim of “cleaning up the group’s image and transforming it into a legitimate political actor.” In a message delivered via the president of the Ivory Coast, Arafat told U.S. officials: “The Palestine Liberation Organization in no way seeks the destruction of Israel, but accepts its existence as a sovereign state; the PLO’s main aim… will be the creation of a Palestinian state out of the ‘Palestinian part of Jordan’ plus Gaza.”

This message, Elgindy reminds us, was ahead of its time. It signaled the PLO’s readiness to compromise Palestinian national ambitions to a portion of their historical homeland, 15 years before it became official PLO policy in 1988 and two decades before Israel and the U.S. agreed to facilitate it under Oslo. Even the CIA noted at the time that hardliners within the PLO leadership were showing “elements of rather startling pragmatism” by supporting this position.

Arafat’s overtures came at a cost: his decisions splintered the Palestinian movement and stoked radical groups to launch brutal attacks against Israelis and foreigners in the late 1980s. The White House blamed Arafat for the violence, despite the fact it was being waged in opposition to him.

How the U.S. made Palestine the exception to the rules of peacemaking
Yasser Arafat visits the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin during a visit to East Germany in 1971. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-K1102-032 / Franke, Klaus / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

If the PLO thought its early concessions were a proactive strategy made from a position of strength, by the 1990s, it had to defend the autonomy plan as a means of survival. With internal divisions and loss of Arab sponsors, Oslo guaranteed the PLO a new source of funding and legitimacy through U.S. support. Moreover, by establishing a base for the exiled leadership in the occupied territories, Oslo enabled the PLO to undercut local grassroots movements and suppress rival groups like Hamas, thus reasserting its control of the Palestinian struggle.

The fact that the PLO embraced a crippled form of autonomy out of desperation “was not entirely lost on Israeli leaders.” They correctly perceived that integrating the PLO into the occupation would in fact ease the task of managing the Palestinian population, without having to give up the territory.

It is no coincidence, then, that the vision outlined by Trump last week is essentially a consolidation of the Oslo blueprint. Even the map projecting the future Palestinian “state” is a reflection of today’s Oslo realities: a shrunken, tattered collection of bantustans for which the PLO is responsible for keeping the economy afloat and preserving security coordination with Israel, all under the guise of self-rule.

“My vision gives the Palestinians the time needed to rise up and meet the challenges of statehood,” said Trump, repeating the demand of Palestinians to prove they are worthy of such a basic human right. Writing on Washington’s debates on the matter in the 1970s, Kissinger said that “The idea of a Palestinian state run by the PLO was not a subject for serious discourse.” Fifty years later, it still isn’t.

Washington’s internal conflicts

The century of American decisions that paved the path to Trump’s deal were by no means unanimous. There were constant competitions within Washington regarding its Palestine policy, pitting the presidency, the State Department, the Pentagon, special advisors, lobbies, and constituencies against each other.

Officials in the State Department, particularly diplomatic staff based in the region, tended to be the most nuanced and considerate of Palestinian positions as far back as the British Mandate. However, their advice was routinely trounced by the presidents’ domestic political concerns, advisors’ agendas, and general realpolitik. Though institutional disputes persisted, after 1948, those differences were often more a matter of tone than of substance.

A recurring conflict was the personal struggles of American presidents to choose between the universal values they promoted and the inclinations or pressures to give preferential treatment to the Israelis. The latter always won out. Woodrow Wilson’s religious belief in the “rebirth of the Jewish people” led him to sideline his Fourteen Points (such as self-determination) to favor the Zionist claim to a national home over that of the Palestinians.

How the U.S. made Palestine the exception to the rules of peacemaking
President Harry Truman (left) meets with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. Abba Eban in Washington DC, May 1, 1951. (Fritz Cohen)

Harry Truman, perhaps the most indecisive president on Palestine, was uncomfortable with Israeli practices yet routinely balked under domestic pressure. Carter relegated his human rights doctrine in favor of Kissinger-style peace between Egypt and Israel. Undermined by these inconsistencies each time, the State Department warned the presidents that they were damaging their own policy values by neglecting the Palestinians’ rights and needs.

There were occasional moments, however, where American presidents defied those pressures. Dwight Eisenhower temporarily suspended economic aid to Israel after its forces, led by Ariel Sharon, launched a massacre on the West Bank village of Qibya following cross-border skirmishes with Palestinian fighters. To push for Egypt-Israel talks, Gerald Ford “leaned heavily on the Israelis, hinting at a possible reduction in Israel’s massive aid package if it did not make further withdrawals in Sinai.” During Israel’s early incursions into Lebanon, Carter warned Israel that it was violating the Arms Export Control Act by using its weapons for offensive purposes. Later in 1982, the devastation of Israel’s full-scale invasion of Lebanon led Reagan to withhold U.S. weapons shipments.

The boldest — and most impactful — policy consequences were imposed by the administration of George H.W. Bush, in great part due to the work of his State Secretary James Baker. Despite Israel’s opposition and his own reservations, Baker maneuvered around diplomatic constraints to ensure the PLO’s participation in the 1991 Madrid peace conference in all but name. The administration pushed Congress to suspend $10 billion in loans to Israel until Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir committed to freezing settlement construction. Elgindy notes that this move was “largely symbolic,” but nevertheless marked the “first time an American administration linked the issue of Israeli settlements directly to Israeli aid.”

How the U.S. made Palestine the exception to the rules of peacemaking
U.S. Secretary of State James Baker (left) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Jerusalem, April 9, 1991. (Tsvika Israeli/GPO)

The Israelis heeded these consequences each time — but they only did so briefly, knowing that the White House would never sustain the pressure. For years Israel and the pro-Israel lobby channeled extensive resources into building their leverages on Washington, exploiting its institutional differences and setting up massive political incentives (and costs) to synchronize U.S. policy with Israel’s.

Armed with these levers, the Israeli approach toward Americans officials sometimes boiled down to a simple trick: chutzpah. One famous incarnation of this occurred in 1996: after meeting with then-novice premier Netanyahu at the White House, President Bill Clinton exclaimed: “Who is the fucking superpower here?”

Netanyahu was not the first to exercise that bravado. In 1949, frustrated by Israel’s refusal to address the Palestinian refugee problem, President Truman threatened to undermine Israel’s bid for UN membership and to withhold $49 million in loans unless Israel agreed to repatriate 200,000 refugees.

The Israelis “called Truman’s bluff.” The American coordinator for Palestinian refugees, George McGhee, recounted that Israel’s ambassador to Washington “looked me straight in the eye and said, in essence, that I wouldn’t get by with this move, that he would stop it… Within an hour of my return to my office I received a message from the White House that the president wished to dissociate himself [from the plan].”

Years later, ahead of the Lebanon invasion in 1982, Ariel Sharon met with U.S. officials ostensibly to attain their support for the war. In reality, as the American ambassador to Lebanon described, “Sharon didn’t care whether Americans approved or disapproved of whatever he wanted to do… He had sat and looked at the [State Secretary Alexander Haig]… and immediately understood that the Americans were not going to take any action… He saw that there would be no political costs to Israel.”

Sharon took his cue with ferocious effect, sanctioning wanton destruction in Lebanon and refusing to intervene in the notorious Sabra and Shatila massacres. The White House was furious — but it did nothing to hold Israel to account.

The PLO’s self-pacification

Reading the conflict’s history through the lens of U.S. policy-making, it is impressive that the PLO managed to circumvent the superpower’s attempts to crush it for so long. Kissinger, a fanatic follower of realist international theory, despised the idea of dealing with non-state actors — yet the Palestinians were a constant thorn in his plans. In 1974, Kissinger warned that if Israel did not cede the West Bank to Jordan and nip the Palestinian national movement immediately, “Arafat will become internationally recognized and the world will be in chaos.” The PLO would have been flattered.

In the face of this hostile adversary, the Palestinians showed ingenuity in utilizing the international system to their advantage. The PLO acquired recognition from the Arab League as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” in October 1974, and the following month, obtained observer status at the UN.

The U.S. denounced the UN decision, but as Elgindy points out, the irony was “it was precisely the government’s failure to recognize the Palestinians as a party to the negotiations that had brought the PLO to the UN in the first place.” Years later, the failure of negotiations under U.S. auspices would similarly compel the PLO to seek UN statehood and approach the International Criminal Court (which the U.S. also opposed).

Yet for all its savviness, the PLO also sowed the seeds of its own pacification. Its obsessive attempts to prove its moderation to the U.S. meant that it could no longer wage the Palestinian struggle on its own terms. As Elgindy writes on the decision to recognize Israel in 1988, “Whereas Arafat and the PLO had pursued the United States in the hope that it would eventually ‘deliver’ Israel, the Reagan administration now boasted that it had effectively ‘delivered’ the PLO to Israel.”

Acquiescence would remain the PLO’s dominant trend, including under Mahmoud Abbas, with everlasting futility. The Israelis and Americans would draw a line, find that the PLO had reached it, then quickly move the line again.

How the U.S. made Palestine the exception to the rules of peacemaking
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (left), Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (center) and Yitzhak Rabin hold up their Nobel Peace Prizes is Oslo, Norway, October 12, 1994. (Ya’acov Sa’ar/GPO)

The shaky tower on which Arafat had staked the Palestinians’ fate ultimately became his undoing at the 2000 Camp David summit. Arafat was caught between Clinton’s and Ehud Barak’s “all-or-nothing” approach to a proposal that did not meet core Palestinian needs (the myth of the “generous offer” has been debunked since), and a Palestinian public that could no longer tolerate his endless concessions.

The moment Arafat halted his acquiescence at the summit, it was expedient for Barak and Clinton to turn the tables on him. As Elgindy sums it, “Although all three leaders were guilty of missteps and miscalculations during and after Camp David, it was easier and less costly politically… to shift the costs of failure onto the Palestinians.”  Twenty years later, the Oslo institutions, propped up by the U.S. and Israel, are the only thing keeping the PLO standing, rendering a once-revolutionary movement into an agent of the very regime it claims to resist.

It is hard to say what the PLO could have done differently. From the UN Partition Plan to the Trump deal, Palestinian leaders almost always faced bad options: “Acquiescing in a political process seen by most Palestinians as fundamentally unfair would leave them vulnerable domestically,” writes Elgindy, “while boycotting the process altogether would only cement their political marginalization.”

The armed struggle faced a similar paradox: violence often damaged the reputation of the Palestinian cause, particularly after the wanton suicide bombings of the Second Intifada — yet as Elgindy admits, at least until Oslo, “the tragic reality was that terrorism worked.” Without violence, the U.S. would never have considered Palestinians a key part of regional politics, and the Israelis would never have been compelled to face the Palestinian question it had left unanswered.

The next century

In theory, peace processes are supposed to prove that diplomacy is more fruitful than violence. But in the case of Palestine, the U.S. showed that both are futile ventures. No matter what Palestinians did to advance their cause, Israel’s concerns — and its desires — always came first. When Hamas agreed to integrate into the PA and won free legislative elections in 2006, the entire Palestinian government was sanctioned by the U.S. When the PLO sought statehood at the UN in 2012 — effectively fulfilling the U.S.’s declared policy goal — the White House denounced it.

The Obama era was the final test of the Oslo thesis, pitting Hamas’s armed strategy in Gaza against Fatah’s diplomacy in the West Bank. Even the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) offered an alternative path for nonviolent struggle. The U.S. rejected them all.

How the U.S. made Palestine the exception to the rules of peacemaking
President Trump greets Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu upon his arrival to the South Portico of the White House, January 27, 2020. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House Photo)

Today, the White House’s policy on Israel-Palestine is being orchestrated by the likes of special advisor Jared Kushner, Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, former special envoy Jason Greenblatt, and Trump himself. They are comical caricatures of the worst features of American politics and diplomacy; and yet, they have arguably been the most effective actors in the history of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

They are not afflicted by Wilson’s conflicting values, Truman’s indecisiveness, Carter’s constraints, or Obama’s passivity. They have a clear ideological agenda to fulfill Israel’s maximalist goals, and have demonstrated the political resolve — or carelessness — to achieve them, even if it means tearing down the laws and norms of the international order.

Despite flickers of courage over the years, that political will has always been lacking among previous administrations when it came to protecting Palestinian rights. Instead of using its influence to balance the conflict’s asymmetric power relations, the U.S. used the guise of peace talks to help Israel “shift as many of the risks and political costs onto the Palestinians as possible — especially when things went wrong.”

Between universalism for Palestinians and preferentialism for Israelis, Washington always picked the latter, and in doing so, abandoned the most basic rules of conflict mediation. Elgindy is being generous in suggesting that this is “less a function of malice or ignorance than of simple political arithmetic,” but malice and ignorance directly feed that arithmetic. In the end, the Israelis only ever offered Palestinians two things — submission or devastation — and the Americans have always backed them.

How the U.S. made Palestine the exception to the rules of peacemaking
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau delivers a speech against the Iran nuclear deal to the U.S. Congress, Washington DC, May 20, 2015. (GPO)

Some have tried to temper fears around the Deal of the Century by claiming (optimistically) that both Trump and Netanyahu could be on their way out this year. But this argument misses the point. Beyond any individual leaders, this deal is a victory for Zionism — not as the belief in Jewish self-determination, but as the supremacist, settler-colonial movement bent on erasing a native population. It has not only usurped Palestine’s existence with impunity, but has secured superpower backing of apartheid in the 21st century. Even if Netanyahu is ousted from office or thrown into jail, he has won his place in the history books as the Jewish leader who finally secured Greater Israel. Every victory may have its end, but Zionism has shown that victory can last more than a century.

The lessons of this history, as recounted by Elgindy, should be primary reading for American policymakers, including today’s Democratic candidates debating whether to condition military funds to Israel. As Elgindy writes on James Baker’s efforts at Madrid, achieving some success in peacemaking lies in “elevating the Palestinians to virtual co-equals with the Israelis,” and understanding “whom to push on or to prop up, and when.” And as one American diplomat reflected, Baker and H.W. Bush “stared down the supporters of Israel in Congress, they took on AIPAC and basically beat them.”

Repeating this scenario is difficult, but not impossible. Decades earlier, in November 1945, Truman told U.S. diplomats: “I have 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.” What would happen if millions of Americans — Palestinian, Jewish, black, brown, white, and more — grew anxious for the success of Palestinian freedom?