Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Iron Cage

Part of the problem of reading histories of the contemporary Middle East, and particularly of Israel and Palestine, is that one has to know the history in order to read the history. The questions inspire such passion, and involve such complexities, that it is very difficult indeed to find genuinely accurate histories. And dangerous to rely on any without enough background knowledge to assess what they are leaving out.

But read enough different histories and a more complete picture begins to emerge. Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage: That Palestinian Struggle for Statehood is an intelligent and literate Palestinian history. It has some fairly dramatic flaws, but it certainly expands one’s understanding of the history of the Palestinians. And how Western support for the representative principle in the Middle East has always been subordinate to strategic considerations.

Khalidi is writing against Abba Eban’s classic bon mot that
the Palestinians never miss a chance to miss a chance
arguing strongly that the Palestinians were greatly constrained and disadvantaged by external constraints and internal fissures. Starting with the British refusal to institute any sort of elective politics in Palestine. He succeeds in making one much more aware of the constraints Palestinians were operating under.

On the other hand, he also argues strongly that the Palestinian cause has persistently suffered from poor leadership, particularly compared to their Zionist opponents. Indeed, he is often highly perceptive about the failures of Palestinian leadership and the reasons therefore. This does, however, rather end up suggesting that Eban’s bon mot has more force in it than Khalidi is prepared to explicitly acknowledge.
While Khalidi is very aware of the power of the post-Holocaust anti-anti-Semitism “narrative” in working in Israel’s favour in the West, is quite blunt that any solution is going to have to take into serious account the concerns and fears of Israelis and clearly admires the energy and efficiency of Zionist leadership, Khalidi still ends up being somewhat patchy in his analysis of Jewish-Arab interactions in Palestine. For example, Khalidi notes that Palestinian society under the British Mandate was more economically developed than in Syria or Egypt. He notes the huge influx of capital and skill the Jewish settlers brought with them. No connection is made between the two facts.

His points often are often less convincing than they might be because he leaves out aspects of the context. For example, even if the British had been full bore on the representative principle, why would it have had different outcomes in Arab Palestine than it did in the rest of the Arab world? He notes that Palestine and Lebanon are the only two Arab countries that have experienced a peaceful change of government via elections. Which begs the question of why?

He sees the crucial advantages of the Zionist movement being well-organised international support—it was originally a manifestation of Western society and well-connected within it, unlike the Palestinians. A much greater level of skills and resources—Zionism was very much a manifestation of modernity, again unlike Palestinian society. With a clear focus—a Jewish state that was a secular democracy. Again, the appropriate political form was never a settled issue in Palestinian politics (and still isn’t). This allowed the Zionist cause to triumph, despite being outnumbered within Mandatory Palestine prior to 1947.

Khalidi’s history cuts in and out. He is very informative on matters up to 1935 (leaving aside issues such as his very bland presentation of the various anti-Jewish riots). For events from about 1935 onwards until the 1980s, The Iron Cage is not really a history, because too much is left out. The Arab Revolt happens, but how and why is not explained. Its consequences are dealt with. Khalidi is very careful to delineate how partial Arab military support against the Zionist cause was in 1947-48.

After the catastrophe of 1947-48 until the 1980s, what we get is thematic observations. So, for example, yes, the notable class was (largely) eclipsed, but not as completely as suggested. Not least given Yassir Arafat himself, whose origins are not dealt with at all and whose rise to prominence is dealt with extraordinarily perfunctory.

Khalidi is very perspicacious about the consequences for the PLO of its expulsion from Lebanon in 1982 and the isolation and aging of its leadership in Tunis. He notes that terrorism as a tactic has great moral and political costs for the Palestinian cause. Though he fails to connect that explicitly with the degree of support that the US provides Israel. He notes how Bush II’s administration, despite Bush’s explicit support for a Palestinian state (the first US President to do so) has, conversely, been the most pro-Israeli US Administration. Yet that level of support was surely precisely because of the Bush Administration’s conception of the War on Terror.

He argues that the PLO explicitly accepted Israel’s existence from the late 1980s onwards, though he notes that there was sufficient ambiguity—not least in the persistence of terror attacks on Israel—to give those sceptical about such acceptance things to point to. Khalidi argues that the continuation of Jewish settlements on the West Bank is, in fact, making a two-state solution less and less viable. But he doesn’t draw the connection that the presentation of such settlements as a defensive measure gains power, particularly within Israel, precisely because of the continuing terror attacks on Israel. Nor does he distinguish between the creation of a Jewish Jerusalem and other settlements.

He sees Western hostility to the Hamas government as an attempt to destroy Palestinian democracy. A deeply implausible claim, since the financial boycott has support even from the EU—not normally a source of pro-Israeli policy—and is entirely predicated on Hamas accepting Israel’s existence.

He claims that Barak’s offer at Camp David during the waning months of the Clinton Adminisration was a “take it or leave it” one, yet makes no comment about Arafat’s failure to make any sort of counter-offer. A failure that lead to the complete collapse across the US political spectrum of any interest in dealing with Arafat and gave the claims of Sharon and Olmert that they had “no one to negotiate with” plausibility. (Claims that the election of the Hamas government gave new life to.) Though Khalidi does admit that Arafat’s political style worked very well in Arab politics, but badly in a Western context.

Even though Khalidi is often dramatically selective, he can also take Israeli perspectives and concerns seriously. That the huge wave of Jewish refugees to Israel meant that fewer and fewer Israelis had any memory of events before 1948 strikes me as a telling point. Of course, there is still the interesting question of why Jews fled Arab lands in such astonishing numbers.

I would certainly recommend that anyone interested in understanding the Israel-Palestinian dispute read The Iron Cage. And Khalidi’s argument that a two-state solution is becoming increasingly less viable due to Israeli policy, yet there is a dramatic lack of serious thinking about the alternative, makes for sombre reading. But it is also very much a book to read critically: it is only partially a history and is a partial history.

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