The Prospects of Peace in the M.E.
A speech delivered by Professor Walid Khalidi
on the occasion of receiving the Arab League
Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation’s
Prize of Distinction in Cultural Achievement
in the Arab World at Brunei Gallery (SOAS) -
London 8 October 2002
As I stand before you in these turbulent times to talk about the prospects
of peace in the Holy Land, I cannot but recall, as a Palestinian and an
historian, that this country was the author--and this city the
birthplace--of the Balfour Declaration. Indeed the fact that Peace in the
Holy Land is still unfinished business in the Year of Our Lord 2002 is
largely due to the letter penned on November 2nd, 1917 by Arthur James
Balfour to Lord Lionel Rothschild, only 8 years before the birth of your
There were only 68 words in Balfour’s letter, but there could be few
parallels in history where so few words have spelt such pain and devastation
to so many within the span of a single lifetime, with the promise of yet
more to come. What this attests to is the colossal folly and cost of
imperial cartography at which this country was so cavalier in the past and
for which it seems to harbour a certain lingering nostalgia even today.
Of course, times have changed. Rome has long since moved quarters from the
Thames to the Potomac where the drums of war rumble louder and faster by the
day. The latest Georges Picots and Mark Sykeses speak with distinct
How changed the relationship between the US and the Arab world since
Balfour’s time may be gauged from the distance between President Wilson’s
1919 dispatch of the King-Crane Commission to ascertain the democratic
wishes of the peoples of the Near East and Washington’s preemptory commands
today that the Palestinians drop their democratically elected leader ? the
only such Arab leader from the Atlantic to the Gulf, except perhaps for one
other Arab country.
How changed are the regional sentiments towards the US since Balfour may be
gauged from the distance between the near unanimous Arab request in 1919 to
the King-Crane Commission that the US be the trustee over the Arab
countries if a trusteeship regime were to be established, and 9/11.
US presidents since 1948 have been consistently sympathetic to Israel and
for the most part just as consistently indifferent to the plight of the
Palestinians. Eisenhower, though firm with Israel, was uninterested in the
Palestinians. Carter was the first president to acknowledge Palestinians as
human and political beings. Bush Senior, as his country’s envoy to the UN,
was more critical of Israeli treatment of Palestinians than any other
president. And Bill Clinton spent unprecedented presidential time and
energy in talks with both Israelis and Palestinians. All this has been
annulled by the gratuitous harshness of GW and his near total espousal of
the Israeli position despite his seemingly contradictory verbal endorsement
of the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
This hostile stance by GW predated 9/11 and was foreshadowed in early
gestures: receiving Sharon before any other M.E. leader, giving Israeli
President Moshe Katzav the first state dinner at the White House,
re-iterating his electoral pledge to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to
Jerusalem, and refusing to invite Arafat. It was also foreshadowed by his
choice of Vice President and Secretary of Defense and a score of their
principal aides, whose ultra-hawkish pro-Israeli views as a group were
already a matter of public record and knowledge before their appointments.
The US president is the only nationally elected official in America. This,
coupled with his constitutional prerogatives in foreign policy, give his
idiosyncrasies an indirect, often unconscious, but nevertheless significant
role in the formulation of policy. These idiosyncrasies in GW’s case include
his evangelical and most probably premillennialist convictions, his angst
about a second one term Bush presidency, his “accidental” president
syndrome, his visceral aversion to Clinton, his Texan macho ethos, his
fascination with the brutal personality and accomplishments of Sharon, his
urge to trump or avenge his father in Iraq, and his profound ignorance about
the Middle East and its peoples—except for the biblical history of the
Already before 9/11, GW seems to have decided to reverse Clinton’s M.E.
policy of giving priority to the Palestine Problem and to relegate it to a
lowly status, thus avoiding his father’s electorally costly collision course
with Tel Aviv over settlement policy. Ironically, Clinton had eased this
path for GW by pinning all the blame, for self-serving reasons, on Arafat
for the failure of the Camp David talks. Meanwhile, Sharon’s assumption of
power in Israel reinforced GW’s disinclination to take up the Palestine
Problem, since to do so would inevitably lead to collision with Sharon,
himself a mentor on things Middle Eastern whose partnership in the Middle
East GW sought.
Already long before 9/11 Cheney had propounded a dominant global role for
the US to unilaterally deter any regional challenge involving the
acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by such countries as Iraq.(1)
Already long before 9/11 the Cheney and Rumsfeld protégé hawks, now placed
in power (Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith, Bolton et al), had a new, ready-made,
radical US strategy for the M.E., whose very premises were that Iraq, not
the Arab-Israeli conflict, was the central M.E. issue and that Iraq, not the
Palestine Problem, should be the fulcrum of action to transform the Middle
Eastern strategic environment. Of course this focus on Iraq has Israeli
roots going back at least to Begin’s attack on Osirak in 1981 and advocated
since then most fervently by Sharon. According to Perle and his associates,
the second half of the Iraq-oriented strategy is for Israel to scrap the
Oslo Agreement, reject the principle of land for peace, and reoccupy the
West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These ideas were actually submitted in
writing in 1996 by Richard Perle and his colleagues to then Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Perle is today chairman of the Pentagon Defense
Policy Board. Is it any wonder that Rumsfeld, though twice Secretary of
Defense, does not recognize an occupied country when he looks at one?
9/11 gave tremendous resonance to these counsels and strategies, deepening
GW’s animus towards Arafat; and it is against this background also that the
Bush/Blair war on Iraq must be seen.
In fact there is a critical dialectical relationship between the planned
war on Iraq and the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The military phase
in Iraq may be a more or less difficult task, with more or less fall-out
outside Iraq. But even if it were achieved with minimal such fall-out ? a
dubious proposition ? it merely introduces a new, highly dangerous
post-Saddam phase of instability and uncertainty whose length, complexity,
and ramifications are impossible to predict or anticipate.
To add such a new dimension of instability and uncertainty to the eastern
flank of the Fertile Crescent while the festering wounds of Palestine, South
Lebanon, and Syria are left unattended on the Western flank, is unbelievably
irresponsible. But if this is added testimony to the absence of an
institutional memory in the American colossus and to the rout of its
Arabists by its pro Israeli hawks, what is one to make of the inability of
the country that produced Sir Percy Cox, Sir Arnold Wilson and Gertrude
Bell to share with Big Brother the thought that tinkering with the Iraqi
Humpty Dumpty is no child’s play?
For Palestine, the war on Iraq is an open invitation, a blank cheque, an
incandescent green light to Sharon to exploit to the full, pending
resolution of the Iraqi situation, the formidable inventory of conditions
and constraints imposed by GW on the Palestinians in his definitive 24th of
June statement. Viewed in this light, the opaque references in this
statement to a Palestinian state within 3 years is so much pie in the sky,
and fish in the sea, along with the Prospects of Peace in the M.E.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Palestinian losses since this intifada began have been catastrophic: more
than 1,800 killed and 40,000 wounded.(2) The British population is 20 times
the size of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. So in
British terms, Palestinian losses are about 36,000 killed and 800,000
wounded, in two years.
The vast majority of Palestinian casualties are civilian. Palestinian and
Arab civilians have been at the receiving end of Zionist policies both
before and since the establishment of Israel.
Hundreds of Palestinian civilians died during the 1930s from bombs planted
in crowded vegetable markets in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa by the Irgun,
parent of the Likud. (It was also the Irgun that blew up the King David
Hotel in April 1946 in Jerusalem, killing 96 British, Arab, and Jewish
civilians in what Dominique Lapierre, the co-author of the book O Jerusalem,
calls “the first massive terrorist political action of modern history.”(3))
During the 1948 war, hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed in
scores of strategically planned massacres, including the Dayr Yasin massacre
of 9 April 1948, by Hagana, Irgun, and Stern Gang forces.
Those same forces drove out some 750,000 civilian Palestinians from their
towns and villages in 1948.
Some 250,000 more Palestinian refugees were driven by Israel across the
Jordan River in 1967, while on the Syrian front, Israeli forces expelled
120,000 Syrian farmers and small townsmen from the Golan.
During the War of Attrition on the Egyptian front 1968-70, Israel destroyed
all the Suez Canal zone cities causing the exodus of hundreds of thousands
On the Lebanese front, for two and a half decades, hundreds of thousands of
Shiite farmers and small townsmen were again and again forced to flee the
repeatedly devastated South Lebanon in the direction of Beirut.
For the last 50 years the chief exponent and practitioner of the Israeli
military doctrine of massive retaliation and of the tactic of provocation,
as a prelude to military escalation, has been one Ariel Scheinerman, also
known as Arik Sharon. No other Israeli leader, military or civilian, still
in power since the establishment of Israel, has killed more Palestinian or
Arab civilians, or done greater damage to Palestinian and Arab civilian
institutions and installations than this individual.
Sharon first came to prominence in October 1953, when he conceived and
implemented with Unit 101, a special military unit he had created, a raid
against the Palestinian village of Qibya—45 houses were blown up killing 69
civilians, three quarters of them women and children. According to the UN
report, “Bullet-ridden bodies near the doorways and multiple hits on the
doors of the demolished houses indicated that the inhabitants had been
forced to remain inside while their homes were blown up over them.”(4) This
raid has become a prototypical one for the Israeli army since then.
In 1964, on the Syrian front, Sharon asked his staff “to gather data on the
number of vehicles, buses and trucks that would be required to transport the
entire Arab population of Northern Israel to the neighboring Arab
In 1970 and until recently he advocated toppling the Jordanian monarchy to
allow the Palestinians to take over Jordan as their alternative country.
In 1980 Menahem Begin, half jokingly, said that if given the defense
ministry Sharon would ring the prime minister’s office with tanks.(6) Are
we surprised that he did this to Arafat?
In Lebanon, in 1982, according to the most authoritative Lebanese daily,
an-Nahar, the total number of Arabs killed by Sharon—the vast majority of
them civilians—was 17,500. Of these, 12,500 were Palestinians.(7) And this
was before Sabra and Shatila.
In the political field, Sharon was equally devastating to the prospects of
peace. According to Geoffrey Aronson, the leading American Jewish expert on
Israeli settlement, it was Sharon who transformed the idea of Greater Israel
into reality. “For Sharon there was no Green Line¼ there was simply the Land
of Israel¼ There was no West Bank¼ no Palestinians, only the Arabs of the
Land of Israel. His was the vision and vocabulary of militant Zionism.”(8)
In 1977 Sharon unveiled a new settlement plan called “A Vision of Israel at
Century’s End.” It envisaged the settlement of 2 million Jews in the
Sharon was the architect of the Likud political bloc, champion of Gush
Emunim (the religiously extremist settler movement), the driving force
behind the colonization of Hebron and the central Palestinian highlands, the
builder of the notorious bypass roads exclusively for Jewish use designed to
make a contiguous Arab entity impossible.(10)
In 1979 he said about the Golan, “We will never leave the Golan for any
price not even for peace with Syria.”(11)
His latest vision of a so-called Palestinian state was enunciated on 18
January last year. It comprised 42 percent of the West Bank with a unified
Jerusalem under perpetual Israeli sovereignty, no right of return for the
Palestinian refugees and an indefinite interim period.
More recently, he declared that Netzarim (a tiny settlement in the middle
of the Gaza ghetto) is “Tel Aviv.”
On 28 September 2000, by his invasion of al-Haram al-Sharif, he widened the
circumference of conflict to include the whole world of Islam. In the
so-called Operation Defensive Shield launched by Sharon against the
Palestinians on March 29th, 2002, the declared objective was to destroy the
infrastructure of Palestinian terrorism. What Israel destroyed are the
offices, equipment, furniture, computers, archives and records of: banks,
corporations, businesses, research centers, town halls, municipalities,
jails, police stations, schools, radio stations, land registry offices,
courts, and ministries across the administrative spectrum including the
Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of National Economy.
Summing him up, Uzi Benziman, his Israeli biographer, says that after
Lebanon in 1982, “Sharon was exposed¼as a deceitful, crafty, uncouth,
egotistic, and paranoid. Only a few people had been aware of his sick
This is the individual Mr. Bush calls a Man of Peace.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
September 11th will remain a major watershed in American consciousness
along with the other major watersheds that stretch back through the Vietnam
and Korean Wars and through the First and Second World Wars all the way to
the Civil War and the Foundation of the Republic.
Condemnation of 9/11 was global, and, rightly so. We condemn it absolutely
and without reservation.
The last time the continental US was attacked was in 1814 by, of all
countries, Britain. This was 188 years ago. Pearl Harbor was not the
continental US, and there are few countries in the world which have been
free of attack in the last 188 years.
The trauma of 9/11 was all the greater because of the metropolitan
location and symbolic centrality of its targets, the abuse of the proudest
products of American technology, the scale of the devastation, human,
material, and visual, the contempt for the lives of innocents as well as of
their own that the perpetrators displayed, and the depth of their hatred of
Because of its continuing trauma, the US subsumes all terrorist political
acts under a capital T which is seen through a “viral” analogy. Thus all
acts of “Terrorism” (like a virus) have the same causes, the same symptoms
and require the same diagnosis and the same prescription. This erases local
and regional circumstance, cancels history, stifles inquiry and paralyzes
In this environment it is not strictly legitimate to pose the question:
“Why do they hate us?” Or if the question is allowed, the answer is
preordained and prepackaged. It may not stray from its allotted grooves.
It must run certain courses. It must fit into an authorized catechism. It
can only be a variation of a set number of acceptable responses: “Because
we are free; or because we are democratic; or because we are affluent; or
because we have a free-market economy or because we are Christian or because
their culture is inherently a culture of hate.” The common denominator
between these and other correct answers is that they point AWAY from self.
The quintessence of post 9/11 patriotism is to prevent your train of thought
from leading you, however tentatively, however skeptically, in the direction
of a political genesis, much less of US policy making. Thus
self-examination is precluded and potential anticipatory, preventive, or
remedial political action is circumscribed. Not only do certain thought
processes become strictly taboo but certain expressions and terms of phrase
can also taint the purity of your speech. For example, to talk about “a
cycle of violence” in the M.E. between Israelis and Palestinians is to
commit the sin of “moral equivalence.”
A devastating consequence of all this on the Palestine Problem has been the
conflation by GW of Arafat with Ben Laden and the Palestinians with
Taliban —Sharon’s primary objective from the beginning. How successful
Sharon has been in achieving this objective is clear from GW’s nomination of
Sharon to join the Pantheon of Peace Makers and his amnesia with regard to
his repeated requests to Sharon six months ago to withdraw from the
Palestinian territories “now,” “immediately” and “without delay.”
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The first Palestinian suicide bombing ever occurred on 14 September 1993,
the very next day after Oslo. It was a message primarily to Arafat. It was
followed by the first Israeli suicide killing by Goldstein, in Hebron, in
February 1994, itself also a protest against Oslo. Goldstein’s tomb to this
day is venerated in Israel by segments of the Right as a sacred shrine under
Israeli army protection.
The desecration of the tomb of Abraham by Goldstein further fueled the
religious dimension of the conflict and unleashed a series of religiously
motivated Palestinian suicide bombings.
From 1994 until the end of 2001, all suicide bombings without exception
were carried out by Palestinian groups in opposition to Arafat and the Oslo
process sponsored by Arafat. On more than one occasion, crackdowns by
Arafat’s security forces on these groups brought matters to the brink of
open Palestinian civil war.
The first suicide bombings by the Aqsa Brigades affiliated to Fatah did not
come about until late January 2002, after a prolonged, and systematic
offensive by Israel against the Palestinian security apparatus. These
bombings, given the asymmetry in weaponry, were the inevitable reaction to
this provocative Israeli policy initiated by Barak targeting the Palestinian
Authority’s security leaders, their personnel, their check points, their
parking lots, their barracks, their jails, their headquarters—a policy that
was vastly expanded and escalated by Sharon the moment he seized the reins
of power. Needless to say, this policy could hardly increase the incentives
for the Palestinian security forces to tackle the oppositional suicide
bombers and may indeed have been pursued by Sharon with precisely this
destructive purpose in mind.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The killing of innocents must be condemned in all circumstances. It
certainly is contrary to the teachings of the Koran, which says (V, 32):
“Who so slays a soul not guilty for a soul slain, nor for corruption done
in the land shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether; and who so gives
life to a soul shall be as if he had given life to mankind altogether.”
Piety is explicitly defined in the Koran (III: 134). The pious are those
“give to charity in prosperity and adversity, who restrain their rage and
who forgive the offences of their fellowmen.”
When, however, the acreage of what is left of your country shrinks daily
before your eyes because of seizures by armed settlers backed by F16s,
Apache helicopters and Merkava tanks. And when your adversary has no
inhibitions in using his arsenal against your homes and places of
livelihood, and your only weapons are small arms. And when the international
community and your neighbors are unable to come to your aid, the temptation
to turn suicidal is not so impossible to comprehend.
These threats were not the threats in any shape or form that Al Qaida faced
before 9/11. There is absolutely no analogy here whatsoever.
And to those who claim to see a distinct and alien cultural provenance to
the killing of innocents in warfare we say: The killing of innocents, even
deliberately, has not been unknown in warfare as waged by the great Western
powers, as World War II has amply demonstrated—not only in the European
theaters but more particularly in Japan. The threat to hearth and home faced
by these great Western powers when they resorted to these tactics against
enemy civilians in World War II or in Vietnam,, was arguably not greater in
kind or imminence or proximity to the threat posed by the Israeli military
under Sharon to the very existence of the Palestinian polity and society.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Palestinian and Israeli national narratives are both replete with
myths. Since Camp David in July 2000 a new Israeli myth has been born.(13)
This goes something like this: “At Camp David, Barak offered Arafat the
most generous peace settlement conceivable but Arafat walked away from it.
Why? Because Arafat’s commitment to a negotiated settlement in Oslo in 1993
had been a subterfuge and he was essentially dedicated to the destruction of
Israel through Terrorism and suicide bombing.” Unfortunately Clinton, who
knew better, also put the blame on Arafat.
A few comments are in order:
FIRST: Summits need detailed preparation and Arafat pleaded for such
preparation. But Clinton and Barak were insistent. Fearing otherwise to
incur Clinton’s anger, Arafat acquiesced, but only after eliciting a promise
from Clinton that he would not blame the Palestinians in case of failure.
SECOND: During Camp David, Barak and Arafat never met once in one-on-one
negotiations. Why not? Because of Barak’s personal antipathy towards
THIRD: In calculating the area of West Bank territory to be "given" to the
Palestinians, Israel always leaves out several crucial details: expanded
municipal East Jerusalem, the Latrun salient, and the NW Dead Sea quadrant
which together amount to 5.4% of the West Bank. In other words, the
percentages the Israelis give of West Bank land left for the Palestinians
must always be reduced by 5.4%.
FOURTH: National territory, as in human anatomy, is not only a
quantitative matter. The territory the Israelis wanted to retain, in and
around Jerusalem, was the most crucial politically, economically,
strategically and psychologically for the viability of the Palestinian
FIFTH: Despite Barak’s concessions in East Jerusalem, the areas he
allotted to the Palestinians did not constitute together a contiguous link
between the Ramallah/Nablus area in the North and the Bethlehem/Hebron area
in the South thus vitiating the ostensibly conceded role of parts of East
Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital.
SIXTH: For the first time since 1948, the US at Camp David came up with a
categorical rejection of the Palestinian right of return. This was a
tremendous shock, given the multitudinous endorsements by the UN of this
SEVENTH: Another tremendous shock was the more than implicit acceptance by
the US at Camp David of the legality of the settlers in the occupied
territories who had multiplied by 100% since Oslo. The shock was all the
greater because of the multitudinous condemnations by the UN, with US
participation, of the illegality of the settlements.
EIGHTH: But the mother of shocks was the demand by Barak, the secular
socialist, for Jewish sovereignty over al Haram al Sharif, a demand endorsed
by the liberal, secular, Democratic, Clinton. Never since the First Zionist
Congress in 1897 had a Zionist leader in authority made such a demand and
never since the establishment of Israel in 1948 had any American president.
The conjunction between these considerations, on top of 34 years of
continuous military occupation, and Sharon’s “visit” to the al Haram al
Sharif in September was the Sarajevo of the Aksa Intifada. Sharon came with
a phalanx of Likudist Knesset members, 1,000 riot policemen and Apache
helicopters. Sharon’s message was clear. If Barak was asserting Jewish
sovereignty over the al Haram verbally at Camp David, he, Sharon, was
asserting it with his boots, in situ.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
One of the most ominous developments in the Palestine Problem and the Arab
Israeli conflict in the last few decades is the growing prominence of its
religious dimension. The year 1967, with the crushing Israeli military
victory over Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in a matter of hours, has been a
watershed in this regard. On the one hand this victory dealt a coup de
grace to secular Arab nationalism as espoused until then under the
leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. And on the other it gave
tremendous impetus both to Jewish religious nationalism in Israel and
outside and to Christian premillennialism particularly in the USA.
Prior to 1967 Zionism had been a predominantly secular movement. Since
1967 this secularism has been progressively eroded. The victory of 1967 was
altogether intoxicating. For the first time since the Roman Emperor Hadrian
destroyed Jewish Jerusalem in 135 AD and turned it into the “Jewish-free”
Roman city Aelia Capitolina, all of the land of Israel (Eretz Israil),
including the whole of Jerusalem and the “Temple Mount,” were under total
triumphant Jewish military control. This was seen as confirmation of Divine
favour and of the choseness of the Jewish people and gave rise to an
extremist religious-nationalist settlement movement Gush Emonim (The Bloc of
the Faithful) bent on rebuilding the Temple and populating the whole of the
Promised Land in perpetuity with Jews in fulfillment of the covenant with
To Christian premillennialists, Israel’s victory and the surge in the
Jewish settlement of Palestinian occupied territories were the working out
of God’s design, the augurs of the Rapture and the Tribulations, of
Armageddon and the Apocalypse, of the end of Days and the approach of the
Second Coming of Christ. To retard, or worse, arrest the Jewish settlement
of the occupied territories is to thwart the divine purpose and to delay the
promised Christian millennium.
Despite traditional friction between American Christian millennialists and
American Jews, 1967 has brought them closer together. It was Menachem Begin,
the right-wing Prime Minister of Israel, who as early as 1977 laid down the
basis of a political partnership that was nurtured and consolidated by the
Israeli Likudist Prime Minister Netanyahu. President Reagan himself was
believed to be a Christian premillennialist and he gave a great boost and
much needed respectability to the movement in the US.
Christian premillennialists are believed to constitute more than one-fourth
of the Republican members in today’s Congress. George W. might himself be an
evangelical if not a premillennialist.(14) Karl Rove, GW’s principal
advisor, was recently reported to say that there are 19 million evangelical
votes out there to capture, of which only 14 million voted for GW in the
last elections.(15) What makes this all the more ominous is that with the
demise of secular Arab nationalism after the defeat of 1967 the ideological
vacuum inside the Arab world is being filled with Islamism.
Madrassas, we are told, are the global culprit in incitement to
inter-religious violence. We believe, however, that with regard to the
Middle East none of the three Abrahamic faiths holds a monopoly in these
matters, and that true educational reform needs to be non-discriminatory and
inclusive to encompass in the U.S. in equal measure the pernicious
activities of many evangelical and Jewish fundamentalist groups. In contrast
to the mainstream churches, senior American evangelicals of the stature of
Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and John Reed preside over a
communications empire of daily slander, hate and falsification about Islam,
Arabs, and Palestinians. Activist Christian premillenialist and Orthodox
Jewish societies, inter alia, openly plan to rebuild the Temple on the
debris of al-Haram al-Sharif and enjoy tax-exempt status as U.S. charities.