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Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy.

Kathleen Christison. Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1999. 370 pages. Hardcover $40.00.

Kathleen christison, a former CIA analyst, amazes readers with the depth of analysis and timely arguments supported by first-hand experiences and detailed evaluation to approaches and conducts connecting US policymakers with the Palestine issue over the past five decades. The text is mainly concerned with examining Washington's perceptions, attitudes, policies, and most importantly exploring the effects of the Israeli centered frame of reference on the Palestinian Arabs. The study points out discrepancies in Washington's handling of Palestinian and Israeli claims, and reveals that the special bond between Israel and the US is largely responsible for the lack of substantial progress in Middle East peace. Although the US took a more active role, in the past decade, in upholding the process of peace between the parties, Christison is skeptical of US ability to act as an impartial peace broker. Many opportunities to resolve the conflict between Arabs and Israelis were lost or abandoned because of pressures from pro-Israelis on US policymakers. Israel's special attachment with US policymakers, the media, lobbyists, Congress and the public at large is a theme that runs throughout the book. For much of this century, the US special relations with Israel has undermined Palestinian political claims and downplayed the seriousness of their tragedy. Christison's questioning of the lack of moral equality in American responses and treatments of both Arab and Jewish tragedies is a major theme in the text.

Although historical, this book is unique in its presentation of variations among the past twelve American presidents with regard to the levels and sources of their knowledge on Palestine and the Palestinians. Most mentioned presidents, if not all, were influenced by a pro-Israeli agenda that made them unaware of the Palestinian tragedy or its outcome. The lack of a successful Palestinian public relations network in the US, coupled with a presence of an American unconditional backup for Israel, further explains the absence of US sympathy for the Palestinians. Consequently, US policy in the Middle East has been largely rooted in a political reality that could only recognize the old Israeli version of the conflict. The emergence, in the 1980s, of new Israeli revisionist historians, (i.e. Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris), who presented fresh studies recognizing the Palestinian tragedy has not been quite sufficient to revise the old frame of reference on Palestine.

Christison begins telling the story of US perspectives on Palestine with Mark Twain's stereotypical description of Palestinians as primitive "beggars by nature" (p.16). From this point on, the formation of the US frame of reference that supported Zionism since the early phases of the century began steadily unfolding. To many US presidents, the Palestinians were nonexistent, refugees, terrorists, and essentially undeserving people. Some presidents justified their attachment to Israel on the basis of biblical and emotional ties. Others were more influenced by deep guilt resulting from the tragic effects of the Holocaust on Jews, as well as by cultural ties that connect both the US and Israel with a Western style of democracy (p. 2). Judging from the wealth of information and case-oriented accounts, one can say that no matter what Palestinians may have done to change old western perceptions about them, American foreign policymakers would probably have continued supporting Israel. Ultimately, Christison conclude s that Palestinians could have done more to change misunderstandings and misperceptions about the extent of their tragedy.

Closer attention should be more centered on other findings of the ten chapters of Christison's work. Looking at the endnotes and the bibliography alone, which take up fifty-five pages, one can say that arguments in the text are extensively supported. In the introductory analysis, Christison focuses on events leading to the creation of Israel and its subsequent effects on Arabs. She addresses major power politics that gave rise to a pro-Israeli conventional wisdom which have essentially disregarded Palestinians' claims by arguing that they were "artificially inspired" (p. 1). Citing works of Malcolm Kerr, Edward Said, revisionist Israeli historians and others complements Christison's analyses and conclusions. In the end, Israel and its US supporters have succeeded in fostering deep anti-Arab biases. Pro-Israeli sentiments were indeed enhanced by the writings of Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami who defended US backing for Israel (p. 11). It was in this general context of the US conventional wisdom on Palestine th at the state of knowledge of the American public and their policymakers has been formulated, evolved and finalized.

President Woodrow Wilson did little to challenge British and French policies that decided the future of Palestine without consulting its residents. Wilson's religious and biblical convictions, along with his one-sided idealistic approach to the Middle East, allowed him to support political Zionism. Unconcerned about the Arabs of Palestine, Wilson endorsed the British decision to issue the Balfour Declaration in 1917. His decision was consistent with the existing frame of reference that saw the abandoning of Arab claims as a risk-free situation. Unlike other presidents, Franklin Roosevelt made no substantial decisions on Palestine. His lack of involvement has not, however, been translated into a departure from the old conventional wisdom, nor did it benefit the Arabs. Being less religiously inclined than others and not too fascinated with the biblical history of the Holy Land could not hinder Roosevelt's support for Zionism. His objection to the 1939 British White Paper reveals the strength of the frame of re ference in the US even at a time when British commitments to the Jews were starting to deteriorate. In the 1940s, Zionist lobbyists in the US escalated pressures on Roosevelt in order to facilitate a US unconditional backup for the creation of "a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth" in Palestine (p. 53).

By extending US recognition of the Jewish State and in making the birth of Israel possible, Harry Truman occupies "an immortal place in Jewish history" (p. 62). Ironically, Truman's support for the creation of an ethnically and religiously-oriented Jewish state that, by definition clashes with his beliefs in secularism and pluralist democracy, could not make him rethink commitments made to the Zionists. Of course, Truman's s commitments to Israel and Zionism had helped his own political future in the US. Also, against many, including Soviet expectations, he secured Israel as a permanent strategic ally for the US. Under these circumstances, the US media began steadily portraying Arabs as violent, fanatics, and threatening to Israel and US interests in the region.

In the next two decades following the 1948 war, the Palestinian national movement became increasingly subsumed by pan-Arabism that dominated Arab social and political life in the l950s and 1960s. Relations between Arabs and Israelis at the time were largely evaluated in the context of a zero-sum and an all-or-nothing conflict between political Zionism and Arab nationalism. As time went by, presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson adopted policies towards the region that were largely influenced by a global Cold War perspective, which emphasized containment of Soviet Communism as an essential priority for the US. American presidents had generally at the time realized that the US interests in the Middle East could be best served by the formulation of military, political and strategic alliances. In this context, Israel was seen as the best strategic ally for the US, while, on the other hand, pan-Arab nationalists were perceived as threatening to American interests. Despite the worsening images of the Arabs at the time in the US, Eisenhower succeeded in pressuring Israel, during the Suez crisis, to surrender its territorial gains, partly for the sake of preventing political instability from escalating and thus, hindering US strategic interests.

Prior to Jimmy Carter's presidency, Palestinians were absent from the US frame of reference, unless they were mentioned in the context of a humanitarian effort to settle the refugees or in a larger framework of defending Israel's stance on their situation (p. 100). John F. Kennedy addressed the refugee issue on such humanitarian accounts by calling for their repatriations and resettlements in Arab countries (p. 106). However, his focus on domestic political successes led soon to distancing himself from issues concerning Arab refugees, into those connected with US-Israeli special relations. In a more enthusiastic fashion, Lyndon B. Johnson continued Kennedy's approach by placing Israel's interests at the forefront of his agenda on US-Middle Eastern policy.

Following the radicalizing of Palestinian nationalism in the post-1967 war era, the PLO became a new significant actor in Middle Eastern politics. For the US, however, the new image of the PLO and the Palestinians in general became simply affiliated with terrorism and violence (p. 123). Although the post-1973 Arab-Israeli war period had opened new avenues for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford to resolve the conflict between the Arab states and Israel, they paid no real attention to the possible inclusion of the Palestinians and their representatives in any proposed peace negotiations. For his part, Henry Kissinger argued that unless the PLO met certain conditions that he himself formulated in 1975, the organization would remain viewed by the US as a Soviet puppet and a terrorist one. With such policy in place, the PLO was prevented from participating in all US-Middle East mediation efforts, with the exception of a limited US-PLO dialogue that took place in the last year of Reagan's presidency. For the next two d ecades, since the mid-1970s, Israel's objection to the PLO and Palestinian nationalism has enticed the US to become more oriented toward resolving differences between Israel and the Arab states without the PLO.

Carter is singled out in the text as the first to have contributed into changing the vocabularies of the Arab-Israeli conflict by empathizing with the Palestinians and addressing their need for a Palestinian homeland. He also left a legacy of being critical of Israel's settlement policy and its harsh treatment of Palestinians in the territories. As time progressed, however, the frame of reference became more powerful than Carter himself. Although Carter was unable to challenge the US conventional wisdom, Harold Saunders argued that he has been the first president in office to acknowledge that there are two sides to the Arab-Israeli conflict (p. 158). Carter's inability to confront the pro-Israeli frame of reference in the US reveals various political limitations that a president could face if attempting to depart on his own. This situation also suggests that Republicans and Democrats alike were inclined to defend the same frame of reference, and thus party politics was rarely a factor in US-Middle East polic ymaking.

Ronald Reagan supported Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and did absolutely nothing to stop Israel's efforts to exterminate the PLO and Palestinian nationalism. Christison is critical of Reagan not only because of his abandoning many opportunities that could have been pursued to resolve the conflict, but also because he brought back the old frame of reference into the forefront of US policymaking. Reagan's approach to the Middle East was naive and simply based on confronting so-called Soviet threats to the region (p. 200). Although he objected to negotiating with the PLO, the launching of the Palestinian Intifada in 1987, that rescued the PLO from its paralysis forced George Shultz into the unthinkable opening of a dialogue with the PLO. Public opinion in the US was, at the time, critical of Israel's occupation of Lebanon and of its mistreatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Despite that, however, Reagan continued his defense of Israel's position and remaine d infatuated with its Western democracy.

The end of the Cold War, the continuation of the Intifada, US victory in the Gulf and subsequent launching of the Madrid and Washington negotiations, gave George Bush and James Baker a ripe opportunity to reactivate the peace process. Despite this ripening situation, coupled with Bush and Baker's lack of empathy for the Israelis, the PLO remained outside the frame of reference. In fact, the PLO's call for coexistence with Israel, its launching of a peace strategy in 1988, its acceptance of Israel's right to exist, and Arafat's renouncement of terrorism could not pressure the US and Israel into accepting the PLO to participate in proposed peace negotiation (p. 246). Although Baker succeeded in accommodating Palestinian representatives from the territories to attend the Madrid and Washington negotiations, he and Bush decided that their participation would be part of a larger framework that allowed a role for the Jordanian regime to play. The revelation of Oslo and other subsequent agreements as well as the con tinuation of more recent talks on final status negotiations became part of a process associated with Bill Clinton. The author is critical of Madeleine Albright's overemphasis on the process of peace rather than its substance.

Perhaps the current staggering of the peace process and the lack of progress on the ground have already confirmed Christison's suspicions about US inability to deliver peace for the Palestinians. No doubt, the changes currently affecting the old frame of reference in the US are still short of bringing about crucial transformations in actual perceptions and conducts concerning US stance on a Palestinian state, the refugee problem and the status of Jerusalem. Whether the US could change its policies on these issues and pursue new ones remains to be seen. In this context, Perceptions of Palestine provides scholars, policymakers and students with information for correcting misunderstandings and misperceptions on the Palestine issue and the Palestinian people. In many ways, this controversial text also serves the intellectual and lay communities on topics including, but not limited to, US foreign policymaking and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Husam Mohamad is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Central Oklahoma.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Mohamad, Husam
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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