The trouble with ‘preventing Palestine’

Seth Anziska’s book on the Arab-Israeli “peace process” is a useful primer on the conflict, but it does not fully examine the paradox of the Carter administration’s solution that we are still living with, argues AS’AD ABUKHALIL*


Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, left, and U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezinski play chess at Camp David, September 9, 1978 | CIA

A new book by Seth Anziska, titled “Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo” created quite a buzz before its official release in late 2018. The writer had mentioned it in press articles and noted that he had unearthed important documents. The book, however, is not as firm in its Palestinian advocacy as has been assumed by supporters of the cause who have praised it on social media and in reviews.

Anziska, a lecturer in Jewish-Muslim Relations at University College London, seeks to trace the origins of the current stalemate in the American-formulated “peace process” to the Carter administration and its Camp David accords. But there are several political and scholarly problems with the book:

  • The title “Preventing Palestine” and the book’s treatment seems to deny agency to the Palestinian people. It treats the project of establishing a Palestinian state as if it is merely a United States initiative which, alone, can determine the fate of the Palestinians. This approach is also reflected in the research where English-language sources (and some Hebrew) are consulted, but no Arabic sources are cited. Referring to the memoirs of Shafiq Al-Hout, a founder of the PLO,  and interviewing Palestinian journalist Bayan Nuwayhid al-Hut is not enough to write the Palestinian people into this narrative.
  • The author’s treatment of the Carter administration is way too charitable. It puts too much emphasis on human rights when the view of the administration was the result of a complex process.

View inside the Carter administration

There were different currents within the administration:

  • The Arabists believed that U.S. interests in the region were best served by responding to Gulf regimes’ appeal for U.S. intervention in the Middle East peace process in order to impose a more equitable and fair settlement than what was being dictated by Israel or the U.S. However, the views of Gulf regimes were not entirely due to their interest in Palestinian justice – they were revenge for firm opposition by the Israel lobby to arms sales to Gulf countries. As the Israel lobby reconciled with Gulf regimes and supported U.S. arms to the region by 1990, Gulf advocacy for a “fair” U.S. settlement diminished and later disappeared.
  • Anziska also never mentions that the domestic policy advisers to Carter came up, cynically, with the idea of “the Holocaust museum” not so much as a moral remembrance of the victims of the historical crime but as a way to appease Jewish voters (which is insulting to Jewish voters and to the victims of the Holocaust).
  • The domestic policy advisers believed that Carter’s interest in a Middle East settlement would reduce Jewish support for Carter in the re-election.  This explains the cynical statement made by Hamilton Jordan (Carter’s chief of staff) to the effect that Carter would become president of the West Bank.
  • The national security team headed by Zbigniew Brzezinski believed that a U.S. settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict would enhance the strategic posture of the U.S. vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.
  • There was also a strong Zionist camp within the administration which lobbied on behalf of Israeli intransigence. Vice President Walter Mondale (who harboured early presidential ambition) sought to obstruct Carter’s peace efforts.
  • Despite Carter’s human rights rhetoric, the book mentions how the same Jimmy Carter hosted and praised the likes of the Shah of Iran and Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia, among other pro-U.S. despots.

Re-Exemining Arab-Israeli history

The author should have started his chronicle in the Nixon administration and the Rogers Plan.  His periodization seems to put a special humanitarian cast on Carter’s policies, when they were a continuation of previous U.S. policies that were intended to save Israel in the wake of the 1967 war. This continuity can be seen in the book in names like Dennis Ross, Mideast point man for both the Reagan and Clinton administrations and as a special assistant to Obama; Martin Indyk, a Mideast envoy for Clinton and Obama and Douglas Feith, who worked on Mideast issues in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.

One of the biggest failings of the author is his inability to transcend Zionist sensibilities in the rendering of judgment about acts of political violence. His tone and language of outrage and revulsion against acts of Palestinian political violence contrast starkly with his lack of judgment on a long history of Israeli war crimes, massacres and invasions.

He applies the word “terrorist” casually to Palestinian acts of political violence but does not apply it to the long record of Israeli-backed terrorism and war crimes. For example, he refers to “genuine Israeli concern over terror attacks in the 1970s.” Is the author of the opinion that the Palestinians in the refugee camps who were regularly bombarded from air, land, and sea by successive Israeli governments harbored no such concerns over Israeli acts of terror?

Anziska lumps all acts of Palestinian armed struggle under the same rubric of terrorism, without exploring the Palestinian people’s elementary right to self-defence.

The author only lists “at least” 5,000 victims (mostly civilians, of course) of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when even the right-wing Lebanese newspaper, An-Nahargave an estimate of 20,000. Anziska lists the number of 20,000 in the endnote section but settles in the text on 5,000.

Bachir Gemayel_While_Giving_A_Speech-917x1028-1-768x861

Bashir Gemayel | Georges Hayek / Wikimedia

The book is a useful and informative account of the peace process, but is rarely original. For example, the Sabra and Shatila document that he talks about in the chapter on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon is not (contrary to what he claims) the full secret classified appendix of the Kahan Commission report. My own judgment is that it is, in fact, not even the full appendix.

What the author obtained from William Quandt, a Mideast scholar at the University of Virginia, is what the Israeli government voluntarily submitted to the defence team of Time magazine in the famous case of Sharon’s lawsuit against the publication. Israeli censorship is notoriously strict and political, and what the author obtained was a section (most likely redacted) from the unpublished classified appendix of the Kahan Commission report. But the originality of the findings in the report is less than the author assumes perhaps because he can’t read Arabic.

In 2017, George Freiha, the former chief of staff of the late Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel, published a book titled “With Bashir” in which he published minutes of meetings between Gemayel and Ariel Sharon.

The minutes of those meetings make it clear that both sides discussed in detail a plan for the Phalanges’s henchmen to invade the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and engage in the massacres on behalf of the Israeli occupation army and its surrogate militias in Beirut. Freiha claims he was present when both leaders mentioned invading the camps.

That was not cited in Anziska’s book.

The contradiction with Carter’s ‘peace efforts’

“Preventing Palestine” is so intent on putting a positive light on Carter’s “peace efforts” that Anziska accepts the notion that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s easy surrender to Israeli conditions in the negotiations undercut U.S. efforts at promoting Palestinian interests. He cites Carter officials to show they wanted Sadat to push for meaningful Palestinian self-autonomy. But it is not believable that the superpower needed Sadat to pressure Israel on behalf of the U.S. to further Palestinian rights when the U.S. has far more leverage over Israel.

Just as Sadat did not care about Palestinian rights, the U.S. was willing to retract statements and issue rhetorical readjustments in order to appease the Israeli government.


Camp David in September 1978. (Wikimedia)

This book will serve as a useful introduction for courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict on college campuses. It provides an interesting and comprehensive chronicle of the peace process since Carter’s administration.

But the paradox of the Carter administration (and of this book) is that the administration that did the most (in theory) to find a comprehensive solution (on terms that are far more agreeable to the Israeli side than to the Palestinian side) is the same administration that paved the way for greater Israeli occupation and aggression by taking Egypt out of the equation so Israel could fight on one front for the first time.

The desire to lure Egypt away from the “Arab fold” on Israel was too tempting for the Carter administration to really care about the people who have never mattered to any U.S. president.

Camp David wound up being the single most important factor in enabling, even encouraging Israel to engage in successive invasions of Lebanon and of the Palestinian territories. The U.S. sold the Palestinians out to achieve a strategic benefit for Israeli occupation.

*As’ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New “War on Terrorism” (2002), and The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004). He also runs the popular blog The Angry Arab News Service.

Source: Consortium News – Slightly edited by TS

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Palestine, United States, West Asia (Middle East)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s