Op-Ed: Time For U.S. To Recognize A New Middle East

Read Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi's New York Times Op-Ed, "The Middle East Has Changed."

The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, plans to take the issue of Palestinian statehood to the United Nations Security Council on Friday. The U.S. plans to veto the application. Professor Rashid Khalidi argues it's time for the U.S. to step back and adapt to a new Middle East.

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NEAL CONAN, host: And now the opinion page. On Friday, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, said he would take the issue of Palestinian statehood to the United Nations Security Council this week. The Obama administration says the U.S. will veto the application but will have little support, even among its European allies. Last week, as part of The New York Times Room for Debate, Rashid Khalidi wrote: As long as the United States supports Israel in standing in the way of an immediate rollback of illegal settlements and end its illegal occupation, a Palestinian state will not see the light of day, and any discussion of it is futile.

What will change after a vote in the Security Council on Palestine? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Rashid Khalidi is the professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, and he joins us now on the phone from his office there in New York. Nice to have you with us again.

RASHID KHALIDI: A pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: When you say futile, do you think nothing will change as a result of this vote?

KHALIDI: No. Things will change, but I don't think they're going to change in the direction of a sovereign, independent, contiguous Palestinian state. They'll change in the sense that the United States and Israel are likely - at least the U.S. Congress and Israel - are likely to impose sanctions on the Palestinian people and on the Palestinian Authority. They'll change in the sense that the status of Palestine and of the Palestinian representation at the United Nations might be different at the end of this. But in terms of the Palestinians achieving statehood, self-determination, freedom from occupation, unfortunately, I don't think this will change as a consequence of what happens in New York.

CONAN: It's interesting. There will be, I think - people expect that many Palestinians will feel thrilled that this has been finally addressed.

KHALIDI: Some will be thrilled. I think many are more cynical than that and understand that realities on the ground are not going to change. As long as the United States will not - how shall I put it? - stop supporting Israel, whatever it does, as long as the United States will not take a firm stand in terms of occupation and settlement, I don't see - and as long as the United States insists on monopolizing negotiations, won't allow a different framework or venue for negotiations, and given the current Israeli government, which is, by far, the most pro-settler, the most extreme in Israel's history - I'm not sure why there should be any grounds for optimism about actual changes on the ground.

CONAN: And some fear that there could be, indeed, grave disappointment when, as you suggest, things don't really change for the Palestinian people.

KHALIDI: Well, I think the people stirring up those fears are perhaps secretly hoping there will be violence because some of those people feel much more comfortable when the Palestinians are not following nonviolent or diplomatic means. They - it's very easy to put the Palestinians in a box if they can be portrayed as violent or terrorists or whatever. And, frankly, you have to assume a great deal of naivete on the part of the Palestinians to assume there's going to be a huge disappointment. I think most Palestinians are fully aware of the realities, and that those are not going to change as the result of what happens in New York in the next few weeks or month or two.

CONAN: We speak of Palestinians as a - well, there are many strains of thought. It's interesting, Hamas has not embraced this idea.

KHALIDI: Not at all, and probably on narrow party political lines. Anything that reinforces their rival, they're afraid, is not good. And so, unfortunately, like - both factions, I think, of Palestinian politics, Fatah and Hamas, are thinking of narrow political considerations rather than the Palestinian national interests all too often, and this is, I think, a case of that.

CONAN: What is Fatah's narrow political interest here?

KHALIDI: Well, I mean, they are committed to negotiations. Negotiations have failed. We've been - since the process I myself was involved in back in '91 to '93, we've been engaged in 20 years of negotiation. The situation has gotten measurably worse for the Palestinians in those 20 years. We've gone from 200,000 illegal Israeli settlers in the occupied territories to 600,000 by Prime Minister Netanyahu's count. We've gone from a situation where Palestinians could move completely freely in 1991 - anywhere inside Israel to Gaza, from Gaza to the West Bank to Jerusalem - to a situation where all of those areas are closed to most Palestinians.

So the situation has gotten measurably worse for the Palestinians in 20 years of what is, in my view, laughably labeled a peace process, whatever it was. It was a process. It made some great careers in the American diplomatic service, but it certainly was not a process that brought about peace. It made things, in my view, much worse and took us very far away from real, just, lasting, sustainable peace.

CONAN: Some - given the events that we've seen these last seven, eight months or so in Egypt and Tunisia and, well, now in Syria, of course, and again in Yemen and, of course, in Libya, some people wondered how that was going to affect the situation in Israel, between Israel and the Palestinians. And you say it really should be the United States who needs to be awakened to the changes in the Arab world.

KHALIDI: I think the United States and Israel and the Europeans and everybody else has to be awakened to the fact that this is not your grandfather's Middle East. This is not a Middle East where colonial powers or external powers could push people around and pliable, pliant governments would do as they were told, whether by Moscow or Washington or, in an earlier era, by London or Paris. This is an era of growing demand for popular sovereignty. Even if there are not successful or fully successful democratic transitions, people will have a bigger voice.

And the people's voice has been kept out of this. Most people in the Arab world are deeply sympathetic to the Palestinians. Most governments have done what Washington wanted for the past several decades. That's the reality. Israel was very comfortable with that, because its patron, the United States, made sure that the Arabs were essentially kept out of the equation, except those people who are wheeled in to fund with the Americans had decided they wanted to have happen and Israel was willing to have happen. So, we're in a different Middle East. I'm not sure that it's entirely changed.

I'm not sure that it's entirely changed for the better. There are going to be some horrible situations. In Syria and Yemen, things are working out very badly, in fact. But it is not the old Middle East, and it's time that people in Washington wake up to that fact. The United States really has to come to terms with the fact that it's not just domestic American political considerations which determine entirely our policy, but maybe we should pay attention to realities in the Middle East as a whole - and not just in the Arab world, Turkey and other places.

CONAN: Some people suggest, indeed, Turkey and its much more ambitious role in the Middle East under this particular government, and Egypt will now be a new nexus of the Middle East.

KHALIDI: Well, I mean, those were the two motors of change in the Middle East in the 19th century. There's no reason - the two internal motors of change in the 19th century. There's no reason why that by far biggest and in some ways most important countries in the region shouldn't play that kind of role in the 21st century. It would require the Egyptians solving some very deep, profound, internal problems for them to be anything like the economic dynamo that Turkey now is. Turkey is an enormously vibrant and successful economy, and that's the basis of its current power.

Much of that power is soft power. It's not Turkish fleets or Turkish generals or whatever that are the extension of Turkish power. It's Turkish exports, Turkish investment, Turkish know-how, Turkish television series, Turkish retail products that are just everywhere in the Arab world, and in many other areas. I mean, the Arab world isn't even their major trading partner. Europe is. And they're in the Balkans and many other places, too. That - Egypt would have to really solve some very grave, internal socioeconomic problems to be anything like the economic power that Turkey is.

CONAN: Is Turkey seeing some of the limits of its soft power in Syria?

KHALIDI: Well, and its dealings with Israel and its dealing with the United States, unfortunately. Yeah. I think perhaps, it could be argued that Turkish foreign policy may be a little bit over-ambitious. But there is no question that if you compare the reach that Turkish diplomacy has today with where it was 10 or 15 years ago, Turkey has - much more attention is paid to Turkey today.

CONAN: We're talking with Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, one of those featured in a New York Times' Room for Debate: "Can Israel Survive Without a Palestinian State?" If you'd like to join the conversation, give us call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's start with Serge(ph), and Serge with us from Sunnyvale in California.

SERGE: Yeah, hi. Thanks for being able to have me comment. I guess that the real issue is the ability - the U.S.'s ability to be both able and willing to influence a Palestinian state. And while they have a lot of leverage with Israel with $3 billion a year of support, given the hard-line government in Israel, it's questionable to what extent they're really able to affect change. But I think what's more important with the vote coming up this week is exposing the U.S.'s willingness to affect change.

And I think a veto in the Security Council would very much expose that the rhetoric today, not just by the Obama administration, the previous administrations, is just really empty rhetoric. By vetoing, they'll clearly show that they're not willing to try to affect change, and it's just going to consider the further anti-American sentiments in the Arab world, especially a liberalizing Arab world, as well as Western countries, as well, where a lot of population supports the creation of a Palestinian state that eventually will be free of occupation.

CONAN: And, Rashid Khalidi, that outcome might go a long way toward explaining the - what's been described as feverish U.S. diplomatic activity to try to prevent such (unintelligible).

KHALIDI: Well, United States is between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the domestic realities where Israel is concerned, where, basically, the Israeli position is the bottom line. Whatever position an Israeli government takes is the bottom line for whatever administration is in office. And the hard place is that the Middle East is a much less-forgiving zone of American hypocrisy - you know, rhetoric in favor of self-determination, but voting against a Palestinian state at the United Nations.

It's not an enviable place that this administration is in, and it's the political realities, and this kind of - the domestic the political realities in this country and our inability to understand that this is really a foreign policy problem, that this is not - and that there are very important interests to the United States. The Europeans understand it better, I think, because their energy dependence on them, at least, is much greater. And they're much more concerned about emigration from the Middle East to Europe, though the Europeans have not yet gotten their act together and put together a coherent unified European policy.

CONAN: Serge, thanks very much for the call.

SERGE: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Rashid Khalidi on the Opinion Page. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And here's an email from Blake in San Antonio: The only thing that will truly change things regarding the relationship between the Palestinians and the Israelis is an overhaul of the structure of the government in Israel. Because of proportional representation the far-right, ultra-religious parties have way too much power in relationship to their numbers. That's informing every coalition, even the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, as to attract much smaller parties who then are further to the right than they are.

KHALIDI: Well, I would add to that that there's a problem on the Palestinian side, which is you haven't had elections recently. You have two factions, both of which - Fatah and Hamas, both of which, I think, have pretty much failed to put forward any kind of strategic vision for where the Palestinians would go, any kind of idea of how they achieve and end the occupation and other Palestinian national goals, and where you need to have a Palestinian leadership that can appeal to the rest of the world, including to Israelis, and at the same time can put pressure on the United States, on Israel, on - to change the status quo.

I don't think Hamas and I don't think Fatah has the slightest notion of how to go about it, very frankly. This U.N. initiative has moved things off - out of a situation of stagnation. But at the end of the day, as I said, and as I think many people would agree, this is not going to lead to an end of occupation. This is not going to lead to Palestinian statehood. It's not going to lead to the rollback of settlements. And Palestinians have to think about how to achieve that, and that requires some very hard thinking.

It does - I agree with the questioner. It will require Israelis understanding that the situation they're in, which they seem to think it can be maintained indefinitely, vis-a-vis the occupation of four million people and controlling their lives. We're now going on 45 years. We're in the 45th year of an occupation. And most Israelis don't seem to think that this is a critical problem. That has to change. And I agree. The system in Israel, like many good systems in democratic countries, unfortunately, doesn't enable dissatisfaction with that to break through.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Chris, and Chris is with us from Birmingham.

CHRIS: Yes. Thank you for taking my call. I happen to be Anglo-American Christian, so I don't have a dog in this fight, as they say in the South. But I find it hard to believe that the Palestinians could possibly think the United States could support, in any way, a Palestinian state where Hamas is any part of it. The people in the Gaza strip voted, apparently, and voted in a terrorist organization to represent them.

And a comment about your guest's comment about illegal this and illegal that, I would say that the wars - invasions to terminate the state of Israel in '53, '67 and '73 were, in fact, illegal. And when you roll the dice in war, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you lose territory permanently. And until the security of Israel is guaranteed, either by some sort of mutual defense treaty with the U.S. where we basically say we will use all of our weapons on any state that invades Israel in the future, Israel has no incentive to go back to the '67 borders.

So I just have a hard time with where the Palestinians are at. I have a hard time - I agree with your guest. There has to be something done. But the old borders I don't think are capable of protecting Israel.

CONAN: Well, Chris, there's a lot there, but let's stay with the question of the terrorist state, and, indeed, a state that's defined by most people as a monopoly on the use of force, Rashid Khalidi. And the Palestinian authority or the Fatah certainly does not.

KHALIDI: Well, that's certainly true, but just taking a couple of things that the questioner - he asked multiple interesting questions. The one that I would focus on is if the '67 borders aren't a basis, then what is the basis? What are the borders of this state that we're asked to guarantee? They're, apparently, quite flexible. If conquest - if we're going to throw it the U.N. charter and we're going to throw out everything that has emerged since World War II in the way of international law and say that conquest is a basis to throw out U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, the acquisition of territory by force is perfectly okay.

First of all, we're throwing out the whole post-World War II international order, but where are the borders of this Israel state, and what precisely are the Palestinians supposed to accept? What scraps are, in fact, supposedly sufficient for them? And anybody who puts it that way is going to have to answer that question, as well. And why should the Palestinians accept that?

CONAN: And we just have a few seconds left, but I did want to ask the question about the - Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the State Department.

KHALIDI: That is absolutely correct. And, of course, we have a very skewed definition of what's terrorist. We had a war between - war in which Israel waged on Gaza in 2008, 2009. There were 1,400 people killed in Gaza. There were 13 Israelis killed, and we castigate Hamas as a terrorist organization. I think that that very - that's an American political determination of what is terrorist, unfortunately.

I agree any attacks on unarmed civilians should be correctly be defined as terrorist. But, in that case, everybody who attacks unarmed civilians - and that includes, in this case, the death of most those civilian - most of those people were civilians, in my view.

CONAN: Rashid Khalidi, thanks very much for your time today.

KHALIDI: Great pleasure.

CONAN: Rashid Khalidi, professor of Arab studies at Columbia University. His piece, "The Middle East Has Changed," was featured in the New York Times' Room for Debate. You can find a link to it on our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, we'll be at National Geographic's headquarters here in Washington to talk about the limits of exploration as we dive and climb further than ever. Are the risks worth the reward? Join us tomorrow in this hour for that conversation.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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