University News

Q&A with Rashid Khalidi

Contributing Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

Rashid Khalidi, professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia, spoke with The Herald Thursday night before his lecture on “The Uncertain Future of Palestine.” At 2 p.m. Friday afternoon Khalidi will speak at the Watson Institute for International Studies about the Cold War’s impact on the Middle East.

Herald: How will your lecture tomorrow afternoon at the Watson Institute be different (from the one you gave this evening)?

Khalidi: What I will be talking about there is the impact in the Middle East of the Cold War, which nobody really talks about. It’s usually talked about from the point of view of Washington or Moscow … I also go on to argue that there hasn’t been as much of a change in American policy as you might have expected at the end of the Cold War, and that we’re in sort of a mini cold war with Iran, which in some ways mimics the Cold War with the Soviet Union. There are a variety of problems in the American — and for that matter also in the Iranian — approach that result from that sort of continuation of the confrontational stance.

Why has the Israeli-Palestinian crisis become a rallying cry for so much of the Arab world?

It’s always been a hugely emotional issue in the Arab world … The Palestine issue was always really significant to some Arab countries, in particular Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, the countries immediately around Palestine. And after the ’48 war it was even more so, because you had a flow of refugees into these countries, who are still there. And each of these countries was affected by the war …  It’s almost a no-brainer and the fact that people say, ‘Why are people so concerned about this?’ makes me think, well, they clearly have no idea about the history of these countries.

Do you think there’s a solution to the constant fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in the region?

I think there are many possible solutions; a lot of obvious solutions are being closed off. The easiest and most obvious solution is a simple two-state solution. I think that that’s been pretty much closed off by the ineptitude of American policy and by the malevolence of the policy of settlement and occupation. It’s very difficult to see how things that have been done with the express purpose of making it impossible for a two-state solution could be easily hurdled. I think they can be, perhaps, but not easily.

And it gets harder and harder. And one doesn’t see any politician, Israeli or American, who seems to be able to reverse that process. And given that, there’s not going to be a two-state solution. There may be other solutions, but they’re probably even harder … The easiest thing is to say, make the Palestinians capitulate and just let them accept fifth-class citizenship, shut up, and accept whatever crumbs are thrown your way. That’s just not going to happen.

You’ve spoken publicly against suicide bombings and killing Israeli soldiers. What do you think Palestinians should be doing instead to advance their cause?

What I’ve said is that I think for a variety of reasons — strategic, moral, historical — that they should adopt a policy of non-violence, not just not killing civilians. I think that violence doesn’t serve them, partly because they’re dealing with a people which sees itself as the ultimate victims, and anything they do involving violence reinforces and strengthens that sense of victimhood. And that’s not something that is only held by Israelis; I think many people in the world share it. So it increases sympathy for Israel.

I think the best example of this was the second Intifada that started in 2000, and which we all remember because of suicide bombings. I can’t remember a period when Israel was able to garner so much sympathy, or when there was such a great degree of solidarity inside Israel, or when Israel moved so far so quickly to the right. It hasn’t moved back.
This is a monumental strategic defeat to the Palestinians. So, leaving aside all the moral arguments, which I think are overwhelming, and the arguments in international law, which I think are incontrovertible and which I think are important for the weaker party in some respects … If you depend on international law and on international humanitarian standards then you have to be rigorous in behaving.

That means organizing Palestinian society much better than it’s organized.

You argue in your most recent work, “Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East,” and your other books and essays that a lot of the issues plaguing the Middle East result from the United States’ misguided foreign policy over the better part of the last century. If the U.S. were to fundamentally change how it interacts with other countries, could these problems be reversed?

Not everything, by any means, was the fault of the superpowers. And not everything, by any means, was the fault of the United States or might be corrected by the United States. All I would I suggest is there are a lot of problems that are caused by the United States, and the United States could at least stop making things worse. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that things will get a lot better.

Take the state of democracy in the Arab world, not an American-caused problem. There’s what political scientists call a democracy deficit in this region, more than any other region in the world … This isn’t caused by the United States … I would never suggest that the United States could solve that problem, or many other problems in the Arab-Israeli conflict … But, there are problems that the United States exacerbates.

Can America help bring peace to the Middle East?

Absolutely. It can stop doing harm. I think American policy does harm. I think we underwrite, endorse and support and enable policies that are harmful to peace, policies that are harmful to Palestine, the Palestinians and Israelis.