Preventing Palestine: Is History Repeating Itself?

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 2018, pp. 65-66

Book Talks

By Dale Sprusansky

BT2Seth Anziska, a visiting lecturer at University College London and author of the new book, Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo, spoke at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC on Sept. 21.

The book, he explained, explores how and why Palestinian statelessness persists all these years after the Camp David (1978) and Oslo (1993) talks were initiated with the intent to bring about a sovereign and independent Palestinian state. “What we find all these years later is quite the opposite,” he noted. “We have a situation of persistent lack of statehood, and the lack of sovereignty for Palestinians living in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and in the Arab diaspora.”

Preventing Palestine uses newly uncovered documents from the Israel State Archives, as well as archives in the U.S. and Beirut, to offer readers fresh insights into the negotiations and events of the era from Camp David to Oslo.

These documents, Anziska argues, show that from the beginning of the Camp David talks, Israel’s ultimate goal was to prevent genuine Palestinian sovereignty by instead focusing on autonomy and individual Palestinian rights. Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister during the Camp David negotiations, intentionally set talks in this direction, he said.

“The imprint of the political worldview of Menachem Begin…shaped that notion of autonomy to focus on potential rights of individual residents in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, but not collective sovereignty for Palestinians as a whole,” Anziska said. The creation of the Palestinian Authority at the end of the Oslo process, he said, solidified Palestinian dependence on Israel and obstructed the dream of an independent Palestine.

Efforts to prevent a Palestinian state continue today, and Anziska believes his book helps readers understand how modern Israeli and American policies are a continuation of those first implemented in the 1970s. “What I wanted to do in the book is to interrogate this obsession we tend to have with only looking at the history of this story from the 1990s to the present,” he said. Ignoring the period between Camp David and Oslo “obscures the historical roots and origins of many of the phenomena that we’re now dealing with today.”

Offering commentary, Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, said the book shows that the U.S. government ought to begin taking clearly stated Israeli positions seriously. “They are articulated with such clarity, often in the same words, year after year,” she said. “When [Israeli Education Minister] Naftali Bennett is now talking about ‘state minus’…that was the language in the ’70s.”

It’s time to stop believing that peace talks will result in the Israelis changing their outlook, Friedman said. “The Israelis are playing a very long game, and the positions that were described at the beginning of the era of peace making, at the beginning before Camp David by Begin—his positions vis-à-vis the West Bank are what we’re seeing as the positioning today. One should take that seriously.”

The Trump administration’s attempts to depict the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization as terrorist organizations, and efforts to find other Arab countries (such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia) to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians, also show that history is repeating itself, Friedman warned.

“This book is not just a history book,” she said. “I read it and I kept thinking, ‘this is a roadmap, which takes us not just how we got to where we are today, but gives a very good indication of where we’re heading if people don’t decide to head it off, to somehow go a different course or push for a different course.”

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, noted that the recent emergence of the Canary Mission (a website that seeks to intimidate students who advocate on behalf of Palestine) and the introduction of legislation that would limit the free speech of Americans when it comes to Israel, also show continuity with the past.

Palestinian-Americans were often threatened and delegitimized during the period between Camp David and Oslo, Zogby noted. “The process of excluding us was so intense that it took a real toll on our ability to function here,” he said.

Jewish organizations regularly belittled Palestinians, he noted. “We were maybe the only ethnic community operating here that had another ethnic community simply not wanting us to exist at all. As the ADL [Anti-Defamation League] wrote, they said ‘there’s no such thing as Arab Americans, it’s a petro dollar fiction of Muslims and Christians who just happen to be of Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Egyptian, Iraqi descent.’”

Such hostility is alive today, Zogby said. “In some ways we’ve also gone back to the ’70s in terms of the very way that Arab Americans who want to become active on this issue become an endangered species, and that’s very problematic.”

Preventing Palestine is available from AET’s Middle East Books and More.

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