Thomas G. Mitchell, Ph.D, blogs as The Self-Hating Gentile; he is the author of Native vs. Settler: Ethnic Conflict in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland and South Africa and of the forthcoming Israeli Military Politicians from Dayan to Barak. These are his thoughts on The Iron Cage by Rashid Khalidi (Beacon Press, 2007, 217 pp.):
Rashid Khalidi is a professor of Middle East history at Columbia University (formerly at the University of Chicago) and a pro-Palestinian activist who has served as an adviser to PLO negotiators. His 2007 publication, The Iron Cage, is really a long historical essay rather than a book of independent research, an apologia per il mio popolo (a defense of my people) as he readily admits in his 42-page introduction. The iron cage in the title refers to restraints on the Palestinian quest for self-determination created by the West—first by the League of Nations and Britain in the British Mandate and then by America after World War II. One big theme is that the Palestinians are unfairly compared to the Jews, because they are at a different stage of development and should rather be compared to their neighbors in the Levant: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. He makes a convincing case that the Palestinians were as ready for independence as they were.
Prof. Khalidi indicts the Palestinian leadership of the Mandate period—the notables from the main powerful families or clans. Instead of seeing the British Mandate authorities as pro-Arab, as the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine saw them, or neutral as Israeli “new historian” Tom Segev saw them in One Palestine Complete, he considers them pro-Zionist. (I think Segev made a good case that the Mandate authorities were genuinely attempting to make the Mandate work, but this became impossible.)
Khalidi sees British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel’s choice of Haj Amin al-Husseini as Grand Mufti—an office invented by the British—as an attempt to split Palestine’s leading clan into two separate antagonistic factions, and regards the Mufti as slow to become a nationalist and separate his interests from those of the British. Philip Mattar, an earlier biographer of al-Husseini, made the same claim.
By the time of the Arab Revolt in April 1936, the various actors were like characters in a Greek tragedy. The Zionists were not willing to accept less than a state because they needed it, preferably one with wide borders to accommodate millions of Jews from Europe once Hitler had come to power. The Arabs were unwilling to accept a Jewish state of any size and the British colonial authorities were used to dealing with uneducated natives who were either compliant or could be pacified with a few hundred troops and some airplanes.
The Revolt, which lasted over two years, ended with most of the Palestinian leadership dead or in exile. At the same time, it led the British army to provide military training to the Hagana, the military arm of the mainstream Jewish Agency, while most Jews sat on the sidelines and let the British put down the Revolt. The IDF’s future general staff in the War of Independence consisted of officers who were trained during the Revolt, including: Yigael Yadin, Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Sadeh.
Khalidi concludes that the Palestinians revolted too late; if they had risen in the mid or early 1920s, like the Iraqis and the Druze in Syria, they would have demonstrated to the British and the League of Nations that the British Mandate’s enforcement of the Balfour Declaration was unworkable. Arab Palestine could then have gained independence with her Arab neighbors in the 1940s. But once Hitler rose to power, it was too late as Palestine gained added strategic importance because of its proximity to the Suez Canal.
Khalidi argues that by waiting until the late 1930s to rise up, the Palestinians were confronted with a much larger Yishuv. If immigration to Palestine had been cut off in 1925 or reduced to a trickle, the Jews would have been only 10 percent of the total population instead of 30 percent. The actual Yishuv wasn’t as negatively affected by the Arab Revolt as were the Arabs. In 1945, the Jews and the Arabs emerged from World War II with the Arabs still in the same position they were in 1939, but with the Jews having gained combat experience for thousands of their soldiers.
On this latter point, he’s correct, but he disregards the pyrrhic political victory that emerged out of the Palestinian military defeat: Britain’s White Paper of 1939, which severely restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine, was a direct result of the Revolt. Khalidi’s analysis also indicates that he was only willing to consider solutions in which the Palestinians didn’t have to compromise.
Khalidi seems to identify with the early Fatah party, which helped revive Palestinian national identity between its founding in 1958 and the early 1980s. He admires the young Yasir Arafat as guerrilla chieftain in Jordan and Lebanon but is very critical of him as an Arab ruler, first in Gaza and then Ramallah between 1994 and 2004.
Khalidi reminds me of an old Irish Republican (i.e., a partisan of the IRA) who admires the young Gerry Adams but sees him later as a sellout because he was forced to compromise. Many of these disillusioned Republicans know in their heads that armed struggle could not drive the British from (Northern) Ireland, but they still don’t want to give up the dream.
When one is in an iron cage (prison) one can either learn to pick the lock or bang one’s head against the bars and proclaim one’s innocence. Khalidi never really considers compromise as a long-term strategy for the Palestinians. He writes that the Zionists would not have given up their aim for a state after 1933, but doesn’t consider the strategy of restricting the Jewish state to confined borders that matched the level of the Zionist settlement effort. The Balfour Declaration called for the formation of a Jewish national home “in Palestine,” but assigns it no borders. The British offered the Jews restricted boundaries in the 1937 Peel Partition Plan and even smaller dimensions a year later in the Woodhead Commission Plan. Had the Palestinians been willing to accept a smaller state for themselves, they could easily have kept the Jews restricted to a tiny space, and then used oil power to keep them contained.
Khalidi pleads that the Zionists cannot be compared to the Palestinians because the former had outside help. When the Palestinians were scattered in 1948 he emphasizes how this is a crippling restriction. Yet the Zionists in 1900 would have loved to have been able to trade places with them.
The Zionists achieved power by forming alliances with others, and they were very good at picking winners: first the British, then France in the 1950s and the United States in the 1960s. The Palestinians also formed alliances: with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Palestinian strategy of armed struggle (terrorism) demanded that the Palestinians choose revolutionary states as patrons. Only such regimes would be willing to sponsor terrorist groups against the status quo.
Khalidi wrote about the educational advantage of the Jews over the Palestinians. But today the Palestinians have an educated professional class in the diaspora and in Jordan. Palestinians have political influence in the Democratic Party–not as much as the Jews have today, but possibly as much as Jews had in 1948. The Jews and the Palestinians have switched places and the Palestinians have not played their hand as well as the Zionists did in the decades leading up to independence.