Book Review: Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians from Balfour to Trump by Khaled Elgindy

In the era of Trump, US policy toward Palestine and Israel seems to be in uncharted waters. Defying his predecessors of the past 70 years, President Donald Trump decided to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem. When, as a result of this decision, the Palestinian Authority (PA) cut ties with the US administration, Trump retaliated by slashing US contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). He appointed David Friedman, a public advocate for Israeli settlements, as the US ambassador to Israel. And he has publicly broken with Washington’s sacrosanct support for a two-state solution.

These decisions sparked outcry from foreign policy establishment figures on all sides of the political spectrum who argued that Trump’s actions were a dramatic and dangerous departure from decades of sound policy. Daniel Kurtzer, a US ambassador to Israel during the George W. Bush Administration, described Friedman as entirely “lacking in experience and knowledge.” After Trump recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that “in nearly 30 years … I’ve never seen a president give up so much to so many for so little.” And Prem Kumar, a senior director in President Barack Obama’s national security council, argued that the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem “reversed decades of sensible bipartisan policy.”

Yet, while Trump’s actions are indeed unprecedented, history reveals that his approach is not radically divergent from longstanding US policy toward Palestine and Israel. Khaled Elgindy’s new book, Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians from Balfour to Trump, shows how previous US governments laid the groundwork for Trump’s unabashedly pro-Israel policies. Elgindy reminds us that Congress passed laws requiring the United States to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem in 1994 and 1995 and that subsequent presidents merely deferred the issue. Similarly, all previous presidents, going back to Lyndon Johnson, had worked “to sideline the issue of Palestinian refugee rights” and many had given their “tacit approval” to the construction of Israeli settlements (p. 250). Seen in this light, the Trump Administration’s decisions to defund UNRWA and dispense with the term “occupation” are not inconsistent with established US policy. The Trump Administration’s indifference to Palestinian suffering was perhaps made clearest when the opening of the new US embassy coincided with the deadliest day of the March of Return protests. But also this indifference was certainly no worse than that signaled by the actions of President Obama who, after Operations Cast Lead and Protective Edge—two unimaginably destructive Israeli offensives in Gaza—rewarded Israel with the largest-ever US military aid package.

Blind Spot argues that Trump’s is the “culmination of the old approach” (p. 249), one characterized by its remarkable consistency across Republican and Democratic administrations. The book’s title refers to the blindness of US governments as brokers in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. First, Washington has been blind to the vast discrepancy in power between the two parties and has consistently placed disproportionate pressure on the weaker party—the Palestinians—with little to no corresponding pressure on the significantly stronger party—Israel. Second, the United States has been blind to the internal dynamics of Palestinian politics; at the same time, it has often built its own policies around Israeli politics and has consistently backed down to Israeli leaders. And third, the United States has been blind to the fact that transforming Palestinian leaders into what it and Israel deem as “suitable peace partners” has eroded their political legitimacy and fragmented Palestinian politics, which historically has led to increased periods of violence.

Some of these blind spots were present from the beginning. The first section of the book covers the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations, all of which refused to deal with the question of Palestinian self-determination as Palestine became a singularly humanitarian issue. They acquiesced steadily to Israel’s refusal to repatriate any Palestinian refugees from 1948. This allowed Lyndon Johnson, the first president to maintain a “personal affinity for the Jewish state” (p. 69), to deny the existence of a Palestinian refugee problem altogether while vastly expanding arms sales to Israel and blocking measures opposed by Israel at the United Nations.

However, most of the book details the history of US policy after 1967, the period that witnessed the slow emergence and then steady decline of what we now know as the “peace process.” Elgindy recounts the plan “to keep the Palestinians out of the diplomatic process” (p. 76) during the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations, an effort led by Henry Kissinger, by refusing to deal with the PLO for as long as possible. Carter proved to be the exception to this rule, but as Blind Spot demonstrates, his hands were largely tied by the actions of his predecessors. The result of this stonewalling disproved Kissinger’s thesis that a “weakened PLO would be a boon for peace and stability” (p. 116): in fact, by abandoning previously non-negotiable commitments and getting nothing in return, the PLO experienced a decline in its legitimacy among Palestinians and lost the ability to control more extreme Palestinian factions, thus paving the way for the rise in terror attacks and the emergence of Hamas by the mid-to-late 1980s.

Elgindy writes that despite the symbolic significance of the Oslo Accords, the blind spots that pervaded policymaking in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations alike ensured that the peace process would accomplish exactly the opposite of its intended goals: emboldened extremists and hardliners on both sides, an uptick in violence, and an expanded Israeli occupation. All three presidents only reinforced the power imbalance by focusing exclusively on reforming Palestinian political institutions, without addressing the exponential increase in the Israeli settler population during the Oslo years. All three denounced settlement construction and claimed to support UN Resolution 242 while “poking holes in it” by devising loopholes to allow for settlements’ “natural growth” (p. 10). All three increased pressure on the Palestinian leadership to comply with US and Israeli demands while “simultaneously diminishing [the] value” of such compliance (p. 251). This helped to further erode the PA’s legitimacy and radicalize Palestinian factions that were excluded from negotiations.

It is fitting that Elgindy spends half of the book on Oslo and its aftermath, given his deep familiarity with this topic as a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Elgindy also served as an advisor to the Palestinian leadership in the mid-2000s and participated in the 2008 Annapolis negotiations. His expertise is evident as he narrates the internal debates and dynamics of US administrations in clear and accessible prose. And while Blind Spot does not offer any shattering historical revelations, this is not Elgindy’s primary aim. Instead, this book provides a new and subtly revisionist reading of the history of America’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—a story whose failed results have often been attributed to the lack of a “suitable peace partner” on the Palestinian side, or the inexplicable emergence of Palestinian terror—by illustrating the contradictory impulses of American policymaking and interrogating its results.

***

One of the most critical failures of the peace process, Elgindy argues, has been the United States’ inability to recognize the basic dynamics of the two parties with which it has dealt. Israeli leaders have been able to maintain the occupation indefinitely and have felt no pressure to negotiate to alter the status quo in times of peace; indeed, during upticks in violence, Israeli leaders entirely “lacked the will” (p. 204) to engage in negotiations. Nor has supplying Israel with nearly limitless economic, military, and political incentives made its leaders more willing to make concessions; instead, this has allowed them to “defray…[the] costs of the occupation” (p. 252). Palestinian leaders, on the other hand, have had the opposite problem: for more than four decades they have sought to achieve a lasting peace with Israel based on mutual compromise, but have “lacked the capacity, both politically and materially, to bring one about” (p. 204).

Although these dynamics—a maximalist Israeli leadership that is comfortable with the status quo and a Palestinian leadership that is weaker and more fragmented every day—are not new, they are perhaps more apparent today than ever before. While it is still unclear who will lead the next Israeli government, both contenders support annexing large swaths of the West Bank, and the more “moderate” candidate is being tried for war crimes in the Hague. The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, has been blackmailed by the Trump Administration and sidelined by the international community; its internal weakness is exemplified by its recent attempts to silence public criticism of the PA and its leadership.

To Elgindy, the “peace process” is dead. He has predicted that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are likely to remain in this state of “political and diplomatic limbo” for the foreseeable future until a new process emerges, which he believes will not be brokered by the United States. Yet the US government still spends billions of dollars on military aid to Israel and some leading Democratic presidential contenders have increasingly affirmed their willingness to use this aid as a form of leverage. Recent polling also suggests that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement has a majority of Democratic voters’ support and that majorities from both parties oppose anti-BDS legislation. For these reasons, Blind Spot arrives at a particularly opportune moment. For future US policymakers, Elgindy’s book offers a number of key lessons and proposals that they would do well to heed.

First, in order for the United States to serve as an honest broker, it should adhere to basic principles of conflict negotiation. American leaders should use a combination of sticks and carrots to incentivize both parties to make concessions; they must not assume that an absence of pressure on the stronger party will make it more amenable to compromise, nor that disproportionate pressure on the weaker party will make it a stronger partner for peace. Negotiations, moreover, must involve all major political factions and are unlikely to succeed “as long as those with the ability to derail the process through violence remain outside of that process” (p. 197).

Second, economic aid cannot solve a political problem. Blind Spot traces the history of American attempts to convince Palestinians to forego their political claims with the promise of jobs. This was the goal of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Johnston Plan, for example, which proposed transferring 300,000 Palestinian refugees to the Jordan Valley where they would be employed as part of a regional water development scheme and expected to abandon their rights as refugees. Economic development was also the backbone of the Oslo framework, which sought to reduce support among Palestinians for extremist groups by improving economic conditions; however, in order to appease Israel, most of the initial international aid went to funding and training PA security forces, who cracked down on opposition groups. The appeal of these groups was only strengthened as multimillion-dollar aid packages fueled increased corruption and authoritarianism within the PA leadership. The rise of terrorist attacks prompted Israel to respond by destroying homes, expanding settlements, and sealing off entire Palestinian cities in the West Bank. By the new millennium, Oslo had produced the opposite of its intended “peace dividend”: a weakened Palestinian economy and a “marked increase in support among Palestinians for violence” (p. 156). When its full details are revealed, the Trump Administration’s peace plan is bound to fail for similar reasons.

Third, Blind Spot illustrates the danger of inaction on the part of US administrations. Perpetuating the status quo is not only detrimental to peace because it allows Israel to entrench its occupation while Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face increasingly dire economic and humanitarian conditions. The more fundamental problem is what Elgindy refers to as the process of “deferral to denial” (p. 43). This occurs gradually: with the passage of time, even the language of international law—such as “occupation” and “right of return”—can begin to lose its potency. It paves the way for openly pro-Israel US presidents to create a new status quo, one that is grounded not in the ideals of justice and internationally accepted norms but in pure power relations. The upside is that this is a double-edged sword: future administrations may also be able to use this power to level the playing field, insist on upholding international law, and usher in a new era in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Fourth, Blind Spot reminds policymakers that if they are serious about achieving a lasting peace, they need to recognize some hard realities about their Israeli partners. In 2018, Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s foreign policy advisors, admitted—albeit too late—that “‘[the Netanyahu government was] never sincere in their commitment to peace’” (p. 232). But it is not just Netanyahu: Elgindy illustrates the remarkable consistency of Israel’s hardline approach toward the Palestinians over the past 70 years. No Israeli administration has been willing to make any compromises on granting the right of return even to a limited number of Palestinian refugees. Nor has any Israeli leader accepted, in good faith, that Palestinians have the right to an independent state with sovereign control over their own territory. Israel has consistently opposed any restriction on settlement construction and, in practice if not in promise, every subsequent Israeli leader has worked to implement Menachem Begin’s vision of limited “autonomy” for Palestinians in the West Bank—a vision enshrined by Oslo—and the complete marginalization of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Another reality—cynical though it may seem—is that it has been in Israel’s interest to sow discord in Palestinian politics and empower extremist groups. This is particularly apparent today, when the Israeli right actually supports Hamas’s rule as a bulwark against a unified Palestinian leadership in Gaza and the West Bank that could make a stronger case for statehood. Recent scholarship has also shown that Hamas has implicitly recognized Israel, conceded many of its previous demands, and now works to restrain other extremist groups in Gaza. Elgindy does not address these dynamics in the book, but they only strengthen his argument, demonstrating that it is actually Israel that needs to be reformed into a “suitable peace partner.”

For all of its merits, Blind Spot gives short shrift to one of the largest elephants in the room: the lack of incentives in Washington to act on Palestinians’ behalf. Elgindy notes the long history of the American Zionist lobby and quotes Truman’s famous remark about answering to his Zionist constituents. But these domestic political constraints do not play a major role in Elgindy’s analysis of US policy, though they challenge the assumption that the United States could ever serve as an honest broker. In this way, Blind Spot may go too far in giving US leaders the benefit of the doubt —assuming that, without the necessary domestic political incentives, they would only seek to achieve a lasting peace deal over small, symbolic victories that are more politically palatable. And this points to a final key lesson: the importance of grassroots political mobilization to articulate Palestinian demands for basic rights and to shape the foundations of the future of US policy, even before it is crafted in Washington.

Jonathan Adler is a Research and Editing Intern at Arab Center Washington DC.