- Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump by Khaled Elgindy
In an era of punitive measures by the United States government against the Palestinians, from the closure of the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to the defunding of the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the concept of a “blind spot” toward the Palestinians might seem less applicable than willful retribution. But as Khaled Elgindy argues in this perceptive, well-written, and thoroughly detailed study of US policy over the last century, there are historical antecedents that gave rise to the harsh approach of the administration of Donald Trump. By carefully tracing this history from its origins to the present day, Elgindy provides a sense of continuity and links contemporary developments with the earliest government debates over Palestine.
The central argument of Elgindy’s book is that there is a “systematic blind spot in America’s stewardship of the peace process” which has emerged in the two areas of “power and politics” (p. xiii). Since the 1990s, the US has operated with two “interrelated and flawed assumptions”:
“First, that a credible peace settlement could be achieved without addressing the vast imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, and second, that it would be possible to ignore or bend internal Palestinian politics to the perceived needs of the peace process”(p. xiii).
Unlike many other books on the peace process and the dynamics of US policy toward the Palestinians, Elgindy offers an assessment of antecedents that date back to British policy in the early 20th century. The depth of the blind spot affected American politicians who were dismissive of Palestinian anger over Zionism in the 1920s and to the uneven treatment of Arabs and Jews during the British Mandate era, which “foreshadowed many of the problems that would later hamper American peace efforts” (p. 8).
In recounting little-known episodes of US officials discussing the Palestinian question before 1948, the early chapters of Blind Spot illuminate how a policy of sidelining and ignoring claims of Arab self-determination first took hold. One 1922 exchange in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives reflected a deep-seated aversion to the national rights of Arabs in Palestine, and Congress soon endorsed the goal of establishing a Jewish “national home” as laid out in the Balfour Declaration (pp. 18–19). By the 1930s, US political attitudes toward the Palestinians “increasingly aligned with those of the Zionist movement” (p. 32), including tolerance for violence within the movement through the 1940s. As the US began to eclipse Britain as a global superpower, the question of how to navigate territorial partition emerged as a central debate in Washington.
After the 1948 war, President Harry Truman’s earlier equivocations on Palestine gave way to support for the new State of Israel, and the possibility of a political solution was replaced by a focus on conflict management and economic peace. The Truman administration—like those of Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy—appointed Middle East peace envoys with distinct economic mandates, often sidelining the political roots of the problem (pp. 58–59). There were warnings from US diplomats that this approach would not work, but the Palestinian issue was fundamentally misunderstood as a regional Arab affair without a distinct national hue. This was underscored by a broad focus on the refugee problem, a cause that the Israeli government sought to undermine during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. As Prime Minister Levi Eshkol told Johnson in 1964, Palestinian refugees “really are not people within the classic meaning of refugees. They are used by the Arab nations to develop enemies against Israel” (quoted on p. 70). [End Page 500]
If the period between the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon laid the “basic foundations of the current peace process” (p. 76), it was also the moment when the Palestinian question rose to international prominence and was first taken seriously in the United States...