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Blind Spot

America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Obama

By Khaled Elgindy

A historical perspective on the arm’s length relationship between the United States and the “Palestinian question”

The U.S. government and Palestinian leaders have had some form of direct contact for nearly four decades—and cooperation on economic, political, and security issues for the past two-plus decades—but that experience has never led to a genuine bilateral relationship. Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Obama explains why the two sides have an independent relationship and what this means for American efforts to broker peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and broader U.S. interests in the region.

While successive U.S. administrations have recognized the centrality of the “Palestinian question,” American policymakers continue to treat the Palestinians as an “agenda item” in the U.S.-Israel relationship or the peace process (and occasionally other regional priorities). Elgindy argues that the United States continues to view the Palestinians and their political aspirations largely through the prism of its “special relationship” with Israel, as well as other regional parties. Indeed, even official U.S. support for Palestinian statehood stems not from a belief that Palestinians, like all peoples, have an inherent right to self-determination, but from an overriding concern for preserving Israel’s character as both a Jewish and democratic state. For their part, Palestinian leaders have consistently misjudged U.S. foreign policy interests while undervaluing the role of domestic politics in shaping U.S. policies toward the region. Both Yasir Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas, have to one degree or another pursued strategies based on the mistaken expectation that Washington would “deliver” Israel, namely by applying sufficient pressure to compel it ultimately to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and allow the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Unless and until U.S. policymakers are prepared to support Palestinian political aspirations for their own sake and on their own terms, there is little hope that the United States can successfully broker an enduring peace agreement. Likewise, only when Palestinian leaders are prepared to exercise self-determination over their own domestic politics will they be able to attain it for their people.

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