In discussions of modern Middle Eastern history it has become popular to view the local actors as the long-suffering victims of Western aggressive encroachments. Some date this phenomenon back to the Crusades. Others trace it to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of an (allegedly) artificial state system on its ruins, which broke the historical unity of this predominantly Arab area and sowed the seeds of the endemic malaise plaguing the Middle East to this day.
For all its feigned empathy, this refusal to hold Middle Easterners accountable for their actions is patronizing in the worst tradition of the "white man's burden." It dismisses the inhabitants as half-witted creatures, whose history lacks an internal, autonomous dynamic of its own. As T.E. Lawrence, pan-Arabism's most influential Western champion, described his Arab protégés: "They were a limited, narrow-minded people, whose inert intellect lay fallow in incurious resignation. . . . They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades."
Rashid Khalidi, who occupies the Edward Said Chair of Arab Studies at Columbia University, may not use such forthright and politically incorrect language, yet his latest book is riddled with underlying condescension. Though purporting "to ascribe agency to the Palestinians" and "to avoid seeing them … as no more than helpless victims of forces far greater than themselves," "The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood" (Beacon, 281 pages, $24.95) treats the Palestinian Arabs as mere objects, repeatedly forced "into an impossible corner, into an iron cage" by an unholy coalition comprising the Zionist movement and the world's most powerful nations.
This stark metaphor alludes to Ze'ev Jabotinsky's famous 1923 article "The Iron Wall," long used by Arab propaganda as proof of Zionism's aggressive nature and ingrained desire to dispossess the Palestinian Arabs. In fact, the article, as is the case of countless other writings and statements by Jabotinsky, argued precisely the opposite. Written two years after the slaughter of 90 Jews and the wounding of hundreds in a string of Arab pogroms, it advocated the creation of a formidable barrier that would convince the Arabs that they should desist from their effort to obliterate the Jewish national cause and to accept a negotiated settlement based on mutual equality and respect. "I am prepared to take an oath binding ourselves and our descendants that we shall never do anything contrary to the principle of equal rights, and that we shall never try to eject anyone," Jabotinsky wrote. "I consider it utterly impossible to eject the Arabs from Palestine. There will always be two nations in Palestine."
But Mr. Khalidi is not someone to be bothered by the facts. Such is his disregard for the historical truth that he not only shuns the millions of documents declassified during the past decades by Israeli, Western, and United Nations archives, but also makes no effort to tap into the wealth of Arab and Palestinian documentation on the 1948 war, relying instead on secondary sources that add little to what is already known on the subject.
In an attempt to justify this extraordinary feat of intellectual laziness, Mr. Khalidi provides a number of convoluted and contradictory excuses. He bemoans the lack of a "massive, central, unified [Palestinian] documentary base" yet fails to explain why this should have prevented the utilization of the "plethora of scattered archival and other documentary sources that can be used to piece together the Palestinian side of what happened in 1948." He adamantly refuses "to read the history of the losers in the records of the victors, useful though such an exercise would be" yet readily endorses the dubious findings of "revisionist" Israeli historians, allegedly based on these very same "records of the victors." He acknowledges that "the story of how the Palestinians acted and reacted throughout three decades of British control of Palestine have been told at length" yet fails to explain how this corresponds to his description of Palestinian history as "a hidden history:" the main justification for writing the book.
But these faults pale in comparison with the book's profound dishonesty. The central question it purports to address is why the Palestinian Arabs failed to establish an independent state before 1948, the year of Israel's founding, and why they remained stateless for the next 58 years. Yet readers of "The Iron Cage" will never know of the real opportunities for statehood offered to the Palestinians during the past 70 years — from the partition plans of 1937 and 1947, to the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Accords of 1978, to the Oslo accords — which the Palestinian leadership willfully threw away. Nor will they learn of the countless Zionist attempts at reconciliation, in the decades preceding the 1948 war, through secret meetings with Palestinian, Trans-jordanian, Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi, Saudi, and Lebanese interlocutors. Instead, they are treated to an uninterrupted story of the victimization and abuse of the hapless Palestinians by Britain, America, the Soviet Union, and France, "all of which supported Zionism and the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, but did nothing to prevent the abortion of the embryonic Arab state of Palestine in 1947-48."
Reality of course was quite different. It was not the Arab state that faced an attempt to destroy it at birth but rather the nascent state of Israel, which came under a concerted attack by this embryonic Arab entity and the neighboring Arab states. Neither did the great powers do anything to prevent the attempted destruction of a large Jewish community a few years after the Holocaust. America imposed a regional arms embargo, which was essentially directed against the Jewish community in Palestine as the Arabs had alternative arms suppliers. While Britain, better poised than any international actor to influence Palestine's future given its position as the country's occupying power, did its utmost to avert the creation of a Jewish state. This ranged from a tight naval blockade to prevent immigration, the elixir of life of the prospective Jewish state, to the detention of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors in concentration camps in Cyprus, to the supply of weapons and technical/advisory services to the Arab armies, to a lax attitude toward the flow of weapons from the neighboring Arab states into Palestine coupled with an embargo on the arrival of weapons for the Jews. And so on and so forth.
As for France, its lack of appetite for the creation of a Jewish state was evidenced not only by its grudging acquiescence in the partition resolution, but also by its underhand release of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who would have otherwise joined the Nazi war criminals on the dock in Nuremberg, and who promised to "launch a durable Franco-Arab cooperation." In subsequent decades, as meticulously documented in David Pryce-Jones's "Betrayal: France, the Jews, and the Arabs" (Encounter, 153 pages, $23.95), France was to become one of the staunchest Arab and Palestinian allies.
Worse, Mr. Khalidi's equation of partition with an anti-Palestinian stance is a travesty of the historical truth. To be sure, the Arab world at the time was virtually unified in opposition to the idea. But this had less to do with concern for Palestinian statehood than with a zerosum approach that afforded the Jews no national rights whatever. As conclusively shown by the historical evidence, had the Jews lost the 1948 war, their territory would not have been handed over to the Palestinian Arabs. Rather, it would have been divided among the invading Arab forces, for the simple reason that none of the region's Arab regimes viewed the Palestinians as a distinct nation and most of them had their own designs on this territory. Indeed, neither Egypt nor Jordan ever allowed Palestinian self-determination in the parts of Palestine conquered during the 1948 war.
By contrast, acceptance of the November 1947 United Nations Partition Resolution would not only have resulted in the establishment of an Arab state over half of Mandatory Palestine, thus sparing the Palestinians the tragedy of dispersal and exile, but would have entailed substantial economic benefits as the prospective Arab state was to be linked to its Jewish neighbor in an economic union that would have effectively meant heavy Jewish subsidies.
But as far as Mr. Khalidi is concerned, compromise and mutual concessions have never been an option. It is no mere accident that when he discusses the possibility of a missed historic opportunity he chooses to concentrate on the Palestinian rejection of the British 1939 White Paper: a unilateral external imposition of an Arab state (in which Jews would be reduced to a permanent small minority status) rather than a negotiated settlement between Arabs and Jews.
Mr. Khalidi may well be correct in regarding the white paper as stillborn. Not only because the Jews would have never acquiesced in the envisaged destruction of their national cause, but because this "low-grade gasp of a defeatist hour," as Winston Churchill called the white paper, breathed its terminal gasp with the outbreak of World War II, despite the British government's effort to resurrect it after the war. Yet by focusing on this episode rather than on the real opportunities missed by the Palestinian Arabs, and by refusing to take this ultimate demonstration of recalcitrance for what it was, rather than downplay it as a tactical or diplomatic error, Mr. Khalidi provides a penetrating insight into his own uncompromising mind-set, which rejects Israel's very existence and advocates its destruction through the euphemism of a "one-state solution."
One would have hoped that after 80 years of stubborn adherence to the "one-state solution" and an equally adamant rejection of the "two-state solution," which have resulted in Palestinian statelessness, all but the most fanatically self-deluded would grasp the root causes of the Palestinian debacle — not least a historian purporting to redress the "continuing refusal to look honestly at what has happened in this small land over the past century or so."
Professor Karsh is head of Mediterranean studies at King's College, University of London, and author most recently of "Islamic Imperialism: A History" (Yale University Press).