Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy

By Reich, Bernard | American Jewish History, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy


Reich, Bernard, American Jewish History


By Kathleen Christison. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. ix + 370 pp.

United States policy with regard to the Arab-Israel sector of the Middle East and hence with regard to the Palestinians has been a subject of great interest and debate since World War II. U.S. perceptions of the Palestinians and policy toward them and U.S. involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace process have evolved significantly over time. Much has been written on these themes, including polemical works, revisionist history, conspiracy theories, and criticism of U.S. policy and recommendations to change it. The literature is massive and, in some respects, overwhelming.

Christison is a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst who has written on the Middle East for more than 25 years. She argues that the United States has ignored the Palestinians' right to exist in the Holy Land for the past century. In her view "each president and each administration's policymakers have ultimately been influenced by the prevailing mind-set on the issue throughout the United States, and Americans remain bonded to Israel" (p. 288). Neither the "powerful pro-Israel lobby" (p. 288) nor the media, but rather a mind-set influenced by the Bible, created a pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian perspective. Christison seeks to demonstrate how the United States managed to avoid the grievances of the Palestinians; the U.S. government for many years ignored the true plight of the Palestinians, instead treating them merely as refugees. Only in the Carter administration were the Palestinians given serious political attention, and only in the first Bush administration did they became elements in the decision making and participants in the negotiations for peace.

Christison's focus is on the "mind-set" of American presidents and other senior policy makers that clearly was a consequence of a biblical perspective or vision of the Holy Land and the role of the Jews and Israelis in that area. The author seeks to document the indifference or ignorance of the realities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the views held by American presidents and secretaries of state. She seeks to demonstrate that many presidents from Truman on were affected by their biblical perspective and their "misunderstanding" of the Palestinians (and more generally, the Arabs).

Christison is complimentary of Eisenhower because he was "the only president who ever exerted heavy pressure on the Jewish state Israel for a territorial withdrawal" (p.96); but, nevertheless, she argues that he was not a friend of the Palestinians. She also notes that Israel has not received such tough treatment since, clearly implying that it should.

When she considers the actions of subsequent administrations, such as those of Kennedy and Johnson, she invariably focuses on the excesses of their support for, or supply of arms to, or general approval of Israel, while constantly reminding us that the Palestinians were misunderstood and ignored by most senior policy makers. She also stresses that what was also ignored were the excesses of Israeli policy on virtually all issues from Jerusalem to the refugees. Even those she credits with initial good intentions, such as Nixon in 1969, were faulted because "he had no interest in, and knew little about, the Palestinian situation or its political ramifications" (p. 124). Secretaries of state (e.g., William P. Rogers and Henry Kissinger under Nixon) were not particularly well informed about or interested in the Palestinians and their situation. The Carter tenure is credited with being the administration that first recognized the centrality and importance of the Palestinians. He "changed the vocabulary of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict" and "the frame of reference for the Palestinian issue" (p. …

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