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Date posted: August 30, 2005
By Richard Falk

Although a practicing lawyer in Saudi Arabia by profession, a long-term resident of Paris by choice, and an American by nationality and education, John Whitbeck is above all a citizen of the world who has been actively dedicated to the pursuit of global justice for years, if not decades. His particular emphasis is on getting the United States to do right and sensible things in the Middle East, especially with regard to the long-festering struggle between Israel and Palestine. In this vein, Whitbeck, despite his early Sullivan & Cromwell credentials, has reinvented himself as a free-lance journalist, adept at placing his columns in a multitude of newspapers, including some in the mainstream, and making himself available, especially to the Palestinians, as a legal/diplomatic adviser. He also has established a valuable “listserv” to distribute online his writing on the themes of his book to a group of influential persons generally sympathetic with his critical outlook. In the end, despite his genuine commitment to universal values, Whitbeck comes across as very much of an American in the best sense, traveling the world to do good, a moral entrepreneur or practical utopian who acts from conscience and conviction, with intelligence and imagination, constantly challenging conventional wisdom in the pursuit of a better world.

Against such a background, it is a pleasure to welcome the publication of The World According to Whitbeck, a collection of his short journalistic pieces mainly written and published since 2001, but with a couple of earlier essays that disclose the continuity of his thought about how to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. On one level, Whitbeck’s thinking fits rather easily into a left/liberal approach, favoring a two-state solution, compromising on Jerusalem, and renouncing the use of political violence against civilians by either side. But his originality arises from the specific slant given to these views. For instance, Whitbeck favors an “imposed peace,” by the United Nations. He is convinced that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians would be politically able to offer the necessary compromises, politicians and negotiators on both sides being captives of their constituencies. Of course, Whitbeck recognizes that such a prospect is so remote as to be hardly worth considering. He says, however, what every reasonable person knows: only a peace that allows the Palestinians to have their own state, even if limited to 22 percent of the original Palestine Mandate, will bring peace and security to both peoples, as well as serving the short- and longer-term interests of the United States in the region and the world. Whitbeck attributes this incapacity of the U.S. government to pursue its own national interests in the Middle East to “domestic politics.” He identifies this with Zionist lobbies, pro-Israeli influence in policy-making circles, and fanatical support for Israel from the American religious right for apocalyptic reasons.

Whitbeck also explores the relatively ignored issue of leverage in the Arab world and dismisses the hypothesis of Arab impotence. Whitbeck suggests that if the Arab oil-producing countries were to cut oil exports incrementally by 5 percent a month until Israel totally withdrew to its 1967 borders, the impact would be so great on the world economy, including stock markets and oil pricing, that the United States and Israel would cave in as soon as they appreciated that this economic diplomacy would be sustained until it achieved its objectives. He deplores the myopic unwillingness of Arab governments to flex their oil muscles in this manner and even recalls the 1973 OPEC embargo with nostalgia. In his enthusiastic effort to rouse this sleeping giant, there is no discussion of risks. After all, it should be remembered that with the lesser OPEC moves of the 1970s, there was much talk around Washington of an American intervention in the Gulf. Kissinger argued that such a reaction to attempts at “economic strangulation” justified war. The Atlantic published a much-discussed cover story by Robert W. Tucker that seriously proposed dropping American paratroopers onto the Saudi oil fields. Would not the Whitbeck proposal in the present setting generate an even stronger impulse to meet Arab oil coercion with military intervention?

Yet Whitbeck is not entirely negative with respect to Arab diplomatic efforts. He refers admiringly to the so-called Beirut Declaration of 2002, which proposes a full normalization of diplomatic and economic relations between Arab countries and Israel if Israel withdraws from Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 and agrees to accept a two-state solution. Whitbeck praises the Beirut Declaration for making Israel a “generous” offer and calls then Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia “courageous” for taking such a bold step. I find some incongruity between calling courageous such a verbal effort to resolve the conflict in a mutually beneficial manner and Whitbeck’s chiding of Arab governments for their failure to use coercively their oil weapon on behalf of Palestinian self-determination. It is only such a bold move that deserves to be lauded as courageous – or possibly branded as reckless!

Although alive to the colossal political obstacles that block progress toward peace for these two suffering peoples, Whitbeck welcomes any positive initiative that he believes will achieve the essential outcome of ending the violence and finally producing a sustainable form of self-determination for the Palestinians. In this spirit, he gave his unreserved blessings to the so-called Geneva Accord, a comprehensive agreement worked out by prominent peace-oriented Israelis and Palestinians and endorsed in a December 1, 2003, public ceremony by international personalities, including Jimmy Carter. According to Whitbeck’s assessment, widely published at the time in several Arab newspapers as well as in the Financial Times, the Geneva Accord “deserves the active and wholehearted support of everyone who genuinely cares about Israelis, Palestinians or peace” (p. 65). In his view, this civil-society document “addressed and settled sensibly all the most difficult issues — Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and borders” (p. 67). Whitbeck also quotes approvingly former President Carter’s assertion that “[t]he only alternative to this initiative is sustained and permanent violence” (p. 68). Such enthusiasm for the Geneva Accord exhibits both Whitbeck’s constructive approach, reaching out in every possible way to make the impossible happen, but also a somewhat dispiriting tendency to grasp at straws.

I share the view that the Geneva Accord deserved serious attention when issued, but it never seemed to me to offer much hope. To begin with, there was an asymmetry in participation by the two sides. The Palestinian participants, led by Yasser Abed Rabbo, were acting with the approval of Arafat and were virtually representatives of the Palestinian Authority. In contrast, the Israeli participants were strong opponents of the Sharon government and were not even considered to represent the mainstream Labor outlook. As might be anticipated, Israeli officialdom mocked the Geneva Accord, while their Palestinian counterparts embraced it.

Beyond this, I am not at all sure that the Geneva Accord dealt adequately with the final-status issues, or produced an outcome that would have provided the Palestinians with a sustainable sort of sovereign state that would enjoy real political independence. The proposed agreement committed Palestine to being a “non-militarized state,” while leaving Israel free to remain fully militarized. Such a lack of mutuality on this fundamental issue, especially given the history of the relations between the two peoples, imposes on the Palestinians an enormous burden of trust and gives to the Israelis an enduring military option to intimidate and devastate Palestine at their discretion. Also, important issues such as water rights and economic relations were to be addressed later. There were conscientious and generally desirable approaches taken to some difficult issues including Jerusalem and refugees, but the question of land swaps and the retention of the Israeli settlement blocks required careful scrutiny. I agree with Whitbeck that the Geneva Accord is the best profile yet available of what peace entails, but its appraisal needed to include its political handicaps and problematic aspects. In part, Whitbeck as a spontaneous commentator of unfolding realities was using his journalistic talents to tout the agreement, almost in the spirit of activism, and thus could not be expected to offer a more considered assessment of pros and cons.

This concise volume deserves a wide reading. Its arguments and perspectives are clear. It takes on some crucial issues that are related to, yet distinct from, the Israel-Palestine conflict such as the oppressive realities of the Saudi state as a breeding ground for martyrs and extremism and the dangerous propagandistic manipulations of the word “terrorism,” especially in the aftermath of 9/11. Whitbeck also offers a rationale and plan for a quick and responsible exit from Iraq and critically depicts the dubious geopolitical goals of the United States in the Middle East concealed beneath the banner of anti-terrorism. Whitbeck’s clear-eyed rejection of Israel’s demand for an end to resistance as the precondition for discussing an end to its prolonged illegal occupation is welcome. So is his call for America to assume the role of “honest bystander” because of its confirmed inability to be a credible “honest broker.” All in all, these essays, written in the heat of the moment, stand well the test of time.

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Source: Middle East Policy, Fall 2005
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