On September 20th, Dr. Seth Anziska ‘15 sat down to talk about his recently released book Preventing Palestine: From Camp David to Oslo, about the complex players of contemporary Middle Eastern politics. Deputy Editor Idris O’Neill and Bwog Baby Alicia Benis covered everything you want and don’t want to know.
Dr. Seth Anziska began the event by asserting that the book is seen through the lens and focus of a Palestinian homeland and the right to self-determination, oddly enough, as an initiative of President Jimmy Carter. There were three major players in the contemporary Middle East: Israel, Palestine, and the United States. “Sometimes it felt like America was acting more Israeli than the Israelis,” he stated. While President Carter was allegedly in support of this Palestinian right to self-determination, he faced struggles in both foreign and domestic affairs. The US had been preoccupied with the threat of the Cold War externally, while back home, the American Jewish community stood firmly against negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the functioning government of Palestinian territories, which has since been replaced by Hamas. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict itself was described as “not a monocausal story,” which includes the role of the United States as a facilitator between parties, Israeli action, and Egypt also looking for greater global importance at the time, eventually finding that the Palestinian voice, though a proponent of Carter’s support initially, thought itself abandoned by Anwar Sadat (Egypt’s then-President) and Jimmy Carter. At the turn of administrations, President Ronald Reagan felt “warmer” toward the Israeli side, thus ending American support (at least on an administrative level) for Palestinian statehood.
When asked what he thinks of the stratification between Palestinian support for Hamas and the PLO’s decrease of popularity, Anziska considered that the PLO had been an organization struggling with its desire for diplomatic recognition, as well as its commitment for armed struggle. As the PLO grew to become a diplomatic player in the Middle Eastern political sphere, becoming “domesticated, neutralized,” Hamas arose to fulfill the demonstrated need for an on-the-ground force to be rallied behind.
While the most difficult part of the process was access to the archives–as American archives were closed to him even as a Columbia doctorate candidate–Dr. Anziska was able to attain the Israeli perspective through access of their archives which are made publicly available for research after three decades. In doing so, he was able to piece together a series of events as political dominoes, such as the Israeli invasion of Beirut and its subsequent after-effects on Palestinian sovereignty. Anziska noted that while there was existing research about the conflict, very few sources still existed which could link Camp David and Oslo’s effects to the conversation of Palestinian statehood. “The challenge is: how do you write about a period that is not yet historicized?”
Though Anziska’s book is split into two parts: one of the 1970s and the latter of the 1980s, he requests that we rethink periodization, in response to a question about how we can apply the contents of his book to today’s conditions of the conflict. “Every historian is afraid of bringing things to the present. It’s like hitting a moving target.” In this instance, Anziska described the conditions of today’s perceptions of the conflict much worse and more regressive than they had been in the 80s and 90s. In order to understand this fully, readers were asked to remove themselves and put themselves into the headspace of Palestinian self-determination as it was described in the 70s, because, as Anziska asserted, writing history is not about recreating an account of the past; it’s about “restoring the sense of contingency” that is lost through the conditions and temperament of our time.
When asked about his most surprising find in the Israeli archives, Dr. Anziska talked about a document in English containing the minutes of a meeting between American and Israeli diplomats in which they discussed a massacre that occurred at a South Lebanese refugee camp in September 18, 1982. The Phalange, a right-wing Lebanese group, backed by Israeli forces, massacred thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians at the Shatila refugee camp. In the documents, Anziska found that there were statements made by then Israeli Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, in which he reassured that the “only people” left in the refugee camp were terrorists. This made him, as well as Americans, complicit to the prolonging of the massacre. Dr. Anziska says that he was surprised that this type of information was even recorded in the first place, and that in having these documents, it gave him a sense of responsibility to share this information. He says is also lead to the discovery of more classified information. Ultimately, however, Anziska says that this material is the “patrimony of the people affected (Palestinians, Lebanese, and Israelis)” and should be made available in Arabic and Hebrew in order for conversations to be fostered, as people are “developing amnesia” when it comes to this matter.
Although the run from Deutsches Haus (the original venue) to the event’s new location at Fayerweather had me out of breath and confused for the first few minutes, it was interesting to gain insight on one of the many perspectives on this long and complex conflict. There were parts that were a bit jargony, especially for the brain that had just come out of First-Year Seminar, but Dr. Anziska’s book is definitely a good read for those who are interested in one of the most defining issues in Middle Eastern politics: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Preventing Palestine event poster courtesy of the Department of History