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Rashid Kalidi: Spokesman for the PLO

November 2, 2008

Khalidi of the PLO

Thursday, 30 October 2008

This post has several important updates. The first brings a passage from a 1978 New York Times report from Beirut, noting that Rashid Khalidi "works for the P.L.O." The third uncovers a passage from a 1976 Los Angeles Times report, also from Beirut, describing Khalidi as "a PLO spokesman." —Martin Kramer

Was Rashid Khalidi a PLO "spokesman" or director of its press agency in Beirut back in 1982? I'll leave it to others to determine whether or not it matters (or matters enough) to the Khalidi-Obama connection. But I get riled up when people testify to Khalidi's bona fides without doing due diligence—especially when they specifically address Jewish audiences. Example: Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).

Kampeas makes this argument, against the claim that Khalidi was a PLO spokesman:

The problem with the "spokesman" claim is that you can actually prove it's not true. In saner times, "prove it's not true" would be a phrase frowned on in an innocent until proven guilty culture. Khalidi's denial would be enough in the face of a lack of evidence as to same. Those promoting the claim cite a single 1982 article by Tom Friedman; Khalidi says Friedman got it wrong, and that the term "PLO spokesman" was used promiscuously in 1982 Beirut.

But like I said, things ain't so sane.

So here's the thing: What everyone acknowledges is that Khalidi was an adviser to the Palestinian delegation to the 1991 Madrid talks. That delegation—to a person—could not have had any formal affiliation with the PLO. Israel regarded the group as terrorist and its laws banned contact with its members; then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir made not being affiliated with the PLO it a condition of Israel's agreement to participate. The names of the Palestinian team would have been vetted by Israeli intelligence.

This was something of a nudge and a wink, of course: Faisal Husseini, who headed the team, was in constant contact with PLO headquarters in Tunis.

Still, it should put to rest the notion that Khalidi was ever a "spokesman" for the group.

This is a tissue of errors. Khalidi was not part of the official Palestinian delegation, whose 14 members all came from the West Bank and Gaza. He belonged to a six-person advisory panel which came to Madrid precisely to serve as a conduit between the official delegation and the PLO. The Israeli government was not at all pleased with this addition, and the New York Times ran a story about it under the headline: "Israelis Deplore Advisory Panel Of Palestinians." Khalidi is named there as one of the six.

Clyde Haberman, the Times correspondent who reported the story, said of the six: "It is this group that presumably will be calling the shots, and one way or another all its members violate Israel's guidelines for the sort of Palestinians with whom it is prepared to negotiate. In particular, they speak openly for the P.L.O." So, pace Kampeas, Israel did not vet and approve Khalidi—exactly the opposite was true. "We will not speak with these advisers," announced then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. "Secondly, they will not be present in the room during the deliberations of the conference." Poof! There goes Kampeas's "proof" that the "spokesman" claim is logically false.

As for Khalidi's denial, there are ample grounds to question it. In 2004, when he made it, Khalidi wrote that between 1976 and 1983, "I was teaching full time as an Assistant Professor in the Political Studies and Public Administration Dept. at the American University of Beirut, published two books and several articles, and also was a research fellow at the independent Institute for Palestine Studies." Khalidi claimed he had time for little else. "I often spoke to journalists in Beirut, who usually cited me without attribution as a well-informed Palestinian source. If some misidentified me at the time, I am not aware of it."

Now if someone misidentified me on the pages of the New York Times—Tom Friedman, no less—I'm sure I would be aware of it. So would you. Yet Khalidi did not seek a correction of Friedman's characterization at the time, although the Times regularly issues corrections of such mistakes, and presumably would have done the same for Khalidi.

Khalidi's self-description as being a preoccupied professor while in Beirut also contradicts a statement he made in a 2005 interview. After listing the stations in his academic career, he was asked this question: "You were also involved politically as well?" Khalidi: "Well, yes. I was deeply involved in politics in Beirut."

It is worth explaining what it meant to be "deeply involved in politics in Beirut" during the civil war in Lebanon. It was not at all like community organizing in Chicago. The Lebanese state had ceased to function; the political actors were all armed militias, Lebanese and Palestinian. Every individual needed to be affiliated with such an organization, if not for bread then at least for protection. Khalidi was known to be affiliated with, and protected by, Arafat's Fatah. A 1979 New York Times report (by Youssef Ibrahim) described Khalidi as "a professor of political science who is close to Al Fatah." In Beirut, to be "close" to an organization meant you enjoyed its protection in return for loyalty and services rendered. Khalidi's wife also worked as an English translator for the PLO's press agency, Wafa. So savvy journalists knew that if they wanted the Fatah spin, they could get it from Khalidi.

This is also probably why Khalidi didn't correct Tom Friedman's "error," although he would have known of it. Friedman, in a report filed from Beirut on the third day of the 1982 Israeli invasion, called Khalidi "a director of the Palestinian press agency, Wafa" which must have reflected his perception. It's possible that in the PLO's (chaotic) mobilization, Khalidi had a reason to represent himself as such, and was working alongside his wife. Or perhaps Friedman just got it wrong in the heat of battle (he had not quoted Khalidi before). In any event, Khalidi presumably didn't ask for a correction, because the Times never ran one.

Khalidi later broke with Arafat, but like him, he remains a bundle of ambiguities and incongruities, many of them deliberately constructed. He's much too elusive for any passing journalist to pin down. Rashid Khalidi becomes what people wish him to be. Perhaps that's yet another way in which he and Barack Obama are kindred spirits.

First Update: Ron Kampeas has rushed to defend his indefensible thesis, insisting that because the advisory panel came to Madrid, they still must have been "vetted" by Israel and cleared of any PLO taint. In fact, the United States had invited all of them without asking Israel, as the New York Times reported. ("The Americans are playing clever games and trying to outsmart us," complained an Israeli diplomat to the Boston Globe.) Israel objected but acquiesced. That cannot logically be read as establishing for a fact that Khalidi couldn't have been PLO-affiliated almost a decade earlier in Beirut, which is Kampeas's thesis.

Nor is there any reason to be certain that Tom Friedman erred in identifying Khalidi as he did—certainly not because Khalidi claimed so twenty years later. I've been interviewed many times by journalists, and standard operating procedure—which Kampeas no doubt follows—is to end by asking the interviewee how he or she wants to be identified. My personal inclination is to believe that Friedman is too professional not to have asked Khalidi, or to have called Khalidi "a director of the Palestinian press agency, Wafa" out of the blue. Why might Khalidi have identified himself thus? He would have had his reasons. (How Friedman described Khalidi in a review of one of Khalidi's books years later, which Kampeas thinks proves something, seems to me entirely irrelevant.)

Finally, Kampeas argues that Khalidi couldn't have known or done anything to correct Friedman's "error" because Israel's invasion of Lebanon had just begun. It's not inconceivable (if it really was an error). But a commentator on this post brings my attention to an earlier New York Times article, dated February 19, 1978 (by the late James M. Markham), which has been overlooked because Khalidi's name appears there as Khalidy. There he is identified as "an American-educated Palestinian who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut and also works for the P.L.O." The front-page story opened a major series on the Palestinians, and Khalidi certainly could have corrected the PLO reference, if it was an error. He didn't.

Poor Ron—reduced to contortions to uphold the truth-telling credibility of Rashid Khalidi, of all people. He joins a long list of the credulous (including well-meaning journalists, rabbis, deans, etc.) who haven't figured out that Khalidi says one thing here, and another thing there. For more evidence, see my exhaustive archive of Khalidiana.

Second update: Ron Kampeas, in another update (scroll down), does still more absurd acrobatics to prove that Tom Friedman had to be wrong back in 1982, or the New York Times had to have fouled up—that Khalidi couldn't possibly have misled them. I don't buy it at all, but Friedman and the Times can speak for themselves, and maybe they will.

But Kampeas dismisses the 1978 Times piece (clip right above) with this:

Martin finds an earlier New York Times reference to Khalidi—as Khalidy—as "working for the PLO." Yet this writer clearly didn't ask Khalidi how to spell his name. (The loose rules of Arab transliteration would not apply to a New York-born U.S. citizen; Khalidi is consistent on how one spells his name.)

That's it? Case dismissed? "This writer," James Markham, was the Times Beirut bureau chief in 1975 and 1976, covering the civil war (for which he almost took a Pulitzer), and he covered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1978 and the Iranian revolution. He was a Princeton grad and a Rhodes Scholar, and during a long career as a foreign correspondent earned a reputation as a consummate professional. (He knew his Palestinians, too, and he once responded to criticism of being too sympathetic to them in these words: "I do not romanticize Palestinian gunmen, because I have seen too many of them. I have even had them stick guns at my head and threaten to kill me. But I have also met and talked with other Palestinians, and not all Palestinians are terrorists.") If Kampeas is suggesting that Markham somehow made up the PLO tag for Khalidi....

Markham and Friedman mistakenly put Khalidi in the PLO? Two strikes of lightening? Come on. Khalidi has never come clean about Beirut; he's said he was too busy to be political, and that he was "deeply involved" in politics. So the truth should be determined independently of what he claims or denies, and the evidence so far is that he was in thick with the PLO, when the organization was still neck-deep in terrorism. Markham, interestingly, identified Khalidi as an "American-educated Palestinian," which suggests to me that Khalidi may have been hiding the fact of his U.S. citizenship as well. There is a mystery here, and one hopes that a major newspaper—perhaps the Times itself—will get to the bottom of it, now that "Khalidi" is a household word, and Barack Obama has anointed him a "respected scholar."

Third Update: And here is the earliest and most unequivocal evidence yet. It is from an article filed by Joe Alex Morris Jr., Los Angeles Times correspondent based in Beirut, published in that paper on September 5, 1976, under the headline "Lebanon War Hurts Palestinian Cause." Rashid Khalidi is identified as "a PLO spokesman."


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