The refusal by the Los Angeles Times to release the videotape featuring Barack Obama's farewell toast to Rashid Khalidi has thrust the Columbia University professor and activist into the center of the presidential campaign, creating particular interest in his ties to Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.
Liberals have defended Khalidi as a "respected academic," and amid all of the political noise and accusations flying back and forth between the two camps, it's easy to see how some voters would tune out when conservatives refer to him as a former "PLO spokesman." But without engaging in the semantic debate over what word should be applied to his complex and long-standing relationship with the terrorist group, a TAS analysis of contemporaneous news accounts dating back to the 1970s as well a look at Khalidi's own writings leave no doubt that a close relationship existed.
While living in Lebanon from the early 1970s through 1983 (where the PLO was based at the time), Khalidi was frequently cited in the press as being close to the organization, and he even used the word "we" while speaking on the group's behalf. He was described as a "director" of Wafa, the PLO's official news agency, and he thanked Arafat for research assistance in the preface of one of his books. In 1991, Khalidi was part of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace talks with Israel -- by his own account, he did so at the request of the PLO.
Before delving into the details, it's worth entertaining the legitimate question of why Khalidi's background and writings should raise concerns about Obama himself.
The L.A. Times story from April about their relationship answers this question quite clearly. Not only did Obama know Khalidi, but the professor was his "friend and frequent dinner companion" who Obama was close enough to that he attended the 2003 going away party thrown when Khalidi was moving to New York.
In his toast, Obama went out of his way to thank Khalidi (and his wife Mona) for "consistent reminders of my own blind spots and own biases," and he added that the conversation they engaged in was necessary around "this entire world." Given that America is on the cusp of electing Obama, a man of little experience about whom very little is known, it is perfectly fair to learn more about Khalidi, whose viewpoints Obama thought the whole world needed to hear.
ON JUNE 11, 1979, the New York Times ran an article explaining that the PLO was worried that the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt would undermine Palestinians. The article quoted Khalidi opposing the deal for that very reason, and identified him as somebody "close to Al Fatah," an arm of the PLO.
One view shared by the Palestinian leadership and the rank and file, down to armed youths who guard doorways and intersections, is that the goal of an independent state will be foreclosed if the Camp David accords succeed. "We are in a make-or-break-it period," asserted Rashid Khalidi, a professor of political science who is close to Al Fatah. "If we don't turn the tide, if what (Egyptian President Anwar) Sadat is doing is not decisively repudiated, if the idea that Sadat had brought peace is allowed to stick without regard to Palestinian rights, then we are done in. Israel doesn't need to sign with us. They already control the land."
Also noteworthy about the quote was Khalidi's use of the term "we" in reference to the Palestinian leadership, which turns out to be more of a habit than an isolated occurrence.
For instance, a January 6, 1981 Christian Science Monitor article that refers to Khalidi as "a Palestinian with good access to the PLO leadership," reads:
Dr. Khalidi also argued that the PLO's standing among Arabs in the Israeli-occupied areas has grown significantly. "Quite apart from the politics of it, we have built up tremendous links with the Palestinians 'on the inside' in different ways. We can render them services, often through our compatriots in the West, that King Hussein, for example, could never match. We've never been stronger there, and the trend is continuing," he said.
Ironically, the same article quotes him as saying that hardliners within the PLO "perceive the new administration as basically hostile -- possibly more hostile than the Carter administration." Yes, on Planet Khalidi, even Jimmy Carter could be seen as being overtly hostile to the Palestinians.
But the evidence for the connections between Khalidi and the PLO are much more explicit than that. Thomas Friedman, in a June 8, 1982 New York Times piece about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, referred to Khalidi as "a director of the Palestinian press agency, Wafa." To be clear, Wafa is controlled by the PLO --and you don't have to take my word for it. Even Khalidi himself, on page 7 of his 1986 book Under Siege: P.L.O. Decisionmaking During the 1982 War, describes it as "the P.L.O.'s news agency."
That's not the most telling part of Under Siege. In the book's preface, Khalidi reserves his first paragraph of thanks for the research assistance provided by the PLO in general, and Arafat specifically. "Permission to utilize the P.L.O. Archives for the first time was generously given by the Chairman of the P.L.O. Executive Committee, Yasser 'Arafat," Khalidi wrote. "To him, and to the dedicated individuals working in the Office of the Chairman, the P.L.O. Archives, and the Palestine News Agency (WAFA), who extended every possible assistance to me on three trips to Tunis, I owe deep thanks."
IN THE WAKE OF THE 1991 GULF WAR, then Secretary of State James Baker launched peace talks featuring Israel and the Palestinians, which were held in Madrid. The Israelis only agreed to the talks under the condition that the PLO not be involved in the negotiations, which turned out to be farcical, because the terrorist group operated from behind the scenes, giving marching orders to the Palestinian delegation of which Khalidi was a part.
As Khalidi recounts in his 1997 book Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, while he was in Jerusalem during the summer of 1991, he "agreed to the request of Faisal al-Husayni that, if the Palestinians became involved in negotiations with Israel…I would serve as an adviser to the Palestinian delegation."
That fall, he wrote, "on the eve of the sudden convocation of the Madrid conference, I received a call from PLO officials in Tunis asking me to confirm that I was indeed going to Madrid, since the names of the delegation and its advisers had to be presented to Secretary Baker's assistants that very night."
Khalidi goes on to explain that while he "did not participate in the entirety of every round of discussions" he and his Palestinian colleagues "worked extremely hard," and he not only acted as an adviser during the October and November Madrid talks, but also in "each of the ten Palestinian-Israeli bilateral negotiating sessions in Washington which continued until June 1993."
(A digital scan of the relevant section of the book is available here.)
Taken as a whole, the record shows that Khalidi -- whether or not he should officially be called a "spokesman" -- clearly was tight with the PLO, having acted as an adviser at the group's request, and regularly speaking on its behalf.
As a professor, Khalidi has established himself as the heir to Edward Said, the leading anti-Israel intellectual of the 20th century (with whom Obama famously broke bread at a 1998 Arab community event in Chicago). He has said that American Jewish supporters of Israel have been "brainwashed" and that they can't accept the fact that Israel is "an apartheid system in creation." And when it comes to peace talks, Khalidi said, "The United States is actually worse than Israel on some issues."
So what, exactly, are the "blind spots" and "biases" that Obama is so grateful to Khalidi for exposing in their frequent dinners? And what part of their conversation does Obama hope spreads around "this entire world"?
Somehow, I don't think Obama was referring to his love for the Chicago White Sox.