The Palestine Question and the U.S. Public Sphere


The 2010 Edward Said Memorial Lecture, the Palestine Center, Washington, DC, 7 October 2010

Thank you all for coming today, and, to those of you who are watching, thank you for viewing this talk.  Those of you who live in Washington, who are subjected to the American media, will probably be relieved to hear that I will not be talking about the peace process.  If you insist, I’m happy to answer questions about it.  I’m going to talk about a broader topic, which I think sheds light on why there is not a process that is leading towards peace.  And this is the Palestine question and the American public sphere.  It is a great honor to be doing this in the context of the Edward Said lecture series.  Edward was a dear friend and I think that having a lecture series in his name will help to push the process that he actually personally played a very big role in opening up in this country.

A number of factors played a part in cementing support for Zionism and later for the state of Israel of its two primary international sponsors: Great Britain and the United States.  As you know, each of them in its own era was the greatest power of its time.  In winning over the British and American political classes and their respective publics to the cause of Zionism and to the cause of Israel, a crucial role was played by scholarly and non-academic writings, and later by the cinema and other media.  I think it’s insufficiently recognized that establishing the hegemony of Zionism in the field of ideas in an Anglo-American academic and public discourse was a vital precondition for its successes in the political and diplomatic arenas.  The discursive victories of Zionism preceded its triumphs in the chancelleries of the world and on the battlefields, and the latter would never have occurred, in my opinion, but for the former.  In other words, in addition to being successful as an idea, as a national movement, and as a colonial settler phenomenon, political Zionism has always been a resounding public relations triumph.

Now, the Zionist narrative was already almost uncontested in the United States even before 1948.  My father and my mother — both of them lived in New York in those years — tell me stories about how difficult it was to get out an alternative narrative.  That Zionist narrative has become even more firmly entrenched in the public sphere in the decades since then through extensive writings and through making major inroads into popular culture.  The reason for this is not hard to understand.   Historically, Zionist leaders and after them leaders of the state of Israel, with good strategic sense and with a keen eye to opportunity and with a good story to tell, understood where to focus their efforts to garner international support.  And the United States was a focus of this from a very early period.  This was absolutely vital, they understood, to their efforts to create a Jewish state in what was then an Arab country with an overwhelming Arab majority.  Arabs owned 94 percent of the land.  It was an Arab country with a large Jewish minority.  Not only to create a Jewish state in an Arab country, but also to create an impregnable position for it in a hostile region.  Indeed, as they knew, it would have been impossible for them to have succeeded in their endeavor without massive external assistance.  Therefore, this work in the United States and Britain and elsewhere was essential.

What I am going to discuss today, mainly, is how this Zionist-Israeli narrative attained its preeminent status in this country and then I’ll conclude with a relatively brief assessment of whether the power of this narrative may or may not be waning.  For the better part of a century this narrative was just as triumphant in the western public sphere as were its Zionist Israeli protagonists on the ground in Palestine, it has recently faced some challenges to its predominance, and I’ll conclude by touching on some of those.  I think it is worth noting that in some quarters to even suggest that this narrative is preeminent or hegemonic is considered offensive, almost borderline anti-Semitic, while at the same time, any attempt to challenge its premises provokes fierce, sometimes vicious, reactions.  So you can’t say that it’s dominant, but if you challenge its dominance, heaven help you.  So, I think, does any suggestion that the Zionist movement and Israel were not or are not, always and invariably, underdogs and/or victims.  Challenging that premise is a very difficult thing to do.  Zionist and Israeli history is rarely told by its proponents as the litany of almost unbroken successes and triumphs that is the real history of the modern Jewish national presence in Palestine.  Instead, it is usually treated as an appendage to the wrenching narrative of Jewish victimhood over two millennia of European history, culminating in the tragedy of the Holocaust.

In the decades down to the 1967 war, and in fact well after the 1967 war, the tenor of most of what was written and said in the American public sphere about Palestine and about this conflict was almost entirely driven by Israeli concerns and attitudes.  The views of critics of Israel received limited circulation, if they got any circulation at all, while Palestinian and Arab views made, as far as I can tell, made no impact whatsoever in this country for decades.  Much attention was lavished on the supposedly miraculous nature of the establishment of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust, in the face of Arab opposition, and in the face of what was described as the indifference or hostility of much of the rest of the world to its creation.

Now, if you know anything about Israeli historiography, you’ll know that this narrow focus mirrored exactly the Israeli narrative of a heroic anti-colonial struggle for self-determination against terrible odds and against, in particular, the callous and anti-Semitic British.  Only recently, with the publication in this country of Tom Segev’s One Palestine, Complete, was it possible to find a comprehensive work by a trade publisher that you could actually find in a bookstore that shattered this myth and showed how the successes of Zionism depended entirely on British support at least for a couple of decades.  In virtually all writings and media coverage before 1967, the Arabs were portrayed extremely negatively, with dark hints that they were driven by deep anti-Semitism, and indeed were Nazi sympathizers, if not worse.  There is a rich trove of literature in this vein that is being produced to this very day.  You can go online or you can go on Amazon[.com] or you can go to your local bookshop and find a bunch of fairly recent works which recycle these ideas.  The word “Palestinian” was a dirty word.  You couldn’t use it for several decades in polite company.  The Palestinians, if they were mentioned at all, were described as murderous and irrational enemies of the Jews and as having left their homeland in 1948 at their leaders’ behest, the better to enable the superior invading Arab armies to wipe out the fledgling Jewish state.  These myths were central to the Zionist narrative, and they were hammered home relentlessly via every possible medium.  This was done so effectively that these core Zionist myths came to be nearly universally believed in this country.

By contrast, the general picture of Israelis in the American public sphere was highly positive: glossy coffee table books and more serious books carried photos of handsome young men and buxom young women in shorts, busy making the desert bloom.  There were no ugly people in Israel for the first two decades if you believe the films and the books that you saw.  There were no dark people in Israel either.  They were all very light complexion.  Much was made of the achievements of the new Israeli state in integrating immigrants, building a strong economy, and in fashioning democratic state institutions.  By contrast, little attention was paid to the continued sustained support that Israel received from the great powers throughout its existence, or to the colonial nature of Zionism as it related to the Arab majority of Palestine before 1948.  Even less attention was paid after 1948 to what had happened to the Palestinians who had been forced to flee in that year, or to those who were left behind in Israel; Arab citizens of the Israeli state living under military rule under a comprehensive system of surveillance and control until 1966.

The iconic work of the first decades after 1948 was not a scholarly one.  It was rather a thoroughly mediocre but incredibly influential novel by a man named Leon Uris entitled Exodus: A Novel of Israel, whose sales equaled those of the highest selling novel in American history, up to that point, Gone With The Wind.  Together with the Academy Award winning 1960 motion picture of the same name with the handsome young Paul Newman, this book probably did more to disseminate these and other fanciful and a-historical myths than did all English-language publications up to that point combined and I would argue all English-language publications perhaps up to this point.  Now, I think it’s worth noting that this book was not the unaided fruit of the loins as it were, the intellectual loins of Leon Uris.  He wrote it, of course, but the book was commissioned by a renowned public relations professional, a man who was in fact considered by many to be the founder of public relations in the United States, a fellow by the name of Edward Gottlieb, who desired to improve Israel’s image, and who chose Uris to write the novel after his successful first novel on World War II, and who secured the funding which paid for Uris’ research and trip to Israel.  Given that many of the basic ideas about Palestine and Israel held by generations of Americans find their origin either in this trite novel or the equally clichéd movie, Gottlieb’s inspiration to send Leon Uris to Israel may have constituted one of the greatest advertising triumphs of the twentieth century.  The man deserves his place in the public relations pantheon.

Needless to say, on every crucial point, the account purveyed in the mainstream media, in Exodus, and in academic literature was totally at odds with the historical record as a very few lonely Palestinian and western scholars pointed out in articles that were ignored in this country and elsewhere in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Among the main points in dispute was Israel’s responsibility for the expulsion of about three quarters of a million Palestinians, the majority of the country’s Arab population, from most of Palestine, the parts that became the state of Israel, and the true nature of the 1948 war.  A huge edifice of scholarship, pseudo-scholarship, and rank propaganda was devoted to obscuring the realities of the dispossession of the Palestinians and to showing that the Arabs, supposedly much stronger than the Jews in Palestine, had both the intention and the capability to strangle the infant Israeli state at birth.  Much of what has appeared since then in the American public sphere repeats these unfounded assertions, which again precisely mirror the founding myths of the Israeli state.  It was not until nearly four decades after 1948 that the counter-narrative by a few people put forth in the early 1950s and 1960s was thoroughly substantiated by research by the so-called Israeli ‘new historians’ based on newly released documents from the Israel state archives.  Nothing in this litany of myth and distortion was true.

In the interim, and well before 1967, much had been done to cement the mythology popularized by Exodus in the American public mind.  During the 1960s, moreover, there were important changes in the self-image of the American Jewish community and in American attitudes towards Israel.  As the distinguished historian Peter Novick, who was my colleague at [the University of] Chicago, showed in his brilliant work, The Holocaust in American Life, several factors increased the attachment to Israel of the American Jewish community during this period before 1967.  One of them was the heightened prominence given to the Holocaust, which came to be seen as a central feature, and is today a central feature, in American Jewish identity.  Additionally, the 1967 war had a galvanizing effect on American Jewish attachment to Israel.  It connected a whole generation that was coming of age at that time with Israel in a way that was different from what had come before.  In part, this was a function of a new myth which connected with increased awareness of the Holocaust.  This myth was that, on the eve of the June war, Israel was faced with the possibility of another Holocaust at the hands of the massed Arab armies.  Among generations of Americans who reached maturity from that time, like myself, until now, this myth has achieved a near sacrosanct status.  Most people believe this is true.  This is the case although all serious scholarship has shown that, notwithstanding the very grave fears that both the Israeli public and the American Jewish community had, American and Israeli military and intelligence analysts — military and civilian — unanimously concurred that Israel would crush the Arab armies, whether or not Israel attacked first.  There was no analyst who disagreed with that at the time.  We now know, because the historical record is available, and that is an established fact.  These myths and the fears around them were brilliantly and ceaselessly exploited from then onwards in order to cement sympathy for Israel.

The growing emphasis on the Holocaust and the increased identification with Israel have grown into what have now been institutionalized as central pillars of American Jewish identity in ways that were not true previously.  Talk to very old people among you and ask them what was New York like in the 1940s.  Not many people remember.  I was born in 1948 so I certainly don’t remember, but I remember my parents telling me.  There were a lot of anti-Zionists.  The New York Times was run by people who were anti-Zionist.  You could go on and on and on and see a range of opinion in the American Jewish community, which ceased to be there by the 1960s and 1970s.  American Jewish identity has become much more focused on Israel than it ever was before, at a time when overt discrimination in the United States against Jews was declining.  In the 1960s, there were racial covenants in this city which prevented Jews from buying homes.  Now, young people don’t believe the truth of this, but anyone older than 50 or 60 knows that it’s true.  These things are gone.  They have disappeared.  And as a result of this, and many other things, there was a much greater degree of communal self-confidence and assertiveness in this community.  These shifts in the views of several generations of American Jews who came to maturity before and after 1967 were mirrored by an important transformation in how American public opinion, or at least segments of it, came to view Israel.  And this is what I want to talk about now.

These were changes that were the result of the fact that our government, the U.S. government, was increasingly coming to see Israel, for the first time, as an ally.  It was seeing it for the first time as a proxy in the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union and its Arab clients in the region.  This was not always the case.  We think it was but it wasn’t.  The United States and the Soviet Union were on the same side in 1947-1948; they both supported the establishment of Israel.  They were on the same side in 1956; they both opposed the tripartite aggression against Egypt.  There was no Cold War alignment on one side or the other on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Israel had not been considered to be a strategic asset to the United States, by most American policy-makers, from 1947 right up through the mid-1960s.  But by 1967, the United States had become completely aligned with Israel against the Arab states, most of which were supported by the USSR, in a configuration that continued until the end of the Cold War.  Israel has been considered a strategic asset ever since — but, I’m trying to stress, never was before that — even though there may be some questioning of Israel’s strategic value in some policy-making circles in this town today.

Now, this was a shift, this Cold War alignment with Israel, that was a long time in coming, and there are a number of points that you could choose that were tipping points: President [John F.] Kennedy’s delivery of the first-ever U.S. military equipment directly to Israel in the early 1960s; President Lyndon Johnson’s increasing alienation from Egypt, beginning not with the Arab-Israeli conflict but beginning with the Yemen war, with American opposition to Egyptian involvement in the civil war in Yemen starting in 1962; and finally President Johnson’s deep and abiding sympathy for Israel.  This was derived partly from Johnson’s long-standing, close, and in some cases intimate friendships with many major donors to the Democratic Party who were fervently pro-Israel.

The impact of the Vietnam War was also a big factor in causing policy-makers to see the Middle East in Cold War terms much starker than had been the case before.  And the June war itself played a role in this closer alignment with Israel.  This resounding Israeli victory showed American policy-makers who were deeply shaken at this time by Vietnam — Johnson was about to resign a year later because of Vietnam, this was before the Tet Offensive, but things were already going badly — it showed him and the people around him that Israel could serve American interests in opposing the Soviet Union.  The defeat of the Soviet-supplied Arab armies provided a welcome triumph for the free world at a time when news from the Southeast Asian battlefields was bad.

In the wake of this, American public opinion tended to follow the policy-makers in looking at the Middle East.  In general, there was a further demonization of the Arabs, and especially of the Palestinians and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization].  The dominant narrative emphasized their alignment with the Soviet Union in the Cold War and their terrorist proclivities.  These tropes have persisted in the rhetoric of our government and especially in the rhetoric of our Congress ever since and in fact are embedded in much of the media to this day.  This continued to the end of the Cold War.  After that the definition of terrorism was slightly modified to reflect the end of the evil empire, but the focus on Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim terrorism has remained a constant until the present day.

Now, this was the situation until the end of the Cold War and a little afterwards, I would say.  In recent decades, I would argue, there have been some positive changes in the way the Palestine question has been perceived.  The growth of the Palestinian national liberation movement in the 1960s, or the rebirth of this movement in the 1960s, had an impact on a number of people.  Although this movement was tarred by its opponents with the brush of terrorism, the human face of the Palestinians, which had previously been almost totally obscured, could be discerned for the first time in the American media starting in the 1970s and 1980s.  Events in the Middle East, in my view, played a crucial role in this evolution.  Notable among them was the ten-week Israeli siege and bombardment of Beirut in 1982 which killed 17,000 people, most of them civilians, and which shocked even Israel’s staunch supporter Ronald Reagan.  Even more shocking to them were the Sabra and Shatila massacres.  All of this, of course, was heavily covered by the U.S. media.  I would argue that the 1982 role was a seminal event and played a crucial role in changing American views of who was David and who was Goliath in the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians.  The next stage in this evolution was the first Palestinian intifada, which started in December 1987, and which strongly reinforced, because of the way in which it was covered, partly, this new sense in American public opinion of the Palestinians, rather than the Israelis, as underdogs.  And if you look at the Israeli media, if you look at the way in which the pro-Israel advocacy establishment in this country reacted to these events, you could sense an enormous frustration on their part.  Stuff that they had been able to get away with for decades suddenly wasn’t flying.  And a different narrative was being purveyed by the very same journalists who just more or less repeated whatever they wanted them to say out of Beirut or elsewhere or out of West Bank villages where Israeli soldiers were beating up Palestinian kids.  The Madrid-Oslo peace process, abortive though it was in my view, which saw the PLO engaged in negotiations with Israel, furthered this process of humanizing the previously despised Palestinians.  I would argue that a lot of this progress was undone by the impact of the second intifada, beginning in 2000, especially by the suicide bombings that began a couple years later against Israeli civilian targets.  These events shocked Americans, who were deeply affected in the wake of 9/11/2001 by attacks on this city and in New York, and I think the suicide bombings inside Israel reestablished the perception of Palestinians as irrationally violent and hate-filled, and of the Israelis as innocent victims and nothing else.

Nevertheless, I would argue that in spite of these ups and downs, the space had already been opened up for more nuanced and balanced views of the conflict, and of Palestinian and Israeli topics, generally.  The very term Palestine, which was once considered taboo by mainstream publishers — such was the success of relentless Zionist efforts to replace Palestine with Israel — the use of this term was now more acceptable and less controversial than had been the case previously.  The result of this broad shift was the publication, really for the first time, of works in the mainstream trade press of books that enabled Americans for the first time to have access to versions of Middle East realities which reflected a variety of contrasting perspectives, not just the same old pro-Israeli slant.  I would argue that an important role in this process, certainly in academia but also outside, was played by the publication of Israel’s new historians and also by the writing of a whole slew of iconoclastic Israeli scholars: Ami Ayalon, Baruch Kimmerling, Menachem Klein, Shaul Mishal, Avraham Sela, Gabriel Piterberg, the late Tanya Reinhart, Shlomo Sand, Gershon Shafir, Zeev Sternhell, Idith Zertal, [and] Yael Zerubavel.  I could actually go on for a half an hour with the names of Israeli scholars published in English, easily accessible, whose writings showed that the one-dimensional perspective offered by the Israeli state and its American apologists was much more impoverished than the broad range of views available within Israeli society itself.  These were, in many cases, the most respected figures in Israeli academic life.

Now, many other books published on aspects of the Palestine question recently have broadened the range of what is available.  There has been an increased willingness on the part of trade publishers in particular, whose main concern is understandably sales and profit and who shy away from certain kinds of acrid controversy, to consider publishing works that would have previously been considered too provocative to sell well.  A reticence on this score, plus the blatant biases in favor of Israel of many in the publishing industry, were always adduced as the reason that mainstream publishers would not touch works that presented another version of reality than that emanating from a pro-Israel perspective.  However, recently Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, and John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt’s book on the Israeli lobby[The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy], have been major publishing successes.  They showed, as have a few other books, that it is possible to publish profitably works critical of the received pro-Israeli version of events.

To this must be added the changing situation on U.S. campuses where the situation of Palestine is concerned.  Now, I went to university in this country.  I was an undergraduate in this country and I remember how difficult it was to say anything on campus in those days where I went to school and other places.  My brother was at Columbia, I was at Yale, I visited other campuses; it was very hard in those days.  And it wasn’t much easier in the 1980s when I came back from Lebanon.  But things are beginning to change, especially in the past decade.  This was already clear to key figures in the Israel advocacy establishment as early as 2002, when the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published a remarkable article entitled “Jewish Groups Coordinate Efforts to Help Students ‘Take Back Campus’.”  Now think about this headline in 2002.  This article, and a slew of other articles at the time, indicated that these groups already felt in 2002 that U.S. campuses had been lost to them and had been won over to Palestinian advocacy.  And there was reason for them to feel this way, maybe not to the same extreme degree that they were suggesting in this alarmist article, but something was changing.  A growing disenchantment among liberal young American Jews, especially college students, was, if you noticed it, the main burden of a remarkable article by Peter Beinart in the June 10, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books.  And you can go into this and he produces actually some really interesting data, produced by Fred Luntz — you know who Fred Luntz is, this is Washington — for exactly the same people who are described in this article.  Because they were afraid that they were losing the campus, in their terms, they commissioned Luntz.  What’s going on among young American Jews?  And the results are an extraordinary set of data, which are the basis of at least one element in the Beinart article.  Now, I think the stress on the decline of support for Israel in the American Jewish community more broadly and on campus in particular may be a little exaggerated.  But I do think something appears to be changing when you compare things to the way they were a few decades ago in the 1960s or in the 1980s, when, I can tell you, they were quite different.  Many factors are at work here.  I can’t go into this in any length, the Journal of Palestine Studies, which I edit, is about to publish an article which goes into some of the ways in which new media have an impact on this.  It will probably be in this coming issue or the issue after that.  But I suggest you all look it up when it’s published.  Many factors are at work here, notably the access of alternative information and views via the Internet, which enables young people, all of whom seem to be extremely technically savvy, to compile their own view of the world.  In doing this, they often rely on sources closer to events than the mainstream media: blogs, YouTube, and newspapers and satellite TV stations in the Middle East publishing in English or in other languages, and all kinds of sources of information, which we simply didn’t have in the 1960s, the 1970s, or the 1980s.

In the face of this changing landscape, the Israel advocacy establishment has mounted a number of initiatives all over the landscape, but especially on U.S. campuses.  These have included redoubling efforts to positively brand Israel for public opinion generally but especially for college students.  They have included extraordinarily expensive programs to send even more young people to Israel on what I call magical mystery propaganda tours — call them what you want, hasbara tours, whatever.   They include the establishment of scores of Israel studies programs and chairs on U.S. campuses.  At the same time, there has been an increase in attempts to exert external pressure on American universities; this involves the mobilization of the media, the mobilization of politicians, the mobilization of off-campus organizations, and sometimes the mobilization of a few out-spoken alumni.  At many universities, these pressures have thus far been successfully resisted.  But at other universities, administrators have caved in when confronted with the attack-dog methods of their critics.  The record shows that administrators will often not stand up to such powerful outside forces on their own, and will only feel obliged to do so if faculty and students insist on academic freedom, insist on faculty responsibility for curriculum and for the promotion and tenure processes, and insist on the insulation of the university from insidious external influences especially from politicians, the media, and outside groups.

Now, let me conclude.  I began by suggesting that the realm of ideas was a major battlefield for those who were seeking to establish the Zionist project in Palestine at the expense of its indigenous inhabitants.  And I went on to suggest that success in this endeavor was crucial to the success of the project.  I don’t know whether as a result of the new diversity of opinion that I think is out there in academia, in the media, and in the public space but not in the political realm at all . . . it’s too early to tell whether there will be a rapid lessening of the intellectual and with it the political hegemony of a particular Zionist perspective which has been sustained for most of the twentieth century.  Certainly, the growing availability of new interpretations that were once unavailable, of new narratives, of alternative ways of seeing things, means that Americans can begin to make up their own minds.  Something that wasn’t possible when they were restricted to one tendentious, stridently pro-Israel interpretation of facts, as was the case in the recent past.

I think there is reason for deep short-term pessimism about the outcome of the political process that determines American Middle East policy, which is why I haven’t talked about it.  There is reason for deep short-term pessimism about the situation in Palestine and the situation in Israel.  Both are endlessly depressing.  But there are signs, I think, of encouraging positive longer-term trends in the public sphere in this country.  This is not a situation that will change rapidly, however.  It took generations and a lot of hard work to establish the myths Israel was built on; and it will take years and a lot of hard work to deconstruct them and for the generations that are not going to change their minds in many cases to lose their influence.  This is a matter partly of time and partly of hard work.

I think it will be a long time before the political situation certainly will change such that we can expect an end to Israeli impunity.  Israel will continue to be protected in pretty much anything it chooses to do by our Congress and by our government.  But I think the handwriting may be on the wall.  I think that the system of domination and control through the calculated dosed use of violence and overwhelming power that has obtained in the Occupied Territories for over 43 years, a system based entirely on violence that has maintained the dispossession of the Palestinian people for 62 years, cannot be hidden forever.  Maybe it can’t be stopped, but it can’t be concealed, is my point.  The brilliantly conceived discursive artifice, a citadel of lies, that has concealed this system of power and control for so long is actually beginning to crumble.  Given the acknowledgment, not by people at the Palestine Center or isolated American academics, given the acknowledgment by Israeli leaders such as former Prime Ministers [Ehud] Barak and [Ehud] Olmert that continuation of the status quo, continuation of the occupation, continuation of settlements — which is happening and will continue to happen, I would argue for the foreseeable future — will inevitably lead to apartheid and worse, the day is clearly coming when this status quo will pass.  Maybe a long time for that day to come but it is coming.  It is up to Israelis and Palestinians in the first instance to dismantle this iniquitous system, this unjust system, this unsustainable system and to put in place one that is more just.  But, the last thing I want to say is while it is essentially up to them there, it is also up to us here.  Americans bear a very, very, very heavy responsibility in this matter.  We are the 900 pound gorilla on the Middle Eastern stage.  The United States has upheld this entire discriminatory, unjust structure ever since 1948, ever since the partition resolution of 1947.  Clearly, a beginning in new direction at least in the public sphere in this country has begun.  I would strongly argue that true peace with justice in Palestine for both peoples that live there depends on the continuation of this process in this country.  Thank you very much.

Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University.  Video by the Palestine Center.  The text above is an edited transcript of the lecture.

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