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You can’t get there from here: the need for ‘collapse with agency’ in Palestine
Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions
18 February 2012
Even as I write this, the bulldozers have been busy throughout that one indivisible country known by the bifurcated term Israel/Palestine. Palestinian homes, community centers, livestock pens and other “structures” (as the Israel authorities dispassionately call them) have been demolished in the Old City, Silwan and various parts of “Area C” in the West Bank, as well among the Bedouin – Israeli citizens – in the Negev/Nakab. This is merely mopping up, herding the last of the Arabs into their prison cells where, forever, they will cease to be heard or heard from, a non-issue in Israel and, eventually, in the wider world distracted from bigger, more pressing matters.
An as-yet confidential report submitted by the European consuls in Jerusalem and Ramallah raises urgent concerns over the “forced expulsion” of Palestinians – a particularly strong term for European diplomats to use –from Area C of the West Bank (the 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli control but which today contains less than 5% of the Palestinian population). Focusing particularly on the rise in house demolitions by the Israeli authorities and the growing economic distress of the Palestinians living in Area C, the report mentions the fertile and strategic Jordan Valley (where the Palestinian population has declined from 250,000 to 50,000 since the start of the Occupation), plans to relocate 3000 Jahalin Bedouins to a barren hilltop above the Jerusalem garbage dump and the ongoing but accelerated demolition of Palestinian homes (500 in 2011).
At the same time the “judaization” of Jerusalem continues apace, a “greater” Israeli Jerusalem steadily isolating the Palestinian parts of the city from the rest of Palestinian society while ghettoizing their inhabitants, more than 100,000 of which now live beyond the Wall. Some 120 homes were demolished in East Jerusalem in 2011; over the same period the Israeli government announced the construction of close to 7000 housing units for Jews in East and “Greater” Jerusalem. “If current trends are not stopped and reversed,” said a previous EU report, “the establishment of a viable Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders seems more remote than ever. The window for a two-state solution is rapidly closing….”
In fact, it closed long ago. In terms of settlers and Palestinians, the Israeli government treats the whole country as one. Last year it demolished three times more homes of Israeli citizens (Arabs, of course) than it did in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The demolition of Bedouin homes in the Negev/Nakab is part of a plan approved by the government to remove 30,000 citizens from their homes and confine them to townships.
None of this concerns “typical” Israelis even if they have heard of it (little appears in the news). For them, the Israeli-Arab conflict was won and forgotten years ago, somewhere around 2004 when Bush informed Sharon that the US does not expect Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders, thus effectively ending the “two-state solution,” and Arafat “mysteriously” died.
Since then, despite occasional protests from Europe, the “situation” has been normalized. Israelis enjoy peace and quiet, personal security and a booming economy (with the usual neoliberal problems of fair allocation). The unshakable, bi-partisan support of the American government and Congress effectively shields it from any kind of international sanctions. Above all, Israeli Jews have faith that those pesky Arabs living somewhere “over there” beyond the Walls and barbed-wire barriers have been pacified and brought under control by the IDF. A recent poll found that “security,” the term Israelis use instead of “occupation” or “peace,” was ranked eleventh among the concerns of the Israeli public, trailing well behind employment, crime, corruption, religious-secular differences, housing and other more pressing issues.
As for the international community, the “Quartet” representing the US, the EU, Russia and the UN in the non-existent “peace process” has gone completely silent. (Israel refused to table its position on borders and other key negotiating issues by the January 26th “deadline” laid down by the Quartet, and no new meetings are scheduled). The US has abandoned any pretense of an “honest broker.” Months ago, when the US entered its interminable election “season,” Israel received a green light from both the Democrats and Republicans to do whatever it sees fit in the Occupied Territory. Last May the Republicans invited Netanyahu to address Congress and send a clear message to Obama: hands off Israel. That same week, Obama, not to be out-done, addressed an AIPAC convention and reaffirmed Bush’s promise that Israel will not have to return to the 1967 borders or relinquish its major settlement blocs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. He also took the occasion to promise an American veto should the Palestinians request membership in the UN – though that would merely amount to an official acceptance of the two-state treaty that the US claims it has been fostering all these years. No, as far as Israel and Israeli Jews are concerned, the conflict and even the need for pretense is over. The only thing remaining is to divert attention to more “urgent” global matters so that the Palestinian issue completely disappears. Voila Iran.
Oh, but what about the “demographic threat,” that “war of the womb” that will eventually force a solution? Well, as long as Israel has the Palestinian Authority to self-segregate its people, it has nothing to worry about. While the Palestinian Authority plays the “two-state solution” game, Israel can simply herd the Palestinians into the 70 tiny islands of Areas A and B, lock the gates and let the international community feed them – and go about placidly building a Greater Land of Israel with American and European complicity. Indeed, nothing demonstrates self-segregation more than Prime Minister Salem Fayyad’s neoliberal scheme of building a Palestinian …something… “from the ground up.” By building for the well-to-do in new private-sector cities like Rawabi, located safely in Area A, by building new highways (with Japanese and USAID assistance) that respect Israeli “Greater” Jerusalem and channel Palestinian traffic from Ramallah to Bethlehem through far-away Jericho, by expressing a willingness to accept Israeli territorial expansion in exchange for the ability to “do business,” Fayyad has invented yet a new form of neoliberal oppression-by-consent: viable apartheid (viable, at least, for the Palestinian business class). And as in the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa, the Palestinian Authority maintains a repressive internal order through its own American-trained/Israeli-approved militia, a second layer of occupation. (During the 2008 assault on Gaza, one of the few places in the world in which there were no demonstrations was the West Bank, where they were forbidden by the Palestinian Authority. Then-Prime Minister Olmert crowed that this was evidence of how effectively the Palestinians had been pacified.)
Indeed, by clinging to the two-state solution and continuing to participate in “negotiations” years after they have proven themselves a trap, the Palestinian leadership plays a central role in its own people’s warehousing. The reality – even the fact – of occupation gets buried under the diversions set up by the fraudulent yet unending “peace process.” This only enables Israel to imprison the Palestinians in tiny cells; witness today’s mini-ethnic cleansing, just one of thousands of micro-events that have the cumulative effect of displacement, expulsion, segregation and incarceration. It also enables Israel to then blame the victims for causing their own oppression! When a Palestinian leadership assumes the prerogative to negotiate a political resolution yet lacks any genuine authority or leverage to do so, and when, in addition, it fails to abandon negotiations even after they have been exposed as a trap, it comes dangerously close to being collaborationist. For its part, Israel is off the hook. Instead of going through the motions of establishing an apartheid regime, it simply exploits the willingness of the Palestinian Authority to perpetuate the illusion of negotiations as a smokescreen covering its virtual imprisonment of the Palestinian “inmates.” Once the current mopping up operations are completed, the process of incarceration will be complete.
Today the only alternative agency to the Palestinian Authority is segments of the international civil society. The Arab and Muslims peoples for whom Palestinian liberation is an integral part of the Arab Spring, stand alongside thousands of political and human rights groups, critical activists, churches, trade unions and intellectuals throughout the world. Crucial as it is for keeping the issue alive and building grassroots support for the Palestinian cause that will steadily “trickle up” and affect governments’ policies, however, civil society advocacy is a stop-gap form of agency, ultimately unable to achieve a just peace by itself. We, too, are trapped in the dead-end personified by the two-state solution, reference to a “peace process” and their attendant “negotiations.” There is no way forward in the current paradigm. We must break out into a world of new possibilities foreclosed by the present options: a “two-state” apartheid regime or warehousing.
In my view, while advocacy and grassroots mobilization remain relevant, several tasks stand before us. First, we must endeavour to hasten the collapse of the present situation and subsequently, when new paradigms of genuine justice emerge from the chaos, be primed to push forward an entirely different solution that is currently impossible or inconceivable, be that a single democratic state over the entire country, a bi-national state, a regional confederation or some other alternative yet to be formulated. The Palestinians themselves must create a genuine, inclusive agency of their own that, following the collapse, can effectively seize the moment. Formulating a clear program and strategy, they will then be equipped to lead their people to liberation and a just peace, with the support of activists and others the world over.
A necessary and urgent first step towards collapsing the otherwise permanent regime of oppression in Israel/Palestine is that we stop talking about a two-state solution. It’s dead and gone as a political option – if, indeed, it ever really existed. It should be banned from the discourse because reference to an irrelevant “solution” only serves to confuse the discussion. Granted, this will be hard for liberals to do; everyone else, however, has given up on it. Most Palestinians, having once supported it, now realize that Israel will simply not withdraw to a point where a truly viable and sovereign state can emerge. The Israeli government, backed by the Bush-Obama policies on the settlement blocs, doesn’t even make pretence of pursuing it anymore, and the Israeli public is fine with the status quo. Nor does the permanent warehousing of the Palestinians seem to faze the American or European governments, or the Arab League. Even AIPAC has moved on to the “Iranian threat.”
Behind the insistence of the liberal Zionists of J Street, Peace Now, the Peace NGOs Forum run out of the Peres Center for Peace and others to hang on to a two-state solution at any cost is a not-so-hidden agenda. They seek to preserve Israel as a Jewish state even at the cost of enforcing institutional discrimination against Israel’s own Palestinian citizens. The real meaning of a “Jewish democracy” is living with apartheid and warehousing while protesting them. No, the liberals will be the hardest to wean away from the two-state snare. Yet if they don’t abandon it, they run the risk of promoting de facto their own worst nightmare of warehousing while providing the fig-leaf of legitimacy to cover the policies of Israel’s extreme right – all in the name of “peace.” This is what happens when one’s ideology places restrictions on one’s ability to perceive evil or to draw necessary if difficult conclusions. When wishful thinking becomes policy, it not only destroys your effectiveness as a political actor but leads you into positions, policies and alliances that, in the end, are inimical to your own goals and values. Jettisoning all talk of a “two-state solution” removes the major obstacle to clear analysis and the ability to move forward.
The obfuscation created by the “two-state solution” now out of the way, what emerges as clear as day is naked occupation, an apartheid regime extending across all of historic Palestine/Israel and the spectre of warehousing. Since none of these forms of oppression can ever be legitimized or transformed into something just, the task before us becomes clear: to cause their collapse by any means necessary. There are many ways to do this, just as the ANC did. Already Palestinian, Israel and international activists engage in internal resistance, together with international challenges to occupation represented by the Gaza flotillas and attempts to “crash” Israeli borders. Many civil society actors the world over have mobilized, some around campaigns such as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), others around direct actions, still others engaged in lobbying the UN and governments through such instruments as the Human Rights Council, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and international courts. There have been campaigns to reconvene the Tribunal that, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, has the authority and duty to sanction Israel for its gross violations. Dozens of groups and individuals alike engage in public speaking, mounting Israel Apartheid Weeks on university campuses and working through the media. And much more.
And here is where Palestinian civil society plays a crucial role, a role that cannot be played by non-Palestinians. If it is agreed that the Palestinian Authority must go if we are to get beyond the two-state trap – indeed, the dismantling of the PA being a major part of the collapse of the present system – then this call must originate from within the Palestinian community. Non-Palestinians must join in, of course, but the issue of who represents the Palestinians is their call exclusively. Non-Palestinians can also suggest various end-games. I’ve written, for example, about a Middle East economic confederation, believing that a regional approach is necessary to address the core issues. The Palestinian organization PASSIA published a collection of twelve possible outcomes. It is obvious, though, that it is the sole prerogative of the Palestinian people to decide what solution, or range of solutions, is acceptable. For this, and to organize effectively so as to bring about a desired outcome, the Palestinians need a new truly representative agency, one that replaces the PA and gives leadership and direction to broad-based civil society agency, one that has the authority to negotiate a settlement and actually move on to the implementation of a just peace.
As of now, it appears there is only one agency that possesses that legitimacy and mandate: the Palestinian National Council of the PLO (although Hamas and the other Islamic parties are not (yet) part of the PLO). Reconstituting the PNC through new elections would seem the most urgent item on the Palestinian agenda today – without which, in the absence of effective agency, we are all stuck in rearguard protest actions and Israel prevails. Our current situation, caught in the limbo between seeking the collapse of the oppressive system we have, and having a Palestinian agency that can effectively lead us towards a just resolution, is one of the most perilous we’ve faced. One person’s limbo is another person’s window of opportunity. Say what you will about Israel, it knows how to hustle and exploit even the smallest of opportunities to nail down its control permanently.
“Collapse with agency,” I suggest, could be a title of our refocused efforts to weather the limbo in the political process. Until a reinvigorated PNC or other representative agency can be constituted, a daunting but truly urgent task, Palestinian civil society might coalesce enough to create a kind of interim leadership bureau. This itself might be a daunting task. Most Palestinian leaders have either been killed by Israel or are languishing in Israeli prisons, while Palestinian civil society has been shattered into tiny disconnected and often antagonistic pieces. At home major divisions have been sown between “’48” and “’67” Palestinians; Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank have been effectively severed; and within the West Bank restrictions on movement among a bewildering array of “areas” – A, B, C, C-Restricted, H-1, H-2, nature reserves, closed military areas – have resulted in virtual, largely disconnected Palestinian mini-societies. Political divisions, especially among secular/traditional and Islamic factions, have been nurtured, not least by Israel. Overall, the Palestinian population, exhausted by years of sacrifice and resistance, impoverished and preoccupied with mere survival, has been left largely rudderless as many of its most educated and skilled potential leaders have left or are forbidden by Israel to return.
For its part, the Palestinian leadership has done little to bridge the wider divisions amongst those falling under PA rule, Palestinian citizens of Israel, residents of the refugee camps and the world-wide Diaspora, divisions that have grown even wider since the PLO and the PNC fell moribund. Indeed, major portions of the Palestinian Diaspora (and one may single out especially but not exclusively the large and prosperous communities of Latin America), have disconnected from the national struggle completely. The Palestinian possess some extremely articulate spokespeople and activists, but they tend to be either a collection of individual voices only tenuously tied to grassroots organizations, or grassroots resistance groups such as the Popular Committees that enjoy little political backing or strategic direction.
Ever aware that the struggle for liberation must be led by Palestinians, our collective task at the moment, in my view, is to bring about the collapse of the present situation in Palestine in order to exploit its fundamental unsustainably. The elimination of the Palestinian Authority is one way to precipitate that collapse. It would likely require Israel to physically reoccupy the Palestinian cities and probably Gaza as well (as if they have ever been de-occupied), bringing the reality of raw occupation back to the centre of attention. Such a development would likely inflame Arab and Muslim public opinion, not to mention that of much of the rest of the world, and would create an untenable situation, forcing the hand of the international community. Israel would be put in an indefensible position, thus paving the way for new post-collapse possibilities – this time with an effective and representative Palestinian agency in place and a global movement primed to follow its lead.
But given the underlying unsustainability of the Occupation and the repressive system existing throughout historic Palestine – the massive violations of human rights and international law, the disruptive role the conflict plays in the international system and its overt brutality – collapse could come from a variety of places, some of them unsuspected and unrelated to Israel/Palestine. An attack on Iran could reshuffle the cards in the Middle East, and the Arab Spring is still a work in progress. Major disruptions in the flow of oil to the West due an attack on Iran, internal changes in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, instability in Russia and even the fact that China has no oil of its own could cause major financial crises worldwide. Sino-American tensions, environmental disasters or Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the Taliban with unpredictable Indian reactions may all play an indirect yet forceful role. Who knows? Ron Paul, President Gingrich’s newly appointed Secretary of State, might end all military, economic and political support for Israel, in which case the Occupation (and more) would fall within a month.
Whatever the cause of the collapse – and we must play an active role in bring it about – it is incumbent upon us to be ready, mobilized and organized if we are to seize that historic moment, which might be coming sooner than we expect. Effective and broadly representative Palestinian agency will be critical. Collapse with agency is the only way to get “there” from “here.”
Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House
AFP LINK: http://www.australiansforpalestine.net/58869#more-58869
Original Link: http://www.icahd.org/?p=8171
Some Jewish Zionist friends of mine still believe that the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict lies in a Two-State solution. The other day I came across the following interview with Norman Finkelstein and John Mearsheimer. I have posted the entire text of the interview and though the post is a bit longer than usual, it really is worth the read.
It was originally posted on October 25th at http://www.theamericanconservative.com/blog/greater-israel-or-peace/
Scott McConnell of The American Conservative recently interviewed Norman Finkelstein and John Mearsheimer about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Scott McConnell: Have we come to the end of the Oslo process? Is a two‑state solution still a viable possibility?
Norman Finkelstein: The problem is the definition of terms. The Oslo process, contrary to what’s widely understood, was largely a success. It’s true now that it may be at an impasse, but as it was originally conceived, it was largely a success. The Israeli leadership was very clear about what it intended from the Oslo process.
Mainly, Rabin said—the former prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin—that if we can get the Palestinians to do the dirty work in the Occupied Territories, there’s going to be less pressure from human rights organizations. They wouldn’t cause as many problems if the Palestinians were doing the policing. And there was a military reason: namely, a large number of Israeli troops were bogged down in the Occupied Territories. That meant time taken away from military training.
The quid pro quo was, well, in 1990‑91 the PLO made what seemed to have been a tactical or strategic error by supporting Saddam Hussein, and they lost all of their funding from the Gulf States. And basically the United States and Israel threw them a life preserver, saying, “If you switch sides, you do what we want you to do, we’ll keep you alive.” That was the choice that the Palestinians made, or the Palestinian leadership made. But then a new problem arose, and that’s Hamas began to rise in power.
John Mearsheimer: The Israelis—and this was especially true of Rabin when the Oslo peace process got started—had no interest in giving the Palestinians a viable state. What they wanted was to restrict the Palestinians to a handful of Bantustans that were located inside of Greater Israel, and it could be called a Palestinian state. In a very important way, Oslo has been successful in that it has allowed the Israelis, working with the Palestinian Authority, to create a situation where the Palestinians have some autonomy in these Bantustans.
McConnell: You say this about Rabin too? He’s considered the most peace-oriented Israeli.
Finkelstein: He was the most rigid. Even Rabin’s wife, afterwards, during the Camp David negotiations, said that her husband would never have agreed to the concessions that [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak made. Now remember, Barak barely made any concessions. But she said her husband would have never agreed to that. I think she’s probably right. In Rabin’s last speech to the Knesset before he was assassinated, he said, “I don’t support a Palestinian state.” He said, “Something less than it.”
Mearsheimer: It’s also important to understand the American position since the Oslo process began has reflected very clearly the Israeli position. It was considered politically unacceptable in the United States to use the words “Palestinian state” until Bill Clinton’s last month in office.
The first time Bill Clinton uttered the words “Palestinian state” was in January of 2001. If you remember, in 1998 Hillary Clinton, who was then the first lady, said that she thought it would be very good for peace in the region if Palestinians had a state of their own. All hell broke loose. The president had to dissociate himself from his wife because it was so controversial. This was 1998, five years after the Oslo peace accords had been signed.
As unusual as this may sound, or as paradoxical as this may sound, it was actually George W. Bush who was the first president who really put the issue of a Palestinian state on the table. But even he realized that with Ariel Sharon as his counterpart in Israel there was no way he could push in any meaningful manner for the Palestinians to get a viable state of their own. And again, that’s the key to having a deal.
McConnell: Do you think there is a framework for a possible deal in the kind of negotiations that went on late in Barak’s term before Sharon’s election, at the 2001 Taba summit and things like that?
Finkelstein: What you can say with a fair amount of generality is that if you look at the Taba map, and you look at the map that [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert presented in 2006, they look the same. They all call for keeping about 9 percent of the West Bank, and they all call for keeping the large settlement blocs, what’s called Ariel in the north and Maale Adumim in the center. It is impossible to construct a Palestinian state with those maps.
Mearsheimer: Ariel reaches far out into the West Bank and actually sits on top of the largest aquifer in the West Bank, and it was put there for a purpose. Maale Adumim is designed to give Israel control well out into the heart of the West Bank. And the people who built those settlements understood full well that it would be almost impossible for any Israeli political leader to abandon them and turn them over to the Palestinians.
The reason that the Oslo peace process is dead and that you’re not going to get a two‑state solution is that the political center of gravity in Israel has moved far enough to the right over time that it’s, in my opinion, unthinkable that the Israelis would number one, give up the Jordan River valley; number two, abandon Ariel and Maale Adumim; and number three, allow for a capital in East Jerusalem.
So given all those factors, I think that we’re rapidly reaching the point—in fact, I think we’ve reached that point—where we’re going to have a Greater Israel which runs from the Jordan River valley to the Mediterranean.
Finkelstein: I don’t agree with that. There are many reasons to be pessimistic. But there are also some grounds for a reasonable amount of optimism. Things are changing in the region, and things are changing in the world. Like you say, the Israeli political establishment has moved to the right. The Israeli population has moved to the right, it has a siege mentality. But those are political factors.
And then the question is trying to change the calculus of power. Here things are changing. There are changes in American public opinion, which are quite significant when you look at the polls. There are changes in Jewish public opinion. There are major regional changes—what’s happening now between Israel and Turkey that’s part of an Arab Spring.
Mearsheimer: I think there’s no question that the international environment that Israel operates in is changing in profound ways, and developments in Turkey and Egypt are probably the best two examples of that. As a result of all this, Israel has a growing sense that it’s isolated, that it really only has one friend in the world, which is the United States.
Now the $64,000 question is whether that’s likely to lead Israel to be more flexible in the short to medium term, or is it likely to cause them to hunker down and be much less flexible and even more bellicose than they have been. And I would bet that the latter would be the case.
McConnell: What difference does it make that Turkey and Egypt are no longer de facto allies of Israel?
Finkelstein: I think a lot of it is psychological, and not psychological in the sense of Oprah psychological. It’s a whole way of relating to the region. Israel has the sense that this is its region. And it’s very disorienting for them to feel as if they’re losing control in that part of the world, that the natives are getting restless.
Mearsheimer: I put Norman’s point in slightly different terms, that is to say, I think what is at stake for the Israelis here is legitimacy, and I think that for them, and for most countries, legitimacy matters greatly. If you read the Israeli press, you’ll see there are all sorts of concerns about de-legitimization. And if you listen to people in the American Jewish community talk about what’s happening to Israel, they’re deeply concerned about de‑legitimization. What’s happening here with Turkey and with Egypt is that as those countries become more democratized and more critical of Israel, they’re adding fuel to that de‑legitimization fire.
There’s no question that most European governments will support Israel at the UN, and there’s certainly no question that the United States will. But the support in Europe, and even the support in the United States, is not terribly deep. It’s wide, right, but not deep.
Finkelstein: Actually support for Israel is no longer that wide. It used to be fair to say wide but not deep, wide and thin. But now if you look at the polls, it’s actually quite surprising. In Pew polls of the last few years, the negative opinion of Israel is kind of astonishing.
Mearsheimer: It’s right down there with Iran, North Korea…
Finkelstein: Well, it’s always ranked with Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan. They’re the four countries least liked in the world. But even if you take countries which have the strongest Israel lobbies—apart from the U.S., it’s Canada, the U.K., France, Germany, and Australia—look at the polls. Even in places like Canada, the polls show about 15 to 20 percent having a positive view of Israel, 60 or 70 percent having a negative view. Public opinion has really swung. Even in the U.S., by the way.
McConnell: Let’s try to tease this out, I mean, the number of Americans who consider themselves pro‑Israeli as opposed to pro-Palestinian has been kind of constant, like a 60 to 10 ratio, and hasn’t changed very much over a generation.
Finkelstein: Except—if you put it “pro‑Israel versus pro‑Palestinian,” that’s correct—if you look at it in terms of, “Do you have a positive or negative opinion of Israel?” for the first time in the last two or three years it’s come down to 50/50. It has changed.
Mearsheimer: I think that’s very important, but I think there’s an even more important indicator of how weak the support is. And that is that if you ask Americans if the United States should support Israel or the Palestinians in their conflict, roughly 70 percent, sometimes up to 75 percent, say we should favor neither side.
It’s really quite remarkable. We have this special relationship where we favor Israel axiomatically over Palestinians at every critical juncture. But here you have a situation where the American people, three-fourths of them, are saying that the United States should favor neither side. In fact, what the American people want to see is the United States act as a—what’s the word?
McConnell: Neutral arbiter.
Mearsheimer: Yeah, a neutral arbiter rather than as Israel’s lawyer.
When you think about how Americans deal with Israel, there are three dimensions to it. One is how people think about Israel and America’s relationship with Israel. Number two is how they talk about it, and number three is actual U.S. policy. There’s great variation among those three dimensions.
I think that over the past ten years how Americans think about Israel has changed in significant ways. More and more people are aware of what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians. They understand that this is bad for the United States from a strategic point of view, and it’s morally bankrupt behavior.
There has been a significant change in the discourse as well over the past ten years. And that’s largely a result of the Internet. It’s very difficult for pro‑Israel forces to shape the discourse on the Internet the way they exercise great influence with the New York Times or CBS or even NPR.
So the discourse has really changed, especially when you get away from the mainstream media, which is increasingly less important. But what’s depressing is that U.S. policy has hardly changed at all. And the question you have to ask yourself is what does this mean for the long term. In a world where people are thinking very differently from the policy-makers and talking very differently from the policy-makers, how does this play itself out?
McConnell: Norman, you’ve been on this subject a long time, a whole career. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the beginning of your involvement and whether you’ve sensed a change in response to what you say compared to the way it was 20 or 30 years ago, or 10 or 15 years ago?
Finkelstein: I’m sort of second generation. I think the Edward Said, Noam Chomsky generation was first—that was the generation of the ’70s, where it was really virtually impossible to say anything on the topic without being ostracized. I came in right after the Lebanon War of June 1982. And the Lebanon War was Israel’s first public relations disaster in the United States, at least after the ’67 War. They took a big blow back then. It’s forgotten, but it was a PR disaster. Immediately afterwards they tried to recoup from it.
Actually, one of the initiatives they took to recoup was how I got started. I think the Joan Peters book From Time Immemorial was simply a propaganda exercise to try to recoup from the ’82 war.
The next big change occurs with the 1987 Palestinian Intifada, which I think had a very substantial impact, though it was temporary, on public opinion in the United States. I was already teaching by ’88. And I remember in my class—I was at Brooklyn College at the time—a student who was not particularly political, he was what you’d call a typical white ethnic, he was either Irish or Italian, from Bay Ridge or Bensonhurst, he said in class, “Stone vs. Uzi, that doesn’t sound fair.” And that was the image that was being projected then.
The next big turning point probably came with the Second Intifada, which had a very negative impact because of the suicide bombings. But it also had a positive impact because the Israeli repression was so terrible; again, it alienated significant numbers of people.
As for myself, I don’t know if you were familiar with the lingo from back in the ’30s and ’40s, but there were all of these young Americans, many of whom incidentally were Jewish, in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who went to go fight fascism in Spain. And at that point, to fight fascism made you pro‑Communist, because—you know the whole thing. And then they went to fight in World War II again.
So they come back, and a lot of them are called before [Sen. Joseph] McCarthy, the very same people who fought in World War II. And why were they called before McCarthy? Well, they called themselves premature anti‑fascists. They were anti‑fascists before it was politically correct to be anti‑fascists because they were anti‑fascist at the time of Franco, and at that time the Americans supported Franco.
So even though personally my political positions aren’t really radical at all, and even though I don’t particularly like the nomenclature, I say I was a premature anti‑Zionist.
Mearsheimer: Can I ask Norman a quick question…
McConnell: Yeah, sure.
Mearsheimer: …which I think is important to readers and for me and Scott. You say that you’re an anti‑Zionist.
Finkelstein: No, I don’t. I say I don’t like the nomenclature.
Mearsheimer: You said you were an anti‑Zionist before your time.
Finkelstein: I said that just to make the parallel with anti‑fascist.
Mearsheimer: But here’s the question. Do you, Norman Finkelstein, think it’s a good thing there’s a Jewish state?
Finkelstein: No. But I don’t think it’s a good thing to have Christian states, Muslim states, or any kind of ethnic states. There is a difference between saying… remember let’s be clear about what the UN said. The UN said, “We want to create a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine.”
Finkelstein: But then the UN went on to say, and it was very explicit in the recommendation, “There cannot be any discrimination whatsoever in the Jewish state against an Arab minority.” Now, you may ask the reasonable question, “Well, if there can’t be any discrimination whatsoever, what do they mean by a Jewish state?” They never answer that.
But it doesn’t necessarily follow from the idea that you say there should be two states that you believe it should be a Jewish state or that you’re a Zionist. There’s no connection between the two.
Mearsheimer: I was just interested in what your preferences were.
Finkelstein: I think one of the problems when we discuss the Israel‑Palestine conflict is people talk too much in terms of “What’s your preference?”, like politics is a Chinese menu—I’ll take one from column A and two from column B. That’s not what politics is about.
Politics is about what is realistically possible in terms of your long‑term values, your philosophical perspective. What is really possible now in my opinion are two states, basically what people call the international consensus. It doesn’t mean it’s my philosophical preference. If you asked me, I’d say I would like to see a world without states.
McConnell: When does a two-state solution become not realistically possible?
Mearsheimer: The reason that people continue to talk about a two‑state solution even though I think it’s no longer realizable is that many Palestinians don’t see a viable alternative; they don’t think that a one‑state solution will work.
And in the case of many Israelis and their American supporters, they’re basically sticking their heads in the sand because they don’t want to talk about a one‑state solution, because they understand that a one‑state solution is basically an apartheid state.
Finkelstein: You know, I can see John’s point, but we have to be clear about what John’s point is. He was talking about political facts and political will. He said that the political spectrum has shifted in Israel and that it’s going to be very hard to get these people to budge.
Yes, that’s true. It’s going to be hard to get them to budge, but the problem is, to put it simply, it’s never been tried. The only time it really was tried to get them to budge was the First Intifada, and you know, the First Intifada was very sobering for Israel.
I lived there during the First Intifada. I used to go every summer. You’d be very surprised what it looked like. They had to have 500,000 troops there. When you went in the Occupied Territories then, you saw 65‑year‑old men—they had to bring up all their reserves, and they were putting in six months.
Once there is a real mass action and summoning of will, you may see things shift in Israel. It’s just not been tried. All that’s been tried is this thing called a “peace process.” Nothing happens because there was no pressure on them; the Israelis treat the whole thing like a joke.
Mearsheimer: A lot has changed since 1987 when the First Intifada broke out. First of all, there are many more settlers. And if you leave 60-plus percent of those settlers, you still have to remove…
Mearsheimer: Right. You still have to remove a…
Finkelstein: If you look at the polls, the polls vary. But as high as 60 percent say they’re willing to be bought out. The Israeli expression is “quality of life settlers.” They just moved there because Israel gave them tons of mortgage subsidies and everything. They say, “Give us money, we’ll leave.”
Mearsheimer: But the fact is that if 40 percent of the settlers were to resist removal, it would be incredibly bloody.
Finkelstein: Yeah, but then you look at the polls, and the polls say about 10,000 or 15,000 would resist violently. The rest say they would oppose it, but if the army gives an order, “You have to leave,” only about 10,000 or 15,000 say that they would resist violently. In my opinion that’s mostly bravado. The actual number will probably be several thousand.
And then the Israeli former security people say there’s a really easy way to handle them: all we’ll do is say, “We’re leaving. You want to stay in Hebron with 160,000 crazy Arabs? Stay. We’re going.” And the Israeli security people say, “You’ll see how fast they’ll leave.”
Mearsheimer: Your point that pressure has not been brought to bear on the Israelis up to now is correct. But the reason that pressure has not been brought to bear is because the United States protects Israel at every turn. If the United States were willing to put serious sanctions on Israel, there’s no question that we could get Israel to move to a two‑state settlement very quickly.
And by the way, that would be good for Israel, good for the Palestinians, and good for us. And the fact that we don’t do it is really quite shocking because it’s a win‑win‑win situation.
Mearsheimer: But then the question is, who’s going to put pressure on Israel?
Finkelstein: That’s why I said there are new factors. It is true that the U.S. is the key factor, but now with the Arab Spring there are regional factors. For a lot of the Arab countries, or a lot of the Arab leaders, this has become a drain on them. Turkey and Egypt, they want to modernize and this Israel/Palestine thing is a drain on them. They have a real incentive to want to resolve it.
But the other thing is, as we’ve all agreed, there are changes in public opinion. The challenge is translating the changes in public opinion into some sort of political force. There is raw material; it still requires work. It’s a hard job, but our possibilities now are greater than ever.
Mearsheimer: Yeah. I hope that you’re right, but I think that you’re wrong. The reason has to do with how American politics works. The way this political system of ours was set up in the beginning gave huge amounts of influence to interest groups, interest groups of all sorts.
In the present situation, interest groups that have lots of money can influence the political process in profound ways. The principal reason that we don’t have any financial reform after the 2008 financial crisis is, in large part, because of the interest groups or lobbies associated with the financial industry. They’re just so powerful in Washington that Congress really can’t stand up to them. As a result, we’ve done very little to fix the system that caused this disaster in 2008.
When it comes to foreign policy, we, of course, have interest groups—like the Cuban lobby, the Israel lobby, the Armenian lobby—that can wield lots of influence. In this day and age, where money really matters, and where the Israel lobby has lots of money to throw at political candidates, it is very easy for it to get its way. And foolishly, in my opinion, the lobby tends to support the hard-line policies of Israel, which I don’t think are in Israel’s interests.
The end result is that virtually nobody on Capitol Hill will stand up to Benjamin Netanyahu. And the president won’t either.
Finkelstein: Everything you said, of course, is true and I don’t bury my head in the ground. The only addition to what you said is, I haven’t seen any real attempt to challenge the lobby. There’s never been a serious opposition in Washington. They’ve never had to contend with anybody.
It is true money talks. No question about it. But then we don’t know how many people in Congress—I know you may react cynically to it—but we don’t really know how many are just misinformed. They just don’t know what’s going on because there’s nobody on the other side doing anything. How many people in Congress are really sick of the bribery and bullying of AIPAC, but there’s nobody with whom they can stand? There’s no lobby here.
It’s work that we have to do. And then, once we have done our part and nothing budges, I’ll see your side. But it’s the same thing with the Palestinians. I saw what happened during the First Intifada. The Israelis were in a complete panic. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know if they were coming or going. The people had real power.
McConnell: My fear is that Israel, if they were faced with a third Intifada as a result of, say, the dead‑end of the Palestinian‑UN thing, would welcome it.
Mearsheimer: It’s very clear that when the Palestinians turn to terrorism it works to Israel’s advantage. It makes much more sense for the Palestinians to pursue a Gandhi‑like policy. The other reason that the Palestinians do not want to turn to terrorism or to a third Intifada is the threat of further expulsion. I believe that there are lots of Israelis who would welcome an opportunity to drive the Palestinians…
McConnell: Across the Jordan River. Yeah.
Mearsheimer: …out of Greater Israel and solve the demographic problem that way. The reason I believe that Israel is in such trouble over the long term is that you’re going to end up with a Greater Israel, where there are going to be more Palestinians than Israeli Jews.
In fact, I think I could make a convincing argument that right now there are more Palestinians than Israeli Jews living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. But certainly 20 years down the road, the numbers are going to clearly favor the Palestinians, and I believe that will be an apartheid state. It will be impossible for Israel to maintain that state.
McConnell: What keeps Israel from trying to push the Palestinians out of the West Bank?
Finkelstein: I remember during the Second Intifada, I had a several hour conversation with Rantissi, who was the head of Hamas—he was subsequently assassinated by Israel. And I said to him, “You know, these suicide bombings, they just give Israel the pretext to commit massacres.” And he said to me, “Israel does what it wants. It doesn’t need pretext.” I said to him, “If Israel did what it wanted to do, none of you would be here.”
Israel has real constraints and limits imposed on it by international public opinion. People are very naïve about that. Even the Gaza massacre, the Israeli invasion of 2008 to 2009, okay, it was terrible. No question about it. Killed 1,400 people. Lebanon 2006, July, August, it killed 1,200 people, 1,000 civilians. It was horrible. But it was really small potatoes next to Lebanon 1982. Lebanon ’82, the estimates are they killed between 15,000 and 20,000 people. That’s a big difference because the limits have increased on them.
Mearsheimer: And what has increased the limits?
Finkelstein: Well, public opinion has put real constraints on what Israel can do, even though what it did in Gaza was terrible, I’ll be the first one to say. It’s still much less than they were once able to get away with. Every time there’s a war, they have been hoping to do a mass expulsion: during that attack on Iraq in 2003; they were hoping to do it in 1990–91. If you read the Israeli newspapers, they’re always talking about the transfer. They can’t do it because public opinion puts real constraints on them.
I think sometimes we underestimate just how vulnerable Israel is on the public-relations front. That’s why they spend so much money on propaganda. And that’s why they panic every time they feel like they’re losing the propaganda war. Because they realize just how vulnerable they are and how big the constraints on them are. Otherwise it makes no sense why they invest so much in that image of theirs.
Mearsheimer: When Norman says that Israelis and their supporters in the United States care greatly about what people think about Israel, I think that’s a further way of saying they’re worried deeply about Israel’s legitimacy. And this is why people like Norman and people like me, and Steve Walt, and Jimmy Carter, and Noam Chomsky, and Edward Said are viewed as being so dangerous to Israel. When Norman tells you about all the times he’s been blacklisted and mafia‑like tactics have been used on him, basically what’s going on there is that the lobby is interested in marginalizing him and silencing him because it knows how dangerous he is.
Israel’s greatest advantage in the world today is in terms of its material resources. It’s a rich country that has one of the most formidable militaries on the planet. And of course, it’s joined at the hip with the United States, which has the most formidable military in the world.
But where Israel is particularly weak and is threatened is in the realm of ideas. I like to think about this in Gramscian terms. Gramsci used to talk about wars of ideas. What’s happened here is that as the material balance of power has moved in Israel’s favor, the balance of ideas has moved against Israel.
People like Norman, who are what I like to call the “corridor cutters” on this issue, help in a major way, pushing in that direction. Then people like Jimmy Carter, Steve Walt, and I came along and stood on the shoulders of people like Norman. All of us have been attacked, viciously attacked in some cases, and ostracized in other cases because we are viewed as a threat.
Again, it all gets back to that important concept of legitimacy.
McConnell: There’s some voice in me, not mine, but I can hear a voice saying if you’re a realist in terms of power politics, ideas matter much less than military/economic strength and things like that.
Mearsheimer: The truth is sometimes ideas don’t matter very much, and sometimes they really do. This is a case where ideas do matter. What the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians has become an important part of our discourse about the Middle East. It simply does not work to Israel’s advantage. My argument is that this situation is only going to get worse over time. Israel is going to be more isolated, and the United States, which of course backs Israel at every turn, is going to be increasingly isolated as well.
Finkelstein: On the strictly military plane, it is true Israel is very powerful. But we should also bear in mind that it’s become a very modern country. One of the consequences of becoming a modern country is people don’t want to die. Israel has a very effective, automated military. But when it comes to actual battlefield engagement, the Israeli soldiers don’t want to fight.
McConnell: What happened in Lebanon in 2006?
Finkelstein: It’s very clear Israel did not launch a major ground offensive for one reason: it did not want to take a large number of casualties. Lebanon proved to be for them a complete disaster. Now they make claims—there’s a tiny bit of truth to it—their claim was that because they were bogged down during the Second Intifada in policing action in the West Bank, there had been no time for rehearsals for ground/air coordination and that’s why things went so badly in Lebanon.
There’s a little bit of truth to it, but a bigger truth is Hezbollah people, they’re ready to die. They’re not afraid to go out there and get killed. The Israelis don’t want to get killed. The same thing happened in Gaza. Gaza was a—there was no war. As one person put it, it was like a child with a magnifying glass burning ants. It was all a high‑tech war.
Once a friend of mine—she’s an Israeli, I went to high school with her—she was very offended, and she said why did I call Israel a modern‑day Sparta? She says, “You don’t know Israelis. They’re not Sparta. They like the Beatles. They like this, they like that.” I said, “You misunderstood what I said. I said a high‑tech Sparta.” Because it’s true, they are not Spartans. They like cafes. They like the good life.
Mearsheimer: They like unfair fights.
Finkelstein: They want to live.
Mearsheimer: But I think there’s a more important point at play here, which is not to say this point is not important. As Israel becomes a modern economy, and you have more and more people who are secular, wealthy, and like to lead the good life, what begins to happen is that they begin to think about the exit option. They think about leaving Israel. Because they don’t want to live in Sparta. They’d much prefer to live in Europe or in the United States.
McConnell: Are you guys surprised by how quickly Obama seemed to have climbed down from making a solution to the conflict a top priority? By all indications he was someone who understood the moral and political case for a Palestinian state.
Mearsheimer: He did not step away from the problem quickly. Shortly after taking office in January 2009 he began to put pressure on Israel—throughout 2009, throughout 2010, and even earlier this year Obama was putting pressure on the Israelis.
That of course is why Netanyahu came to Washington and spoke before AIPAC and spoke before Congress and went toe to toe, in effect, with Obama. The sad truth is that Netanyahu beat him at every turn, and now with the election looming and the economy in shambles, Obama is in no position to pick a fight with Israel.
Finkelstein: Even if Obama prevailed over Netanyahu, the settlement he was calling for was roughly that map where Israel would keep about 10 percent—9 or 10 percent—of the West Bank, including all the major settlement blocs.
If you include the settlement blocs, like Maale Adumim, there’s no state because the way that settlement bloc is constructed, it separates Jerusalem from the whole West Bank. So you have this little island of Jerusalem. Metropolitan Jerusalem is about 30 to 40 percent of the Palestinian economy. If you separate Jerusalem, there’s no state. Even if Obama prevailed and you got the 10 percent map, it still has no relationship to what a viable Palestinian state would look like.
Mearsheimer: I don’t think, Norman, that it’s clear whether Obama was thinking in terms of what’s called the Israeli map or whether he was thinking in terms of the Palestinian map. But I believe that most of his Middle East advisers and Obama understand that the only way we’re going to solve this is to give the Palestinians a viable state, and that means basically the Palestinian map.
Finkelstein: No, I don’t think that’s true, John. I mean…
Mearsheimer: Then I wonder why you’re so optimistic that we can solve this one?
Finkelstein: Oh, because as I said, I totally agree with you on Congress. I totally agree with you on the executive. On those points there’s no disagreement at all. What I said is there is a changed political configuration now. There are changes in public opinion. There are changes in Jewish opinion. There’s a lot of work to be done. But there are reasons to be optimistic.
McConnell: Can you elaborate on the changes in Jewish opinion?
Finkelstein: Trying to understand Jewish relationships with Israel, there are three factors. There is the ethnic factor, which is the one people tend to home in on—Israel, Jewish State, of course Jews love Israel. That’s how people usually reason.
There is a second factor. That’s the citizenship factor, namely American Jews are American citizens, and they have a good life here, and they are very wary of being hit with the dual-loyalty charge. So wherever it looks like there are tensions between the U.S. and Israel, or tensions might be brewing, Americans Jews are very cautious and very wary.
That was very noticeable between ’48 and ’67, when American Jews had no interest whatsoever in Israel. It’s easily documented. Even those people who subsequently became Israel’s supporters, like Norman Podhoretz—if you look at Commentary magazine, as I have, between 1960 and 1967, there’s virtually nothing on Israel.
And then there’s the third factor. It’s the ideological factor. American Jews are liberal. They are liberal Democrats ever since Roosevelt in ’32. Last presidential election, 80 percent of Jews voted for Obama. More Jews voted for Obama than Latinos voted for Obama. American Jews are liberal, and they vote liberal and Democratic. Now for a long time on this ideological level, they were able to reconcile being liberal with being supportive of Israel, because Israel was the light unto the nations, bringing Western civilization to the barbaric East…
Mearsheimer: Only democracy.
Finkelstein: Only democracy in the Middle East, and all the rest. Well, in the last ten or 15 years, it’s wearing thin, and American Jews are having a lot of trouble as liberals—especially young American Jews on college campuses, which tend to be more liberal than American society in general—they’re having a lot of trouble reconciling their liberal beliefs with the way Israel carries on, and Israeli conduct and Israeli society in general.
And therefore you can see in a lot of polls—the best pollster in the American Jewish community, by a far margin, is Stephen Cohen. And Cohen says, “Support for Israel is dying.” He claims it’s dying because of intermarriage; you know, the ethnic factor. Jews are now intermarrying at a rate of about 6o percent. He says that it’s obvious that among the intermarried Jews, interest in Israel tends to plummet. And again, there’s a lot of statistical evidence. The intermarriage factor is significant. But I think as big a factor now is the liberalism factor. They just can’t do it anymore.
Mearsheimer: This is the Peter Beinart thesis.
Finkelstein: No, that’s the Norman Finkelstein thesis, which Peter Beinart took. [laughter]
Finkelstein: Because I was working on it since 2007. You know, I lectured very widely on it. I wrote a book. I started the book. It was called A Farewell to Israel: The Coming Break‑up of American Jewish Support for Israel. I’ve since re-titled it. It’s now called Knowing Too Much because I think that’s the problem. American Jews now know too much. They don’t know what to do with it.
McConnell: And Birthright Israel isn’t enough to counter this?
Finkelstein: It’s not enough, no, because Birthright Israel, first of all, is self‑selective. Many of them are just…
Mearsheimer: It’s propaganda. It’s very hard to propagandize Jews. They’re very knowledgeable, and they’re critical thinkers.
Finkelstein: That’s the other thing. All of the scholarship that comes out—those are the sectors where Jews tend to be, in the highly educated, literate sectors. That information is reaching them, and they don’t know what to do with it. You can see it in colleges now. It used to be when someone like me would come speak, it would be hysteria, with the audience shouting and screaming. Then they realized, “Well, we don’t really want to do that anymore.” So they would start having vigils outside and passing out leaflets.
Now, nothing. Nothing. There’s only one way they can work now: behind the scenes. They try to put pressure to not invite him because he’s this or he’s that. Behind the scenes they’re working very hard, but in the public arena—in the court of public opinion—they have vanished because it’s hopeless. How do you defend it?
They don’t like me, not because of my beliefs, they don’t like me because they know I’m going to have the facts. I read. I patiently go through all the reports. That’s what they fear. It’s not my politics because, as I said, my politics are not radical. It’s the facts. They’re in dread of that because there’s no defense anymore.
McConnell: How much are you speaking now on campuses?
Finkelstein: Quite a lot. Let’s put it this way: I could easily speak every day, if I were to accept every invitation, but it’s impossible because my forte is knowing the facts, which means I have to sit home and work. I have to read. I don’t want to become a rhetorical speaker. My effectiveness is mastering all of the data and being able to respond.
People ask me, “Why don’t you ever lose your cool? Why don’t you get angry? I get so angry.” I say, “Because the reason you get angry is frustration. You know what the other person is saying is not true, but you don’t know how to answer it. You don’t know the facts, and that’s where the anger and frustration come from.”
When you know how to answer it, you just sit very patiently. You’ll get your turn, and then you’ll answer. That’s why I can’t accept all the speaking engagements, because I’ve got to know the facts. Then we’ll be effective, and I still say we could win. John knows that, because I saw that you can have very big meetings at the University of Chicago, which has a very large Jewish population. There was one meeting where John and I were present, I don’t remember which one it was.
Mearsheimer: Yeah, it was during operation Cast Lead in January 2009.
Finkelstein: It must have been what? 1,500 people?
Mearsheimer: It was a huge audience. They turned away, I think, 800 people.
Finkelstein: And they can’t answer, the other side. There’s nothing. Nothing. And that’s what’s causing a lot of Jews—that’s, for me, what’s breaking up the whole support. It’s like—oh, what’s his name?—David Remnick said a few months ago. He said, “How long is this occupation going to go on?” He said, “I can’t take it anymore.” But what he really meant was, “I can’t justify it anymore.” How do you justify it?