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Apocalypse Near


Noam Chomsky interviewed by Merav Yudilovitch

Last week, a group of renowned intellectuals published an open letter blaming Israel for escalating the conflict in the Middle East. The letter, which mainly referred to the alignment of forces between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, caused a lot of anger among Ynet and Ynetnews readers, particularly due to its claim that the Israeli policy’s political aim is to eliminate the Palestinian nation.

The letter was formulated by art critic and author John Berger and among its signatories were Nobel Prize winner, playwright Harold Pinter, linguist and theoretician Noam Chomsly, Nobel Prize laureate José Saramago, Booker Prize laureate Arundhati Roy, American author Russell Banks, author and playwright Gore Vidal, and historian Howard Zinn.

Prof. Chomsky, you claimed that the provocation and counter-provocation all serve as a distraction from the real issue. What does it mean?

“I assume you are referring to John Berger’s letter (which I signed, among others). The “real issue” that is being ignored is the systematic destruction of any prospects for a viable Palestinian existence as Israel annexes valuable land and major resources, leaving the shrinking territories assigned to Palestinians as unviable cantons, largely separated from one another and from whatever little bit of Jerusalem is to be left to Palestinians, and completely imprisoned as Israel takes over the Jordan valley.

“This program of realignment cynically disguised as “withdrawal,” is of course completely illegal, in violation of Security Council resolutions and the unanimous decision of the World Court (including the dissenting statement of US Justice Buergenthal). If it is implemented as planned, it spells the end of the very broad international consensus on a two-state settlement that the US and Israel have unilaterally blocked for 30 years – matters that are so well documented that I do not have to review them here.

“To turn to your specific question, even a casual look at the Western press reveals that the crucial developments in the occupied territories are marginalized even more by the war in Lebanon. The ongoing destruction in Gaza – which was rarely seriously reported in the first place – has largely faded into the background, and the systematic takeover of the West Bank has virtually disappeared.

“However, I would not go as far as the implication in your question that this was a purpose of the war, though it clearly is the effect. We should recall that Gaza and the West Bank are recognized to be a unit, so that if resistance to Israel’s destructive and illegal programs is legitimate within the West Bank (and it would be interesting to see a rational argument to the contrary), then it is legitimate in Gaza as well.”

You claim that the world media refuses to link between what’s going on in the occupied territories and in Lebanon?

“Yes, but that is the least of the charges that should be leveled against the world media, and the intellectual communities generally. One of many far more severe charges is brought up in the opening paragraph of the Berger letter.

“Recall the facts. On June 25, Cpl. Gilad Shalit was captured, eliciting huge cries of outrage worldwide, continuing daily at a high pitch, and a sharp escalation in Israeli attacks in Gaza, supported on the grounds that capture of a soldier is a grave crime for which the population must be punished.

One day before, on June 24, Israeli forces kidnapped two Gaza civilians, Osama and Mustafa Muamar, by any standards a far more severe crime than capture of a soldier. The Muamar kidnappings were certainly known to the major world media. They were reported at once in the English-language Israeli press, basically IDF handouts. And there were a few brief, scattered and dismissive reports in several newspapers around the US.

Very revealingly, there was no comment, no follow-up, and no call for military or terrorist attacks against Israel. A Google search will quickly reveal the relative significance in the West of the kidnapping of civilians by the IDF and the capture of an Israeli soldier a day later.

“The paired events, a day apart, demonstrate with harsh clarity that the show of outrage over the Shalit kidnapping was cynical fraud. They reveal that by Western moral standards, kidnapping of civilians is just fine if it is done by “our side,” but capture of a soldier on “our side” a day later is a despicable crime that requires severe punishment of the population.

“As Gideon Levy accurately wrote in Ha’aretz, the IDF kidnapping of civilians the day before the capture of Cpl. Shalit strips away any “legitimate basis for the IDF’s operation,” and, we may add, any legitimate basis for support for these operations.

The same elementary moral principles carry over to the July 12 kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers near the Lebanon border, heightened, in this case, by the regular Israeli practice for many years of abducting Lebanese and holding many as hostages for long periods.

Truly disgraceful

“Over the many years in which Israel carried out these practices regularly, even kidnapping on the high seas, no one ever argued that these crimes justified bombing and shelling of Israel, invasion and destruction of much of the country, or terrorist actions within it. The conclusions are stark, clear, and entirely unambiguous – hence suppressed.

“All of this is, obviously, of extraordinary importance in the present case, particularly given the dramatic timing. That is, I suppose, why the major media chose to avoid the crucial facts, apart from a very few scattered and dismissive phrases, revealing that they consider kidnapping a matter of no significance when carried by US-supported Israeli forces.

“Apologists for state crimes claim that the kidnapping of the Gaza civilians is justified by IDF claims that they are ‘Hamas militants’ or were planning crimes. By their logic, they should therefore be lauding the capture of Gilad Shalit, a soldier in an army that was shelling and bombing Gaza. These performances are truly disgraceful.”

You are talking first and foremost about acknowledging the Palestinian nation, but will it solve the “Iranian threat”? Will it push Hizbullah from the Israeli border?

“Virtually all informed observers agree that a fair and equitable resolution of the plight of the Palestinians would considerably weaken the anger and hatred of Israel and the US in the Arab and Muslim worlds – and far beyond, as international polls reveal. Such an agreement is surely within reach, if the US and Israel depart from their long-standing rejectionism.

“On Iran and Hizbullah, there is, of course, much more to say, and I can only mention a few central points here.

“Let us begin with Iran. In 2003, Iran offered to negotiate all outstanding issues with the US, including nuclear issues and a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The offer was made by the moderate Khatami government, with the support of the hard-line “supreme leader” Ayatollah Khamenei. The Bush administration response was to censure the Swiss diplomat who brought the offer.

“In June 2006, Ayatollah Khamenei issued an official declaration stating that Iran agrees with the Arab countries on the issue of Palestine, meaning that it accepts the 2002 Arab League call for full normalization of relations with Israel in a two-state settlement in accord with the international consensus. The timing suggests that this might have been a reprimand to his subordinate Ahmadenijad, whose inflammatory statements are given wide publicity in the West, unlike the far more important declaration by his superior Khamenei.

“Of course, the PLO has officially backed a two-state solution for many years, and backed the 2002 Arab League proposal. Hamas has also indicated its willingness to negotiate a two-state settlement, as is surely well-known in Israel. Kharazzi is reported to be the author of the 2003 proposal of Khatami and Khamanei.

“The US and Israel do not want to hear any of this. They also do not want to hear that Iran appears to be the only country to have accepted the proposal by IAEA director Mohammed ElBaradei that all weapons-usable fissile materials be placed under international control, a step towards a verifiable Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty.

“ElBaradeiR17;s proposal, if implemented, would not only end the Iranian nuclear crisis but would also deal with a vastly more serious crisis: The growing threat of nuclear war, which leads prominent strategic analysts to warn of ‘apocalypse soon’ (Robert McNamara) if policies continue on their current course.

“The US strongly opposes a verifiable FMCT, but over US objections, the treaty came to a vote at the United Nations, where it passed 147-1, with two abstentions: Israel, which cannot oppose its patron, and more interestingly, Blair’s Britain, which retains a degree of sovereignty. The British ambassador stated that Britain supports the treaty, but it “divides the international community”. These again are matters that are virtually suppressed outside of specialist circles, and are matters of literal survival of the species, extending far beyond Iran.

“It is commonly said that the ‘international community’ has called on Iran to abandon its legal right to enrich uranium. That is true, if we define the “international community” as Washington and whoever happens to go along with it. It is surely not true of the world. The non-aligned countries have forcefully endorsed Iran’s “inalienable right” to enrich uranium. And, rather remarkably, in Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, a majority of the population favor accepting a nuclear-armed Iran over any American military action, international polls reveal.

“The non-aligned countries also called for a nuclear-free Middle East, a longstanding demand of the authentic international community, again blocked by the US and Israel. It should be recognized that the threat of Israeli nuclear weapons is taken very seriously in the world.

“As explained by the former Commander-in-Chief of the US Strategic Command, General Lee Butler, “it is dangerous in the extreme that in the cauldron of animosities that we call the Middle East, one nation has armed itself, ostensibly, with stockpiles of nuclear weapons, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, and that inspires other nations to do so.” Israel is doing itself no favors if it ignores these concerns.

“It is also of some interest that when Iran was ruled by the tyrant installed by a US-UK military coup, the United States – including Rumsfeld, Cheney, Kissinger, Wolfowitz and others – strongly supported the Iranian nuclear programs they now condemn and helped provide Iran with the means to pursue them. These facts are surely not lost on the Iranians, just as they have not forgotten the very strong support of the US and its allies for Saddam Hussein during his murderous aggression, including help in developing the chemical weapons that killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians.

Peaceful means

“There is a great deal more to say, but it appears that the “Iranian threat” to which you refer can be approached by peaceful means, if the US and Israel would agree. We cannot know whether the Iranian proposals are serious, unless they are explored. The US-Israel refusal to explore them, and the silence of the US (and, to my knowledge, European) media, suggests that the governments fear that they may be serious.

“I should add that to the outside world, it sounds a bit odd, to put it mildly, for the US and Israel to be warning of the “Iranian threat” when they and they alone are issuing threats to launch an attack, threats that are immediate and credible, and in serious violation of international law, and are preparing very openly for such an attack. Whatever one thinks of Iran, no such charge can be made in their case. It is also apparent to the world, if not to the US and Israel, that Iran has not invaded any other countries, something that the US and Israel do regularly.

“On Hizbullah too, there are hard and serious questions. As well-known, Hizbullah was formed in reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and its harsh and brutal occupation in violation of Security Council orders. It won considerable prestige by playing the leading role in driving out the aggressors.

“The 1982 invasion was carried out after a year in which Israel regularly bombed Lebanon, trying desperately to elicit some PLO violation of the 1981 truce, and when it failed, attacked anyway, on the ludicrous pretext that Ambassador Argov had been wounded (by Abu Nidal, who was at war with the PLO). The invasion was clearly intended, as virtually conceded, to end the embarrassing PLO initiatives for negotiation, a “veritable catastrophe” for Israel as Yehoshua Porat pointed out.

Shameful pretexts

“It was, as described at the time, a “war for the West Bank.” The later invasions also had shameful pretexts. In 1993, Hizbullah had violated “the rules of the game,” Yitzhak Rabin announced: these Israeli rules permitted Israel to carry out terrorist attacks north of its illegally-held “security zone,” but did not permit retaliation within Israel. Peres’s 1996 invasion had similar pretexts. It is convenient to forget all of this, or to concoct tales about shelling of the Galilee in 1981, but it is not an attractive practice, nor a wise one.

“The problem of Hezbollah’s arms is quite serious, no doubt. Resolution 1559 calls for disarming of all Lebanese militias, but Lebanon has not enacted that provision. Sunni Prime Minister Fuad Siniora describes Hizbullah’s military wing as “resistance rather than as a militia, and thus exempt from” Resolution 1559.

“A National Dialogue in June 2006 failed to resolve the problem. Its main purpose was to formulate a “national defense strategy” (vis-à-vis Israel), but it remained deadlocked over Hizbullah’s call for “a defense strategy that allowed the Islamic Resistance to keep its weapons as a deterrent to possible Israeli aggression,” in the absence of any credible alternative. The US could, if it chose, provide a credible guarantee against an invasion by its client state, but that would require a sharp change in long-standing policy.

“In the background are crucial facts emphasized by several veteran Middle East correspondents. Rami Khouri, now an editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star, writes that “the Lebanese and Palestinians have responded to Israel’s persistent and increasingly savage attacks against entire civilian populations by creating parallel or alternative leaderships that can protect them and deliver essential services.”

You are not referring in your letter to the Israeli casualties. Is there differentiation in your opinion between Israeli civic casualties of war and Lebanese or Palestinian casualties?

“That is not accurate. John Berger’s letter is very explicit about making no distinction between Israeli and other casualties. As his letter states: “Both categories of missile rip bodies apart horribly – who but field commanders can forget this for a moment.”

“You claimed that the world is cooperating with the Israeli invasion to Lebanon and is not interfering in the events Gaza and Jenin. What purpose does this silence serve?

“The great majority of the world can do nothing but protest, though it is fully expected that the intense anger and resentment caused by US-Israeli violence will – as in the past – prove to be a gift for the most extremist and violent elements, mobilizing new recruits to their cause.

“The US-backed Arab tyrannies did condemn Hizbullah, but are being forced to back down out of fear of their own populations. Even King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Washington’s most loyal (and most important) ally, was compelled to say that “If the peace option is rejected due to the Israeli arrogance, then only the war option remains, and no one knows the repercussions befalling the region, including wars and conflict that will spare no one, including those whose military power is now tempting them to play with fire.”

“As for Europe, it is unwilling to take a stand against the US administration, which has made it clear that it supports the destruction of Palestine and Israeli violence. With regard to Palestine, while Bush’s stand is extreme, it has its roots in earlier policies. The week in Taba in January 2001 is the only real break in US rejectionism in 30 years.

“The US also strongly supported earlier Israeli invasions of Lebanon, though in 1982 and 1996, it compelled Israel to terminate its aggression when atrocities were reaching a point that harmed US interests.

“Unfortunately, one can generalize a comment of Uri Avnery’s about Dan Halutz, who “views the world below through a bombsight.” Much the same is true of Rumsfeld-Cheney-Rice, and other top Bush administration planners, despite occasional soothing rhetoric. As history reveals, that view of the world is not uncommon among those who hold a virtual monopoly of the means of violence, with consequences that we need not review.”

What is the next chapter in this middle-eastern conflict as you see it?

“I do not know of anyone foolhardy enough to predict. The US and Israel are stirring up popular forces that are very ominous, and which will only gain in power and become more extremist if the US and Israel persist in demolishing any hope of realization of Palestinian national rights, and destroying Lebanon. It should also be recognized that Washington’s primary concern, as in the past, is not Israel and Lebanon, but the vast energy resources of the Middle East, recognized 60 years ago to be a “stupendous source of strategic power” and “one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”

“We can expect with confidence that the US will continue to do what it can to control this unparalleled source of strategic power. That may not be easy. The remarkable incompetence of Bush planners has created a catastrophe in Iraq, for their own interests as well. They are even facing the possibility of the ultimate nightmare: a loose Shi’a alliance controlling the world’s major energy supplies, and independent of Washington – or even worse, establishing closer links with the China-based Asian Energy Security Grid and Shanghai Cooperation Council.

“The results could be truly apocalyptic. And even in tiny Lebanon, the leading Lebanese academic scholar of Hizbullah, and a harsh critic of the organization, describes the current conflict in “apocalyptic terms,” warning that possibly “All hell would be let loose” if the outcome of the US-Israel campaign leaves a situation in which “the Shiite community is seething with resentment at Israel, the United States and the government that it perceives as its betrayer.

“It is no secret that in past years, Israel has helped to destroy secular Arab nationalism and to create Hizbullah and Hamas, just as US violence has expedited the rise of extremist Islamic fundamentalism and jihad terror. The reasons are understood. There are constant warnings about it by Western intelligence agencies, and by the leading specialists on these topics.

“One can bury one’s head in the sand and take comfort in a “wall-to-wall consensus” that what we do is “just and moral” (Maoz), ignoring the lessons of recent history, or simple rationality. Or one can face the facts, and approach dilemmas which are very serious by peaceful means. They are available. Their success can never be guaranteed. But we can be reasonably confident that viewing the world through a bombsight will bring further misery and suffering, perhaps even ‘apocalypse soon.’”

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