A Shift in Public Opinion Regarding Israel?
Ilan Pappé is professor of history at the University of Exeter. He was Senior Lecturer in political science at Haifa University from 1984 to 2007. Noam Chomsky is a linguist, author, lecturer, and social critic.
BARAT: A British Member of Parliament recently said that he had felt a change in the last five years regarding Israel. British MPs nowadays sign EDMs (Early Day Motions) condemning Israel in bigger numbers than ever before. Also the UN and the EU have condemned Israel’s use of excessive and disproportionate force in the Gaza strip. Could you interpret that as a shift in attitude towards Israel?
PAPPÉ: The examples indicate a significant shift in public opinion. However, the problem remains what it has been in the last 60 years. These impulses and energies are not likely to be translated in the near future into actual policies. The only way of enhancing this transition from support from below to actual policies is by developing the idea of sanctions and boycott. This can give a clear direction to the many individuals and NGOs that have for years shown solidarity with the Palestine cause.
CHOMSKY: There has been a very clear shift in recent years on U.S. campuses and with general audiences as well. Not long ago police protection was a standard feature of talks that were at all critical of Israeli policies. Now it is sharply different, with scattered exceptions. Apologists for Israeli violence now tend to be defensive and desperate, rather than arrogant and overbearing. But the critique of Israeli actions is thin because the basic facts are systematically suppressed. That is particularly true of the decisive U.S. role in barring diplomatic options, undermining democracy, and supporting Israel’s systematic program of undermining the possibility of an eventual political settlement. Portrayal of the U.S. as an “honest broker” somehow unable to pursue its benign objectives is characteristic, not only in this domain.
The word apartheid is more and more often used by NGOs and charities to describe Israel’s actions towards the Palestinians. Is the situation in Palestine and Israel comparable to apartheid in South Africa?
PAPPÉ: There are similarities and dissimilarities. The colonialist history has many chapters in common and some of the features of the apartheid system can be found in the Israeli policies towards its Palestinian minority and towards those in the occupied territories. Some aspects of the occupation, however, are worse than the apartheid of South Africa and some aspects in the lives of Palestinian citizens in Israel are not as bad as they were in the heydays of apartheid. The main point of comparison to my mind is political inspiration. The anti-apartheid movement, the ANC, the solidarity networks developed throughout the years in the West should inspire a more focused and effective pro-Palestinian campaign. This is why there is a need to learn the history of the struggle against apartheid, much more than to dwell too long on comparing the Zionist and apartheid systems.
CHOMSKY: There can be no definite answer to such questions. There are similarities and differences. Within Israel itself, there is serious discrimination, but it’s very far from South African apartheid. Within the occupied territories (OT), it’s a different story. In 1997, I gave the keynote address at Ben-Gurion University in a conference on the anniversary of the 1967 war. I read a paragraph from a standard history of South Africa. No comment was necessary.
Looking more closely, the situation in the OT differs in many ways from apartheid. In some respects, South African apartheid was more vicious than Israeli practices and in some respects the opposite is true. To mention one example, white South Africa depended on black labor. The large majority of the population could not be expelled. At one time Israel relied on cheap and easily exploited Palestinian labor, but they have long ago been replaced by the miserable of the earth from Asia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. Israelis would mostly breathe a sigh of relief if Palestinians were to disappear. And it is no secret that the policies that have taken shape accord well with the recommendations of Moshe Dayan right after the 1967 war: Palestinians will “continue to live like dogs, and whoever wishes may leave.”
More extreme recommendations have been made by highly regarded left humanists in the United States, for example Michael Walzer of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton and editor of the democratic socialist journal Dissent, who advised 35 years ago that since Palestinians are “marginal to the nation,” they should be “helped” to leave. He was referring to Palestinian citizens of Israel, a position made familiar more recently by the ultra-right Avigdor Lieberman, and now being picked up in the Israeli mainstream. I put aside the real fanatics, like Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who declares that Israel never kills civilians, only terrorists, so that the definition of “terrorist” is “killed by Israel”—and Israel should aim for a kill ratio of 1000 to zero, which means “exterminate the brutes” completely. It is of no small significance that advocates of these views are regarded with respect in enlightened circles in the U.S., indeed the West. One can imagine the reaction if such comments were made about Jews.
Israel has recently said that it will boycott the UN conference on Human Rights in Durban because “it will be impossible to prevent the conference from turning into a festival of anti-Israeli attacks” and has also cancelled a meeting with Costa Rican officials over the Central American nation’s decision to formally recognize a Palestinian state. Is Israel’s refusal to accept any sort of criticism towards its policies likely to eventually backfire?
PAPPÉ: One hopes it will backfire one day. However, this depends on the global and regional balances of power, not only on the Israelis overreacting. The two, namely the balance of power and Israel intransigence, may be interconnected in the future. If there is a change in America’s policy or in its hegemonic role in the politics of the region, than a continued Israeli inflexibility can encourage the international community to adopt a more critical position against Israel and exert pressure on the Jewish state to end the occupation and dispossession of Palestine.
CHOMSKY: One can agree or disagree with these decisions, but they do not imply “refusal to accept any sort of criticism towards its policies.” I doubt that these particular decisions will backfire or even receive much notice.
How can Israel reach a settlement with an organization which declares that it will never recognize Israel and whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state? If Hamas really wants a settlement, why won’t it recognize Israel?
PAPPÉ: The end result of the peace process can be a political Islamic recognition in the place of the Jews in Palestine and in the Middle East as a whole, whether in a separated state or a joint state. The PLO entered negotiations with Israel without changing its charter, which is not that different as far as the attitude to Israel is concerned. So the search should be for a text, solution and political structure that is inclusive—enabling all the national, ethnic, religious, and ideological groups to coexist.
CHOMSKY: Hamas cannot recognize Israel any more than Kadima can recognize Palestine, or than the Democratic Party in the U.S. can recognize England. One could ask whether a government led by Hamas should recognize Israel, or whether a government led by Kadima or the Democratic Party should recognize Palestine. So far they have all refused to do so, though Hamas has at least called for a two-state settlement in accord with the long-standing international consensus, while Kadima and the Democratic Party refuse to go that far, keeping to the rejectionist stance that the U.S. and Israel have maintained for over 30 years in international isolation. As for words, when Prime Minister Olmert declares to a joint session of the U.S. Congress that he believes “in our people’s eternal and historic right to this entire land,” to rousing applause, he is presumably referring not only to Palestine from the Jordan to the sea, but also to the other side of the Jordan river, the historic claim of the Likud Party that was his political home, a claim never formally abandoned, to my knowledge. On Hamas, I think it should abandon those provisions of its charter and should move from acceptance of a two-state settlement to mutual recognition, though we must bear in mind that its positions are more forthcoming than those of the U.S. and Israel.
During the last few months, Israel has accelerated its attacks on Gaza and is talking of an imminent ground invasion. There is also a strong possibility that it is involved in the killing of the Hezbollah leader Mughniyeh and it is pushing for stronger sanctions (including military) on Iran. Do you believe that Israel’s appetite for war could eventually lead to its self destruction?
PAPPÉ: Yes, I think that the aggressiveness is increasing and Israel antagonizes not only the Palestinian world, but also the Arab and Islamic one. The military balance of power, at present, is in Israel’s presence, but this can change at any given moment, especially if the U.S. withdrew its support.
CHOMSKY: I wrote decades ago that those who call themselves “supporters of Israel” are in reality supporters of its moral degeneration and probable ultimate destruction. I have also believed for many years that Israel’s very clear choice of expansion over security, ever since it turned down Sadat’s offer of a full peace treaty in 1971— may well lead to that consequence.
What would it take for the U.S to withdraw its unconditional support to Israel?
PAPPÉ: Externally—a collapse of its Middle East policy, mainly through the downfall of one of its allies. Alternatively, but less likely, the emergence of a counter European policy. Internally—a major economic crisis and the success of the present coalition of forces working within the civil society to impact such a change.
CHOMSKY: To answer that, we have to consider the sources of the support. The corporate sector in the U.S., which dominates policy formation, appears to be quite satisfied with the current situation. One indication is the increasing flow of investment to Israel by Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and other leading elements of the high-tech economy. Military and intelligence relations remain very strong. Since 1967, U.S. intellectuals have had a virtual love affair with Israel, for reasons that relate more to the U.S. than to Israel, in my opinion. That strongly affects portrayal of events and history in media and journals. Palestinians are weak, dispersed, friendless, and offer nothing to the concentrations of power in the U.S. A large majority of Americans support the international consensus on a two-state settlement and even call for equalizing aid to Israel and the Palestinians. In this as in many other respects, both political parties are well to the right of the population. Ninety-five percent of the U.S. population think that the government should pay attention to the views of the population, a position rejected across the elite spectrum (sometimes quite explicitly, at other times tacitly). Hence, one step towards a more even-handed stance would be “democracy promotion” within the U.S. Apart from that eventuality, what it would take is events that lead to a recalculation of interests among elite sectors.
In a Counterpunch article Michael Neumann comments on the one versus two states solution, saying, “The one state solution was an illusion.” This was followed by articles from Assaf Kfoury entitled “One-State or Two-State? A Sterile Debate on False Alternatives” and by Jonathan Cook entitled “One state or two, neither, the issue is Zionism.” What’s your opinion on this and do you think that a two state solution is still possible?
PAPPÉ: The facts on the ground rendered a two-state solution impossible a long time ago. The facts indicated that there was never and will never be an Israeli consent to a Palestinian state, apart from a stateless state within two Bantustans in the West Bank and Gaza totally under Israeli control. There is already one state and the struggle is to change its nature and regime. Whether the new regime and constitutional basis would be bi-national or democratic, or maybe both, is less significant at this point. Any political outfit that would replace the present racist state of affairs is welcome. Any such outfit should also enable the refugees to return and even the most recent immigrants to remain.
CHOMSKY: We have to make a distinction between proposal and advocacy. We can propose that everyone should live in peace. It becomes advocacy when we sketch out a realistic path from here to there. A one-state solution makes little sense, in my opinion, but a bi-national state does. It was possible to advocate such a settlement from 1967 to the mid-1970s and, in fact, I did, in many writings and talks, including a book. The reaction was mostly fury. After Palestinian national rights entered the international agenda in the mid-1970s, it has remained possible to advocate bi-nationalism (and I continue to do so), but only as a process passing through intermediate stages, the first being a two-state settlement in accord with the international consensus. That outcome, probably the best that can be envisioned in the short term, was almost reached in negotiations in Taba in January 2001. According to participants it could have been reached had the negotiations not been prematurely terminated by Israeli Prime Minister Barak. That was the one moment in the past 30 years when the 2 leading rejectionist states briefly considered joining the international consensus, and the one time when a diplomatic settlement seemed within sight. Much has changed since 2001, but I do not see any reason to believe that what was apparently within reach then is impossible today.
It is of some interest, and I think instructive, that proposals for a one-state solution are tolerated within the mainstream today, unlike the period when advocacy was indeed feasible and they were anathema. Today they are published in the New York Times, New York Review of Books, and elsewhere. One can only conclude that they are considered acceptable because they are completely unfeasible—they remain proposal, not advocacy. In practice, the proposals lend support to U.S.-Israeli rejectionism and undermine the only feasible advocacy of a bi-national solution in stages.
Today there are two options for Palestinians. One is U.S.-Israeli abandonment of their rejectionist stance and a settlement roughly along the lines of what was being approached at Taba, The other option is continuation of current policies, which lead, inexorably, to incorporation into Israel of what it wants: at least, Greater Jerusalem, the areas within the Separation Wall (now an Annexation Wall), the Jordan Valley, and the salients through Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel. Beyond that, effectively trisect what remains—which will be broken up into unviable cantons by huge infrastructure projects, hundreds of checkpoints, and other devices to ensure that Palestinians live like dogs.
There are those who believe that Palestinians should let Israel take over the West Bank completely and then carry out a civil rights/anti-apartheid style struggle. That is an illusion, however. There is no reason why the U.S.-Israel would accept the premises of this proposal. They will simply proceed along the lines now being implemented and will not accept any responsibility for Palestinians who are scattered outside the regions they intend to incorporate into Israel.
During my recent trip to Israel/Palestine it became obvious (talking to people, reading newspapers, watching the news) that something scared Israel a lot: a boycott. Are you in favor of this type of action and do you think that it could bare fruit?
PAPPÉ: Yes, I am and I do think it has a chance of triggering processes of change on the ground.
CHOMSKY: Boycotts sometimes make sense. For example, such actions against South Africa were effective even though the Reagan administration evaded congressional sanctions while declaring Mandela’s ANC to be one of the “more notorious terrorist groups” in the world (in 1988). The actions were effective because the groundwork had been laid in many years of education and activism. By the time they were implemented, they received substantial support in the U.S. within the political system, the media, and even the corporate sector. Nothing remotely like that has been achieved in this case. As a result, calls for boycott would almost invariably backfire, reinforcing the harshest and most brutal policies towards Palestinians.
Selective boycotts, carefully formulated, might have some effect—for example, boycotts of military producers who provide arms to Israel or to Caterpillar Corporation, which provides the equipment for destroying Palestine. All of their actions are strictly illegal and boycotts could be made understandable to the general public so that they could be effective.
Selective boycotts could also be effective against states with a far worse record of violence and terror than Israel, such as the U.S. And, of course, without its decisive support and participation, Israel could not carry out illegal expansion and other crimes. There are no calls for boycotting the U.S., not for reasons of principle, but because it is simply too powerful—a fact that raises some obvious questions about the moral legitimacy of actions targeting its clients.
Coming back from Israel/Palestine recently, the director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions UK said that, in spite of Annapolis, “not one thing on the ground has improved…witnessing Israel judaisation of the country left me feeling cold and angry.” Seeing this, could Palestinian resistance (which has mainly been nonviolent so far) go back to an armed struggle and start an intifada?
PAPPÉ: Theoretically they can and they may. The question is whether it is going to produce different results from the previous two uprisings. The feeling is that it is not likely.
CHOMSKY: My opinion all along has been that the Palestinian leadership is offering Israel and its U.S. backers a great gift by resorting to violence and posturing about revolution—quite apart from the fact that, tactical considerations aside, resort to violence carries a very heavy burden of justification. Today, for example, nothing is more welcome to Israeli and U.S. hawks than Qassam rockets, which enable them to shriek joyously about how the ratio of deaths should be increased to infinity (all victims being defined as “terrorists”). I have also agreed all along with friends who had contacts with the Palestinian leadership (in particular, Edward Said and Eqbal Ahmad) that a non-violent struggle would have had considerable prospects for success. I think it still is the only prospect for success.
What should NGO’s and charities working for justice in Palestine should focus on in the next few months?
PAPPÉ: They know best and I hesitate to advise them. I think they gave us guidance with their call for boycott and if they continue with initiatives like this it can be very helpful. But most importantly it would be great if they could continue to work for reconciliation and unity in the Palestinian camp.
CHOMSKY: The daily and urgent task is to focus on the terrible ongoing violations of the most elementary human rights and the illegal U.S.-backed and development projects that are designed to undermine a diplomatic settlement. A more general task is to try to lay the basis for a successful struggle for a settlement that takes into account the just demands of contesting parties—the kind of hard, dedicated, persistent educational and organizational work that has provided the underpinnings for other advances towards peace and justice. I have already indicated what I think that entails—not least, effective democracy promotion in the reigning superpower.