Interview – Norman Finkelstein

Norman G. Finkelstein received his doctorate in 1988 from the Department of Politics at Princeton University. For many years he taught political theory and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He currently writes and lectures. Finkelstein is the author of eight books that have been translated into 50 foreign editions, including most recently, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish romance with Israel is coming to an end, and What Gandhi Says, About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage. He is currently working on a new book with Palestinian political analyst Mouin Rabbani, entitled How to Solve the Israel-Palestine Conflict.

In this interview, Finkelstein discusses the future of the Palestinians, the global movement for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, Hassan Rouhani, the conflict in Syria and the follies of the academic tenure system.

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The strongest card Palestinians have to play is international law. On all the critical issues — borders, East Jerusalem, settlements, refugees — the law is completely on the Palestinians’ side and has repudiated Israel’s official positions. But the law cannot be selectively embraced. It comes with rights, but also obligations: if we have a right to walk at the green, it’s because we also have an obligation to stop at the red. The BDS movement purports that it is anchored in international law. Accordingly, it calls for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza, equal rights for Palestinian citizens in Israel, and recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees. That’s all well and good. But it refuses to recognize Israel as a state. If Palestinians have a right to self-determination and statehood, so do Israelis. This is not a matter of opinion, mine or anyone else’s. It’s the law. BDS selectively invokes the law. That’s hypocrisy. Besides all else, it will never fly among a broad public. Israel’s well-oiled propaganda machine will expose BDS’s double standard, and consequently the movement will never get beyond the confines of a cult.

What are your views on the recent election of Hassan Rouhani as Iranian President? 

Former president Ahmadinejad practiced the populist-demagogic politics of a small-town mayor. He playfully questioned the Nazi holocaust and undertook local development projects that won him many adherents. Rouhani is plainly more serious. Whether he will be able to pull off a “grand bargain” with the U.S. is anyone’s guess. The main point of contention right now is Syria: the U.S. will have to choose between Iran and Saudi Arabia; there doesn’t appear to be much room for manoeuvre. Otherwise, the U.S. will not accept an independent regional power in the Middle East. Iran will have to acquiesce in some sort of tutelary role if a reconciliation between the Washington and Tehran is to happen.

The civil war in Syria has lasted more than two years now and has caused an enormous amount of human suffering. What role do you feel the U.S. should be playing in this crisis?