This is the full text of an interview, conducted by Amir Tajik, published in the English-language Iran Daily on 16 July 2007. Jonathan Cook is a British journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the author of “Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State” (Pluto Press, 2006) and the forthcoming “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East”.
You have declared that Israel’s attack on Lebanon’s Hezbollah was based on a prepared script. Which countries do you think contributed to this script?
I don’t think there is too much doubt about who was involved in writing this script. It was a cabal inside the Israeli and US political and security establishments. My guess is that the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was only marginally in the picture. There is a common misperception in the West that Israel is not only a democracy but that it is a normal regime in terms of its political structure. What isn’t appreciated is that the army and government are more like two “faces” of the same set of institutions, which is why the same personnel move so effortlessly between them. In the most important areas of life, the army is really in charge of the country.
We have quite a lot of evidence for how the script was drafted, a process that I describe in detail in my forthcoming book, “Israel and the Clash of Civilizations”.
According to reports in the US media, for more than a year before the war on Lebanon, Israeli commanders had been discussing an attack on Lebanon with the Pentagon, which at the time was decisively under the control of an ultra-hawkish group known as the neocons — American policymakers with close ideological ties to the Israeli right. It seems that both the US and Israel were agreed that they needed to find a pretext to attack Lebanon. It seems that both the US and Israel were agreed that they needed to find a pretext to attack Lebanon. The US had also made sure both to isolate Hizbullah before the attack by using a UN resolution to force Syria out of the country, and to encourage popular support for the pro-Washington government in Beirut by helping to engineer a “Cedar Revolution”. We also know from statements made by neocons close to Bush that, once Hizbullah had been crushed, they were planning some sort of strike on Syria.
I think we can safely guess that the point was to prepare the ground for a military attack on Iran. Back in 2004, Israeli generals had warned that an attack on Iran would prompt intense rocket fire from Hezbollah over the northern border, so both the US and Israel agreed that Hezbollah had to be dealt with first. There is nothing worse for an army than fighting on several fronts at the same time. Crushing Hezbollah and Syria was therefore seen as the first stage before a strike against Iran. Israel’s failure to deal with Hezbollah’s rockets has thrown the whole plan off kilter. That is why we are seeing a lack of policy direction in both Washington and Tel Aviv. Now they genuinely are at a loss at what to do next.
Were the Qana attack and demolition of the UN building part of this script?
That’s too cynical, I think. Certainly Qana was an entirely predictable outcome of Israel’s over-reliance on airpower when it realized it could not launch a ground invasion of Lebanon without a major loss of its soldiers’ lives. In fact, a former head of Military Intelligence, Uri Saguy, who was one of Ehud Olmert’s informal advisers during the war, told the Israeli media recently that he had warned there would be another Qana.
As for the attack on the UN building, that still needs explaining by Israel. My suspicion is that it was a consequence of widespread feelings among Israeli soldiers, including commanders, of loathing for anything related to the UN. The UN’s reputation has been blackened in Israel by its long association with helping the Palestinians, particularly in the refugee camps in the occupied territories. Also, of course, we must not forget that the UN monitors in Lebanon had been recording many of the Israeli military’s violations of the border following the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000. They had, for example, criticised the almost daily “overflights” of Lebanon by the Israeli airforce. Many in the Israeli army may have wanted the UN sillenced or intimidated, and seen this as their chance.
Still, I doubt that such malevolence can be attributed to a ‘script’ drafted at the political or military level.
Israel didn’t attack non-Muslim districts of Lebanon during the 33-day war. Was it deliberate?
There was a conscious attempt by Israel at the start of its attack on Lebanon to incite a civil war on sectarian lines. This goal was repeatedly voiced by Israeli officials. The point was to get the Christians, Druze and Sunnis to “turn on” the Shia, and great disappointment was expressed when the opposite happened. Such simplistic assumptions about how Arab society can be manipulated are typical of the Israeli security establishment, which has a history of making profoundly wrong-headed judgments about Arabs and Muslims over many decades. In fact, there is a well-established tradition of high-profile racists heading the Israeli academy and, of course, the political and security establishments. Not surprisingly, Israeli thinking about the “Arab mind” has now infected much of the American academia and military.
Do you agree that Israel is the Middle East’s US military base?
It is one such base, but there are many other countries in the region that fulfill, or potentially fulfill, a similar role. The intention was clearly to make Iraq another base — that model has been officially proposed by the White House. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made it plain that US forces will continue with a permanent presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future. For similar reasons, Afghanistan has become another American base. But the US has a footing in many other countries in the region, including Turkey, Jordan, the Persian Gulf states, Central Asia, and so on.
The key difference in the case of Israel is that it is not treated as a military staging post as these other countries are. In fact, the US army is usually loath to be seen relying on Israel in this kind of direct fashion because of the effect it has on feeling in the Arab world. Instead, Israel’s army train and advise the US on how to function and fight in the Middle East, and the two share intelligence. It is an arrangement that is seen as cooperation between equals.
What ambiguities did the Winograd report clarify for both Israel and the US? And what ambiguities did the report itself have?
The Winograd Committee’s purpose was not really about clarifying anything; to do that, the government would have had to set up a much more serious and independent commission of inquiry. Winograd was about apportioning blame in a way that would reverse some of the damage done to Israel’s military image by its failures in Lebanon, and about acting as a safety valve for some of the frustrations of a wider Israeli society that felt betrayed during the war. Once the committee was established, both the prime minister and the Israeli army jointly used Winograd as a way to deflect the harshest criticism away from the army command and towards the civilian leadership.
Real criticism of the army — which it richly deserved — might have further dented what is known here as ‘deterrence’, that is, promoting fear among neighboring states that Israel is militarily invincible.
The surprising thing about Winograd report is how little it seems to have discovered about what decisions were taken and why — the real point, one would assume, of holding such an inquiry. For example, Winograd admits being unable to find out how Olmert reached the decision to go to war — in what many officials have noted was “record time”. There are no records of telephone conversations or meetings between Olmert and the then Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. That, I suspect, is because the decision had already been taken to attack Lebanon as soon as a pretext arose. These initial meetings between the military and political echelon were therefore not needed. The system was on automatic pilot. Another reason there may be no official record of this decision-making process is that such a record would embarrassingly reveal that outside actors, namely the Americans, were closely involved.
A core concern in Israel not addressed by Winograd is the fear that the Israeli army’s dismal performance may one day lead the US to reconsider Israel’s role as its pitbull in the Middle East. This underpins a spiritual angst in Israel following the war that has yet to be dispelled.
Why didn’t Arab regimes support Hezbollah during the 33-day war? Wasn’t Hezbollah fighting Israel on behalf of the Arab world?
There are a few obvious reasons for the lack of support. One was that Hezbollah was regarded as a proxy for Iran. The Arab states were not comfortable seeing a Shiite militia, backed by a Shiite, non-Arab state, succeed where they have so consistently failed. Then there was the problem that Hezbollah’s resistance to Israel contrasted with the Arab world’s own lackluster attempts at standing up to Israel. Hezbollah’s popularity inevitably came at the Arab states’ expense, and was presumably seen as having the potential to inflame popular feeling within their own borders to a dangerous degree. And, of course, the Arab states that are usually referred to as ‘moderate’ by the West, such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, have earned that label only because they have been induced to cooperate and collaborate with the West and Israel. It was not, therefore, surprising that they sided with the West against Hezbollah.
Israel is often touted by the western media as the only democratic state in the Middle East. Is that true?
No. Israel is a democracy if you are a Jew, just as apartheid South Africa was a democracy if you were white. But that is not what we usually mean by democracy. At least a fifth of Israel’s population is non-Jewish, most of them Palestinians, and they are systematically discriminated against in all spheres, including in access to resources like land and to political power, and in control of immigration. I have exposed the myth of Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state at length in my book “Blood and Religion”. It is a necessary myth in the West because it justifies the huge sums of aid and military support the West gives to what is effectively a rogue, highly militarised ethnic state.
Efforts by western countries to resolve the Palestinian crisis are overwhelmed by their concerns for Israeli security. What should be done to change the situation and achieve a sustainable and fair solution?
The first problem is to understand that Israel is acting in bad faith in negotiations. All other problems flow from this simple fact. Israel has no interest in peace or in dividing the land. It needs war against the Palestinians and against neighbouring states to justify its image in the West as an eternal victim (first of European anti-Semitism, and now of Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism) and its receipt, as a consequence, of Western military largesse. It was with the help of the West, for example, that Israel was able to develop nuclear weapons without control or supervision.
And similarly Israel has no interest in allowing the Palestinians to develop a national home, even on the 22 per cent of their original homeland that Israel now occupies. Such a Palestinian state would, in Israel’s view, be the first stage in the unravelling of the Jewish state. If the land were divided, the pressure would mount for Israel to stop being an ethnic state and become a proper state, with normal rules of equal citizenship inside its own borders. If there were equal rights, Palestinian citizens of Israel would be able to demand that their relatives enjoy the same right to return to Israel that Jews currently enjoy to come to Israel. Very soon, the whole artifice of a Jewish and democratic state would collapse.
In addition, of course, if Israel were a normal state at peace with its neighbours, it would not be able to fulfil its chief function for the US: to divide the Arab world through war, threats and peace agreements with the different states of the region. It would not also receive billions in military aid from the US, and the West would no longer be prepared to turn a blind eye to its nuclear weapons.
Jews were promised “a peaceful land” in occupied Palestine when they were encouraged to move there from around the world. Now they’re living like soldiers, constantly fighting for their own security. Given this background, who is an Israeli?
The idea of who is an Israeli is very fuzzy, even in Israel. I would argue that the founders of Israel actually put greater weight on the talents of their lawyers than the courage of their soldiers. Uniquely, Israeli law has divorced the idea of Israeli citizenship from Israeli nationality, so one must consider them separately.
There is a loose sense in which there are Israeli citizens: that is, all the people who have citizenship inside Israel, including 1.2 million Palestinians who are also Israeli citizens. But this concept is not very helpful as there are different kinds of Israeli citizen, with different sets of rights. Certainly, Palestinian citizens of Israel have lesser rights than Jewish citizens, as expressed in more than 30 laws that privilege the rights of Jews over non-Jews. Also, Jews are treated under Israeli civil law when they move into the occupied territories as settlers, whereas Palestinian citizens are increasingly likely to be treated under Israeli military law when they visit Palestinian relatives in the “closed military zones” in the occupied territories.
As for Israeli nationality, this does not officially exist. Israel offers its citizens a range of more than 130 different nationalities, including “Jew” and “Arab”, but not “Israeli”. This is because Israel is the state of the Jews, so the only nationality that counts in Israel is Jewish nationality. In this way, all Jews wherever they live — even outside Israel — are in some sense Israeli nationals, whereas Palestinian citizens of Israel cannot be real nationals because they are not Jewish. In other words, Israel gerrymanders its own definition of nationality to make sure that all Jews have rights in Israel that trump the rights of non-Jews, even those non-Jews who are citizens. You need a good lawyer to decipher the small print in that scam.
How widespread is the identity crisis among Israelis?
Very widespread. Israel is riven with ideological, religious, class, and ethnic differences. The ultra-Orthodox Jews are mostly not Zionists; the settlers are driven by an ideology that is seen by some as potentially jeopardising the Jewish state’s earlier territorial successes; the Arab Jews, the Mizrahim, are treated as inferior Jews by the European Ashkenzim; the military-industrial elite views the state as a vehicle for their own financial exploitation of Palestinians and other Jews. But these deep differences are subsumed in a bigger manufactured Jewish consensus that regards the “Arabs” as an existential threat to Israel because they are seen as forever plotting to commit genocide against the Jews. As long as Jews can be persuaded of this existential threat, they largely agree to put aside their differences. This is another reason why Israel has little reason to make peace with the Palestinians.
What differentiates Israeli political parties? What are their common points?
The various Jewish political parties reflect a fairly narrow internal disagreement about how best to secure the interests of Israel as a Jewish state. (There are a few Palestinian parties but by the agreement of the Jewish parties they have almost no influence on the political process.) That means that there is a large area of consensus among the Jewish parties: all are agreed that a Right of Return of Palestinians must be prevented at all costs; all are agreed that a binational state, a confederation or a power-sharing arrangement with the Palestinians is out of the question; and all are agreed that privileges for Jewish citizens must be preserved and that Palestinian parties should have minimal influence.
Where they differ is on the question of what are the best conditions needed to secure a Jewish state. The left thinks that some kind of withdrawal from Palestinian areas will cement Israelis’ identification with their state and make its borders more defensible. The extent of the parties’ “leftness” is determined by the extent to which they believe withdrawal should accord with Israel’s pre-1967 borders and the degree to which they want to let Palestinians have some taste of sovereignty after this withdrawal. That is essentially why Meretz is considered more leftwing that Labor. The right, on the other hand, believes that the Palestinians will continue posing a threat to a Jewish state as long as they are allowed to lay claim to some of their historic homeland, or given the space to develop a national identity that might rival the Zionist one. Into the mix on the right are added religious sentiments about chosenness and divine promises. So parties like Likud want the occupation to continue and the Palestinians to be encouraged to identify primarily with tribal, sectarian or ethnic affiliations.
That said, however, these are more trends that discrete ideological positions, which is why a loose consensus has directed policy whether Labor or Likud has been in power. It is also the reason why the centre party, Kadima, founded by Ariel Sharon, was able to occupy the middle ground relatively effortlessly in the last election. It was easy to attract politicians from both the Labor and Likud parties because many of them found more united them than separated them.
Do you think Israel will ultimately accept the formation of a Palestinian state?
No, or at least not in the sense commonly understood as statehood. As might be expected of a state, Israel has only its own interests at heart — and, as I’ve already argued, peace and land division are not considered among them. Instead, it wants to create a Jewish fortress, from which all Palestinians will be excluded, including its 1.2 million Palestinian citizens. That Jewish space will be in expanded borders that will include much of the West Bank. What will be left to the Palestinians will be the territorial scraps left over: the Gaza Strip, and a number of isolated ghettoes in the West Bank, possibly connected by tunnels under Israeli military control. If it can be engineered, Israel will make sure those ghettoes come under rival and competing Palestinian leaderships, as it has already achieved in Gaza. One day those scraps of land may come to be referred to as a Palestinian state by the international community. I suspect Israel would prefer such an outcome because then it can argue that it has the right to transfer its Palestinian citizens into the Palestinian state. In short, Israel’s goal is to imprison the Palestinians in a series of ghettoes, but eventually the West may come around to calling those prisons a state.