As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently observed, we are at a ‘critical point‘ in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In a New Left Project interview earlier this month, Norman Finkelstein presented an in-depth analysis of where the Israeli-Palestinian talks being brokered by Kerry are heading, the gist of which was: in the absence of a revived Palestinian movement, the U.S. and Israel will successfully impose Israel’s terms of settlement on an unprecedentedly weak Palestinian leadership, inflicting an in-all-likelihood decisive defeat on the Palestinians’ decades-long struggle for self-determination.
As diplomacy picks up pace and an agreement draws nearer, we will publish periodic updates on the situation from Finkelstein. The following is adapted from a conversation with NLP’s Jamie Stern-Weiner.
There have been, since our previous discussion, three major developments worth noting.
(1) Israel’s appetite has increased with eating
Things have been moving along more or less as Secretary of State Kerry hoped, except he has made one miscalculation. Like myself, Kerry assumed that if he adopted the consistent positions Israel took during the 2008 Annapolis negotiations, he would have the Israelis in his back pocket. He didn’t anticipate the dynamic whereby with each mouthful, Israel’s hunger increases. Seeing how weak the PA is, and how accommodating Kerry is, some Israelis now figure, why not ask for more?
So they throw in a demand for a fourth settlement bloc; they throw in Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state”; they throw in annexation of the Jordan Valley—none of which was salient in the Annapolis negotiations. At Annapolis, the Israeli position on the Jordan Valley was exactly what Kerry is now offering—the presence of an international force, while minor technical disputes such as control over the electromagnetic spectrum still had to be resolved. But some Israelis are now thinking, What the hell, we’ve got the room, why not ask for the whole house?
What’s more, they might be right. The Palestinians are politically so weak, perhaps Israel really can get a lot more. Kerry will not accept egg on his face again after his humiliation during the Syrian chemical weapons crisis. There will be probably be a balancing act: on the one hand, Kerry will try to incorporate a part of Israel’s enlarged demands, while, on the other, the Europeans will continue to turn the screws on Israel.
(2) Inside Israel, the politicking phase has begun
Inside Israel, different interest groups and lobbies are aligning themselves. One group that has come to the fore in recent days are what Noam Chomsky calls the “rational capitalists.” For these very wealthy business elites, “Israel” is just a pinprick on the map. They have a more grandiose vision. They want to create something akin to a Greater Middle East Co-Prosperity Sphere, with Israel playing the role of Japan. There has been a significant rapprochement recently between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and not a day passes without a report of Israeli officials travelling to some meeting in the Gulf. These rational capitalists now see an opportunity to realise their regional (even global) ambitions by ending the conflict with the Palestinians. They don’t want a stupid little thing like the Jordan Valley to stand in the way of an opening in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
But the stake that a lot of Israelis have developed in an on-going conflict also shouldn’t be underestimated. Defence Minister Ya’alon, who has been mouthing off about Israel retaining the Jordan Valley, is a good example. Ya’alon is perfectly aware that the Jordan Valley has zero strategic value. But he has outsize influence in Israeli society because he’s a military man in a highly militarised society. If the vision of Israel’s rational capitalists is realised and a settlement is reached, his influence will be somewhat diminished. And so he has a stake in maintaining an atmosphere of low-intensity conflict.
This touches on a broader political issue. In my opinion, a lot of people misunderstand politics as being determined by an overriding motive. Take the US-led attack on Iraq in 2003. The standard question back then was, What is Bush’s motive? Some people said it was oil; others said it was the Israel Lobby; others pointed to the arms industry. But in politics, I don’t think it’s right to look for a single, decisive motive. What you have, instead, is a confluence of interests, the preponderance of which weighs on one side or the other in the political scales. In the case of Iraq, Karl Rove wanted an invasion for a narrow political objective: to see Bush re-elected. Politics has its own autonomy; it’s not simply reducible to economic interests. Then there were those who were in it for the oil, or who saw great opportunities in occupying (and rebuilding) Iraq. Then, there were those who saw it as an opportunity to assert U.S. power on the world stage, or to reshape the map of the Middle East. There was a confluence of interests, the preponderance of which favoured an attack. It’s probably even true that a psychological element—Bush’s tortured relationship with his father—played some role in the decision to attack. It sounds petty, but in politics, if you’ve got a lot of power, the petty can play a big role. Palestinian President Abbas’s quest for a Nobel and exacting retrospective revenge on the late PLO chairman Yasser Arafat (who humiliated him) are probably factors in his calculation.
In Israel right now, the various interest groups are lining up on one side or the other. So, the rational capitalists and centrist politicians like Tzipi Livni favour an agreement, while the settler stalwarts, Zionist ideologues and elements of the military establishment oppose it. Then there are people like Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman, for whom it is a primarily political issue. Netanyahu wants to remain in power and Lieberman wants to succeed him, so they have to balance the competing interest groups and also be careful not to offend Washington.
(3) The Palestinians remain a null factor
The third factor is noteworthy by its absence: the Palestinians. The Palestinians know they’re being steamrollered. In all the coverage now, they’re basically a footnote. Arafat used to shuffle from one Arab and European capital to another whenever a crisis developed. He clocked more air miles than Henry Kissinger. Today, we have the desperate Palestinian leadership shuttling—but to where? To the Al Quds Committee. For Christ’s sake, has anyone even heard of the Al Quds Committee? It’s a claque of octogenarians who sit around all day with their tea and shisha. Now it’s reported that Abbas is headed for Russia. As if Putin at this moment gives a hoot about Palestine. For the first time since its emergence a century ago, the Palestine question has been reduced to its puny geographical dimensions: a “provincial” struggle. I hate to repeat that awful cliché, but if Arafat was a tragedy, this is farce cubed. It is very telling that Abbas’s right-hand man Saeb Erekat considers the Ha’aretz journalist Jack Khoury a bigger ally than the Palestinian people. He whispers in the ears of Ha’aretz to vent Palestinian grievances. But to the Palestinian people? Nothing. And from all indications, the people don’t care.
The poles of the debate are now being established as, on one extreme, the Kerry proposal (in essence, the Israeli position at Annapolis), and on the other extreme, those within Israel who don’t want to give up anything. The Palestinian position has vanished from the debate. Palestinians will protest when the steamroller runs over them, at which point everyone will say, “Are you still talking about the settlement blocs? That was already agreed upon.” And the Palestinians will then appear to be the spoilers.
What is the upshot of these three factors? A framework agreement will be reached shortly. Tzipi Livni and Yitzchak Molcho wouldn’t have gone to Washington otherwise—they’re down to the details now. The Palestinians are due to visit next week, when they’ll be given their marching orders.
The Palestinian leadership will continue to posture, out of its usual alloy of stupidity and desperation. In Israel, the politicking will continue. As happened in South Africa during the 1980s, the rational capitalists will split off from the ideological true-believers. Interest blocs will crystallize and there will probably be an election. My guess is, those in favour of ending the conflict will win.
Some supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) interpret the recent hysteria in Israel about the threat of an international boycott as their victory. In Israeli politics, as discussed, the different interest groups are lining up: the settlers to retain all the settlements (not just the major settlement blocs in which 85% of the settlers reside), the rational capitalists because of regional (and global) ambitions, the defence establishment because of domestic prestige and perquisites—and no one because of BDS. These Israeli billionaires are not worried about an American Studies Association vote. They’re not even worried about an EU boycott of settlement products; their ambitions are much bigger than a can opener factory in Ariel. They’re not being browbeaten by BDS, they’re using BDS to mobilize public support for their own narrow agenda. BDS is as significant a factor as the Al Quds Committee.
Norman Finkelstein is the author of Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End (OR Books, 2012) and, with Mouin Rabbani, How to Solve the Israel-Palestine Conflict (OR Books, forthcoming).
Jamie Stern-Weiner co-edits New Left Project.