The year 2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories during the 1967 war. In this exchange with freelance journalist Tommaso Segantini, Norman Finkelstein, renowned scholar and political activist, and author of – among other works – “Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict” and “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering,” discusses various issues relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict, including the legacy of the Obama administration, the possibility of reaching a reasonable settlement in the future, and the prospects and strategy of Palestinian resistance.
The U.S. scholar’s combination of rare intellectual rigor and an extraordinary moral force offers a lucid and perceptive account of the long-lasting conflict in the Middle East between Israel, the Palestinians and the surrounding states. Finkelstein keeps an eye toward the future, guided by his quest for truth and justice that has marked his political militancy during the course of his life.
Tommaso Segantini: The U.S. and Israel recently reached a deal worth US$38 billion worth of aid for the next decade. The current presidential candidates from the two major U.S. parties appear to offer total continuity with past administrations’ unconditional support for Israel. What is your judgment of Obama’s legacy on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and what factors could make the U.S. change its position on Israel in the future?
Norman Finkelstein: The Obama administration’s term of office coincided with the worst devastations witnessed by Gaza since the 1967 war.
Obama was elected to office in Nov. 2008. On Dec. 26, 2008, Operation Cast Lead began. During the assault, 1,400 Gazans were killed, of whom up to 1,200 were civilians, 350 were children. 6,300 homes were destroyed, 600,000 tons of rubble were left behind. Obama stayed silent during the massacre. However, he didn’t want his inauguration to be tarnished or diverted from by Cast Lead, so he conveyed to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to end the attack. Cast Lead ended on Jan. 17, 2009, three days before Obama’s inauguration. He orchestrated the massacre to accommodate his inauguration. He’s a stupefying, repellent narcissist.
Then, in 2014, there’s Operation Protective Edge. 2,200 Gazans were killed, of whom up to 1,600 were civilians, 550 were children. 18,000 homes were destroyed, 2.5 million tons of rubble were left behind. During the massacre, the Obama administration kept repeating the mantra that “Israel had the right to defend itself.” Obama has not simply been the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. He’s been the Enabler-in-Chief of Israel’s periodic depredations.
It’s revealing how Operation Protective Edge ended. On August 3rd, Israel deliberately bombed yet another UN shelter, the seventh targeted by Israel in the course of the massacre. That same day, Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the United Nations and comatose puppet of the United States, finally condemned Israel’s action, describing it as a moral outrage. The Obama administration thus found itself diplomatically isolated in the world. The Obama administration then denounced the attack, and Netanyahu immediately announced the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.
What emerges from these facts is that Obama had, all along, the power to stop the massacres: the moment he spoke up, they ended. The major massacres in Gaza occurred during and were made possible by the Obama administration, and he could have ended them at any point. He ended the first massacre not to spoil his inauguration, and the second massacre because he was isolated diplomatically. I’ve not even mentioned the illegal, immoral, inhuman blockade of Gaza, which began in late 2007, basically coinciding with Obama’s term of office. I think this sums up Obama the insufferable narcissist and the Obama administration’s abysmal record.
Finally, the past few days the Obama administration has been making a lot of noise over the illegal Jewish settlements. This has to amuse. Obama is shocked that Netanyahu is building a settlement! What has been going on during his eight years in office? He just noticed it now, in the last two months of his presidency? The fact is, Obama is just worried about his “legacy,” he wants to have a chapter in his memoirs about how he tried to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict. That is why he is now speaking up about the settlements, and may not veto a Security Council resolution condemning them. He’s just doing it for his memoirs, which will probably run into the tens of volumes.
What is the ultimate goal of Israeli policy? To what degree is Israel’s expansionist policy driven by ideological, economic and political factors?
Norman Finkelstein: Israel has some interest in the water resources in the West Bank, but it couldn’t explain a half-century-long occupation. My impression is that Israel doesn’t want to give up the occupied territories because it sees any concession to the Arab-Muslim world as a sign of weakness. So, once they seize territory, they don’t want to budge.
Take the case when Israel occupied South Lebanon in 1978. The occupation lasted until May 2000. 22 years is a long time, and it was not an easy occupation for Israel. They lost several hundred soldiers, as Hezbollah evolved into an impressive guerrilla army. When it finally withdrew, Israel apparently didn’t suffer the loss of a vital interest. Nevertheless, Israeli forces went back again in 2006, just to show that they didn’t lose in May 2000. It was purely pedagogical; Israel had no material interest, but they were determined to deliver a lesson that they’re still in charge.
Israel also fought very hard not to give up the settlements it built in the Egyptian Sinai after the 1967 war. The Camp David accord of 1979 with Anwar Sadat almost didn’t happen, Israel was so determined to keep the Sinai settlements. In fact, there was one pretty clear reason as to why Israel was so resistant. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin feared that if the settlements in the Sinai were dismantled, it would set a precedent for the dismantlement of the settlements in the West Bank. But the question then becomes: why do they keep the settlements in the West Bank?
Many respected analysts try to tease out rational accounts for state behavior. It appears, however, that in a significant number of cases, the behavior of States cannot be explained rationally, unless you want to consider rational, in the case of Israel, trying to terrify the Arab world into submission. There is not really a rational explanation for Israel to keep the settlements.
There clearly is an ideological element among the fanatical element of Israel’s population. Also, the settlement enterprise is now very big: there are 600,000 settlers, with roads, lots of infrastructure, so there is a huge economic investment in the settlements, and there are people who profit from it. But overall, I don’t see a concrete interest that can explain this fifty-year-long refusal to withdraw.
Which regional realignments and changes that have occurred during the Arab Spring impact the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in what way? What was Israel’s stance towards the Arab uprisings started in 2011?
Norman Finkelstein: Israel was initially resistant to the Arab Spring. For example, in the case of Egypt, the U.S held out until the end in defending Mubarak; when it was clear that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak couldn’t survive, Washington acquiesced in his ouster. Israel faulted and criticized the U.S for not holding out longer and for not defending the Mubarak regime enough.
In the end, the Arab Spring turned out to be a godsend for Israel. There has been a major public realignment in the Arab world. Consider Operation Protective Edge. Egypt and Saudi Arabia openly supported Israel, while Turkey pretty much stayed silent. The Arab League met only once during Protective Edge and effectively supported Israel. The Saudis are now pushing hard for a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict so that they can cement formal military alliances with Israel, while Turkey sealed a deal to settle the Mavi Marmara incident (in which Israel killed nine Turkish citizens on a humanitarian mission to Gaza) and openly align itself with Israel.
It’s been a disaster for the Palestinians; they’re now isolated in the Arab-Muslim world; at this point, their only ally, and only rhetorically, is Iran.
Still, it’s a qualified disaster. These erstwhile Arab-Muslim allies corrupted the Palestinian cause. Palestinians had become pawns of the Saudis. As the Saudi parasites always do, they bought off the PLO, that’s how they function. However, because the Palestine struggle still had the support of its own people, Arafat could maintain some degree of independence. Nowadays, there’s no Palestinian struggle or Palestinian people, there are just atomized individuals, each of whom is trying to do the best for themselves. Mahmoud Abbas has no autonomous power against the Saudis, he just follows orders. The Saudis are now trying to choose a successor to Mahmoud Abbas, and they want this thug from Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, to replace him. The CIA and the Saudis want this guy, and they’ll probably succeed.
It is often claimed that a two-state solution is not possible anymore due to conditions on the ground; you have said that a two state solution is currently not physically impossible, but politically impossible. What are the main political constraints that you refer to? Could you briefly outline on what terms the two sides could reach an agreement on the critical issues of borders, the right of return of refugees, and the status of Jerusalem?
Norman Finkelstein: These are questions that demand technical expertise. It requires knowledge of the physical terrain. Topographers and cartographers on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides say there is a way to retain a contiguous Palestinian state with land swaps so that the total area remains the same as the 1967 borders, while enabling around 60 percent of the illegal Jewish settlers to remain in place under Israeli rule. This would require the evacuation of the remaining 40 percent, which at this point is admittedly not a small number, 240,000 out of 600,000 settlers.
But it’s feasible. Some polls have shown that with sufficient financial inducement, most of the settlers would be willing to leave, because a large part of them are what are called “quality-of-life” settlers, meaning they moved to the West Bank because they were given all sorts of subsidies by the government, housing was cheaper, and so on. A smaller percentage comprise ideological settlers. Even they, if the Israeli army left, would probably pack their bags and head home. The problem, then, is political will.
Today, the occupation for Israel is cost-free: Europe subsidizes the occupation, the Palestinian Authority polices the occupation, while the US protects Israel from any diplomatic fallout. There’s no incentive for Israel to end the occupation. What needs to change is the balance of power, which is at the moment overwhelmingly favorable to Israel.
On the question of the right of return, there is no easy answer. Under international law, Palestinian refugees have the right to return. The major human rights organizations, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have both upheld the right of return; as a legal right, it’s there.
However, politics is distinct from law. There’s no automatic enforcement of the law, unless you are on the side of the powerful. However, if you are on the side of the powerless, you have to figure out how to muster power on behalf of your cause. The question then becomes: given the objective balance of forces in the world today, how much can Palestinians realistically expect to extract from the legal right of return?
Israel has a population of 8.3 million people. Of those 8.3 million, about 6 million are Jewish. The number of Palestinian refugees is about 6 million. Is it realistic to expect that international public opinion at the popular or State level will demand that Israel open its borders such that the number of Palestinians entering the country would be equal to the current Israeli-Jewish population? Right now, Israeli Jews form 75 percent of the Israeli population. If the right of return were implemented in full, the population of Israel would become about 14 million, so Jews would be reduced from being a super-majority to considerably less than half the population. Will public opinion make that demand of Israel? I don’t believe that’s a realistic expectation. The idea of a “Jewish” state in the post-Holocaust world commands (for better or worse) a lot of international legitimacy, while a two-state settlement in which an Arab-Palestinian state exists side-by-side with a “Jewish” state that has an Arab-Palestinian majority doesn’t make sense. One has to craft a formula that can win maximum backing from the international community, which right now supports a “just” resolution of the refugee question “based on” – which is different from, “implementation of” – the right of return (and compensation), in the framework of a two-state settlement.
You have been accused several times from some sectors of the left and of the Solidarity Movement of being establishment-friendly or not radical enough because of your critique to those elements that advocate a one-state solution or something whose logical conclusion would entail the end of Israel as it exists today. I agree with you that the only way to reach a broad public, at this time, is to push for a two-state settlement fully grounded in international law. Why do you think some sectors of the left appear to be, at times, almost ideologically opposed to a two-state settlement, and to what extent do you think their stance, even if in good faith, is harming the process of forming a mass, unitary movement with reachable goals?
Norman Finkelstein: First, on a personal note: I support neither two states nor one state. I’m an old-fashioned leftist, I support no states. The world is a tiny grain of sand spinning in the universe. The idea of chopping it up into states, especially, at this point in time, doesn’t make rational sense. All the major challenges confronting Humanity today, whether it’s climate change or the crisis of capitalism, are global in scope.
But there’s a world of difference between what reason or justice dictates, on the one hand, and what politics allows, on the other. There isn’t any possibility that states will be abolished anytime in the near future.
This doesn’t mean one should give up on their ideals, I haven’t abandoned mine. But politics is about judging what is the balance of forces in the world. The maximum that is possible to achieve at this moment is an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and some reasonable resolution of the refugee question.
One of the problems of the Palestine struggle is that it’s very personalized. Politics is not about what one personally thinks is fair. The question is, can you realistically hope to create a new balance of international forces supporting a one-state solution? In my opinion, the question answers itself. It’s not that I am insufficiently radical; it’s that a lot of activists think politics is choosing what you like from a menu.
Why do you think, then, that even some prominent scholars often advocate a one-state solution?
Norman Finkelstein: Individuals can be very good scholars and not very good political analysts, just like there are skilled politicians who are not very book smart. Politics is a distinct art. Some people have a natural knack for politics, they have rich practical experience, and they have redoubtable native intelligence. I would include in this category Rosa Luxembourg and Leon Trotsky, Noam Chomsky and Allan Nairn, Mahatma Gandhi and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Nasrallah. In general, academics haven’t got a clue about how politics works.
The First Palestinian Intifada of 1987, of which you have been a first hand witness, is considered to have been a success. What particular conditions at the time contributed to the success of the uprising, and what lessons can be drawn from the Intifada for future Palestinian resistance?
Norman Finkelstein: When you say the First Intifada was considered a success, it’s not entirely correct. I consider it a success, and many of the people who remember it consider it as such. However, most young Palestinians don’t remember the Intifada. Your generation has completely forgotten it. Moreover, those who do remember reckon it a failure, because it culminated in the Oslo accords, which were unquestionably a disaster for the Palestinians.
In fact, the First Intifada was a huge success. Two major factors enabled its success. First, the corrupt PLO leadership was headquartered in Algiers at the time, so Palestinians in the occupied territories weren’t constrained by it. Second, the PLO as an institution incorporated lots of vibrant mass organizations – political parties, trade unions, women’s organizations, etc. The Intifada began spontaneously on December 7, 1987, but then all these organizations jumped into the fray, and started organizing and mobilizing, shaping their own destiny. Within a few days, leaflets were being distributed, new voluntary organizations coalescing; literally everyone was involved, from children of age two throwing stones to eighty-year-old women defying the Israeli army. It was a real mass mobilization, with a smart dynamic leadership. The Israelis didn’t know how to respond or what was coming next.
The repression of the Israeli army was terrible, no question about it, but there were limits to how much repression Israel could inflict, because the resistance was nonviolent. By the end of the first Intifada, after two years, about a thousand Palestinians had been killed. That is what happens nowadays in Gaza during Israeli operations lasting a few weeks. Thanks to its reasonable demands – ending the occupation and statehood – the Intifada successfully appealed to international public opinion. (Incidentally, the refugee question was barely mentioned at the time.) As a consequence, Israel’s public relations image was shattered.
The Intifada was a mass mobilization, it had an organizational backbone, and it demobilized Israel’s most powerful weapon, its army. It met the two conditions of a successful nonviolent resistance: the international community viewed the means, nonviolence, as legitimate, and the ends, independent statehood, as legitimate.
BDS says it’s a nonviolent form of resistance, which is absolutely true, and it is not objectionable on those grounds. However, if the ends of BDS are seen as unjust, however nonviolent its means are, they will never get international support, it’s never going to happen. Both the means and the ends have to be conceived by public opinion as being just.