Israel's war against Palestine: Now what? - An interview with Noam Chomsky

In this interview with the Israeli Occupation Archive, Noam Chomsky discusses events in the Middle East, the structural reasons behind the United States' support for Israeli policies, and the value of boycott strategies.

Submitted by Django on September 4, 2010

IOA: The Goldstone report, the Abu Dhabi Mossad assassination, the Gaza Flotilla attack: all these have severely weakened Israel's international reputation -- in Europe, in Turkey, in Egypt. How has the US-Israeli relationship fared through all this, and how has this affected the larger US strategic project in the Middle East and its efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Noam Chomsky: I would add the Gaza attack itself, quite apart from the Goldstone report. It was so savage that it led to a substantial change in attitudes among the general population, though not noticeably among the political class or the media. But governmental relations haven't changed, and no change should have been expected. Washington strongly supported the Gaza attack, and participated directly in it. The attack was clearly timed so that Obama could keep to the hypocritical "there's only one president so I cannot comment" stance. It ended, surely by plan, at the moment that he took office, so that he could adopt the posture of "let's look forward and forget the past," very convenient for partners in crime. The media and commentators -- unanimously, to my knowledge -- evaded the central fact about the war: the issue was not whether Israel had a right to defend itself from rockets, but whether it had the right to do so by force. It surely did not, because the US-Israel knew that peaceful means were available but refused to pursue them: accepting Hamas's offer to renew the cease-fire, which Hamas had observed even though Israel did so only partially. That suffices to establish the criminality of the attack. Disproportionality in the use of force is a minor crime by comparison. The other events you mention had little impact in the US, with one exception: there is now some concern in the US military and intelligence that support for Israeli crimes and intransigence may harm military operations in the field. General David Petraeus quickly retracted his comments to this effect, but others are expressing the same concern, among them Bruce Riedel, an influential long-time senior intelligence official and presidential advisor. Israeli intelligence understands this problem very well. Mossad chief Meir Dagan warned the Israeli Knesset that they are treading on thin ice for this reason. That might prove significant.

IOA: The Obama administration announced a Middle East peace initiative following the president's June 2009 speech in Cairo. What is your assessment of this initiative -- what was its original intention and where has it gone, and in what respects does it differ from the policies of previous US administrations?

NC: Obama basically reiterated the terms of the Road Map, which bans Israeli settlement expansion, but with a wink: his spokesperson informed the press that his demands were purely "symbolic" and that unlike Bush I, he would not consider penalties if Israel rejected the demands, as of course it did, in various overt and devious ways. George Mitchell is a reasonable choice as negotiator, but in nominating him Obama made it quite clear that he is not serious about a meaningful political settlement, so that Mitchell's hands are tied. I wrote about that at the time, and won't repeat.

IOA: Arab allies of the US remain committed to the Arab League peace initiative. Is a settlement along these lines -- a Two-State solution, based on the 1967 borders -- consistent with US interests in the region? If so, what is stopping the United States from actually applying pressure on Israel, and not just talking about peace?

NC: The Arab initiative reiterates the longstanding international consensus and goes beyond, calling also for normalization of relations. It is accepted by virtually the entire world, including Iran. Would this be consistent with US interests? It depends on how we understand the phrase "US interests." In general, it is well to bear in mind that the concept "national interest" is a rather mystical one. There are some shared interests among the population: not to be destroyed by nuclear weapons, for example. But on a great many issues interests differ sharply. The interests of the CEO are not the same as those of the woman who cleans his office. The interests of the huge mass of Christian Zionists or those allied with AIPAC are quite different from yours and mine.

It should hardly be controversial that the operative "national interest" is largely determined by those who control the domestic economy, an observation as old as Adam Smith and amply confirmed since. They seem quite satisfied with US rejectionism. In the media, the most fervent supporter of Israeli actions is the Wall Street Journal, the journal of the business world. Though Jews mostly vote for and fund Democrats, the Republican Party is even more extreme than the Democrats in support for Israeli actions, and is even closer to the business community. High tech industry maintains close ties with its Israeli counterparts, and investment continues. For military industry, Israel is a double bonanza: it sells advanced armaments to Israel (courtesy of the US taxpayer) and that induces Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates to purchase a flood of weapons, less advanced, helping to recycle petrodollars and contributing to profits. Close intelligence connections go back to the 1950s. There seems to be no significant domestic force pressing Washington to join the world on this issue. A popular movement might make a difference, but for the present it is too weak and disunited to weigh significantly in the balance. Our primary task should be to change that.

IOA: Recent revelations about Netanyahu's attempts to trick the US and derail the Oslo "peace process" exposed not his "lack of commitment" to the "peace process" but, rather, his commitment to stop it. How far do you think Israel can go against the publicly-declared positions of the United States before the Obama Administration states its displeasure and backs its words with some action? Do you think Washington has the will, or courage, to block further Israeli actions that are designed to stop the "peace process"?

NC: There is so far no sign that Washington has the will, or that some substantial force is pressing it to change direction.

IOA: Netanyahu's on-going settlement program prompted the Palestinian Authority to stop negotiations with Israel. The Palestinians are now in a bind: accepting anything short of a complete stop of settlement construction means negotiating while Israel is undermining their future, while refusing to negotiate allows Israel to continue undermining their future. In the face of Netanyahu's intransigence, what can the Palestinian leadership, current or future, do to extract itself from this predicament? And how can a Palestinian popular movement point its leadership in the right direction?

NC: Israel and its US backers would no doubt prefer for the Palestinian leadership to be immobilized in endless negotiations, while the concrete work of colonization proceeds -- the traditional Zionist practice for a century. But the Palestinian leadership has other choices, and to some extent is pursuing them. Among these are boycotting settlements, participating in non-violent protests at Bil'in, Sheikh Jarrah, and elsewhere; construction and development, even in Area C (the area of full Israeli control), and rebuilding when Israel destroys what they do; countering the US-Israeli program since Oslo of splitting the West Bank and Gaza and finding ways to bring together conflicting factions; and vigorously making their case internationally, particularly in the US, which will continue to play a decisive role for the foreseeable future.

This last effort raises what should be the crucial question for those of us in the US. It is not our right or responsibility to lecture the Palestinian leadership on what they should do. That is up to the Palestinians to decide. But it is very definitely our responsibility to focus attention on what we should be doing. Of prime importance is to educate and organize the American public and to develop popular forces that can overcome the dominant propaganda images that sustain the US policies that have been undermining Palestinian rights. Here the tasks are vast. The examples I briefly mentioned are illustrations. On none of these issues is there public understanding beyond extremely narrow circles. Even the absurd doctrine that the US is an "honest broker" desperately seeking to bring together two recalcitrant opponents is reiterated daily with almost no challenge. Thus the US is hailed for conducting "proximity talks" between Netanyahu and Abbas. Departing from doctrinal mythology, some neutral entity should be conducting proximity talks between the US and the world, elementary truths that are next to incomprehensible in the US or much of the West. The same is true on specific issues. Take the invasion of Gaza. It is little understood that it was a US-Israeli invasion. Furthermore, there is virtually no recognition of the crucially important fact that the primary issue was not disproportionality or specific crimes during the military operations, but rather the right to use force in the first place, which was in fact zero, as mentioned. Skirting this central issue, as is done in virtually all commentary and even in the human rights investigations, gives the US-Israel a "free pass," restricting critique to what are footnotes to the major crime. It is a major failing of the Palestine solidarity movements to have left such myths as these virtually unshaken.

In these and other areas there are important tasks of education and organization that have to be addressed seriously if US policies are to be shifted. They should lead to actions focusing on specific short-term objectives: ending the savage and criminal siege of Gaza; dismantling the illegal "Separation Wall," by now a de facto annexation wall; withdrawing the IDF from the illegally annexed Golan Heights and from the West Bank (including illegally annexed "Greater Jerusalem"), which would, presumably, be followed by departure of most of settlers, all of whom, including those in East and expanded Jerusalem, have been transferred (and heavily subsidized) illegally, as Israel recognized as far back as 1967; and of course ending all Israeli construction and other actions in the occupied territories. Popular movements in the US should work to end any US participation in these criminal activities, which would, effectively, end them. That can be done, but only if a level of general understanding is reached that far surpasses what exists today. That is not a very difficult task as compared to many others that popular movements have confronted in the past, often with some success. In fact, it pretty much amounts to insistence that we act in conformity with domestic and international law, and that we adopt the "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" called for in the Declaration of Independence. Hardly a radical stance, or one that should be difficult to bring to the general public, with enough effort. This by no means exhausts what should be our concerns. Others include the desperate conditions of refugees outside of Palestine, particularly in Lebanon. An immediate concern is to relieve these conditions, though what we can do in this case is more limited. There is no shortage of immediate tasks to be addressed.

IOA: What is your view of the current approaches of those opposing the Occupation -- globally, as well as in the US? Where do you stand on BDS in its various forms? Your position on BDS has, at times, been challenged by anti-occupation activists. Has your position evolved over time? Is BDS more appropriate in Europe than in the US? And, what other strategies and tactics do you think people opposing the Occupation should focus on?

NC: The most important tasks, I think, are those I just briefly sketched, particularly in the US but also in Europe, where illusions are also widespread and far-reaching. There are many familiar tactics and strategies as to how to pursue these crucial objectives. They can also be supplemented by various forms of direct action, such as what is now called "BDS," though that is only one of many tactical options. Merely to mention one, demonstrations at corporate headquarters, especially when coordinated in many countries, have sometimes been quite effective. And there are many other choices familiar from many years of activism.

As for what is now called BDS, my views are the same as when I was engaged in these actions well before the BDS efforts crystallized, and I am unaware of any challenge to them apart from inevitable disagreement on specific cases that are unclear. BDS is a tactic, one of many, and not a doctrine of faith. Like other tactics, particular implementations of BDS have to be evaluated by familiar criteria. Crucial among them is the likely consequences for the victims. As those seriously involved in anti-Indochina war activities will recall, the Vietnamese strongly objected to Weathermen tactics, which were understandable in the light of the horrendous atrocities but seriously misguided, predictably strengthening support for state violence. The Vietnamese urged nonviolent tactics that would help educate public opinion and increase popular opposition to the wars, and didn't care whether protesters "feel good" about what they are doing. Similar issues arise constantly, in the case of BDS as well. Some implementations have been highly constructive, both in educating the public here -- a primary consideration always -- and in raising the costs of participation in ongoing crimes. Good examples are boycotting settlement products and US corporations that are engaged in support for the occupation. Such actions both impose costs and help educate the public here, by emphasizing what should be our prime concern: our own major role in these criminal actions, which is what we can hope to influence. It would be sensible to go far beyond: for example, to join the appeal of Amnesty International for termination of all military aid to Israel, which violates international law as AI observes, and domestic law as well. Unfortunately, there have been other initiatives that were poorly formulated and played directly into the hands of hardliners, who of course welcome them. Again it is easy to identify examples. We should at least be able to learn from ample experience, as well as to understand the reasons for these different consequences.

Careful evaluation of tactical choices is sometimes disparaged as "lacking principle." That is a serious error, another gift to hardline supporters of violence and repression. It is the tactical choices that have direct human consequences. Evaluating them is often difficult, and reasonable people may have different judgments in particular cases, but the principle of selecting tactical choices that help the victims and rejecting those that harm them should not be controversial among people concerned about the Palestinians. And it should also not be controversial that those who differ in particular judgments should be able to unite in pursuing the common goals of helping the victims, and should avoid the destructive tendencies that sometimes arise in popular movements to try to impose a Party Line to which all must conform. Norman Finkelstein has recently warned that BDS is sometimes taking on a cult-like character, another tendency that has sometimes undermined popular movements. His warnings are apt.

Tactical priorities should be somewhat different in Europe and the US, because of their different roles. The US stand is a decisive factor in implementing Israel's policies, and therefore tactics here should aim to bring to the fore the US role, which is what activists can hope to influence most effectively. Tactics in Europe should be directed to what Europeans should know about and can directly influence: their own role in perpetuating the crimes against Palestinians.

IOA: Finally, what are the prospects for Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and under siege in Gaza?

NC: One is along the lines I outlined earlier: withdrawal of the IDF from the occupied territories, ending the siege of Gaza and the efforts to separate it from West Bank, etc. That would probably lead to some variant of the international consensus on a two-state settlement, perhaps along the lines almost reached in the Taba negotiations of January 2001 (called off prematurely by Israel, another important matter virtually swamped by propaganda here) or the Geneva Accord presented in December 2003, welcomed by most of the world, rejected by Israel, ignored by Washington.

There is much discussion of what is often taken to be the alternative to a two-state settlement: "hand over the keys" of the territories to Israel, and then wage a civil rights/anti-apartheid struggle within the whole of Palestine. But there is no reason to suppose that the US-Israel would accept the keys, because they have another alternative that doesn't leave them with a "demographic problem": continue the US-backed Israeli programs of takeover of what is valuable in the occupied territories, leaving Palestinians in unviable cantons, with an island of elite prosperity in Ramallah, basically adopting the Sharon plan (essentially Olmert's "convergence" of 2006) and the advice of Israeli industrialists years ago to shift policy from colonialism to neo-colonialism. The basic outlines are familiar, and by now Israel has effectively taken over more than 40% of the West Bank, isolating it from Gaza -- with decisive US military, economic, diplomatic and ideological support throughout.

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