Israel, Palestine and the Hypocrisies of Power – an interview with Noam Chomsky

What is your view of the situation in Gaza today? Could it mark the beginning of the end for the Palestinian Authority?

Some background is necessary. Let’s begin with January 2006, when Palestinians voted in a carefully monitored election, pronounced to be free and fair by international observers - despite US efforts to swing the election towards their favourite, Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party. But Palestinians committed a grave crime, by Western standards. They voted ‘the wrong way’. The US instantly joined Israel in punishing Palestinians for their misconduct, with Europe toddling along behind as usual.

There is nothing novel about the reaction to these Palestinian misdeeds. Though it is obligatory to hail our leaders for their sincere dedication to bringing democracy to a suffering world - perhaps in an excess of idealism - the more serious scholar/advocates of the mission of ‘democracy promotion’ recognize that there is a ‘strong line of continuity’ running through all administrations: the US supports democracy if, and only if, it conforms to US strategic and economic interests (Thomas Carothers, head of the Law and Democracy Program of the Carnegie Endowment). In short, the project is pure cynicism, if viewed honestly. The US project should be described as one of blocking democracy, not promoting it - dramatically so in the case of Palestine.

The punishment of Palestinians for the crime of voting the wrong way was severe. With constant US backing, Israel increased its violence in Gaza, withheld funds that it was legally obligated to transmit to the Palestinian Authority, tightened its siege and, in a gratuitous act of cruelty, even cut off the flow of water to the arid Gaza Strip. The Israeli attacks became far more severe after the capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit on 25 June, which the West portrayed as a terrible crime.

Again, pure cynicism. Just one day before, Israel kidnapped two civilians in Gaza – a far worse crime than capturing a soldier – and transported them to Israel (in violation of international law, but that is routine), where they presumably joined the roughly 1,000 prisoners held by Israel without charges, hence kidnapped. None of this merits more than a yawn in the West.

There is no need here to run through the ugly details. The US-Israel made sure that Hamas would not have a chance to govern. Of course, the two leaders of the rejectionist camp flatly rejected Hamas’s call for a long-term cease-fire to allow for negotiations for a settlement in terms of the international consensus on a two-state settlement, which the US-Israel reject - as they have done in virtual isolation for over 30 years, with rare and temporary departures.

Meanwhile, Israel stepped up its programmes of annexation, dismemberment and imprisonment of shrinking Palestinian cantons in the West Bank, always with decisive US backing, despite occasional minor complaints accompanied by the wink of an eye and munificent funding. The programmes were formalized in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s ‘convergence programme’, which spells the end of any viable Palestinian state. His programme was greeted in the West with much acclaim as ‘moderate’, because it did not satisfy the demands of ‘greater Israel’ extremists. It was soon abandoned as ‘too moderate’, again with understanding - if mild - notes of disapproval by Western hypocrites.

There is a standard operating procedure for overthrowing an unwanted government: arm the military to prepare for a military coup. The US-Israel adopted this conventional plan, arming and training Fatah to win by force what it lost at the ballot box. The US also encouraged Mahmoud Abbas to amass power in his own hands - steps that are quite appropriate in the eyes of Bush administration advocates of presidential dictatorship. As for the rest of the Quartet, Russia has no principled objection to such steps, the UN is powerless to defy the Master and Europe is too timid to do so.

Egypt and Jordan supported the effort, consistent with their own programmes of internal repression and barring of democracy, with US backing.

The strategy backfired. Despite the flow of military aid, Fatah forces in Gaza were defeated in a vicious and brutal conflict, which many close observers describe as a pre-emptive strike, targeting primarily the security forces of the brutal Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan (Alistair Crooke, Jonathan Steele, and others).

However, those with overwhelming power can often snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and the US-Israel quickly moved to turn the outcome to their benefit. They now have a pretext for tightening the stranglehold on the people of Gaza, cheerfully pursuing policies that the prominent international law scholar Richard Falk describes as a prelude to genocide that ‘should remind the world of the famous post-Nazi pledge of “never again”’.

The US-Israel can pursue the project with international backing, unless Hamas meets the three conditions imposed by the ‘international community’ - a technical term referring to the US Government and whoever goes along with it. For Palestinians to be permitted to peek out of the walls of their Gaza dungeon, Hamas must: (1) recognize Israel or, in a more extreme form, Israel’s ‘right to exist’ - that is, the legitimacy of their expulsion from their homes; (2) renounce violence; (3) accept past agreements - in particular, the Road Map of the Quartet.

The hypocrisy again is stunning. No such conditions are imposed on those who wear the jackboots: (1) Israel does not recognize Palestine, in fact is devoting extensive efforts to ensure that there will be no viable Palestine ever, always with decisive US support; (2) Israel does not renounce violence - and it is ridiculous even to raise the question with regard to the US; (3) Israel firmly rejects past agreements, in particular, the Road Map, with US support. The first two points are obvious. The third is correct, but scarcely known. While Israel formally accepted the Road Map, it attached 14 Reservations that completely eviscerate it. To take just the first, Israel demanded that for the process to commence and continue, the Palestinians must ensure full quiet, education for peace, cessation of incitement, dismantling of Hamas and other organizations, and other conditions. Even if they were to satisfy these virtually impossible demands, the Israeli Cabinet proclaimed that ‘the Roadmap will not state that Israel must cease violence and incitement against the Palestinians’. The other reservations continue in the same vein.

Israel’s instant rejection of the Road Map, with US support, is unacceptable to the Western self-image, so it has been suppressed. The facts did finally break into the mainstream with the publication of Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The book elicited a torrent of abuse and desperate efforts to discredit it, but these sections – the only part of the book that would have been new to readers with some familiarity with the topic – were scrupulously avoided. It would, rightly, be considered utterly ludicrous to demand that a political party in the US or Israel meet such conditions - though it would be fair to ask that the two states with overwhelming power meet them. But the imperial mentality is so deeply embedded in Western culture that this travesty passes without criticism, even notice.

While now in a position to crush Gaza with even greater cruelty, Israel can also proceed, with US backing, to implement its plans in the West Bank, expecting to have the tacit co-operation of Fatah leaders, who will be amply rewarded for their capitulation. Among other steps, Israel began to release the funds – estimated at $600 million – that it had stolen in reaction to the January 2006 election, and is making a few other gestures. The programmes of undermining democracy are proceeding with shameless self-righteousness and ill-concealed pleasure, with gestures to keep the natives contented – at least those who play along - while Israel continues its merciless repression and violence ; and, of course, its immense projects to ensure that it will take over whatever is of value to it in the West Bank. All thanks to the benevolence of the gracious rich uncle.

To turn, finally, to your question ; the end of the Palestinian Authority might not be a bad idea for Palestinians, in the light of US-Israeli programmess of rendering it nothing more than a quisling regime to oversee their extreme rejectionist designs. What should concern us much more is that US-Israeli triumphalism - and European cowardice - might be the prelude to the death of a nation, a rare and somber event.

Do you think that there are any conditions under which the US might change its policy of 'unconditional support' for Israel?

A large majority of Americans oppose US Government policy and support the international consensus on a two-state settlement - in recent polls it’s called the ‘Saudi Plan’, referring to the position of the Arab League, supported by virtually the entire world, apart from the US and Israel. Furthermore, a large majority think that the US should deny aid to either of the contending parties – Israel and the Palestinians – if they do not negotiate in good faith towards this settlement. This is one of a great many illustrations of a huge gap between public opinion and public policy on critical issues.

It should be added that few people are likely to be aware that their preferences would lead to cutting off all aid to Israel. To understand this consequence one would have to escape the grip of the powerful and largely uniform doctrinal system, which labours to project an image of US benevolence, Israeli righteousness and Palestinian terror and obstructionism, whatever the facts. To answer your question: US policy might well change if the US became a functioning democratic society, in which an informed public has a meaningful voice in policy formation. That’s the task for activists and organizers, and not just in this case. One can think of other possible conditions that might lead to a change in US policy, but none that holds anywhere near as much promise as this one.

What message do you think the appointment of Tony Blair as the Quartet’s envoy will send to the Palestinians and others around the region?

Perhaps the most apt comment was by the fine Lebanese political analyst Rami Khouri. He said that ‘appointing Tony Blair as special envoy for Arab-Israeli peace is something like appointing the Emperor Nero to be the chief fireman of Rome’.

Blair was indeed appointed as an envoy, but not as the Quartet’s envoy, except in name. The Bush administration made it very clear at once that he is Washington’s envoy, with a very limited mandate. It announced in no uncertain terms that Secretary of State Rice (and the President) would retain unilateral control over the important issues, while Blair would be permitted to deal only with problems of institution building - an impossible task as long as Washington maintains its extreme rejectionist policies. Europe had no noticeable reaction to yet another slap in the face. Washington evidently assumes that Blair will continue to be ‘the spear-carrier for the Pax Americana’, as his role was described in the journal of Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Do you think that the corporate media in the US should worry about its lies and fantasies being exposed by online fringe media (ZNet, Counterpunch, GNN, etc), or is there a finite limit on how far these alternative media can ever penetrate in a population like the US?

For the present, the media – and the intellectual community – need not be too concerned about the exposure of ‘lies and fantasies’. The limit is determined by the strength and commitment of popular movements. They certainly face barriers, but there is no reason to think they are insurmountable ones.

Do you see any cracks in American Zionism? Do you see any factors that would at least temper it, and force a more pragmatic policy?

One has to be cautious in speaking of American Zionism. The most strident and extremist voices are those of the organized Jewish community. They do not reflect the opinions of most American Jews. That is probably true of ethnic diaspora communities generally, but it has been dramatically true in this case since 1967, when attitudes towards Israel changed radically for a variety of reasons, many of them having little to do with Israel.

For the late Edward W Said, the solution was one state where all the citizens (Arabs, Jews, Christians…) will have the same democratic rights. Do you think that because of the situation in Gaza and the ever-spreading settlements, the pendulum will now swing towards a one-state solution, as being the only possible end point to the conflict?

Two points of clarification are necessary. First, there is a crucial difference between a one-state solution and a bi-national state. In general, nation-states have been imposed with substantial violence and repression; for one reason, because they seek to force varied and complex populations into a single mold. One of the more healthy developments in Europe today is the revival of some degree of regional autonomy and cultural identity, reflecting somewhat more closely the nature of the populations.

In the case of Israel-Palestine, a one-state solution will arise only on the US model: with extermination or expulsion of the indigenous population. A sensible approach would be advocacy of a bi-national solution, recognizing that the territory now includes two fairly distinct societies. The second point is that Edward Said – an old and close friend – was one of the earliest and most outspoken supporters of a two-state solution. By the 1990s he felt that the opportunity had been lost and he proposed, without much specification, a unitary state - by which I am sure he would have meant a bi-national state.

I purposely use the word ‘propose’, not ‘advocate’. The distinction is crucial. We can propose that everyone should live in peace and harmony. The proposal rises to the level of advocacy when we sketch a path from here to there. In the case of a unitary (bi-national) solution, the only advocacy I know of passes through a number of stages: first a two-state settlement - in terms of the international consensus that the US-Israel have prevented - followed by moves towards bi-national federation, and finally closer integration, perhaps to a bi-national democratic state, as circumstances allow.

It is of some interest that when bi-nationalist federation, opening the way to closer integration, was feasible – from 1967 to the mid-1970s – suggestions to this effect (my own writings, for example) elicited near hysteria. Today, when they are completely unfeasible, they are treated with respect in the mainstream (New York Times, New York Review of Books, etc.). The reason, I suspect, is that a call today for a one-state settlement is a gift to the jingoist right, who can then wail that ‘they are trying to destroy us, so we must destroy them in self-defence’. But true advocacy of a bi-national state seems to me just as appropriate as it has always been. That has been my unchanged opinion since the 1940s. Advocacy, that is, not mere proposal.

Looking ahead, what do you consider to be the best case, worst case and most likely scenarios for the boundaries and control of occupied Palestine in the next 10 years?

The worst case would be the destruction of Palestine. The best case, in the short term, would be a two-state settlement in terms of the international consensus. That is by no means impossible. It is supported by virtually the entire world, including the majority of the US population. It has come rather close, once, during the last month of Clinton’s presidency, the sole US departure from extreme rejectionism in the past 30 years. The US lent its support to the negotiations in Taba, Egypt (January 2001), which came very close to a settlement in the general terms of the international consensus, before they were called off prematurely by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. In their final press conference, the negotiators expressed some hope that if they had been permitted to continue their joint work a settlement could have been reached. The years since have seen many horrors, but the possibility remains.

As for the most likely scenario, it looks unpleasantly close to the worst case - but human affairs are not predictable: too much depends on will and choice.

The University and College Union in Britain has recently voted in favour of considering an academic boycott of Israeli universities. Do you think that this and other types of boycott are appropriate measures and could have a positive effect on Israeli policies?

I have always been sceptical about academic boycotts. There may be overriding reasons, but in general I think that those channels should be kept open. As for boycotts in general, they are a tactic, not a principle. Like other tactics, we have to evaluate them in terms of their likely consequences. That is a matter of prime importance, at least for those who care about the fate of the victims. And circumstances have to be considered with care.

Let’s consider South Africa and Israel, which are often compared in this context. In the case of South Africa, boycotts had some impact, but it is worth remembering that they were implemented after a long period of education and organizing, which had led to widespread condemnation of apartheid, even within mainstream opinion and powerful institutions. That included the US corporate sector, which has an overwhelming influence on policy formation. At that stage, boycott became an effective instrument.

The case of Israel is radically different. The preparatory educational and organizing work has scarcely been done. The result is that calls for boycott can easily turn out to be weapons for the hard right, and in fact that has regularly (and predictably) happened. Those who care about the fate of Palestinians will not undertake actions that harm them.

Nevertheless, carefully targeted boycotts, which are comprehensible to the public in the current state of understanding, can be effective instruments.

One example is calls for university divestment from corporations that are involved in US-Israeli repression and violence, and denial of elementary human rights.

In Europe, a sensible move would be to call for an end to preferential treatment for Israeli exports until Israel stops its systematic destruction of Palestinian agriculture and its barring of economic development.

In the US, it would make good sense to call for reducing US aid to Israel by the estimated $600 million that Israel has stolen by refusing to transmit funds to the elected government. And the cynicism of funneling aid to the faction it supports should be exposed as just another exercise in undermining democracy.

Looking farther ahead, a sensible project would be to support the stand of the majority of Americans that all aid to Israel should be cancelled, until it agrees to negotiate seriously for a peaceful diplomatic settlement, instead of continuing to act vigorously to undermine the possibility of realizing the international consensus on a two-state settlement.

That, however, will require serious educational and organizational efforts. Readers of the mainstream press were well aware of the shocking nature of apartheid. But they are presented daily with the picture of Israel desperately seeking peace, but under constant attack by Palestinian terrorists who want to destroy it.

That is not just the media, incidentally. Just to illustrate, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government published a research paper on the 2006 Lebanon war that has to be read to be believed - but is not untypical. It’s by Marvin Kalb, a highly respected figure in journalism, head of the Kennedy School’s media programme. According to his account, the media were almost totally controlled by Hezbollah, and failed to recognize that Israel was ‘engaged in an existential struggle for survival’, fighting a two-front war of self-defence against attacks in Lebanon and Gaza. The attack on the pathetic victim from the south was the capture of Corporal Shalit. The kidnapping of Gaza civilians the day before, and innumerable other crimes like it, are more self-defence.

The attack from the north was the Hezbollah capture of two soldiers on 12 July. More cynicism. For decades Israel has been kidnapping and killing civilians in Lebanon, or on the high seas between Lebanon and Cyprus, holding many for long periods as hostages, while unknown numbers of others were sent to secret prison-torture chambers, like Facility 1391 (not reported in the US). No-one has ever condemned Israel for aggression or called for massive terror attacks in retaliation. As always, the cynicism reeks to the skies, illustrating imperial mentality so deeply rooted as to be imperceptible.

Continuing with the Kennedy School version of the war - it demonstrates the extreme bias of the Arab press with the horrified revelation that it portrayed Lebanese to Israeli casualties at a ratio of 22-1, whereas objective Western journalism would of course be neutral. The actual ratio was about 25-1.

Kalb quotes New York Times correspondent Steven Erlanger, who was greatly disturbed that photos of destruction in South Beirut lacked context: they did not show that the rest of Beirut was not destroyed. By the same logic, photos of the World Trade Center on 9/11 revealed the extreme bias of Western journalism by failing to show that the rest of New York was untouched. The falsification and deceit - of which these are a small sample - would be startling if they were not so familiar. Until that is overcome, punitive actions that are well-merited are likely to backfire.

All of this raises another point. For the most part, Israel can act only within the framework established by the Great Power on which it has chosen to rely ever since it made the fateful decision, in 1971, to prefer expansion to peace, rejecting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s proposal for a full Israel-Egyptian peace treaty in favor of settlement in the Egyptian Sinai. We can debate the extent to which Israel relies on US support, but there can be little doubt that its crushing of Palestinians and other violent crimes are possible only because the US provides it with unprecedented economic, military, diplomatic and ideological support.

So, if there are to be boycotts, why not of the US, whose support of Israel is the least of its crimes? Or of the UK, or other criminal states? We know the answer, and it is not an attractive one, undermining the integrity of the call for boycott.

©Palestine Solidarity Campaign 2007