Norman Finkelstein Gaza City June 2009
Last month I wrote to Norman Finkelstein offering to debate the chapter dealing with the Israel lobby theory of Walt and Mearsheimer in his new book, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End. He wrote back to say that’s just one section, and the book has much larger aims, why not discuss them? I agreed, and our email dialogue of the last two weeks follows. Note that this dialogue preceded Finkelstein’s appearance on Democracy Now! Monday.
Norman Finkelstein: My new book is the fruit of three decades of scholarly reflection on the Israel-Palestine conflict and also of being an active participant in the solidarity movement. (I first got involved on June 6, 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon.) It is also the result of perhaps five years of intensive research, and three comprehensive rewrites of the manuscript. An honest reader would, I think, conclude that my book is the substantive version of the “Beinart thesis,” which, as it happens, I articulated in multiple venues long before Beinart came along. You might recall the conversation we had on the bus in Gaza after the 2008-9 Israeli invasion where I laid out my thesis that liberal American Jews were distancing themselves from Israel, and you expressed deep skepticism.
We are now at a crossroads in the conflict. I truly believe it is possible—not certain, not even probable, but still possible—that we can achieve a reasonable settlement within the two-state framework. But achieving this goal will require a maximum of political clarity and a vastly reduced amount of sloganeering.
Weiss: Here is where we differ. A historic compromise has been vitiated. Even David Shulman in the New York Review of Books understands this. And the crossroads we face is explaining to Americans that one regime exists between the river and the sea, and the trick is to make it a democracy. Unlike you, I believe, I would have been a bourgeois in the 1850s, and a Lincoln Republican; I would have been for a two-state solution that allowed slavery to persist in the south and vanish in time. Those historic compromises were also vitiated in the space of a few years; and lo and behold some Americans grew impatient and quoted the words, All people are created equal. As Palestinians are impatient today, and who can blame them. There is no equality under the Israeli regime. There has been none since it was founded.
The error here, on the part of American leaders and maybe you too, is the belief that somehow the failure of the peace process between 1994 and 2012 represents some form of treading water before we really swim. But 18 years is a very long time historically; it blights more than a generation; Arabs took Obama at his word when he went to Cairo and said that the settlements must end.
When the historic compromises of 1830 and 1850 were flouted in the 1850s, there were real results. People became impatient and within six years there was war. And my belief that the intractable question in Israel/Palestine is also likely to be resolved by “verry much bloodshed”—as the revolutionary egalitarian John Brown put it, a person I am sure I would have opposed at the time—is why I support BDS. It is a peaceful process.
Finkelstein: Our disagreements are three-fold: historical, political, and material.
A. There never has been a peace process, but rather an annexation process that used the “peace process” as a facade. The record is quite clear that the Israelis never envisaged a full withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territory and the emergence of a truly independent Palestinian state. Rabin explicitly said this in the Knesset just before his death in 1995. (I run through the record on pp. 232-237 of Knowing Too Much.) Interestingly, even the International Crisis Group, which is generally strong on facts, but feeble (if not awful) on analysis, and which has championed the “peace process” since its inception, comes close to conceding these facts. (See its latest report, “The Emperor Has No Clothes.”) The Palestinian leadership under Arafat signed onto the “peace process” at Oslo because it was headed towards oblivion (bankruptcy) after backing the wrong horse in the First Gulf War. In return for being rescued by Washington and Tel Aviv, the Palestinian leadership agreed to act as Israel’s subcontractors in the occupied Palestinian territory. (Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, in Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, is very frank on this point.) It is therefore analytically incorrect to draw any inferences for the prospects of a two-state settlement from a process that, from the outset, was never intended to achieve a two-state settlement. The only possibility for creating a real peace process, and not the sham of the past 20 years, is to mobilize the Palestinians’ most potent asset—i.e., the population itself—in a nonviolent grassroots struggle along the lines of the first intifada. The succession of practical victories won by the Palestinian hunger strikers (with relatively little concrete support from the Palestinian population) again demonstrated the efficacy of this strategy.
B. The question then becomes, if and when such a grassroots movement takes flight, what will be its goal? Here I think the answer is practical-political, not abstract-moral. Even an invigorated grassroots movement cannot possibly succeed unless it wins the backing of international public opinion, both popular and governmental. In the absence of such broad public support, Israel will have carte blanche to crush Palestinian resistance, however nonviolent. If the mass movement to end Apartheid in South Africa won international support, it’s because the international community had already embraced democratization—i.e., internal self-determination—as the appropriate goal in the South African context. When the Bantustans declared “independence” in the mid-1970s (first Transkei, then Ciskei, Bophuthatswana, and Venda), the international community overwhelmingly voted (in the case of Transkei, 134-0; the U.S. abstained) to declare these entities null and void under international law. But the identical overwhelming majority of UN member States has repeatedly voted to support a two-state settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict (167-7 in the last General Assembly vote). It’s easy to proclaim abstract-moral solutions when you lack the obligations of power, but each time a Palestinian leadership has reached a position of official responsibility (first the P.L.O. in 1974 when Arafat spoke at the UN, then Hamas in 2006, when it won the parliamentary elections), it had to revise its political program from a “one-state” to a “two-state” settlement, because otherwise it could not function on the international stage. Many self-described radicals have called this “selling-out,” I call it accommodating intractable—at any rate, in the here and now—political exigencies.
C. But is a two-state settlement materially feasible? Here, I think one has to look closely at the facts on the ground. In my opinion, the Palestinians have presented reasonable proposals for resolving the borders/settlements issue—a 1.9% land swap that leaves 300,000 of the illegal Jewish settlers in situ, without encroaching on the future Palestinian state’s territorial contiguity. But these proposals can only be properly assessed if one is attentive to the facts, and doesn’t fabricate preposterous numbers (such as David Samel’s figure of “600,000-750,000″ illegal Jewish settlers posted on your web site) in order to “prove” the impossibility of a two-state settlement. I acknowledge the difficulties of resolving the refugee question within the two-state framework, but I do think a body modeled on a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (which, recall, had to confront,in the case of Guatemala, the perpetrators not of ethnic cleansing but of genocide), and composed of respected and authoritative figures (such as Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu), and after allowing all sides to air their grievances and reservations, can come up with a reasonable proposal.
In my opinion, your invocation of Lincoln and the Abolitionists is morally stirring, and I do like to be morally stirred—although my preference is Rosa Luxemburg—but it lacks any historical, political or material grounding. It’s as if I were now to advocate DOP (the Dictatorship of the Proletariat—the abbreviation of my youth back in the day, before BDS came along), and Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution in Palestine. I can’t help but feel, with all due respect, that you are being swept away by the throbbings of your heart and the flutterings of your soul, while blithely ignoring the mundane, un-poetic facts of the situation. If we can coerce a real Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territory, and you are there at the rendezvous of victory, I am sure that tears will be streaming down your cheeks, because you will have realized how significant a victory it is, and how hard-won it was.
Weiss: Two quick points, Norman. 600,000 settlers is not that much of an exaggeration of Jeremy Ben Ami’s 550,000 the other night at B’nai Jeshurun. And I’m glad you’re morally stirred. Notice that I am invoking your inheritance, of radical imaginers, as opposed to my bourgeois stick in the mud types. In this case I have joined up with the imaginers, and not because of a daring feeling, but from a sense of American realism.
Finkelstein: The two principal groups monitoring settlement growth are B’Tselem and the Foundation for Middle East Peace. You can check their web sites now (btselem.org/topic/settlements; fmep.org/settlement_info/overview.html). Each puts the figure for the number of settlers at around 500,000. I noticed that Jimmy Carter the other day put it at 525,000 (I assume his staff keeps him up to date). To leap from there to 600,000-750,000 is either ignorant or irresponsible.
A few weeks ago on the plane to and from the UK I read a new edition of Rosa Luxemburg’s letters. You cannot conceive how it swept me away. I was, if only for a fleeting moment, transported back to the high spirits of my youth. Each of her five senses was so refined, and alive. I even made some resolutions after reading her, such as my early morning RLW—Rosa Luxemburg walk—in order to take in the world around me. (Unfortunately, I spend most of my time lost in thought cursing its denizens!) So, I remain an “imaginer,” even if one verging on decrepitude. But I cannot let my imaginings get the better of my moral responsibilities.
People are suffering; isn’t that why we—or, at any rate, I—first got involved in the conflict? It’s also why I can’t leave it behind, even though G-d only knows how sick I am of it, and how I would like to move on finally and do something else, just one other thing, with my life, before I pass into eternity. I noticed in the just-released BBC World Service Poll (May 2012) that Israel’s stock is plummeting everywhere in the world, except here in the US, where it has bounced back a bit. So, so frustrating. But how does it help to advocate political solutions that have zero traction, and zero possibility of gaining traction, among Americans, who will never support a settlement that—whatever euphemism you use and however you articulate it—entails Israel’s disappearance?
Weiss: I am also impatient to be done with this conflict. But I must say that our weariness is an easy one. We lead good lives in the U.S. This is why I listen to the Palestinians. They are the people who have to suffer the occupation.
I believe that the conservative side of you is showing when you allow an establishment consensus to guide your dreams. And it’s unbecoming. Again to go the 1850s frame, I as a bourgeois want-to-be insider, would likely have been for colonization—sending the blacks to a country in Africa where they could be free, because we were afraid they would murder us if we set them free here… You would have said that’s racist, and all people are created equal. But I would have had powerful consensus entirely on my side, or not even entirely. The slave power was regnant in NY and the South. My position would have been the J Street of the time. The lesson is that consensus changes very quickly. People’s ideas actually shift when they recognize the new reality. I made many stupid comments about homosexuality when I was young. Today I’d be ruined if I expressed these ideas, and that’s a good thing.
David Shulman preparing American Jews for the end of the Jewish state in New York Review of Books is informing people about reality. There is only one regime, and realists should work to convert it to equality. American Jewish consensus will dissolve under the force of this logic, if we will only stand up and say, I believe in democracy.
Finkelstein: You confuse and conflate support for a two-state settlement with support for racism. If the two-state settlement really were a racist goal, it would be hard to comprehend why it has been endorsed by nearly the whole of the United Nations (including many African and Arab-Muslim states) as well as by the human rights community and the International Court of Justice. So far as I understand it, nothing in the two-state solution inherently validates a discriminatory state on either side of the Green Line. The original 1947 UN Partition Resolution, although recommending the creation of a “Jewish” and an “Arab” state in historic Palestine, also explicitly called for complete equality of rights for the respective minorities. Personally, I have said many times that Palestinians should not recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” (whatever that even means), unless Israel also explicitly endorses full and equal rights for its minorities and rescinds all discriminatory legislation. You might then argue that, if I oppose discriminatory states on either side of the border, then “logically” I should, like you, also support a single democratic secular state. Alas, a huge chasm separates logic from politics. The U.S. stole half of Mexico, about one of every ten Americans is of Mexican descent, and the Mexican economy is totally dependent on remittances from Mexican workers in the U.S. So “logically” we should solve the problem of illegal Mexican immigration, which causes several hundred grisly deaths along the border each year, by merging the U.S. and Mexican democracies into a unitary secular state. Indeed, isn’t it “racist” to oppose such a solution? But, this “solution” has exactly zero prospects of gaining traction in the U.S., so politically serious people work for immigration reform. Does it make them racists or sellouts? I think not.
Weiss: But Mexicans haven’t called for a single state. I do believe in self-determination. I also believe in the legal principle of stare decisis. Preserve a peaceful status quo. Partition was racist, inasmuch as it was rejected by the majority who lived in the region. But it was effected—more or less. And rejected by the Palestinians and ultimately dissolved by the expansionist Israelis.
I might accept partition if it had any basis in reality. I believe there are many unjust situations that are beyond my control and that, out of the desire to preserve order, I’m not attempting to overturn. I’m a realist in that regard. Stare decisis meant not wanting to revolutionize slavery in the south during the time of historic compromises. In this situation, a realist recognizes that these people, Palestinians, whom neither of us can really speak for, have never had any sovereignty and are being bullied and oppressed from one day to another to the point that hundreds have put their lives on the line in nonviolent protest and hunger strikes. What is the likeliest way to freedom? You care about that goal; that’s why you’re for the two-state solution. I care for it, it’s why I heed Palestinians, most of whom I talk to don’t believe that the two-state solution is possible any more. My friends simply don’t believe a viable state can be created in what’s left of the 22 percent.
Wanting to end their suffering and subordination is also why I have heeded the boycott call, which represents a very broad segment of Palestinian society and which is nonviolent. If there was a real path to a viable two-state solution I might support it, and I believe that most Palestinians would. But there’s not.
I didn’t mean to conflate the racism of the colonization scheme under slavery with partition. Apologies. But the analogy for me is the pace of historical development in an unjust situation in which hopes have been dashed. We went in a very short period of time from bourgeois people like me tolerating slavery and abolitionists like Wendell Phillips calling for “non resistance” to slavery to…Emerson endorsing violent resistance…to a very bloody war to extirpate slavery—all over a 6-year period during which the establishment felt it could get away with breaking historic compromises. If the settlements hadn’t been extended in 1854—if the slaveholders hadn’t pushed slavery into Kansas—John Brown might not have been radicalized. He was. His radicalization is among the real human consequences that flow from major events.
In this situation, historic compromises also have been vitiated, and every time I see activists in the West Bank, they are more radicalized and focused than they were the last time. They are involved in a real, living movement against never-ending oppression, and their hearts and minds are now shaped by that process—and I have come to the understanding that if there is one thing I can do it is to give that movement oxygen because I share the goal of a peaceful solution.
Who am I to tell a college student who has never been to the sea, which he can see from his rooftop, not to throw a rock? A John Brown type could ignite a great bloody war there— another reason I’m for boycott.
And as for zero traction for the one state solution: the two-state solution has had zero traction in the Obama administration. European support for two-state solution can’t keep people from being shot in Gaza or their cisterns being destroyed all over the West Bank. I believe the two-state paradigm is dying even inside establishment consensus. People are searching for a new paradigm. And so I fall back on the same solution I supported for the Mubarak tyranny…the right of the people to vote for their rulers…
Finkelstein: I am sure that some Mexican “one-staters” want to abolish the border or, at least, and in the name of the “right of self-determination,” want the areas stolen by the U.S. to be returned. Would you then support this political program because of the Mexicans’ “right to self-determination”? If Salafis manage to gain primacy in the Palestinian movement (not an altogether impossible prospect: witness what’s happening in neighboring Egypt), and demand an Islamic state, and the expulsion of all Jews from Islamic Palestine, would you support this demand in the name of the Palestinian “right of self-determination”? Do Palestinians, as a component of their “right of self-determination,” also get to dismantle and incorporate the Kingdom of Jordan, which after all was part and parcel of historic Palestine before Churchill chopped it off?
You make out “the right of self-determination” to be a Palestinian blank check to do whatever they want wherever they want. The “right of self-determination” is a moral principle that still must, in each individual application, be filled with political-legal content. Of course, “people” have the right to self-determination, but then the thorny questions set in: which people, where and how? Do New Yorkers have a right to self-determination? Do Upper West-Siders in Manhattan? Regional or personal autonomy within a state is also a form of self-determination. On a moment’s reflection, it becomes evident that these are enormously complex questions, and in fact a scholarly literature that can fill several good-sized libraries has been devoted to untangling them. Not very successfully, in my opinion—which was why one of Woodrow Wilson’s advisors warned him that this right was “loaded with dynamite.”
In the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the near-unanimous consensus for the past three decades has been that the Palestinian people do have a right of self-determination, to be exercised in the “occupied Palestinian territory,” which consists of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. I see no cracks in this consensus; quite the contrary, judging by all international forums, it has only gotten stronger over time. The concluding sentence of the 2004 International Court of Justice advisory opinion speaks to “achieving as soon as possible…the establishment of a Palestinian State, existing side by side with Israel, and its other neighbors, with peace and security for all in the region.” Do you really believe that the sentiment expressed in this historic and authoritative statement is less representative of international opinion and the current understanding of international law than that of your activists, who invoke the Palestinian “right to self-determination”as if it were a blank slate on which one can write as one pleases, and invoke “international law”as if it were whatever one wants it to be? Incidentally, I don’t understand how one can claim a Palestinian right of self-determination and not a reciprocal right to self-determination of Israelis (or Jewish Israelis, depending on how you define the unit of self-determination) residing there the past 60-130 years (depending on where you start counting). In the name of a distinct and unique identity, Palestinians rejected their incorporation into the Jordanian state as equal citizens. Don’t Israelis (or Jews residing in Israel) also get to claim a distinct and unique identity? And, if so (I cannot see why not), then where do they get to exercise their right of self-determination? The international community says, inside the Green Line. You might reasonably disagree with this cartographic distribution, but still, so far as I can tell, you don’t make any allowance for their reciprocal right. You might say that Israelis (or Jewish Israelis) can exercise this right alongside Palestinian Arabs within one unified state. But then, why shouldn’t Palestinians exercise their right within one unified Jordanian state? Distinct and unique identities cut both ways, don’t they?
I personally don’t see any point in engaging in these intellectual acrobatics because they don’t lead anywhere, just as trying to figure out what’s “just” seems to me a dead-end. I have read through the record of deliberations after the June 1967 war at the United Nations, and it seems to me that many of the States assembled made a good faith effort to find a just and reasonable solution (see pp. 203-221 of Knowing Too Much). The framework laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 242 (1967) eventually metamorphosed into the two-state formula for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Instead of conjuring new notions of justice, I think it makes more sense—and here, I agree with Gandhi—to try to get people to act on existent notions of right and wrong. Ending the occupation and finding a “just solution” to the refugee question would, in my opinion, significantly ameliorate the wretched conditions of Palestinians, and would not preclude working for a yet more just future. To realize these goals would be ascending one rung on Jacob’s Ladder, which—like ending Jim Crow in the American South, and Apartheid in South Africa—would be both a historic victory and an insignificant one in the eternal struggle (“every rung goes higher and higher”) for human emancipation.
Weiss: Norman, I think you are playing some word games here. While I recognize the wisdom in the warning Wilson’s advisers gave him, when I speak of self-determination I am speaking of a Palestinian national community that is now well defined, albeit with the trans-geographical wrinkle of the Palestinian exile community, which asserts a role here.
And when I honor Palestinian self-determination, what I’m saying is that my sense of that Palestinian community is that, They don’t believe in the two-state solution anymore, and why should they? I have a dear friend in East Jerusalem. He had some hope in statehood. Now he feels deceived. I defer to his feeling. My friend doesn’t like Salafis, and neither do I; and in fact when Egypt emerges into democracy and is freed from meddling from the West, or freer from it, I think Salafi influence will diminish. As a progressive, I believe that some of these traditional and intolerant trends in the Arab world we can influence best by getting out of their business. And that in fact Zionism with its Jewish nationalist ideology has fed Islamic ideologies. As the U.S. helped to foster Iranian Islamism by depriving the people there of democracy…
But let’s get to the central question here: As you say, there are now two national identities attached to the same land. This has always been the problem. Though I never had any truck with the Zionist claim, they did create an Israeli people. I’m reading Amos Oz right now—Israeli through and through. And these competing and irreconcilable identities/narratives/claims are now the intractable problem that poses such a huge risk. It seems that more violence is inevitable, we want to forestall it. You want to do so by imposing a solution that I don’t believe Palestinians seek any more. Let alone Israelis. Because it is as you say the consensus of the world. And that is true, though a decrepit consensus.
And when I say the two-state solution wasn’t that fair to begin with, I’m saying, I don’t think such an imposed solution can last. It doesn’t seem very fair to me as an outsider. It involves a 25-mile tunnel underground between West Bank and Gaza. Oh my god…Who would like that?
I find the two state paradigm both ineffective—it didn’t stop expansion one bit and led Palestinians to hope for a nation that was never delivered, even as countless other peoples got nations—lately Kosovo, South Sudan, East Timor—and not especially appealing. That tunnel! And today Ali Abunimah’s historical model—It’s South Africa, and world pressure will force it ultimately to change its character—is more reasonable and persuasive than Daniel Kurtzer’s/J Street’s Save the two-state solution. I think that’s the way things are more likely to work out in a peaceful manner.
(The other historical model I find compelling is Fawaz Gerges saying in the Nation some time back that Israel is like a Crusader state, it will die away in 100 years.)
But truthfully, I find a lot of this sort of argument abstract and even somewhat meaningless. Do I have any power to effect the outcome? I doubt it. I would have been an Oslo liberal if I’d paid any attention during the 90s; and Oslo had no effect, I believe, because both Israelis and Palestinians didn’t really want that. And given my absence of power over the Israelis and the Palestinians and their sense of competing peoplehoods, I think of the communities over which I have some influence, because they’re actually mine: I’m an American, a Jew and a citizen of the world. All these communities I hope to move toward recognition of Israeli apartheid and act out of that knowledge.
The other night Jeremy Ben-Ami of J St said that the next chapter of the struggle is that the world endorses one man/one vote between the river and the sea. I think he is right about this, and though he sees this as a fearful prospect, I say as a world citizen that it will be a good thing. That gives me an important imaginative task. I want to unconvince American Jews of their Zionism, and explain to them that it is the kind of separatism that blacks once sought under Marcus Garvey. I want American Jews to embrace for Israel the sort of status we have here. I will undertake this task as a left wing progressive. I reflect that the U.S. has changed enormously since 1967 in countless areas of culture and human and civil rights. Gays, feminists, blacks– I don’t need to tell you. Now US births are majority minority, and we have a minority president.
And during the very same period, Israel, as a direct consequence of Zionist ideology and occupation—and a warrior state isolation and dependency on western powers, the political conditions Hannah Arendt anticipated 70 years ago—has gone down a wholly different cultural/social path. Toward greater racism and intolerance.
If American Jews understood all this, and honestly espoused for Israel the type of society/polity they seek in the U.S., Israel would transform itself.
Finkelstein: I do not think practical obstacles constitute the root of our difference. A cosmopolitan like yourself couldn’t possibly believe that a 25-mile-long tunnel (I am not sure from whence you get tunnel: most experts speak of a highway) is such an insuperable obstacle: doesn’t the typical New Yorker commute at least 1.5 hours to and from work each day? The heart of our difference is time frames. You seem at ease gesturing to a solution that might take a “hundred years.” It’s easy enough to prognosticate in terms of centuries if you live among the creature comforts here, and not amid the abject misery there. South Africa began implementing Apartheid in 1948, and the U.N. General Assembly passed its first resolution condemning Apartheid in 1961. It then took some thirty more years and a vastly different world before Apartheid was dismantled. The Soviet Union, a critical backer of the ANC, was gone, while the Civil Rights Movement had transformed the cultural landscape of the U.S., without redistributing wealth—all of which meant that privileged South African whites realized by 1990, rightly, as it turned out, that they had much less to fear than hitherto imagined from Black empowerment.
You euphorically herald on your web site every inch closer Israel itself draws to a full-fledged Apartheid state. I might also note that you often, misleadingly, conflate predictions by, say, Shulman in the NYRB, that Israel will become an Apartheid state if… with an acknowledgement that Israel proper has already become an Apartheid state, which is something quite different. In this regard you resemble your political bedfellow, Omar Barghouti, who proclaims that a 40 percent vote at a Park Slope coop in favor, not of boycotting Israeli products, but of holding a referendum to decide whether or not to boycott Israeli products,signifies that 40 percent “voted for BDS.” (See The Nation, 3 May 2012. Do Nation fact-checkers give BDS a free pass?) What’s more, Barghouti explicitly and emphatically equates BDS with, at a “minimum,” full implementation of the Palestinian right of return (see his book BDS: The global struggle for Palestinian rights). So, if 40 percent of these coop members “voted for BDS,” and if support for BDS signals support for full implementation of the Palestinian right of return, then it must mean, and Barghouti must be saying, that 40 percent of these coop members in the heart of a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York support the return of 6.6 million Palestinian refugees to Israel. Whenever I come across hyperbolic nonsense like this, it brings to mind the sage exhortation of African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral: Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.
Now, returning to the main point, I do not see why it’s so terrific if Israel becomes a full-fledged Apartheid state “from the river to the sea.” You seem to believe that it will cast a bright light on the ghastly reality—as if Israel’s brutal military occupation of the West Bank and open-air prison in Gaza weren’t enough of a ghastly reality!—and thereby hasten a solution along the lines of South Africa. But if Israel was able to evade the international consensus favoring a two-state settlement for the past 40 years, why won’t it be able to evade a one-state settlement for an even longer time? Indeed, the reality of Israel’s existence is so deeply entrenched in the international system that it’s just as likely that Israel’s absorption of the occupied Palestinian territories will lead to calls for a new partition. Has the Balkans experience in the 1990s already vanished from memory? Ironically, such a new partition would probably be some version of Avigdor Lieberman’s plan: annexation of the Jewish settlements to Israel, and detachment of predominantly Arab areas from Israel. As the Chinese proverb goes, Be careful what you wish for.
Weiss: You are right to say that I embrace any statement by anyone that it’s either apartheid or about to be apartheid in the West Bank, and conflate the two. I do so from a moral impulse: I need to bear witness to what I have seen in the West Bank. It’s horrifying. The legal separation, the separate roadways, the two classes of resident, one that can vote and one that can’t, one that can travel freely and one that can’t, and all on a racial basis—this is apartheid. Apartheid on steroids, as Stephen Robert wrote in the Nation lately. Yes, some statements have been prospective and I probably pushed them. But David Shulman’s statement was not. He writes:
“At the moment, this single state, seen as a whole, fits Beinart’s term—a coercive ‘ethnocracy.’ Those who recoil at the term ‘apartheid’ are invited to offer a better one.”
Norman, I urge you not to put yourself in the position of extenuating the conditions on the West Bank.
Do I sound gleeful or overbearing? I agree that’s a problem. But I see a duty in bringing Americans the news. I should work on my tone; you know that I want to reach Jews. I think that’s where the power is over this question. But let me get to the heart of our difference, not the practical—and no I don’t see any virtue in a 25 mile tunnel, as Bernard Avishai promoted the connection, I think it’s an environmental, emotional disaster—but the conceptual.
As you say, and I love this statement, the destruction of apartheid over many years was achieved because of cultural changes in the U.S. We respect minority rights. We have seen the hearts of homophobes and sexists and racists transformed by social change. And this is all that I as an idealist prescribe for Israel. Because it has sealed itself off from these larger changes in the formaldehyde of Marcus Garveyism—Jewish separatism—and embattled militarism (all those wars that you playfully titled Atilla the Hun and the like, when we were on the bus in Gaza), it becomes an uglier place all the while. And meantime the Arab Spring has electrified young Arabs with the idea that they will get to choose their leaders. Palestinians want that right. I think American Jews could fairly quickly convince Israelis to embrace one man one vote too if we only were honest to ourselves, and spoke up about the kind of polity we actually love: one in which a minority has rights, and Jews can aspire to run things. I believe you are in denial of the psychic reality of Israel, the world they have made. Lia Tarachansky reporting on Jerusalem Day:
“Every year tens of thousands of right wing Israelis celebrate the occupation of East Jerusalem 45 years ago. This year the celebrators marched through Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter chanting ‘Muhammed is Dead’ and celebrating a 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians in Hebron.”
And you’re worried about Salafists? We must clean up our house first. I wonder if in your heart you actually believe a core idea of Zionism, that Jews need sovereignty in their own land. That Jews are unsafe in the west, and we should have our own country. Myself I don’t believe these things. And more, I believe the existence of a Jewish state is causing endless turmoil in the Middle East.
As an American who was indifferent through Oslo, I was willing to accept Partition. I don’t actually think it’s my business if some foreign country is Jewish, Catholic or Muslim, though they all ought all to guarantee minority rights. But inasmuch as the peace process has failed again and again and the Israel lobby has caused Obama to capitulate, I understand that young Palestinians have turned their back on that road; and if my community is being polled, I’m going to stand up for what I believe in, multicultural democracy.
I’m sincerely asking you what you—who writes God “G-d” and whose beloved mother somehow survived the Warsaw ghetto and a German concentration camp—believe in. I think you’re imprisoned by old paradigms and not siding with the human dreamers. John Brown believed so firmly in human equality that he had blacks eating at his table when no abolitionist did so. He did not care what anyone thought on this score; and his dream had tremendous consequences. The Egyptian revolution was the most exciting public event of my adult life. If you and I had been having a dialogue about Egypt even two years ago, neither of us would have predicted anything like it. But young visionary Arabs toppled a system by not believing in its powers. And they communicated that lack of belief to people who for generations had been fearful of a tyrannical government. The triumph of the revolutionaries was the triumph of imagination and democracy. I want that Arab spring to come to the Jews. I want a new generation to liberate us from the tyranny we have so long accepted as necessary.
Finkelstein: The point to which I responded was not whether Israel has created an Apartheid-like regime in the West Bank. Ever since publication of B’Tselem’s report “Land Grab” in 2002, I have repeatedly cited its explicit conclusion on this point as authoritative. And by now, so many unimpeachable Israeli figures (including former Israeli attorney-general Michael Ben-Yair) and institutions (such as Haaretz’s editorial board) have made the Apartheid analogy that it would appear to be beyond reasonable dispute. I was referring to your designation of Israel proper (i.e., inside the Green Line) as an Apartheid state. I have not seen any compelling or authoritative argument(s) on this assertion. Jimmy Carter swung radically in the opposite direction when he depicted Israel (as against the West Bank) as an exemplary democracy (see Palestine Peace Not Apartheid). Still, under the Rome Statutes of the International Criminal Court, Apartheid constitutes a “crime against humanity.” A State would arguably have to cross a very high threshold before it can be held culpable for practicing Apartheid, unless one wants to risk trivializing Apartheid, and the attendant suffering it entails.
“As you say, and I love this statement, the destruction of apartheid over many years was achieved because of cultural changes in the U.S.”
But that’s not what I said, and that wasn’t my point. I meant that one reason South African whites ultimately acquiesced in the dismantlement of Apartheid was that, observing from afar the U.S. in the post-Civil Rights Movement era (and after the ANC’s principal ally, the USSR, imploded), they realized that the system of White privilege can remain largely intact despite the enfranchisement of the Black population. In the parallel instance of the Israel-Palestine conflict, I can envisage a couple of possibilities: (a) Israeli Jews might acquiesce in a one-state settlement if and when they become convinced that it won’t undermine their Jewish privilege, or (b) they will resist a one-state settlement with much greater ferocity than South Africans because of the real and imagined fears of “Arab domination.” Neither of these possibilities bodes well for the prospects of the “one-state solution.”
“I think American Jews could fairly quickly convince Israelis to embrace one man one vote too if we only were honest to ourselves, and spoke up about the kind of polity we actually love: one in which a minority has rights, and Jews can aspire to run things”
This strikes me as an “if” along the lines of, “if Grandma had wheels, she’d be a baby carriage.” All the evidence I’ve seen shows that American Jews can be very critical of Israeli policy, and even convinced that it must grant equal rights to the Palestinian Israeli minority, but it is inconceivable that American Jews can be won over en masse, now or in the foreseeable future, to the dismantlement of Israel. When you make such predictions, you have crossed over, not into the Promised, but to La-La Land.
“I believe you are in denial of the psychic reality of Israel, the world they have made”
The fact is, countries can and do change. During the first half of the 20th century it would be fair to say, and not to extenuate in the least the crimes of other “Great Powers,” that the two most racist and militaristic nations in the world were Germany and Japan. But if you look at the annual BBC World Service polls nowadays of global public opinion, the countries said to exercise the most positive impact on the world are…Germany and Japan! When I was growing up, it was not long after Blacks were still being lynched in the U.S. (Paul Robeson campaigned, unsuccessfully, for an anti-lynching law during the Truman administration). Now, an African-American is president. Israel, too, can change. I don’t see its political effacement (you might recall that after World War II, Henry Morgenthau, Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary, wanted to reduce Germany to an agrarian society) as the necessary denouement of its current lunacy.
“I wonder if in your heart you actually believe a core idea of Zionism, that Jews need sovereignty in their own land. That Jews are unsafe in the west, and we should have our own country. Myself I don’t believe these things”
Are we now going to embark on a “fantastic voyage” in order to probe each other’s hearts? I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the theory of Zionism more than a quarter century ago, and settled accounts back then with it. I do not have to beat my breast now to show the world that I am not a Zionist. After many books, and not a small amount of troubles along the way, I think people have gotten the message. On the other hand, I am also not a fanatical anti-Zionist, if one conceives Zionism as wanting to preserve and develop Jewish-Hebrew culture (the strain with which Prof. Chomsky seems to identify). Each to his or her own, so long as it is tolerant of difference, and respectful of basic principles such as equality under the law.
“But inasmuch as the peace process has failed again and again and the Israel lobby has caused Obama to capitulate, I understand that young Palestinians have turned their back on that road”
I have already said that, in my opinion, there has never been a peace process, but rather an annexation process that used the facade of a “peace process” to achieve its goals. As for “young Palestinians,” so far as I can tell, outside the “Ramallah bubble” and its ever-multiplying, foreign-sponsored NGOs (a.k.a. “Palestinian civil society”—shouldn’t we all get behind an NGO-nonproliferation treaty for Palestine?), the overwhelming majority of Palestinian young people have “turned their back” on every road, and are, right now, despondent and cynical, with good reason, of course.
I will not try to match your peroration. What I stand for is not a matter of rhetoric, speculation, or posturing, it is, literally, my life’s story. I have stayed faithful to the ideals of my youth, whereas virtually everyone else I knew back then, “grew up,” and “matured”—i.e., sold out. I gave over most of my life to lost causes. Now, however, I do think it is possible to achieve something that can make a difference, however marginal, in the lives of real people. I will persist in making this case, because I think it is right, and even if it isolates me yet again. I am not out to win popularity contests or, for that matter, to keynote conferences on politically meaningless topics such as the “one-state solution.” Whenever I am tempted by the dual allurements of power and privilege, I remember the suffering of my late parents, and I remember the suffering of my friends in the West Bank, and I remember: There but for the grace of G-d, go I. Or, as my late mother said, when some neighbors protested the construction of a homeless shelter in our neighborhood, “You never know where you will be tomorrow.” (She, along with my late father, learned this bitter truth the hard way.) We all need to crawl out of our navels, and to remember what the struggle is all about: our human responsibility to those who, because of G-d’s throw of the dice, were born into less fortunate circumstances than ourselves. I fear that many people in the Palestine solidarity movement have lost sight of these elementary truths—for some it’s become a lucrative industry, for others it’s a cost-free way to prove one’s radical bona fides—and don’t actually want the conflict to end. I do.
Weiss: I have/had the impression that you have shifted your opinion on some aspects of the conflict — say, in line with Professor Chomsky, who said that he supported Right of Return out of solidarity for a while; but doesn’t really support it (a defensible hypocrisy, it comes with movement politics). So I have genuinely wondered about your beliefs re West Bank and Zionism. I don’t want to be disrespectful.
Finkelstein: In fact I do think it is a fair question to ask, “But haven’t you softened your opinion on the right of return over the years?” As it happens, I have agonized over this issue in part because my oldest and closest friend in the West Bank (from Fawwar camp) is the son of a Palestinian refugee and, as he says, he is a “conservative” on the refugee question. (When once we got to talking about the Palestinian right of return he brought me to the tiny hovel in which his very large family grew up.) I have struggled with it, and I just can’t figure out how to cut the Gordian knot. It is for this reason that I wanted Mouin Rabbani—who is both a brilliant, non-sloganeering political analyst and the son of a 1948 refugee—to treat the refugee question in a then-forthcoming book on solving the Israel-Palestine conflict, and why I now support resort to a Truth and Reconciliation-type commission.
Weiss: In this case I am more of a movement person than you are. While I prize individualism, and think of myself as an individualist, and yearn to return to life as an Old Coot Writer who can alienate wide segments of my readership with an offensive word… I defer in this case to the overwhelming, and it is simply overwhelming, attitude of the Palestinian community, that the Right of Return has not been extinguished. And I defer in part because of the ongoing grotesqueness of the Law of Return, and because of the determination of several American presidents through the 1970s to gain the return of 100,000 Palestinian refugees to no avail in part because of the lobby, and because of Truman’s being stirred by the Displaced Persons, still refugees 2 and 3 years after the Holocaust, to act re Palestine. The symbolic importance of this issue reflects this grievous history, leave alone human rights law, so I defer to the sentiments of my brothers and sisters.
I think a call for Truth & Reconciliation is misplaced. No one has sought a Truth & Reconciliation commission here because there has been no acknowledgment of the crime, even after 64 years. I believe the world would be moved by the Palestinian response to American and Israeli acknowledgment of the Nakba. But the world has no right to discover that response until it compelled such an acknowledgment.
Finkelstein: I should make clear, lest there be any misunderstanding whatsoever, that the Palestinian right of return is a universally validated right that must be supported (see my most recent statement on the subject at link to zocalopublicsquare.org). But there is a distinction between law and politics. Here I will quote a smart and decent judge (Kotaro Tanaka from Japan) at the International Court of Justice:
The essential difference between law and politics or administration lies in the fact that law distinguishes in a categorical way what is right and just from what is wrong and unjust, while politics and administration, being the means to attain specific purposes, and dominated by considerations of expediency, make a distinction between the practical and the unpractical, the efficient and the inefficient. Consequently, in the judgment of law there is no possibility apart from what is just or unjust (tertium non datur), [whereas] in the case of politics and administration there are many possibilities or choices from the viewpoint of expediency and efficiency. Politics are susceptible of gradation, in contrast to law, which is categorical and absolute.
The challenge is to work out a political solution once the legal right has been affirmed. Hollow rhetoric won’t help: it requires mental and moral lucidity. The basic facts are these. Prospects for achieving a more or less reasonable settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict have never been better. The new regional configuration of power—in particular, Egypt and Turkey—will henceforth impose real constraints on Israel’s reflexive resort to brute force. International opinion has wearied of the conflict, and grown frustrated and impatient with Israel’s intransigence and bellicosity. Jewish opinion in the diaspora has also begun to distance itself from Israel. The principal challenges now are two-fold: for the Palestinians in the occupied territories to get their act together—something over which we have no control—and for the solidarity movement to get its act together. For our part, we need to articulate a goal that has real prospects of reaching a broad public; otherwise, it’s pointless, except as an exercise in moral posturing. My own judgment, based not just on reading dusty tomes and documents but also on three decades of experience testing in the wider world what works and what doesn’t, is that the most effective appeal is one grounded in international law. Because the legal consensus regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict is so broad and deep, Israel has no convincing answer to it. But one cannot invoke the law selectively, it must be embraced in its wholeness: two states based on the June 1967 border, and a just resolution of the refugee question based on the right of return and compensation.