Finkelstein interview: No struggle, no progress

March 27, 2010

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

Adwan Mohamad and Uffe Kaels Auring interview Norman Finkelstein in Copenhagen, Denmark, on November 13, 2009 to learn about the Oslo peace process, the role of the US and EU, Gaza and the Goldstone Report, Palestinian collaborators, and more:

The Peace Process: A Fig Leaf for Israel to Annex Palestinian Territories
What does it take to get the peace process “back on track”?
We should judge the phenomenon by the practical results, not by the label. There’s been no peace process. There’s been an annexation process; there’s been a colonization process; there’s been an appropriation process. Judging by the outcomes, I think a reasonable inference is that there’s been no peace process, so I don’t see any point in using that phrase, it’s just become a fig leaf to enable Israel to annex the territories it occupied in June 1967.

On brokering peace in the Middle East, the US consistently tries, and consistently fails.
The idea of the US being a broker in the peace process is ridiculous because if you look at the record over the past 30 years it’s been Israel backed by the United States that’s blocking the resolution of the conflict. The United States is not trying to achieve a resolution: the US is the main obstacle to a resolution of the conflict. Were it not for the United States blocking the will of the international community, the conflict would be resolved tomorrow.

Obama: A Little Bit Confused
What are your expectations of the Obama administration in the Middle East?
There’s no reason to have any expectations. Obama himself is focused on the domestic agenda, and on international affairs his entire administration consists of holdovers from the Clinton years and from the Bush administration. So the reasonable expectation is that it will be pretty much business as usual. Some minor changes, but otherwise there is no reason to be optimistic.

What about his famous Cairo speech?
I don’t know why people were so enthusiastic about it. There were a few statements he made which weren’t the worst. He came out in support of a woman’s right to wear the hijab. I think that was a good statement. But otherwise, this was right after the massacre in Gaza, and he used the occasion to lecture Palestinians on how they shouldn’t use violence. The Palestinians shouldn’t use violence? I think he is a little bit confused about what happened in Gaza.

The Oslo Process: A Complete Success
Can you talk about the role of the Palestinian Authority in the resolution of the conflict?
The reason the US and Israel created the Palestinian Authority was for it to act as collaborators to repress the Palestinians and enable Israel to continue its appropriation of Palestinian lands. The Israelis were very clear about it. After the first Intifada which was very taxing on them, they said they wanted to rationalize the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and rationalizing it basically meant having Palestinians do the dirty work instead of the Israelis. Israelis were squandering too much time in what they called “police actions” while they were supposed to be training for wars. They wanted to withdraw the Israeli army and hand over to the Palestinians the dirty work of policing. And as was being said at the time: “If Palestinians kill Palestinians, Palestinians torture Palestinians and so forth, then human rights groups won’t complain about how we [Israelis] carry on.” That was the main purpose and in that respect the Oslo process was a complete success. It created a class of collaborators who are now doing all Israel’s dirty work.

Can you elaborate on how the collaborator class works in practice, and how it compares with the aspirations of the Palestinian population?
People have this idea that collaborators walk around with a sign saying: “I am a collaborator”. But collaborators usually pretend that they are working for the people and they sometimes engage in denunciations of the regime which they’re actually working for. In South Africa, for example, when they created the Bantustans, people like Chief Buthelezi every once in a while denounced the South African government. When the South African apartheid regime offered KwaZulu sovereignty, he refused it because he said: “You are giving us garbage, we don’t want it”. But still, he was a collaborator. Chief Matanzima, who headed Transkei, another Bantustan the South African apartheid regime created, would also every once in a while give a fiery speech denouncing the South African government.
In that regard the Palestinian Authority is basically the same. If you recall, the Oslo peace agreement was supposed to last for a five-year interim period. And the reason they made it a five-year interim period is that they wanted to gradually groom a class of collaborators who would begin to enjoy the power and the privilege and wouldn’t want to give it up. It takes time to create that kind of class of collaborators. They knew that in about five years time you get used to your limousines and you get used to your villas and become accustomed to your accumulated bank account, and you feel very reluctant to give that all up.

And by the end, they had succeeded in creating the class of collaborators who would do what the Israelis wanted them to do. It’s not that they wanted to collaborate, but they were going to anyhow because they knew the price of not doing it. They had five years of the good life and didn’t want to go back to living like everybody else.

And so, the Palestinian Authority does not represent Palestinian aspirations. That’s why, every once in a while, they throw out the idea that we are going to dissolve the Palestinian Authority. Of course they are not going to dissolve the Palestinian Authority because if they do so, there go all their privilege, all their power, all their Swiss bank accounts. They’ll never do it.

The only problem the Israelis had after five years was Arafat because even though Arafat was a corrupt thug and an imbecile, he still had a residue of this nationalist conviction, and he was not going to accept the garbage that they were offering him. People like Abbas will do anything. He would settle for a toilet with a Palestinian flag on it but he cannot because the Palestinians would rebel. Arafat, yes, he was a little bit afraid of the wrath of the people also. He often said: “I’m not giving up on Jerusalem. Do you want me to get a bullet in my head?” He knew that if he would give up completely on Jerusalem, he would get assassinated. But even though Arafat was terrible, he still had a nationalist passion.

You can read about it in Shlomo Ben-Ami’s book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace (2005). He was Israel’s foreign minister during the Ehud Barak period. He said: One of the purposes of the Oslo Accords was to repress the genuinely democratic movement of the first Intifada and to put in place a class of people who would do Israel’s bidding.

EU: Complicit in Crimes against Humanity
Can you talk about the role of the European Union in the conflict?
The view of the EU is that the Middle East is American turf. They just do what the United States says, so it’s been dreadful. When Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza which Amnesty International has called a “flagrant violation of international law”, and which the Goldstone mission called a “possible crime against humanity”, the EU went along with the blockade. The EU is partly responsible for the criminal suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza. And the other role that the EU basically plays is they set up all these NGO’s which suck out all the talent from the Palestinians. These NGO’s typically end up working for some foreign government. And then they will be careful not to rock the boat because they are afraid of losing the money. The basic purpose of the NGO’s is to pacify those elements of Palestinian society that are talented. They suck up all the talent, and pacify or neutralize that talent as Israel gets on with its business of confiscating Palestinian land and resources and torturing the people.

Do you believe that foreign aid to the Palestinian Territories can help promote peace?
There is no peace process. If there was a peace process you would have an argument. There is an annexation process and the purpose of the EU is to pacify those elements in Palestinian society that otherwise would be playing leadership roles in resisting the occupation. The EU supplies the bribes to keep them quiet and pacify them.

Your coming book about the war in Gaza …
There was no war in Gaza, there was a massacre. For there to be a war you have to have two sides firing at each other. There was no firing from the Palestinian side. There were no battles in Gaza. Go look at the testimonies of the Israeli soldiers. They are called “Breaking the Silence”. You should read it; it’s only a few pages. One soldier after another says: “We never saw an Arab – we never had a battle”. Some of them said: “we were disappointed – we wish we had a battle, but there was none”. So how can you call that a war? One soldier said: “It was like a child with a magnifying glass burning ants”. When I was a kid I had a magnifying glass and I burned ants. I admit it, I’m not proud of it. But I never thought of myself as being involved in a war. It was a massacre.

Israel’s Problem with an Israel-loving Zionist
What do you think will be the impact of the Goldstone Report?
The impact has been huge already. There is no question about that. There was a good article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. One of Israel’s propagandists goes around to American universities and tries to mobilize support, and he says wherever we go all we hear is: “Goldstone, Goldstone, Goldstone, Goldstone, Goldstone”. It’s been a complete disaster for them. And the important question is why?
Goldstone’s Report was preceded by a dozen other human rights reports saying more or less the same thing as him. Amnesty International put out two human rights reports on the Gaza massacre. Human Rights Watch put out five reports. And then there were a slew of others, and they were quite good. So why is it the Goldstone Report that has had such an impact and not the other reports? The answer can’t be that it’s because the Human Rights Council commissioned the report, because Israel has already shown complete contempt for the Human Rights Council. So, what’s the reason?

Over the past 30 years Israel has refined its ideological weapons to neutralize any criticism so that if you criticize Israel you are an anti-Semite, a self-hating Jew, or a Holocaust-denier. But now along comes Richard Goldstone. He’s Jewish, he’s a Zionist, he says he loves Israel, he says he devoted his adult life to working for Israel, he says his mother was an activist in the Zionist women’s organization, his daughter went to live in Israel, he sits on the board of governors at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he has an honorary degree from the Hebrew University, and he’s also a distinguished international jurist. He was the chief prosecutor for the war crimes in Rwanda and chief prosecutor for the war crimes in Yugoslavia.

So now Israel went into panic mode. He doesn’t sound like an anti-Semite, and he doesn’t look like a self-hating Jew. He says: “I love Israel”. He also doesn’t sound like a Holocaust-denier, because he says: “the reason I went into international human rights law was because of the Nazi Holocaust”. And he doesn’t look like a dupe or a fool. It simply doesn’t seem plausible that the chief prosecutor for Rwanda and Yugoslavia is a fool. So if all of those explanations are eliminated, there is only one explanation left: He wrote what he wrote because it is true. And that for Israel is the nightmare scenario: being confronted with the facts. Because Israel’s whole strategy over the last 30 years has always been: change the agenda, let’s talk about anti-Semitism, let’s talk about the Holocaust, but let’s not talk about what we are doing. So, a while ago, when Benyamin Netanyahu was in the UN, where there was a discussion of the Goldstone Report and of Iran, he used his whole time talking about the Holocaust. That’s their strategy. But the big problem with Goldstone is that he is no longer able to change the subject. What are you going to call him?

How will this report translate into actual effects and bring about change?
People who want to achieve justice have to use the report. They have to do exactly what they are doing now. Wherever the Israelis go, just keep hitting them with the Goldstone Report. When former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was lecturing at the University of Chicago last year the students unfurled a banner, one in Arabic, one in English with one word on it: “Goldstone”. And they kept hitting him with the Goldstone Report. Answer it: its 575 pages, let’s hear your answer. The report says you were targeting civilian infrastructure, you were killing people holding white flags, you were using Palestinian children as human shields, you were taking Palestinian detainees and throwing them into sand pits surrounding tanks. It is a very grisly, ghastly picture of what went on, and he concluded that the purpose of the attack was to “punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population”. Well, that’s not a war – it is called terrorism.

A Brake on the Military Juggernaut?
The Goldstone Report might help bring about a shift in public opinion, but as long as Israel retains its geo-strategic importance to the US, does it really matter?
You have to look at Israel. Israel sees that the Goldstone Report matters. Why are they now devoting so much energy to trying to refute the Goldstone Report, why are they in panic? If you read the Israeli papers now, it’s “Goldstone” all the time. They realize how dependent they are on public opinion. I think that there’s this misunderstanding about Israel, people think Israel can get away with whatever it wants. No, it can’t. They feel a lot of the pressure and that’s actually the main outcome of the Goldstone Report.
The massacre in Gaza came just two years after the massacre in Lebanon. People are tired of it. There are a number of prominent Israeli columnists who said that this is a disaster for us because we won’t be able to attack again. I think that is accurate. They are not going to be able to get away with it, and that’s a very important outcome. Public opinion is a force that Israel remains and always has been very concerned about.

Israel has many agencies devoted full time to external propaganda. Unless you think that Israelis are completely irrational, which I don’t think they are, why are they investing so much of their resources in propaganda unless their image is important? They are worried that public opinion will put a severe brake on their military juggernaut which is out of control.

Since the first Intifada, Palestinian conditions have become harsher and Israeli attacks have caused more civilian casualties. Public opinion may have shifted somewhat, but the prospects for a resolution seem bleaker than ever. What will it take?
What you said is not entirely accurate. When Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 they killed about 18,000-20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, overwhelmingly civilians. Now in the case of the invasion of Lebanon in July 2006, it was 1,200. And the uproar was bigger during July 2006 than it was in June 1982. There are limits to what they can do. Israel thought they could get away with what they did in Gaza, because, as you recall, they did not allow any journalists in during the massacre. And until this day Israel is not letting human rights organizations enter Gaza. Human rights organizations still have to enter through Egypt.
But it was a big miscalculation. Some of the Israelis understood that when it was over and foreigners were going to be able to get in there was going to be a big problem. Israel still blocks any cement from going in, any glass or anything, so that there can be no rebuilding. That’s one of the stupid things Israel did. So when Goldstone went into Gaza he saw exactly what Israel did even though it was six months later because they couldn’t rebuild anything. If they had been a little smarter they would have let supplies in so you could not see so much the disaster they created.

On the other hand, it is also correct to say that in Gaza 2008 Israel descended to a new level of barbarism. In every other case from June 1967, what the Israelis did had an element of war. In June 1967, it was a war even though it was a turkey shoot. 1973 was a war. 1982 was a war with the PLO – it wasn’t much, but something. Lebanon [2006] was not only a war, but Israel lost against Hezbollah. In the case of Gaza, there was no military component. It was just a pure massacre and that’s what the Israelis said themselves. One Israeli strategic analyst said: “You are making a very big mistake if you go around saying that we’ve won the war, because there was no war.” In fact he said that there were no battles in Gaza. And that was a new level of barbarism. It was just a massacre of a civilian population.

Enforcing the law: We have to do our part
Following Gandhi, you advocate non-violent resistance as a way to peace, but you’ve also argued that Israel has to suffer a military defeat, because if that doesn’t happen, why should they change their tactics? How do these go together?
They don’t go together. It’s really one or the other. I think either can achieve the goal. If I were head of state of the Palestinians, I would recommend that the General Assembly should submit to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) the question of the legality of the siege of Gaza. Then the International Court of Justice would have to rule that the siege is illegal under international law, that it is collective punishment, and that it’s a flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions. Then the Palestinians would have two rulings because the ICJ has already ruled that the wall [annexing large parts of the West Bank] is illegal under international law. And then there would be a possibility for Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza to jointly engage in massive civil disobedience. It would not end the occupation, but it certainly would create momentum if Palestinians in the West Bank mobilized in massive numbers to bring down the wall using the ICJ opinion as their justification while Palestinians in Gaza peacefully tried to end the blockade by walking through it, again using the ICJ opinion.

And of course, we have to do our part because if the Palestinians are left alone Israel will just slaughter them. But if we do our part and mobilize public opinion, explaining that the only thing the Palestinians are trying to do is enforce the law, I think there’s a very good chance the wall can be brought down and the blockade can be broken and then that may build more momentum.

It’s like Gandhi with the Salt March. The Salt March for Gandhi was not really the salt issue. If you actually look at the outcome of the Salt March, it didn’t get much. Gandhi chose the salt issue because it affected every level of Indian society. From the rich to the poor, they all had to pay the salt tax. And he was looking for an issue that would affect everyone in Indian society and thereby potentially mobilize every member of Indian society. He was also looking for an issue which no moral person could doubt the validity of: paying a tax on salt – a basic necessity for diet – Gandhi felt that was it. In the end he did not get much: the British were willing to cancel the tax for the poorest Indians. But that was not what Gandhi wanted. For Gandhi, the Salt March was a way of building the momentum and mobilization of Indian power, to then use as leverage in negotiations. So, even though many people thought the Salt March was a failure, he did not. Immediately after he suspended civil disobedience, he went to London for negotiations even though he did not expect much to come away with much. He had a very good sense of power and he realized that the Indians were not yet in a strong enough position to get what they wanted.

Palestinians: Exercise Your Power
And the same thing is true here. I think the Palestinians can end the siege and can bring down the wall or get significant modifications. This is a way of energising the Palestinian society for the longer battle. Because that’s just the way anything meaningful in this world happens. Nothing meaningful in this world happens if somebody gives it to you. There was a famous abolitionist in the United States of African descent, Frederick Douglas, who said: “No struggle, no progress”. As an individual or as a society, you do not progress unless you challenge yourself. If you’re a person and everything is handed to you in life, you don’t develop character, you don’t really develop your intellect, you don’t develop anything… The only development is when you constantly challenge yourself, constantly struggle. It’s the same thing with a society. The purpose of any of these engagements in massive civil disobedience is to show people that they have the power to control their own lives. Once you realize you have that power, nobody can tell you what to do.

But if you just sit around, “What is Obama thinking, what is Clinton thinking?”, you don’t get anywhere. It’s pitiful. That’s not the way adults carry on. If you are an adult you want control over your own life. You don’t want a Messiah, I don’t want somebody to free me, nobody can free you, you can only free yourself. Nobody can free you. So, the challenge is for Palestinians to exercise the power they have. And they do have the power, Israel can not beat them. Israel can not – if the Palestinians realize their power. I don’t care what Obama thinks. He’s like all of them and all they care about is power, their own power. If he were white, you would call him Bill Clinton.

10,001 Ways to repress Our Human Potential
Do you think it is possible to resolve the conflict without addressing US imperialism?
Everything has its limits. It’s not just US imperialism. We have a global system which places huge limits on what we can achieve. I don’t believe any problem is solved. Everything is just one step towards making the world a better place. When I grew up we all believed in a socialist revolution, one Big Bang, and then everything would be perfect. But it’s not the way the world works. The world, in my opinion, works like rungs in a ladder. And I’m more than happy if in my lifetime I get to see in one little corner of the world people manage to climb one rung. The battles are not over; the struggle is not over. There are always ways to improve the world, ways to make the world a better place, discovering all sorts of ways in which we are repressed in our human potential. Because, what is society except 10,000 ways in which our potential as human beings is repressed, and then trying step by step to remove those obstacles, remove those impediments and enabling people, to the extent it is possible, to realize some happiness in the real world? But there are 10,000 ways in which, since the day you were born, your potential is being repressed.

When I was growing up, there was not even a conception of what women were capable of. A woman was a home-maker – and at most a schoolteacher. That is incidentally why the schools got so bad in the United States. The smartest women were teachers. Once women realized they could become lawyers and doctors, they stopped being teachers, and the quality of the teaching went down. But we discovered 10,001 ways in which the potential of women was being limited by our society which we did not even have an idea or concept of yet. I remember the first time I was on a train and I heard over the public address system a woman announcing “The next stop is…”. A woman engineer on the train? That’s impossible. Or a woman bus driver? And that’s a lot of what life is about: You discover ways in which human possibility is limited.

I was just in South Africa. I never, ever saw poverty like in South Africa. It was a throwback. I don’t think the cave people lived like that. I could not believe it. And I asked the people who were showing me around: “What percentage of the people live like this?” They said: “80 per cent”. How much did the end of apartheid accomplish? You know, it accomplished something. People do not want to go back. As Ela Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grand-daughter, said to me: “It’s true. In South Africa, it’s literately true: The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Not just relatively, absolutely.” How much did it accomplish? Not very much. But did it represent a step, a little rung on the ladder to get rid of apartheid? Yes, it did. But we should not have illusions. We can accomplish just so much. The power organized against us is so huge. We have these institutions which have endured for centuries, institutions of concentrated power. People are working 24/7-365 trying to figure out how to maintain this system. And most of us have maybe an hour or two a week that we can give over to doing some good deed.

Adwan Mohamed is a Danish/Palestinian researcher. Uffe Kaels Auring is a media analyst.