Peace - or Palestinian Surrender? An Interview with Norman Finkelstein

by Matt Hill

Norman G. Finkelstein is a man of contradictions. He is the Brooklyn-born son of concentration camp survivors who has enraged American Jews by denouncing the cynicism of what he calls the 'Holocaust industry.' He is a polemicist and inveterate contrarian who demolishes his opponents by scouring footnotes and soberly checking facts. He is an academic prodigy who, due to his notorious controversies, no longer has a university position. Though few will agree with everything he says, he is one of America’s indispensable public intellectuals.

In this wide-ranging interview with Review 31 to mark the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the author of nine books – from Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (1995) to Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End (2012) – reveals yet another seeming contradiction. After decades as one of the most high-profile supporters of the Palestinian cause, he turns his fire on the 'silly, sectarian, cultist politics' of the pro-Palestinian movement, decries the 'collaborationist' Palestinian leadership and defends Israel’s right to a peaceful existence as part of a two-state settlement. At the same time, he pulls no punches on the revived 'peace process', dismissing it as an attempt to impose a 'historic defeat' on the Palestinians.

But perhaps most surprisingly of all, Finkelstein also says he now believes an end to the conflict is within reach – and explains why he thinks Israel’s occupation could be ended, and a Palestinian state established, in the foreseeable future.

How optimistic are you that the current negotiations sponsored by John Kerry will lead to the end of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

The goal of the current talks is to impose the longstanding Israeli terms of settlement on the Palestinians. From the last phase of the Camp David negotiations at Taba, Egypt, in 2001 to the present, Israel has presented basically the same map regarding the territorial aspect of the conflict. It wants to annex 9-10% of the occupied West Bank, what it calls the 'major settlement blocs.' It's the route of the Wall that Israel has been building inside the West Bank, which senior officials have called Israel's 'final border,' and which will annex 9.5% of Palestinian territory.

If Israel prevails, the putative Palestinian 'state' will be stripped of some of the most arable land in the West Bank, as well as critical water resources, and it will be severed from the urban center of East Jerusalem, which is the hub of Palestinian life (Greater Jerusalem accounts for 40 percent of the Palestinian economy). What remains of the West Bank will be fragmented into several pieces, more or less resembling the bantustans in apartheid South Africa, which were also divided into 'major' and 'minor' fragments. On the refugee question, Israel will only accept an international mechanism to 'rehabilitate' Palestinian refugees where they currently reside, 'resettle' them in third countries, or 'repatriate' them in the West Bank bantustans.

Each party to the conflict has a different motive for participating in the current talks. The Palestinians have no choice except to attend, because the US pays the Palestinian Authority's bills (and bribes). Israel needs to pretend it is negotiating in order to deflect international (especially EU) sanctions. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are hoping that they can pull a peace agreement rabbit out of the hat to redeem Obama's failed presidency and feather Kerry's cap. Whether they will succeed is not clear. The calculation is, between the implosion of the Arab world, Hamas's dire straits after the coup against its Muslim Brotherhood benefactors in Egypt, the despondency and depoliticization of the Palestinian people, and the thralldom of the Palestinian Authority, it might be possible to impose a historic defeat on the Palestinians. At the end, the US will offer a huge 'aid' package (billed as a 'Marshall Plan'). Right now, Israel and Egypt (under Sisi) are colluding to make life unbearable in Gaza, so the Gazans will rid themselves of Hamas, in exchange for material relief from the Palestinian Authority.

Recently you've surprised some people by saying that you believe the outlook for a two-state deal has improved in recent years. What would such a deal look like, and what conditions could you foresee bringing it about?

The consensus terms for resolving the conflict have endured for nearly four decades now: two-states on the 1967 border, and a 'just' resolution of the Palestinian refugee question based on the right of return and compensation. The difference is that in recent years there have also been important shifts in public opinion in the West. The Europeans have grown weary of the Israel-Palestine conflict – in particular, the intransigence and bellicosity of the Israeli government. American public opinion, including American Jewish public opinion, has also grown more critical of Israeli policy. American Jews, who are significantly liberal in their politics, find it increasingly difficult to reconcile their liberal credo – the rule of law and equality under the law, the use of diplomacy and international institutions instead of force of arms to resolve interstate conflicts – with how Israel carries on. American Jews now know too much about the realities of the conflict to lend Israel blind support. If this public opinion can be galvanized in a mass movement, it could enable a resolution of the conflict on the consensus terms.

But the critical variable is the Palestinians themselves. If they embark on a mass nonviolent civil disobedience campaign, sufficient pressure can probably be brought to bear on Israel such that it will be forced to withdraw to its legal borders and a reasonable solution can be found to the refugee question. To desegregate the American South, it required a mass movement among African-Americans in the South struggling for their elementary Constitutional rights. This movement galvanized mainstream Americans, who were appalled by the brutality of Southern racists quelling the nonviolent struggle. The domestic outrage (as well as the international embarrassment) then compelled an otherwise reluctant Federal government to impose desegregation on Southern whites. Analogously, a mass nonviolent Palestinian movement will almost certainly evoke a violent Israeli reaction (which is what happened during the first intifada that began in 1987), and this brutal response will in turn galvanize international public opinion and thereby compel the United Nations to impose the law-based consensus terms on Israel.

Your support of the two-state solution and Israel's right to exist has left you out of step with pro-Palestinian activists in the west, among whom there seems to be a growing consensus that a two-state deal is either unattainable, undesirable, or both. What's your response to such views?

It is not unusual for the demands of a movement to become more extreme the less likely a settlement appears. The attitude is, If we can't even get half a loaf, why not ask for the whole loaf? In my opinion, however, the half-loaf is in fact within reach, whereas the whole loaf is not.

My differences with the Solidarity movement are less pronounced than it appears at first glance. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which now occupies center-stage among Palestine activists, claims to anchor its goals in international law. On this critical point, there's no disagreement. Everyone starts from the premise that the strongest card Palestinians have to play in the court of public opinion is international law. The settlements are illegal, the occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza is illegal, the denial of refugee rights is illegal.

The flaw in the BDS movement is that it selectively upholds only Palestinian rights, and ignores Palestinian obligations. Under international law, Israel is a state. If you want to appeal to public opinion on the basis of international law, you can't suddenly become an agnostic on the law when it comes to Israel. However, that's exactly what BDS does: it claims to have 'no position' on Israel, whereas international law does take a position on Israel. To be consistent, BDS must either recognize Israel or cease to claim that it is anchored in international law. It cannot both appeal to international law and fall silent on Israel's rights under that same law.

Are you frustrated that, just at the moment that (in your view) a two-state solution looks increasingly attainable, those who might have created a movement in support of that goal are abandoning it?

'Emigré' politics are always petty and personalized when 'The Revolution' is in ebb. Because there's no leadership or mass struggle right now in Palestine, any Tom, Dick or Harry can step into the breach and claim to represent 'Palestinian civil society.' Western leftists and liberals are prone to being guilt-tripped by 'people of color' playing the race card, who claim to be the 'vanguard of the Revolution.' If you dissent, you are then labeled a white-Jewish-liberal-colonial-imperialist-Zionist-whatever. I remember this sort of 'Mau-Mauing' (as Tom Wolfe memorably dubbed it) from the days of the Black Panthers, and admit to having fallen into the trap back then. But I am now way too old for these silly, sectarian, cultist politics. My guess is, if and when the Palestinian struggle re-emerges, it will set plausible goals and all the one-state talk will vanish like snow on a spring afternoon.

It's almost 20 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, which led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority. How do you assess the part the PA plays in the current state of affairs?

The main lesson Israel learned from the first Intifada (1987-1993) was that it couldn't on its own police the occupation. The numberless human rights violations committed by the occupying army isolated Israel internationally, while the deployment of Israeli troops for 'crowd control' in the occupied Palestinian territories meant less time devoted to training the army for combat. The purpose of Oslo, as Prime Minister Rabin repeatedly stated at the time, was to relieve Israel of the burdens of occupation by creating a collaborationist Palestinian regime and police force. In this critical respect, Oslo must be reckoned a remarkable success. There are fewer complaints nowadays about Israel's human rights record because in the new division of labor the Palestinian security and police forces repress, incarcerate and torture the Palestinian resistance. Meanwhile, Israel used the Oslo 'peace process' to deflect its incremental annexation of the West Bank. So, for example, whenever Israel was called to account for settlement expansion, it replied that settlements are a 'permanent status' issue that hasn't yet been resolved. The essence of Oslo was that it served as a façade behind which Israel entrenched the occupation and sought to make it irreversible.

Your work has never failed to stir controversy, and you've been the subject of some famously hostile attacks from Israel's supporters in the US. Do you regret any of the stances you’ve taken, or the language you’ve used, over the course of your career?

I first became active in June 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon. For the first 25 years of my involvement, it hardly made a difference what tone was adopted, because no one was listening. One's role was mostly to bear witness, but it was also a cry in the wilderness, trying to shake people out of their complacency, so the language used back then might appear strident in retrospect. Now, there's a significant public ready to listen, so there's an obligation to be more careful in the language one uses. At the moment I struggle over how to stay principled yet still reach out to a broad public that includes many liberal American Jews and even some Israelis.

Is it possible to support a two-state solution and the 'right of return' of millions of Palestinian refugees (which, by transforming its demographics, would effectively spell the end of Israel as a state)?

It would be disingenuous to deny that Palestinians have a right of return under international law, but it would be equally disingenuous to deny that implementation of this right poses thorny practical (and also principled) problems. In my opinion, the focus should shift from what a solution looks like to creating a mechanism enjoying legitimacy that could then propose a 'just' solution. Concretely, it means assembling a committee of respected moral authorities – say, Bishop Tutu, Jimmy Carter, John Dugard, Noam Chomsky, representatives from Al-Haq, B'Tselem, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – who can hear out all sides in public deliberations and then make a recommendation.

Of course, Palestinians would have a final say, but I am confident that if a reasonable proposal is made by people manifestly acting in good faith, and if it is in the context of an agreement that creates an authentic Palestinian state on the 1967 border with East Jerusalem as the capital, Palestinians will, if reluctantly, accept it, just as they accepted the two-state settlement in November 1988.

Do you consider the concept of a 'Jewish state' inherently illegitimate? And is Israel's self-definition as a Jewish state necessarily an obstacle to the two-state vision you speak of?

The 1947 UN Partition Resolution speaks to a Jewish (and Arab) state, but doesn't elucidate what in practice such a State denotes. It does explicitly stipulate, however, that such a State cannot prejudicially discriminate against the minority population. The peace treaties that Israel signed with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) make no reference to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. The Oslo accords (1993, 1995) make no reference to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. President Bush's Roadmap to Peace (2003) makes no mention of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. The first time Israel articulated this demand was during the 2007-9 Annapolis negotiations, and then Prime Minister Netanyahu ran with it.

The reasonable inference is that Israel has conjured the demand in order to provide another pretext for not negotiating a final settlement, and also to provide it with a bargaining chip during negotiations, as in: You drop the Right of Return, We drop recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. The qualitative difference between these demands should be obvious. The Palestinian demand is anchored squarely in international law, whereas the Israeli demand lacks any basis in international law: not even the US officially recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.

It is impossible for Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state for the simple reason that there's no consensus even among Israelis what it means to call Israel a Jewish state: for example, secularist and devout Jews have a very different appreciation of the notion of Israel as a Jewish state. What is more ominous, if Palestinians were to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, it might sanction denying Palestinian Israelis their basic rights as citizens, or even their ethnic cleansing.

Whether a state can be both Jewish and democratic is a complex question. Suffice it to say that many, perhaps most, States in the world today wrestle with the challenge of reconciling their ethnic/religious/national identities with accommodating the ethnic/religious/national identities of internal minorities. What’s beyond dispute is that, in the name of its Jewishness, Israel discriminates against its non-Jewish minorities in multiple, often egregious and shocking ways that cannot be reconciled with any democratic theory.