Interview with Noam Chomsky on the situation in West Asia following the Israeli assault on Gaza.
ISRAEL continues to terrorise and bomb at will. West Asia waits for a malicious twist to the already dead road map. A viable Palestinian state now seems to be like something in the distant future. A bloody retribution, a tit-for-tat flare-up; that is all that is left after the terrible Christmas massacre in Gaza. While young children played soccer and families slept in residential neighbourhoods, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) unleashed one of the severest attacks on Gaza in the last month of 2008, this time determined to enforce a military solution to the daily skirmishes on the border, thereby deterring the incorrigible Hamas belligerence.
In truth, it was Israel that first broke the ceasefire on November 1, 2008, and justified its air and ground attacks on Gaza as the final move to end the daily nuisance of missiles from across the border. It is a fact that in spite of the siege of the past two months no missiles were fired by Hamas. Israel has thrown to the wind the rules laid by the Fourth Geneva Convention, of the Nuremberg Principles, of all of the laws of war generated in the 20th century.
The West Asia problem is now the concern of the global community and is no longer singularly within American turf. In the past, the United States had always, without fail, rejected any such international intervention. However, Prof. Noam Chomsky argues, with no provision of an international vigilance force to oversee the implementation of any peace plan, Israel has the option to do what it pleases and has support from the U.S. for its incorrigible stance of “rejectionism”.
Sadly, the United Nations Security Council has been rendered ineffective by the U.S. veto, though more than 150 members in the General Assembly have voted for the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. There is no doubt that without the authorisation of the U.S. government and its support of Israel not a single military attack on Palestine can take place. Israel is a military base and complies with U.S. foreign policy. Military confrontation, control of gas wells on the borders of Gaza, as well as motives of expansionism have been the apparent interests of the two partners. Since the 1973 encroachment into the Egyptian Sinai, any diplomatic resolution to end the impasse between the two nations has been consistently elusive. With the recent destruction of Gaza, the solution has become all the more protean.
Public opinion in Israel calls for giving up land in Palestine in exchange for peace, but the country’s leaders look on. Their convictions as “Christian Zionists” seem to bestow on them the theological right to continue doing what they do despite what happens to a few million Palestinian “terrorists”. In the meantime, the two nations sink neck deep into uncontrolled violence, leaving behind an unsolvable conundrum.
If Washington was sincere and committed to move West Asia towards peace, there should have been some sign of a reprimand to Israel for its recent attack on Gaza. In the light of the recent history of peace initiatives and unrestrained violence, there seems to be only one way out: an international solution on the lines of what took place in East Timor through the pressure exerted by international opinion. One cannot change the nature of the West Asia problem through war or bloodshed, and democracy cannot come on the wings of a bomber.
Then where does the solution lie? While it cannot come from the Right in Israel, the Left remains unelectable. In Palestine, on the other hand, there is no check on militant agitation. Peace can never come from top down; it is the people at the bottom who can put an end to violence and terrorism.
Will the new President in the White House invest his full powers to bring the two antagonists to the table and negotiate for a solution to one of the most serious political issues of our time? Or will he continue to put forward the American propensity to befriend Israel as a priority that would supersede an objectivity that his presidency promises to the world? The Clinton plan of bringing durable peace by returning to the 1967 boundaries, of sharing Jerusalem and permitting Palestinian refugees to return to their homes remains a viable model for President Barack Obama to follow unless he reinvents a road map that will anticipate the end of hostility.
At the end of the day, it will depend on the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. to persuade the American leadership to either initiate peace or escalate conflict in West Asia. Obama will scarcely be left with a choice against such a formidable force from within his own fortress. The world waits to see whether he succeeds in introducing a comprehensive diplomatic initiative towards Iran along with the prioritising of the Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
In the light of the West Asia “ulcer”, Prof. Shelley Walia asked Prof. Noam Chomsky for his views on this conundrum. Chomsky, as is well known, has probably been the single most important voice in international politics for several decades. His main works, from Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (with Edward S. Herman) to Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, from Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy to Perilous Powers: The Middle East & U.S. Foreign Policy: Dialogues on Terror, Democracy, War, and Justice (with Gilbert Achcar and Stephen R. Shalom [editor]), along with his daily interventions, have challenged the deceptions of media reportage and of the devious agendas of Western regimes. As Edward Said emphasised some years ago, “Noam Chomsky is one of the most significant challengers of unjust power and delusions; he goes against every assumption about American altruism and humanitarianism.”
Chomsky was kind enough to take time off from his busy schedule and answer a number of questions on the Arab-Israel conflict. His invigorating zeal remains unabated, as is visible from his remarkable consistency of involvement with issues of human rights and peace. Excerpts from the interview:
Coming directly to the reasons for the Israeli attack on Gaza, do you believe that there could be a larger plan at work that has as its planner the U.S. aiming to finally provoke Iran to enter the ongoing conflict?
I doubt it. It would have been highly unlikely for Iran to respond more than verbally to the attack. There is a straightforward reason, I believe. Israel wants to take over the valuable parts of the West Bank and to leave the remnants of Palestinian society barely viable. And it, of course, wants to do so without disruption. It has succeeded, by violence, to suppress resistance within the West Bank. But the other part of occupied Palestine, Gaza, is still not completely under control. For other reasons, Israel has refused to abide by any of the ceasefires that have been reached and intends to maintain the siege that is suffocating Gaza. Invasion was a means to suppress resistance to its ongoing (U.S.-backed) crimes in the occupied territories.
The fertile part of Gaza represents about a third of the Gaza Strip, this being the part Israel has always wanted to retain owing to its economic productivity and sale of produce to Europe. How would you then react to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza a few years ago? Is it because the maintenance and protection of Israeli settlers was proving rather costly for the Israeli government or because the U.S. nudged [then Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon in that direction, or because Sharon had his own agenda?
The motives do not seem obscure. Gaza has been turned into a disaster area under Israeli military occupation of 38 years. A few thousand Israeli settlers take a substantial part of the scarce land and resources and have to be protected by a large part of the Israeli army. Sane Israeli hawks understand that it makes no sense to continue with these arrangements. The settlers, who were subsidised to establish themselves there, are now being subsidised to settle elsewhere, leaving the population of Gaza to rot in a virtual prison. The few scattered West Bank outposts that are being abandoned are also simply an annoyance for Israel.
The “disengagement plan” is in reality an expansion plan, as was made plain at once. The presentation of the plan was coupled with an announcement of tens of millions of dollars for West Bank settlements and infrastructure development, a further expansion of the programmes designed to ensure that valuable land and resources will be incorporated within Israel, while Palestinians will be left in scarcely viable cantons. The shameful “separation wall” is one particularly ugly feature of these programmes. The actions are gross violations of international law and elementary human rights but can continue as long as they are supported by the reigning superpower. American citizens are the only ones who can put an end to these continuing and very severe crimes.
The operation was a complete scam, a repeat of “Operation National Trauma ’82” as the press called it at the time, carefully orchestrated, a media triumph, intended to convey the message: “Never again must Jews suffer so; the West Bank is ours.”
Would you agree that there is the complicity of [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas with the Palestinian contras who are backed by the U.S. and Israel? He does not have the authority, moral or otherwise, to call together the Palestinian people for anything.
Abbas is in a difficult position, no doubt. He does not want to accept the results of the democratic election that was won by his rival Hamas. With U.S. support, he attempted a military coup in Gaza, but that was beaten back and Hamas took over total control. His forces have been trained and armed by the U.S. and its regional allies, and assigned the task of suppressing any opposition in the West Bank, in particular, opposition to Israeli crimes in Gaza. One result is that he has very little credibility. There may be some chance of a unity government. It is possible that Israel’s decision to violate the ceasefire by invading Gaza on November 4, 2008, was intended to disrupt planned meetings in Cairo to establish a unity government. The pretexts offered were too absurd to merit comment.
How far do you think that the military action of Israel is disproportionate to the ends that it hopes to achieve? Is it legitimate under international law? Israel is crossing every red line of the Fourth Geneva Convention, of the Nuremberg Principles, of all of the laws of war that were developed in the 20th century. It has the backing of the U.S. and thus feels cocksure of its actions.
That depends on what we think it hoped to achieve. The attack did succeed in killing many civilians and destroying villages, institutions, and infrastructure, while also devastating much of the agricultural land and the limited industrial capacity of Gaza. The actions were “proportional” to achieving such ends, which we can only assume were the real ones. Of course, all of this is in gross violation of international law, as is U.S. support for it. In fact, all of this is in direct violation of U.S. law, which bans the use of U.S.-supplied arms apart for “legitimate self-defence”, and it is transparent that Israel’s actions do not fall under that category.
Do you think that there may be some reason for going into the attack on Gaza at a juncture when the Bush administration was leaving office and Barack Obama was to be sworn in on January 20? Was there a feeling that the U.S. government at that point would not react in any negative way? Labour gained 50 per cent more in the elections, mainly because Ehud Barak was the man who was mostly identified with this operation. He was the Minister of Defence, as you know. Or, do you think it is just overreaction?
We know from Israeli sources that the attack was meticulously planned in advance. It would only make sense, from Israel’s point of view, to carry out the attack so that it could do maximal damage but end immediately before Obama’s inauguration, which is what happened. That way Obama could pretend that he could not comment on it, because “there is only one President” (that didn’t prevent him from commenting on many other things, including bitter condemnation of the Mumbai terror and the “hateful ideology” behind it). And since the attack had formally ended immediately before the inauguration, he could maintain his silence after assuming the presidency, thereby continuing Bush’s policies, as he has done on other matters as well.
It was not an attack on Hamas but on the whole structure of the society of Palestinians. Hospitals, universities, mosques were not spared. And if you keep citizens under such a harsh siege there are no options but to retaliate. The only democratic election in West Asia should have been given time to prove itself. Hamas is not guilty. Israel is for breaking the ceasefire and killing civilians. The aim is to see that democracy does not succeed. In spite of the siege of the past two months, no bombs were thrown by Hamas. Any comments?
A recent poll of Muslim opinion found that large majorities “see U.S. support for democracy in Muslim countries as conditional at best. Only very small minorities say ‘the U.S. favours democracy in Muslim countries whether or not the government is cooperative with the U.S.’. The most common response is that the U.S. favours democracy only if the government is cooperative, while nearly as many say that the U.S. simply opposes democracy in the Muslim countries.” I am quoting from the summary by one of the world’s most respected polling agencies. The large majority are surely correct, and the same principle holds elsewhere. As the most strongly pro-government scholarship has conceded, the U.S. has supported democracy if and only if it conforms to strategic and economic objectives. Europe is, of course, the same.
Western intellectuals and their allies elsewhere naturally prefer a different story, but as is often the case, the victims have much clearer insight into reality than the servants of power.
Do you agree that the provocation has come from Israel and not Hamas. It broke the ceasefire two months earlier and is conveniently blaming Hamas. And then it is asking the residents to leave Gaza. How is it possible? Where should they go when there is that crippling blockade in operation? This notion that Israel has a right to defend itself – against whom?
A state has the right of self-defence by force only if it has exhausted peaceful means. In this case, Israel plainly had peaceful means that it refused to pursue: ceasefire, and termination of criminal actions in the occupied territory. Accordingly, it cannot appeal to the right of self-defence.
Do you not think that the result of this kind of provocation will bring about the third Intifada instead of peace and security? Do you think the last chance for negotiations is now destroyed? The Hamas leadership in Damascus is against any ceasefire.
Before the attack, the Israeli government was aware that Hamas, including the Damascus political leadership, was calling for a ceasefire – but a real one, which would end the siege. A siege is an act of war. Israel has always insisted on that. In fact, Israel launched two wars (1956, 1967) in large part on the claim that its access to the outside was partially limited, which is far less than a siege. The possibility of a political settlement remains open. As before, it turns on whether the U.S. will abandon the strong rejectionist policies it has pursued (with Israel), in international isolation, since the mid-1970s.
Would you say that the two-nation theory is now in jeopardy, especially now with the escalation of war? Palestinians will now have to seek refuge in Jordan or Egypt if Israel decides to push them out of the West Bank. Egypt and, to some extent, Jordan have been thrown off balance by the withering criticism they have faced. The alliance of Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas – the quartet that is fighting against a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – is critical of Jordan and Egypt as well of the two-state solution.
I think your description, while conventional, is an error, a reflection of the force of Western propaganda. The facts are quite clear. There has been an overwhelming consensus in support of a two-state settlement since 1976, when the U.S. first vetoed a Security Council resolution to this effect put forth by the Arab states (including Syria, which still supports it). It is now supported by virtually everyone, including Hamas, which has repeatedly and quite publicly called for it. Iran has made clear that it would back the position of the Arab states, which formally support this policy, and call for normalisation of relations with Israel in that context. Hizbollah’s position is that it will not disrupt anything that Palestinians accept. That leaves the U.S. and Israel, the leaders of the rejection front since the 1970s. There has been one break in U.S.-Israeli rejectionism: negotiations in Taba, Egypt, in January 2001, which were coming very close to an agreement when Israel terminated them prematurely.
It is not too late for the two rejectionist states to return to what was almost achieved there, and if the U.S. decided to do so, Israel would surely go along. Unfortunately, Obama has clearly rejected that position. In his first foreign policy declaration, he praised the Arab League position as “constructive” and urged the Arab states to proceed with normalisation of relations with Israel. But he carefully omitted the crucial precondition for normalisation: a two-state settlement. He is an intelligent man and chooses his words carefully. He could hardly have been more explicit in rejecting the international consensus.
What do you think is Egypt’s role in the peace process at this juncture? Its role as the chief negotiator in the Muslim world has been sagging owing to its declining economic situation and escalating poverty.
The Egyptian dictatorship despises Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which would surely do very well in Egypt if it were permitted to participate in a free election. But even if it tries to be an honest negotiator, Egypt can do nothing as long as the U.S. maintains its rejectionist stance, not only in words but by providing the decisive military, economic and diplomatic support for Israel’s systematic and of course criminal actions to take what it wants in the West Bank. And we should add “ideological support”, such as the absurd propaganda claims about who is blocking a two-state settlement, which are widely believed, thanks to U.S. power.
Evidently, the formulation of the U.S.’ West Asia policy is dependent on the pro-Israel lobby and their Zionist supporters within the government. The brutal military occupation within Palestine has evoked little concern or response from the U.S. government, and its silence, therefore, indicates its complicity with the pro-Israel lobby that controls the U.S. political agenda. Do you agree?
No, I don’t agree. I think that is a very serious misunderstanding of how policy is made. True, lobbies have influence. There are many dramatic cases. Take Cuba. A large majority of Americans have wanted to end the embargo and have normal relations for years, powerful business interests (energy, agribusiness, pharmaceutical, and others), but the political parties won’t touch it because of the Cuban-American vote in Florida and a few other States.
To be sure, there are state interests, and those probably dominate. But the lobby has had a powerful effect. Even a tiny lobby like the Armenian lobby came very close to severely harming U.S. relations with Turkey, a major ally, last year, by getting Congress to (almost) pass an Armenian genocide resolution.
In the case of Israel, it’s convenient for U.S. analysts to blame the Israel lobby for policies they don’t like. That leaves us “clean”, just misled by a lot of bad Jews. There’s some truth to it, as in the case of other lobbies. But it’s much exaggerated.
The debates over the influence of the lobby are typically quite abstract: they have to do with sorting out influences that mostly converge – strategic-economic, lobby. The test is when U.S. government policies and the lobby conflict, as often happens. In that case, invariably, the lobby disappears, knowing better than to confront real power. Just happened last summer, once again, in an important case: the lobby was intent on ramming through Congress a resolution calling for a virtual blockade of Iran, a very high priority for Israel. At first they rounded up congressional support, enough to pass it, until the White House hinted quietly that it was opposed, not wanting to be dragged into a war with Iran. The measure (HR 362) was dropped; the lobby was silent. Not uncommon.
The debates also are paralysing. They have no implications for activism, except one. If the claims are correct, then I’ve been wasting my time for years in talking, writing, organising, activism. I should instead put on a tie and jacket and go to the corporate headquarters of Intel, Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, and a host of other major corporations investing in Israel, and should explain to them, politely, that they are harming their interests by doing so, and should use their political and economic power to put the lobby out of business, as they can do in five minutes. No one adopts that tactic. But why?
Why is Obama quiet? It suits him to speak on economic matters or Iraq, but on Israeli atrocities he has not made a single statement.
Obama made it clear long before that he is a passionate supporter of Israeli policies. In his campaign, he emphasised that he was a co-sponsor of a Senate resolution in 2006 barring any interference with Israel’s criminal aggression in Lebanon. He also called for Jerusalem to be the permanent and undivided capital of Israel, a position so outrageous that his campaign had to claim publicly that his words did not mean what he said. I wrote about this a year ago, in a book published before the elections, simply relying on his formal positions. For some reason, many people prefer illusions about him. But one cannot charge him with concealing his extremist positions.
Do you think Israel has crossed the line of humanity and legality in its recent onslaught on Gaza?
We should describe this as a U.S.-Israeli assault. It surely crosses both lines, but hardly for the first time.
Prof. Shelley Walia is a Fellow and Dean, International Students, at Panjab University, Chandigarh. He teaches Literary and Cultural Theory at the Department of English.