Norman Finkelstein: ‘God Helps Those Who Help Themselves’

Jamie Stern-Weiner interviews Norman G. Finkelstein – MR Zine
Part I:  http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/sw130710.html – 13 July 2010
Part II: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/sw230710.html – 23 July 2010

Norman Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein is one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals writing about the Israel-Palestine conflict.  He is the author of many books on the topic, most recently Beyond Chutzpah, an exhaustive account of Israel’s human rights record, and This Time We Went Too Far (reviewed in New Left Project), an analysis of the Gaza massacre and its consequences.  I met him in his Brooklyn apartment to discuss, inter alia, the intellectual climate in the US after the flotilla attack, the merits of various strategies for opposing the occupation, and Tony Blair.

What, at root, is this conflict about?

The basic conflict can be understood in very conventional terms of people enduring and trying to resist an occupation.  I don’t think it requires much more profundity in order to understand why Palestinians are opposed to their current condition, and I think Israel is behaving like most occupying powers behave — specifically, it is very hard to evict them.  It wasn’t easy to get the French out of Algeria, it wasn’t easy to get the Russians out of Afghanistan, it wasn’t easy to get the Americans out of Vietnam and it’s not easy to get the Israelis out of the occupied Palestinian territories, but I don’t think one has to search for very profound reasons.  There are surely other layers, but the fundamental fact is that the Palestinians are not only deprived of their basic human rights but they’re slowly, inexorably, being dispossessed of their homeland by the Israeli juggernaut.

A recent exchange between Zeev Sternhell and Gabriel Piterberg in the New Left Review discussed, among other things, the applicability of the ‘settler-colonial’ model to the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Do you think that’s a useful framework to use?

I think those models are pitched at such a high level of abstraction that they can be made to fit anything.  Yes, they are settlers, and yes they have colonised.  Those two facts the Israelis don’t deny: during the Mandate period they referred to themselves as the ‘Jewish Colonization Association’, so they don’t deny that they colonised, and they don’t deny that they were settlers.  So at that level of abstraction, very few honest Israelis would dissent.  I think the important point, which will require some elaboration, is that there are two components to Zionism: it was the outgrowth of an imperialist project, part of late 19th century European imperialism, but it also was an expression of Eastern European nationalism.  So it has components of conventional imperialism, and components of conventional nationalism, and I think unless you understand both you don’t really grasp Zionism.

Romantic nationalism?

Yeah, it’s a conventional form of romantic nationalism.  If you read the works of Hans Kohn, who was the foremost historian of nationalism in the 1940s and 50s, it’s pretty clear that Zionism fits in squarely as a fairly typical form of romantic nationalism, ‘blood and soil’ nationalism (‘Blut und Boden‘).

Any other useful historical analogies you can think of?

I’ve found from my own work that actually the comparison with the dispossession of the Native Americans in North America works pretty well.  Some years ago I sat down and started to read about what happened to the Cherokee Indians in the United States, and if you follow the steps in their dispossession, and then overlay the Israel-Palestine conflict, the correspondence and correlation is pretty impressive.

How useful is the apartheid analogy in conveying the realities of Israel’s occupation policy?

I see no reason to be a quibbler on these points.  So many mainstream Israelis now make the comparison, and so many mainstream South Africans make the comparison.  The former Israeli Attorney-General Michael Ben-Yair, the former Israeli Ministers of Education Yossi Sarid and Shulamit Aloni, John Dugard, Desmond Tutu, repeated Ha’aretz editorials, B’Tselem, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel . . . all reputable, knowledgeable sources and, most importantly, sources which are either careful in their use of language, or — in the case of South Africans — who would be very far from wanting to trivialize their experience.  When you have such an overwhelming number of serious, respected scholars and activists making this comparison, I see no reason to dissent.  On the other hand, of course, there are differences — the main one being that although in theory apartheid wanted to completely separate the races, in practice they knew they could never do without black labour.  In the case of Israel they don’t want to preserve Palestinian or Arab labour, they really want to make a homogeneous state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan.  They would want it to be homogeneous, not only in theory but in practice — except for guest workers, like the role Turkish workers play in much of Europe where they’re deprived of their rights.

Often you hear “‘Israel’ is doing this. . .” and “‘Israel’ is doing that. . .”, but why do you think ‘Israel’ wants to maintain the occupation in the first place?  Israeli analyst Shir Hever of the Alternative Information Centre in Jerusalem has rejected explanations for the occupation that rely purely on a traditional ‘who benefits?’ economic analysis.  Do you think the reasons for the occupation are material, ideological or both?

First of all, you can never prove these things.  Second of all, there could be an elite consensus on the goal but there may not be elite consensus on the motive.  So there could be consensus that we want to preserve the occupation, but it may be for different reasons depending on who you’re talking to.  So there are some people, plainly, for whom the occupation is a religious thing.  There are right-wing religious fanatics in Israel — quite a few, in fact.  So there is, for some, a religious component.  For some there’s plainly an economic component, to keep some of the most valuable land and to keep the water resources.  For some, I’m more and more inclined to believe that it’s a kind of political thing with the Israelis where they never give in unless they’re forced to give in.

Let’s take the example of South Lebanon.  Israel was occupying South Lebanon and there were all sorts of theories about why it wouldn’t leave.  Now bear in mind that Israel stayed there for a long time, from 1978 to 2000 — that’s not a short period, we’re talking about 22 years.  So why did it stay?  Well, some people said, like in the West Bank, ‘they wanted the water resources’, ‘they wanted the Litani’, and so on.  I think they basically wanted to stay because they were there and they didn’t want to leave until they were ready to leave.  They were not going to let anybody dictate the terms of when they stay and when they leave, because they see any imposed withdrawal as a sign of weakness.  So once they’re there, they’re staying there, until they’re forced to leave.  I know it’s kind of a circular argument, but they see any kind of withdrawal as being weakness, and I think at this point they’re not going to leave, precisely because everybody wants them to leave.  They want to show that they can resist any pressure, because if at any point they leave, it’s going to be because they were forced to, and for them that shows weakness.

Do you think the desire to control the West Bank in particular is motivated in any way by genuine security concerns?

No.  I don’t want to be flippant, but there’s no evidence of security concerns.  Everybody agrees that the notion that the Jordan Valley represents any kind of security value to Israel is nonsense.  They even admit it — if you read Shlomo Ben-Ami and the others, they say it’s a complete myth that the Jordan Valley offers any kind of security protection to them.  For Christ’s sake, we’re talking now about the main threats being missiles, rockets and nuclear weapons.  How can the West Bank be any kind of security barrier against that?  It’s just ridiculous.  It used to be said ‘we have to keep the West Bank not because of Jordan but because Iraq may invade Jordan’, but Iraq’s out of the picture now.  Iraq is not about to send troops into Jordan to attack Israel — that’s not on the drawing board.  So what is its purpose?  There’s no convincing argument for that sort of claim.  Even Hamas now has rockets and they’re claiming they have even longer range rockets.  How does keeping land protect you from that?

How much elite opposition to occupation is there within Israel?

Some people speculate that you can find some elite opposition among, say, the industrialists in Israel.  Presumably the equivalent of our Silicon Valley high-tech business people, who probably think the occupation’s totally crazy because all they want to do is make money and they figure that the fastest and easiest way to make money is to be at peace with everybody.  So I suppose there are economic actors in Israel who oppose the occupation, and you can find statements by them saying that they’d like to end the occupation.  But there’s a pretty hard consensus now that Israel is not going to give in to the terms that would allow for genuine Palestinian self-determination.  And that’s not just an elite consensus, it’s an Israeli consensus.

And on that topic, current trends on the popular level don’t look positive.

No, they’re over the cliff.  It’s South Africa in the ’70s.  They’re digging in their heels, until they start feeling the pain of the occupation.  Right now they don’t feel anything — everybody says the Israeli economy is developing at a very fast clip, life’s never been better there.  The only thing they don’t like, of course, is the fact that they’re being ostracised.

I’ve heard two tactical conclusions drawn about these trends within Israeli public opinion.  Liberal Zionists often say that, given the realities of Israeli popular opinion, our priority should be to avoid alienating the Israeli public further and to try to bring them around, and so we shouldn’t take a hard position because then they’ll feel besieged, and so on.  Others say, along the lines of your previous response, that Israelis need to be made to feel the costs of occupation more, through Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and similar campaigns.  What’s your response to the first line of argument?

I think both are appropriate.  You don’t want to isolate people into a corner where they feel like they have no other option but to strike out.  So you have to show that you’re reasonable, that you’re proposing a reasonable settlement of the conflict that is in accordance with international law and one which protects the rights and the dignity of all sides.  But on the other hand you have to make them feel that this can’t go on, because right now they still think it can go on.  Even on a military level, the attitude of the Israelis is not that there has been a shift in power in the Middle East, or that a shift in power is occurring.  Their attitude is that ‘we’ve made mistakes, we’ve made errors militarily.  All we have to do is correct the mistakes and correct the errors and it will be back to post-June 1967.  And if the Arabs get out of line then we just do what we did in ’67 when we delivered a couple of hard blows, and we’ll defeat them.’  It hasn’t yet sunk in at any level that this can’t continue, and so they have to be made to feel the hard way that they can’t go on.  But we must always throw out the life preserver: this is not about destroying Israel, this is not about sweeping anyone into the sea, it’s about guaranteeing and defending everybody’s rights and human dignity.

So how do American and British citizens go about accomplishing that, tactically?  What are your views on the BDS movement, for example?

First of all, people are getting a little too cult-like about BDS.  You always know a movement is growing insular when it starts using these in-group abbreviations (‘BDS’).  In my day it was ‘DOP’ — ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’.  You have these little abbreviations to show that you’re part of the ‘in-group’ and you’re cool and you know what’s going on.  So we should really steer away from that, because this is not about our egos, which are sometimes oversized.  It’s about trying to achieve an important, humane goal.

There are now basically three strands, as I see it, of resistance to what Israel is doing.  One strand is the legal one: trying to hold Israel accountable according to international law.  That took its most salient form in the Goldstone Report, but there have been a lot of initiatives around it, like the use of universal jurisdiction in the UK to threaten lawsuits against Israeli officials and personnel who come to the country.  That to me is an extremely valuable tool in trying to organise people in the sense of leaning on the law to say that what we’re demanding is simply what the law is demanding.  But in terms of application it’s very elitist, because it’s just a very narrow group of lawyers who can ever really bring to bear the force of law.

Another strand is the nonviolent civil resistance, which includes what goes on in places like Bil’in, the internationalists who go over there, and also things like the flotilla.  Those are all part of the nonviolent civil resistance component — I won’t say ‘strategy’ because I don’t think any of these different approaches are in conflict — of opposition to the occupation.

The third component is BDS.  This has, I think, two aspects to it: one aspect that targets Israel globally, saying anything and everything that has to do with Israel has to be boycotted, and a second that says we should focus on those aspects of what Israel does that are illegal under international law.  So for example, what the Methodist Church in Britain just did: it did not pass a resolution saying we should boycott all Israeli products, even though there were some people pushing for that.  It passed a resolution saying we should boycott Israeli goods that come from the settlements, because the settlements are illegal under international law.  And then there are the initiatives of, say, Amnesty International that call for a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel because the transfer of weapons to persistent human rights abusers is illegal under international law.  Then there’s the targeting of Caterpillar because Caterpillar is involved in demolition of homes, which is illegal under international law, and so on.

So there’s one subset of BDS that focuses not on Israel globally but on aspects of Israeli policy that violate international law.  There’s another subset that says everything having to do with Israel should be boycotted — its academic institutions, all of its products, and so on and so forth.  Personally, I think that the first subset — namely targeting those aspects of Israeli policy that violate international law — has a much better chance of success because people understand international law.  When you start targeting everything having to do with Israel it begins to pose questions of motive — ‘OK, now, what exactly are we opposed to here?  Are we opposed to the occupation or are we opposed to Israel completely?’  And the global targeting is, I think, deliberately obfuscatory on that issue.

And how would you respond to the argument that things like cultural boycotts — ‘global’ BDS, in your terminology — do function to make Israelis ‘feel the cost’ of occupation?

That’s true, and I’m not dogmatic: I’m long past the days when I had a party line I had to prove.  I think that’s true, and I think those are successes, and I’m glad when people say they’ll boycott.  But frankly, I don’t really trust a lot of the people involved.  I don’t think they’re honest.  They use these very vague formulations, such that you don’t exactly know what they’re against.  I like Uri Avnery on some days and dislike him on others, but here I think he’s right: you never get a clear sense with these people about what exactly they’re opposed to.

I guess they’d respond that they’re trying to build as broad a movement as possible, and so as far as they can, they try to avoid specifying their preferences for a final settlement so that people who disagree about that can still unite to achieve more immediate goals.

Yes, but it also turns a lot of people away because they want clear answers before they’re willing to join in.  You know, they say they oppose “Zionists” — “Zionism” is the epithet du jour — but what does that mean?  You’re against Richard Goldstone?  You’re against Noam Chomsky?  I don’t know what it means.  Richard Goldstone is the enemy?  I don’t see that.

What is the British government’s role in the conflict?  It is officially committed to the international consensus two-state settlement, but what has our record been in practice?

It’s been awful.  Britain doesn’t have an independent role — it just does what the US tells it to do.  On the other hand, the struggle is easier in the UK because Britain’s formal role, say in UN resolutions, is not bad.  It belongs with the majority in virtually all of the votes that are taken — in the annual ‘Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine’ vote, for example.  So in the UK your task is to hold your government accountable to its words and argue that there is a huge gap between its words and its actions.  That’s a much easier struggle than in the US, where there is no gap between the words and the actions — both are wretched.

But I do pity you — I mean, as bad as Bush was, I prefer him to Blair.  Blair is a freak.

He’s awful.  And he’s still involved with it!  He won’t go away. . . .

His eyes!  They look possessed!  It’s like he needs to be exorcised.  He won the Liberty Medal yesterday — Clinton gave it to him.  He got $100,000, and he says, ‘I’m donating the prize money to my two favourite charities’.  So I wrote to my friend, ‘of course, his two favourite charities: his left pocket and his right one!’

The funny thing is, now, he’s taking credit for opening the borders of Gaza.  The delusions of power!

And the worst thing is we’ve now got two people in government who are just trying to be him.  So we’ve got sub-versions of him.

I hear Clegg’s not that terrible.

He’s . . . not great.

I feel so bad about David Miliband, because I liked his father very much.

As the joke goes, “Ralph Miliband said that the Labour Party would never do anything for the working class; his son is going to prove it”.

He was a very nice guy.  He was a very lucid thinker — not profound, but clearheaded.  I knew him — a nice guy.

Alright, let’s talk about Obama.  What did you think of his widely celebrated speech in Cairo and how has his record since matched up to it?

There were a couple of things in the speech that actually weren’t awful.  For example, he did say he thinks women should have the right to wear the hijab.  I thought that was pretty good — it was completely unnoticed, but it was sort of like, ‘mind your own business!  If they want to wear it, for cultural reasons, personal reasons, family, etc., you should mind your own business’.  I kind of liked that statement, although that’s about the only statement I liked in the whole speech.

The speech was typical Obama – just speechifying with the most vacuous, insipid homilies.  There’s zero substance to anything he says — it’s all what I call bar mitzvah speeches, but of course not meant for a bar mitzvah.  Some of the speech was just outrageous, and it went completely over people’s heads.  Right after the Gaza massacre, he lectured Palestinians on how they should not use violence.  Well excuse me, I think you’re lecturing the wrong side!  And the fact that he’s praising Mubarak. . . .

And his policy record so far?  Is it different from his predecessors?

Well, in some ways it’s significantly worse.  As my great friend Alan Nairn observed, he’s actually killed more people in his first year in office than Bush.  It’s easy to make broad brush statements about how terrible he is, but on every front, when I read the details, it’s really deeply depressing how terrible he is.  I think he was too young and too inexperienced to become President.  He rose from very humble roots, and he’s bedazzled by power and elite institutions.  They’re easy to be intimidated by, and so all the people he has surrounded himself with are just Harvard people who have very secure positions in power.  Because he has to be very insecure about the fact that he’s a relatively young person from a relatively humble background who has very little experience.  He was a senator for two years, that was it.  And this insecurity manifested itself in what you call ‘safe picks’ — everybody he chose was very safe.

Look who he chose for the Supreme Court — Elena Kagan is a complete nonentity.  Her only impulse is ambition.  We all have ambition, but ambition in the service of an idea, a cause, a principle.  But hers is just ambition in the service of ambition.  And that’s him — there’s no cause, there’s no principle, there’s nothing, except for these empty, vapid homilies.

And on Israel-Palestine in particular — does he basically represent the status quo?

It’s basically status quo, but the status quo is changing a little.  They are not yet predominant but certainly there are elements within elite circles that are questioning how useful Israel is to the US.  Most notable is the case of the chief apologist for Israel after the Gaza massacre, Anthony Cordesman.  After the flotilla bloodbath Cordesman wrote a very tough statement saying to Israel ‘you’re causing us problems here and you’re really going to have to stop’.  And his thinking is reflective of where a lot of elite thought is.  So that status quo is changing, plus they have new problems with Turkey, an inability to use US muscle to threaten Iran, the independent initiative taken by Brazil and Turkey on the Iranian nuclear program . . . all those things are evidence that American power hasn’t declined but is on a decline — it’s not what it once was.  And so as the status quo changes you will see it reflected in Obama’s pronouncements and policy — not much, but something.

Does this shifting status quo create more space for popular activism to change state policy?

No, I think the most important thing that happened with the Freedom Flotilla was that for the first time it was popular resistance that was taking the lead and state powers that were lagging behind.  They had to follow the agenda being set by popular resistance, they weren’t setting the agenda any more.  They were not happy about that.  But it was because of the flotilla that they were forced to impose some changes on the blockade — they were very happy with the blockade the way it was, and weren’t saying a peep about it.  Occasionally there was a statement made by the European parliament but nobody was doing anything.  For the first time popular opinion or outrage or resistance jumped ahead of state power and it forced states to do something.

That having happened, our goal should be, as much as we can, to not look at what they’re doing but to maintain the momentum and to stay in the lead and not count on an Obama or a British government.  Don’t waste your time counting on them.  Speaking as a resolute atheist: God helps those who help themselves.  We have to maintain the momentum and then force them to act, not wait for them to act and not count on them to act.  That’s why the flotilla was a very encouraging sign — it showed we can make them act.

A recent article by Peter Beinart in the NYRB, which has got everyone talking…

Yeah, he took my whole book.

Yeah, basically just copied your whole thing. You wrote that the Goldstone Report signalled the “implosion of that unstable alloy — some would say oxymoron — called liberal Zionism’.  He argues that:

“For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

We’re now a year and a half since the Gaza massacre.  What’s your sense of the current intellectual climate in the US?  Have the trends that you discussed in your book intensified?

The flotilla accelerated all the trends I wrote about.  The title of the book was ‘This Time We Went Too Far’ — one of my editors, the day after the flotilla bloodbath, wrote to me: ‘This Time They Really Went Too Far’.  So it was an acceleration of the lunacy and the craziness and also the disaffection by Jews for Israel.  On the eve of and then right after the flotilla bloodbath there was a large outpouring of real hostile Jewish sentiment saying, ‘we’re not going to have anything more to do with this’.  Following in Beinart’s footsteps, you saw quite a lot of it.

I thought the reaction to Beinart’s piece was interesting, in that it confirmed his diagnosis.  The response was mostly positive, with the exception of a few increasingly isolated islands of criticism.  So you had Jeffrey Goldberg, for example, describing a “claustrophobic feeling” that occurs when one is “locked in a small room (decorated, ambivalently, in blue and white) with Peter Beinart and Jon Chait and . . . well, that’s the point, isn’t it?”  (He managed to name Tom Friedman and Leon Wieseltier — the latter of whom was surprisingly critical about the flotilla attack).

Right.  It’s becoming a heroic cause to defend Israel now.  It puts you in some really unsavory company.  Who’s left now?  Alan Dershowitz and Abraham Foxman.  The ranks are dwindling.

So do you think there has been a sea change in how the conflict is discussed?

Oh yes, definitely.  You saw it in even in the editorials the day after the flotilla bloodbath.  The New York Times editorial said, [paraphrasing] ‘the siege has got to go’ — that was very unusual: ‘period, it’s got to go, it’s indefensible’.

What do you think the Netanyahu government’s objectives are with respect to Palestine?

I think one has to be careful: it’s not ‘Netanyahu’, its Netanyahu and Barak.  Barak is the Defense Minister.  It’s a Labor-Likud government.  And Peres is certainly not outside the consensus — he’s the President, and he’s actually the most lunatic of all.  Or ‘Sir Shimon’, since you people knighted him.

I am sorry about that.

Apology not accepted.  You know Sir Shimon said that the reason the naval commandos were attacked on the boat was because they were so humane.  *laughs*

I thought it was interesting that the recent revelations about his role in trying to sell nuclear weapons to the South African apartheid regime, praising their shared “values” and “hatred of injustice”, don’t seem to have dented his ‘man of peace’ image much.

Nothing he says dents his image!  That’s one of the things about power: nothing sticks.  Everything he says — he calls Goldstone a “small man” with “no real understanding of jurisprudence”, he says the naval commandos were attacked because they were so humane . . . it doesn’t make any difference.  He gets knighted, he gets peace prizes, nobody cares.

Would you say there are any alternatives within the Israeli mainstream?

No.

Tzipi Livni?

She’s the one who said Israel “demonstrated real hooliganism” in Gaza because “I demanded it” and I’m “proud” of it.  She’s awful.

You have to make a strategic decision about where you’re going to focus your energies and your efforts and I think it’s a waste of time to be looking at power.  We have no control over them except to the extent that we can mobilize our own forces to try to impose our agenda.  The kind of politics that some elements of the left get involved in, this reading of tea leaves — ‘what is Barack Obama thinking?’, ‘what is Tzipi Livni thinking?’ — is a show of impotence.  People who have their own power don’t care what the other ‘side’ is thinking; they concentrate on how to force them to think what we want them to think.  That’s why, for example, Gandhi never cared about what the British were thinking.  Gandhi was concerned about organizing the Indians.  He only went to negotiate with the British once — in London in 1932.  That’s all.  His roots were in India and he was trying to organize and muster all the forces he could in India, and that should be our approach.  It is misguided to focus on elections, and on Obama, and on Livni — they are fairly stable elements of power except when popular resistance or objective circumstances cause them to change course, and then there are modifications in their policies.  I don’t think we should squander time and energy on those sorts of developments, none of which we have any control over except to the extent that we organize ourselves.

Switching topics somewhat — Hamas: an obstacle to peace?

Well, you know, Hamas has said it’s willing to accept a resolution of the conflict on the June 1967 borders and that’s all they’re required to do.  All this talk about recognizing Israel and recognizing Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ is totally ridiculous.

And on the issue of the Palestinian refugees?

Hamas’s position on the refugees is that of international law.  I’m not dogmatic, but on the other hand I have no right — neither do you, neither does anybody — to tell Palestinians to forego their rights.  The right of return of the Palestinian refugees and succeeding generations that have maintained genuine links with the land — that’s the official formulation — is embodied in international law, it’s the position of mainstream human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, it’s the position of all the members of the UN except for the US, Israel and a handful of south sea islands, so we have no right to tell them to relinquish or to forego that right.  What you can do is say three things.

First, we can ask how many people really want to exercise their right to return.  Sometimes Palestinian fundamentalists talk about 6 million Palestinian refugees going back to Israel.  I don’t think 6 million want to, I don’t think 6 million will, I don’t think 6 million are so possessive of that right.  Realistically speaking, the main issue, leaving aside the refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, is the 200,000 Palestinians in Lebanon.  So the first thing we can do is to avoid creating a sense of panic about what implementation of this right means.

Secondly, we should say that if you’re serious about wanting to implement the right of return, it becomes a question of how much force we can muster to gain its implementation.  In my opinion it will require more force to implement than to implement a full Israeli withdrawal, where there is what you could call a ‘strong’ international consensus, as opposed to a ‘weak’ international consensus in favour of a right of return.  There’s an international consensus on both issues, but it’s weaker on the issue of the return of the refugees.  To turn a ‘weak’ international consensus into a ‘strong’ one requires mustering force, and I don’t know how much force can be mustered.

The third thing to say is that Palestinians are reasonable, and you have to present them with a reasonable offer and then see how they react to it.  You can’t tell them to give up a right, but you can say, ‘this is the maximum amount of force we think we can muster, this is the offer that’s being made, do you want to accept it?’

You were in Gaza last year and you met with Hamas figures.  What sense did you get of their thinking?

I couldn’t tell anything.  They listened to me but they didn’t maintain contact with me.  I doubt they trusted me and there’s no reason why they should — they don’t know me.  People I talked to seemed reasonable, but I have to emphasise ‘seemed’, because I don’t know them.

The current situation in Gaza doesn’t look particularly stable.  Do you think there’s another major round of violence on the horizon?

No, I don’t think Israel is prepared now for major violence.  It’s going to have to think through what it’s doing.  After a succession of blundered operations, they’re going to have to really think about how to proceed.  So I don’t see a war in the short term.  The biggest loser, obviously, has been the Palestinian Authority — so-called “Palestinian”, so-called “Authority” — which will probably agree to some sort of national unity government because it’s going down the tubes.  And Hamas will be able, pretty much, to call the terms of the national unity government.

Is the PA and the Fatah leadership, as some of its critics have charged, “collaborating” with the occupation, and if so, why?

They’re collaborators.  First of all, there’s an odd thing: people seem to think collaborators go around shouting ‘I’m a collaborator’, but in fact collaborators never formally proclaim themselves to be collaborators.  Even if you look at people like Chief Matanzima of Transkei, when Transkei was one of the first Bantustans to be formally recognized as a state by South Africa, he used to give every once in a while these fiery speeches denouncing South Africa and saying that he would liberate all of South Africa.  That was even more true of Chief Buthelezi, the head of Inkatha.  So it’s the same thing: every once in a while this character named Saeb Erekat, every month he says ‘we’re going to have a state in three months’.  He’s such a preposterous idiot!  In fact what they do is police the West Bank for Israel.  People aren’t as harsh on Fayyad — my friend Mouin Rabbani, whose judgement I respect, says he is a nationalist.  Mouin says his strategy won’t get anywhere, but it’s not like he’s doing it because he’s corrupt.  I’ll defer to Mouin’s judgement — he knows Fayyad, he’s been there.  Abbas, on the other hand, is brain-dead.  The peak of his intellectual performance was when he wrote his doctoral dissertation denying the Nazi Holocaust, and since then it’s been downhill.  *laughs*

You suggested after the flotilla debacle that the Israeli state is entering a “lunatic” phase.  What do you mean by this?

I think that they wanted, with the flotilla, to recreate an Entebbe-like commando raid.  But Entebbe was a hijacked plane, this was a humanitarian convoy.  The whole idea of launching a dead-of-night armed commando raid on a humanitarian convoy was just completely insane.  They thought they were going to be able to boast that ‘we’re still what we were’, because it was their elite force, their naval commandos.  And both Barak and Netanyahu come from a commando background: Barak was Netanyahu’s commander — when they were in the commando team together in the early ’70s they did a couple of operations, like in ’72 — and Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother was the one who led the raid on Entebbe and was the only one killed.  Barak has his own famous story, when he dressed as a woman to kill senior members of the PLO in Lebanon.  So they thought, after all the bungled up operations, climaxing at that point in the Dubai mess, that they were going to refurbish Israel’s image with this commando raid.  But it was totally nuts.  Not to mention that it was bungled yet again.

Over a year on from the Gaza massacre, what’s the current status of the Goldstone Report?

It’s dead.  It’s been replaced by the flotilla.  The big loser of the flotilla bloodbath was the Palestinian Authority, and the big victor was Richard Goldstone — his burden has been lifted!  It is funny, because for the past year and a half Israel has been saying ‘we’ve got to get rid of the Goldstone Report!’, and now they’ve got rid of it but not quite the way they wanted.  If Netanyahu had any brains he would say, “what do you mean ‘no achievements’?  I got rid of the Goldstone Report!”

Finally, are there any projects that you’re working on these days that you’d love to share with us?

No, I’m not going to prove e=mc . . . quadrupled. . . .  *laughs*  I have my little things I work on, very modest projects, just trying to set the facts straight and get the truth right in one tiny tiny tiny corner of the world


Jamie Stern-Weiner studies Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge.  He is a member of the New Left Project editorial team and maintains a personal blog at heathlander.wordpress.com.  This interview was first published in New Left Project.

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