Norman Finkelstein: Israel, Settlements and the ICC (Part 1/2)

By Manuel Langendorf, Abul-Hasanat Siddique and Norman Finkelstein

August 21, 2014

Abul-Hasanat Siddique: In your book, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, you mention the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon as the starting point of your research into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What was it that inspired you to follow the region?

Norman Finkelstein: I have always been active in politics, but Israel-Palestine wasn't initially on my radar. I was involved in the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement and then the struggle for rights of Central Americans. I then got involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. At the time, I belonged to a Jewish group and one of the topics that came up was Zionism, about which I knew next to nothing. I then started to research Zionism, trying to get some clarity. That eventually became my doctoral dissertation.

I am of Jewish background. My parents lived through the Nazi Holocaust. The Nazi Holocaust was constantly invoked as a justification for Israeli policy, so I had a personal (familial) stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Once I got involved, I was not about to just latch onto something else because I am not a quitter.

In sum, I had a political, professional and personal stake: they all converged when it came to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Manuel Langendorf: Amid violence in the decades-long conflict, we often witness another war about the narrative over who is to blame. Since you have studied the conflict extensively, which type of changes have you seen in terms of the discourse regarding Palestinian self-determination and resistance, and Israeli actions?

Finkelstein: First, as a scholarly point, I have an allergic reaction to terms like "narrative" and "discourse." I don't think history is about narratives. Nobody would take seriously a Nazi narrative of the Nazi holocaust versus a Jewish narrative. There is one truth. It is always difficult to reach and will always be an indefinite approximation, but this notion of two truths -- of the oppressor and the oppressed -- I find extremely distasteful. So I am not going to speak about narratives, but I will talk about the historical record and how our understanding has changed.

When I first got involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict, there was little critical historical research done on the subject. Most of what passed as scholarship was the Leon Uris novel, Exodus, with footnotes. It was basically propaganda put out by Israel's official agencies, which was accepted as the truth. That began to change in the late 1980s, with the emergence of what has come to be known as the "New Historians." In the late 1980s, the First Intifada took place, which began on December 7, 1987. It was a mass, non-violent resistance movement and, at that point, it was impossible to ignore the reality and justice of Palestinian demands for self-determination. It was also impossible to ignore because of this new historic scholarship.

Also, Jews as an ethnic group, judging from all public opinion polls, tend to be at the liberal end of the spectrum. Around 80% of Jews voted for Barack Obama in the first presidential election, and about 70% voted for him in the second presidential election. In all categories, including issues such as abortion, gay rights and civil rights, Jews tend to cluster at the liberal end of the spectrum. Being liberal, at least in the American context, means respect for international law, human rights, equality under the law and international institutions. So as the historical record of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became clearer, as well as the justice of the Palestinian struggle for human rights, it became more and more difficult for Jews as an ethnic group to reconcile their liberal credo, principles and values with the way Israel carried on.

It has taken a long time for sure -- about 25 years -- but you now see rifts opening up in the American Jewish community, especially under this lunatic government [in Israel]. Ideologically, with the right-wing drift in Israeli society, American Jews find it more and more difficult to reconcile their liberal convictions with the way Israel behaves, and this is the most significant change that has occurred.

Jews are highly educated as an ethnic group. I think 95% of American Jews go to college. If you go to college, you might read and take courses on the Middle East. Often, you read the new serious scholarship on the topic. The Palestine cause is very popular on college campuses. By far, it is the most popular political cause in American universities. Between all of these influences, within and outside the classroom, young Jews are exposed to the Palestinian cause.

So, there is no question that there has been a significant change in public attitudes, in general, and in Jewish attitudes, in particular, when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Siddique: In the latest conflict, Israeli officials have frequently cited Hamas' refusal to accept a ceasefire. Who was to blame for the conflict and why has there been a lack of progress on the diplomatic front?

Finkelstein: There is no mystery in terms of who is to blame. All you have to do is look at the annual UN resolutions on the Palestine question. For the past 20 years, the UN has voted on the terms of a settlement to the conflict. The terms are perfectly clear: two states on the pre-1967 borders; a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories it occupied in the 1967 war, including the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem; and what's called a "just" resolution of the refugee question, based on the right of return and compensation. If you look at the voting record for around the past 15 years, every year it's the same. It is the whole world on one side -- 165 countries -- and, on the other, it's always the same six countries: the United States, Israel, the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Palau and either Australia or Canada. Depending on the year, Australia or Canada will either vote no or abstain.

The obstacle, as you can tell, is not Palau, Micronesia or the Marshall Islands. By the process of elimination, the obstacle is Israel, which is backed by the US. I should point out that in the absence of the US, Israel would have as much political clout in the world as Palau or Micronesia. It is the US that blocks any settlement. Washington acts at Israel's behest. If the US was on its own, there is no reason to doubt it would support the terms of the international consensus. But it doesn't because of the powerful lobby in the US.

Siddique: Are we talking about AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee]?

Finkelstein: I think the lobby is more complex than AIPAC. But there is a powerful, wealthy, influential and strategically-placed Jewish community that is supportive of Israel -- an organized segment. I don't think it's American Jewry in general, since there is a significant rift. However, there is an organized segment and that's what politics is about. There is a huge chasm between what might be called public opinion and political impact. To get from public opinion to having a political impact, that type of opinion has to be organized, concentrated, strategic, tactical and smart.

Let's take one example. Public opinion polls roughly show that around 40% of Americans oppose what Israel is doing in Gaza. But when you look at Congress, which represents organized political power, the Senate votes 100-0 -- 100-0 to support Israel's latest massacre in Gaza. Clearly, there is a huge chasm separating what public opinion feels and how it's reflected in the realm of politics. That's the difference between public opinion and a concentrated and organized political force.

Langendorf: Following up on that difference between public opinion and what we see in Congress, how will American-Israeli relations evolve? I know you have written on this topic before. Do you see any significant change over the next decade?

Finkelstein: Anybody who claims to be able to predict what's going to happen in the next decade is a charlatan or a fool. It's impossible to make predictions like that. Who would have predicted in 1980 that the Soviet Union would be gone a decade later and apartheid in South Africa would be over? Nobody could have predicted that and nobody did predict that. So I am not going to make long-term predictions.

What I can say is the following. The US-Israeli relationship is very entrenched. It covers many areas -- cultural, military and strategic. The more turbulent the Arab Muslim world is, the more deeply entrenched that relationship becomes, because Israel presents a stable bastion of US power in an otherwise turbulent region with an unpredictable future. To me, it is highly unlikely that there will be a fundamental shift in US-Israeli ties. However, the US-Israeli relationship has many components; it's not singular. It has many facets and Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is just one aspect.

And there you get a definite sense that the Americans are becoming very frustrated with Israel. Israel carries on in such an arrogant fashion, degrading US public officials from the president to the secretary of state. Not that I have any particular obsession for diplomatic protocol, but Israel violates diplomatic norms in an egregious way, for example, by calling Obama names and now ridiculing Secretary of State John Kerry. You have to bear in mind, we are talking about the two most powerful people in the world today: President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. And for them to be subject to such ridicule and insults, they are completely unused to it. I mean, Vladimir Putin wouldn't talk to them in the way the Israelis do. The Israelis carry on like a little mafia. You can imagine that Kerry and Obama don't like the way they are treated.

So I think there is an accumulation of resentment now and that will continue. Things will smooth out but, after each round of these insults, grievances will mount. It won't affect US-Israel relations as a whole, but on the question of the Israeli occupation, I wouldn't be surprised if one day the US lays down the law and says: "You can't carry on this way."