‘God helps those who help themselves’ (Part 2)
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 NLP), 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.
Part 2 of the discussion follows. You can read Part 1 here.
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 barmitzvah speeches, but of course not meant for a barmitzvah. 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?
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.