[Prefatory Note: The interview below, conducted by C.J. Polychroniou and Lily Sage (bios at the end of the interview) was published in TruthOut on Sept. 10, 2016. It is republished here with a few stylistic modifications, but substantively unchanged. It is relevant, I suppose,to report that subsequent to the interview the U.S. Government and Israel have signed a military assistance agreement promising Israel $38 billion over the next ten years, the largest such commitment ever made. Such an excessive underwriting of Israel’s policies and practices should be shocking to taxpaying Americans but it passes almost noticed below the radar. It is being explained as a step taken to ensure that Obama’s legacy is not diminished by claims that he acted detrimentally toward Israel, but it is, pathetically, one of the few instances of genuine bipartisanship in recent U.S. foreign policy. Again, we should grieve over the extent to which ‘reality’ and morality is sacrificed for the sake of the ‘special relationship’ while looking the other way whenever the Palestinian ordeal is mentioned.
The initial question pertaining to Turkey is explained by my presence in that turbulent country when the interview was conducted.]
“A Continuous War Mentality”: Richard Falk on Israel’s Human Rights Abuses
Polychroniou & Sage: Israel’s treatment of Palestinians mirrors the abominable system of apartheid in South Africa, but many members of the “international community” who fueled the gradual delegitimization and eventual collapse of South Africa’s apartheid regime are failing to apply similar pressure against Israel. In fact, many nations are even strengthening their ties with the Israeli government.
Even Greece has established close ties to Israel under the opportunistic Syriza government, while Sultan Erdogan in Turkey has also begun a process of kissing up to Israel after a few years of pursuing an “antagonistic” relation with the US’s closest ally under the pretext of expressing solidarity towards the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, the increased militarization of Israeli society continues to intensify the oppression and subjugation of Palestinians.
The Israeli government has recently suggested that a “normalization” process is underway with the Palestinians, but in reality Israel’s construction of illegal settlements continues unabated, and the right-wing politicians inside Israel who portray Palestinians as an “inferior race” are gaining ground. This is exactly what “normalization” has always meant in Israeli political jargon: continuing to commit abominable human rights violations against Palestinians while the world looks away. Indeed, apartheid, annexation, mass displacement and collective punishment have become core policies of the state of Israel.
After years of intense antagonism, the Erdoğan regime has begun making overtures once again to Israel. Why now?
The normalization agreement with Israel needs to be appreciated as part of a broader foreign policy reset that started well before the failed coup attempt of July 15th. The basic Turkish motivation appears to be an effort to ease bilateral tensions throughout the region, and as Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has expressed it, “make as many friends as possible, and as few enemies.” It is the second coming of what had earlier gained political traction for Turkey throughout the region in the first 10 years of AKP (Justice and Development Party) leadership with the slogan “zero problems with neighbors.”
The main reset by far is with Russia, which had become an adversary of Turkey in the context of the Syrian War, but Israel is a close second. [Israel’s relationship with Turkey] had been in freefall after Erdoğan harshly criticized Israel at the World Economic Forum in 2009, directly insulting the then-Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was present.
Then in 2010 came the Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, and directly challenging the Israeli blockade together with a group of smaller boats filled with peace activists in an initiative known as the Freedom Flotilla. The Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara resulted in nine Turkish deaths among the peace activists on the ship and pushed the Israeli-Turkish relationship close to the brink of war. For the past year or so both sides have shown an interest in de-escalating tensions and restoring diplomatic normalcy. And Turkey, now more than ever, would like to avoid having adversary relations with Israel, which is being given precedence over Turkey’s support of the Palestinian national struggle.
Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu said recently that he cares more about the Palestinians than their own leaders. Do you wish to offer a comment on this statement?
Netanyahu has a gift for exaggerated, bombastic, and misleading, often outrageous political language. This is a clear instance. There are plenty of reasons to question the adequacy of the Palestinian Authority as the representative of the Palestinian people in advancing their national struggle. But to leap from such an unremarkable acknowledgement to the absurd claim that Netanyahu cares more about the Palestinian future than do Palestinians themselves represents a grotesque and arrogant leap into the political unknown. It is Netanyahu who led the country to launch massive attacks against Gaza first in 2012, and then again in 2014. It is Netanyahu who has pushed settler expansion and the Judaizing of East Jerusalem. For Netanyahu to speak in such a vein is to show his monumental insensitivity to the daily ordeal endured by every Palestinian and to the agonies associated with living for so long under occupation, in refugee camps, and in exile.
What do you make of the “anti-normalization” campaign initiated by some Palestinian factions and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement?
I think the BDS campaign makes sense under present conditions. These conditions include the recognition that the Oslo “peace diplomacy” is a dead-end that for more than two decades gave Israel cover to expand settlements and the settler population. They also include the realization that geopolitical leverage of the United States at the UN blocks all efforts to exert meaningful political pressure on Israel to reach the sort of compromise on issues of land, refugees, borders, water, settlements and Jerusalem that is indispensable if sustainable peace arrangements are to be agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians.
Against this background, it is important to recognize that civil society is presently “the only game in town,” and that BDS is the way this game is being played at present with the benefit of Palestinian civil society guidance and enthusiasm. Whether this campaign can exert enough pressure on Israel and the United States to change the political climate sufficiently to induce recalculations of national interest — only the future can tell. Until it happens, if it does, it will be deprecated by Israel and its Zionist supporters. While being dismissed as futile and destructive of genuine peace initiatives its participants will be attacked. A major effort is underway in the United States and Europe to discredit BDS, and adopt punitive measures to discourage participation.
Israel’s pushback by way of an insistence that BDS is seeking to destroy Israel and represents a new virulent form of anti-Semitism suggests that BDS now poses a greater threat to Israel’s concept of an established order than armed struggle or Palestinian resistance activities. Major Zionist efforts in the United States and elsewhere are branding BDS activists as anti-Semites.
It seems clear that nearly the entirety of the population of Israel and Palestine are in a constant trauma-reification cycle that began when Israel largely became inhabited by traumatized Jewish refugees, post-WWII. Do you think it is possible to overcome this, and would it be possible to find a peaceful resolution if this didn’t occur?
This is an insightful way of conceiving of the toxic interactions that have taken place over the years being harmful, in my view, to both people. However, unless the assertion is seriously qualified, it suffers from a tendency to create impressions of symmetry and balance, when the reality of relations from the outset, especially since the Nakba [the mass displacement of Palestinians from their homes and villages in 1948], has been one of oppressor and oppressed, invader and invaded, occupier and occupied. It is undoubtedly true that Israeli ideas about the use of force and security were reflections of their collective trauma and Holocaust memories, and Zionist ideology.
This Israeli narrative is further reinforced by biblical and ancient historical claims, but it is also the case that the Palestinians were invaded in their habitual place of residence, and then occupied, exploited, dispossessed and turned into refugees in their own country, while Israelis came to prosper, and to establish a regional military powerhouse that has enjoyed the geopolitical reinforcement of an unprecedented special relationship with United States. The early politics surrounding the establishment of Israel were also strongly influenced by the sense of guilt that existed in Western liberal democracies after World War II. Such guilt was epitomized by the shame associated with the refusal to use munitions to disrupt the Holocaust through air bombardment.
Under Netanyahu, Israel has moved dangerously closer to becoming a fundamentalist and neo-fascist state, although long-standing Israeli propaganda has it that “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.” In your view, what accounts for the transformation of Israel from a once-promising democracy to an apartheid-like state with no respect for international law and human rights?
I believe there always were major difficulties with Israel’s widely proclaimed and internationally endorsed early identity as a promising democracy guided by progressive ideals. This image overlooked the dispossession of several hundred thousand Palestinian residents, the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages, and the long-term discriminatory regime of military administration imposed on the remaining Palestinian minority that coincided with the establishment of the newly established Israeli state. What is important to appreciate is that this 20th-century process of state-creation took place in an era that was increasingly imbued with anticolonial activism that was at odds with the project to establish Israel from its international genesis and given a colonialist certificate of approval by way of the Balfour Declaration in 1917). Even taking into the Holocaust into account as the culminating historic tragedy of the Jewish people there is no way evading the conclusion that the establishment of Israel amounted to a European colonialist imposition on the Arab world and the latest instance of settler colonialism, although abetted by the Zionist mobilization of world Jewry on behalf of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.
Against this background, Israel became embattled in various ways with internal Palestinian resistance and regional hostility that produced several wars. In that process, a series of developments moved Israel further and further toward the right. A continuous war mentality tends to erode democratic structures and values even under the best of circumstances. Military successes, especially after the 1967 War, created a triumphalist attitude that also solidified US geopolitical support and made it seem possible for Israel to achieve security while expanding its territorial reality (via settlements) at Palestinian expense. Israeli demographics over the years, involving large-scale immigration of Sephardic and Russian Jews and high fertility rates among Orthodox Jews, pushed the political compass ever further to the right. These key developments were reinforced by Israeli public opinion that came to believe that several proposals put forward by Israel to achieve a political compromise were irresponsibly rejected by the Palestinians. These negative outcomes were misleadingly interpreted as justifying the Israeli conclusion that they had no Palestinian partner for peace and that the Palestinians would settle for nothing less than the destruction of Israel as a state. These interpretations are gross misreadings of the Palestinian readiness to normalize relations with the Israel provided a sovereign Palestinian state were to be established within 1967 borders and some kind of arrangements were agreed upon for those displaced from their homes in 1948.
Additionally, the supposed need for Israel to remain aggressively vigilant after Gaza came under the control of Hamas in 2007 led Israelis to entrusting the government to rightest leadership and in the process, weakened the peace-oriented political constituencies remaining active in Israel. In part, here, memories of the Nazi experience were invoked to induce acute anxiety that Jews suffered such a horrible fate because they remained as a group too passive in face of mounting persecution, and failed to take Hitler at his word. Fear-mongering with respect to Iran accentuated Israeli security-consciousness, and undercut more moderate political approaches to the Palestinians.
Have you detected any changes in US foreign policy toward Israel under the Obama administration?
There has been no change of substance during the eight years of the Obama presidency. At the outset in 2009 it seemed that the US government under Obama’s leadership was ready to pursue a more balanced diplomacy toward Israel, at first insisting that Israel suspend settlement expansion to enable a restart of the Oslo peace process with a fresh cycle of negotiations. When Israel pushed back hard, abetted by the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, the Obama administration backed off, and never again, despite some diplomatic gestures, really challenged Israel, its policies and practices, and its overall unilateralism. It did call Israeli settlement moves “unhelpful” from time to time, but stopped objecting to such behavior as “unlawful.” Washington never seemed to question the relevance of a two-state solution, despite the realities of steady Israeli de facto annexation of prime land in the West Bank, making the prospect of a Palestinian state that was viable and truly sovereign less and less plausible. Although, for public relations credibility in the Middle East, the Obama presidency continued to claim it strongly backed “peace through negotiations,” it did nothing substantive to make Israel respect international law as applied to the occupation of Palestine, and consistently asserted that the Palestinians were as much to blame for the failure of past negotiations as were the Israelis, fostering a very distorted picture of the relative responsibility of the two sides, as well as who benefitted and who lost from the failure to resolve the conflict. Western media tended to accept this pro-Israeli picture, making it appear that both sides were equally unready to make the concessions necessary to achieve peace.
What could make Israel change course regarding its treatment toward Palestinians and the “Palestinian question?”
The easy answer to this question is a sea change in Israeli outlook as to its security, combined with an insistence by the US government that continued backing of Israel was contingent on its adherence to international law and its credible readiness to reach a fair political compromise, whether in the form of a two-state or one-state solution, but based on a recognition that sustainable peace depends on acknowledging Palestinian rights under international law and a concern for the equality of the two peoples when it comes to issues of security, resources, and sovereignty. Such a shift in Israeli elite opinion could conceivably come about through a reassessment of Israeli prospects in reaction to mounting international pressures and continued Palestinian resistance in various forms. This seems to have been what happened in South Africa, producing an abrupt and unexpected change of outlook by the governing white leadership in Pretoria that signaled a willingness to dismantle its apartheid regime and accept a constitutional order based on racial equality and procedural democracy. Such a development will be dismissed as irrelevant by Israeli leaders until it happens, if it ever does, so as to avoid encouraging those mounting the pressures.
You served for many years as special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights for the United Nations Human Rights Council. Did that experience teach you anything about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that you were not aware of prior to this appointment?
In many ways, it was a fascinating experience, in almost equal measure dispiriting and inspiring. UN Watch, acting as an Israeli surrogate within the UN, repeatedly targeted me with vicious contentions that I was an anti-Semite and a proponent of a variety of extremist and irresponsible views that didn’t represent my actual views. UN Watch, along with other pro-Israeli NGOs, organized a variety of protests with the purpose of canceling my speaking invitations throughout the world, and threatening institutions with adverse funding implications if they went ahead with the events. Although no speaking invitation was withdrawn or event canceled, it shifted the conversation at the event and in the media — often from the substance of my presentation to whether or not the personal attacks were accurate. Also, I know of several invitations that were not issued because of these institutional concerns with controversy.
I also learned in ways that I only suspected prior to my six years as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Palestine, what a highly politicized atmosphere prevails at the UN, and how much leverage is exercised by the United States and Israel to impair UN effectiveness in relation to Israel/Palestine. At the same time, I realized that from the perspective of strengthening the legitimacy and awareness of Palestinian claims and grievances, the UN provided crucial venues that functioned as sites of struggle.
Are there Israeli organizations working on behalf of Palestinians and their ordeal, and, if so, what can we do from abroad to assist their efforts?
There are many Israeli and Palestinian NGOs within Israel and in Occupied Palestine that are working bravely to protect Palestinians from the worst abuses of the Israeli state, both in Occupied Palestine and in Israel (as defined by the 1949 “green line”). On the Israeli side, these initiatives, although having no present political relevance so far as elections and governing policy is concerned, are important ways of maintaining in Israel a certain kind of moral awareness.
If the political climate changes in Israel due to outside pressure and a general recognition that Israel needs to make peace to survive, then those that kept the flame of justice and peace flickering despite internal harassment will be regarded, if not revered, with long overdue appreciation as the custodians of Jewish collective dignity. In the meantime, it is a lonely battle, but one that we on the outside should strongly support.
It is also important to lend support to the various Palestinian efforts along the same lines and to the few initiatives that brings together Jews and Palestinians, such as the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, of which scholar-activist Jeff Halper was a cofounder and remains a leader. There are many Palestinian initiatives under the most difficult conditions, such as Human Rights Defenders working courageously in and around Hebron, and of course, in Gaza.
There is an unfortunate tendency by liberal Zionists to fill the moral space in the West by considering only the efforts of admirable Israeli organizations, such as B’Tselem or Peace Now, when presenting information on human rights resistance to Israeli oppressive policies and practices. This indirectly marginalizes the Palestinians as the subject of their own struggle and in my view unwittingly denigrates Palestinian national character.
What’s the best way to explain the conversion of an oppressed group of people into oppressors themselves, which is what today’s Israeli Jews have structurally become?
This role reversal is part of the tragedy that Zionist maximalism has produced for the Jewish people living in Israel, and to some extent, for Jews worldwide. It has made the Nakba into a continuing process rather than an historical event that could have been addressed in a humane manner from the perspective of restorative justice as depicted so vividly and insistently by Edward Said, including in his influential 1993 book Culture and Imperialism. What has ensued has been a geopolitically conditioned unbalanced diplomacy that has served as a shield behind which Israel has been creating conditions for an imposed, unilateralist solution.
Israeli leaders, especially those on the right, have used the memories of the Holocaust, not as an occasion for empathy toward the Palestinians, but as a reminder that the well-being of Jews is based on strength and control, that Hitler succeed because Jewry was weak and passive. Further, that even the liberal West refused to lift a finger to protect Jews when threatened with genocidal persecution, which underscores the central Zionist message of Jewish self-reliance as an ethical and political imperative.
Psychologically, this general way of thinking is further reinforced by supposing that only the Israeli Defense Forces keeps Israel from befalling the fate of deadly Palestinian maximalism, a political delusion reinforced by images of a second Holocaust initiated by Iran or generated by the terrorist tactics attributed to Hamas. In effect, Israeli oppressiveness is swept under the rug of security, while the settlements expand, Gaza is squeezed harder, and the regional developments give Israel the political space to attempt an Israeli one-state solution.
Lily Sage is a Montessori pedagogue who is interested in questions of symbiosis, intersectional feminism and anti-racist/fascist praxis. She has studied in the fields of herbalism, visual/performance art, anthropology and political theory in Germany, Mongolia and the US.
C.J. Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. His main research interests are in European economic integration, globalization, the political economy of the United States and the deconstruction of neoliberalism’s politico-economic project. He is a regular contributor to Truthout as well as a member of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project. He has published several books and his articles have appeared in a variety of journals, magazines, newspapers and popular news websites. Many of his publications have been translated into several foreign languages, including Croatian, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish.