Tag Archives: UN Special Rapporteur

Making Peace: Israel/Palestine

9 Apr

[Prefatory Note:  Interview with Samu Tamás Gergő, a Hungarian journalist, April 9, 2019, on conditions of peace for the Palestine/Israel, with some initial emphasis on my experience as UN Special Rapporteur addressing human rights in Occupied Palestine on behalf of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.]

 

 

 

– Mr. Falk, you were an UNHCR special rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territories occupied since 1967” for six years. How normal is that, a UN member, Israel worked against your appointment? What is the goal in this job? The UN needs “independent” experts or members from the “two sides” (pro-Palestine and pro-Israel)?

 

The Special Rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council fall into two categories: most address thematic issues such as torture, religious freedom, and rights of indigenous peoples; a few deal with country scale problems, including Iran, North Korea, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. SRs are appointed after the President of the HRC approves consensus vote of the 49 member states for a three year term, generally renewable for another three years. The position is unpaid, and SRs are not international civil servants, which gives them independence and insulates their role from political pressures to some extent. They can be dismissed only if they exceed their mandate.

 

The idea of having SRs is to secure independent and trustworthy information pertaining to a particular concern, especially of controversial issues. Reports are prepared for submission to the HRC in Geneva and the Third Committee of the General Assembly each year. The expectation is for the SR to be objective, and present both sides of contested issues.

 

My role as SR for the Occupied Palestinian Territories was sharply contested from the outset. Israel objected to the very idea of having a SR for the OPT, and did their best to get someone appointed who would report the facts in a manner that was consistent with their propaganda. I found that Israel’s occupation was so clearly and flagrantly in violation of the rules and principles of the Fourth Geneva Convention governing Belligerent Occupation that my reports were consistently critical of Israel’s behavior, especially with respect to extension of settlements to the OPT, annexation of Jerusalem, imposition of collective punishment, and use of excessive force to maintain security.

 

By and large, Israel and its main allies did not challenge the substance of my reports, but directed their complaints at my alleged bias and lack of credibility. The effort was to wound the messenger and avoid the message.

 

– What are the specific consequences of such reports? In addition to forcing the violators of international treaties into self-restraint, is Israel in this case?

 

It is difficult to assess the precise effects of these SR reports. Israel rejects the validity of inquiries under UN auspices, claiming bias and sovereign authority. It also refuses, contrary to its obligations as a UN Member to cooperate with SRs and most UN activity that its administration of Jerusalem’s sacred sites. At the same time Israel is sensitive to the impact of such reports on world public opinion, and relies mainly on Zionist. Watchdog NGOs, UN Watch and NGO Monitor to push back by doing their best to discredit the reports most often by questioning the credentials of the author.

 

The reports on Occupied Palestine did have two broad effects. First, their assessments influence the way issues bearing on Palestinian rights and Israeli wrongs are discussed at the UN, by some important governments, by NGOs, and especially by non-Western media. I remember meeting with the Foreign Minister of Brazil who told me that his ministry relied on these SR reports to obtain their understanding of developments in the OPT.   Over the years the role of SRs has gained in stature as their reporting provides generally reliable information, and their independence, including of the UN bureaucracy has. created credibility and some respect for willing to accept such a position that entails much work, no pay, and can be met with defamatory responses.

 

The. second impact of the reports is to confer legitimacy on pro-Palestinian nonviolent initiatives in civil society throughout the world. The most meaningful such initiative is the BDS Campaign (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions). There are other initiatives that involve cutting off institutional cooperation between academic institutions in Israel and other foreign countries, such as study abroad programs. Israel is aware that such global solidarity efforts were a principal cause of the collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Israel seems to regard this legitimacy war conducted against their policies and practices as now posing a larger threat than armed resistance by the Palestinians.

 

In particular, Israel has been affected by the increasing acceptance of the view that its form of control of the Palestinian people as a whole constitutes apartheid, which according to the Rome Statute governing the International Criminal Court is one type of Crime Against Humanity, as specified in Article 7. The assessment of Israel as an apartheid state was the principal conclusion of a UN report in 2017 of which I. was the co-author prepared at the request of. the UN under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA).

 

Overall, I think we can conclude that these reports are important although they fail to modify Israeli behavior to alter their policies and practices to bring them into conformity with international law. Their importance is informational and with potential impacts on international public opinion, which often translates into soft power, and this has been more important in the end in shaping the political outcome of many conflicts since World War II than has hard power.

 

– What about the imprisoned Palestinians? Are interrogations and other prison conditions in compliance with the international law and Israeli law?

 

Israeli practices with respect to imprisonment has come under constant criticism, especially with respect to the treatment of children, reliance on administrative detention, torture, and unsanitary conditions. Particular attention has been to the Israeli practice of nighttime arrests, taking children from their homes in the presence of their parents, often with accompanying violence that has terrifying effects that are. long-lasting. Children are giving heavy prison terms for minor acts of symbolic resistance to prolonged Israeli occupation, including the throwing of stones at distant soldiers that have been rarely if ever been injured as a result. There are reliable studies of Palestinian children in Gaza that reveal severe demoralization even to the extent of losing a will to life itself. Suicide rates among adolescents and young adults have been rising.

 

Another violation of international standards is to take those arrested to prisons outside occupied Palestine located within Israel. This deprives prisoners of family visits, and isolates prisoners in a cruel manner over prolonged periods of time.

 

There have been frequent long hunger strikes in Israeli prisons protesting conditions. Israel, contrary to international medical ethics, has tried to force feed fasting individuals to avoid their dying in such a way, thereby creating adverse publicity.

 

There are several published collections of prison writings that convey the abuse of human rights associated with the manner in which Palestinians are treated by Israeli administering authorities.

 

– You told me earlier, “extension of settlements to the OPT, annexation of Jerusalem, imposition of collective punishment, and use of excessive force to maintain security” are the main violations of the Geneva Conventions. What is your opinion about the new situation with Jerusalem?

 

I assume that here you are referring to the 2017 initiative by the Trump White House to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such a move defies a deeply held longtime international consensus. The UN position is that Jerusalem has. been ‘occupied territory’ according to international law since the 1967 War and it is hence unlawful to alter its status in any way that interferes with its societal character and status. The proposed embassy move was condemned as null and void, with a demand to rescind the decision, by a one-sided UN General Assembly vote. (see GA Res. 11935, 128-9-35 absentions, 21 December 2017). The future of Jerusalem is a matter that according to this global consensus can only be settled by negotiated agreement between the two parties for which there is no present prospect. The United States defied the General Assembly and officially moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem on 14 May 2018. From an international law and diplomacy points of view, the status of Jerusalem remains unresolved.

 

Israel defied this consensus immediately after the 1967 War by unilaterally annexing Jerusalem, enlarging its territory by incorporated large additional amounts of Palestinian occupied land, and declaring that an undivided Jerusalem would be the eternal capital of Israel. This annexation of Jerusalem was condemned by the UN Security Council in Resolution 478 (by vote of 14-0, with USA abstaining, 20 August 1980). As with the embassy move, this Israeli initiative was a violation of the law governing belligerent occupation, as set forth in the 4thGeneva Convention, including especially the unconditional prohibition on states acquiring territory by force of arms. As such, the annexation lacks any legal significance, but it does create a political set of conditions that are difficult to reverse, and become more so, given the long passage of time.

 

Thinking ahead to the future, there will be no genuine peace until the claims of the Palestinians with respect to Jerusalem, which also reflect the wider claims and concerns of especially Islam, but also Christianity, are given formal recognition. The future of Jerusalem is a test case of whether the Palestinian right of self-determination will be someday realized, or will be forever frustrated by Israeli expansionism reinforced by the geopolitical support it receives from the United States, which has been carried to new heights under the Trump presidency in ways that have brought strong denunciations from governments traditionally supportive of Israel and allied with the United States.

 

– As far as I know, you have Jewish ancestry. Does this mean you ethnically Jewish and/or religiously? Nonetheless, you were called “antisemitic”, because you criticized Israel. In is your opinion is the Jewish community in the US mostly Zionist, or is there a relatively strong part of the Jewish community that recognizes the right of Palestine to have an independent, internationally recognized,  and sovereign state?

 

To respond to the personal part of your question first, yes I am Jewish genetically, but neither culturally nor religiously. By this I mean I was brought up in New York City in a secular and assimilationist atmosphere where what was important was to be ‘American’ and ‘human’ rather than to emphasize ethnicity or religious identity. My parents were extreme versions of secularism, and this prompted a reaction that may explain my strong lifelong interest in comparative religion. In my own identity, I consider my species identity as ‘human’ to be primary, and other signifiers,  including nationality, to be secondary.

 

The reason I have been called anti-Semitic by militant Zionist NGOs and their followers is because I support the national struggle of the Palestinian people for their rights, and I have in the context of UN activity described Israel as ‘an apartheid state.’ This description of Israel is based on the academic study of Israeli policies and practices toward the Palestinian people as a whole, and not only those living under occupation, in relation to the crime of apartheid as defined in international criminal law. It is unfortunate, and harmful to Jews, for Zionists to extend the meaning of anti-Semitism from hatred of Jews to criticism of Israel. In my view only when Israel dismantles its apartheid structures of control over Palestinians will sustainable peace be attainable for both Jews and Arabs.

 

Turning to the part of the question concerning the outlook of Jews in America, according to polls more than 85% of Jews do consider themselves to be Zionists in the minimal sense of supporting the existence of Israel as a. Jewish state. But a growing minority of Jews is critical of the Likud/Netanyahu leadership of Israel, and an even larger number would favor a balanced approach by the US Government to the relationship between Israel and Palestine. This latter Jewish viewpoint is usually identified with what is called ‘liberal Zionism’ that tends to favor a two-state solution. In American domestic politics the split is obvious in Washington lobbying groups. AIPAC is unconditionally pro-Israeli, and with rare exceptions refrains from criticism of Israeli wrongdoing, adopting a punitive approach to those who like myself are critical of Israel.  J-Street is a smaller lobbying organization representative of liberal Zionism that is critical of some Israeli policies while being avowedly pro-Israeli, while lending support to the. two-state solution.

 

My own position is critical at this stage of all forms of Zionism. I believe the original failure of the Zionist project was to impose a Jewish state on a non-Jewish society. It is important to remember that at the time of the Balfour Declaration (1917) pledging British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine the Jewish population was less than 8%, and even in 1947 when the UN General Assembly recommended partition, the Jewish population was about 30%. What this means is that from the very beginning the inalienable right of self-determination of the resident Arab population was being ignored and an essentially settler colonial arrangement was being promoted and later imposed by force.

 

I agree that as of now, however dubious the earlier history, the Jewish population must be accommodated in any future peace agreement, but I am very doubtful that this could or should be done within a framework of two separate sovereign states. Israel by its deliberate actions over many years has made this outcome a practical impossibility. The encroachment of more than 600,000 Jewish settlers onto occupied Palestine cannot be reversed by nonviolent means. In this regard, the only sustainable peace would be a single democratic secular state with the protection of human rights for all. Ethnic or religious states are by definition suppressive of minority rights, and thus inconsistent with the modern commitment to human rights as originally set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 

Such a one-state solution is not endorsed by liberal Zionism as it would mean the abandonment of the core idea of ‘a Jewish state’ as a sanctuary of the Jewish people. It is my view that Jews and others would be better off in a secular environment dedicated to the implementation of human rights for all. True an ethnic state may impose a protective regime for the favored ethnicity but it is likely to arouse enmity among other ethnicities, and over time likely to generate external pressures. The underlying challenge for all communities is to live together humanely on the basis of equality.

 

What is your opinion, could be peace and two separated but cooperative states in the territory of Palestine/Israel in the near future?

 

Earlier, I was of the view that it is up to the parties to decide how to reconcile their overlapping claims to self-determination in Palestine. I thought that the Palestinians had suffered for too long from external. political actors seeking to shape the future of Palestine. The Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the UN partition resolution of 1947 were both interferences by international actors as to how the conflict over Palestine should be resolved. It was time, I felt, to let the two peoples to work out their own solution. In retrospect, there were problems with my position: First, it was not clear that the Palestinian people were being legitimately and adequately represented within international venues, especially after the death of Yasir Arafat. This raised the question, still not answerable, of who could speak authoritatively on behalf of the Palestinian people. Secondly, the disparity in power, accentuated by the U.S. role as a partisan third party intermediary, presiding over the diplomatic framework, made it unlikely that a sustainable peace could be negotiated by relying upon such a flawed process.

 

In recent years, I have shifted my view to a one democratic state position. Israel through a variety of actions, including expanding the settlements, building the wall, establishing security zones has made it a practical impossibility to establish an independent, equal, sovereign state of Palestine. Furthermore, Israel’s leadership and public opinion feel triumphant, especially with Trump in the White House, and no longer feel the need for a political compromise, and seem to be moving step by step toward imposing their own apartheid version of a one-state solution on the Palestinian people.

 

It is true that the UN and the international community continue to affirm the two-state solution as the only viable outcome if peace is the goal. Why, when it is so obviously a dead-end? To abandon the two-state approach would acknowledge the failure of UN and international diplomacy. Additionally, the durability of two-state thinking results from the influence of Zionism on the international approach to peace. A democratic and secular one-state would necessitate giving up the goal of a Jewish state, requiring a retreat to the original Balfour pledge of a Jewish homeland, and involve a major Zionist downsizing.  Such a retreat is a necessity, in my view, if there is ever to be a political arrangement for Palestine based on the essential equality of the two peoples and creating the conditions for a sustainable peace.

 

The reason for a mood of despair is obvious. What is desirable seems politically unattainable, while what is attainable seems unacceptable. Under these conditions false consciousness is bound to flourish. To overcome this mood of despair, we should not look to the UN or the United States. Our best hope for a just peace for both peoples is a heightening of pressure from civil society to such a level as to prompt Israeli leaders and the Israeli public, as well as diaspora Jewry to. recalculate their own interests so as to incorporate the realization of basic Palestinian rights.

 

  

 

 

Interview on Israel, Palestine, and Peace

14 Sep

[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.

 

The Interviewers

LILY SAGE

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

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.