The Standard Colonial Pattern

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Mouin Rabbani

Race and Class, vol 37, no. 2, October-December, 1995

QUESTION: When the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles was first announced in September 1993, you came out with an article which was neither openly supportive nor dismissive. You took a very cautious approach. Could you elaborate on your position?

CHOMSKY: My position on the agreement then and now is that it was a complete capitulation by the PLO to the long-standing rejectionism of Israel and the US. That is one of the major issues of Middle Eastern diplomacy over the last twenty years in which Israel and the United States have been essentially alone in the world. The main issue since 1971, since Sadat accepted UN resolution 242 and official US policy, was how to interpret the withdrawal element in the 242 resolution. Israel has opposed withdrawal, which is why it rejected Sadat’s peace offer. The US changed position, in that it had supported withdrawal but, under Kissinger’s influence, switched over to the Israeli position. Since then, the US and Israel have been alone, virtually alone in the world, in opposing the withdrawal.

The second issue which had become significant by the mid-70s was the rejectionist issue; that is, would 242 be extended to include other UN resolutions that call for Palestinian self-determination? Since 1976, when the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to that effect, the US and Israel have been effectively alone in blocking that. The third issue, one which arose in the mid-1980s, has to do with the right of resistance to military occupation. On this issue, the world community is quite united. A major UN terrorism resolution opposes terrorism in all its forms, but states explicitly that this resolution will not prejudice the right of people to struggle against racist and colonialist regimes. With the intifada, this became a serious issue in terms of the right of resistance to occupation. This is a third point, and on all three points Israel and the US won hands down. There was a question as to whether the minuscule areas of Palestinian partial self-government would be free to enter into relationships with the Arab world. That’s a crucial question because in Jordan most businessmen are Palestinians and there is a natural interrelation. But that was blocked, and the May agreement [the PLO/Israel security agreement signed in Cairo on 4 May 1994] simply integrated them into the Israeli economy as a semicolonial fringe. The other point I mentioned in my article was the Cairo agreement last fall. There was a crucial element there. The Declaration of Principles is ambiguous about a lot of things. One of them was the nature of the redeployment of Israeli forces. Would it be to the Israeli settlements, as the PLO wanted, or would it be to a block including the settlements, drawing a line around them and then making that an exclusive area? Israel, of course, insisted on the latter and naturally won. They win everything. They say straight out that they have got the guns. And in Cairo the PLO accepted that.

Another crucial question is the fertile part of Gaza, which represents about a third of the Gaza Strip: that’s the part that Israel always wanted to keep. Aside from the settlers, it is economically quite productive; it produces large parts of their exports to Europe. As far as the West Bank is concerned, there has been a range of policies since the Allon Plan in ’68, with slight differences among them, like the Sharon Plan for example. The current policy is a variant of these plans. The main effort of both settlement and infrastructure (millions of dollars for road construction and so on) is in what they call greater Jerusalem, which they have now explicitly extended way beyond the Green Line to a couple of miles from Jericho, and which effectively splits the West Bank in half. Israel has made it quite clear that it wants to keep the Jordan Valley. and is still offering inducements to settlers that go there. So the Jordan Valley is a vastly expanded area, and the blurring of the Green Line continues, with road-building and settlements on both sides.

Likud and Labour differed slightly over how they wanted to control the occupied territories. Since 1968, the Labour position has been that Israel should take what it wants, take the resources, take the water — water is crucial — take the useful land, take the nice suburbs, take the Jordan Valley, take the parts of the Gaza Strip that can be made fertile and leave the wreckage for the Palestinian population to administer.

QUESTION: There are those that say that Israel over the years has been refusing to negotiate with the PLO under any circumstances. Yet now they are willing to negotiate with the PLO. Others say that, once the process begins, the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and Palestinian self-determination at some point is the inevitable outcome. How do you evaluate those arguments?

CHOMSKY: These are two questions. One has to do with the dealing with the PLO and the other with the inevitability of self-determination. Israel has nothing against the PLO, except that the PLO calls for independence. It’s not terrorism with the PLO — the PLO dropped terrorism in the early 70s. In fact, the Israelis made it very clear that the big problem with the PLO is that they are calling for negotiations. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon was openly described across the political spectrum as an effort to drive the PLO away from its accommodating position. I think that if the PLO returned to terrorism, it would stop this pressure for negotiations and mutual recognition which Israel was unwilling to accept. By 1993, the PLO had been split on that position — at least the group around Arafat. By 1993, there was plenty of opposition to the PLO in the territories. The bitterness in the cities and towns in the West Bank and the condemnation of the PLO were quite extreme in terms of corruption and incompetence. But still, before 1993, the people took the position that — rotten as they are — the PLO is the political leadership and should represent them in the negotiations. By 1993, that was changing. There were open calls for democratisation, there were calls for Arafat to resign. It became clear that the PLO was willing to take a capitulationist position.

You could read in the Israeli press around July and August [1993] that the doves were saying: ‘look, we’ve been telling you all along to deal with the PLO. Now is the time to do it because they are going to sell out totally.’ The Israeli government took that advice; they were willing to deal with the PLO because, exactly as Shimon Peres said, the PLO are no longer calling for a mutual agreement and are willing to capitulate over their agents in the West Bank. So, in that sense, dealing with the PLO is fine for the Israeli government. In fact, Israel supports the PLO.

There were background discussions secretly held under the auspices of the American Academy of Arts and Science. The negotiations involved the representatives of the Israeli Mossad and their Palestinian counterparts and they were concerned with only one issue: the security of Israelis. The question of the security of the Palestinians did not arise. That was on standard racist grounds. The problems were how to assist the PLO in repressing the population in the occupied territories and controlling them. The basic idea was expressed rather nicely by Rabin: it would be a great advantage for Israel to pull out, because then the PLO forces would be able to repress the population, without any complaints from the High Court of Justice or human rights organisations.

That’s another sign of the standard colonial pattern. It is like the British when they held India. They didn’t use British troops. They used 90 per cent Indian soldiers. In Rhodesia, the worst atrocities were carried out by black mercenaries. And that’s exactly Rabin’s reason. Then you don’t have to worry about all sorts of bleeding hearts and all sorts of vengeful fathers. With the PLO willing to take on this task, the Israelis are perfectly happy to deal with the PLO. Now their job is to protect Arafat and make sure that he can be sustained, and that the forces he brings in — mostly foreign forces [largely Palestinian Liberation Army forces brought in from outside the occupied territories] will be able to carry out this task.

As far as the second point — the eventual autonomy — is concerned, I expect there will be something called the Palestinian state sooner or later. But let’s not forget: Andorra is a state. too. Whether it will be economically viable… Even well before these agreements — the year before — Israeli industrialists and others were pointing out that the Israeli policy with regard to the territories didn’t make a lot of sense. They should shift, as they put it, from colonialism to neo-colonialism, which makes a lot more sense. Instead of blocking all development in the territories and bringing the Palestinians into Israel for cheap labour, it makes a lot more sense to keep the workers in the territories and move the assembly plants over there, and then exploit people unnoticed. Israelis wouldn’t have to worry walking around their cities, and they could keep control of the resources and thus create a semi-colonial area. Now this was early — a year before the agreements — and was openly discussed in the Israeli press.

QUESTION: Looking now at the broader issue, the agreement was widely praised because the parties had finally done what they ‘had to do’ all along, which was talk to each other directly without relying on the US as a partner. Yet the US has its fingerprints all over this agreement. What I’d like to ask you is what you see as the emerging regional scenario and about US ambition in that part of the world.

CHOMSKY: The effective by-passing of the United States at the last minute is interesting. If you look at the Israeli press after Clinton took over, they were quite surprised to see that the Clinton administration had departed from the traditional terms of US support for Israel. It had gone very far to the right. And now the Clinton administration is the hawkish side of the Israeli government, more extremist than the Labour government. This was pretty unusual; traditionally, the US administration supported the Labour party position, but the Clinton administration had gone way off to the right.

I assume that what happened was that, when Israel recognised that the PLO was in fact ready to capitulate, it didn’t want to lose the opportunity to gain some credibility in the Arab world, and it realised it would have to by-pass the extremists in the Clinton administration. It’s quite interesting that Norway intervened at that point. Up until about 1990, Europe had, at least theoretically, maintained a more or less independent position. It had been calling for mutual recognition but, after the Gulf war, Europe basically abdicated and accepted the idea that the Monroe doctrine extends to the Middle East. Europe’s only role was to implement American rejectionism, which is the role that Norway played. Then, of course, as soon as the agreement was made, it was immediately shipped back to Washington where the money and the power are, and the US took over.

The US always had a certain strategic perception of the region in which the main concern was obviously control over oil; not so much oil but the profits from the oil which go back to the US and Britain and are not distributed to the people in the region. That’s a crucial issue. And the local family dictatorships have the responsibility for managing that system. They have to be protected from the indigenous population. Israel is part of the system, as is Turkey, Iran under the Shah; Pakistan has played a role. Then, of course, there is the US and its British client in the background. Israel is supposed to dominate the region militarily, and possibly technologically and economically, as a US outpost.

Now, that’s the strategic sense. It’s been implemented over the years; there have been all sorts of tacit agreements of various kinds with the Saudi dictatorship and Israel, as there were with the Shah. So there was a kind of three-way relationship. And I think the idea now is to try to bring that to the surface because that is much more efficient. The general arrangement that the US would like to implement is to bring Syria into it, to subdue the Palestinian problem, which has been an irritant. It’s been hard for the dictatorships to bring the deal with Israel out into the open. As long as the Palestinian issue isn’t settled, they face problems with their populations. But, if they can put that to one side and leave the job to the PLO, then they can move to bring to the surface the tacit relationships that have existed all along. That’s the possibility. I mean, this is part of the reason why the US is so intent on making sure that this thing works. They have been trying to do this for the last fifty years.