On Escalation of Violence in the Middle East

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Toni Gabric

The Croatian Feral Tribune, May 7, 2002

1. During the last month since we have contacted you asking for an interview there has been a great escalation of violence in the Middle East. How would you comment in general the situation betweeen the Israelis and the Palestinians?

It is a mistake, in my opinion, to formulate the question that way. We should, rather, ask about “the situation between the US-Israel alliance and the Palestinians.”

The basic situation remains as before. It is not a confrontation between two local adversaries, and even between those too there is nothing remotely like symmetry. Israel is a major military power, backed fully by the global superpower. For 35 years, it has occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians are alone, defenseless. The US-backed military occupation has been harsh and brutal from the beginning. In violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the US-Israel coalition has been settling the areas of the occupied territories they intend to integrate within Israel, and acting to ensure Israeli control over the major resource of the West Bank: water. This continued through the Oslo process, which was founded on the principle that a “permanent neo-colonial dependency” should be established for the Palestinians under Israeli domination. I am quoting Shlomo Ben-Ami, Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s negotiator at the Camp David 2000 sessions, considered a dove in the US-Israel political spectrum. The proposals of Camp David, modelled on the South African Bantustans established 40 years ago, were designed to formalize this outcome. Like their predecessors, the Clinton-Barak coalition continued to expand the illegal settlements. During the final Barak-Clinton year (2000), the rate of settlement was the highest since 1992, before Oslo, under Sharon. All of this is possible because of the full support of the US: military, economic, diplomatic, and ideological. Crucially, the US continues to stand alone in barring the international consensus on a two-state settlement. That consensus, clearly articulated 25 years ago, has been supported by virtually the entire world, and the majority of the US population as well. Rejection of a political settlement in these terms has been the unvarying US stance since 1976, when Washington vetoed a Security Council resolution to that effect. The vetoed resolution incorporated the basic wording of UN 242, supplemented by a call for a Palestinian State in the occupied territories. The resolution was supported by every relevant actor, including the Arab states and the PLO. It has been often renewed since, most recently in the Saudi plan adopted by the Arab League in March 2002, which is the same in essence as the Saudi proposal of 1981, the 1976 resolution, and many others over the years.

The latest Israeli offensive, which reached levels of violence and destruction not seen since Israel’s US-backed invasion of Lebanon in 1982, has become an international scandal — outside the US, where Sharon is described by the President as a “man of peace,” and is provided with the means to carry out the atrocities, for example, the military helicopters that devastated Jenin and Nablus. The Powell mission was carefully crafted to allow the operations to proceed unhampered. Surely that should be as obvious to us as it is to observers in the region.


2. The United States have openly taken sides with the Israeli government in this conflict, demanding an unconditional prevention of terrorist attacks of Palestinian suicide bombers. How would you comment the US policy in this matter, especially taking in account that last year the US has vetoed the Security Council’s resolution which asked for an end to attacks and the deployment of monitoring teams. Why, in your opinion, is the US so unconditionally backing Israel when the influence of Russia, which formerly backed some Arab states, has significantly diminished?

The US demands that Arafat, imprisoned in a dungeon where he cannot even flush the toilet, must produce yet another condemnation of Palestinian terrorism, which everyone knows to be completely meaningless. No one even suggests that Sharon should condemn his much worse ongoing atrocities, or that the US government, which provides the crucial support for them them, should do so. The primary reason for the demands on Arafat are to humiliate and degrade the Palestinian people, for whom he is a national symbol. Humiliation has been the central feature of the occupation for 35 years, and is a familiar feature of the history of colonialism and conquest.

As for the US-Israel alliance, which assumed its current form after Israel’s military victories in 1967, it had little to do with Russia though of course it became enmeshed in the international confrontation. In the diplomatic arena, Russia fell well within the international consensus that the US opposed. The truth is revealed in internal documents, and was officially conceded shortly after fall of the Berlin Wall fell, when the Bush administration informed Congress (March 1990) that the US must continue to maintain its huge intervention forces aimed at the Middle East, where the important problems confronting the US “could not have been laid at the Kremlin’s door” in the past. Or, of course, at Iraq’s door; Saddam was a favored friend and ally at the time.

Accordingly, policies continue without essential change after the disappearance of the Russians from the scene, under new pretexts, and with some tactical modification. That is, incidentally, true of policies around the world, a fact that provides some insight into realities of the Cold War. In the crucial Middle East region, US policy since 1967 follows the logic outlined by US intelligence in 1958: a “logical corollary” of US opposition to Arab nationalism is support for Israel as the only reliable base for US power in the region (along with Turkey, and at the time, Iran, then under the Shah). In 1967, by destroying Nasser’s armies, Israel substantiated that thesis, and the alliance was solidified. It has persisted since for essentially the same reasons, becoming even stronger when the Shah fell and Israel’s role became more important as a “local gendarme” (as it was called by the Nixon administration). By then Israel was also providing a range of other services around the world as a proxy, and its military-industrial relations with the US had also become much more intimate.

3. You have recently compared the idea of creating a Palestinian state on the shores of Jordan and in Gaza to South African bantustans. Many people, among them Princ Abdullah, believe that this could be the solution to the conflict.

That is incorrect. In agreement with much Israeli commentary, I referred to the Clinton-Barak Camp David proposals as Bantustan proposals. A look at a map explains why (there is a good reason why the US media scrupulously avoided presenting any maps while intellectuals were hailing the proposals as “magnamimous” and “generous”). The proposals divided the West Bank into three cantons, effectively separated from one another by Israeli settlement and huge infrastructure projects, all effectively separated from East Jersulam, the center of Palestinian commercial and cultural life, and the communications center for the West Bank. This is, incidentally, the standard conclusion of serious American scholarship; see, for example, the discussion by Sara Roy of Harvard University, the leading specialist on the economy of the occupied territories (Current History,Jan. 2002, and other publications). And as I mentioned, this was the goal of the Oslo process all along, as was evident at once (I wrote about it in September 1993), also recognized by the leading Israeli architect of the proposal (Ben-Ami). This proposal, which closely resembles the Bantustan policies of South Africa 40 years ago, is completely different from the international consensus on a two-state settlement that the US has been blocking for 25 years, and still does.

4. The events on September the 11th were followed by a rise in American patriotism, the relinquishing of a large part of legitimacy to the organs of state repression and the almost plebicite support of president Bush. These events have received much publicity in Croatia (and the world). Have these trends been retained in the last six months? What is the atmosphere like today in the US?

These trends are much exaggerated. It is true that the Bush administration used the “window of opportunity” provided by Sept. 11 to advance its own agenda, including efforts to impose obedience and discipline. But it is doubtful that these measures can be implemented, apart from vulnerable populations (immigrants, minorities). The administration also exploited the opportunity to ram through domestic programs that it knows the population opposes, under the call for “patriotism” — which in practice means: “You shut up and be obedient, and I’ll relentlessly advance my own interests.” That was true all over the world. For example in Israel, where Sharon realized at once that he could intensify repression under the guise of a way against terrorism, or in Russia, where the government was able to step up its atrocities in Chechnya under the same pretexts. In fact, it was quite general, and completely predictable.

More surprising, to me at least, was that the Sept. 11 atrocities had the opposite effect among the US population. Very quickly, it was clear that there is far more openness to critical and dissident analysis, and there has been a remarkable upsurge of concern, often activism, about issues that were pretty much off the agenda before – including, among others, the US role in the Middle East. Naturally the media and journals of opinion claim the opposite, hoping to still independent thought and impose obedience. But people who have any contact with the general population know better. Demands for talks have spiralled competely out of control, and the scale and engagement of audiences is without precedent apart from the peak moments of the anti-war movement in the late 1960s. The same is evident in sale of books, and in fact by every other relevant measure. Even the media have been to some extent effected, and though still highly restricted, are more open than they have ever been in my experience over 40 years of intensive activism.

5. After the attack on Afghanistan, there are presumptions of an attack on Iraq or some other country that is pronounced a patron of international terrorism. Do you think this kind of fight against terrorism can be effective enough? Do you believe that only these seven or eight countries can be declared as the perpetrators?

If we understand “terrorism” in terms of its official definition – say, in the US Code of Laws or military manuals – then there is no “fight against terrorism,” for reasons that are almost too obvious to discuss. In accord with these definitions, the US itself is a leading terrorist state, as are its allies in the “war against terrorism”: UK, Russia, China, Turkey, etc. Saddam Hussein is doubtless a monster, but that cannot possibly be the reason why the US is seeking is seeking to overthrow him. The US and Britain fully supported him through the period of his worst atrocities, including the gassing of the Kurds, and provided him with the means to develop weapons of mass destruction when he was far more dangerous than he is now. As late as early 1990, George Bush sent a high-level Senatorial delegation to Iraq to convey his good wishes to his friend and ally Saddam – and turned again to support for the mass murderer and torturer in March-April 1991, when there was concern that he would be overthrown by a Shi’ite rebellion in the south. The reasons for a planned attack on Iraq lie elsewhere, and they are not hard to discern. Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world. One way or another, the US will attempt to regain control over them, and the Bush planners may feel that this is a good opportunity. Charges about “support for terrorism” can easily be concocted, and it would hardly come as a surprise if they were true despite the scanty evidence. But the historical record – not only in this case – shows with great clarity that they cannot be a serious factor.

6. How much legitimacy and ethical standing does the US have to take the leading place in the international war on terrorism? Do you think there is an additional interest behind such a policy of the individual lobbies in the US(eg. the military industry)?

US legitimacy derives from the fact that it is, by an overwhelming margin, the most powerful military force in the world, and is also one of the major economic centers of the world, as it has been for a century. Since there is no “international war on terrorism,” the US cannot be leading it. Military industry has some role but not a dominant one. Twenty years ago, the Reagan administration came into office proclaiming that a “war on terror” would be the core of US foreign policy, and we need not review how they fought that war. “Terrorism” plays a role similar to “Communism,” “crime,” “drugs,” and other devices to frighten the public into supporting policies undertaken to serve the interests of the state and domestic power centers; when one pretext loses its efficacy (like “Communism”), others take its place at once, with scarcely a murmur from the educated classes.

None of this, of course, is peculiar to the US. This is the way states and other power systems operate. Surely these are among the clearest lessons of history.

As for military industry, one should not forget that the dynamic state sector of the economy in the US has functioned under a military cover, to a large extent. That is where we find the roots of most of the “new economy,” including computers and electronics generally, telecommuncations and the internet, automation, lasers, civilian aircraft, major service industries (e.g., tourism, based heavily on the aviation industry), etc. That has been true historically, not only in the US. But since World War II it has become an enormous component of the economy, serving to socialize risk and cost while privatizing profit, and to allow the rich and powerful states to escape market discipline.

7. What do you think about US’ opposing to the idea of forming the permanent International war crimes tribunal?

The US is far too powerful to have any need to submit to an in-ternational authority. That is why it blithely rejects World Court condemnation, vetoes or ignores Security Council resolu-tions, and in general disregards international law and treaties when it chooses. As the world’s most powerful state, it guards its sovereignty zealously, while ignoring the sovereignty of others as it chooses. Again, there is nothing new or surpris-ing about this.

8. How would you comment on the changes in world relations af-ter September 11th? We can see deeper misunderstanding be-tween US and European Union in themes such is ratification of the Kyoto protocol, or International war crimes tribunal, or their competition for the influence on the former social-ist world?

I do not think that Sept. 11 made a great difference in these respects. Apart from temporary effects, earlier tendencies continue without much modification.

9. The anti-globalization movement is often criticized for a lack of a theoretical foundation and clear goals. Do you agree with such critics and are you satisfied, in this respect, with the work of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre which you have participated in?

The term “globalization” has been appropriated by the powerful to refer to a specific form of international economic integration, one based on investor rights, with the interests of people incidental. That is why the business press, in its more honest moments, refers to the “free trade agreements” as “free investment agreements” (Wall St. Journal). Accordingly, advocates of other forms of globalization are described as “anti-globalization”; and some, unfortunately, even accept this term, though it is a term of propaganda that should be dismissed with ridicule. No sane person is opposed to globalization, that is, international integration. Surely not the left and the workers movements, which were founded on the principle of international solidarity – that is, globalization in a form that attends to the rights of people, not private power systems. There are no serious “theoretical foundations” for any of the versions of globalization, including the investor-rights versions. The international economy is far too poorly understood for there to be systematic “theories” in any serious sense. Certainly the neoliberal programs have no serious theoretical basis, even in the abstract; and their concrete realization is a complex mixture of protectionism and liberalization crafted to meet the interests of the designers, not surprisingly. As for Porto Alegre, a mere look at the program suffices to show that the meetings were extremely serious, devoted to detailed discussion and debate concerning a wide range of issues of human significance, from technical discussions of international financial architecture and GATS to broad questions of war and peace and fundamental human rights. In contrast, the World Economic Forum in New York at the same time seemed remarkably frivolous, at least according to the information released. That is quite typically the case.

10. Do you think that “anti-globalization” can become the concept for the new world’s leftist movement as a counter to Blair’s “third way”?

The “third way” is a variant of the corporate-led programs of international economic integration, with a softer face than some. The popular movements that have developed worldwide – most dramatically in the South, and more recently in the recently in the North as well – are not a “counter” to these programs. Rather, they are pursuing a different path. There is no single “concept,” and there cannot be in movements that are concerned with human affairs quite generally, from individuals and families to international affairs and the future of the species. There are many concepts, often guided by similar conceptions of freedom and justice. In contrast, dominant ideologies are intellectually shallow and not very interesting, apart from their relations to concentrated power.


11. What are the perspectives of overcoming the division between the rich North and poor South? We can see that the conference in Monterrey did not produce significant results. Can the cost of maintaining military control over the poor peoples become too expensive for the rich West, therefore leading to a more just distribution of world riches?

The US intelligence community, with participation of academic experts and the business world, recently produced its forecast for the next 15 years. It expects that “globalization” (in the special sense of power centers) will proceed on course, leading to greater financial volatility and a widening economic divide. Greater financial volatility means even slower growth than in the “globalization” period of the past 25 years, which was accompanied by significant deterioration of standard macroeconomic and social indicators as compared with the “pre-globalization” period of the Bretton Woods years (roughly 1950 to the early 1970s. A widening economic divide means less globalization in the technical sense (convergence to single price-wage, etc.) but more globalization in the ideologically preferred sense (concentration of wealth and power). Military planners adopt the same forcasts. US plans for militarization of space in violation of the Outer Space Treaty are based, explicitly, on the assumption that there will be a growing divide between “haves” and “have-nots” and that new forms of military force will be needed to secure “US commercial interests and investments” in the face of rising disorder among the “have-nots”. This is spelled out with great clarity in Clinton-era documents of the Space Command and elsewhere.

What is planned, then, is increasing polarization, and development of sufficient force to control it in the interests of wealth and privilege. No one can predict with any confidence whether such plans will succeed, any more than in the past. The primary determinants are unmeasureable and unpredictable: will and choice.



12. In one of your recent interviews you quoted John Dewey – if democratic forms are to have real substance, industry must be changed “from a feudalistic to a democratic social order” which would be based on workers’ control and the free association. Do you think that some perhaps pozitive characteristics of abandoned socialism could be used in the future, for example something from the socialist self-management which in existed Yugoslavia?

To speak of “abandoned socialism” presupposes that there was some socialism that was abandoned. That is quite an exaggeration. There have been moves towards traditional socialist ideals of the kind described by Dewey – who I quoted not because the observations are original, but because he is America’s leading social philosopher, “as American as apple pie,” in the standard phrase. Such initiatives have often been demolished by force, not only in the West. The first acts of Lenin and Trotsky after taking power were to destroy the factory councils and Soviets, and in fact just about every socialist tendency that had developed before the Bolshevik takeover. From then until its collapse, the Soviet tyranny was one of the major anti-socialist forces in the world. But nonetheless, there were elements of democracy and socialism (in the traditional non-Bolshevik sense), including self-management in the former Yugoslavia, though it was severely flawed because of the more general context of centralized authority within which it was embedded.

13. Your recent appearance in Turkey was noticed when you helped the publisher Fatih Tas refute the conviction for having published your article on the position of Kurds. Since there are a lot of ongoing proceedings against publicly stated opinions in Croatia, please answer in general – what do you consider to justify as verbal delict?

(Note: There are currently two cases in Croatia having to do with Feral Tribune. One has to do with an article from 1995, where university professor and art historian Zvonko Makovic explains why the daughter of an eminent sculptor Ivan MeŇ°trovic doesn’t have any qualifications to be the manager of a galery containing Mestrovic’s work. Mestrovic’s daughter sued Mr. Makovic for insulting her and by order of the court recieved a significant cash compensation. The second case is that of the editor of Feral Tribune, Viktor Ivancic, who had to pay a large fine for publishing an article in 1993 in which he wrote about the neofascist orientation of one member of the former government nomenclature in Croatia.)


The case against Fatih Tas was dropped by the State Security Courts, but not because of arguments against the indictment; rather, because of international attention. Other cases, many even more disgraceful than this one, proceed without change. But not without protest. It is truly inspiring to observe the courage and dedication of the writers, artists, journalists, academics and others who carry out persistent civil disobedience in protest against the draconian legislation of the Turkish state, placing themselves in serious danger in a struggle for freedom that merits not only great respect but strong international support. And I cannot find words to describe the heroism of the millions of Kurds living in the dungeon in the Southeast, after having suffered some of the worst atrocities of the 1990s thanks to the enormous arms flow provided by the Clinton administration and the discipline of the educated classes, who hailed the atrocious international terrorism as a model of “counterterrorism.”

On the Croatian cases, I cannot comment, having no independent knowledge. What you describe should certainly not be tolerated. Unfortunately, it is not too far from what happens even in Western European countries like England and France, with a long tradition of advocacy of civil liberties, seriously tainted in practice. The US is unusual, perhaps unique, in its protection for freedom of speech.

As for what should be permitted, the overriding principle, I think, is that a very heavy burden of proof must by met by any call for infringement of this fundamental human right. The US, in my opinion, finally reached a proper standard in the 1960s, after centuries of struggle, when the Supreme Court struck down the laws of seditious libel that made it a crime to assault the state with words, and established the standard that speech is protected up to direct participation in ongoing crime: if you and I are robbing a store, you have a gun, and I say “shoot,” my speech is not protected. Unlike Britain and many other countries, the US is also free from onerous libel laws that severely inhibit free expression and provide institutions that can bear major legal costs with powerful weapons to silence voices they do not like.

Having said that, however, it is important to stress that freedom from state coercion, under libel laws or in other ways, is still only a partial victory, though an important one. High concentration of power in unaccountable private institutions, as in Western state capitalist democracies, leads to restriction on expression that often resembles the outcomes in totalitarian states. These are matters discussed by Dewey, Orwell and others, and documented in extensive detail in studies of the major media.