On Israel, the US and Turkey

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Sabahattin Atas

[unidentified Kurdish newspaper], circa September, 2003

QUESTION: In many of your writings and speeches you describe Israel like a terrorist country. I read once you had lived for a while at kibbutzes in the “A Life of Dissent”. What was the reason for such a preference? In addition to this, how do you evaluate the legitimate (recognition) problem of Israel in terms of world public opinion exclusively Islamic countries?

CHOMSKY: I do not remember actually calling Israel a “terrorist country,” though it certainly engages in actions of a kind that we call “terrorism” and “aggression,” among other crimes, when perpetrated by official enemies.

It is important to bear in mind that the term “terrorism” is commonly used as a term of abuse, not accurate description. There are official definitions of “terrorism”, for example, those of the US and British governments, which are quite similar. But they are not used, because they do not distinguish between good and bad varieties of terrorism. That distinction is determined by the agent of the crime, not its character. It is close to a historical universal that our terrorism against them is right and just (whoever “we” happen to be), while their terrorism against us is an outrage. As long as that practice is adopted, discussion of terrorism is not serious. It is no more than a form of propaganda and apologetics.

If we use the term in accord with its official definitions, then, uncontroversially, Israel (like the US, Britain, Turkey, and others) is a terrorist state by the standards we apply to official enemies. Scale and character of course varies from case to case, but none of it is attractive, to put it mildly.

I lived briefly in a kibbutz fifty years ago — and, in fact, thought seriously about staying there. I was very much attracted by the style of life and the form of social organization, though not without serious reservations. I also had an intimate personal involvement, from early childhood, in the social movements of which the kibbutzim were a part. These movements were opposed to establishment of a Jewish state, but within the Zionist movement of the pre-State era.

On the matter of legitimacy and recognition, once the State of Israel was established in 1948, my feeling has been that it should have the rights of any state in the international system: no more, no less. That includes, specifically, the right to live in peace and security within its recognized international borders, understood to be the pre-June 1967 borders, with minor and mutual adjustments. These rights have been recognized by a very broad international consensus since the mid-1970s, including the major Arab states. The US and Israel, virtually alone, have opposed the international consensus since the mid-1970s, and still do. Since the mid-1970s, the US has vetoed Security Council resolutions calling for a two-state settlement on the international border with full recognition of the rights of Israel and a new Palestinian state, has regularly voted against General Assembly resolutions to this effect (along with Israel, sometimes one or another dependency), and blocked other diplomatic efforts seeking to achieve this goal. The only US-Israel proposals, all informal, require that the Palestinian territories be broken up effectively into several cantons, virtually separated from one another and from some small part of Jerusalem, the center of Palestinian cultural and economic life. Something similar is projected, also without formal declaration, in the Gaza Strip. Jewish settlements and enormous infrastructure projects proceeded without a break right through the period of the Oslo “peace process,” establishing these “facts on the ground” while talk continued, taking control of the scarce water resources and much of the valuable land. They still continue, at an accelerating pace. The US and Israel have demanded further that Palestinians not only recognize Israel’s rights as a state in the international system, but that they also recognize Israel’s abstract “right to exist,” a concept that has no place in international law or diplomacy, and a right claimed by no one. In effect, the US and Israel are demanding that Palestinians not only recognize Israel in the normal fashion of interstate relations, but also formally accept the legitimacy of their expulsion from their own land. They cannot be expected to accept that, just as Mexico does not grant the US the “right to exist” on half of Mexico’s territory, gained by conquest. We do not have sufficient archival evidence to be confident, but I suspect that this demand was contrived to bar the possibility of a political settlement in accord with the international consensus that the US and Israel have rejected for thirty years.

But to repeat, Israel and a new Palestinian state should be accorded the rights of all states in the international system, no more, no less. That option will soon be excluded, if the US and Israel continue to carry out the development projects in the occupied territories in such a way as to render the Palestinian region a “permanent neo-colonial dependency” — the goal of the “peace process,” according to Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s chief negotiator. Many Israeli and Palestinian analysts are coming to regard those developments as irreversible, in which case an entirely new situation emerges.

QUESTION: What do you think about the road map USA wants to put in life among Israel and Palestine? For some it is only an attempt to propitiate (ateno for) the Arabs for the USA’s Iraq occupation. How real can this claim be?

CHOMSKY: I have written about it elsewhere, cannot repeat the details here. In brief, the “road map” of the Quartet (Europe, Russia, the UN, the US) requires Palestinians to terminate all forms of resistance to the Israeli military occupation, but is sufficiently vague in other respects so that the US-funded Israeli settlement and development programs in the occupied territories can proceed, guided only by President Bush’s “vision,” which remains unspecified. The nature of these programs suggests an outcome that resembles the establishment of “homelands” for the black population by the apartheid regime of South Africa forty years ago, a comparison often drawn in Israeli commentary. The US blocked the release of the “road map” for some time, finally releasing it, one may plausibly conjecture, as part of its efforts to reduce the enormous opposition to its invasion of Iraq by appearing to offer something to the Palestinians.

QUESTION: In your opinion, what are the plans of America for Iraq and the future of Middle East? How will the situation effect the Middle East if America is exposed to the same, which was in Vietnam, also in Iraq? May the Middle East get more confused or may a calmness take place?

CHOMSKY: The US presumably seeks to establish a powerful position right at the heart of the world’s major reserves of energy, thereby strengthening its control over this “stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history,” as the State Department described the Gulf region at the end of World War II. Formal democracy in Iraq and elsewhere would be acceptable, even preferable, if only for public relations purposes. But, if history is any guide, it will be the kind of democracy that the US has tolerated within its own regional domains for a century. Here, the US has sought to bring about democratic change but only if it is restricted to “limited, top-down forms of democratic change that did not risk upsetting the traditional structures of power with which the United States has long been allied,” maintaining “the basic order of quite undemocratic societies”; I am quoting Thomas Carothers, a Latin America scholar and an official of the Reagan administration who worked in its “democracy enhancement” programs. The historical record amply supports that judgment, in the Middle East as well. The rich and instructive historical record will be disregarded only by those who have blind faith in powerful states. And of course the US is by no means alone in these practices.

There is little likelihood, I think, of the kind of resistance that the US faced in Vietnam, under very different circumstances and at a different historical moment. The long-term effects may be to stimulate terror, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and general turmoil, much as Western intelligence agencies and many analysts among the foreign policy elite have predicted. But human affairs are not predictable with any confidence: too much depends on will and choice.

QUESTION: According to the common opinion in the world, is it the turn of Iran? After Iraq, do you think it is turn of Iran?

CHOMSKY: Iraq was an appropriate target because it was completely defenseless, having been reduced to the edge of survival by a decade of murderous sanctions, primarily targeting the civilian population, with a toll of hundreds of thousands dead by conservative estimate, and leaving most of the country in ruins. This followed brutal and destructive wars and horrendous internal terror, most of it with the backing of the US and Britain, including those now running Washington, facts regularly suppressed. Iraq had also been virtually disarmed by rigorous inspections, and such limited defenses as it had were destroyed by regular US-UK bombing attacks. By the time of the invasion, Iraq was one of the weakest states of the region, with military expenditures about a third those of tiny Kuwait and far below the US allies in the region, let alone the US and its British client. It is astonishing that there has been any resistance at all. Iran is a different story. It is, I think, unlikely that the US will invade Iran, though it will presumably continue to try to isolate it and perhaps to undermine it from within.

QUESTION: There are some evidences that a Kurdish State will be established in the Northern Iraq with the pioneering of America and Israel. Do you agree with this?

CHOMSKY: I think that is extremely unlikely. Israel can do very little without US authorization, and the US does not want to see a Kurdish state established, under current circumstances.

QUESTION: As you know, the second memorandum which would let American troops pass through Turkey was rejected in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey and Turkey didn’t join the invasion of Iraq with America. Can this be the beginning of the cold term relationships between America and Turkey as it is widely claimed?

CHOMSKY: Washington and US elites were infuriated that the Turkish government took the same position as 95% of the population rather than following orders. The influential Pentagon planner Paul Wolfowitz even went so far as to condemn the Turkish military for its weakness in permitting the government to conform to the will of the population. This was one element of an extraordinary demonstration of bitter hatred and contempt for democracy, without any counterpart that I can recall. Attitudes towards democracy were also demonstrated with unusual clarity in the distinction that was drawn between “Old Europe” and “New Europe,” the former bitterly condemned, the latter praised. The distinguishing criterion was sharp and clear: the governments of “Old Europe” took the same stand as the great majority of their populations, and were therefore reviled; the leaders of “New Europe” overrode even larger majorities (as in Spain and Italy) and took their orders from Crawford, Texas, and were therefore hailed for their courage and grand qualities. Meanwhile media and intellectuals were proclaiming their deep commitment to democracy and intentions of establishing it throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. This has been a most remarkable performance. George Orwell would have observed it with astonishment. To anyone capable of thinking, the performance explains rather clearly what “democracy” means in the elite intellectual culture in the US (and the West generally): democracy is fine, as long as you do what we we say.

The lesson in democracy that Turkey taught to the US is deeply resented by US elites, and may elicit retaliation, but that alone is unlikely to lead to a significant cooling of relations. However, many other processes are underway. The worldwide US military basing system has always been oriented in large measure towards the Middle East oil-producing region, and in the last few years the US has been positioning military bases nearer to that region. European military bases are being shifted from Central Europe to the east, to former Russian satellites. The Afghan war provided the US with new military bases in Afghanistan and Central Asia. And if the US can consolidate its control over Iraq, it will be able to establish reliable military bases right at the heart of the oil producing region for the first time. Previously, the closest reliable base was in the island of Diego Garcia, a British possession from which the population was expelled, and not permitted to return, despite the orders of the British Courts, a situation that is not unfamiliar in Diyarbakir. Iraqi bases will lessen Washington’s dependence on the Turkish basing system that has been a core feature of the US-Turkey military alliance. Furthermore, Turkey has independent reasons to improve relations with Iran — in many ways a natural trading partner. These are steps that the US will strongly oppose, as long as Iran retains some measure of independence. There are many possible sources of tension.

QUESTION: In one of your interviews you had talked about a local media and you had added that “if I did not see this with my eyes, I would never believe this.” Do you think that the same local media movements [that] belong to the public can be formed in other parts of the world? Or otherwise was that movement only special to Brazilia? Because, as you know, like – in the example of Port Alegro – Brazilia has an exceptional place on earth.

CHOMSKY: The popular media I observed were not in Porto Alegre, but in huge suburban slums outside Rio de Janeiro. And they were quite remarkable. If these achievements were possible under such conditions, they could be duplicated in many other places. What is required is energy, will, commitment. It is never easy. Every repressive society has its own barriers to freedom and justice. But what has been achieved in Brazil is impressive, just as the struggle for human and civil rights in Turkey is truly inspiring. In many respects I know of nothing like it elsewhere. Every place on earth can be truly exceptional in its own ways.

QUESTION: You have mentioned that in your second conversation in Diyarbakir. “Once, on the one hand, I was opposing the American State policies, on the other hand I used to work at the projects which were financed by the Pentagon in my University. So they used to pay my salary.” If we evaluate the subject from this point: How must be the relationship between an intellectual and a University which is one of the places in which the system renews itself. Because there is not ‘a paradoxal democracy perspective’ in the other most of the world countries and much time the intellectual may choose to hide his truths for his sake.

CHOMSKY: Intellectuals can choose to hide their beliefs and to serve power, or they can follow the model of prominent writers, artists, journalists, publishers, academics and others in Turkey and stand up courageously for freedom and justice. There are rewards for conformity and often punishment for honesty and decency, varying in ways that reflect the nature of the society. That is true for slaves, and for everyone else. Because many people throughout history have resisted these pressures, humanity has been able to move to a higher plane of existence — slowly, painfully, with frequent regression, but over time with unmistakable progress. There are no general formulas I know of that can be simply applied. And there is no reason to believe that the process has come to an end, or, for that matter, that it ever will.

QUESTION: It is claimed that Turkey is successful about secularization, democratization and the process of the securalization, and it is believed to be a good model for the other Muslim countries. What do you think about this?

CHOMSKY: Turkey has been successful in some ways, and has seriously failed in others. I am in no position to hand out grades for good and bad behavior. It is for the people of Turkey to make their country a model that others may seek to follow, insofar as it is appropriate for them.

QUESTION: For the last, may I have a general evaluation of your feelings, thoughts about Diyarbakir and the time you passed in Diyarbakir?

CHOMSKY: Visiting Diyarbakir several times last year was a very moving experience. Though the visits were unfortunately very brief, I was able to meet quite a range of people, including human rights activists, students, political leaders, writers, families living in caves outside the city walls, many others, and to get at least a little sense of life in the semi-official capital of the Kurdish regions. I had a glimpse of another element of the same tragedy and heroism in the miserable slums of Istanbul where Kurdish refugees try to survive in tiny rooms in condemned buildings, and to create a life for themselves with the little they have, awaiting a chance to return to their destroyed villages in peace. The bravery of people who have suffered gravely, and their dedication to gain their rights and their freedom, is a remarkable tribute to what the human spirit can endure, and to achieve. To be able to share even a bare moment with them is a wonderful gift, which I will always cherish, along with others, among them a Kurdish dictionary with a touching inscription given to me by students at a public meeting, one of many acts of great courage and principle that I was privileged to witness. These are truly unforgettable experiences. I hope to be able to return in happier times, when the just demands of the Kurdish people are coming to be fully realized.