Justice for Palestine?

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Stephen R. Shalom and Justin Podur

ZNet, March 30, 2004

1. What do you see as the best solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict?

It depends what time frame we have in mind. In the short term, the only feasible and minimally decent solution is along the lines of the international consensus that the US has unilaterally blocked for the last 30 years: a two-state settlement on the international border (green line), with “minor and mutual adjustments,” in the terms of official US policy, though not actual policy after 1971. By now, US-backed Israeli settlement and infrastructure projects change the import of “minor.” Nevertheless, several programs of basically that nature are on the table, the most prominent being the Geneva Accords, formally presented in Geneva in December, which gives a detailed program for a 1-1 land swap and other aspects of a settlement, and is about as good as is likely to be achieved — and could be achieved if the US government would back it, which is of course the one issue that we can hope to influence, hence the most important for us. So far, the US has refused to do so. “The United States conspicuously was not among the governments sending a message of support,” the New York Times reported in a (generally disparaging) news story on the December 1 meetings in Geneva where the Accords were presented.

2. There are some people who argue that while a two-state solution may have been possible in the past, factors including the settlements and economic and demographic changes over the last 37 years have so intertwined Israeli Jews and Palestinians that a two-state solution today could not realistically provide for two viable states. How do you assess this argument?

To clarify, the question is whether the two communities are so intertwined in the occupied territories that no division is possible: they have always been intertwined within Israel. I think the argument is incorrect — as, incidentally, do the former heads of the Israeli Shin Bet (General Security Services, GSS), who recently discussed the matter publicly (Nov. 14, 2003). They were in general agreement that Israel could and should leave the Gaza Strip completely, and that in the West Bank, 85-90% of the settlers would leave “with a simple economic plan” while there are perhaps 10% “with whom we will have to clash” to remove them, not a very serious problem in their view. The Geneva Accords and Ayalon-Nusseibah plans are based on similar assumptions, which appear realistic.

3. A related argument holds that the status quo already is a two-state solution — that the only two-state solution Israel would accept is a kind of Bantustan, disconnected territories with borders controlled by Israel, under Israeli military and economic domination, and that this is the logic of two-state proposals to date, notably Oslo. How do you assess this argument?

What “Israel will accept” depends on what is decided by the great power that the more astute Israeli commentators call “the boss-man called ‘partner’.” And that decision is our responsibility. As for what Israelis would accept, polls vary, depending on how questions are asked, but it seems that in general the assessment of the former heads of GSS is widely shared. Oslo was not a two-state proposal. That is a common misunderstanding. The Declaration of Principles of September 1993 stated only that the “permanent status” would be based on UN 242, which offers nothing to the Palestinians, not on UN 242 supplemented with the call for a Palestinian state in the occupied territories, the international consensus that the US has blocked since the mid-1970s. The Oslo agreements were, therefore, pure rejectionism. The Rabin and Peres governments following the first Oslo agreement never even mentioned a Palestinian state. More crucially, the Oslo agreements did not bar US-backed Israeli settlement and development programs, which is why the head of the authentic Palestinian negotiating team, Haidar Abdul-Shafi, refused even to attend the White House ceremony in 1993. And as Rabin and Peres made clear, they intended to continue with these programs, and did so. That continued through the entire Oslo process; the peak year for settlement was 2000, Clinton-Barak’s last year. By then the issue of a Palestinian state had finally arisen, and the issue was where it would be and with what modalities. The Clinton-Barak Camp David proposals of 2000 were impossible, for reasons that have been discussed at length. There was considerable improvement at the Taba negotiations of January 2001, but these were cancelled by Barak and never formally renewed. Informal negotiations continued, leading to the Geneva Accords. (For discussion of Camp David and the aftermath, see my Hegemony or Survival, chap. 7, and sources cited; and in the mainstream, among others Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, Foreign Affairs, May-June 2002; Jeremy Pressman, International Security, Fall 2003. The most informative continuing analysis is in Geoffrey Aronson’s Report on Israeli Settlements, Middle East Foundation.)

It is, incidentally, quite true that none of these proposals deal with the overwhelming imbalance in military and economic power between Israel and an eventual Palestinian state.

4. What do you think of a single-state solution, in the form of a democratic, secular state? Do you think such a solution is desirable today? Is it realistic today?

There has never been a legitimate proposal for a democratic secular state from any significant Palestinian (or of course Israeli) group. One can debate, abstractly, whether it is “desirable.” But it is completely unrealistic. There is no meaningful international support for it, and within Israel, opposition to it is close to universal. It is understood that this would soon become a Palestinian state with a Jewish minority, and with no guarantee for either democracy or secularism (even if the minority status would be accepted, which it would not). Those who are now calling for a democratic secular state are, in my opinion, in effect providing weapons to the most extreme and violent elements in Israel and the US.

5. Is it really “understood” by all those now calling for a democratic secular state that such a state would guarantee neither democracy nor secularism? Why is it inevitable that a democratic secular state would degenerate? And can you elaborate on your argument that calling for a democratic secular state in effect provides weapons to the most extreme and violent elements.

What is “understood,” I can’t say. But what will happen is clear enough. If popular pressures in the US (primarily) and Israel have not even been able to compel the governments to accept a two-state settlement in accord with the international consensus, then, a fortiori, they will not be able to compel the governments to accept elimination of Israel in favor of a single Palestinian state in which Israeli Jews will soon be a minority. Furthermore, it is next to inconceivable that more than a very tiny minority of the Israeli public would even consider such a proposal, nor is there the slightest meaningful international support for it. So any further discussion is completely abstract, and has no relation to anything even imaginable today. But if we continue anyway, the (completely abstract) question that arises is not whether it is inevitable that a state declared to be “democratic and secular” will degenerate, but whether there will be any guarantee of democracy and secularism. And there wouldn’t be. Israel, for example, already calls itself “democratic and secular,” but in practice has devised an elaborate array of mechanisms over the years, ranging from legalistic to administrative practice, which grant enormous privileges to the Jewish population. And the same is true of other states that describe themselves as “democratic” or “secular.” In the case of an imagined Palestinian state, there is surely no greater reason to expect guarantees, and no one would have any reason to put any faith in that. That would be true even if there had ever been a credible Palestinian proposal for a “democratic secular state.” The call for a “democratic secular state,” which is not taken seriously by the Israeli public or internationally, is an explicit demand for the destruction of Israel, offering nothing to Israelis beyond the hope of a degree of freedom in an eventual Palestinian state. The propaganda systems in Israel and the US will joyously welcome the proposal if it gains more than even marginal attention, and will labor to give it great publicity, interpreting it as just another demonstration that there is “no partner for peace,” so that the US-Israel have no choice but to establish “security” by caging barbaric Palestinians into a West Bank dungeon while taking over the valuable lands and resources. The most extreme and violent elements in Israel and the US could hope for no greater gift than this proposal.

6. At one time, you urged a single bi-national state as the best solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Do you think such a solution is desirable today? Is it realistic today?

As to its desirability, I have believed that from childhood, and still do. And at times it has also been realistic. From 1967 to 1973 I wrote about it quite a lot, because during those years it was quite feasible. However, there was virtually no support for it among Palestinians or Israelis; rather, it elicited severe criticism, from doves as well, and in the US, near hysteria. In the same years, a full peace treaty with the major Arab states was also quite feasible, and indeed had been offered in 1971 by Egypt, then Jordan. I have discussed the matter extensively in print, then and since, and won’t try to summarize. In my opinion, had these measures been pursued, a great deal of suffering, death, and destruction would have been avoided. By 1973 the opportunity was lost, and the only feasible short-term settlement was the two-state proposal. That remains true. If that is implemented, perhaps along the lines of the Geneva Accords, the cycle of violence will be ended and reversed. Perhaps in the longer term, as hostility and fear subside and relations are more firmly developed along non-national lines, there will be a possibility of moving towards a federal version of binationalism, then perhaps on to closer integration, perhaps even to a democratic secular state — though it is far from obvious that that is the optimal arrangement for complex societies, there or elsewhere, a different matter.

7. What changed? Why is a bi-national state no longer realistic for the short run?

What changed is the 1973 war and the shift in opinion among Palestinians, in the Arab world, and in the international arena in favor of Palestinian national rights, in a form that incorporated UN 242 but adding to it provisions for a Palestinian state in the occupied territories, which Israel would evacuate. As I mentioned, the US has been blocking that unilaterally (with Israel) since the mid-1970s, and still does. Personally, I would be very pleased if there were support now for the kind of federal binationalism that could have been implemented in the 1967-73 period. But I am aware of no signs of that.

8. You’ve said that a democratic secular state and a binational state are both currently unrealistic because they have no support. But you said neither Palestinians nor Israelis endorsed a binational state in the period 1967 to 1973 and yet binationalism was feasible during those years. Obviously if people supported it then, it would have been realistic. But isn’t the same true today?

We cannot simply erase from history and consciousness what has happened in the years since. It is simply a fact that on both sides (and crucially, in the US) there was no interest even in considering a realistic proposal for federal binationalism, perhaps evolving to closer integration as circumstances permit. The result was wars and destruction, harsh military occupation, takeover of land and resources, resistance, and finally an increasing cycle of violence, and of course mutual hatred and distrust. Those outcomes, along with what I’ve already mentioned before, are facts that cannot be wished away. Accordingly, the basis for moving towards binationalism is far weaker than it was during the period when the proposals were feasible, pre-1973. As a result of the serious failures of the past, the only feasible way to move towards such a solution is by adopting the proposal that does have substantial support among the two communities and overwhelming international support, apart from the US: the longstanding international consensus, in one of its current versions, most plausibly the Geneva Accords. If popular movements for binationalism did take shape, despite the far higher barriers than during the 1967-73 period, I would of course be delighted. But that seems to me a vain hope. Chances are far slighter now than during the earlier period.

It’s of some interest that proposals that were bitterly denounced when they were feasible, often with considerable hysteria, are now considered quite tolerable, even published in the New York Times Magazine and New York Review of Books. I presume that the reason is the understanding that the proposals are completely unfeasible, so it is no longer necessary to subject them to vilification and to exclude then from discussion, as was the practice during the years when they were feasible. Now toleration of them demonstrates our humanistic concerns (with no fear that there might be some substantive outcome), and, for the more violent and repressive elements, would be a welcome gift if the proposals moved beyond highly abstract discussion, for the reasons already mentioned.

9. You say a two-state solution is not ideal, but its realization would greatly reduce the suffering of the Palestinian people. Yet in other cases you have opposed “compromise” solutions that (like most likely two-state solutions) reflected the imbalance of power between the Israeli state and the Palestinians — such as Oslo or the US position at Camp David in 2000. What’s the difference?

Which compromises should be accepted and which not? There is, and can be, no general formula. Every treaty and other agreement I can think of has been a “compromise” and is unjust. Some are worth accepting, some not. Take Apartheid South Africa. We were all in favor of the end of Apartheid, though it was radically unjust, leaving highly concentrated economic power virtually unchanged, though with some black faces among the dominant white minority. On the other hand, we were all strenuously opposed to the “homelands” (“Bantustan”) policies of 40 years ago, a different compromise. The closest we can come to a formula — and it is pretty meaningless — is that compromises should be accepted if they are the best possible and can lead the way to something better. That is the criterion we should all try to follow. Sharon’s two-state settlement, leaving Palestinians caged in the Gaza Strip and about half of the West Bank, should not be accepted, because it radically fails the criterion. The Geneva Accords approximates the criterion, and therefore should be accepted, in my opinion. These are always complex judgments about feasibility and about opportunities to move forward.

10. Should Palestinian refugees be willing to renounce the “right of return” as part of a settlement? Does this benefit West Bank and Gaza residents at the expense of those Palestinians living in grim conditions in refugee camps outside Palestine?

Palestinian refugees should certainly not be willing to renounce the right of return, but in this world — not some imaginary world we can discuss in seminars — that right will not be exercised, in more than a limited way, within Israel. Again, there is no detectable international support for it, and under the (virtually unimaginable) circumstances that such support would develop, Israel would very likely resort to its ultimate weapon, defying even the boss-man, to prevent it. In that case there would be nothing to discuss. The facts are ugly, but facts do not go out of existence for that reason. In my opinion, it is improper to dangle hopes that will not be realized before the eyes of people suffering in misery and oppression. Rather, constructive efforts should be pursued to mitigate their suffering and deal with their problems in the real world.

11. Why would/could Israel be forced by organized public opinion to accept a two-state settlement but not a democratic or binational settlement or the right of return? Why would Israel resort to its ultimate weapon in the latter cases but not in the former?

A two-state settlement in accord with the international consensus is already acceptable to a very broad range of Israeli opinion — including, incidentally, extreme hawks, who are so concerned by the “demographic problem” that they are even advancing the (outrageous) proposal to transfer areas of dense Arab settlement within Israel to a new Palestinian state. And one can easily understand why it is acceptable, just as it has been to virtually the entire world since the 1970s — including a considerable majority of the American population. Therefore, it is not at all inconceivable that organizing/activist efforts in the US could bring the US government into line with the international consensus, in which case, for the reasons already discussed, Israel would be very likely to go along as well. However, there is virtually no possibility of organizing public opinion in the US, or anywhere else, in favor of a settlement that entails elimination of Israel in favor of a Palestinian state with a Jewish minority — quite a small and scattered minority if refugees return. This is entirely fanciful. And as I mentioned, it would of course be opposed by virtually all Israelis. In this case they would be very likely to resort to their “ultimate weapon” — which they possess — to prevent what they would plausibly regard as their destruction. I have already discussed why support for binationalism (with right of return effectively restricted to the Palestinian component) is far less likely to arise than during the feasible period 1967-73, though if it does, I would certainly applaud.

12. As long as the US Government blocks a two-state settlement, it’s unlikely to occur. So why do you think the US Government might support a two-state solution?

For the same reason that I thought at one time that the US government might withdraw from Vietnam, might institute a limited medical care system, might inform the Indonesian generals that they had to withdraw from East Timor, and on, and on. The government might do what organized activist public opinion influences it to do. This happens to be an unusually easy case. About two-thirds of the public supports the so-called Saudi Plan, which calls for Israel to withdraw entirely from the occupied territories. That goes well beyond the Geneva Accords. Similar majorities want US aid to be denied to either party that refuses to enter into negotiations (meaning Israel, for the past several years), and want aid to the two parties to be equalized if they do enter into negotiations (meaning a radical diversion of aid from Israel to Palestinians). Of course, virtually none of this is published, and people are so deprived of relevant information that they probably do not comprehend clearly what they are calling for. But those are the situations in which educational and organizing activities can make an enormous difference.

13. Do you believe that the Israeli public would accept a serious two-state solution?

Even without any US pressure, considerable majorities favor something of this sort — again, depending on exactly how questions are asked in polls. A change in the US government position would make an enormous difference. I think there is every reason to accept the conclusions of the former heads of GSS, as well as the Israeli peace movement (Gush Shalom and others), that the public would accept such an outcome. But speculation about that is not our real concern. Rather, it is to bring US government policy into line with the rest of the world, and apparently the majority of the US public.

14. Above you note that the 1973 war was a watershed, leading to irreversible changes on the ground. Are we seeing another watershed now? Is Israel attempting to destroy the possibilities for a two-state settlement by escalating its assassination policy, first with the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and now with the announced policy of killing all the Hamas leaders, plus perhaps Arafat, and perhaps Hizbollah’s Nasirallah in Lebanon?

The right wing in Israel is undoubtedly trying to destroy the possibility of a meaningful two-state settlement by such methods. More specifically, I presume that the purpose of murdering Sheikh Yassin, destroying Rafah, and other similar measures is to ensure that after a likely Israeli partial withdrawal, the Gaza Strip will be so utterly demolished that the population caged within it will rot and die and turn on each other in desperation, at which point Western humanists can comment sagely on the inability of Palestinians (like Haitians, and other targets of our benevolence) to manage their own affairs even when given a chance. Therefore we must (reluctantly) support Israel’s “defensive” moves to take over the valuable land and resources of the West Bank while leaving the remaining population caged in a dungeon there. Lebanon is a somewhat different matter, relating to US-Israel plans with regard to Syria.

These are further reasons why we should not provide the most violent and repressive elements with further weapons.

15. You sometimes say in talks and interviews that you used to be called a ‘Zionist’, and now you’re called an ‘anti-Zionist’, and that your views haven’t changed. Young people working on Israel/Palestine issues today might find this confusing, since those who call themselves Zionists seem to be supporters of the most virulent Israeli government policies. Could you clarify this: What did it mean to be a ‘Zionist’ back then? What does it mean today?

Until December 1942, the Zionist movement had no formal commitment to a Jewish state. Until the state was established in May 1948, opposition to a Jewish state was within the Zionist movement. Later, the concept “Zionism” was very narrowly restricted for propaganda reasons. By the 1970s, when Israel chose expansion and dependence on the US over security and integration into the region, the concept “Zionism” was narrowed to refer, in effect, to support for the policies of the government of Israel. Thus when the distinguished Israeli Labor Party statesman Abba Eban said that the task of dialogue with the gentile world is to show that “anti-Zionists” are either anti-Semites or neurotic self-hating Jews (his examples were I.F. Stone and me), he was restricting “Zionism” to support for the state of Israel and excluding any such criticism as logically impossible. The concept “anti-Zionism” then becomes analogous to the disgraceful concept “anti-Americanism,” drawn from the lexicon of totalitarianism and based on strictly totalitarian principles. By now the term has been so debased by propaganda that it is better abandoned, in my opinion.