Noam Chomsky Interview

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Netta Ahituv

Ha-ir (“City”) Magazine (Tel Aviv edition), June 25, 2010

1. What does it mean, on a broader essence, that Israel did not allow you to enter her borders? Does it show the direction in which Israel is heading towards?

A few days ago, Yossi Melman observed in Haaretz that “For a long time now the Israeli government has refused to listen to reason meant to prevent the country’s continuing decline and isolation in the international arena, steadily leading it to the place occupied 20 years ago by South Africa.” My impression is that he is basically correct, and it is not just the government. In the past few years there has been a rising tide of irrationality, paranoia, easy tolerance of Israeli crimes, retreat into victimhood (“the world is anti-Semitic and we can’t do anything about it”) instead of an honest effort to ask why in international polls Israel is now ranked alongside of North Korea as the most disliked and feared country in the world, and other very developments that are dangerous for Israel itself, as well as others. My being barred from Palestine is an illustration, though a very minor one. If the Ministry of Interior had simply allowed me to accept the invitation of Bir Zeit university to give talks on American foreign and domestic policies, as scheduled, no one would have ever heard about it. The Ministry’s insistence on controlling who Bir Zeit and Mustapha Barghouti may invite turned a non-event into an embarassing international incident. There are far more serious cases, among them the purposeful humiliation of the Turkish ambassador and more recently the attack on the flotilla in international waters, killing Turks among others, and seriously harming relations with Israel’s only regional ally, a crucial alliance for Israel tracing back more than half a century. These acts carry irrationality to rather extreme limits.

Melman’s reference to South Africa merits attention. Many analogies are drawn, most of them dubious at best. But some are realistic. It is worth recalling what happened in South Africa. Fifty years ago, the white nationalist regime recognized that it was becoming an international pariah. The South African Foreign Minister told the American Ambassador that we are facing isolation and being condemned in the United Nations, but you and I know that there is only one real vote at the UN: yours. As long as the US supports us, it does not matter what the world thinks. That turned out to be an accurate prediction. US government support for South Africa continued through the 1980s, though by then Reagan even had to ignore congressional resolutions to increase his support for the apartheid regime in its vicious repression at home and murderous escapades abroad. Washington’s pretext was the “war on terror.” In 1988, the Pentagon declared that the African National Congress was one of “the more notorious terrorist groups” in the world; in fact Nelson Mandela was only removed from the official terrorist list a year ago. South Africa then seemed impregnable, victorious on all fronts. Shortly after, Washington switched its policies, and within a few years the apartheid regime was gone.

Quite apart from issues of right and wrong, Israel would be wise to attend to the lessons. It is treading on very thin ice. That is particularly true today when the US has large armies in the field in the region, and both military and intelligence circles are warning that Israeli extremism and intransigence is harming US military operations. Meir Dagan should not be ignored when he warns the Knesset that Israel is “gradually turning from an asset of the United States to a burden.” If that feeling spreads, the consequences could be very ugly. There is much more to say about the matter.

2. Were you surprised by the way the Israeli media treated “your” story (as a bureaucracy mistake), and by the gap between that narrative and that of the international media?

Yes, I expected more honesty. The facts are completely clear, and it is hard to believe that the media were unaware of them. There was no “bureaucracy mistake.” The several hours of interrogation were conducted by a border official who was in constant contact with the Ministery of Interior. He exercised no initiative. He was relaying questions and comments from the Ministry, and finally its decision to prevent my daughter and me from entering the West Bank. The reasons were also quite explicit. The primary reason, repeated over and over, was that I was lecturing at Bir Zeit but not at an Israeli university. I have lectured at Bir Zeit before, but only on side trips when I was giving talks and attending conferences in Israel, and if I had agreed to follow that procedure again, it appeared that there would have been no problem. They also said that they did not like what I write about their country, but that puts them into the category of just about every country in the world. At the border, I requested that the Ministry provide its own version of these events so that others would not have to rely solely on what my daughter and I reported. They promised to send a formal statement to the US Embassy in Amman. That never happened. When international protest was beginning to mount the government produced a series of excuses, finally blaming the border official for a misunderstanding. That is not only false but cowardly. He was simply transmitting instructions from the Ministry. Surely the Israeli media were able to understand this.

3. In the interview for Channel 2 you have mentioned that the only country who denied your entrance is Czechoslovakia in 1968. Do you recognize other signs in Israel’s behavior that show the process of becoming a totalitarian country?

Israel is a democracy within its borders; the occupied territories are a very different matter. It is a flawed democracy, as are others. Some of the most serious flaws have been partially remedied, in particular the racist land laws. But in the past few years Israeli democracy has been under serious attack from within. It is very far from becoming a totalitarian country, but the current trajectory is worrisome for people concerned about Israel.

4. Do you think Israel’s democracy is in danger?

If current tendencies persist, the danger is real, I think.

5. Do you find any connection between the source of thought that did not allow you to enter Israel and of which caused the flotillas misfortune events?

The attack on the flotilla in international waters is far more significant than preventing me from speaking at Bir Zeit, but the decisions trace, I think, to the same source: the growing irrationality and paranoia that has been so evident in recent years, and is reminiscent of South Africa’s reaction to international condemnation.

6. Do you find a course of change in Israel’s reactions Ð of its government and citizens Ð in the past couple of years? Where do youu think this change comes from and where is it going to end?

The changes in the past few years are striking, not just in government actions but also in the media and in polls. That is why many Israelis are leaving in despair, including very distinguished figures, like the late Amos Elon, Dov Yermiah, and others. There was a significant change after the 2006 Lebanon war, a vicious and destructive assault on Lebanese society — Israel’s fifth such attack — with pretexts that cannot withstand even minimal scrutiny. The global reaction was harsh, but instead of paying some attention to it, Israeli society and opinion retreated into the shelter of victimhood, which only increased global condemnation. The attack on Gaza in December 2008 was also bitterly denounced in most of the world, and rightly, eliciting the same kind of reaction in Israel. There are many other examples. Israelis may take comfort in government pronouncements that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but people around the world have access to information from highly reliable sources about the shocking brutality of the siege. That is true by now even in the United States. See for example the Los Angeles Times, June 8. Israelis may choose to hide their heads in the sand, but the world will not go away.

Where does it come from? Apart from a few, Israel has not been willing to face up to the fact that it is carrying out serious criminal actions in the occupied territories: separating Gaza from the West Bank in violation of international agreements, savagely punishing Gaza, and taking what it wants in the West Bank while leaving the remnants in what Ariel Sharon called “Bantustans” — too politely in fact: South Africa relied on the Bantustans for its labor force, and therefore had to sustain them, while Israel has followed Moshe Dayan’s advice that it should tell the Palestinians that “you will live like dogs,” and we hope that you will leave. This is not the place to run through details, which should be familiar to Israelis with their eyes open. But these actions are naturally arousing criticism and popular opposition throughout much of the world, including by now even the younger Jewish population in the US. Israel’s last firm base of international support is visibly eroding as the American Jewish population increasingly finds Israel’s behavior intolerable to its generally liberal values.

Where will it end? The fate of South African white nationalism is perhaps instructive. Those with Israel’s interests at heart can only hope that Israel will come to its senses and accept the possibilities for peaceful diplomatic settlement that have been open for a long time.

As in the case of South Africa, what is crucial is the stance of the US government. As long as it continues its support for Israeli crimes and its decisive participation in them, and adheres to the resolute rejectionism that has barred a diplomatic settlement for 35 years (with rare and temporary exceptions), Israel is likely to persist on its current course, following the South African model. Many years ago I wrote that those who call themselves “supporters of Israel” are in reality supporters of its moral degeneration and possible ultimate destruction. I think that has become increasingly clear, particularly in recent years.

7. How do you explain the fact that Israel uses over and over again the victim narrative? Can we ever get over it?

It has a solid basis in horrendous fact, of course. But it is notable that the “victim narrative” gained much more force after the military victory in 1967 and the occupation of Palestinian land, and increasingly so as Israel’s policies are alienating international opinion. It is a convenient refuge in the face of growing international outrage. It is psychologically easier to retreat into the stance of victimhood than to face honestly the hard facts about why Israel is becoming so feared and disliked throughout the world. Israel would be wise to follow the advice of Avraham Burg and many others that it should face reality on these matters.

8. Do you think Barack Obama is good for Israel? Do you think he is good for you as an American citizen?

There are many illusions about Obama. In reality, he has been highly supportive of Israeli crimes and expansionism. I think that is very bad for Israel, for the Palestinians of course, and indeed for the world. On this and many other issues the positions he has taken are harmful to Americans. I have reviewed the details in print and cannot do so here.

9. What was your impression from your visit in Lebanon? What was your interest to meet Hassan Nassrala? What is your impression from the Hamas people you have talked to?

I have not met anyone from Hamas, but I did accept an invitation from Hassan Nasrallah in May 2006, very willingly, and also spent much more time with his leading opponent, Walid Jumblatt, along with others. The reasons should be clear. When I visit a country, I try to learn as much about it as I can. Nasrallah is one of the most prominent political figures in Lebanon. The Hezbollah-based coalition won a clear majority — about the same as Obama’s — in the recent elections (but obtained only a minority of representatives because of the distortions introduced by the confessional system). May 25 is Lebanon’s national holiday, with schools and businesses closed. It is “liberation day,” celebrating Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of brutal occupation in defiance of Security Council orders. Hezbollah’s resistance is credited with that achievement. To try to learn about Lebanon while ignoring Nasrallah is senseless.

During my visit in May 2010 I wanted to return to the areas of the south that my wife and I had visited 4 years earlier. It was then a time of hope and eager anticipation, as the bitter conflicts of the past seemed to have simmered down. Shortly after we left came the Israeli invasion — which, to repeat, had no credible pretext. The region was devastated once again. Places where we had been graciously welcomed were in ruins, people we met had been killed. South Beirut was subjected to the criminal “Dahiya doctrine.” I was glad to see that there had been substantial reconstruction, mostly by Hezbollah, which seems to command overwhelming loyalty in the south. The hopeful mood of the past still persists in much of the country, but tinged with a fear of war, and the knowledge that a desperate Israel might decide to apply the Dahiya doctrine to the whole country the next time.

10. Is there a realistic option to negotiate with Hizballa, Hammas and the rest of the Arab world?

It is the only realistic option, at least if Israel seeks peace and security. And it is not a new option. It is useful to remember some history. One of Israel’s most fateful decisions, in my opinion, was in 1971, when the government rejected a full peace offer from President Sadat, offering nothing to the Palestinians. His condition was that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories, though he was concerned only with the Egyptian Sinai, where Israel was then preparing an extensive program of construction and development, including the city of Yamit and many settlements. Jordan made a similar offer the next year. Apparently Israel did not even reply. In both cases, Israel preferred expansion to security. As always, the crucial question was what the US would do. An internal bureaucratic battle was won by Henry Kissinger, who imposed the policy he called “stalemate”: no negotiations, only force. He gives reasons in his memoirs, but they are so outlandish that scholarship politely evades them. Sadat made further moves towards accommodation and warned that “Yamit means war.” The US and Israel paid no attention. We know the outcome. Israel has continued to prefer expansion to security in many ways, in the conscious knowledge, since 1967, that expansion is in gross violation of international law and Security Council resolutions. It has adopted the belief of the South African Foreign Minister: the US will protect us.

For 35 years, there has been an overwhelming international consensus on a two-state settlement on the international border with “minor and mutual modifications,” to adopt the terms of official US policy prior to 1971, when the US was still part of the world on this issue. By now the consensus is virtually universal, including the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic States (including Iran), and the rest of the world. The Arab League has gone beyond, calling for normalization of relations in that context. The US and Israel continue to block a diplomatic settlement, still preferring expansion to security.

With Hizbollah and Hamas there can be no political negotations, though it is worth remembering that Hamas has repeatedly called for accepting the international consensus and Hezbollah has stated that it is a Lebanese party and will not disrupt anything that Palestinians accept. With these non-state actors, Israel can negotiate other agreements, like the ceasefire agreement with Hamas that Israel accepted formally (though not fully in practice) in June 2008. The government of Israel officially acknowledges that Hamas did not fire a single rocket until Israel violated the ceasefire in November 2008, invading Gaza and killing Hamas activists. Hamas offered to renew the ceasefire. The Israeli cabinet considered the offer, and rejected it, preferring to launch Operation Cast Lead — sheer criminal aggression, without any justification, because peaceful means were available, as Israel and its US partner knew.

The refusal to negotiate in 1971 led to the grimmest moment in Israel’s history, and preference for expansion over security and diplomacy has had dire consequences since, with perhaps worse to come. Israel often speaks of an “existential threat.” The most immediate and severe “existential threat” is its unwillingness to pursue diplomatic options that are open, and its adoption of the South African doctrine that the reigning superpower can enable it withstand the world. Not wise, to put it mildly, even putting aside all moral considerations.