Israel / Palestine: What Really Matters and What Doesn’t


Michael Neumann is a Professor of Philosophy at Trent University, Canada. He has long been a trenchant critic of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, and has written extensively on the topic for CounterPunch , notably his book  The Case Against Israel.

Lewis: You are critical of the principle of national self-determination – that every nation should be able to form an independent political community. Yet this idea is one of the major moral foundations on which support for Palestinian statehood is based. Why are you opposed to the idea of national self-determination? On what alternative grounds do you support Palestinian claims to a state of their own?
Neumann: “Every nation should be able to form an independent political community”?  – that contains a fateful ambiguity.

If  ‘nation’ means ‘whoever happens to be living in some country-sized geographical area’ – see your second question, about boundaries – then I’m not against the principle. I tepidly support it. Yes, political  power should ultimately reside in the hands of ‘the people’ – another fatefully ambiguous expression – meaning everyone residing in that area. That alone would be enough to make some sort of case for a Palestinian state – hell, these folks were living there. At the very least, everyone residing in Palestine should have the power of the state that rules it. And at the very least, that justifies either a bi-national, one-state or a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The case is not air-tight because not every act of self-determination is legitimate. If you – an individual or a nation – are free, and determine your own future, you might do so for good or for evil. You might even do irreparable harm to yourself. The best case for a Palestinian state is more straightforward. The Israelis treat the Palestinians like crap, and that has to stop. There’s no need to get into the intricacies of self-determination. The right not to be treated like crap is better established, and quite sufficient in this context.

As for why I’m critical of “the principle of national self-determination”, that’s because ‘nation’ or ‘people’ is constantly used to mean ‘ethnic group’. So interpreted, the ‘principle of national self-determination’ is one of the most destructive ideals ever advanced.

We might suppose there is an ethnically homogeneous population on some planet, and members of that population wants the same thing. Their interests never clash with the interests of other populations on the planet – maybe there isn’t any other population on the planet. Should they be able to determine ‘their destiny’? Sure, why not – as long as they do this for good, not evil.

On this planet of ours, whenever the clamor for ethnic self-determination arises, it’s shamefully, blatantly bogus. The ethnic groups in question are almost never well-defined and never monolithic: not every member of the group has the same interests. What really happens is that you have some fake ‘community leaders’ spouting all sorts of self-induced lies about how important their ‘identity’ is to them. These posers claim their vitally important identity needs someone to ‘preserve’ it. Oddly enough for such spiritually attuned people, preserving it usually requires something quite material, like a bunch of land, or a wad of government cash. In fact their identity is not so important to them. They’d readily abandon it to preserve, say, the little finger on their left hand. We are no longer simple peasants who never heard of Michael Jackson or the internet. Anyone sophisticated enough to demand self-determination to preserve their ethnic identity, no longer has such an identity. They’re running the best sort of con game, the one where the con artist believes his own bullshit.

Worst of all, it always turns out that, wherever this ‘people’ allegedly needs to determine itself, there are other folks living there as well. What about them? Their ‘destiny’ many not mesh with the ‘destiny’ of the self-determining ‘people’. We know all too well how this usually plays out. How did we ever get to believe that ethnic rule is acceptable? Self-determination wouldn’t even make a strong case for Palestinian statehood. Are the Palestinians a ‘nation’ in the ethnic sense? Well, what happened to them being Arabs, and to Arab nationalism? What happened to the whole region, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, once being called just ‘Syria’? Nothing could be more of a reality than the Palestinians who inhabit Palestine. But when we abstract them into a ‘nation’, their case for statehood becomes weaker, not stronger – perhaps not as bogus as the Zionist case, but hardly compelling.

More generally, what principle should determine where the boundaries of states are to be drawn, if not that of national self-determination?

We should beware of having too many principles – they tend to run afoul of one another. If a boundary is drawn, someone or some group of people draw it. Drawing a boundary is an action. Whether and where you should draw it is governed by those same ordinary moral principles we use for action in general. If we draw the line there, will it cause these other guys over there great suffering? Will it yield a viable state? Will it lead to war? We need to look at the particular cases and the particular consequences of our actions. There are general principles that govern action, perhaps – “don’t cause unnecessary suffering” is a popular one – but not specialized principles for the drawing of boundaries.

You argue that debates over the legitimacy of the creation of  Israel are politically irrelevant, and have been for some time. Why is this? Do you also think that it is no longer of relevance to discuss the merits of Zionism?

The debates about the legitimacy of the creation of Israel are politically irrelevant because they don’t identify any current political problem. I’m not sure any contemporary state is legitimate. For one thing, there’s no clear standard of legitimacy. Traditionally, the legitimacy of the state has to do with its relation to its citizens, not to non-citizens. Today, non-citizens rights are considered crucial. To include these rights is to set the bar, not at all impossibly high, but much too high to make current states legitimate. Now many wrongs don’t make one single right, but they do make it futile to insist on that right. No one will get anywhere insisting that Israel is – heavens! – illegitimate.

More important, nothing turns on the legitimacy of a state. Our ultimate judgments on conduct are moral. A legitimately established state gets no licence to do whatever it likes. If it commits horrible crimes, maybe it needs to be abolished. Even if it doesn’t, there certainly may be reason to redraw its ‘legitimately established’ boundaries. Conversely, an illegitimate state that does great things has at least a presumptive ‘right to exist’, a stronger right than some evil, legitimately established state.

Given your essentially pragmatic approach to where state boundaries should be drawn, I want to know where you stand on the debate about whether there should be one or two states in historic Palestine. Often the arguments on either side are themselves put in terms of pragmatic considerations – supporters of the two state solution argue that this is far more politically feasible, given the international consensus in favour of it. On the other hand, supporters of the one state solution tend to claim that the occupation of the West Bank is now so entrenched that a total Israeli withdrawal is no longer practically feasible. What do you make of such arguments, and the ‘one state-two state’ debate more generally?

I find it hard to take these arguments seriously. A single state is not a live option. Israel would never dream of it, and no one is going to wipe Israel off the map.

As for the occupation being ‘too entrenched’, that’s just nonsense – I hope it is at least sincere nonsense, not a sneaky de facto defense of the settlements. A look at what happened in South Africa, Rhodesia, or especially Algeria demonstrates this. The Algerian pieds noirs, the colonists, swore up and down how they would defend their ‘homeland’ to the last drop of blood. In the end, they caved in. The pieds noirs were far more entrenched than the Israeli settlers, and had been there far longer.

Is it your view that the key to the solution of the conflict lies in Israel simply withdrawing from the Occupied Territories unilaterally? Is there even a need for negotiations to bring about the end of the conflict?
Absolutely, I have never understood why anyone thinks there must be negotiations. Let Israel relinquish all control over the occupied territories, and withdraw all its forces. The settlers can then go with them, or be left to their fate.

You have argued in defense of Palestinian violence in resistance to Israel. What is the moral framework within which you think such violence should be assessed?

It doesn’t require a whole framework. The Palestinian right to violent resistance derives from what may be the most widely accepted of all moral principles, the right of self-defense.

The Zionist project has always posed a genuine mortal threat to the Palestinians. Zionism proposes that the Jews, defined as a racial or kinship group, should have sovereignty over everyone under their state’s control. Sovereignty includes, on every conventional definition of the notion, the power of life and death: the ultimate authority on which the government rests decides who lives and who dies. Legitimate sovereignty is usually thought to be popular sovereignty: the power of the inhabitants of the area governed. Israel exercises racial or kinship sovereignty, a quite different matter: if you don’t belong to the governing race or kinship group, you have no say in how the government’s literally fatal power is to be exercised. So a group to which you don’t belong has the power of live and death over you. That, of course, is a mortal threat.

Perhaps in some theoretically possible circumstances, this threat is not to be taken seriously – though that would be for those threatened to decide. In Israel’s case, matters are quite clear. Extreme Zionists, always influential in Israel, have explicitly advocated mass killings of Palestinians, and cited Biblical precedents for this. Even the less extreme and very common advocacy of mass expulsions is a genuine mortal threat. Palestinians have died in their thousands in both Jordan and Lebanon, the two likely destinations for those expelled.

So the Palestinians are in a situation where any reasonable person would perceive a mortal threat. Mortal threats may be resisted with violence. This is hardly controversial. If you are held captive by a gang, some of whose members talk of killing you, you certainly have the right to resist with violence.

You argue that US support for Israel does not actually serve the interests of the US, and is a hangover from the Cold War era. It seems remarkable that such significant resources should be squandered on a policy that is fundamentally irrational. Is there really no benefit to the US in having a hugely powerful client state in the major oil producing region of the world?

I see no benefit in the US having a hugely powerful client state which antagonizes every oil producer in that region. If the US wants to threaten those producers, it has more than enough military might to do so. It doesn’t need Israel to do the job. Moreover Israel is no longer a client state but a dangerously loose canon.

Some question whether the US could really be so irrational as to maintain a blatantly counterproductive policy. I would like to know when, in past decades, the US has ynot done this. I’d also remind sceptics that times change. It’s not clear whether or not support for Israel was ever in US interests, but it at least seemed that way until the decline of Soviet influence in the Middle East. Until then, Israel may have been a useful proxy for anti-Soviet operations. But since then, Israel has been nothing but an expensive liability. This is, after all, a country that had to be protected while it sat on the sidelines in the first Gulf War – while even Syria fought on the side of the US. By now, Israel helps provide the US with nice military technology, but nothing the US could not produce on its own or in cooperation with NATO allies. The alliance is sustained mainly by fixed ideas inculcated during the Cold War era: Israel the beacon of democracy, plucky little Israel, Israel the victim, Israel the Holocaust Memorial.

I think the worst disadvantage of supporting Israel is the subtlest. To almost all the world, US support for Israel is not simply wrong, but patently irrational. Irrational states, of course, make bad allies. The US alliance with Israel indicates that America is nuts, unreliable, maybe stupid. From a rational imperial point of view that’s very bad when trying to forge actually useful alliances.

Do you see grounds for hope regarding a situation which has become so dire? And do you have any strategic or tactical advice for Palestine solidarity campaigners in the West?

Yes, I see lots of hope. It resides in the regional forces opposed to Israel. These forces have clearly become stronger, as the 2006 Lebanon war demonstrates. Israel, like South Africa, might well see the writing on the wall and make peace. If and when, I don’t know.

As for the pro-Palestinian movements in the West, no, I don’t have any advice to speak of.   The boycott campaigns will at least have an effect on Israel’s morale, as boycotts did against South African apartheid. These campaigns are going quite well. Beyond that, there is little to be done.
The Palestinians have already won the battle of public opinion in the West – only the lip service of Western governments and the noise of obsolescent media pundits disguise this.   Unfortunately, winning this battle matters little, because by now Israel is so strong as to be able to do without Western support. Besides, Western governments don’t care about public opinion on Israel; it’s not the sort of bread-and-butter issue that will matter come election time. That’s why sentimentalism and inertia play such a big role in the West’s non-response to the Israel/Palestine conflict. One virtue of the boycott campaign is that it doesn’t bother addressing Western governments. It makes more sense to pressure Israel directly and, if possible, to find ways of helping its neighbors.

Only Middle Eastern people can bring Israel to heel – not the West, and not the UN, whose efforts have been blocked by Western governments and showered with Israeli contempt.  The most we can hope for is that the West is persuaded to give Israel’s Middle Eastern neighbors a freer hand in deciding how to deal with the situation. This includes an even-handed policy on nuclear proliferation. If Israel does not disarm, other Middle Eastern countries should feel free to develop nuclear weapons of their own.

EDWARD LEWIS’s interview also appears on the new left project site.

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