An Interview With Norman Finkelstein

by KEN KLIPPENSTEIN

Ken Klippenstein: What do you think the significance of the Arab Spring was to Palestinian rights?

Norman Finkelstein: It’s still a work in progress. The results seemed more encouraging in the initial phase than they are currently. Maybe the current phase will pass into something better, but the current phase I would say that, if we can use the expression ‘democracy,’ democracy is on the retreat now. The reactionary axis of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, backed of course by the U.S., is now engaging in a successful push-back. Events in Egypt have not been encouraging or auspicious in recent months. Right now Qatar is pouring lots of money into the Muslim Brotherhood, and that’s not going to be a good thing. In Syria, what started out as a continuation of the Arab Spring with nonviolent protests, to bring down the Bashar dictatorship, has now deteriorated into what some people call a civil war. I don’t think it’s much of a civil war because I don’t think the internal population has much say any longer in what’s going on. It’s turned into a proxy war, with a large number of regional and global powers, including, regionally, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Iran having a dirty hand in what’s going on. And then Russia on one side, the U.S. on the other, having probably the most significant hand in what’s going on. And then there are of course the British and the French. So Syria as of now has no positive outcomes discernable; everything that might happen is pretty much a disaster.

The Arab Spring started out auspiciously, now its undergoing a retreat. As to its impact on Palestine, actually it completely bypassed Palestine. It has had an impact on the Israel-Palestine because of the new role being played by Egypt and Turkey: the U.S. has to take them into account in anything it does or doesn’t do. This puts limitations, checks, on what Israel can do. Concretely it means Israel could not repeat what it did in 2008-2009, Operation Cast Lead, which was just a sustained massacre of the Palestinian people and indiscriminate destruction of the civilian infrastructure. Both Turkey and Egypt conveyed to Washington that they would not stand idly by if Israel undertook another Operation Cast Lead. And so this new Israeli “operation” was more limited and in they end they weren’t able to prevail militarily, and effectively the Palestinians, or in this case the people of Gaza, defeated the aims of the Israeli operation. So in that respect the Arab Spring has had a positive impact on the Israel-Palestine conflict. But in terms of actually ending the occupation, mobilizing the Palestinian people to engage in mass actions such as what happened in Egypt, the Arab Spring passed them by. There are a combination of reasons: mostly because of the despondency and despair of Palestinians to be able to collectively change or improve their situation; also because of the repressive security that Israel has instituted via the Palestinian Authority; and that combined with what’s probably the most salient factor, that there’s no unified leadership of the Palestinians, and in fact there’s no leadership whatever of the Palestinians.

KK: What role do you think the Postwar United States played in the establishment of the Israeli state? What do you think the U.S. planners’ motives might have been?

NF: There’s a huge amount of scholarly literature on the matter. I went through that scholarly literature when I wrote the book Knowing Too Much, and I devote a significant amount of space to try to disabuse people of illusions in that score.

The basic picture was, it’s true that President Truman at that time wanted the Jewish vote. It’s also true that he wanted Jewish money, in order to win the election in 1948. For those reasons, there was certainly an incentive for him on those grounds to support the Partition Resolution in 1947, and then to recognize Israel in 1948. But the bottom line is that there were no significant American interests at stake, which is why he took those initiatives. At the time the only significant U.S. interest in the Middle East was investments in Saudi Arabia and the oil industry in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi leadership, the Saudi king, had signaled to the U.S. that they would accept if the U.S. recognized Israel; and they would accept if the U.S. supported Israel; but they would not accept if the U.S. in any way militarily intervened, should a conflict break out in the Middle East after the Partition Resolution or after the creation of the state of Israel. And that’s exactly what the U.S. administration did: it supported the Partition Resolution, it recognized Israel, but then Truman immediately slapped an arms embargo on all countries in the Middle East. So he followed to the last word the terms set forth by the Saudis. In fact, at the time, George Marshall (the Secretary of State) as well as the U.S. agencies in general, believed that should a war break out, the Arab states would win. That was a mistaken belief, but they still believed it. Nonetheless, Truman imposed an arms embargo and said he wouldn’t send troops there.

So at the end of the day what happened was, where no U.S. vital interests were at stake, and Truman stood to gain electorally, he supported the Jewish lobby (at that point the Zionist lobby) to create a Jewish state; but the moment in crossed into a fundamental U.S. interest, he didn’t support them.

KK: Do you think Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood offer more support to Palestine than the previous Egyptian regime did?

NF: I think it’ll be a mixed picture. The current Egyptian government wants to remain on good relations with the U.S.; it wants U.S. so-called foreign aid, which means mostly military transfers; they also want the IMF loan, which depends upon the good graces of the U.S. So in general, they want to stay on good terms with the U.S. But on the other hand, because of their ideological stand, and in order to retain popular support, they’ll have to take a tougher line when it comes to Israel. So they won’t corroborate in the way Mubarak did; but there’ll be significant limitations in what they can do to support the Palestinians.

KK: What role do you think Egypt played in Hamas’ recent victory (following Operation Pillar of Defense)?

NF: I think the major role Egypt and Turkey played was that they communicated early on to Barack Obama that they wouldn’t tolerate another Operation Cast Lead, and that they wouldn’t tolerate an Israeli ground invasion. In the absence of Israel’s strategy of indiscriminate death and destruction, Israel couldn’t prevail.

KK: I’m sure you’ve heard about Israel’s threat to put new settlements in the West Bank, which would be catastrophic to the cause of the Palestinians. What can be done to prevent this?

NF: The bottom line is that we can’t do very much. The initiative has to come from the Palestinians. There are checks on Israeli power. The Europeans are, at least verbally, more aggressively putting pressure on Israel. The U.S. is putting some pressure on Israel; it may limit the settlement expansion of Israel. That is, of course, a good thing. But ultimately you have to aim at ending the occupation. I don’t believe any amount of external pressure will be exerted until and unless a mass nonviolent movement takes off in the occupied Palestinian territories, supported by a solidarity movement—the international solidarity movement. I think a combination of those two could force Israel out.

KK: You’ve argued that the Pillar of Defense was a “resounding defeat for Israel.” Could you elaborate on why you thought this was a defeat for Israel and a victory for Palestine?

NF: The reason it’s a defeat is very straightforward. Israel’s goal when it went in was, as it said, to restore its deterrence capacity: that is, the Arab in general and Palestinian in particular fear of it. It’s quite obvious at the end of the day, with the celebratory mood in Gaza, and the three Israeli leaders (Lieberman, Barak, and Netanyahu) conducting a press conference seemed more like Huck Finn watching his own funeral. It was clear that their aim of restoring the Palestinians fear of them didn’t succeed.

KK: How would you compare the rockets that Hamas launched at Israel with the weapons that Israel typically uses on Gaza?

NF: There’s all sorts of talk about the upgraded weapons that Hamas used. I don’t believe it for a moment. Basically the difference between a rocket and a missile is that a rocket doesn’t have a guidance system, whereas a missile does. The moment you fire a rocket, you know its trajectory and you can hit it. With a missile, you don’t know it’s trajectory because it can be guided in different ways. So Hamas was using primitive rockets—they weren’t even rockets, they were basically firecrackers and roman candles. The short distance rockets that Hamas used had basically no effect, whereas the long-range rockets, the ones that reached the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem area, had no explosive capabilities. That’s the only reason they were able to reach as far as they did: by removing the explosives. So basically what you had is the same weapons that were used during Operation Cast Lead.

KK: You’ve been involved in divestment efforts. What other tactics do you think residents of the U.S. could use to end Israel’s brutalization of the Palestinians?

NF: There are no magical solutions. Everything that people have done in the past—organizing, educating, boycotting, sanctioning—all those things have to be done. But I think the main challenge is coming from the Palestinians. The only role we can play is an auxiliary one. We can’t liberate the Palestinians, nor would it be a good thing if we did. If you liberate somebody else, they’re simply going to become the victims of another outside or external force. People have to liberate themselves, because liberation is not a single act. It’s a question of eternal vigilance. Otherwise you’ll just become enslaved by someone else. So the best we can do is play an auxiliary role.

Ken Klippenstein lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he edits the left issues website, whiterosereader.org, in which this interview originally appeared. White Rose Reader is searching for submissions from new contributors. 

Ken Klippenstein is an American journalist who can be reached on Twitter @kenklippenstein or by email: kenneth.klippenstein@gmail.com

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