Norman Finkelstein in The Netherlands

On the 5th and 6th of December Norman Finkelstein toured the Netherlands and gave three speeches. I attended all of them, and in the meanwhile had the opportunity to ask Finkelstein some questions. What follows is a summary of his speeches and the interview.

The topic of his first speech, in Amsterdam, was ‘The coming break-up of American Zionism.’

In a surprisingly optimistic lecture he talked about the demise of the Israel-lobby, that began after the first Intifada. Ever since it has become more and more difficult to reconcile liberal values with Israel and American Jewry is forced to choose. Historians, human-rights organizations and the International Court of Justice have all rendered an overwhelmingly negative verdict on Israel’s record. Now that Israel’s record has caught up with it, American Jewry is slowly choosing to distance itself from Israel.

But we’re nevertheless only at the beginning of the demise of American Zionism, and the reality on the ground has not yet changed for the better. One frightful reminder of the current situation: in the previous year 457 Palestinians have died as a result of the conflict, in comparison to 10 Israelis. But this is also where the problem is: no one knows the record. The public needs to know the record, and it will become clear that this is probably one of the simplest conflicts to solve today, were it not that one side is supported by the United States. Therefore it is also absurd that the United States is holding a so-called ‘peace conference’, while it is the main obstacle to peace.

The situation in Gaza, in the meanwhile, is turning ever more horrible. Richard Falk warned of a Palestinian Holocaust, and Ilan Pappe said a genocide was taking place.

Finkelstein: “Everything doesn’t have to be a Nazi Holocaust or genocide for it to be awful. There are conditions short of genocide which are also terrible. I think the Palestinians rations are being cruelly reduced to get them to repudiate Hamas. Is it the Holocaust, is it a genocide? No in my opinion it’s not. Is it horrible? Yeah, I think it’s horrible. I think it’s better to avoid the labels and just stick to the facts. This is what’s happening. This is what the human rights organizations are reporting, this is what the UN organizations are reporting. Is this right, is it just, is it collective punishment, is it terrorism, i.e., the targeting of civilians to achieve a political aim? People are intelligent enough to draw the right conclusions on their own.”

And how far does the influence of the Israel-lobby reach in all of this?

Mearsheimer and Walt argue that the Israel-lobby is the strongest factor in U.S. support for Israeli policy and that it was also the major factor in the decision to invade Iraq.

Finkelstein: “Well, to begin with, there is no necessary connection, obviously, between the two. The lobby can be influential on the question of Israel and not be influential on the question of Iraq. So we should start out with making the point that it doesn’t have to be a question of either/or [see also Finkelstein’s article ‘The Israel Lobby. It’s not either/or‘, Counterpunch May 1 2006]. There’s obviously a middle position that’s possible. It influences some things but not all things. And that’s my impression from going through the record.

“I have examined some instances close up. So let me give you a concrete example. Consider what happened on the question of the U.S. position on a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories it occupied in June 1967. Right after the June 1967 war the United States supported the position of a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories it occupied. Arthur Goldberg, who was the US representative at the UN, made several statements during the deliberations in the General Assembly, saying that one condition for resolving the conflict is a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories it occupied.

“Then, when the UN General Assembly was unable to reach a resolution on the conflict, it moved to the Security Council. At this point the lobby, Israel’s supporters in the US, went into action. Pressure came to be exerted on President Johnson not to support a full Israeli withdrawal. And that’s why in the famous resolution 242 it doesn’t say Israeli withdrawal from all the territories. It says “from territories,” although in its totality the resolution does call for full withdrawal. But the U.S. conceded to Israel some linguistic wiggle room which it then exploited.

“There you see a clear-cut case where the US partly reversed its position on a crucial question, the resolution setting the terms for resolving the conflict, because of the pressure exerted by the lobby. So I think that if you look through the record you will find many instances including those documented by Mearsheimer and Walt where the lobby went into action when the US tried to resolve the conflict in ways Israel opposed.

“Then when you turn to regional questions like Iraq and Iran, where major US interests are at stake, it is different. (Fundamental interests are not at stake in the question of Israel-Palestine. The US has an interest, but it’s not a major interest.) But when you talk about Iraq, Iran, you’re talking about oil, you’re talking about regional domination. And there the Israel-factor is not significant at all. It is very striking, I have now read all the books on the decision-making leading to the war in Iraq. You can name around four or five. We don’t have yet a diplomatic record, we don’t have a documentary record. You have the books by Richard Clarke, Craig Unger, George Tenet, Bob Woodward, and so on. You look at all of them, there is no evidence that Israel was a factor at all. Ok, Clarke lists it as one of five factors. But nobody has named it as a significant factor in US decision-making in going to war. Everyone agrees, there’s no dispute, the main architects of the war were Rumsfeld and Cheney.

“If you look at Mearsheimer and Walt, they don’t argue that Cheney and Rumsfeld are part of the lobby or that they are stupid. And they don’t deny that Cheney and Rumsfeld were the main architects of the war. So what are you left with? The only possible way to reconcile the reality with their thesis, is that these neoconservatives – Wolfowitz, Libby, Feith, Wurmser – had to have tricked and duped Cheney and Rumsfeld. That’s not very plausible. In addition, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, the neoconservatives are out there working for Israel, it’s not hidden. They cite statements by Wolfowitz and Libby. They mention they won all of these awards from Israel-lobbyists, for their work on behalf of Israel. So now you have to bear in mind, the neoconservatives worked with Cheney for 20 years. They were his immediate subordinates, people like Wolfowitz. He knew them like the back of his hands. So what you’re know saying is, if Mearsheimer and Walt are correct, that Cheney and Rumsfeld hired de facto agents of a foreign government who then tricked them into involving themselves in a war which didn’t serve any American interest but served Israeli interest. ”

And what to do about the occupation? Boycott Israeli academia?

“I see arguments on both sides. I’m pretty pragmatic on that question. The occupation is forty years old. We have to end it. If the boycott’s going to help, in principle I’m not opposed to it. But in politics, I think, the best strategy is always the line of least resistance. The boycott raised, for some people, complicated questions of principles of freedom of speech, academic freedom and so forth. I happen not to be impressed with them, but I recognize it creates a more complicated question. And my view is to look for targets that are easier.
I thought a very good target was the issue of the wall. If the Palestinian leadership had a drop of intelligence (I’m not talking about the people, the people are perfectly intelligent) and if they were committed to being leaders, not just being collaborators of the Americans, once they had that wall advisory opinion [by the International Court of Justice] you organize several hundred thousand Palestinians, just with picks and hammers and we’re going to the wall and knocking it down; the international court said, the wall has to be dismantled, we’re simply enforcing the court’s decision.

“Israel would have had a terrible time. If it starts shooting at the demonstrators, the Palestinians hold up this document, the World Court opinion. This is what the opinion says, the wall has to be dismantled. And all the attention is going to turn to the World Court. What’s the World Court going to say? Well, it’s true, that’s what we’ve said, the wall has to be dismantled. And, the World Court said, it’s a violation for which the whole world is responsible and must see reversed. Then the Palestinians could’ve said, it says that everyone has to implement this, not just Israel.

“Probably people would’ve been killed. I’m not going to deny it, and I’m the last one to trivialize the loss of human life, I cling to my life to the last breath, but people are being killed anyway, and that’s my whole point. If people are being killed anyway, why do it in suicide bombings, which besides being morally repugnant are never going to work, they are just acts of vengeance. If you want to accept the loss of life, that’s your choice, I’m never going to tell anyone to give up their life. But if you accept the loss of life, then do it for something that can work. And I think having organized around the wall, you know, half a million Palestinians, that would have been a real problem for Israel. Would’ve been a huge victory.”

“But “the Palestinians are [now] no longer a factor, they cannot do anything. With a leadership so divided, both leaderships being incompetent, so it hardly makes a difference which comes into power. We can’t even discuss that, there’s no point. On our side, I think, [we need to] get that public debate going. To struggle hard, to enable the public to know. That the basic facts of the conflict are very different than the way they have been hitherto depicted in the press, in the media, and so forth, to open up the public debate. And then I think from there some serious organizing can begin.”

And what should we organize for exactly?

At Oxford Union Finkelstein was going to debate the one-state versus the two-state solution [the debate was cancelled after lobbying to remove Finkelstein from the panel]. Finkelstein at one of his speeches remarked that he was getting impatient with people who were talking about the one-state solution. When I stated that he supports a two-state solution along the lines of international law, he corrected me. “No, I do not support a two-state solution. I don’t support states. I remain an old-fashioned communist. I see no value whatsoever in states. If the borders were to disappear between every state in the world, I think it would be a much happier place. I don’t support it, in the sense that I support it as a principle. I support it in the sense only that in terms of trying to reduce the suffering of the Palestinians (and, actually, to prevent Israel from self-destructing), it seems to me a necessary step towards trying to create a better world, a more humane world.”

And how about the argument that with a two-state solution the Palestinians will only get 22 % of their homeland, would that just be a pragmatic question, saying, yeah but it’s better than what we have now?

“Yes, I think 22 is better than zero. If it is something viable there. If it’s just going to be, what they used to call Oslo, “a leopard-skin” , these patches of Palestinian territory surrounded by Israeli settlements, then it is ridiculous. I hate it when these things are personalized with me, I have no moral authority whatsoever. It has nothing to do with me. This is the international consensus. It is built on the two-state settlement. The reports of the human rights organizations, the votes in the United Nations, the World Court advisory opinion are all premised on Israel being an occupying power and the two-state settlement being the desirable resolution of the conflict. You think you can undo that consensus? You think you can reverse it? You can create one state in the face of it? I don’t see from where the power to do that comes. I haven’t seen the supporters of the Palestinians able to force Israel to withdraw one inch. And now you want to defy the whole international community? Fine, show me how you’re going to do it, apart from in somebody’s living room.”

JELLE BRUINSMA is a first-year student of International Relations at Groningen University, The Netherlands.



Jelle Bruinsma is a doctoral candidate in the History of Financial Imperialism at the European University Institute, based in Florence, Italy. He co-edits the social movements website ROAR Magazine.