Today I am publishing the second interview in my new series “Saker interviews” (which began with the Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery) with a Q&A email exchange with Jonathan Cook, a British journalist who lives in occupied Palestine and who recently wrote a book, entitled ‘Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State‘, which was published by Pluto Press in Britain in April and in the United States in July 2006 (click here for more info on the book). Jonathan, a freelance journalist whose articles have been published in The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique, Counterpunch and many other media, is the only western reporter who chose to live amongst Palestinians and who covers the Palestinian struggle without being tied to the agenda and allegiances of the Western corporate media (for more information on Jonathan’s amazing work, check out his excellent website).
Jonathan has just returned from the “Israel-Palestine: One Country, One State” conference organized by the Universidad Complutense de Madrid on the future of Palestine (which adopted a resolution-appeal whose text can be found here). Upon his return Jonathan kindly took some time off his schedule to thoroughly answer my questions for which I am greatly in his debt.
First, I would like to turn to the conference which you just attended. What was its purpose, its importance, and what impact do you expect it to have?
I have no authority to speak for the group and so what I have to say should be read only as my personal impressions of the proceedings. In the coming weeks, I believe, we will issue something along the lines of a declaration of principles that will give the group a collective voice for the first time.
In early July, some 16 academics, journalists and activists met at a place called El Escorial, just outside Madrid, to think about ways to raise the profile of a one-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis. None of us is naïve about how likely we are to get a fair hearing for such a proposition at the moment. Israel, the US and the most of the international community have too much at stake to abandon paying lip service to the official solution: two states for two people. But nonetheless, we are all aware that someone has to point out that the cadaver of the two-state solution has long been cold, and that trying to breathe life into it is only wasting valuable time, time in which Palestinians are being killed and systematically cleansed from what little is left of their homeland.
The importance of the meeting, to the best of my knowledge, is that it was the first time, in modern times at least, that Israeli Jews and Palestinians have met in a public forum to discuss ways to share the land of historic Palestine. They were exploring together a new landscape of political possibilities, which was an exciting moment to witness. The timing was important too. It is clear that decades of US and Israeli machinations, and the failure of Palestinians to see anything tangible emerge after their long wait for a state, have started to undermine Palestinian unity. The fighting in Gaza is a clear indication of the loss of political direction among the leadership. The Palestinians need a new vision to replace the compromised and corrupted one offered by Fatah, and the limited and limiting one offered by Hamas. The argument for a single secular democratic state may offer Palestinians just such a unifying vision of their future, and in the longer term may persuade a growing number of Israelis that this is where their own future in the region lies too.
None of this is going to happen overnight, and the El Escorial meeting is intended as only the first of many to expand our understanding of the issues and widen our base of support. Like all movements, it will need time to articulate the core concerns in ways that will appeal to a larger audience. The hope must be that Palestinians will soon see that one state offers them a way out of the political dead-end into which they have been led by the international community, and that activists too will understand that it offers a just solution. In time, hopefully, more forward-thinking Israelis will see that one state is the only way to secure a fair and peaceful solution for both peoples. Then it becomes a matter of integrating the one-state debate into a larger campaign, possibly of boycotts and sanctions, to bring pressure on Israel.
What was the mood of the conference participants? What did they foresee as the likely future developments in Palestine?
I think the word would be sober — though excited too to be moving the debate forward. We all appreciated the huge task ahead of us and the urgency with which progress needs to be made for the sake of both Palestinians and Israelis.
We were not there to make collective predictions about developments in Palestine beyond our own personal diagnoses. What was more significant, I think, was a recognition from the group that the main hurdle to finding a workable solution is Israel’s continuing definition of itself as a Jewish state. This fact is overlooked or misunderstood in most discussions of the conflict. Observers tend to assume Israel’s Jewishness is a good thing that needs to be protected. That’s a very strange approach not seen in the treatment of other recent ethnic states: can one imagine Germany being encouraged to foster an Aryan view of itself, or South Africa an Afrikaner one? And similarly can one imagine an Aryan Germany or a white South Africa being treated as a reasonable or fair negotiating partner for those it was seeking to exploit or eradicate? That, in essence, is the problem faced by the Palestinians.
The first thing to do in seeking a just solution is to factor in Israel’s bad faith in the negotiating process, a bad faith that derives from its need to protect its ethnic basis. That means in any possible division of the land promoted by Israel, whether negotiated or more likely imposed unilaterally, the chief criterion will be demographic: how to keep a maximum number of Jews inside the Jewish state, and keep a maximum number of non-Jews excluded. In theory at least that could entail a meaningful division of the land into two states (even if not a fair division for the Palestinians), but in practice that won’t happen for two reasons that are related to Israel’s need to protect its Jewishness.
First, in any division of the land, Israel will be faced with the very serious problem of what to do with the fifth of its population who are Palestinian, a community that is growing much faster than the Jewish one. Palestinians inside Israel have a very deprived form of Israeli citizenship (as opposed to those in the occupied territories who, of course, have no citizenship), but more significantly they lack a meaningful nationality in Israel. It is a little known fact that Israeli nationality — which, unusually, Israel has separated from the idea of Israeli citizenship — does not exist in a legal sense. Instead Israelis are classified according to more than 130 different nationalities, including “Jew” and “Arab”. This makes sense when one understands that Israel considers itself the state of the Jews, not Israelis. The only nationality that counts in Israel is Jewish nationality. In this way, all Jews wherever they live — even non-citizens outside Israel — are Israeli nationals by default because they are considered Jewish nationals, whereas Palestinian citizens lack meaningful nationality because they are not Jewish nationals.
These strange legal sleights of hand may seem abstract but they have very real consequences. They currently sanction state-sponsored racism but , in a two-state solution, they would pave the way for the ethnic cleansing of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. When the West encourages Israel in its ethnic project, it effectively gives its blessing to the dark side of the Jewish state.
And second, in any negotiation over dividing the land a powerful ethnic state confronts a weak Palestinian national liberation movement across the table. Israel holds all the cards but one: the morality of its cause. And for this reason alone it must act in bad faith.
Let us imagine a scenario in which Israel genuinely agreed to the creation of a viable Palestinian state. The result would be that a legitimate kind of state (a Palestinian one where nationality is based on citizenship and territory) would be living alongside an illegitimate kind of state (a Jewish one where nationality is extra-territorial and based on ethnic belonging). In Palestine, all those living inside the borders would be entitled to become citizens and nationals. In theory at least, those Jews who are currently settlers living in the occupied territories could become Palestinian nationals (if they wanted to), as could Jews who married or marry someone who is a Palestinian national. Depending on the terms of Palestine’s immigration policy, you or I could seek to immigrate there and after a period of time apply for Palestinian nationality. In other words, independent of the question of how well it is run, Palestine would be like most other states.
None of this would be true of Israel under a two-state solution, as long as it remained a Jewish state. It would continue seeking ways to exclude its non-Jewish citizens from inclusion in the state, it would continue playing legal tricks to make Israeli nationality indistinguishable from Jewish nationality, and it would bar all non-Jews from immigrating. It would also be opposed to its nationals intermarrying with non-Jews, as it is now, and on these grounds alone it would not want relations between its own people and those in a neighbouring Palestine.
In other words, in a peaceful solution in which a real Palestine was established alongside Israel as a Jewish state, it would quickly become clear that a Jewish state is not a normal or legitimate kind of state. Peace would shatter the myth of Israeli normalcy and democracy. Which is a good reason in itself why Israel has no interest in peace, or in developing a viable Palestinian state. In fact, it has every incentive to sabotage the secular Palestinian national movement and encourage Islamic extremism, as it has long been doing. If Palestine becomes an Islamic ghetto-state, it will mirror some of the “abnormalities” of the Jewish state. There can be no change in Israel’s position until its ethnic project is ended, and the only way to bring that about it is to campaign AGAINST Israel as a Jewish state and FOR a new single secular political entity that embraces Jews and Palestinians as equal citizens. In other words, the question of what to do about creating a Palestinian state is inextricably bound up with what to do about ending the Jewish state. There cannot be a Palestinian state as long as there is an ethnic Jewish state desiring the same territory.
Turning to Palestine now, could you describe the situation in the West Bank? What is the influence of Hamas and Fatah there? How much support is there, in your opinion, for Abbas?
In a word, disastrous. Israel has spent decades trying to engineer the outcome we are now seeing in the occupied territories, which should give us a sense of how dire these latest developments are. As I have already mentioned, Israel has always wanted to achieve two goals in the occupied territories: to encourage divisions within the Palestinian national movement to weaken it; and to encourage the rise of Islamic extremism so that the conflict can be recharacterised from what it is — a colonial conflict in which the native people, the Palestinians, are fighting for the return of their land — to a manifestation of a wider “clash of civilisations” in which Israel is on the side of civilisation and the Palestinians / Muslims on the side of barbarism.
Among many ordinary Palestinians, there is a quite sophisticated understanding of how things have gone wrong. Most are fully aware that the Fatah leadership essentially became coopted by Israel during the Oslo process, and that it has now abandoned the task of resistance to occupation. It is trying instead to negotiate over whatever scraps Israel and the US are willing to offer. Which explains the large swing in support for Hamas at the last election, in both Gaza and the West Bank. The international community has been surprised by Hamas’ tenacity since the economic blockade was imposed, but that is partly a reflection of how firm its support has remained among Palestinians. Many understand that resistance is more important than ever, and that Hamas is still a party of resistance and that Fatah no longer is.
The trap for Hamas is that its only available route to domestic legitimacy was through elections to lead the Palestinian Authority. But the PA is a creation of the Oslo process, and was designed to instrumentalise the Palestinian leadership’s collaboration with Israel and the US. The PA is the institutionalisation under the Oslo process of the Palestinian leadership’s new status as Israel’s security contractor. So when Palestinians voted for Hamas to lead the resistance, ironically they also placed it at the head of an institution, the PA, designed to impede its ability to resist. This is not only a contradiction for Hamas but for the Palestinian public who elected it. The immediate question facing both Hamas and its supporters is whether it can continue to live with the tension of both being a resistance movement and claiming its right to lead the PA. That issue has been settled by force in Gaza, but it is yet to play out fully in the West Bank.
Abbas is damaged goods in the view of many Palestinians, but he can benefit from several specific advantages he has in the West Bank:
1. He continues to have more support there than Gaza because things are still far easier in the West Bank than in Gaza. Some Palestinians in the West Bank, particularly those in the cities, may be persuaded that the Fatah route of collaboration is better for them — at least in the short term. The full horrors of Gaza’s imprisonment have yet to be felt in cities like Ramallah, and some West Bankers may believe that the need for all-out resistance can be postponed a little longer. In addition, some West Bankers, again particularly in some of the cities, are concerned about the overtly Islamic programme of Hamas
2. The much larger area of the West Bank is harder to unify under a single Palestinian resistance. Compared to the single ghetto of Gaza, the West Bank is being turned into half a dozen ghettoes. Fatah’s grassroots support is more developed than Hamas’ in the West Bank and it has more privileges to organise across the length of the territory because of its proven willingness to collaborate with Israel. Remember, it is mostly Hamas MPs who are being arrested by Israel, not Fatah’s.
3. Israel will assist Abbas in any way it can to prevent Hamas taking over the West Bank as well as Gaza. That would unify the resistance under Hamas both ideologically and geographically, an outcome that cannot be allowed. An amnesty has been announced for Fatah militants, so that they can be coopted along with Abbas and so Israeli hit squads can concentrate on killing Hamas militants; official Fatah security forces will be trained and armed to take on Hamas; and exiled militias like the Bard Brigade may be allowed into the West Bank. In addition, Israel will make Abbas’ collaboration look productive, with prisoner releases and so on.
4. Life will be made hell in Gaza to warn West Bankers not to follow the same path.
How effective these policies will be in winning over West Bankers will not be clear for some time.
What have you observed is going on in the Israeli public opinion? Putting aside the settlers and their supporters, why is it that the Israeli public is not demanding a change in policies? Don’t they see that the “beat the Arabs – they only understand force” theory has totally discredited itself?
The question assumes that there is room for a plurality of opinions in Israel, a marketplace of ideas in which the most plausible triumph. But that is not how public opinion works in Israel. As in other highly ideological societies, Israelis are educated to regard only a narrow range of views as acceptable. Also, as in other ethnic states, Israeli Jews are raised to believe both that they are a chosen people (even if for many of them that is interpreted in a secular sense) and that non-Jews will always want their destruction. There are examples of other ethnic groups thinking in these kinds of self-absorbed and destructive ways in modern times: the Japanese, the Germans, and the Afrikaners. But possibly uniquely, the ethnic chauvinism dominant in Israel and ideas of eternal Jewish victimhood are given sanction and encouraged by many other nations, particularly in the West’s obsession with exposing anti-Semitism at the expense of all other forms of racism and in its collaboration with Israel in placing it at the epicentre of a clash of civilisations.
In this claustrophobic ideological atmosphere, Israelis are not ready to listen to a counter-reality, to anything that shakes the foundations of their worldview or their sense of entitlement. Israeli politicians are well-used to fostering and exploiting such prejudices.
In addition, as in other societies, fear sells. Just as Americans are presented with the image of the black mugger, the black rapist and the black killer to keep mostly white politicians in power and the gun lobby rich, so Israelis are presented with the image of the genocidal Arab, filled with loathing of Jews, to secure the profits of the huge local defence industry and the mutually beneficial ties with American Jewry. It is difficult to see how Israelis can be dragged out of this world of illusion.
To what degree can Israeli actions be explained by Judaism and its teachings? Is racism towards the Arabs a determining factor here or not? Who are the forces behind Olmert and his government? Are the Haredim really influencing them?
I am not sure how comfortable I am with the idea that there is something inherent in Judaism that explains the development of modern Israel. I know that some dissident Israeli intellectuals claim that ideas of separation and chosenness in Judaism are at the root of Israeli policy — a way of reinventing ghetto living for the industrialised era. But I prefer to seek explanations of Israeli political dogmas in the ethnic, rather than the religious, qualities of the Jewish state. In fact, I would argue that Israel is behaving in a fairly typical fashion for an ethnic state. Nazi Germany had its obsession with the “Volk” and “Lebensraum”, and the Afrikaners developed the idea of the Bantustan to deal with the demographic threat of the Other. Israel’s racism, its land thefts and its disengagements and wall-building can all be explained in these terms.
What do Israelis think about the US neocons, do they see them as true friends of Israel or not?
In a way, the neocons are driven by a very Israeli vision of the future. They apply Israel’s regional security paradigm to the global stage. Thus they seek world domination for the US, just as Israel’s strategists seek regional domination. Both have a casual disdain for the Arab and Muslim “mentality”, believing that it is essentially irrational and different from the enlightened Western mind. Both believe in “endless war”. And both believe that by creating chaos and instability around them they can manipulate and control their enemies. Given these similarities of thought, it may not be surprising that Israelis generally approve of neocon policy, and that neocons are by and large besotted with Israel. Certainly Israelis were enthusiastic about attacking Iraq, and have been keen to see the US repeat that disastrous policy with Iran. I have written extensively about the links between Israel and the neocons in my forthcoming book “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations”.
Lebanon: many in the region say that the war last summer was only a first round, and that this war will resume in the near future. Do you agree? If yes, what do you think the Israelis could reasonably hope to achieve by resuming this war? Do they seriously hope to “disarm Hezbollah”?
Almost certainly there will be another war. Israel has no interest in regional peace, which would damage its interests, so it must wage war. The problem is that peace would bring Israel simple anonymity: it would be just another small state in the Middle East, but without the oil of the Persian Gulf. Why would the US continue paying Israel billions of dollars in aid each year if Israel were a state at peace?
As long as there is war, or impending war, Israel is sitting pretty. It fulfils its primary function on behalf of the US, which is to keep the region’s other states nervous and unsure of what is coming next. This is a traditional policy of divide and rule: Israel decides who will be punished with attack, who will be isolated, who will be rewarded with a peace agreement and US munificence. Israel can also protect the US from the fallout when it attacks neighbouring states in line with larger US strategic goals. Those millions of cluster bombs dropped on south Lebanon, for example, were American-made and supplied, but the outrage is largely directed at Israel, not the US.
There are other benefits too. War is great for Israel’s massive defence industry. As Naomi Klein recently noted, business has been booming during the intifada as Israel develops new technologies for urban warfare, for crowd control and for imprisoning civilian populations. That is only possible as long as Israel is able to use the occupied territories as a giant open-air laboratory for performing human experiments. Were there peace, that laboratory would no longer exist and, with it, the Israeli defence industry’s profits would shrivel.
Those are the wider reasons why war is always pending for Israel. But there are three more specific reasons why Israel needs to wage another war against Lebanon and probably Syria too. The first is that the White House needed Hizbullah defanged, and Syria at the very least intimidated, before it could contemplate an attack on Iran. Israel’s failure last summer has left both Tel Aviv and Washington at a loss for how to move forward to achieve their goals. The second is a fear widely felt in Israel that in failing to crush Hizbullah the Israeli army has lost what is called here its “deterrence” value: that is, the Arabs have realised it is not invincible. Israelis are afraid that groups like Hamas and states like Syria will learn from this episode that the Israeli army can be beaten. And third, there is a widely expressed sense in Israel that, if the country’s army does not destroy Hizbullah, the US may one day start asking what value it is getting from subsidising one of the most powerful armies in the world if it cannot take on a militia of a few thousands part-time recruits. For all these reasons, Israel needs another chance to prove itself against either Hizbullah or Syria.
In your experience, what does the Jewish “street” say about a possible war between the US and Iran? Is a US attack on Iran seen as a real possibility and what do you expect the Palestinian response to such a situation would be?
The Israeli Jewish response is fairly predictable. Opinion polls show Israelis are pretty uniformly enthusiastic about a US attack on Iran, as they were about the invasion of Iraq. They are evenly split on the wisdom of Israel going it alone to attack Iran. That may in part reflect a sense of vulnerability after the humiliation in Lebanon last summer and in part a fear of breaking with their US patron. In addition, I think Israelis may fear that the moment for an attack on Iran has passed. Certainly there is lot of grumbling and tantrums from Israel’s rightwing pundits about Bush abandoning Israel by failing to strike Tehran, and Olmert is sounding ever more conciliatory. But it is always unwise to make firm predictions in this part of the world. Current Israeli indecision regarding Iran may be a sign of the army’s need to buy time as it rethinks its strategy following its failures in Lebanon. Certainly, as I’ve already argued, Israel is keen for more war in the future, and an attack on Lebanon or Syria always has the threat that it will expand to include other countries, particularly Iran.
By the Palestinian response, I take it that you mean the leadership. I think that makes the improbable assumption in the current circumstances that some kind of decipherable and unified Palestinian response is possible. Iran is a player, even if still a minor one, in the occupied territories. Iran, it can be reasonably assumed, is trying to finance and assist Hamas (just as it has done with Hizbullah) despite the sectarian differences between the two. Hamas needs all the help it can get to avert the combined opposition of Israel, the US and the Fatah leadership to its rule, so an alliance is a necessary move on its part. It has also been influenced by Hizbullah’s successes against Israel and will be learning the lessons, as are many other groups in the Middle East. One is the use of rockets to weaken Israeli resolve. Given the hostilities between Hamas and Fatah, one can probably guess that whatever is good for Hamas (a strong Iran) is bad for the Fatah leadership around Abbas.
Much is made of Hezbollah’s popularity in Palestine. How popular are Iran and Khamenei or Hezbollah and Nasrallah in Palestine?
This is usually presented in the West in simplistic terms of Palestinians cheering on terrorists. That makes sense to many Westerners because they have been presented by the Western media and politicians with an image of Iran and Hizbullah as terrorists who yearn for Israel’s destruction. That view is not really credible outside the West because it simply does not fit the facts. If Hizbullah is a terrorist group, it is a very strange one: even the US Congress has struggled to identify the terrorist acts it is supposedly responsible for. Even the few terrorist acts that may have been committed by Hizbullah, though there is a lack of proof, date back nearly two decades.
Hizbullah was established as a Shia resistance movement to oust Israel from its illegal occupation of Lebanon, not to destroy it. That task it carried out with single-minded determination. Since then it has created a network of concealed bases across south Lebanon, built up a basic armoury with the help of Iran, and developed its own intelligence service that has penetrated Israel’s military secrets while largely preventing Israel from penetrating its own military structures — all in the justified belief that Israel wants to meddle in Lebanon in ways that damage that country’s security and its interests and that Israel must therefore be repelled.
All of these achievements are reason enough why Hizbullah has earnt the enmity of Zionists everywhere. It is also why the powerful Israel lobby has been able to fashion the image of Hizbullah portrayed in the West. (Though it should be noted that senior US officials have quietly expressed their admiration of Nasrallah, including the former US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, who called him “the smartest guy in the Middle East”.) Palestinians, like most Arabs in the Middle East, do not read the Western media, so they have no reason to buy into these fictions. They understand that Nasrallah has proved himself a master tactician and strategist, both political and military, who has used his few thousand fighters to repeatedly humiliate the Israeli army, one of the most powerful in the world and one backed by the US. That is an achievement that has earnt him great respect among Palestinians, and which some of them hope to emulate in their own resistance to Israeli occupation.
But it runs even deeper than that, I think. It is particularly obvious among Palestinian citizens of Israel, who faced Hizbullah’s rocket attacks just like Israeli Jews — in fact, they were killed in greater numbers proportionally by those attacks than Jewish citizens because their towns were not protected with bomb shelters and they were not given proper warnings of attacks. Most Palestinian citizens of Israel, including Christians, hold Nasrallah in almost unparalleled regard, despite their suffering at his hands. This is not some preverse form of masochism. They appreciate the clear distinctions he draws in his speeches between Israelis and Jews (not all Israelis are Jews, after all) and between Jews and Zionists (not all Jews are Zionists). He and his group, Hizbullah, are opposed to Zionism because they believe a self-declared ethnic state is a menace to itself, to the Palestinians and to its neighbours for many of the reasons I have given above. Palestinian citizens appreciate that he shares, even at a distance, their understanding of Israel’s ethnic nature and its bad faith, something that many Arab leaders — often including the Palestinian leadership in the occupied territories — have failed to grasp. If someone has proved that the Arab world does not have to be permanently mired in fear of Israel, and manipulated by its divide and rule policies, it is Nasrallah. He gives Palestinians, and other Arabs, back some of their self-respect.
Feelings among Palestinians towards Iran, I suspect, are a little more complex. Certainly no one here believes the myths being spoonfed to Westerners about Iran planning to “wipe Israel off the map” (I am afraid I cannot bring myself to explain yet again the translation error that has been so readily abused by Israel, but there are plenty of Farsi experts who have done so and their articles can be easily found on the internet). Again, it is easy to mischaracterise Iran in the West as a terror state when the media acts as little more than a propaganda tool for the US and Israeli governments, and then misrepresent Palestinian support for Iran as support for terrorism. But nonetheless, feelings towards Iran are a little more mixed. Where Nasrallah appears devout and spiritual, the Iranian clerics seem purist and pious. Where Nasrallah is popular, Iran’s secular leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is merely populist. And whereas Hizbullah’s Shia are drawn from the Arab world, Iran’s Shia are Persian. But of course, Iran is the benefactor: Nasrallah’s talents are only on display because of Iranian money and support, so for Palestinians there is some reflected glory. And Hamas, of course, is equally in need of a patron in Iran, if it is to follow Hizbullah’s lead.