An Interview with Norman Finkelstein
M. JUNAID ALAM, co-editor and webmaster of the new leftist journal for American youth, Left Hook, recently had the opportunity to interview Norman Finkelstein, prominent and outspoken critic of Israel and son of Nazi holocaust survivors. Mr. Finkelstein is a professor of Political Science at DePaul University in Chicago and the author of the authoritative and controversial books Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and The Holocaust Industry.
Alam: Mr. Finkelstein, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Israel was an enthusiastic supporter of America’s war on Iraq, and the Sharon government viewed the removal of Hussein as complementary to his own efforts to topple Arafat. During the war, the New York Times ran an article about the sense of imminent victory over the Palestinians displayed by Israeli military leadership. Now, intense resistance has emerged in Iraq, the Abbas government has fallen apart, Arafat still controls the security forces, and a top Israeli officer admitted that Israeli tactics are only stiffening Palestinian resolve. Do you think this qualifies as a new political situation, and what does this mean for the US-sponsored ‘road map’?
Finkelstein: The important thing about the roadmap was the symmetry. Right after the first destruction of Iraq in 1991 the US launched what eventually became known as the Oslo peace process; after the second destruction of Iraq, the US launched the roadmap. In both cases the hope and expectation was the same: Palestinians (and the Arab world generally) would be so "shocked and awed" by the massive display of US firepower that they would bow to US-Israeli diktat. The first time around it seemed to be going according to script, Arafat accepting his designated role as tribal chief. But in July 2000 at Camp David, when Arafat refused to sign on the dotted line for the Bantustan that he was offered, he was immediately branded a "terrorist" once again. Realizing that Arafat was hopeless, after the second destruction of Iraq, the US and Israel replaced him with Abu Mazen, who was just as corrupt and stupid as Arafat but, crucially, wasn’t elected. Polls showed that he would get 3-5% of the vote in a Palestinian election–which means he was for the United States the perfect democratic leader of Palestine. But the Abu Mazen gambit also failed.
Alam: The ‘road map’ is widely seen as a watered-down version of the Oslo initiative, which culminated in failure in 2000. Many US commentators blame Arafat for rejecting what they term "a generous offer" by Israel’s then-Prime Minister, Ehud Barak. How would you describe the plan put on the table then, and how is does it differ from the current one?
NF: The reports conflict on what happened at Camp David, and subsequently at Taba. An important account by Robert Malley, one of the U.S. negotiators at Camp David, suggests that Arafat held out for a settlement along the lines of the international consensus–i.e., a full Israeli withdrawal from West Bank and Gaza, but allowing for Israel to keep most of its settlers in the West Bank with a land swap of "equal value and equal size" from Israel. Israel refused this offer, wanting instead to fragment the West Bank and offer minimum land swaps for the settlements it sought to retain.
Alam: In American discourse the fact that Palestinians have lived for decades under Israeli military occupation is obscured and shoved under mountains of condemnation over Palestinian tactics. As someone who has visited the Occupied Territories, can you describe what life under occupation is like, what
hardships and obstacles people face?
NF: I cannot claim any special expertise in "life under occupation." I would urge readers to simply consult the multiple mainstream human rights reports–Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights–Israel, Public Committee Against Torture, etc.–which do an excellent job of cataloguing the multiple human rights abuses and crimes Israel commits daily in the Occupied Territories.
Alam: In defiance of international law and even the principles of the ‘road map’, Sharon and the Israeli military have continued and expanded construction of a separation wall surrounding the West Bank. Do you consider this another step in increasing settlements? Does this kill the possibility of creating a viable Palestinian state on 22% of historical Palestine?
NF: I am just now beginning to read the details about the wall. As of current plans, it will disrupt the lives of some 600,000 Palestinians. Some will be trapped between the Green Line (pre-June 1967 border) west of the wall, some (like the residents of Qalquilya) will be trapped on all sides by the wall, and several hundred thousand Palestinians will be cut off from their agricultural land and places of work. If hints from the Sharon government are correct, the wall will also run along the Jordan Valley, and cage Palestinians into less than half the West Bank. The eminent Hebrew University sociologist, Baruch Kimmerling, has called Gaza "the largest concentration camp ever to exist." Once the wall is complete, Gaza will rank only the second largest concentration camp ever to exist.
Alam: As a critic of Israel, you have confronted pro-Israel commentators, including Alan Dershowitz, whom you recently took to task for lifting sections "From Time Immemorial" a book by Joan Peters which you and other scholars have exposed as a hoax. How does a Harvard professor get away with lifting quotes from an already-discredited text?
NF: It’s simple: he knows that he will never be called on it. Keep in mind that even after I showed the massive plagiarism and demonstrated that multiple claims in the book are simply preposterous, the book received rave reviews in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. The reviewers surely knew the book was a completely fraud. But it makes no difference: he’s Harvard, he’s defending Israel, so everything else–i.e., the facts–is beside the point.
Alam: In the last twenty a years a group of historians inside Israel, equipped with declassified archives, have criticized and exposed the traditional pro-Israel historical narrative. Can you briefly explain what the basic points of these ‘new historians’ are in reference to the creation of Israel and its constant expansion since its inception?
NF: Most (but not all) of what’s called the "new history" has focused on the first Arab-Israeli war of 1947-1949. Its main findings are that, militarily, Israel was better prepared, and the neighboring Arab states worse prepared, than in conventional accounts; that the only serious fighting force on the Arab side, the Arab Legion of Jordan, had pretty much reached an agreement with the Zionist leadership before the war broke out not to fight the Zionist forces but rather to divide Palestine with the newly-declared Jewish state (which is basically what happened, Jordan occupying the West Bank); that the Palestinians didn’t flee on account of Arab orders but were "driven into exile" (Benny Morris) by the Zionist armies; and that after the war there were opportunities for peace which Israel rejected because they would have required Israel to accept a return of at least some Palestinian refugees and a return some of the territory it illegally conquered during the 1948 war.
Alam: The US has offered Israel unswerving support since the 1967 war. Can you describe how this contrasts with international opinion, especially within the UN General Assembly?
NF: Since 1967 there have been basically two approaches to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict on the diplomatic table. From the late 1960s Israel has attempted to impose an Apartheid solution on the West Bank and Gaza, keeping large swathes of land and crucial resources like water, while confining Palestinians in a territorially fragmented, unviable Bantustan. Beginning in the early 1970s, the US basically supported this. On the other hand, the international community has favored a two-state solution, basically outlined in UN Resolution 242 and subsequent resolutions affirming the right of Israel and a neighboring Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza to exercise self-determination and statehood. In 2002, the vote on a 2-state settlement was 160-4 (US, Israel, Micronesia, Marshall Islands), and this year 159-2 (US and Israel).
Alam: There has been serious debate and controversy about Israel’s role in the project for American hegemony recently. Noam Chomsky has described Israel as America’s offshore military base, a client state which serves the purpose of quelling Arab nationalisms. But Jeff Halper, co-ordinator of Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, contends that Israel manipulates the United States and that it is irrational for the US to support Israel in a post-Cold War atmosphere because it aggravates the entire Islamic world. What is your take on this? Does a sense of a common enemy and shared ‘Judeo-Christian’ values drive the US-Israeli alliance, or does it boil down to real politik?
Finkelstein: There have always been two competing interpretations of why the US supports Israel: strategic interest vs. the Jewish/Zionist/Israel lobby. I don’t think there is one definitive answer to this question. Sometimes the Lobby manages to trump US national interests, sometimes the US administration puts Israel in its place. It should be remembered, however, that from the time of the Balfour Declaration, there were debates about whether a Jewish state would facilitate or undermine Western domination of the Arab world. When the British issued the Balfour Declaration the reasoning was that, although a Jewish state would alienate much public opinion in the Arab world, it would still be a dependable–because dependent–base of Western power in the region.
Alam: Having spoken at colleges in the US and Canada in the past few months, can you describe what kind of reaction you get among students and people in general when presenting a pro-Palestinian viewpoint?
Finkelstein: Apart from a smattering of hard-core pro-Israel fanatics, audiences have generally been very receptive and intelligent. It used to be quite disorderly, but nowadays the "other side" doesn’t bother coming out, because they know that Israel’s case is indefensible if the speaker is even marginally knowledgeable about the facts. I think there’s excellent reason to be optimistic–Muslim students, especially Muslim women, have been doing a terrific job organizing, alongside many Jews–and we can begin to really affect public policy if we continue on this course.
Alam: Your book Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict has been widely praised and lauded by respected scholars and left-leaning publications for its scathing and hard-hitting critique of the official Israeli narrative. Recently, you’ve put out a second edition. What’s been added?
Finkelstein: A long new introduction in which I suggest a general framework for understanding Zionist/Israeli policy the past century, an essay comparing Israel’s strategy for the Occupied Territories with the South African Apartheid experience, and a critical analysis of a recent best-seller on the June 1967 war, which I think is mostly nonsense.
Alam: In the introduction to the second edition, you describe Zionism as a response to "the reciprocal challenges of Gentile repulsion, or anti-Semitism, and Gentile attraction, or assimilationism…" Zionist philosophy accepted repulsion as a natural impulse among Gentiles and, as you write, believed that the creation of "an overwhelmingly, if not homogenously, Jewish state in Palestine" was the solution to the Jewish predicament. The "obstacle" to this solution, you add, was "the indigenous Arab population". Today, Jews are accepted, flourishing, and protected in the multicultural West-Gentile attraction-while in Israel they face the blowback from the people they dispossessed-the "obstacle". Do you think Zionism as an ideology has failed and expired? Or will it continue fighting the war of 1948 to its desired conclusion?
Finkelstein: It’s an interesting question, which would require a quite subtle answer. Some original aims of Zionist–e.g. reviving the Hebrew language–plainly succeeded, and probably wouldn’t have succeeded absent a Jewish state. On the other hand, it’s also true to say that, far from providing a safe haven for Jews, Israel is probably the least safe place for Jews to be in the world today. Likewise, especially in recent years, the Jewish state, far from resolving the "Jewish Question," has plainly exacerbated it, by associating Jews with, and by mainstream Jewish organizations associating themselves with, Israel’s brutal occupation.
Norman Finkelstein’s website: http://www.normanfinkelstein.com
Norman Finkelstein’s New and Revised Edition of Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict is available here:
M. JUNAID ALAM, 20, is a co-editor and webmaster of the new radical youth journal Left Hook