Norman Finkelstein is a writer and lecturer. He received his doctorate in 1988 from the Princeton University Politics Department. He is the author of ten books that have been translated into 50 foreign editions, including the international bestseller, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. His forthcoming book is Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom (University of California Press).
The problem is that people highly personalize it. What are you for? It’s like a Chinese restaurant: one from column A and two from column B. If you are for a two-state [solution], you are a Zionist, and if you are for one-state [solution], you are a humanist. As a person on the left, you are concerned with finding a humane and just solution based on what is possible and what is feasible. If you propose a solution that has no basis in reality, it might make you feel and look good, and you might derive a pleasure from your posturing and preening, but it has nothing to do with politics. Is it possible to conceive a political will to dismantle Israel? In my opinion, the answer is no. There exists no political or historical basis in the current world sufficient to dismantle Israel. Whether you think it should or shouldn’t happen or whether you think the state is just or unjust is irrelevant. So, in my opinion, some version of [the] two-state [solution] is the only realistic political possibility. Personally, however, I believe in no states…anywhere.
There are two aspects to the settlement question: the legal aspect and the practical aspect. With regard to the legal aspect, I don’t think there is any serious disagreement. All settlements are illegal under international law. The International Court of Justice ruled this in 2004, and it is the opinion of all leading authorities except for a few Israelis, such as Yoram Dinstein, who think that some are legal and some aren’t legal.
The practical question is, what do you do? The current credible figure is about 600,000 illegal Jewish settlers reside in occupied Palestinian Territories. What do you do about that? Here I think it’s a question that has a technical and a political side. The technical side is: can you carve out a Palestinian state which is contiguous, viable, and which takes into account not only quantity but quality in possible land swaps? How do you create a state that is not just viable but a state that incorporates what is critical in the areas of the Palestinian Territories? A book coming out soon, edited by Jamie Stern-Weiner, debates this critical question, and he includes two leading cartographers from each side, Shaul Arieli from Israel, and the Dutchman Jan de Jong representing the Palestinians. Shaul Arieli proposes a 4% land swap. Jan de Jong says there cannot be more than 2%. Jong argues that more than 2% leaves a seriously deformed Palestinian state. The current maximum that the Israelis are offering, and even this is far-fetched, best-case scenario, is something between 4-8%.
Now you get the political question: Can you summon up enough political will to remove the settlers who would have to be removed to make this two-state settlement work? You are talking about several hundred thousand settlers that would have to be in effect evicted. In effect, because Israelis staying in a future Palestinian state is a philosophy seminar. They don’t want to stay. They will look for the best leverage for a buyout, but no possibility of any Israelis, especially the settlers, wanting to stay.
In Hebron, there are 600 settlers and 120,000 Arabs. If the army said tomorrow that we are leaving and if you want to stay, then stay, but we are leaving— how many of those settlers who have murdered, and wreaked havoc/mayhem on this population do you think will want to stay?
We live in an era of intercontinental ballistic missiles. So this notion that the West Bank would suddenly pose a unique security threat is preposterous. If you claim it could turn into a place that could fire rockets, then Israel should occupy Syria and Iran. If security threat is defined by rockets, would the West Bank pose a bigger threat than Iran? No one is going to make that argument. Anyhow, every discussion on the West Bank-Gaza debate refers to a de-militarized state, or non-militarized state (to accommodate a Palestinian police force). It’s a factual matter. There has never been a discussion of a Palestinian state that would have an army. And it was therefore implied that Israel would have the right to intervene and prevent weapons buildup.
If there is a coup, the idea that the West Bank would hold a serious threat is absurd.
Gaza fires enhanced bottle rockets and fireworks. During Operation Protective Edge in July 2014, Hamas fired 5,000 rockets and 2,000 mortar shells. How is it only one house was destroyed? The answer is simple—they aren’t rockets, they are fireworks. If they had any serious weapons, Israel would wipe them out in the blink of an eye. The whole thing is theatrics. By the way, it is mutually beneficial theatrics, as Hamas gets to pretend that it poses a serious threat and be an armed resistance, and Israel gets the right of self-defense. Unfortunately, both sides don’t equally suffer. Israel lost one house in Operation Protective Edge and one house was almost destroyed in Operation Cast Lead. In Gaza, 18,000 homes were destroyed in Operation Protective Edge and 6,300 homes were destroyed in Operation Cast Lead. The ratio was 18,000:1 and 6,300:1. Ideologically, both sides play the game, but Palestinians are being destroyed and devastated.
Israel always foments violence when the Palestinians become too moderate and pragmatic. This is what an Israeli political scientist referred to as the fear of a Palestinian “peace offensive.” Hamas is on the verge of rewriting their charter and making it more moderate. Israel is seized with panic at the prospect of this and then being pressured to negotiate and relieve the blockade, so they assassinated a leader this past week. In June 2008, an Israeli intelligence think tank said Hamas was careful to enforce the cease fire. Israel waited until November 4, 2008 when the cameras were on Obama’s historic election, and on that day they killed 6 Hamas militants knowing it would evoke a response. Then they used this response as a pretext for Operation Cast Lead. In 1981, a ceasefire was negotiated between the PLO and Israel. The PLO held up, but Israel pounded Lebanon in 1982 because the PLO became too moderate. Israel is not terrified at militancy and they thrive on Hamas radicalism and rejectionism. They live in dread and dire fear of Palestinian moderation and pragmatism. If they are too pragmatic, pressure builds on Israel to negotiate and find a settlement.
I recognize the importance of expertise and details, and many people have pored over the map to make a viable resolution to the Jerusalem question. It is a complex one and beyond my expertise. You have to have a baseline and from there you proceed with matters of expediency. Law provides the baseline and politics provides expediency. How do you find a solution that causes the least amount of damage? The Law is that East Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian territory. Every single authoritative legal and political judgement says occupied Palestinian Territories include the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Since it is occupied, do both sides have to reach a mutual agreement? That is not correct. It is Palestinian territory. In my opinion they should try to negotiate, but [the Palestinians] get the last word.
If a particular religious site is within the border of your country, in an act of humanity and generosity you should make arrangements so that those who wish to be there can be there. The notion of sovereignty doesn’t disappear with Palestine. If there was a religious shrine holy to Bahá’í in Colorado, then arrangements should be made so Bahá’ís could pray there…and it would be an act of humanity and generosity. But it is in the territorial sovereignty of the US.
I’m not going to be a stickler—I would certainly say there is a kind of moral obligation to be generous and humane to those who believe in Bahá’í Faith, but I certainly don’t think that there should be a caveat in international law that Bahá’ís have an automatic right to come in and pray. No other state makes this and I don’t think the Jews should either. There is a notion that Jewish religion super cedes sovereignty. I don’t like the arrogance and presumption, and frankly, I don’t like the obnoxiousness.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated categorically: “Under international law, every Palestinian, roughly 5-6 million, has the right to return to their homes or the environs of their homes in Israel.”
Again, I think one has to make the distinction between the legal and political question. Legally, like the settlements, it is not a matter of dispute or controversy among respected and authoritative organizations and experts. Palestinians have a right of return which has been validated by the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the latter two of which are the premier human rights organizations. They have validated it. Within that law, you have to figure out some sort of resolution to which Palestinians are amenable because it is their right, and nobody has any right to demand of them that they forfeit that right. But I think Palestinians are quite capable of being reasonable and in fair/good faith negotiations they would recognize the reality that trying to bring back 6-8 million refugees would drastically alter the demographic balance in Israel overnight, turning Israeli Jews who are a super majority to a minority and something like 30% of the population.
If fully implemented, any reasonable person recognizes that it is a difficult situation and a difficult process to acquiesce to. Politics are not just about will but about mustering power. In the international community there is a strong consensus for Palestinians to enjoy their right of self-determination within the pre-’67 borders. Even as there is a consensus that they have a right of return, you would have to describe it as a weak, feeble consensus. Which is to say that the international community is unlikely to bring their political clout to enforce the full right of return. I think there is a possibility to mobilize international support to impose two-states, but you cannot galvanize the political clout of the international community to enforce a full right of return. In my opinion, this becomes a scholastic and academic question. You want to extract the maximum possible from that legal right, but the maximum possible is not very much as a political matter.
I’m not a blind believer in law, but I recognize law as the only framework and consensus yardstick to resolve the conflict. Otherwise it is who has the bigger club. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch assert that the right of return extends to all succeeding generations that have retained “genuine links with the land.” With regards to UN resolution 194 being a recommendation and not a binding resolution, if people want to play games they can play games. I’m not into games and everyone understands the essence of 194. A person who was expelled or left their home from fear has a right of return…that is transparent, simple, and uncontroversial. I am not going to indulge word games.
First of all, I reject the notion of narratives. Either something did or didn’t happen. It is not a narrative. Palestinians were dispossessed. They didn’t imagine it, and they weren’t brainwashed into believing it. It happened. It is a historical event. Our goal is to strive towards truth and it is always imperfect because we are imperfect creatures. But we shouldn’t abandon truth.
I don’t accept a Nazi narrative of Auschwitz. It happened. It was appalling, and criminal. I don’t think any Nazi narrative changes that fact. Just as I don’t accept competing narratives of Nazis, of slavery, or of Hiroshima, I don’t accept competing narratives in this conflict. You cannot reduce facts to states of mind and narratives.
I can recognize after World War II that there would be a strong desire among Jews for a safe haven…a place they could regard as a refuge in times and moments of need. I can recognize that desire. Do I think that desire, as legitimate as it might be, justified the dispossession of native Palestinians? My answer is no. Nothing can justify ethnic cleansing of a population. I have to believe that there were other ways to resolve this dilemma. Exactly what those other ways were is complicated. I recognize the dilemmas that the UN faced when it finally resolved to the partition plan, but it didn’t involve uprooting of the indigenous population.
I think BDS has perfectly legitimate tactics, but I have two reservations. First, BDS isn’t just a tactic, it is also a political platform which says they are anchored in international law. This is good, any solidarity movement should be based in international law. They say under international law they have the right to self-determination, which is correct, and then they say, from that we derive three other rights of Palestinians: (1) ending the occupation, (2) implementing the right of return and (3) equality of Palestinian citizens in Israel. All seem to be correct, but with rights come obligations and responsibilities. Every right you claim for yourself comes with an obligation to others. If you have a right to walk at the green you have an obligation to stop at the red. BDS says when it comes to Israel it takes no position. To me that makes no coherent sense. Israel is a state under international law. The ICJ says that pre-’67 borders is Israel. That’s the law. It’s their right. BDS wants to selectively enforce the law. They don’t want Israel. They think they are being clever. They know the result of implementing all three rights with recognition of Israeli rights is the elimination of Israel. There is no Israel, full stop. And the law is that Israel is a state. If you say your foundation is based in international law, then international law is a package deal. You can’t pick and choose those laws which you like and claim to be agnostic on those laws that you don’t like. If you want to go at green you have an obligation to stop at the red. BDS claims certain rights for Palestinians (which are correct), but then it also has to acknowledge the reciprocal rights of Israel to self-determination and statehood. You may not like it, but that is the law. This leaves you with two options: you can say to hell with the law which is fine; or you can take the rights and obligations that come with international law…but you cannot selectively choose aspects of the law you like and what aspects you don’t and just take the ones you like. That’s not the law. That’s what Israel does. They say to Palestinians, you have to recognize us, but they refuse the obligation and responsibility to reciprocate that and recognize Palestinians.
I can’t defend BDS in public and I cannot defend what I consider disingenuous. It is incoherent and it won’t convince anyone. There is a tendency amongst BDS members with all of their energy that there is an implicit notion that you can liberate Palestine with BDS and I think that is just not a serious prospect. The antecedent of BDS is the anti-apartheid sanctions movement. South Africa was not liberated by the sanctions movement. It helped, but if they were able to end apartheid, it was because of a mass democratic movement in South Africa. God helps those who help themselves. However, if Palestinians themselves don’t engage in mass resistance, I understand. They have had their hopes dashed many times—first intifada, Oslo, corruption in the PA.
Many people have used the term “apartheid,” including respected organizations like B’Tselem, to describe what Israel is doing in the occupied territories. It has also been mentioned in Israel’s most influential newspaper, Haaretz, by Israel’s former Attorney General, Michael Ben Yair, and Former Minister of Education, Shulamit Aloni, to name a few.
Within Israel itself, excluding the occupied territories, there is certainly discrimination, much like minorities in other countries, but there is no apartheid as was carried out in South Africa.