Noam Chomsky gives a preliminary assessment of the US-Israel war on Gaza and its consequences in an interview conducted by Assaf Kfoury on January 31, 2009. The Arabic translation of the interview will appear in the Beirut daily as-Safir.
For more than three weeks, starting December 27th, Gaza and its 1.5 million people bore the brunt of a massive Israeli military campaign, supported and abetted by the US government. While Israel has now stopped its devastating air and ground operations in Gaza, it continues the total blockade from both the land and the sea, still pursuing the futile goal of trying to destroy Hamas and allied resistance groups by punishing the population around them.
The public response in the US
Assaf Kfoury: From the carnage in Gaza in recent weeks, there is a silver lining in the US, at least at the popular level. The devastation of Gaza has elicited something different, compared to the Lebanon war of 2006, or the Lebanon war of 1982, or other episodes of violence visited by Israel on Palestinians and Lebanese.This time, for the first time perhaps, the public response in the US has been closer to the public response outside the US. Greater sympathy and support for the Palestinians, more criticism and anger at Israel’s actions. There were almost daily protests and demos, in major cities in the US, closer to the kind of public expressions we had been accustomed to see in Europe, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere.
This time, for example, we have seen significant participation in the US of Jewish groups in support of the Palestinians and against the Israeli government. We had never seen it before, certainly not to the same extent. This kind of participation has been coming through, not always in the mainstream media to be sure, but through alternative media channels on the Internet. For example, when 8 Jewish activists chained themselves and obstructed entrance to the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles while others carried signs reading “Closed For War Crimes” on January 14, the news came through the alternative channels, but not the New York Times, Washington Post and other major newspapers in the US.
Is this an exaggeration of the public response? And if it is not, can it be developed into a popular movement and, by extension, an effective pressure group on policy-makers?
Noam Chomsky: You are quite right that there was a difference in the reaction, a very noticeable difference, and that might turn out to be important. Many people, even knowing little about the matter, were revolted by the savage cruelty and cowardice of the IDF, brutally attacking defenseless people locked in a cage.
But we have to be careful in assessing the popular reaction. Most people are unaware of anything beyond the highly sanitized version that passes through media filters. Al Jazeera is effectively barred in the US, so there was little direct visual reporting. And while the reality cannot be totally concealed, it is presented in fragments, and within a framework of apologetics — and of course portrays the US as an innocent bystander, dedicated to peace and justice, as always.
The strong and principled reaction is from a select part of the population. Polls showed a pretty even split between support for the invasion and opposition to it, and the opposition is mostly on grounds of “disproportion.” More revealing are the polls after the war ended — ended theoretically, that is; it is continuing, bitterly, though the facts are scarcely reported. A CNN poll on Jan. 24 found that 60% supported Israel, 17% the Palestinians. 63% felt that Israeli military action was justified, 30% disagreed. A Pew poll had rather similar results (Bloomberg News, Jan. 24).
The results are not surprising in the light of how the events were reported and interpreted by the media and the political class. The mantra is that Israel has the right to defend itself against rockets. Virtually no one pointed out that the issue is quite different: did Israel have a right to resort to violence in self-defense? No state has that right if there are peaceful alternatives. And in this case there surely were. A narrow alternative would have been for Israel to accept a ceasefire, as proposed by Hamas shortly before the invasion. In the past, Israel had accepted ceasefires formally, but never in reality, including the ceasefire in July 2008, observed by Hamas (Israel concedes that Hamas did not fire a single rocket) but not by Israel, which terminated it with a direct attack on November 4. A broader alternative would have been for Israel to stop its US-backed criminal activities in the occupied territories, both in Gaza and the West Bank, such as the near-complete economic strangulation of Gaza since January 2006. That is the way to stop the rocket firing. But matters like these are almost entirely off the agenda in mainstream discussion.
It is remarkable that even when George Mitchell was appointed Obama’s special envoy, these obvious facts were suppressed. That is quite an impressive achievement by the doctrinal system and its practitioners. Mitchell’s major success, after all, was to broker a peace agreement in Northern Ireland. The British agreed to end their violent response to IRA terror and to attend to the legitimate grievances that were at its root. The cycle of violence was broken. There was progress in human and civil rights in northern Ireland, and IRA terror ended. The analogy to Israel-Palestine is so close that it took real discipline for the media and educated classes to be able not to see it.
The official response in the US
AK: By contrast, public pronouncements by US officials do not seem to change. If we were to listen to what the politicians say in Washington, we would think it has always been the Palestinians’ fault. The Palestinians are to blame for all the bloodshed and hostilities, now and in decades past, since 1948 and before. In the recent Gaza events, for example, that the Israeli-to-Palestinian casualty ration was one-to-a-hundred or one-to-a-thousand does not seem to disturb their conscience in any way. That Gaza has been reduced to a large impoverished, blockaded, and practically defenseless ghetto, does not seem to bother them.
So was passed in the US Congress the perverted resolution condemning Hamas for Israel’s attack, by a vote of 390 to 5 and 22 voting present in the House and by unanimous voice vote in the Senate. In fact, however limited, there is more dissent in the Israeli media than in the US Congress. But what is remarkable is that if US officials are out of office, they may say the truth or something closer to it, e.g., former President Carter’s statements.
What are the reasons for this grotesque disconnect between official policy and public opinion in the US? The same imbalance between the two is on other issues. But, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is extreme.
NC: It is worth noting that it is not all that different in Europe. Statements by EU officials are often as bad as those of Congress. You are quite right about Carter, but he is unique, and sharply criticized in mainstream circles. One illustration is that in punishment for his crime of honesty, he was effectively barred from the Democratic Party Convention in August 2008. That is unusual if not unprecedented for a former President.
Furthermore, the disconnect you mention, while very real, is not far beyond the norm: on a host of major issues, public opinion and public policy are sharply disconnected. The observation has even entered mainstream political science (see, for example, Benjamin Page, The Foreign Policy Disconnect; the same is true of domestic policy). That is one of the reasons why party managers design the marketing campaigns called “elections” so that that they largely avoid issues and focus on personalities, body language, and other trivialities. The general population objects and wants issues discussed, polls show. But here too we find the familiar disconnect between the public and policy.
Consider, for example, the invasion of Iraq. There was substantial public opposition, but virtually no principled opposition among the political class and media. Obama, for example, is praised by critics of the war for having taken a principled stand. That is false, which is a revealing illustration of the prevailing conformism to power, even among dissidents. Obama regarded the war as a ‘strategic blunder’. One could have read the same in Pravda when Russia invaded Afghanistan. Nazi generals said the same about Hitler’s two-front war, after Stalingrad. There is nothing ‘principled’ about such a stand. It is completely unprincipled.
Authentic opposition begins by applying to ourselves the same standards we apply to others. It therefore would have condemned the war as a crime, in fact “the supreme international crime” that encompasses all the evil that follows, in the wording of the Nuremberg Tribunal. Much of the public did take that position, but it was, and remains, inexpressible in the media or the corridors of power.
The same was true of the Vietnam war. By the war’s end, 70% of the public regarded it as ‘fundamentally wrong and immoral’, not a ‘mistake’. Within the media and journals of opinion, the most extreme criticism was that the US began with ‘blundering efforts to do good’, but it became a ‘disaster’, costing us too much, and we were therefore unable to realize our laudable goals (according to Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who was at the critical extreme within mainstream opinion).
These are the standard kinds of criticisms of state crimes that do not succeed at acceptable cost. They are similar to the critique of Israel’s attack on Gaza that one finds throughout mainstream commentary, which maintains that the attack was clearly justified, but “disproportionate”, and with few gains for Israel.
There are many other examples. In fact, it is the norm. It is a fundamental doctrine of the ideological system that we cannot apply to ourselves the standards we rightly apply to enemies. Whatever the facts, our leaders are benevolent in intent while their enemies are wicked and deserve harsh punishment. Our leaders may sometimes fall into ‘strategic blunders’, and there are some bad people (like the torturers at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, or the soldiers at My Lai in Vietnam). But our fundamental benevolence remains untainted, and the leadership is immune. This is quite the opposite of the Nuremberg tribunal after World War II, which did not try SS guards who threw people into gas chambers, but rather the leadership, accused of such crimes as preemptive war.
Elite intellectuals in the West sometimes reach levels that are literally reminiscent of North Korea in their worship of state power and doctrine. Thus in the Clinton years, US foreign policy was praised by elite intellectuals in the US and Europe for entering a ‘noble phase’ with a ‘saintly glow’, as an “idealistic New World bent on saving humanity” is acting from ‘altruism alone’, in defense of ‘principles and values’ for the first time in history; and on, and on, one of the most embarrassing periods of Western intellectual history. Praise of Israel sometimes reaches similar rhetorical heights. But public opinion is often far more sober and reasonable.
I nevertheless agree that the US-Israel case goes beyond the norm, even though I think it fits within the general pattern of “our conformist subservience to those in power”, to borrow the characterization of Western intellectuals by Hans Morgenthau, the founder of ‘realist’ international relations theory.
Before Israel’s massive victory in 1967, Israel was largely ignored by intellectual opinion, consistent with the US stand of mild but not particularly strong support. But after Israel’s triumph of arms, everything changed. Israel had performed a major service to US power by destroying the center of secular Arab nationalism (represented by Nasser’s Egypt) and protecting the radical Islamists of Saudi Arabia who were Washington’s primary ally. That service established the US-Israel relationship in its current form. Significantly, Israel’s successful use of force also won great praise among the educated classes, with a large impact on reporting and commentary that lasts until the present. The reasons were partly domestic. It is important to recall that at that time the US was failing to suppress Vietnamese resistance. The mood among liberal intellectuals was captured accurately by the prominent historian Arthur Schlesinger, who wrote that US violence will probably not succeed, but if it does, “we may all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government.”
Israel came along and showed how to treat Third World upstarts properly; there were witticisms about how we should send Moshe Dayan to help our military in Vietnam. Furthermore, Israel was able to sustain an aura of profound humanitarianism: it was upholding the highest values, ‘shooting and crying’ in the idiom of the day, in self-defense against an implacable foe bent on its destruction. The combination of humanitarianism and mastery of the means of violence is irresistible to the mainstream intellectual culture. And much has happened since to reinforce the imagery.
All of this is quite apart from the powerful strategic and economic factors underlying US-Israel relations, as well as deep-seated cultural links between the two countries, including their historical experience as they are shaped by imagery and myth. The US, after all, is the only country to have been founded as a ‘nascent empire’: a superior race was removing the native scourge that had no legitimate right to be here, and was bringing civilization and development to a wild land. After liberation from England, the father of the country. George Washington, declared that “the gradual extension of our settlements will as certainly cause the savage, as the wolf, to retire; both being beasts of prey, though they differ in shape”. Israel’s reigning mythology and rhetoric, and of course practice, strike a very familiar chord; and accordingly receive the same acclaim. It is also useful to remember that Christian Zionism long precedes Jewish Zionism, and both movements are animated by a kind of messianic providentialism: God has a design for the world, and we, the chosen people, are the agents of the divine mission. There is a counterpart among secular elements. It is not surprising that the numerically dominant component of the Israel lobby, by a large measure, consists of evangelical Christians; deeply anti-Semitic but strongly supportive of Israeli expansion and violence as an agency of divine will. That has been particularly significant during the past 30 years, when party managers realized that they could mobilize a huge voting bloc by presenting the candidates they market as “people of faith.”
Such factors as these should not be ignored.
The wider context
AK: Reading or hearing the daily reports of the atrocities in Gaza, we naturally focus attention on the events themselves. We focus on the immediate and largely ignore the larger context. Specifically, we ignore the role which the state of Israel has played in support of US and Western interests. This is perhaps unavoidable, given the scale of the catastrophe befalling the Palestinians now.
But stepping back a little from the events, how would you place the most recent attack on Gaza in the wider context, which has developed over several decades? But also looking ahead, what will be likely developments that may redefine Israel’s role in the US-led Western alliance, perhaps pulling the two apart, and allowing or forcing a different relationship between Israel and its neighbors?
NC: There is no need to review here the evolution of the US-Israel relationship. To mention just the bare bones, since 1967, the relationship has conformed to the recognition by US intelligence 50 years ago that a “logical corollary” of US opposition to “radical” (that is, independent) Arab nationalism is reliance on Israel as a base for US domination of the region and its incomparable energy resources. It was clearly understood that this would alienate the ‘Arab street’. But that was dismissed as insignificant. At the same time, the National Security Council, the highest planning circle, gave a clear answer to Eisenhower’s question why there is a “campaign of hatred” against us among the population, though not the leaders. The reason, they explained, is that there is a perception in the Arab world that the US blocks democracy and development, and supports tyranny, so as to gain control of the oil resources. The NSC observed that the perception is accurate, and concluded that we must continue on this course. It is the task of the allied dictatorships to control ‘the street’. That was long before US support for Israel became a major issue. These remain guiding principles.
By now Israel is virtually an offshore US military base and intelligence center. That fact was illustrated dramatically on December 31, right in the midst of the fierce attack on Gaza, by a Pentagon announcement that the US was commissioning a German commercial vessel to bring a huge shipment of armaments to Israel (the shipment was blocked by the Greek government, so different means had to be found). The announcement passed without notice, just as the media takes no notice of the fact that Israel is relying on US weapons, in violation of US law. The few who inquired were informed that the arms were not intended for Israel’s attack on Gaza, but were being pre-positioned for the use of the US military — that is, for aggression, which is routinely called “defense” and commitment to “stability.”
Israel is also a valued high-tech center, as illustrated by the increase of investment in Israel by leading US high-tech firms: Intel, Microsoft, etc. In military industry, relations are so intimate that one of the leading Israeli military producers, Rafael, plans to move most of its development and manufacturing operations to the US — to provide the arms more efficiently to the IDF. And Israel performs many other services to state and corporate power.
In contrast, Palestinians offer nothing to US power centers. They are weak, impoverished, and defenseless. Accordingly, they have no rights, by elementary principles of statecraft. In fact they have negative rights, since their plight stirs up the ‘Arab street’. Enhancing Israeli power at the expense of Palestinians therefore makes sense.
The primary goal of the attack on Gaza was to silence any Palestinian opposition to the US-backed Israeli takeover of whatever is of value in the West Bank, while undermining the prospects for a viable two-state settlement in accord with the international consensus that the US and Israel have blocked for over 30 years, in international isolation, and still do — other facts that are scrupulously kept from the general public and unknown to the educated classes as well, with rare exceptions. West Bank opposition has been largely controlled by Israeli violence, now with the support of collaborationist Palestinian forces trained and armed by the US and its friendly dictators: it is notable that Obama, in his few statements on the conflict, stressed Jordan’s constructive role in training these forces. But Gaza — the other portion of what remains of Palestine — had not yet been subdued. In that context the destruction of Gaza and annihilation of its social and cultural institutions makes good strategic sense.
And it also makes sense for US-backed Israeli settlement and development projects to proceed in the West Bank while attention is diverted to the destruction of Gaza.
But there are counter-forces. These actions rely on the willingness of the West to support them, and on the complicity of Arab leaders. And all of this in turn depends on whether the populations will passively accept their contribution to criminal violence, repression, and illegal expansion. On that matter, as you mentioned before, the mood is changing, and may change sufficiently to bring the US to conformity with the overwhelming international call for a viable two-state settlement, and to induce the EU to adopt a stance more independent of US power. Something similar might happen, in some fashion, in the Arab world. Palestinians have shown astonishing courage and endurance, but they cannot, alone, confront the overwhelming power of US, tolerated or supported by the EU and the Arab dictatorships.
The long view
AK: This is related to the previous question, but away from global geopolitics and closer to how Israeli society views itself, if it is to live peacefully with its neighbors in the future. There are well-informed commentators who have a bleak reading of Israel’s history, not because of its past deeds, but because of how it projects itself now and into the future — a society that will remain an advance post of the West against a rising East — and because of its dogged refusal to acknowledge that its interests, as it sees them, have been predicated on the destruction of Palestinian society and antagonism to its neighbors.
This is a reading that can come from the right, reflecting the view of an unavoidable “clash of civilizations” as propounded by people like Samuel Huntington. And it can come from the left, that there is no possible compromise, that this is “the logic of colonial power.” This is the title of a recent essay by Nir Rosen, commenting on the Gaza events. Rosen is an intelligent journalist and highly informed on Middle East affairs. According to Rosen, short of a transformation which Israel and its overwhelming majority reject, Israelis and Palestinians cannot coexist in historic Palestine, one of the two national groups will have to be excluded (forced to flee or emigrate, or just killed). One of the two societies is doomed in the long run. But, of course, such a scenario cannot be limited to Israel/Palestine and will engulf an already deeply wounded region into many more decades of bloodletting.
Anything in the horizon that may give the lie to this apocalyptic vision?
NC: The description is accurate enough, but I am skeptical about the conclusion, for reasons to which I will return.
As for the description, in 1971, Israel made a fateful decision: President Sadat of Egypt offered a full peace treaty to Israel, with nothing for the Palestinians. While he spoke of implementing full withdrawal, in accord with UN 242 as understood at the time by the US along with others, it was clear that his prime concern was the Sinai. If Israel had accepted Sadat’s peace offer, its security would have been largely guaranteed. Israel considered the offer, recognizing it to be a genuine peace offer, but rejected it, preferring expansion — at that time to the northeast Sinai, where programs were soon implemented to drive out the Bedouin inhabitants and to build Jewish settlements and a major port city, Yamit.
Israel was compelled to accept Sadat’s 1971 offer, at Camp David in 1978-79, but only after a major war that was a near-disaster for Israel.
Since 1971 Israel has, with rare exceptions, preferred expansion to security. That of course entails reliance on the US as its protector. There have been many examples. One of the most noteworthy was Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, intended, as was hardly concealed, to put an end to annoying Palestinian peace initiatives and to enable Israel to carry out its illegal settlement and development programs (another goal, not achieved, was to install a client state in Lebanon). The pretext for the attack was to protect the Galilee from rocketing from Lebanon. That was utter fraud, but it is commonly accepted in the US, even by critics of Israeli policies, like Jimmy Carter: that is the one serious error in Carter’s book on Israel-Palestine, but was ignored in the barrage of criticism, because the lie is so convenient and commonly accepted. The goal of the war was expansion. It hardly contributed to security.
One cannot say that the policy has failed. It has largely achieved the goals explained by General Ezer Weizmann, commander of the Air Force in 1967 (later President of Israel): Contrary to the propaganda, Israel faced no threat of destruction at the time but the conquests enabled it to “exist according to the scale, spirit and quality she now embodies … We entered the Six-Day War in order to secure a position in which we can manage our lives here according to our wishes without external pressures.”
The same reasoning holds for the expansion into the occupied territories. It is illegal as Israel was at once advised by the government’s top legal advisers, but that does not matter: it enhances the “scale, spirit and quality” of the state. The Palestinians are systematically crushed, but neighboring states pose little security threat, and in fact relations are slowly improving. And with firm US backing, Israel can reach the same conclusion as that of the Eisenhower administration 50 years ago: the “Arab street” does not matter, as long as the populations can be controlled by force.
There is a tendency to underestimate the efficacy of violence. Quite often it succeeds. The history of the United States is a very clear example. The colonies became a territorial empire by violence, though some of the founders lamented the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty”, so wrote John Quincy Adams, long after his own major contribution to the crimes. And it has greatly expanded its power since. On a smaller scale, Israel might aspire to a similar course, at least as long as its actions receive US backing.
The outcome might not be as apocalyptic as the grim forecast of Nir Rosen and others. From 1967, Israel has had plans to take over whatever is of value in the occupied territories, and to leave the Palestinians to “live like dogs,” as Moshe Dayan put it, perhaps as picturesque figures leading goats in the distance for tourists to watch as they speed along Israeli-only superhighways. These are the plans that are being implemented right now. They are not concealed, except from the American public, which sustains them. Contrary to many erroneous conclusions, these plans should not pose an insuperable ‘demographic problem’ for Israel — the perennial problem of too many non-Jews in a ‘democratic Jewish state’. Palestinians can be left to rot, without Israel taking responsibility for them. They can call the fragments left to them a “state” if they like, or they can call them “fried chicken”, as the ultra-right Netanyahu government suggested in 1996 when it came into office, as it presumably will again in a few weeks. That appears to be the first indication by an Israeli government that it might tolerate a Palestinian state; the prospect had been forcefully rejected by Prime Minister Shimon Peres, as he was about to leave office in 1996. Gazans can survive as “drugged roaches scurrying in a bottle,” in the elegant phrase of Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan. Arab citizens of Israel can be removed either by transfer or by border modifications, in accord with the proposals of Avigdor Lieberman, the Moldovan head of an ultra-nationalist right-wing party that is expected to gain in the elections, and to be part of the governing coalition. His proposal was at first bitterly denounced as racist, but it has now migrated to the center as the country lurches to the jingoist right. It is advocated, for example, by Tzipi Livni, the head of Kadima, considered a dove in the Israeli spectrum.
Hardly attractive, but not apocalyptic either. And not at all unlikely as matters are now progressing.
Is there any hope for a more attractive future? Quite definitely. Eight years ago, in negotiations in Taba, Israeli and Palestinian high officials came close to an agreement that approximated the long-standing international consensus. In their last press conference they said that in a few more days they might have concluded an agreement, but the negotiations were called off prematurely by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. That week in Taba is the one real break in over 30 years of US-Israeli rejectionism. The negotiations could proceed because they were tolerated by President Clinton, in his last month in office: in fact, they took place within the loose framework of his ‘parameters’. It is worth noting that the famous Lobby, which rarely challenges US power, was silent at the time.
A great deal has happened since then, but the fundamentals have not changed so radically that a return to that possibility is out of the question. What it requires, again, is the willingness of the US government to permit a peaceful diplomatic settlement. And while there is no sign of that now, with sufficient pressure within the US, or from the outside, it could happen. If such an arrangement is reached, it may be a step towards a more humane outcome in the future.
The complicity of Arab states
AK: Not to forget, it is not only Israel that has been implicated in the devastation of Palestinian society. Arab states, in particular Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have played a particularly pernicious role in the recent Gaza onslaught. Both made clear that Hamas cannot be allowed to prevail in Gaza. That Hamas was democratically elected in January 2006 mattered for naught, it had to be destroyed, no matter the price to be paid by the Gaza population. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are crucial pieces in the system of domination led by the US.
Part of the battle for a progressive grassroots movement in the US in relation to Israel is relatively easy to identify. The tasks are straightforward: confront the Israeli lobby AIPAC and the many apologists of Israeli excesses in the intelligentsia, promote dissent within the American-Jewish community, demand accountability for the enormous foreign aid package that Israel receives from the US, etc.
But where do we begin to confront the US-Egypt connection and the US-Saudi Arabia connection? True, Egypt is the recipient of the second largest foreign aid package from the US, for which we should demand accountability, but there is no constituency to speak of inside American society that is prone to defend the excesses of the Egyptian dictatorship. In the case of Saudi Arabia, there is even less in which we can engage political activists. It seems we need to confront these connections simultaneously (US-Israel, US-Egypt, US-Saudi Arabia) and expose the way they deeply depend on each other. How do we do this?
NC: It is true that Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US aid, but that is because of its willingness to support — at least tacitly — US-backed Israeli policies, and US regional policies generally. If the US were to permit a peaceful diplomatic settlement for Israel-Palestine, the need to support the Egyptian dictatorship would decline, and opposition here could more easily be organized. Saudi Arabia is a different matter. It is the oldest and most valued US ally in the region, for obvious reasons: that is where most of the oil is. Like Egypt, Saudi Arabia long ago joined the international consensus that the US and Israel have blocked. The ‘Saudi Plan’, adopted by the Arab League, even goes beyond the consensus in calling for full normalization of relations with Israel. It is significant that President Obama, in his first foreign policy statements, praised the plan while deliberately excluding its central component: a two-state settlement. But though so far Obama is at least as extremist as Bush on these matters, that too can change, and if the US joins the rest of the world, the US-Saudi connections can be addressed in a different manner. That is not the whole story, of course; oil politics is a separate matter, though of course related. But I think that a lot of ground would be cleared if the US were to abandon its rejectionist stand.
Back to the immediate
AK: There is now a cease-fire of sorts. It is a very temporary relief. It stops the carnage, but does it make the Palestinian plight any less desperate? Yes, after what has happened in Gaza in recent weeks, peace with Israel seems more remote than ever. Israel may not have achieved all of its proclaimed goals in Gaza, and some commentators on the left even maintain that “Israel was defeated” or that “the war on Gaza was a another setback for Israel” — allowing for some hyperbole, perhaps this is so from a long-term historical perspective. But for the immediate next few years, Israel, far more than the Palestinians, can continue to live with an unresolved conflict. Israeli society continues to function reasonably well, on its own terms of antagonism to Palestinians and other Arabs around them, and its economy is still running and barely affected by the Gaza war. More perhaps, a continuing unresolved conflict is precisely what Israeli leaders want. By contrast, Palestinian society is more fragmented than ever, its economy largely broken and increasingly dependent on external handouts. Obviously it will be a long struggle to turn things around, but for the immediate, where do we focus our efforts in the US and the West more generally? What can we do in specific ways to provide the Palestinians with sustenance for the long haul and help them survive for a better day?
NC: You are right to say, “of sorts.” Hamas did call for a cease-fire, but Israel, while formally issuing its own cease-fire, instantly rejected it. Israel insisted that no cease-fire can be implemented without the return of the captured soldier Gilad Shalit. He is a household name in the West, unlike the Muammar brothers, the two Gaza civilians kidnapped in an IDF raid one day before the capture of Shalit. Uncontroversially, kidnapping civilians is a far more serious crime than capture of a soldier of an attacking army, but in the West, only Shalit exists — and of course there is no attention to Israel’s regular practice over many decades of kidnapping civilians in Lebanon or on the high seas, sending them to Israeli prisons, sometimes secret prisons, sometimes held as hostages for many years. But thanks to deep-seated Western racism and imperial mentality, the Israel demand that there can be no cease-fire without the release of Shalit appears reasonable.
That is only the beginning, however. The London Financial Times reports that “rebuilding homes and fixing Gaza’s broken infrastructure will depend on Israel’s willingness to let in cement, bricks and machinery. Israel is adamant that it will not allow in such supplies in the near future, fearing that a speedy reconstruction of the war-ravaged strip would benefit Hamas and enhance its legitimacy.” That form of savagery is also considered natural among Western elites, who have only contempt for democracy unless free elections come out ‘the right way’. Hence Israel can continue its brutal siege, undermining the cease-fire. A siege of course is an act of war.
I also agree that Israel can ‘continue to live with an unresolved conflict’. In fact, a leading principle of Zionist doctrine long before the state was established, and continuing since, has been to try to delay diplomacy while establishing “facts on the ground,” to determine the contours of some eventual settlement. That is exactly what is happening now.
Apart from providing Palestinians with whatever relief we can, the focus of action should, as you say, be in the United States. What are the proper tactics? For those who care about the fate of the Palestinians, the tactics will be chosen so that they work — primarily, work to pressure the US government to depart from its rejectionist stance, so that diplomatic efforts can proceed, and Israel will withdraw to negotiated borders.