Maher on Israel-Palestine

Stephen Maher on the Israeli-Palestine conflict 

Stephen Maher is a graduate student at the School of International Service at American University, where much of his study has focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He recently returned from his second trip to the Occupied Palestinian Territories this year, where he saw first-hand the plight of the Palestinians, the sometimes-fatal struggles of activists against the Israeli occupation and the West Bank wall, and the flawed, dependent nature of Palestinian institutions. 

Below is an interview with Maher, which takes a cursory look at the conflict, and recent developments in the region. It is designed to give those not too familiar with the conflict answers to basic questions.  

Maher is interviewed by Michael Corcoran, a journalist who has written for the Boston Globe and the Nation, and a graduate student of international relations at the John McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at UMass Boston.  

MC: Could you tell readers what brought you to Palestine? What exactly are you doing there? 

SM: I first went last summer for three months, when I took part in a workshop which tried to present as wide a spectrum of views on the conflict as it could. After the workshop, which lasted ten days, I did an internship at the Palestinian Legislative Council, which is the legislative arm of the Palestinian Authority, essentially an Israeli sub-contractor in its quest to annex large portions of the West Bank and suppress dissent and resistance. 

The workshop and program had many problems, which we can get into, but what amazed me was how much you can learn by observing the situation as it unfolds and immersing yourself in the context of the subject of study. Suddenly, the "issue" you are researching ceases to be an "issue" at all, but rather the lives of your friends in a city in which you once lived. It is amazing how large a portion of what we see and hear everyday about the Palestinian struggle and the arab-Israeli conflict more broadly is refuted or corrected by spending time on the ground, talking to people, making friends, traveling the area, and learning what is going on by living the life of those you seek to understand, seeing the world through their eyes. Needless to say, it goes a long way. 

My time working with the PLC over that summer taught me a lot about the functioning of the Palestinian Authority, the entity which is supposedly going to turn into the government of a future Palestinian state after some "interim period" of indefinite length, which we are presently in. From this experience I drew my thesis topic, which deals with the dependent, dysfunctional, and often counterproductive nature of Palestinian political institutions. When it came time to start researching, I really wanted to go back the Occupied Territories, to re-immerse myself and deepen my understanding as I was discussing earlier. I applied for, and received, a grant from my university to travel to the Occupied Territories and conduct independent research, which will become the body of my thesis. My time working for the PLC provided me with high-level contacts in each of the major political parties and factions, which I used to secure high-level interviews across the political and ideological spectrum. 

I was able to do much valuable research while I lived in Ramallah for four months. However I would like to believe that my reasons for going to the West Bank were greater than simply obtaining information for use in my study. Perhaps the most important reason I went was to resist the shockingly overt and astonishingly brutal Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people: the theft of land and resources, the imprisonment and crushing of a whole people, an entire society ground into the dirt under the Israeli boot-heel. Anyone who really looks at the outrageous criminality of the Israeli government cannot respond with anything other than moral outrage and anger. The question, then, for the scholar and the intellectual is what he does with these justified, human emotions. I channel them into writing about and exposing what is happening to the people here as much as I can. 

MC: For those readers who are not very familiar with the circumstances in Israel/Palestine, could you describe, generally, what is happening there? 

SM: This is a huge question, and one that requires an equally substantial answer. However, I will try to put it as briefly as I can.  

Since the mid-1970s, there has existed a broad international consensus for resolving the so-called Palestine-Israel conflict, commonly referred to as the "two-state solution." This solution is based on a simple quid-pro-quo: Israeli withdrawal from the territory it seized by force in 1967, and Palestinian recognition of Israel's right to live in peace and security with its neighbors. For nearly 40 years, the US and Israel have unilaterally blocked the implementation of this solution on two main grounds: 1) Israel refuses to withdraw from the territories it has illegally occupied since 1967, and 2) Israel has opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as its capital. The PLO accepted the two-state solution - ambiguously, to be sure - in 1973, and again, more explicitly, in 1988. All 22 member states of the Arab league have also explicitly accepted this solution. Furthermore, every year the UN General Assembly passes a resolution called "Peaceful Settlement of the Palestine Question," containing the above formulation for the two-state solution. Year after year, it is passed overwhelmingly by the entire United Nations, with only the United States, Israel, Australia, and some tiny south-sea dependencies standing in opposition (in 2008, it was passed 164 to 7). Meanwhile, the so-called "radicals" on the issue who are claimed to be "obstacles to peace," Iran and Hezbollah, have said they would endorse any solution which the Palestinians accept. The problem lies with US-Israeli rejectionism. 

Israeli crimes against the Palestinians are so shocking, and so overt, that the only reasonable reaction is outrage and fury. Importantly, these crimes - most recently including the genocidal attack on Gaza - could not continue were it not for critical US support that Israel receives in all areas, unprecedented in the history of international affairs. According to a 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service, US aid to Israel is as high as $6.8 million per day. Meanwhile, the US shields Israeli policy from international criticism through its exercise of the crucial UN Security Council veto, used most recently to block for weeks a UN cease-fire which would have pressured Israel to stop its obscene slaughter of poor, defenseless Palestinian civilians in Gaza (killing 1500 out of a population of 1.5 million, mostly civilians). The savage attack included the use of white phosphorous, a horrific, indiscriminant chemical weapon which causes severe chemical burns to those who come into contact with it, on densely-populated refugee camps. The phosphorous used by the Israelis - along with the other weapons employed in the massacre - was manufactured and supplied by the United States. 

Yet Israeli crimes are for more regular, and - though I shudder to use the term - routine than the occasional extermination of impoverished, defenseless refugees. Since 1967, Israel has embarked on a massive project of annexation in the West Bank, marked by the continuous theft of Palestinian land and resources through a variety of methods. The most noticeable, and newest, is the Apartheid / Annexation Wall (or "separation fence" as the Israelis misleadingly refer to it). While the border between Israel and the West Bank is only a little more than 300 km long, the wall is over 800 km in length, meaning that the wall snakes miles into Palestinian territory, taking the most valuable land and resources on the western, "Israeli" side, and turning Palestinian communities into dungeons, utterly impoverished with no resources or land to sustain themselves. 

This enterprise is also advanced by the constant expansion of the illegal settlement colonies throughout the West Bank, which monopolize Palestinian resources and land with the full support of the Israeli state. These colonies are linked to each other and to major urban centers in Israel with a dense network of "bypass roads," designed to bypass Palestinian areas, and thus superimpose a new economic infrastructure which deliberately marginalizes and further impoverish Arab communities in the West Bank. All-in-all, this leaves Palestinian communities dispossessed of their land by the wall and settlements and encircled by the bypass roads, impoverished, and marginalized, separated into cantons, prison cells which are controlled from the outside by Israel. 

MC: You mention the support of the U.S., which comes in the form of both large amounts of international aid, as you mentioned, and also public indifference or, in some cases outright support, for Israeli aggression. Since the U.S. plays such a vital role in this issue, what can Americans do, if anything, to oppose these policies? And is there a role for the labor movement?  

SM: Actually while many observers, particularly the liberals, criticize the US for "looking the other way" while Israel commits violations of all sorts, this is hardly the case. Israel would not be able to continue its occupation and annexation project for a single day, nor sustain an assault of the kind we saw against Gaza, without critical US support. The United States quite literally subsidizes the whole enterprise, while shielding Israel from international pressure to alter its behavior. Therefore, the US is an active participant and in fact a vehement supporter of horrific Israeli crimes in the West Bank, Gaza, and elsewhere. 

In my opinion Americans have a very important role in stopping Israeli atrocities. Since the American government is the primary enabler of Israeli crimes, popular organization in the United States is perhaps the most important key to changing the policy. This has to begin by spreading awareness and educating people about the nature of the crimes, which are largely ignored by the American media. If this crucial step - educating people - is not the first focus of activist work, then any criticism of Israel can be silenced (as it often is) by labeling critics anti-Semites. Such misuse of anti-semitism has been well documented by Norman Finkelstein, in his Beyond Chutzpah and The Holocaust Industry, both of which are excellent books and which should be read by anyone who is interested in these matters. If education doesn't take a primary role, it would be impossible to expect people to understand why such important actions as divestment and so on are reasonable and even necessary. 

The role of the labor movement is to support these efforts, in solidarity with human beings who are undergoing tremendous hardship, including mass murder, at the hands of the US empire. Unfortunately, my limited experience with the radical labor movement in the United States has not been encouraging. While it is important to stay focused on the "workers good, bosses bad" mentality, the insistence on seeing the entire world through this prism is dogmatic and often counterproductive. It is understandable why socialists and anarchists would be hesitant to endorse nationalist movements, such as the Palestinian national struggle. However, in this case, where a people have been dispossessed at the hands of a Jewish nationalist movement, the Zionist movement, to refuse to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian national struggle in favor of adhering to leftist dogma is woefully misguided, and privileges the rights of the Jews, who have already achieved statehood, over the Arabs, who are subject to the occupation and overall domination of the Jewish collective. As Howard Zinn has said, "you can't be neutral on a moving train." If we refuse to stand with the Palestinians in their struggle for a state in the West Bank in Gaza, are we to say that their military rule by Israel should continue until all nation-states are abolished? The consequences of this attitude for self-determination, freedom, human rights, and democracy are tremendous. As an anarchist, I am no supporter of the state. However, as a believer in democracy and self-determination, and freedom from domination, dispossession, and mass murder at the hands of the American empire I find no alternative but to endorse the Palestinian national movement. 

MC: What does the U.S. have to gain by supporting Israeli aggression, other than the wrath of much of the Arab world, and the international community more broadly?  

SM: This is an interesting question, and actually gets to the heart of the way the American empire functions, all around the world. To illustrate, I think it would be helpful to look at another example. What does the US stand to gain from terrorizing desperately poor Nicaraguan peasants struggling for the most basic human rights, first by propping up the brutal Somoza dictatorship, then, once they have finally managed to overthrow him, tearing the country apart for a decade by funding, training, and even directly commanding Contra terrorists? After all, Nicaragua is a tiny, poor country. And it does not stop at Nicaragua. For approximately a decade, the US waged a horrific campaign of rape, slaughter, and destruction, which wrecked three countries, possibly beyond repair. Why? Why, during these years, was the largest embassy in the world in Honduras? Surely,not because Honduras was the most important country for any perceptible reason. Why has the US worked tirelessly for decades to strangle the economy of the small island of Cuba? 

The answers to these questions can be found in internal US planning documents, and the principles they speak to are deeply embedded in any system of imperial domination. As US planners explain, Castro is a dangerous figure not because he posed any territorial or physical threat to the United States, but because the Cuban Revolution represented an example "successful defiance" of US policy. In short, the Cuban people had committed the cardinal sin: they had overthrown a US dictator, Batista, and replaced him with someone of their own choosing, Fidel Castro, who refused to follow US orders. As a result, they had to be starved, terrorized, invaded, intimidated, and so on until they accepted their Washington-designated role as subordinate beings and dutifully carried out our wishes. The threat is that if this defiance is permitted to succeed, it could invigorate copycats elsewhere to follow suit, and refuse to submit to their colonial masters, who are ostensibly on a mission to civilize the world's barbarian hordes. 

In Nicaragua, the problem was similar. As an Oxfam report written by Diana Melrose put it, it represented "the threat of a good example" to US elites. In short, the poor majority in Nicaragua had managed to organize, and to fight successfully against the vicious Somoza regime for rights like healthcare, education, and a more fair distribution of wealth under the Sandinista government. The US then became committed to sabotaging the revolution, at tremendous human cost, through the use of blind terrorism. Like the Cuban Revolution, if the Nicaraguan Revolution succeeded, it would have taught others around the world that they do not have to follow American orders, they do not have to resign themselves to a wretched existence in their neocolonial shackles. It is possible to rise up, and it is possible to succeed in making a better life, or at least determining your own future. This logic is deeply engrained in the American imperial system, just as it was the British and others. 

I have seen this threat at work in my travels, and can attest that planners in Washington are right to be concerned. Heroes in the struggle against imperialism from all over the world become examples, and role models in the fight for freedom and self-determination. For example, in Egypt, there is a square named for Simon Bolivar, complete with his statue. Bolivar, the Latin American leader who led that continent to its independence from Spanish colonialism, has inspired people a half a world and several generations away. In the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps just outside Beirut, there hang large posters of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The downtrodden and dispossessed Palestinian refugees, like the wretchedly impoverished peoples elsewhere in the third world, are inspired by this man, who in their perception has stood up to Washington's global economic programs and allowed average, poor people, like them, to determine their own future with dignity, even if that means going against US dictates. These survival of these figures, the focus of much of Washington's ire, shows that the might US is not invincible after all, that there are ways its global dominance can be challenged and even defeated. This is the real threat. 

In the Middle East, the major energy-producing region of the world, preventing the emergence of such a model is an especially critical goal. This is the reason that the US has historically backed the most reactionary, authoritarian governments in the region, who have assisted it in its goal of squashing the more progressive, or at least independent forces, such as the pan-Arabism of Nasser, or Qasim's Iraq. Should the Palestinians succeed in their national struggle against Israel, the message would ring loud and clear, sending shockwaves to all corners of the region and indeed the world: Israel is not invincible, as the Americans would like you to believe. The mighty empire can be defeated, it can fall; if you fight long and hard enough, you can prevail. The implications of this would be tremendous, as you could imagine. 

On another level, the occupation and other aggressive policies often enable Israel to retain or acquire control of vital resources, such as water, which are scarce in the region, and running out rapidly. The 1967 war, for example, saw Israel conquer the water-rich (and strategically vital) Golan Heights from Syria, as well as capturing the fertile West Bank, whose water Israel now controls as well. 

MC:  Your explanation is quite different than the way U.S. officials put it; namely, that the special relationship between the two countries is a result of their mutual commitments to democracy.  Is there any truth to this? Also, could you explain the concept of the "Israel lobby," as some call it, and what role, if any, does it play in shaping either U.S policy or the debate within the country?  

SM: Naturally, the rhetoric coming out of centers of power is pure public relations, proclaiming "our" noble intentions and unwavering dedication to the highest ideals as the primary motive behind our policies around the world. Even a cursory look at the facts and a moment's thought could instantly reveal this to be the nonsense that it surely is. If commitment to democracy is the primary motive driving US relations, why is the most important US ally in the world Saudi Arabia? Why does the United States subsidize the cruel Egyptian dictatorship, fully supporting its efforts to stifle democracy in that country? If we seek to explain what makes US policy towards two countries different, it follows that we should try to identify what is different between those countries in the first place. So, for instance, to return to an example we just used, what is the difference between Venezuela and Colombia? Both have some degree of democracy (Venezuela much more so). But Uribe, the President of Colombia, follows US orders faithfully, while Chavez resists US regional designs. As a result, the Colombian government is the top recipient of US aid in the hemisphere, matching its distinction as its worst human rights violator, while Venezuela is vilified and bullied. 

To take another example closer to the issue at hand, look at Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both are extreme, repressive fundamentalist regimes, although Iran is a great deal more democratic than Saudi Arabia (which is not saying much, to be sure). Why then is Iran placed under isolating, crippling sanctions while the Saudis are given billions of dollars in weapons contracts and so on? Leaving aside the actual merits of the charge, one could of course make the argument, as Washington does, that Iran supports so-called "terrorist groups" like Hezbollah. But that would still not explain the difference with Saudi Arabia, which has bankrolled radical Sunni groups all over the world for decades with the approval and consent of the US, including setting up the madrassas in Pakistan which spawned the Taliban, generously subsidizing the mujahadeen in Afghanistan which spawned part of what is now commonly referred to as "Al-Qaeda," and on and on. The difference is that Saudi Arabia has been a reliable US subordinate since its creation in 1932, while the Iranians overthrew a US-backed dictator in 1979, a sin for which, like the Cubans and Nicaraguans, they must be punished. 

The Israel Lobby argument is tricky, and one which is often simply a veneer for anti-Semitism. First, we must understand that the so-called "Israel Lobby" is by no means exclusively or even predominantly Jewish, but rather is made up of large numbers of frothing-at-the-mouth radical Christian Evangelicals and others as well. The problem with the Walt and Mearsheimer argument, as I understand it, is that they radically understate the scope and power of the lobby. While the "lobby groups" that Walt and Mearsheimer have in mind can do things like get Congress to pass a resolution to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, it is the overall strategic relationship with Israel which guides US policy, not a small evil cadre of individuals in Washington. If the overall elite consensus was not of the view that the US relationship with Israel is of crucial importance, in order to terrorize the region into following US orders, then the Lobby would be out of business in days. 

In the article (I have not read the book) their definition of the lobby is roughly those groups in society, which seek to bend public perception of the issue to engender support for Israel. To conduct a rational analysis, the next step after defining the group to be examined is to find out why such groups behave in such a way. The answer, as Chomsky and Herman, for example, have shown, is that they act in this way (in support of Israel) because the crimes Israel commits are in the interests of US elites. After all, the members of AIPAC do not write the editorials in the New York Times, which refuse to condemn Israel for its actions, or the articles which refuse to mention them. These tasks are performed by members of the intellectual elite, who would thus have to be included in Walt and Mearsheimer's definition of the "Lobby." Further inaccuracies are revealed when we observe that it is not just Israel who receives such freedom from criticism from the intellectual elite, but all US allies, or states acting in US interests. Should these crimes no longer serve these interests, they would meet with criticism, from these and other elite forums. Thus what Walt and Mearsheimer are observing is not the devious actions of small cadre, but rather the normal functioning of the uncritical US intellectual elite, who, like all such classes, mainly serve the purpose of "selling" state policy, formulated in the interests of elites, to the public. 

For example, in 2005 the Bush Administration imposed harsh military and economic sanctions on Israel, in order to force compliance on a variety of issues, under the pretext of punishment to the Israelis for a weapons deal with the Chinese. Israel had done such deals in the past, and usually simply called them off when Washington expressed problems. However, in this case, the sanctions lasted for many months, including taking Israel off the list of partners in the development of the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the suspension of military assistance and cooperation, and so on. In an extremely humiliating way, Israel was forced to pay a significant sum to the Chinese firm for breach of contract, re-write its entire procedure for arms sales, re-arrange staff, and enact a whole host of changes in its policies in the occupied territories including the Gaza "disengagement" plan. Sharon had been too arrogant, and the US applied the necessary pressure, which brought him to his knees, complying with every demand. Most important for our purposes, however, was that during the whole episode the "lobby" was silent - it did not utter a single word of complaint. We can thus see that the Lobby is permitted to exist because it serves the interests of US elites more broadly, not the other way around. If Walt and Mearsheimer's argument were true, we should expect that the US would be forced to capitulate to Israeli demands, enslaved and constrainted by the practices of the vicious "Lobby," which interrupts our normally benevolent and noble policies.