How to end the Israel-Palestine conflict

Norman Finkelstein is one of the world's foremost scholars on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He is the author of, most recently, Beyond Chutzpah, which systematically documents the realities of Israel's human rights record, and This Time We Went Too Far, an analysis of Israel's assault on Gaza in 2008-9.

His forthcoming book argues that American Jews are distancing from Israel as the dissonance between the latter's conduct and their liberal values increases. Also, together with Mouin Rabbani, he has written a pamphlet intervening in the Palestinian solidarity movement to make a case for how to resolve the conflict. Jamie Stern-Werner of New Left Project met up with him last week to talk about it.

In your forthcoming book you argue that American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel. What is the evidence for that?

There are two kinds of evidence. First, there is a huge amount of polling evidence now showing that, at least in the under-forty generation, there is a significant distancing from Israel. There are some people who still say it's not true – they claim that in all generations the younger are always more distant, and then as they get older they feel more of a pull towards Israel. That's called the 'lifecycle thesis'. But it's not credible anymore. The best pollsters, like Stephen Cohen, are clear that if you ask questions like, not just 'How do you feel about Israel?' but 'How often do you talk about Israel?', 'How closely do you follow events in Israel?' and so on, if you look at all that polling evidence it's clear that a distancing is occurring.

Having said that, one qualification. There is serious dispute about what is causing the distancing. So people like Stephen Cohen say it's intermarriage - Jews are now intermarrying at a rate of about 60% in the United States, and when you intermarry you tend to settle in a less Jewish-centric milieu. And when you're in a less Jewish-centric milieu, then the tendency to feel a pull towards Israel begins to weaken, because nobody around you is talking about it. It's not a focus of conversation. So the qualification is: even if you acknowledge that an estrangement from Israel is occurring, there is still the second question of what accounts for it.

Aside from the polling evidence, I think the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. You see it everywhere, with high-profile defectors like Peter Beinart and David Remnick, and then you read all of these testimonials by Jews talking about how they're really embarrassed by the way Israel is carrying on. You see this whenever there's a meeting or convention. There was the Jewish Federations General Assembly recently, and Peter Beinart gave one of his anguished speeches, and then a young woman stood up and she started to avow her anguish... it's everywhere. This is not sightings of Elvis – this is serious anecdotal evidence that Jews are becoming less and less attached to Israel.

And what's the significance of that?

It's very important if you believe that the Israel lobby has played a critical role in blocking a settlement of the conflict through the pressures it exerts on the U.S. government. If you see the lobby as a series of concentric circles, there's a 'core', and they're not going to change – they're paid lobbyists, that's their job – but it moves out and at some point includes broader Jewish sentiment. Not its core, but moving outwards, it includes for example many Jews who write for newspapers and magazines, and so on. In the conventional sense that's not a lobby – they're not paid agents. But if you understand the lobby, and I think it's a reasonable way to look at it, as a series of concentric circles stretching from a core of paid lobbyists out towards the broader Jewish community, then Jewish opinion plays a big role in the lobby's effectiveness. Liberal Jewish alienation from Israel means that we're reaching the point where we can reduce the lobby to its core – which is still a pain, no question about it, and still represents a lot of money, but it means we have a chance of reaching people now.

Why are American Jews becoming disillusioned with Israel?

There is a common misunderstanding here, because everybody just assumes that the one and only factor shaping American Jewish attachment to Israel, and also the inexorable one, is the 'ethnic' factor: if you're Jewish you must be pro-Israel, in fact you must be fanatically pro-Israel. But the historical evidence shows that the relationship in fact depends on three factors.

One factor is ethnicity, for sure, because if you're Catholic there's just no particular interest from the get-go in Israel. It might develop, but as a point of departure it's not there – it has to be created. In the case of Jews, the ethnic factor is the foundational factor. If you're Jewish, you're going to have an immediate connection with Israel. How powerful that connection is, that's a secondary issue, but there will be something. So I'm not going to in any way deny or diminish the ethnic factor, but it has to be contextualised.

For example, there is an ethnic factor after 1948, but it is very seriously weakened by the 'citizenship' factor: the fact that Jews enjoy citizenship in the United States. After World War II, Jews were flourishing in the United States, and they didn't want to jeopardise their standing as American citizens. Jews have always been burdened by the 'dual loyalty' bogey and have been historically identified with the Left (not without good reason – the American Communist Party was way disproportionately Jewish; the Bolsheviks were mainly Jewish; etc.). So Jews had to worry about both the historical legacy of the 'dual loyalty' charge, compounded by the fact that with the beginning of the Cold War they had to dissociate from the Soviet Union and the whole leftist tradition. Israel, moreover, was at that time seen as leftist – the ruling Mapai party was staunch Second International, and the main opposition party Mapam was staunch Stalinist. American Jews didn't want much to do with that. And so the citizenship factor seriously diluted the ethnic factor, to the point where there was really no interest in Israel. If you look at the whole record, and I've read it carefully, from '48-'67, there's nothing on Israel there. You go through the issues of Commentary magazine, Israel would appear in about one issue out of every twenty, around article number thirteen headlined something like, 'Bar Mitzvah in Israel'. Those were the kind of articles they would run about Israel.

The third factor, which I think is now the salient one, is ideology. American Jews have historically, at least for the past 80 years, been ideologically committed as liberal democrats. I go through all the evidence in the book – no point going through it now, but it's clear. And I think that's the factor that is most affecting American Jewish loyalties to Israel now. To put it simply: Israel has become an embarrassment. Its whole way of conducting itself, not to mention the whole mindset of its leadership, is illiberal: in its foreign policy, complete contempt and disregard for international institutions; in its domestic policy now, serious inroads on the most fundamental liberal principle of equality under the law and the rule of law; and in its treatment of the Palestinians and its neighbours, egregious violations of human rights on a systematic and methodical basis.

But those aren't recent developments.

No, but the big difference is that people now know. That's new. They now know, first of all because it's better researched, and secondly because respected and unimpeachable organisations and institutions have now lent their name to the findings. When I was growing up, if you wanted to be critical of Israel's human rights record you had to rely on what was called the 'Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights', which was led by Israel Shahak. Now Shahak was a terrific person, but it's fair to say – no disrespect to him, he's now passed away – that he was exceedingly eccentric. He always wanted to develop his own very individual take on things, which sometimes made him come across as kooky. But he was the only one really investigating Israel's abuses, so you had to rely on him. Nowadays, you can rely on Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and everyone understands that. It's very pleasing to see. I was speaking in Leeds, and they showed me a student article they wrote on political prisoners in Israel. And they cite Amnesty, they cite Human Rights Watch... everyone knows immediately that these are the sources to cite. Now, who can Israel cite, apart from its own press releases and Alan Dershowitz? Really, who can they cite? Well, that makes it very hard for a liberal American Jew to say, “Oh well, I don't believe any of the human rights organisations, I believe Israel.”

So if liberalism is shifting American Jews' attachment to Israel, is American liberal opinion more broadly changing too?

Oh yeah - you see the evidence in people like Jimmy Carter, Bill Moyers, and so on. But on the topic of Israel-Palestine liberals tend to take their cues from liberal Jews. They'll go out there when they see a large number of Jews do it. It's the same thing with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – Amnesty only began to honestly cover the occupied territories when B'Tselem did. It waited for a Jewish organisation to give it cover.

And this is for good reasons as well as bad – it's not just for mercenary or cowardly reasons. It's a kind of feeling, “Well, Jews have suffered a lot, so I really should defer to the judgement of a liberal Jew on this.” I saw that on the Left too. I was good friends, I loved the guy, with Paul Sweezy, editor of Monthly Review. Sweezy came from a blue-blood patrician family. He was an exceptionally wonderful human being, and he was the leading American Marxist economist. All of his collaborators throughout his life were Jewish – Paul Baran, Harry Magdoff, Leo Huberman... he was that kind of guy, even though his family worked for the House of Morgan. Paul was not afraid of anything, but when it came to Israel and Jewish issues, he always deferred to his Jewish collaborators, out of a kind of respect: “I shouldn't go past where they're going.” And I respected that – I understood it.

It was the same thing with Amnesty. There were the bad reasons – the money. They were afraid that if they were too critical of Israel they would lose funding, because Jews are liberal, and they put all their money in liberal organisations. But there were also the good reasons – Jews went through the Nazi Holocaust, and so we have to be a bit more cautious with them.

OK, so we've discussed why American Jews and liberals more generally are turning from Israel. What do you think follows from this strategically for the Palestinian solidarity movement?

I think that's the most important question now: where does this all take us politically? In my opinion we're now at what you might call the 'Biltmore moment'. As you might know, a turning point in the Zionist movement came in 1942 when Zionist leaders met at the Biltmore Hotel in New York. That's the first time the Zionist movement goes on record for a Jewish state. Until then the goal was very ambiguous – everybody knew privately that they wanted a Jewish state, but they never declared it publicly. But at the Biltmore meeting, they officially set the goal.

I feel like we're now at a Biltmore moment. We're at a point of action. It's no longer only about debate, or about educating people – educating people remains the priority, but it's no longer only about that. We're now at the point where we have to act, and the crucial thing with action is setting a goal that can reach a broad public. I think the only goal that can reach a broad public is the rule of law. That is the dominant language of our epoch, and international law and human rights is also the dominant language of the slice of the public we really want to reach. It's also the language that liberal Jews understand. The rule of law, equality under the law, international institutions – that's their language, and so it has to be constantly impressed upon them that what they are supporting is in violation of the law.

There are costs to orientating the movement around the rule of law. For example, the international legal consensus isn't as firm on the question of the Palestinian refugees as many would like, and international law also says nothing about a single state solution.

I think these are mythical costs. Something can only be a “cost” if it's within your grasp, and you have to sacrifice it. But if it's not within your grasp, it's like saying "the cost is communism", or "the cost is 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his need'" – it's not within our grasp, so how could you use the language of “cost”? There is no broad public that is ready to hear the language of a single state.

Let's take an example. There are homeless people on the streets of New York. If you organise a campaign to get people to give their winter coats to the homeless, you can reach a broad public with that. Most people understand that. If you have an extra winter coat, why not give it? So if some people commit civil disobedience – let's say they block a boulevard – and say they're doing it to wake the conscience of people to the fact that there are homeless people, so if you have a winter coat, why not give it. Most people would be receptive to that. But let's say you go out on the boulevard, and you commit civil disobedience, and you say to people: you have, not extra coats in your houses, but extra space in your houses, so why don't you take in a homeless person? Well, from a moral point of view there's a very strong argument for that. And if you asked “What would Jesus do?” I think it's clear that Jesus would take a person into his house. But is that likely to reach a broad public? Are people going to say, “Sure, take my living room”? No. And so from a moral point of view, you could say that there is a “cost” to advocating just the winter coat. But is it practically a 'cost'? No, because you could never reach people on the room. It's just a mythical, abstract, speculative cost. It's not a practical cost.

What about those who say that the time for a two-state settlement has passed – that it is no longer, practically speaking, feasible to implement?

That's a factual question, and you have to go through it. I have, with detailed maps and so on. There is a practical way to resolve the settlements. The thorniest question of course is the refugees. I'll admit it's not an easy one to resolve. I'm presently working on a book with a Palestinian scholar [Mouin Rabbani] whose judgement I completely trust, and according to our division of labour he's going to handle the refugee question, within our shared framework. I'll see what he has to say.

I've noticed the ascendancy within the American solidarity movement of arguments that focus heavily on the role of the Israel lobby, and on arguments that criticise Israel on the basis that it harms US “national interests”. What explains this do you think?

I think we have to start with the basics: it does appear as though the Israel lobby rules American foreign policy! I mean, on the surface, it does give that appearance, because you always have this president who seems so hapless in the face of the lobby, and you have presidents retreating, and handwringing, and they always seem so anguished... so it does give that appearance. But I think the problem is that people generalise from the Israel-Palestine issue to American foreign policy as a whole.

In my view, on the specific issue of Israel-Palestine, it is true that the Israel lobby shapes policy. I don't see how you can get around that. I mean, look at what happened just now with Dennis Ross. It's quite interesting. Dennis Ross was fired the other day – he calls it quitting, but he got fired. Why? Because he's telling the president “Oh, don't worry about the Palestinians, they're never going to do anything, we have them in our pocket,” and then they defy him. They go to the United Nations. Then they think, “Oh never mind, the British and the French are going to vote with us, don't worry.” The Palestinians go to UNESCO, and the French vote 'yes' and the British abstain. The British didn't abstain when the US asked them to go into Iraq with it, but now they're abstaining. Then the Americans start adding up their votes on the Security Council: all the Europeans except Germany are abstaining. The US has only two additional negative votes – Colombia and Germany. The whole policy is falling apart. The US is being isolated, when it doesn't want to be. In the past it didn't care – it's true, every year in the General Assembly there is a vote on the Palestine question and the US stands virtually alone in rejecting it, but it didn't care. Now it cares. The stakes are high, the issue is salient because the Arab Muslim world is turbulent, and the US doesn't want to be alone. And the only reason it is alone is Israel. Obama feels trapped: he doesn't want to lose the lobby, but on the other hand it is doing them damage now. It is hurting their interests. So you give me another explanation apart from the lobby. I just don't think any other explanation is serious.

But then there is a tendency to generalise from that. Take Iran. The US and Israel are on the same page on Iran. Israel will not do anything without a green light from the US on Iran. Israel knows there are red lines, and that is a red line. Obama, for reasons that utterly perplex me, wants to be re-elected president. He knows that an attack on Iran is a huge gamble. It could set off a devastating chain reaction. And one thing you can say about Obama is that he's not a gambler. He's a very cautious politician. He doesn't go throwing the dice. And so he won't allow Netanyahu to attack, and if he says “No”, it is no.

Which suggests that the lobby is able to be effective on the Israel-Palestine issue because it's not a 'red line' for American elites.

Because it hasn't been a red line. Now problems are developing for the US, and I think that's why Dennis Ross is out: because all of his advice proved wrong. He was counting on the past, and now his advice has proven a complete disaster. Things have gotten out of control. Now what the US will do in this situation is very hard to say. Obama doesn't want to lose the lobby, but on the other hand, national interests are at stake. I won't say they're yet first tier interests, but they're getting up there. I'll have to wait and see what will happen. The US does not want to be an outlier when it's in the headlights.

So in this respect have the Arab uprisings had the effect of raising the costs for the US of supporting Israel?

Yes, definitely. They've had a very big effect.

So, to wrap up, you say we're now in a moment for action. What specifically should activists be calling for?

I don't see how any person can here find objectionable the demand to “enforce the law”. I cannot believe you couldn't reach the majority of people on that slogan. Of course Israel's defenders will say “Oh, the law is ambiguous,” but we can very easily show that it's not. The law is very clear. There is no respectable institution or organisation in the world today which says that the settlements are legal. You go from the International Court of Justice to human rights can't name one. The law is not ambiguous. Nor is it ambiguous on the borders: Israel has no right to any of the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem. The only area where you can say there is an element of ambiguity is that the international community mostly uses the formula of a "just resolution" of the refugee question based on the right of return and compensation. With the human rights organisations there's also an element of ambiguity on this issue: they use the formulation that those who were expelled and the succeeding generations which have preserved or retained "genuine links" with the land are entitled to return. Those are ambiguous words, you have to be honest about that. So there's room for give and take there, but everywhere else there is no wiggle room: the law is clear.

summary of suggested border modificationsThis doesn't mean that people can't still find a way to figure out something reasonable. At that moment, we pull out of our pocket the map proposed by Palestinian negotiators in 2008 and say, “This seems to be reasonable.' All of the settlements are illegal, but the Palestinians have presented a map which says you can keep 60% of the settlers. How much more reasonable can you get? And so you can show that there is a way to be both principled and reasonable. What does it mean to be both principled and reasonable? “Here it is” – the map. It's principled, because the Palestinians want every last inch of land that belongs to them. But it's also reasonable, because they say “Here are some land swaps, you can keep a large number of your settlers, and so on.”

That seems to me to be the formula. You show that map, how can a reasonable person say no? I think we have a way now, because for the first time a broad public is listening. They tell me that in the UK, and this sounds right to me, that the attitude of most people is now, “Yes, there's a problem there, and yes, Israel bears some responsibility. About 50% of the responsibility is Israel's, and 50% is the Palestinians’.” That's not accurate, but it's also not bad. If they say “50/50”, then we can show them that it's actually not 50/50. It's not such a big battle to win them over to our side. It used to be '100/0' – 100% of the responsibility on the Palestinian side, zero on Israel's. So with that broad public ready to listen, I think we can do it. {jathumbnailoff}

Jamie Stern-Weiner studies politics at the University of Cambridge, and is interested in the history of political thought, British foreign policy, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. His articles have been published on Le Monde Diplomatique and Znet, and he is co-editor of New Left Project. He can be found on twitter @jamiesw

[Full disclosure: Jamie Stern-Werner assisted with research for the pamphlet mentioned at the top of the piece.]

This article was originally published on New Left Project under a Creative Commons BY-NC 3.0 License.

Image top: anttiveikko.