Which way forward for Palestinian liberation?
Hussein Ibish and Joel Kovel with Richard Rubin
Platypus Review 22 | April 2010
On February 23, Platypus hosted an event entitled Which Way Forward for Palestinian Liberation? in which Joel Kovel, author of Overcoming Zionism and frequent commentator on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and Hussein Ibish, political analyst and senior fellow at The American Task Force on Palestine, answered questions posed by Richard Rubin of Platypus. An audience question and answer session followed. Below is an edited transcript of the event. The Platypus Review encourages readers to listen to the full audio of the event, available online at the above link.
Richard Rubin: Many people would question whether a debate on the one-state versus the two-state "solution" for Israel-Palestine is worthwhile. They feel the focus should be on Israel’s violation of human rights and that raising the question of whether one should strive for one state or two is at best a distraction and at worst divisive, since it highlights internal Palestinian divisions. Why then, from your different standpoints, is this an important discussion to have?
Joel Kovel: We must keep in mind what is essential. Otherwise one gets caught up in symptoms and fails to address underlying processes. The Israeli occupation is not accidental. It has a law of motion that can be discerned if you take into account the history of Israel itself. So, clarifying aims is a matter of gaining perspective, really. You cannot gain any real perspective unless you are willing to commit yourself to certain ends and adopt the means consonant with those ends.
A Palestinian laborer praying at a construction site in Gilo, a Jewish settlement on land captured in 1967 and annexed to the municipality of Jerusalem. Israel did not include East Jerusalem in the current settlement freeze. The Wall and the West Bank town of Bethlehem are seen in the background.
Hussein Ibish: If you are involved in Palestinian national liberation for decades, as I have been, then it is clear that to have an effective political program you need a clear and well-defined goal. Without it, you can have no coherent strategy, and, without a coherent strategy, you cannot be effective. Things will just be random and ad hoc, and whatever momentary victories take place end up getting lost in the ether. So the question, "What is our actual goal?" is crucial.
Of course, there are organizations that will not take a stand. For example, the US Campaign to End the Occupation claims to be agnostic, so as not to alienate any potential activists. But the effect of such agnosticism has to be recognized. It means that such organizations can have no serious policy role or direct political effect. At best, they will only have an indirect effect, because they limit their work to public education.
If you are interested in affecting the Obama administration's policy, rather than changing attitudes in the next 50 years among the general public in the United States, then one must be clear about goals. I am interested in policy now. There is a fierce urgency to ending the occupation as soon as possible. Let me delineate a scenario. You represent an organization that takes no position on the one-state/two-state question. You go to see a senior legislative aid in the office of your Congressman, and they ask, "You have two minutes. What do you want? What is your policy goal?" You will not get far if you begin a response with, “Well, umm…well you see…” So, honestly, if you are content with just raising awareness about the evils of Israeli policy, there is no problem with not taking a stance. But if you have a broader ambition, a political ambition, then it is simply inadequate.
Kovel: I think that there is a distinction between Ibish and myself that has to do with perspective. He is talking about work in Washington, work on policy. I think what he is saying is necessary, but very insufficient. I have a project which is longer range. For me the important thing is to consign Zionism to the dustbin of history, along with the divine right of kings. I do not think the world, certainly not that part of the world, can be made a better place unless Zionism is brought down.
So, the core of my opposition to two states is two-fold: First, it fails to provide Palestinians with genuine sovereignty and control over their own lives, producing instead a Bantustan. Second, it perpetuates Israel as a Zionist entity. If two states means the perpetuation of Israel as a Zionist state, then I oppose it.
Rubin: Are you saying if a two-state solution were possible, you would oppose it on the grounds that it leaves Israel as a Zionist entity? If that is the case, then it seems to me that you are saying something very different than Hussein’s work is necessary, because Hussein is working to end the occupation immediately.
Kovel: Hussein and I have a substantive difference. I do not want the situation to reach the stage it reached in apartheid South Africa; we do not have a true apartheid situation yet, but that may be on the horizon. That will come when Palestine becomes a Bantustan. Striving to make Palestine into a Bantustan is not to me a worthy goal.
Ibish: I am not working to make anywhere like a Bantustan. There is no group of serious Palestinians who are interested in the trappings of sovereignty without sovereignty. They would never agree to anything like that as a permanent agreement. What exists now is a temporary agreement and Palestinians are not satisfied with it, which is why they are not signing it.
Rubin: There are two anxieties about the two-state solution. On the Israeli side there is the oft-expressed fear that a Palestinian state would be a base for attacks against Israel. This fear is reinforced by a Palestinian discourse that speaks of liberation in stages. On the other side, Palestinians fear that a Palestinian state would be little more than a kleptocracy, one that would steal from its citizens, lack real sovereignty, and collaborate in the perpetuation of the occupation behind the mask of an internationally recognized pseudo-independence. Are either or both of these anxieties justified?
Kovel: I do not think the first anxiety is justified. It is just paranoid Israeli propaganda. The second is obviously justified—just look at the people who signed on to the “roadmap.” These people want a Palestinian authority to administer the police and the garbage disposal, not to exercise real power.
Kovel: Well I think the Oslo Accords were an experiment, one that has failed wretchedly. Now we need to start rethinking things.
Ibish: I think that is right. The people doing the most far-reaching rethinking are actually in the cabinet of the PA [Palestinian National Authority], particularly Salam Fayyad. The state- and institution-building program, in order to end the occupation, is the best idea anyone has had in at least 15 years. And the Israeli elite cannot decide if it is interesting or terrifying. They have no idea how to react.
As to the question, I do not think either fear is completely irrational. I agree with Professor Kovel that the second is more rooted in reality, given the asymmetries of power involved. There are genuine concerns, especially among Palestinians, that the state that they are being offered is not and will not become a Bantustan.
I would only add that there would be serious fears attached to any potential one-state arrangement, if such a thing were plausible—which it is not. That is to say, under such circumstances, Palestinians might hope to exercise political power through the ballot box. But they would face a much richer, better educated, and better organized Jewish plurality possessing much stronger national institutions. As for Jewish Israelis, again, I think that the anxiety would be reversed. So the question is whether there is a discourse or model that can prevent a single-state arrangement going the way of the two models that actually exist in practice. The mandate period under the British witnessed mounting communal violence leading to civil war and ethnic cleansing, and the occupation speaks for itself: It is nightmarish for Israelis and completely unacceptable for Palestinians. So, the track record of political unity between the Israelis and the Palestinians is not very reassuring, for either party.
Rubin: Let’s talk further about the fears surrounding a one-state solution. Israeli Jews would presumably be in the minority, although a very large minority. Would they not be oppressed by Palestinian Arabs? Is there no reason to fear the contrary as well, namely that Palestinians would be dominated by Israeli Jews, who would wield superior economic power?
Israeli construction workers build Israel's 8-meter high separation wall cutting the West Bank off from East Jerusalem.
Kovel: The current situation is unsustainable. It has to change one way or another, probably in a direction that we cannot confidently predict. What we have to do is try to provide the best possible circumstances for such changes as are bound to occur, to try to ensure that they occur in a beneficial way. This is why the one-state solution is less a political program than it is a strategic goal. No outcome is worthwhile unless it is grounded in universal human rights. And these rights are incompatible with the logic and ideology of Zionism. It is going to be very challenging, but the momentum already exists for the abolition of Zionism. Obviously, it is a long way from being ushered off the stage of history, but Zionism is caught up in innumerable internal contradictions, particularly post-Gaza. People are panicking because of its loss of legitimacy and ostracizing effects. Israel is moving toward the condition of South Africa in the latter part of the 1980s. In this context, we have to uphold the hope of a genuine alternative, one grounded in universal human rights.
Ibish: Those are all noble sentiments, but I see matters a little differently. To me, the imperative of ending the occupation is in everybody’s interests, especially the four million people who live under occupation in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. This cannot wait on the elimination of Zionism. It is unreasonable to put the liberation of the occupied territories on hold in favor of this much bigger project that speaks to humanity and serves some kind of cosmic interest. The occupation is too onerous, and too dangerous, to be subordinated to this other project.
It is also inaccurate that we have no foresight into the future. On the contrary, we can anticipate the most likely developments. Actually, treating this as a question of one state or two is misguided in the first place. It is not as if the Palestinians and Israelis have many options. Rather, they are faced with a fairly stark binary here: either have a two-state agreement to end the conflict and end the occupation, however imperfectly, or else perpetuate the conflict. A two-state agreement would certainly be an improvement, particularly for the people who live under occupation. Failing this, the likely scenario is certainly not a single state, but continued warfare.
Kovel: Very quickly, I want to emphasize that I by no means want to defer the ending of the occupation. I think of the one-state program not as a means of ending the occupation, but as a strategic goal that embodies universal human rights. Incidentally, this means opposition to the religious fundamentalisms thriving on both sides.
Rubin: I find this confusing. Many people will say “of course we cannot defer ending the occupation,” and yet they also say, “we favor a one-state approach.” But it would seem that if one adopts the program of a one-state solution, then one must drop the program of ending the occupation as quickly as possible. Wouldn’t ending the occupation necessarily entail the withdrawal of the Israeli military and the formation of a Palestinian state?
Hussein, could you be more specific about what you mean by a two-state solution? Because the notion of a two-state solution is rather vague. People have very different notions of what it would look like.
Ibish: Yes, you are right about that. The question facing the Palestinians in terms of national strategy is this: Is it worth continuing the war and the occupation to try to secure something that cannot be achieved in the foreseeable future? The fact that one element of international law cannot now be realized is no argument for failing to achieve others that can be.
And let me just say one thing about the refugees. People do not recognize the benefits that a Palestinian state would have for them. While it is true that the Geneva Initiative does not grant the right of return, the refugees would certainly have compensation as a result of this deal. They would also have a state in which they can find refuge. For the ones in Lebanon, this is potentially a matter of life and death. They will have an advocate on the international stage, a passport, and a nationality for the first time. None of this is a panacea. Nor does it correct all past injustices. But it is better than nothing, which is what Palestinian refugees have had since 1948.
Rubin: How do you think a two-state solution would affect each of the three parts of the Palestinian community: refugees, people in the occupied territories, and Palestinian citizens of Israel?
Ibish: The only plausibly achievable liberatory political objective for all of them is ending the occupation, creating a state, and going forward from there. All Palestinians would benefit from this to one extent or another—even prisoners.
Kovel: Regarding the Palestinian diaspora, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions for Palestine campaign [BDS] signals not just a way of delegitimating Israel and weakening the foundations of the Zionist entity, it is also a way to bring together people in the Palestinian diaspora and the occupied territories. I am very impressed with some of the people working on that.
Rubin: Speaking of BDS, there seems to be a studied ambiguity in the way it is formulated. Some use BDS as a means of pressuring Israel to end the occupation, while others view it as a means by which to delegitimize Zionism and the Israeli state. It would seem to me that this ambiguity might weaken the campaign’s effectiveness. How effective do you think BDS is as a strategy?
Ibish: I am not against boycotts in theory, but they work best when targeted at the occupation and the structures of the occupation. So, for example, the Norwegian divestment from the company that makes the sensors installed all along the wall in the West Bank is great. It hits hard. The more amorphous stuff we have seen is less effective. Moreover, I am skeptical that a wide range of major American institutions will ever divest from Israel.
Rubin: What about academic boycotts?
Ibish: American academic institutions are not going to boycott Israel. And while boycotts can cause real economic pain, they are inadequate as the primary tactic in a national struggle between two ethno-national groups. Israel is not going to be brought to its knees by boycotts.
Kovel: Certainly, boycotts cannot bring down the state of Israel. But the divestment campaign can perform an essential function in the building of a broad movement against Zionism. And it is already happening. The last year has been very promising. Spurred by the debacle, the horror, of Gaza, we saw for the first time significant numbers of people, including Jewish people, take part.
There are groups, such as the Al Adala Society, which I work with in New York. There are groups of young people, neither Jewish nor Palestinian, who are coming together and they are fired up. They are doing remarkable things. The other day in Brooklyn, they did a marvelous thing against the Israeli ballet. They got dressed up in Israeli flag-colored tutus and pranced around the street. It appealed to the imagination and is moving in a good direction. Now we do not know how far that is going to go, but it is freaking Israel out. Any major social transformation goes through ups and downs and periods of stagnation and despair. If you keep the momentum going, gradually at first but with exponential growth, it takes on force.
Ibish: I think almost all of that is right. I would make only one addendum to it: Most, if not all, of the major success stories of the BDS campaign are not what they seem to be. The people who supposedly divested, almost to an entity, say they did not. So you have the attribution of a statement to a group that says, “We are not making that statement.” Still, I agree that there is a momentum here which, if channeled in the right direction, could become powerful. And all branches of the Palestinian movement favor boycotts, though there is disagreement about what to target. Even the PA is leading a boycott of settlement goods and trying to get things like the wall-sensor company and other companies boycotted.
Rubin: At the core of the one-state/two-state debate, there appears to be a dispute about the nature of Zionism. The one-state position seems to be that Zionism is an inherently racist, expansionist project with which no accommodation is possible. Those who uphold the two-state position (except, of course, for Zionist two-staters) tend to have a more nuanced attitude towards Zionism that distinguishes among its different forms. They hold that there are strains of Zionism with which accommodation is possible. How should those interested in Palestinian liberation understand and approach Zionism today? Joel’s answer seemed to be that it is dying.
Kovel: Oh, it is not dying—but it is wounded. The challenge is to kill it off. While there are any number of Zionisms, there is one crystalline truth: Zionism is neither coherent nor effective until it becomes linked with state power. Once this happens and it becomes joined with legitimated violence, then it can do its will, which is to eliminate everything non-Jewish from the land of historic Palestine. This cannot be accommodated.
Ibish: Zionism is a very interesting political problem. But ending the occupation and achieving peace with Israel are still the Palestinian national goal. What confronts the Palestinians is not an abstract political theory of Zionism, but the Israeli state. You can say the Israeli state is motivated, ultimately, by Zionism. But the fact is that Israel now exists independently of Zionism as such, and has a momentum of its own.
Rubin: In the debates during the French Revolution regarding the emancipation of the Jews, the liberal Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre uttered the indelible phrase “To the Jews as individuals everything. To them as a nation, nothing.” The notion that Jews should have full civil and religious rights but no national rights was long held, with few exceptions, as axiomatic among left-wing thinkers. Article 20 of the Palestinian National Charter also asserts that Judaism is a revealed religion but not a nation. For a long time this was the Palestinian attitude. But should this rejection of national rights for Jews be maintained? If one recognizes the Jews as a national community, how does this affect the question of one versus two states? If one regards them as a national community and one is for a one-state program, would it be a binational state and what would that mean? Or are you for just a secular democratic state?
Ibish: There are two national movements, but one does not recognize the legitimacy of the other. The only way around that is to have two national projects side by side. Until such a time, the only ways I can imagine practically achieving a one-state outcome is through an almost unimaginably horrific mutual decimation and exhaustion, which I, for one, abhor. The other way is to have two states. Subsequently, these might voluntarily merge, over time, because it makes sense. There are real reasons for people who believe in one state, ultimately, to be sympathetic to the two-state agenda of ending the occupation now. There is no contradiction between a one-state aspiration for the far future and a two-state solution now.
Kovel: There is something fundamentally flawed about the very idea of a Jewish nationalism. From the very beginning, it lacked any integral relationship to a place. Its relationship to a place was always mythical.
Because there was no Poland to go back to, the Zionists had to express their nationalism through expropriation of another’s territory. Nationalism and settler colonialism, which inevitably bred racism, built the Israeli state. This is not a reasonable entity because, among other things, Israel’s nationalism has in recent decades been nourished in a bizarre relationship to the US that guarantees it full impunity. This goes back to the destruction of the USS Liberty, which was never even investigated. Such impunity reinforces other violent, paranoid, and exterminatory impulses. Think of the nuclear arsenal. Think of how they want to make war with Iran, which does not have nuclear arms yet. Here is that very pathological kind of nationalism that has so infused the Zionist project and the Israeli state. The Israeli state started off socialist in orientation. Now it is virtually fascist.
Rubin: If one accepts your dire portrayal of Israel, doesn’t that make a one-state solution even more impossible? You are saying that these people are psychotic racists with nuclear weapons—but we are all going to live peacefully together?
Kovel: I do not know how we can live with them, frankly, but what am I supposed to say? The best program is to mobilize the forces of human rights and delegitimate the Israeli state piece by piece, to gradually break it away through migration, etc., and to work in this country, ending the grip of the Israel lobby on U.S. policy.
Rubin: The shift within the PLO toward the two-state project seems to have begun sometime in the mid-1970s, and by the 1990s it had become the virtual consensus. Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada we have seen some Palestinians return to earlier modes of speaking. What accounts for this in your view?
Ibish: There are no Palestinian political factions that have taken up the one-state argument. It is not a factor in the internal Palestinian debate. What accounts for the rise of this is that the Second Intifada was quite vicious and caused a great deal of pain on both sides. In consequence, everyone reassessed of what kind of peace was possible and desirable. In Israel, this produced a swing to the right. Among Palestinians in the occupied territories, the main effect was the rise of Islamists, mainly Hamas. Even the secular nationalists during the Second Intifada, such as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (those were Fatah) began to employ religious rhetoric so as not to be outbid on religious legitimacy by the Islamists. The rise of one-state rhetoric among pro-Palestinian advocates in the West reflects the same kind of negative re-evaluation. I do not think it is a return exactly, though the rhetoric is very reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s. Some people even call for a return to the “Three Nos”: “No negotiations, no peace, no Israel.” But the form is slightly different. Certainly there is a return to the strident nationalism that characterized the 1960s and 70s. But it comes from a place of pain, from the experience of the Second Intifada, and, more broadly, from 16 years of fruitless negotiation. Palestinians have seen a peace process that is all process and no peace, even as the number of settlers doubles every few years. Watching the occupied territories get eaten up, bit by bit, by the occupation has led many to conclude that diplomacy is pointless and a two-state agreement impossible.
Most pro-Palestinian one-state advocacy begins with the assertion that a two-state solution is impossible. This is rooted in perfectly truthful descriptions of a critical mass of settlements, settlers, and other topographical and administrative changes imposed on the territories by the occupation. The implication here is that those things are fait accompli, and can never be changed or reversed, whereas, in fact, they are of course the product of political will and can be reversed or adjusted through a redirection of political will. This is the best metric for assessing the viability of a two-state agreement, the question of political will. The overwhelming majorities of Palestinians and Israelis both want the same thing; they both want a two-state agreement. The problem is that they also do not think it will happen and they do not believe the other side can be worked with.
Rubin: Joel, in your book on overcoming Zionism, I found it disturbing that you quote the Old Testament, the Talmud, and employ the phrase “Judaic being.” You even include an anecdote about your own alienation from the synagogue in your youth. So there is a sense that you see many of the negative aspects of Zionism as arising from some deep Jewish history. The question is, if one adopts that attitude, which I would disagree with, isn’t saying “overcoming Zionism” in some way a request for people to overcome Judaism?
Kovel: There is an existential fissure, a rupture in Jewish history. Zionism is about Judaism. The Jewish people made a terrible decision to build that state in the first place. It was not theirs to begin with, and the decision has caused a lot of harm. I think the Jews have to give up the idea of Jewish exceptionalism and the notion that they are entitled to this land, which they are not.
There is a striking political change in the new generation. Younger Jewish people are increasingly ill at ease with Zionism. The older the Jewish person, the more they are existentially tied to Zionism.
Ibish: This is in the United States. In Israel something similar may be happening, but Zionism is being supplanted by Israeli national identity. Though divorced from Zionism it is existential and no less difficult to deal with.
Kovel: And this national identity is tending towards fascism. The task of the Jewish people is to reflect and reassess. Thus far they have not measured up to it.
Ibish: Again, this argument about Zionism is one that Jews should have, but it is extraneous to the question of Palestinian national strategy.
Kovel: We disagree. What obstructs positive change is Zionism.
Rubin: The question that I was raising concerned the way your argument implies that the negative aspects of Zionism come from deep Jewish history, as opposed to an understanding of Zionism as a modern political phenomenon that is not rooted in an ancient Jewish history or a Jewish way of being. But, let’s leave that aside. In the United States, after the Second Intifada, we have seen the rise of various liberal and left Jewish groups focusing on Israel-Palestine and US policy. Some of these, like Brit Tzedek v’Shalom [aka, Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace] and J Street chose to describe themselves as pro-Israel and pro-Peace, whereas others such as Not In My Name, Jewish Voice for Peace, and American Jews for a Just Peace, avoid the term pro-Israel. Some are even explicitly anti-Zionist. What is your attitude towards them and how do you distinguish among them?
Kovel: The more anti-Zionist, the better.
Ibish: I am ecumenical about this. I want to meet with, talk to, and work with anyone who wants to end the occupation. You want to end the occupation, I want to talk to you. I have nothing to say to an organization like the ZOA [Zionist Organization of America]. I have nothing to say to Hamas, either. If you want to end the occupation, let’s do it. That is where I draw the line.
Rubin: Dr. Kovel, you are an avowed Marxist. How do class divisions within both Israeli and Palestinian society affect the conflict? Also, you do not highlight any connection between overcoming Zionism and overcoming capitalism. Is there any real connection between capitalism and the struggle over Israel-Palestine? Or are questions of socialism and capitalism essentially irrelevant to this particular conflict, in your view?
Kovel: My book takes this up, but in an understated way. It is not foregrounded for tactical reasons. The relevant example is South Africa. What happened there is simple: A deal was cut whereby the South African bourgeoisie was allowed to retain power in exchange for siding with Mandela’s African National Congress [ANC]. In effect, the ANC said, “you give us the national political arena that we need and you can run the economy. We will integrate you with global capital.” Forty percent of the people were thus immediately declared useless because they do not generate surplus value. So, there was hell to pay. Now, obviously there are big differences between Israeli capitalism and South African capitalism. South Africa is a powerhouse with huge reserves and an industrial base. Israel is a casino capitalist country with fancy high-tech military industries.
Ibish: Teasing out the element of class in the Palestinian struggle, the Palestinian reality, and the Palestinian future, is really very daunting and complicated. But there are a few things worth noting. First is that the case against global neoliberalism should not be deployed in relation to the question of the occupied territories. There is something much more urgent in the occupied territories than neoliberalism. The occupation supersedes that problem and is much more elemental. There are people with no passports, people with no country. There are people who live under different laws than the people of another ethnicity who live next door to them. There are checkpoints. The whole society is stifled. So, while neoliberalism is something to keep in mind, it is neither the cause nor the solution of the occupation.
That said, class divisions among Palestinians are a serious problem. A lot of the refugees and the ordinary people of the occupied territories come from the old peasant and working classes and, certainly, they get instrumentalized by the Palestinian elites. This is something that, unfortunately, has always been a hallmark of this struggle, but it has been superseded by something else. The PA order in the West Bank and the Hamas order in Gaza have produced new social classes and new ruling elites dependent upon themselves. Two things are happening simultaneously. One is what the PA government is doing with the state institution building, structured around the prime minister’s office under the president’s protection. They are creating a new independent administrative structure which, eventually, will give rise to another new social class. This is a challenge to the existing new social class, that is, the cadres of Fatah that have control over patronage, money, contracts, etc. There is a lot of resistance to it from the upper cadres of Fatah, because it seeks to strip patronage and privilege from people ensconced in the party and to render institutions more meritocratic. That is in the West Bank. In Gaza, you have something completely different, the rise of a new social class centered around Hamas rule. One thing people now say in Gaza is, “If you want justice, you’d better have a beard.” Hamas is constructing an authoritarian, drifting toward a totalitarian, structure. The lack of freedom is extraordinary. One of the striking things about the sex scandal that is going on in the West Bank is not that there is a sex scandal surrounding a politician. This is shocking to Palestinians, who are a very conservative people, but these things happen. But what the Arabic language press has noted is that such a scandal cannot happen in Gaza, because there is no free press there to put it out, discuss it, have a controversy, etc. So, there is a rise of a new deeply authoritarian and puritanical social class in Gaza that is really very troubling. It is something that Palestinians absolutely have to deal with. These are new social dynamics and they are potentially very dangerous.
Q & A
Before 1948 there was space for radical politics rooted in neither ethnic nor religious nationalism. Are there groups in Palestine today that we can look toward whose politics are not religiously or ethnically based?
Ibish: Yes, at least two different kinds, but they are both marginal. The first is that of traditional intellectual leaders. They lack political force and organization, but their politics are, if not radical, at least influenced by radicalism. People like Hanan Ashrawi and the Abdul Shafi family and Mustafa Barghouti and people like that are certainly influenced by international Left discourse. They are a traditional quasi-radical leadership. What they do is more rhetorical and discursive. The other space where you find this is in the nonviolent protest movement in the West Bank. Admittedly, this is taking place in an environment shaped politically by the PA, with the approval and support of Salam Fayyad and Mahmoud Abbas. The nonviolent protesters have targeted the wall and some of these protests have been effective. They are clearly supported by the PA, but this movement also has a sort of Gramscian, decentralized, grassroots quality. It approaches politics. It has been very effective in the limited context of specific villages and has forced the Israelis to actually reroute the wall in one instance. This deserves support. They are nascent groups and one can only hope that they grow.
Kovel: There was a group called Matzpen, a group of Israeli Trotskyists, Fourth Internationalists. They mostly live in England now. The Alternative Information Center is also very good. They did a study on Israeli universities, showing how every major Israeli university actively takes part in the occupation. Opposing this has nothing to do with obstructing academic freedom. Every institution, every university in Israel is doing work for the IDF [Israel Defense Force] and it is good that there are people studying it.
There are also the military resisters in Israel. There is an ominous division within the military, the dominant institution in Israeli society. Increasingly, the lower echelons of the military are influenced by hard right-wing religious forces, while the refuseniks and others resist their government. They should be supported.
Kovel, if you do not want the Palestinians expelled, you want peace, and you are calling for a single state, doesn’t that mean expelling the Jews?
Kovel: That is a big problem that has to be worked out. I want to underscore what I said earlier, that we should not minimize just how awful the situation has been. But nobody in this room made it that way, though we have to deal with it. According to polls, as many as 15 percent of Israeli Jews say they would emigrate if the Palestinians came to power. They would still have a very substantial minority, though the censuses overstate the number of Jews in Israel.
Ibish: Yes. There are about 700,000 or so Jewish Israelis who are citizens but who reside primarily somewhere else. They are all counted, whereas almost none of the Palestinians who live somewhere else are counted.
Kovel: A single state solution would probably require a kind of protectorate of interested powers guaranteeing the safety of the people there for an extended period of time, until they can work out their peace and reconciliation process, which will take a long time.
We are far from a solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. My question is historical: How do you understand how we have reached this point? Moreover, where can we look now to find actual political solutions? Where is the Left in all this?
Ibish: Which Left? There is the Arab Left, the Western Left. It is very complicated. But first, how we got here. Historically, the diplomatic process has been completely mismanaged by all the parties, particularly by the United States. It has not addressed, much less remedied, the asymmetry of power between the two parties. Without international pressure it is politically almost impossible for Israeli leaders to actually follow through on commitments made to Palestinians. They renege on them, because they have the power to do so.
One of the places I think you can really look for hope, at the moment, is the state- and institution-building agenda. It is the Palestinian answer to the settlements and is both unilateral and constructive. If sustained over a period of years with financial and technical support from around the world and political protection from the United States, it will change the strategic equation completely. It asserts and adopts the responsibilities of self-government without Israeli permission, simply by doing it unilaterally.
Kovel: I cannot urge strongly enough the importance of organizing in this country against the destructive relationship currently existing between the US and Israel and mediated by the so-called “lobby." If we change the balance of influence in this country, there will be very rapid and dramatic changes in Palestine. |P
Transcribed by Gabriel Gaster