One state or two? Boycott of Israeli goods or goods from the settlements? Is the lobby the genesis of American wrongdoing in Palestine or is it imperialism? The questions — regarding vision, strategy, and analysis — produce sharp cleavages on the Left. Indeed, generally ones much deeper than they need to be. And they remain stubbornly unsettled.
They also congeal in the person of Norman Finkelstein, who has taken some unpopular positions — his insistent call for a two-state solution, his references to “cultish” aspects of BDS — as well as more popular ones, like blaming the occupation solely on the Israel lobby. For that reason he has become a lightning rod, attracting furious bolts of criticism and support. The core issues, however, remain obscured amidst a charged atmosphere of extravagant denunciations (catcalls of Zionism and worse) from one side and fierce defenses from the other.
From one perspective, it’s an odd contretemps. Finkelstein has spent decades fighting for Palestinian dignity and a place for Palestinians to live free of the occupation’s suffocating violence and capricious indignities. He is the maverick scholar who exposed the American intellectual community as a gaggle of hacks by dissecting Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial, showing it to be a hoax intended to deny the Palestinians peoplehood by painting them as peripatetics who had fabricated a “Palestinian” identity to ride the wave of Israel’s successful nation-building project. And his forensic dismantling of Israeli scholarly mythologies in Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict remains one of the very best primers on the prejudices that surround the conflict.
For all that time his fight has been for a two-state settlement: something that seemed reasonable in 1988 and in the early 1990s. But what seemed possible twenty years ago — with the Israeli electorate temporarily shaken by the savage repression of the 1st intifada and Israeli capital needing to recover from the aftermath of the destabilizing military-industrial accumulation patterns of the 1970s and 1980s, break through the sectoral envelope of domestic accumulation, and globalize — seems less possible now, with militarized accumulation again on the rise in the Middle East and elsewhere. In some ways, the argument for two states has become a relic when so much of the discourse (less so the organizing) of the radical pro-Palestinian Left in the West and the Palestinian Left in the Occupied Territories is oriented towards one single state.
Furthermore, the constituency for partition is far from a majority of the Israeli population. Those accepting removal of all settlements totaled 18 percent of the population in 2006 and declined to 14 percent in 2007. So, the Israeli state is in sync with the sentiments of the Israeli people. Rejectionism is consensual, while disagreements are technical, niggling about how tight should be the noose around Palestinian society’s neck. Thus a program for a forced withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders is a challenge to Israeli power. Two states with a just resolution of the refugee question and UN SC 242 borders is rabidly rejected by not only Israel but also America. It makes little sense to speak of “selling out” when the two-state solution is so stolidly rejected by those who must consent to its implementation for it to have meaning.
For that reason, Finkelstein’s two-state program, on which his left-wing critics’ attention has lately centered, is a secondary problem in his analysis. The primary one is elsewhere: an idealism matched with an odd moral rationalism. Combined, they make for an analysis bleached of power — where it resides in Israeli and American society and who benefits from the occupation. Yet such an analysis must be the point of departure for any organizing strategy, whether it is oriented towards two states or one.
Finkelstein’s latest book, “This Time They Went Too Far”, is ostensibly about the massacre in Gaza that Israel carried out in the winter of 2008-2009 and its cultural and political aftermath. The book is mainly a collection of facts, culled and collated from endless human rights reports, and the facts paint Israel in a very poor light. But it is only partially about its titular topic. It is also a launching pad for Finkelstein to re-tender his argument for two states: Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 Green Line and a just resolution of the refugee problem.
Finkelstein’s recipe for peace is simple: truth combined with Palestinian non-violence might compel the moral majority of the West, the angry liberal ex-Zionist Jews and non-Jews who in the past stabilized Israeli oppression, to put enough pressure on the American government to put enough pressure on the Israeli government to stop the occupation.
Despite Finkelstein’s championing of Palestinian non-violence, he does not fall into the familiar trap of fetishizing it, and he insists on the Palestinian right to self-defense. His stance on Palestinian resistance is admirable in a context in which it is increasingly fashionable to decry the barbarism of Israeli oppression only to cluck sternly at the Palestinians when in weak reply they send a rocket skyward, the overwhelming majority of which crash blindly into Israeli fields and deserts. He asks the question that needs to be asked: can one in good conscience utter the words that demand that the Palestinian people die on their knees?
The resort to the voluminous collected works of Mahatma Gandhi to substantiate claims about what the Palestinians should or shouldn’t do is less convincing, having nothing necessarily to do with Gandhi’s reflections on violence and non-violence. Gandhi did not categorically reject violence as he is often thought to have done by modern-day popularizers. (The effect of Gandhian satyagraha on breaking the rule of the raj over India is not so much an object of scholarly debate as it is of scholarly dismissal.) More relevant are the facts of Indian history: non-violence worked only alongside widespread violence, including riots, across the subcontinent; and independence only came after mutinies within the Royal Indian Navy and the armed resistance of the Indian National Army (not to mention several world wars that overtaxed the British treasury and destroyed the fiscal basis for direct empire).
Mining the Mahatma’s collected works to substantiate this or that position on Palestinian violence would be a quixotic endeavor even had Gandhi’s methods alone worked to liberate India. Given that they did not, the séance with Gandhi’s ghost — in comments like “it is still not certain that Gandhi would have disapproved” of Hamas rocketry — is more than a little odd: Why is it always Gandhi who is invoked as the éminence grise of resistance in the global South? Why not Fanon or Ho Chi Minh, given that Algerian and Vietnamese violence actually threw off the imperial boot?
In any case, the issue facing the Palestinian resistance is not the textual question of what Gandhi did or did not say. It’s how to devise a strategy for effectively confronting Israeli oppression, and that requires a material analysis of its concrete mechanics. The relentless focus on ideas, exemplified in the odd use of Gandhi, speaks directly to the broader problem of Finkelstein’s analysis: without a discussion of power and political economy, it becomes very difficult to discuss a plausible resistance strategy and the nature of the social movement that could implement it.
For example, South African apartheid was vulnerable to strategic economic disruption in a way that Israeli apartheid is not. South African capitalists were dependent on black labor. Israeli capitalists have undertaken over the past two decades to reduce their dependency on Palestinian labor through the closure policies that have diminished Palestinian labor movements to Israel, wholly cutting off the flow from the Gaza Strip. That Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid should not be used to conflate two different regimes of oppression.
Finkelstein’s emphasis on the facts ends up an article of faith. One gets the sense that, for him, ending the conflict is a simple matter of telling the truth — as though a superior, better crafted, more articulate, more widely disseminated argument is what the Palestinians lack (a position Edward Said often took as well); as though there are not multiple truths jostling for prominence, each of which has different political consequences. One can see this as Finkelstein writes of Goldstone that his conclusions were “politically consequential.” The former saw the report of the latter as a stepping stone to a situation in which there would be “a settlement enabling both parties, everyone, to live proud, productive, and peaceful lives.” Of course Goldstone famously recanted, but, even had he not, the question would be if the political conclusions which the Goldstone Report symbolized were what Finkelstein roughly imagined them to be: the pincers of slight establishmentarian disquiet with continued occupation and shifting enlightened opinion closing in on a wavering power elite, overcoming the Israel lobby and US rejectionism and forcing the US state to order Israel to pull back the settlements.
The problems of this approach should not be reduced to its conclusions, particularly the currently unpopular two-state solution. Finkelstein’s facts are not problematic, and his admission that of course one state is, all else being equal, a more just solution than two states makes his advocacy of the latter seem reasonable. All of Palestine used to be available to the Palestinian people. Through a series of enclosures, just fractions of it are now available. Israeli settler-colonialism was a wrong that the Jewish settlers and their imperialist enablers perpetrated against the Palestinian people. The question is how to address this wrong: whether it can be remedied in steps, whether victories in struggles to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza serve as stages for waging the next struggle. In this, he and his antagonists are at loggerheads. Finkelstein, following the line of his mentor, Noam Chomsky, argues that the route to one state goes through two states. The response from those arguing for one state is generally that, given the entrenchment of the occupation and the nil likelihood of Israel giving up on it, one might as well go all out for more justice — justice meaning full rights of both peoples to the land.
One has to agree with Finkelstein that this is not a convincing argument: the occupation is not so much the physical infrastructure of apartheid but the people living in the settlements and the soldiers who go along with them. It is the violent denial of Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza. The militarized settler population is the expression of that denial. The settlers could be forced into leaving through a political settlement that took the form of a two-state solution, and borders could be secured. Such a settlement would be a concrete defeat of Israeli power. The question is one of mounting a credible challenge to Israeli-American power such that somehow Israelis are forced to leave the land.
The one-state/two-state arguments remain at loggerheads for another reason: they contain different assumptions about the reaction of the rulers of Israel to external pressure. At the moment, the occupation appears impregnable because external pressure is only starting to wax. If it mounts high and does so soon, however, Israeli elites are far more likely to opt for ending the occupation than accepting political democracy in Israel-Palestine. Perhaps in 10 years, the matrix of costs and benefits will shift. But not necessarily to the benefit of a one-state struggle — with militarization and racial hatred intertwined in an escalating and destructive spiral, the situation in Palestine could get even worse if Israel itself is not defused. If there is not a holistic solution — a solution that cannot but take on Zionism and Israel’s arms-based accumulation pattern — the time bomb that is Israeli society will eventually explode.
By now the entire structure of Israeli society is invested in the occupation and the militarization it both relies on and reproduces. Different fragments of Israeli power may have different levels of investment in it, but surely no one wishes it to stop, except the wizened carcasses of Peace Now and the NGO-ized Israeli liberal class who itinerantly gather in poorly attended demonstrations in Tel Aviv, huffing about the two-state solution scarce few fought for when it mattered. Meanwhile the lower classes — the Mizrahi Jews domiciled in the subsidized settlements and serving in the IDF, the Russian strata who do the same — are aligned with the Ashkenazi elite at the top of Israeli society who get fat off Israeli militarism and the occupation which is a nearly ineluctable part of it. The extremist settlers compound these obstacles, and they represent increasing portions of both the army and those living in the settlements. They are also generally armed. The constituents of the old liberal Zionist organizations in Israel won’t confront them, and those who could — the real rulers of Israel — have little incentive to do so.
Under pressure, perhaps the Israeli elite would drop the occupation. But the pressure which would be required would be tremendous, not least because the deep restructuring of Israeli society that ending the occupation would entail might tear the state apart as the right wing of Israeli society recoils and the upper class gets suddenly forced to provide new homes for hundreds of thousands of people and do so not on the stolen land of the West Bank but on the land it took over in 1948. Why give from your own when you can take from the Palestinians?
The empty space vacated by analysis of the political economy of the occupation is bordered by a series of ironies. The first is that Finkelstein finds himself on shared ground with many of his detractors. Many who call for one state, as well as Finkelstein, don’t realize, or refuse to acknowledge, the degree to which America has fundamentally assented to the occupation since support for Israeli irredentism became official policy under the Nixon-Kissinger administration, when the latter realized the massive profits to be made from a militarized Middle East: excellent for arms merchants, the oil conglomerates, and, behind it all, finance, heavily invested in recycling the petrodollars and profiting off the high prices the price-setting petroleum firms could fraudulently pass off as the result of regional chaos.
Finkelstein argues that the American establishment has no vested interest in the occupation, an argument that is only literally true: the American establishment only cares about the integrity of the Israeli state, and only insofar as the latter feels that the safest route to ensure social stability is to maintain the occupation — the rating agencies agree that the status quo is fine — the American government will echo that policy. Oddly, he then finds himself on the same ground as one-staters like Ali Abunimah, who has argued that “Israel is, in many respects, a burden and an obstacle to smooth U.S. control of the region” and that thus not merely the occupation but Israel itself hinders the exercise of imperial power. Thus, for both, at least the occupation is easily expendable. Being easily expendable, slight disquiet on the domestic front should make the ruling class drop it.
Of course, they are both dead wrong. Rejection of substantive Palestinian statehood is a shared policy of Israeli and American elites, and beyond speculative gestures and the confessional autobiographies of disgruntled Congresspeople and State Department functionaries, no one has ever established otherwise. There are, of course, differences of opinion not only within the American and Israeli establishments, but also between them, with the Israel lobby generally lining up behind the Israeli ruling class, with which it shares so much, especially investments. Indeed, there have always been currents within the oil sector and elsewhere pushing not for an end to the occupation but for a settlement that at least limits the settlement project to existing facts on the ground. But they never push particularly hard.
More globalized segments of American power wrangled Israel into the Madrid talks in 1991, when the elder Bush and Yitzhak Shamir had their showdown (the latter lost the prime ministership). And at the same time as the lobby mounted in strength, Barack Obama attempted to get Israel to agree to a temporary settlement freeze and talks on a final settlement as had been proposed at Annapolis: perhaps something resembling the Camp David farce of 2000, when the proposed plans turned the West Bank into a set of urban islets isolated by bypass roads; perhaps something closer to the Geneva solutions, with the unacceptable (to the Palestinians) proposal of a “demilitarized” state.
Such a plan would have been a compromise between various interests. First, the Israeli ruling class’s simultaneous and contradictory desires for holding onto most of the land so as to provide space for the settlement project to continue, thereby palliating the land-hungry Israeli right wing, while also allowing for normalization, and thus normal trade relations, with the surrounding Arab states so that Israel could become a kind of regional high tech entrepot. Second, the need to maintain Israel’s military spending, its relationship with the Pentagon, and its flourishing arms exports industry, all of which compose the spine of domestic capitalism. Third, securing the basis for the Israeli ruling class’s domestic legitimacy, grounded in consensus on the rightness of the Zionist project. And fourth, the American ruling class’s mounting interest in re-subordinating its Israeli counterpart, expressed, for example, in Thomas Friedman’s recent fulminations against the Israel lobby and the Netanyahu administration for their gracelessness and lack of finesse in their rejectionism (America could get along fine with the couther rejectionism of Israeli liberals), because the rawness of the right’s rejectionism has brought fractures out into the open: the US is seeking a settlement of the conflict in the framework of regional normalization — and the lobby has helped block that settlement.
In that respect, Obama’s half-hearted pushes have failed. But even had they succeeded and succeeded wildly, they would not have achieved anything resembling even minimal Palestinian national demands. There is no question that the Israel lobby narrows the parameters of debate on Israel, but nor is there a question that, even without the lobby, negotiations would be about the dimensions of the Palestinians’ cage. Freedom is not on Washington’s agenda.
The charade is hard to face head on. As with any con the only solution is not to play. So when prominent supporters of BDS fudge the question of whether the implementation of the Right of Return means in effect a one-state solution, the reason for that fudging is not shadiness or mendacity. Many Palestinians may indeed support a genuine two-state solution, or would accept one if it were to be placed on the table, but to adopt two states as a formal political platform plays into the peace process farce of the power elites that has meant two decades of summits and unremitting violence and horror in the Occupied Territories. By insisting that the issue is the occupation and the system of apartheid enforced by the Israeli state, the BDS platform dances nimbly through the peace process trap which has placed the Palestinian push for statehood in permanent stasis.
That is why the BDS campaign argues for a rights-based approach to Palestinian liberation rather than a state-based approach to Palestinian liberation. The rulers of the Gulf States, Egypt, Europe — none of them care about Palestinian freedom. Some feel the need to posture at support for a two-state settlement as in the Saudi Peace Plan of 2002. But they are all in thrall to Washington, and Washington is so tightly tied to and invested in the Israeli ruling class’s interests and so resolutely inhumane when it comes to the Palestinian future that only under great pressure will it budge from its rejectionism.
However, Finkelstein is correct in his argument against those who suggest that fighting for one state is a shortcut around ending the occupation. Any one state settlement would mean an Arab-majority democracy in Israel-Palestine. Can one imagine the Israeli or American ruling classes agreeing to that without a revolutionary threat to their power? Indeed, it is hard to imagine one democratic state without regional revolution. Because these realities are not widely known — one could argue that they are deliberately suppressed — it is underappreciated that even the intermediate goal of ending the occupation means anti-systemic struggle: a struggle that will lead to a more democratic and egalitarian world and hence by definition a struggle against unaccountable power.
This takes us to the knotty core of the question: who will fight longest and hardest to end the occupation, cut off military aid, and end the Special Relationship?
The core is those who own the revolution by birth and blood: the Palestinians in the camps of the Middle East, in the West Bank and Gaza, in Israel, and in the Diaspora. Finkelstein claims that the Palestinian right of return will never be implemented, and it is true that its implementation would require revolutionary change. But the ease with which he drops it is alienating — never mind that it’s not his to drop. The dream of return suffuses Palestinian iconography. Teenagers know the name of the villages from which their grandparents were cleansed and speak of precisely those villages as where they are from. Keys to the homes from which they fled and to which they still hope to return grace political posters and are passed down within families, even when the tumblers they unlock are no longer inserted into physical architecture but into the symbolic architecture of suffering and redemption that covers the landscape of Palestinian memory. The violation of Palestinian dwelling on the land, the wrenching destruction and dislocation of a peasant society — the anger as well as memory of the erasure of Palestinians from so much of Palestine is not merely unforgotten. It is often exactly that anger which animates sumud (steadfastness), which fuels the will to resist. There is something self-defeating about an eagerness to take the temper out of such steel.
If Palestinians at some point wish to give up their rights, or accept a partial implementation of them, which will be temporary — in the shifting mosaic of states that is the Middle East, there’s no reason to think the current imperial set-up will last forever — it is their choice, because it is their struggle. They will be the ones risking death in that struggle, and so they must be the ones to choose. One can agree with Finkelstein that the trend in America and Europe is to underplay the degree of Palestinian support for a substantive two-state settlement in the West Bank and Gaza. (Palestinians who support it do so not because it’s ideal but because in the inky night few reject even dim light.) But that determination must be made by those who will be affected by it. Moreover, with the Palestinian populace fractionated and in political disarray, the near-consensus embodied in the 1988 Algiers Declaration accepting a two-state settlement has dissipated. Perhaps there will be a return to that. Perhaps not.
But that is not the point. One does not set conditions for supporting a liberation struggle. Quite the reverse. But nor should those sympathetic to the struggle dilute its moral force to merely gather raw numbers in the short term. That is not a problem exclusive to Finkelstein. At the level of cultural production — less at the level of daily organizing — one sees a more-than-occasional pandering to the lowest common denominator of liberal and conservative anti-Zionism. That is a harmful turn. It will be the dispossessed, not the frustrated intermediate social layers prone to scapegoating, who will pose enough of a threat to the Israeli-American ruling classes to force them to cede Palestinians a place to live their lives in safety and peace.
This may seem obvious, but the dispossessed are linked in that they live under capitalist oppression. On-the-ground organizing reflects a consciousness of this fact. Discourse too frequently does not, pretending that a militarized European settler-state in the Middle East is not a core elite policy. Indeed, to again take Abunimah, the upshot of the (incorrect) argument that Israel is a “burden and an obstacle” to US power is that the movement should simply be pitching its appeals to those segments of US power that are harmed by Israel. What is missed is that such an argument razes the moral and political grounds for solidarity: why, for example, should Occupy the Hood, or the Bolivarian Revolution, take up the issue of Palestine if in so doing they will strengthen imperial power? It is not clear that those making such arguments realize that they are not only analytically wrong but the logical political conclusions of their arguments are suicidal.
On that score, Finkelstein does better, recognizing the centrality of Israel to American imperialism. However, based on that recognition, he recently went on to suggest that Americans shouldn’t even be arguing for aid cutoffs. In this, he has the political economy correct but the political mobilizing awry. Is there any reason that Americans can’t be mobilized to demand that their tax dollars not be used to send F-35s to Israel and billions of dollars of cash to Lockheed Martin?
Furthermore, the argument that waters down radical demands — for aid cut-offs, for one democratic state — to palliate liberal opinion supporting two states is self-defeating. Radical demands allow moderates to present their reformist ones as reasonable, and, sometimes, such demands help produce victories. Besides, a program for two states aimed only at mobilizing liberal opinion won’t even attain the Geneva Accord or the Saudi Plan. Instead, it will get something in between them and the positions pushed by Israeli “doves.” In that light, the argument that one should drop one-state advocacy looks riddled with cracks.
In Finkelstein’s explicit demands to water down the struggle lies a tacit recognition that his battalions of disaffected liberals, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, are not the ones capable of fighting an anti-systemic struggle. In another irony, they are not so different from the battalions that those who pin the blame for the occupation merely on the lobby and the foreign influence on our government — and it cannot be stated strongly enough that this is a raw appeal to racist white-power jingoism — assume will liberate Palestine. Both camps appeal to the middle class to liberate Palestine: the former to its Democratic component, the latter to its Republican one, the former to liberalism, and the latter to nativist nationalism. Rejecting anti-systemic struggle, both refuse to embrace an insurrectionary politics of bottom-up mobilization. Both look for a quick solvent to melt the chains shackling the Palestinian people. That solvent is snake oil. There are no short cuts.
One can understand the urge to find one, but this is no moment to sell short the struggle. Insurgencies in a myriad of global city squares — not least the heroic sacrifices of the Egyptian people — have brought us to new political terrain. Political horizons long blocked by mountainous apathy, quiescence, disillusionment, despair, are suddenly in view. Mahmoud Darwish, in an interview towards the end of his life, noted that “The Palestinian people feel that they are living the hours before dawn.” That dawn is on the cusp of sight. The debate between two solutions will have its moment, in the right time and, most importantly, in the right place: in Palestine, in the surrounding camps, amongst the Diaspora. At the moment it has taken on the air of a spectacle. That spectacle and the liberalism that is its partner arose in a historical moment marred by the absence of mass politics. To that extent it is understandable. That moment is dead, as dead as those who by their sacrifice have killed it.
I didn’t write of Egypt to envelop the argument with the cheap, distracting mystique of revolution. If in the aftermath of early tremors the Arab revolts lead to stronger upheavals, they will further restructure the political topography of Palestine-Israel. Those revolts need solidarity. And solidarity is made of blood and sacrifice, not pandering in an effort to conjure up the chimera of a liberatory right-populist movement or a liberal-realist coalition coming together to defend the American ‘national interest,’ nor the opportunistic illusion that the route to liberation runs through the corporate headquarters of Exxon. The animating fire shouldn’t be resignation but redemption. This is the Palestinian position. We should make it our own.
So we have a question before us.
It is if we will honor the moment in which we have the rare luck of living.
How shall we answer?
Max Ajl is a writer and activist. Visit his Web site www.maxajl.com.