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Weapons, Money, and Diplomacy: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
The following is the transcript of a recent interview I did with Jeremy R. Hammond of Foreign Policy Journal on his upcoming book concerning the US role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
1. What led you to write this book and is it a follow-up to your book The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination?
It’s funny you should ask! The new book will be the final result of a process that began in earnest during Israel’s ’08-’09 military assault on Gaza, dubbed “Operation Cast Lead”. That event prompted me to want to write a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I knew I couldn’t write about contemporary events such as that without also providing historical background as context. So I had a grand ambition to provide an overview of the conflict going back to its roots and up through the present day. That idea proved overly ambitious for me at the time, but it did result in The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination.
I continued to keep in mind the book I’d wanted to do on Operation Cast Lead and the U.S.-led so-called “peace process”, however. What prompted me to begin this project in earnest again was President Obama’s May 2011 speech in which he referred to the “1967 lines” as the starting point for negotiations, and the media’s inane response to it as representing some kind of dramatic “shift” in U.S. policy. It was no such thing, as I explain in the forthcoming book.
So it is in some ways a follow-up to my other book, which focuses more on the contemporary history of the conflict while jumping back to provide crucial historical context as necessary to properly understand events. For example, to understand the so-called “peace process”, one needs to understand the roots of the conflict and how Israel came into existence through the ethnic cleansing of three-quarters of a million Arabs from Palestine. A look back at the June 1967 war and its aftermath is necessary to understand events today, and so on.
2. With regards to the US' initial support for Israel, what factors led to the US to go this route and how does the reality of the situation deviate, if at all, from the mainstream narrative?
The U.S. supported Israel from its birth. The Truman administration recognized the newly declared state of Israel on May 14, 1948 literally minutes after this unilateral declaration was made. What we think of today in terms of U.S. support, however—which includes massive military and financial aid (over $3 billion annually) as well as diplomatic support in terms of protecting Israel (such as through the use of the U.S. veto in the U.N. Security Council) from being held accountable for its violations of international law—really began in earnest following the 1967 war, when Israel demonstrated its worth as a regional partner by defeating the combined armies of the neighboring Arab states in just six days, following its surprise attack on Egypt that started the war on June 5.
The mainstream media makes no secret of this U.S. support for Israel, but it at the same time attempts to maintain the narrative of the U.S. as an “honest broker”. This is a farce. The entire U.S.-led so-called “peace process” is the process by which the U.S. and Israel block implementation of the two-state solution based on the requirements of international law, including U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 following the ’67 war, which called on Israel to withdraw from the territories it then occupied and has continued to occupy ever since in keeping with the principle that the acquisition of territory by force is inadmissible. There is an international consensus favoring the two-state solution. The Palestinians accept it, but it is rejected by Israel and the U.S., which both speak of support for a “two-state solution”. But the “solution” the U.S. and Israel push for is not at all the same thing as the two-state solution. On the contrary, the framework for the “peace process” is one that rejects any application of international law in resolving the conflict.
3. How did the American public feel about supporting Israel?
The American public by and large consents to the U.S. policy of supporting Israel, which in reality means supporting Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and defending its violations of international law. There are many reasons for this. A lot of it has to do with the role of the media in misleading the public about the nature of the conflict and manufacturing consent for U.S. policy. A lot of it also has to do with the sense among many Christians that they must support Israel no matter what. A lot of it has to do with anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry. And so on.
4. When did groups like AIPAC spring up and begin to lobby Congress? Did they face any domestic resistance?
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was founded in 1963. I doubt there was much resistance to its formation, but the history of the lobby isn’t something I’ve much research into. I don’t focus on AIPAC much in my book, mainly because I consider its influence to be relatively unimportant. A lot of people think that this lobby actually drives U.S. foreign policy, but this is a mistaken view. I would posit that if AIPAC ceased to exist tomorrow, U.S. policy would continue as it has. It has some influence in the Congress, but it is not as though U.S. Congresspersons wouldn’t express their support for Israel if it didn’t exist. U.S. policy is determined by U.S. policymakers in terms of their own beliefs and perceptions and American “interests” as they narrowly define them, not by the Israel lobby.
5. Why does the US continue to support Israel when they have spied on and even gone so far as stealing nuclear information from the US, lobbyists aside?
This kind of behavior from Israel is tolerated by the U.S. because it is considered by policymakers to be a valuable strategic partner in the region. One can disagree with this and argue that Israel is in fact a strategic liability. I would agree. But the fact remains that in the minds of U.S. policymakers, Israel is a strategic partner. U.S. and Israeli “interests”, again as narrowly defined by government officials, don’t always align, but they very often do, such as with the goal to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or to get Iran to surrender its right to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes under the nuclear non-proliferation agreement (NPT). Even vague talk about Israel in any kind of negative light produces a horrible backlash for any politician. The Obama administration, for example, has come under fire simply for suggesting that Israel should stop its illegal construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank. During his reelection campaign, he was accused by Mitt Romney of “throwing Israel under the bus” for such, even though the level of support Israel has received under the current administration has been unprecedented—the Obama administration vetoed an uncontroversial U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning Israel for this ongoing illegal activity, for example. And as I said, the American people themselves largely hold favorable views towards Israel. Romney was appealing no only Jewish Americans but conservative Christians with his ridiculous substances criticisms of Obama. There was plenty Romney could have criticized Obama about on matters of substance, but he didn’t because Romney holds the same pro-Israeli views as Obama.
6. Why is the US actively against a Palestinian state in practice when such a state wouldn’t be a threat to the security of Israel?
This is an excellent question that doesn’t have just one answer. I’ve already touched on some of the reasons. This kind of support for Israel from the U.S. government, including helping to block implementation of the two-state solution, is institutionalized. Imagine a new administration coming into office and declaring that it was going to abandon the “peace process” that has been going on since the Madrid conference in 1991? It’s unthinkable. No candidate who held such a sensible view of the conflict as to recognize how this process is the very mechanism by which the two-state solution has been blocked could ever get elected.
The purpose of my book is to help change that by exposing the true nature of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, of the U.S.’s policy towards the conflict, and of the role of the media in manufacturing consent for this policy. For any progress to be made towards peace, U.S. support for Israeli violations of international law must cease. And for that to happen, it must become politically infeasible for it to continue. I want to contribute to making that necessary paradigm shift happen with this book. The U.S. government isn’t going to solve the conflict. We need to step up and take actions to make a just peace possible.
7. How and why have the American public's perception of Israel change over the years, if any perception change has occurred at all? Positively or negatively?
I think the Palestinians have attracted increased sympathies from Americans in recent years. Despite the enormous amount of pro-Israel propaganda, for example, regarding Operation Cast Lead, many people saw threw it and couldn’t reconcile Israel’s claim of “self-defense” with the civilian Gazan death toll and wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure. Then there was Israel’s murderous attack on the Freedom Flotilla, killing nine peace activists aboard the Mavi Marmara. There is a growing boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement calling for corporate responsibility, e.g., holding accountable businesses that profit from products made in the illegally-constructed settlements in Palestinian territory. Israel has become increasingly isolated in the international community. The E.U. fairly recently issued a new policy guideline, for example, that will require any Israeli company seeking to do business with European entities to declare that it has no connection to the illegal settlements. The tide is turning, slowly but surely. I hope my book will help further these positive developments towards accountability under international law, the pursuit of justice for the Palestinians, and the realization of peace for both sides.
8. Why does the US continue to say that Israel has the right to defend itself while never stating if the Palestinians have a right to self-defense as well?
The simple answer is that while the U.S. interprets Israel’s “right” to “defend” itself to include violations of international law including war crimes, it effectively doesn’t recognize any right of the Palestinians to self-defense. An illustrative example was Obama’s much-touted Cairo speech. I’ll just share an excerpt from the book on this point:
In a much anticipated speech at Cairo University in Egypt on June 4, 2009, President Obama said he was there “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” while also stressing “America’s strong bonds” and “unbreakable” relationship with Israel.
He sought to assure that “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own”, but then proceeded to reiterate the U.S.’s preconditions for this to occur: the Palestinians must “abandon violence”, “recognize past agreements”, and “recognize Israel’s right to exist”—none of which were reciprocally required of Israel. He went so far as to lecture the Palestinians that armed resistance was “wrong”, a judgment that didn’t apply to the U.S. and Israel’s own “violence and killing”, which was rather deemed legitimate by the same president, who would later defend the U.S.’s own frequent use of it during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech by saying that “force may sometimes be necessary” and that the “non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance”.
The hypocrisy is extraordinary, but standard when it comes to prejudice against the Palestinians.
9. Why do both the US and Israel continue to demonize Hamas when in 2006 they offered a full truce to President Bush and more recently in 2012, Hamas offered a long term cease fire with verifications that would have allowed for the two sides to talk?
Hamas has in fact consistently and for a long time expressed its willingness to accept a state of Palestine with borders along the ’67 lines alongside Israel coupled with the offer of a long-term truce. Again, an excerpt from the book:
To cite a few examples, in early 2005, Hamas issued a document stating that goal and “unequivocally” recognizing the pre-June 1967 line as Israel’s border.
In early 2006, Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar publicly stated that Hamas was seeking a Palestinian state and would accept a long-term truce with Israel if it withdrew from the territories it occupied in 1967.
Ismail Haniyeh, as already noted, had reiterated to the Washington Post in February 2006 that Hamas would accept an agreement for “the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital with 1967 borders."
In December 2006, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal said that “all the Palestinian factions agree to a return of Israel’s borders to pre-1967 designations.” He said, “We accept the need for two countries to exist, but Israel has no legitimacy so long as the occupation continues.”
Meshal said in January 2007 that Hamas was “with the consensus of the necessity of establishing a Palestinian state on the June 4 borders, including (East) Jerusalem, the right of return and the withdrawal of Israel to these borders.” When asked whether this presupposed the existence of Israel, he answered, “The problem is not that there is an entity called Israel. The problem is that the Palestinian state is non-existent.”
There will remain a state called Israel. This is an issue of fact, but the Palestinians should not be required to recognize Israel…. As a Palestinian today I speak of a Palestinian and Arab demand for a state on 1967 borders. It is true that in reality there will be an entity or a state called Israel on the rest of Palestinian land…. We are demanding a Palestinian state on the 1967 border including Jerusalem and the right of return.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had met with Hamas officials in April 2008, and reported that they “said they would accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders” and would “accept the right of Israel to live as a neighbor next door in peace” if Israel withdrew. Hamas’s “ultimate goal”, Carter said, “is to see Israel living in their allocated borders, the 1967 borders, and a contiguous, vital Palestinian state alongside.”
Khaled Meshal at the same time had repeated, “We accept a state on the June 4  line with Jerusalem as capital, real sovereignty and full right of return for refugees but without recognizing Israel…. We have offered a truce if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, a truce of 10 years as proof of recognition.” Haaretz explained that “Meshal used the Arabic word hudna, meaning truce, which is more concrete than tahdiya—a period of calm—which Hamas often uses to describe a simple cease-fire. Hudna implies a recognition of the other party’s existence.”
Haaretz also reported that on November 8, 2008, four days after Israel’s violation of the ceasefire, Haniyeh once again had reiterated that “his government was willing to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.”
There are numerous additional examples cited elsewhere in the book. Despite this fact, it is obligatory for government officials and the compliant mainstream media to parrot that Hamas seeks Israel’s destruction. Why? For the American public to know the truth about Hamas’s actual consistent position since at least 2005 would undermine the goal of manufacturing consent for the U.S. policy of supporting Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.