The end of Palestine?

IssueMarch 2014
Feature by Jamie Stern-Weiner, Norman Finkelstein
The village of Ein Hiljeh in the Jordan Valley was
reoccupied by Palestinian activists on 31 January.
Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Active Stills

The Middle East ‘peace’ negotiations being led by US secretary of state John Kerry will (unless there is significant resistance in Palestine itself) shortly demolish the international consensus on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and impose a devastating ‘framework agreement’ that will turn the Israeli separation barrier into the new border between Israel and Palestine – or assign even more territory to Israel. That was the view presented by leading critic of Israeli policy Norman Finkelstein in two interviews with the New Left Project website in January.

This new agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority would reverse the world court’s ruling that the separation barrier is illegal, rob Palestine of a lot of the most fertile land on the West Bank, and incorporate most of the illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank into Israeli territory.

Norman Finkelstein was interviewed by Jamie Stern-Weiner, a New Left Project co-editor.

New Left Project You’ve been warning for some time now that the Israeli-Palestinian talks being brokered by secretary of state Kerry might, unlike many prior rounds of negotiations, actually produce a deal to end the conflict. Its content would amount to Israel’s long-standing terms of settlement. What’s your assessment of where the diplomatic process is currently at?

Norman Finkelstein A ‘framework agreement’ will shortly be reached, and a final settlement will probably be signed in the last six months or so of president Obama’s term in office [in 2016]. When the Kerry process was first announced I was virtually alone in predicting that it would actually go somewhere; now, it’s widely assumed. Many respected Israeli commentators now take for granted that an agreement is just a matter of time.

The whole thing is diabolical.

The whole thing is diabolical. The Israelis – with, of course, active and critical US connivance – have managed to completely shift the debate and shape the agenda.

The only issues now being discussed are [Israel as] ‘the Jewish state’ and the Jordan Valley, which, in terms of the international consensus for resolving the conflict, never figured at all.

The key issue (apart from the refugees), in terms of the international consensus and in prior bilateral negotiations, has been the extent of the land swap along the border: will Israel be allowed to annex the major settlement blocs and consequently abort a Palestinian state? But the debate has completely shifted, because annexing the settlement blocs is a done deal.

The framework agreement will probably just speak of land swaps in terms of percentages, and merely insinuate – as the Clinton parameters did – Israel’s annexation of the major settlement blocs without divulging the precise details.

But it is striking that in all of the discussion over the last several weeks, Ma’ale Adumim – ie the largest settlement bloc that effectively bisects the West Bank – has never even come up. Because it’s already been resolved, in Israel’s favour.

NLP And a final deal will follow?

NF A lot of politicking still has to be done, a lot of marketing, a lot of hysteria in Israel – its usual, Oscar-winning performance. It will take the full three years that remain of Obama’s presidency, climaxing in a Camp David-like summit (Obama also loves drama, speechifying is his forte and he’s probably already contemplating which hip black leather jacket to wear), before the final deal is sealed.

One of the principal obstacles at this point to reaching an agreement, in my opinion, is not the details, because those are basically known: the annexation of the settlement blocs by Israel and the annulment of the right of return. One of the big stumbling blocks, oddly enough, is inertia.

If you date the political origin of the conflict back to the 1917 Balfour Declaration (before then Zionism was basically a self-help operation), you’re talking about a century-long conflict. When a conflict endures for such a protracted period of time, huge numbers of individuals and institutions develop a vested interest not in its resolution but instead in its perpetuation; what’s now called, only half-facetiously, the ‘peace industry’.

Many are now consumed by the dreadful prospect that after a full century, it might actually end. It does send shivers down the spine: the Israel-Palestine conflict might be over. All those UN special sessions and special committees; all those Ramallah-based NGOs, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations, and conflict-resolution getaways; all those IMF, world bank, crisis group reports; all those academic programs – Israel studies, Holocaust studies – which sprung up to justify Israeli policy (none can lay a claim to intellectual content, and most have been subsidized by wealthy right-wing Jews); all those film festivals, scholarly studies, memoirs and ‘poetry’; all those Washington-based Israel ‘think’-tanks; all those Palestine solidarity activists, groups, websites, researchers, and analysts (present company included)....

A huge, sprawling superstructure has been built on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and consequently a major obstacle to an agreement is now the fear and trembling across the political divide that it might actually be coming to a denouement. It’s not quite conceivable, is it?

NLP But presumably inertia on its own can merely delay; it can’t prevent.

NF I agree.

NLP What is Kerry doing to shore up support for an agreement?

“Within Israel, those supporting the Kerry process have exploited the BDS movement”





NF As Palestinian political analyst (and my co-author) Mouin Rabbani has observed, the big difference between [then US] president Clinton and [current US] secretary of state Kerry is that Clinton ignored everyone outside the United States; he imagined that he alone, without any external assistance, could be the kingmaker.

Kerry, on the other hand, has in a very deliberate fashion set about lining up all the ducks. The Saudis, Arab League, European Union – the Palestinians are being surrounded and besieged.

So are the Israelis, but to a much lesser extent because it’s essentially Israel’s terms of settlement that are being imposed.

The Europeans in particular are turning the screws. Every day there’s another report of an individual or collective European initiative severing ties with Israeli entities linked to the illegal settlements. My guess is, the threats currently emanating from Europe are being coordinated with Kerry, in order to convey, not so much to the Israeli government (for all his emoting, Netanyahu is on board), but to Israeli holdouts, that the settlement project outside the Wall has no future prospects.

Within Israeli politics, those supporting the Kerry process – here’s an irony worth savouring! – have exploited the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement to the same end: ‘If we don’t settle now, BDS is just around the corner.’

NLP How binding will a framework agreement be upon future negotiations?

NF Nothing is inexorable, but there will be a lot of momentum behind it. The juggernaut will be hard to stop. For all the pieces to fall into place, a new Israeli coalition will probably have to form, a government of national unity led by Netanyahu.

Israeli public opinion polls show that a majority of Israelis would support the probable Kerry proposal. Hebron will have to be evacuated. Of course, there will be the usual Israeli anguish, but it won’t be difficult to pull off.

The IDF [Israeli defence forces] can just march out, and say to the 400 meschugge [crazy] Jewish settlers, ‘You want to stay? You can stay’ – alone, amidst the 150,000 Muslim Hebronites.

NLP Does the Palestinian leadership have the capacity to resist?

NF I can’t, for the life of me, see how the Palestinians can extricate themselves at this point. There’s such a broad array of political forces ranged behind the Kerry process that the Palestinians are trapped.

Abbas and his imbecile sidekick Saeb Erekat are playing good cop/bad cop. Abbas says: ‘Yes, this agreement might work,’ whereas Erekat whispers to the media – you know, the ‘senior Palestinian negotiator who doesn’t want to be identified’ – that ‘oh, this agreement is horrible, it’s terrible, it’s awful, they can shove it.’ Erekat thinks that’s being clever, it’s putting pressure on the Americans, as if anyone on god’s earth gives a flying fig what Erekat has to say about anything.

The Palestinians are cornered, they’re isolated. When you’re in such desperate straits, of course, you must play your strongest cards. A real leadership would, first of all, level with the Palestinian people: ‘We’re in a bind, we’re being steamrollered, stampeded. We need you, we need to draw on all our collective resources and reserves to resist’; and, second, it would call on Palestine’s supporters abroad: ‘We’re about to be clobbered, we need your help.’

I can’t say it would turn the tide, though, as you know, the Palestinian cause has sufficient resonance abroad that if Palestinians were to say: ‘We’re facing the moment of truth now, we might be extinguished,’ it could perhaps, in conjunction with a mass civil revolt among the Palestinians themselves, do something. It could become a factor.

But the Palestinian leadership is irredeemably corrupt, incompetent and stupid (petty and megalomaniacal, Abbas lost interest in Palestine long ago – he just wants the Nobel), while Palestine’s supporters abroad are, to put it politely, not acting smartly.

They think the big issue now is the American Studies Association vote for an academic boycott of Israel, and debating the virtues of academic freedom at a Modern Languages Association conference.

But that’s the state of Palestine solidarity right now. They carry on as if the Kerry process is a meaningless sideshow, something that can be safely ignored. But it’s a very big difference, as Mouin and I have pointed out, whether the Wall is illegal or whether it is a legal border.

Why? It would turn what are currently illegal Jewish settlements into ordinary Israeli towns; Israel could legally confiscate Palestinian land and evict Palestinians from their homes. In India or China, when the government wants to build a big hydroelectric dam, it removes 100,000 people in one fell swoop. They expel masses of people from their homes, and the international community sits by mute. It’s the sovereign right of a country – it’s eminent domain.

The moment the Wall is re-baptized a border, the settlements behind it become a dead issue. They’re Israel’s sovereign territory. And of course most of the world will be glad to be rid of the Israel-Palestine conflict. They’ll be happy when the dotted line is signed. What are you going to do then? An American Studies Association boycott of the world?

NLP If a final agreement on Israel’s terms is signed, how big a set-back will it be for the struggle for Palestinian self-determination?

NF It would be almost irreversible. Many activists don’t want to acknowledge it, but these sorts of agreements and codifications can have real consequences.

“The Palestinian leadership is irredeemably corrupt, incompetent and stupid”

Didn’t the 1947 [UN] partition resolution, backed by Israeli wherewithal and will, already prove the point? There’s no obvious reason why you can’t have an agreement whereby a new border is drawn between Israel and the Palestinian territories, especially if such an agreement is ratified by the UN security council, which it almost certainly will be.

Israel has the wherewithal and will to make that new border stick. Indeed, it already is a fact, except juridically. A political settlement would crown the already existing facts on the ground with the jewel of legality.

It is a significant step, turning an illegal wall into a permanent, internationally recognized border; and it’s not beyond Israel’s reach. From then on, what claim will the Palestinians have beyond that border? None.

NLP In your forthcoming book with Mouin, you recommend steps that Palestinians, solidarity activists and others should take to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict in a just and durable way. Will those steps, then, have to happen within the next three years? After that, will it be too late?

NF For anything to happen, it must begin among the Palestinians in the occupied territories. That would command international attention – though again, we have to be realistic about the political lay of the land right now. World attention is focused on Syria and Iran. There’s going to be the meeting in Geneva. It will be very hard for Palestinians to seize the political spotlight at this point. But that’s the only thing that can stop or slow down the juggernaut. Everything else is meaningless, it’s Nero fiddling while Rome burns.


Norman Finkelstein added a number of important observations in an follow-up interview on 22 January, including this overview: ‘The poles of the debate are now being established as, on one extreme, the Kerry proposal (in essence, the Israeli position at Annapolis), and on the other extreme, those within Israel who don’t want to give up anything. The Palestinian position has vanished from the debate.

Palestinians will protest when the steamroller runs over them, at which point everyone will say: ‘Are you still talking about the settlement blocs? That was already agreed upon.’ And the Palestinians will then appear to be the spoilers.’