“A political border can be compared to a knife, used to cut bread and share with your neighbor or stab you in the back”

What is it going to take to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? On November 27, 2012 we conducted a phone interview with one of the most internationally recognized public intellectuals alive today, linguist Noam Chomsky. Among the many insights Chomsky provides is the idea of a “no state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would do away with “imperialist borders” and allow for the development of social, cultural, and economic ties between Israelis and Palestinians.  

Given the current facts on the ground, is a one-state versus two-state solution the answer?

In the long term, I have always preferred a no state solution.  The first time I realized that was the proper outcome was sixty years ago.  My wife and I were graduate students and living in a kibbutz at the time.  While hiking around the Northern Galilee region, we happened to walk into Lebanon by accident.  The border was not marked.  After awhile, some guy came by in a jeep and told us we were on the wrong side of the border and we walked back.

The border was and still is meaningless. It was imposed by British and French imperialism. There’s no reason whatsoever to worship borders.  The whole region would be much better off if it went to back to what it was during the Ottoman period.  No one wants the brutality and corruption of the Ottoman state but the rulers had the right idea about some things: they left people alone.  One could drive from Cairo to Baghdad to Istanbul without crossing a border.  It wasn’t utopia but it was the right approach.

In fact, it’s the only framework in which the refugee problem has a prayer of being dealt with – anything else is a symbolic gesture. It’s something to think about in the long term.  There’s no reason to be enthralled by the imperialist borders.

This sounds good on paper, but how do we implement a no-state solution?

This can only be done in stages.  One stage would be what’s now called “one state settlement” or what used to be called more realistically a “bi-national state.” A bi-national state could be a stage towards eroding borders further, but then the question becomes, “How do you get to a bi-national state?”

If you’re interested in achieving it, you have to ask, “How do you get there?”  Over the years, there have been different ways.  Pre-1948 when I was an activist on this issue, there was a way of getting there without having a partition.  That’s what I was in favor of then.  From 1967 to the mid 70s there was also a way of getting there through some kind of federation.  There were steps in that direction. I wrote a lot about it at the time, but it’s been ignored by the people who have suddenly learned about the one-state approach in recent years.

By 1975 that became unfeasible.  Palestinian National rights became part of the international agenda. There was actually a security council resolution in 1976 put forward by the main Arab states (Egypt, Syria & Jordan) calling for a two-state settlement with all the appropriate guarantees.  There was another one in 1980, vetoed by the United States, and it went on and on until today.  From 1975 until the present, the only way I’ve ever heard about moving toward a bi-national state is in stages, through a two-state settlement.

So when people talk about one-state without discussing the way to get there it is as if they’re talking at a philosophy seminar.  It doesn’t help the Palestinians – in fact it hurts them.  But if you’re serious about making this happen, you must ask, “How do you get there?”

Is there a specific model to getting there? It seems there are too many steps to bringing healing to the region.

It’s very simple.  The entire world supports a two-state settlement on the international borders with some minor modifications.  Nevertheless, it’s been blocked by the United States for thirty-five years.  A simple way to get there is for the US to join the world.

That’s not impossible, but you have to at least face the reality that the US discourse is so indoctrinated. The US thinks of itself as an honest broker, trying to bring the two sides together.  That’s ridiculous.  The US provides the crucial military, economic, diplomatic and ideological support for Israeli expansion.

If there were reasonable negotiations, they’d be in the hands of a respected neutral party such as Brazil.  Instead, on one side you have US and Israel and on the other side you have the rest of the world.  A lot of work has to be done to get through the profound indoctrination here and in Western Europe, which follows the US lead, to get people to understand what’s happening.  It’s a perfectly feasible objective that’s happened in other cases.

People like to bring up South Africa, often irrelevantly, but there is an authentic South African analogy that is never discussed.  If you go back to 1960, the apartheid regime recognized they were becoming international pariahs.  There were discussions between the South African foreign ministry and the US Ambassador in which the white nationalists pointed out, “The whole world is turning against us but the only thing that matters is you.  As long as you support us we don’t care about the world.”

This went right into the Reagan years.  Reagan was a strong supporter of apartheid.  At the end of his presidency he had to evade even congressional sanctions to continue supporting the apartheid regime.  Around 1990, the US changed its position.

It can happen in the case of Palestinians and Israelis, but it’s going to take work. If the US can change its position and join the rest of the world, the first stage can be reached, some kind of two-state settlement.  Once that’s established, chances are very high that the borders are going to erode.

The reason is because drawing a line through the region from the Jordan to the sea is so artificial – it’s just a burden on everybody.  Every time there has been any relaxation of tensions, you find the borders eroding, such as Israelis going to shop in the Palestinian Territories, and transitions in the other directions with the Palestinians.  You get commercial and cultural interactions, which could very well lead to the erosion of borders, which could lead to integration and may get to the point of imperial border erosion.

So what is it going to take for the US to join the rest of the world?

People are drowning in propaganda.  In some cases you have to work hard to organize and carry out the activist programs that make sense, not the ones that don’t make sense.  The most important ones are education and organization, as in the case of South Africa and other issues.

There are a wide variety of possible actions, ranging from protests, demonstrations, etc., to the selective use of specific tactics, such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions, where the groundwork has been laid to make them effective – again as in the case of South Africa.

That’s the way everything has been achieved – civil rights, women rights, anti-war movements, environmental rights.  Take your pick. It’s the only way to proceed.  There are no magic steps.  That’s the way it worked with apartheid and other movements. It took a lot of work for people to be anti-apartheid, pro-women’s rights, pro-peace, pro-environment.

What should Palestinians in Palestine be focusing on to improve their situation?

First, the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and that’s an internal challenge that has to be overcome. Much of the West bank is controlled by force, by a collaborationist army that’s trained by the United States. Israel is using natural gas in Gaza’s territorial waters and it’s hard to protest that because the Palestinian Authority appears to have authorized it. In Gaza, there are other things to worry about as well.

Second, and the main point regarding Gaza, there has to be unification of Gaza and the West Bank.  Anything else is just a gift to Israel.  Unifying Hamas and Fatah is important.

Hamas seems pretty ready for this. They’ve been pushing for unification for a long time.  Whenever unification seems on the horizon, or so it has been widely reported, the United States comes in and pressures Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas not to make any concessions or agree, and Abbas dutifully backs away from reuniting with Hamas. This dynamic has to be overcome. These two factions have to move toward unity.

Outside Israel-Palestine, a lot has to be done.  Unless the US shifts its position and accepts a political settlement, it’s very unlikely that anything is going to happen.  But there is progress on that too, quite a lot.  I have seen much of it in my own life.

Only a few years ago, when I was giving talks about Israel and Palestine, I’d have to have police protection even on my own campus.  That has changed dramatically.  Today, if I come to Nashville, Tennessee, to talk about Israel and Palestine, there would probably be a large audience, a lot of engaged people, and perhaps no one would even ask a hostile question.  That’s a huge change.  In fact on college campuses, Palestinian solidarity is one of the biggest and most important issues.  It’s going to effect policy.  It hasn’t happened yet, but that’s the way things get started.  And it can spread, and partly has spread, into the larger American society.  That kind of straightforward, “show people what the problem is” strategy has been missing until recently.

Congratulations on your recently released book, Occupy. What would you like people to take away from reading it?

For the past 30 years or so, there’s been a general assault on the American population.  Basically, it’s the US version of the neo-liberal assault on populations all over the world.  It’s a large part of the reason for the uprisings in Egypt – everyone by now should know about them and we’ve been seeing the effects very clearly.

In the US, there’s a huge concentration of wealth, stagnation and decline, marginalization of a large part of the population, and a large majority of the population has no influence on policy.  People know it in their own lives.  It’s getting worse and worse.

The Occupy Movement was the first large-scale organized reaction to it.  That alone was important.  It struck a chord.  A few people sat at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan and pretty soon you had hundreds of occupy movements all over the country, in fact, all over the world.

They were important in many ways.  They put issues on the national agenda that really hadn’t been there. Inequality reached stratospheric proportions.  People knew about it but there weren’t efforts to address this major issue.

Nowadays, you can read the Occupy slogan 1% vs. 99% in the press. It changed perception about the issues.  Although nothing’s been done about it, the first step was made.  It’s the same on other matters, such as activists who have been very much involved in protecting people from home foreclosures.  The Obama administration isn’t going to do it.  But activists on the ground can, and have been doing it.

One extremely important point people should pay attention to is that the Occupy movement brought people together to cooperate for a common end.  There was mutual aid, joint kitchens, space for discussion, and people working together to achieve something.  That’s very rare in the United States, which has a very atomized society.  People are separated from one another. Each individual might want to do something but not work with his or her neighbors.  It’s a very dangerous development that’s been happening in the United States over recent years.  And the Occupy movement was a small but significant step toward trying to remedy it.


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