Finkelstein Debates Israeli Pol
Report; Posted on: 2006-03-04 13:39:34
Jewish dissident's debate now online
(Democracy Now) AMY GOODMAN: Today, we bring you a discussion with two of the world's leading experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both of them have new books on the subject. We're joined by Shlomo Ben-Ami, both an insider and a scholar. As Foreign Minister under Ehud Barak, he was a key participant in years of Israel-Palestinian peace talks, including the Camp David and Taba talks in 2000 and 2001. An Oxford-trained historian, he is currently Vice President of the Toledo Peace Centre in Madrid. His new book is called Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.
We're also joined by Norman Finkelstein. He's a professor of political science at DePaul University. His books include A Nation on Trial, which he coauthored with Ruth Bettina Birn, named as a New York Times notable book for 1998. He's also the author of Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and The Holocaust Industry. His latest book is Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. His website is NormanFinkelstein.com. Avi Shlaim of Oxford University calls Beyond Chutzpah “Brilliantly illuminating… On display are all the sterling qualities for which Finkelstein has become famous: erudition, originality, spark, meticulous attention to detail, intellectual integrity, courage, and formidable forensic skills.”
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! It's very good to have you with us. Well, I want to start going back to the establishment of the state of Israel, and I'd like to begin with Israel's former Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami. Can you talk about how it began? I think you have a very interesting discussion in this book that is rarely seen in this country of how the state of Israel was established. Can you describe the circumstances?
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Well, for all practical purposes, a state existed before it was officially created in 1948. The uniqueness of the Zionist experience, as it were, was in that the Zionists were able, under the protection of the mandate, of the British mandate, to set up the essentials of a state — the institutions of a state, political parties, a health system, running democracy for Jews, obviously — before the state was created, so the transition to statehood was a declaration, basically, and it came about in the middle of two stages of war, a civil war between the Israelis and the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine and then an invasion by the Arab armies. The point that I made with regard to the war is that the country, to the mythology that existed and exists, continues to exist mainly among Israelis and Jews, is that Israel was not in a military disadvantage when the war took place. The Arab armies were disoriented and confused, and they did not put in the battlefield the necessary forces.
So, in 1948, what was born was a state, but also original superpower in many ways. We have prevailed over the invading Arab armies and the local population, which was practically evicted from Palestine, from the state of Israel, from what became the state of Israel, and this is how the refugee problem was born. Interestingly, the Arabs in 1948 lost a war that was, as far as they were concerned, lost already in 1936-1939, because they have fought against the British mandate and the Israeli or the Jewish Yishuv, the Jewish pre-state, and they were defeated then, so they came to the hour of trial in 1948 already as a defeated nation. That is, the War of 1948 was won already in 1936, and they had no chance to win the war in 1948. They were already a defeated nation when they faced the Israeli superpower that was emerging in that year.
AMY GOODMAN: You have some very strong quotes in your book, of your own and quoting others, like Berl Katznelson, who is the main ideologue of the Labor movement, acknowledging that in the wake of the 1929 Arab riots, the Zionist enterprise as an enterprise of conquest. You also say, “The reality on the ground was that of an Arab community in a state of terror facing a ruthless Israeli army whose path to victory was paved not only by its exploits against the regular Arab armies, but also by the intimidation and at times atrocities and massacres it perpetrated against the civilian Arab community. A panic-stricken Arab community was uprooted under the impact of massacres that would be carved into the Arabs' monument of grief and hatred.” Explain that further.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Well, you see, there is a whole range of new historians that have gone into the sources of — the origins of the state of Israel, among them you mentioned Avi Shlaim, but there are many, many others that have exposed this evidence of what really went on on the ground. And I must from the very beginning say that the main difference between what they say and my vision of things is not the facts. The facts, they are absolutely correct in mentioning the facts and putting the record straight.
My view is that, but for Jesus Christ, everybody was born in sin, including nations. And the moral perspective of it is there, but at the same time it does not undermine, in my view, in my very modest view, the justification for the creation of a Jewish state, however tough the conditions and however immoral the consequences were for the Palestinians. You see, it is there that I tend to differ from the interpretation of the new historians. They have made an incredible contribution, a very, very important contribution to our understanding of the origins of the state of Israel, but at the same time, my view is that this is how — unfortunately, tragically, sadly — nations were born throughout history.
And our role, the role of this generation — this is why I came into politics and why I try to make my very modest contribution to the peace process — is that we need to bring an end to this injustice that has been done to the Palestinians. We need to draw a line between an Israeli state, a sovereign Palestinian state, and solve the best way we can the problem, by giving the necessary compensation to the refugees, by bringing back the refugees to the Palestinian state, no way to the state of Israel, not because it is immoral, but because it is not feasible, it is not possible. We need to act in a realistic way and see what are the conditions for a final peace deal. I believe that we came very, very close to that final peace deal. Unfortunately, we didn't make it. But we came very close in the year 2001.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we get to that peace deal, another thing that you have said. “Israel, as a society, also suppressed the memory of its war against the local Palestinians, because it couldn't really come to terms with the fact that it expelled Arabs, committed atrocities against them, dispossessed them. This was like admitting that the noble Jewish dream of statehood was stained forever by a major injustice committed against the Palestinians and that the Jewish state was born in sin.” I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that the author of these words is the former Foreign Minister of Israel.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Yes, while, at the same time, a historian. I am trying to be as fair as possible when I read the past, but it's a very interesting point, the one that you make here, about us trying to obliterate the memory of our war against the Palestinians, and the whole Israeli 1948 mythology is based on our war against the invading Arab armies, less so against the Palestinians, who were the weaker side in that confrontation, because it didn't serve the myth of the creation of the state and of the nation. So we need to correct that. There is no way — there is no way we can fully compensate the refugees and the Palestinians, but we need to do our very, very best to find a way to minimize the harm that was done to this nation.
AMY GOODMAN: And Shlomo Ben-Ami, your response to those who continue to say that at that time, at the time of the establishment of the state of Israel and before, that it really was empty, that Jews came to a place that was not populated.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Of course, it is nonsense. I mean, it was populated. Obviously, it was populated. I mean, the notion that existed, I think it was Israel Zangwill, the first to say that we are — we came a nation without a land to a land without a people. Obviously, it was not true, but again, part of the tragedy was that the Palestinians, as such, did not have — the Palestinian peasants did not have the full control of their own destiny. Part of that land was bought by the Zionist organizations from Affendis, landowners living in Turkey or anywhere else throughout the Ottoman Empire, and these people were inevitably evicted by these kind of transactions. But as a whole, I think that not more than 6 or 7% of the entire surface of the state of Israel was bought. The rest of it was either taken over or won during the war.
AMY GOODMAN: Norman Finkelstein, you're author of the book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. Do you share the same narrative? Do you agree with what Shlomo Ben-Ami has put forward, the former Israeli Foreign Minister?
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I agree with the statement that there is very little dispute nowadays amongst serious historians and rational people about the facts. There is pretty much a consensus on what happened during what you can call the foundational period, from the first Zionist settlements at the end of the 19th century 'til 1948. There, there is pretty much of a consensus. And I think Mr. Ben-Ami, in his first 50 pages, accurately renders what that consensus is.
I would just add a couple of points he makes, but just to round out the picture. He starts out by saying that the central Zionist dilemma was they wanted to create a predominantly Jewish state in an area which was overwhelmingly not Jewish, and he cites the figure, I think 1906 there were 700,000 Arabs, 55,000 Jews, and even of those 55,000 Jews, only a handful were Zionists. So that's the dilemma. How do you create a Jewish state in area which is overwhelmingly not Jewish?
Now, the Israeli historian Benny Morris, at one point, he said there are only two ways you can resolve this dilemma. One, you can create what he called the South African way, that is, create a Jewish state and disenfranchise the indigenous population. That's one way. The second way is what he calls the way of transfer. That is, you kick the indigenous population out, basically what we did in North America.
Now, as Mr. Ben-Ami correctly points out, by the 1930s the Zionist movement had reached a consensus that the way to resolve the dilemma is the way of transfer. You throw the Palestinians out. You can't do that anytime, because there are moral problems and international problems. You have to wait for the right moment. And the right moment comes in 1948. Under the cover of war, you have the opportunity to expel the indigenous population.
I was kind of surprised that Mr. Ben-Ami goes beyond what many Israeli historians acknowledge. Someone like Benny Morris will say, "Yes, Palestinians were ethnically cleansed in 1948.” That's Benny Morris's expression. But he says it was an accident of war. There are wars, people get dispossessed. Mr. Ben-Ami, no, he will go further. He said you can see pretty clearly that they intended to expel the Palestinians. The opportunity came along, and they did so. Now, those are the facts.
So where do we disagree? I think where we disagree is on responsibility. It's not just a question of moral responsibility. It's not simply a question of tragedy or sadness. It's a question of law, international law. What are your obligations if you are a member state of the United Nations, for example? Now, under international law, refugees are entitled to return to their homes once the battlefield conflict has died down. And Mr. Ben-Ami was absolutely correct. He said the key moment comes in the Israel-Palestine conflict, not when the Palestinians are expelled, but when, after the war, Israel refused to allow the Palestinians back.
At that point, he says, here is a problem, or a problem arises, and the way he puts the problem is we have two conflicting issues. On the one hand, there is what he calls the Zionist ethos. They want a Jewish state. On the other hand, you have the Palestinian refugees, who have a right to return. And for Mr. Ben-Ami, this is an intractable conflict: the Zionist ethos versus the refugees.
But there is a third factor. The factor is international law. And under international law, the Palestinians have the right to return. Now, I am not arguing now for a right of return. I acknowledge it's a complicated problem. But we have to be honest about the rights and the wrongs and the question of rights and wrongs. It was a wrong inflicted on the Palestinians, and it was their right, their right. This is not a tragedy, and this is not about morals. It's about legal rights. Their right to return was denied. How do you resolve that problem? I admit, it's difficult. But we have to be clear about rights and wrongs, because that's going to become, in my opinion, the main problem when we come to Camp David. Whose rights were being denied during the Camp David/Taba negotiations?
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