The Future of Israel and Palestine

Against the Current, No. 79, March/April 1999

Harry Clark interviews Professor Israel Shahak

(continued from last issue)

THE FIRST PART of this interview with the Israeli human rights campaigner Professor Israel Shahak appeared in our previous issue (“The `Peace Process’ and the CIA,” ATC 78).  It was conducted in June 1998 by Harry Clark, a solidarity activist from Ann Arbor.

The Israeli political situation is clearly in rapid flux with the imminent May 17 election and the emergence of new forces in the “political center” represented by Generals Yitzhak Mordechai and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak (the latter is not related to Israel Shahak).  Nonetheless Prof. Shahak’s observations on the underlying dynamics-notably the secular-religious polarization and the decay of the Labor Party-are useful background for understanding the new situation as it evolves.

For an update on the real state of the “peace process” we would also recommend to our readers an essay by Norman Finkelstein,”Securing Occupation: The Real Meaning of the Wye River Memorandum” in New Left Review 232 (November/December 1998).

Harry Clark: Let’s return to the polarization within Israel, on religious-secular issues.  How will the changing composition of Israeli society and the displacement of the old elites affect that struggle?

Israel Shahak: The old (European-Zionist) elites are secular.  Had they taken the chance of making an issue of their secular convictions, they might have toppled Netanyahu at once, because so many of those in the middle, especially among the Russians, are devoted to their material comforts, and because the Orthodox Jews are so hated in Israel.

In part the Orthodox are right in saying that they are the target of hate for its own sake, which I oppose.  But you cannot escape the fact that maybe because of their provocations, or maybe because they are powerful, they are hated.

But the old elites, like every decaying elite, are looking to their past, to the time of their grandfathers or so on, and they make a fake return to Judaism, preventing them from making an issue of secular principles.

H.C.: Like (former Prime Minister) Shimon Peres posing in the last election with his prayer shawl.

I.S. Yes. So they have been losing on both fronts.  But before passing on to the really important political fight, I will mention something that will interest American audiences: Because of the opposition between secular and religious, the gay and lesbian community has become fully accepted within the secular majority.

This especially came to light in the 1998 Eurovision song contest, where Israel (Dana International) won for the first time, but the singer was a male who changed his sex and he sings and behaves like a woman, so he was denounced by all the religious-but he became a hero.

The gays and lesbians made enormous demonstrations in his honor and, for the first time in Israel, they kiss each other on television and see that the majority of society is actually sympathetic to them. Each time the society undergoes a little transformation.

Now let us go to politics in the wider sense.  The Labor Party is obviously decaying.  Its leader Barak is a disaster, even from a pragmatic point of view. He was chosen party leader because he is a general-by the way, he was a stupid general-but he would lose running against Netanyahu, because he is less competent than Netanyahu.

But the Labor Party has also decided that it cannot possibly allow itself to go into the next elections with its former allies, the Meretz party and the Arab parties.  Meretz is a party hated by the religious and traditionals-any ally of Meretz will have the so-called floating vote against them, all the polls show.

Much more important things are happening with the Arab parties.  Rabin and Peres (the last two Labor Prime Ministers-ed.) governed with a coalition of 61 to 66 members (of the 120-member Knesset-ed.) with the help of the Arab parties, who now number nine Knesset members.

Now the Arab parties are becoming more overtly nationalistic – a position taken openly in the Israeli press by Azmi Bishara, for example.  This doesn’t represent the whole Arab public inside Israel, part of which is undergoing what is called Israelization, integrating into Israeli society mainly for economic reasons, but that part is politically mute, so to speak.

But the Arab parties’ growing nationalism precludes a coalition with the Arab parties; and to a much lesser extent I can say Meretz is excluded too. This is why Labor looks for a “floating vote,” and also why-I heard from my friend Noam Chomsky that this was absolutely unreported in the United States-Barak went to the most rabid settlement in the West Bank, Beth El, which is outside greater Jerusalem, and said “We will remain the settlements forever.”

This is exactly what Likud will say! So the only alternative to Netanyahu is a coalition which would exclude the National Religious Party, since these are the real extremists who are devoted to every single small settlement, and which will include Labor and of course the Russian party, the Orthodox but not messianic parties, and everybody in the center in fact-excluding the “left,” in Israeli terms Meretz and the Arab parties, and the extreme right.

[Editors’ Note: While Shahak’s observations are almost a year old and inevitably dated in the light of later events, the recent appearance of new “center” formations must be understood in this twofold context of the long-term decay of Labor and the erosion of Netanyahu’s authority due to his dependence on the religious right.]

Toward A New Order

I.S.: I should mention another important factor, that there is now no party in Israel which is opposing the World Bank and the policies it represents.  The reverse in fact is true: The only strong ideology that threatens Zionism is the current capitalist ideology, which as you know demands privatization and therefore the sale of state lands, which anyone then will be able to sell at least to any Israeli citizen-including Arabs.

[Editors’ Note: This change is enormously significant because over 90% of the territory of the State of Israel has been “state land,” controlled in an apartheid-like arrangement by the Jewish National Fund, which legally could not be sold or leased to any non-Jew.]

The kibbutz movement has opposed this, but before the end of 1998 a big proportion of the state land will become private property.  And let me tell you my personal feeling: Much as I oppose the IMF and World Bank in almost every respect, I think Israeli apartheid is so bad that in this respect selling state lands as private property is positive.

Even though it is now Ariel Sharon who carries out the privatization of land, and you don’t have to ask my opinion of Sharon, not only from the invasion of Lebanon-I am aware of Sharon’s role in the Kibya massacre in 1953-the privatization of land and opening it to non-Jews is better than Zionistic apartheid.

H.C.: Where does all this leave the Palestinians then, with Arafat cooperating with the CIA, facing at best a government of national unity in Israel, which is united in opposing Palestinian society west of the Jordan?

I.S.: First of all, the Palestinians will not get substantially more than they have now. The second withdrawal of 11% or 13% is of course not a change in the situation.  But I am saying plainly that in the present situation, not only in Israel but globally as the situation deteriorates, the value of Israel as an American ally increases.

As we are speaking now there is war in Kosovo, there is war in the Horn of Africa, there are five or ten potential local wars around the Middle East. Israel is not only a rich country with a powerful army, it is also a willing U.S. ally. In Southwest Asia it is allied not only with Turkey but with India too.

Such an ally is a long-term investment; and of the United States we are speaking about capitalists who are thinking for the long term.

Palestinians are faced with the status quo. Now what can they do?  I will give an example which I offered to many Palestinian intellectuals including my friend Edward Said: what the Poles did when they were divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria.

After their last rebellion in 1863, which was of course suppressed by very cruel means by Russia, with great harm to Polish society and culture, there appeared in Poland a school called the Organists who said, we have no chance now to achieve independence.  The three empires that are ruling us are too big, too strong; our duty under present conditions is to build what is possible in education, in industry as the time demands.

Polish education produced, to give you one single example, Marie Curie, the discoverer of radium.  What I suggest to Palestinians is computers, and other aspects of high tech. Programming work can be carried on in the Gaza Strip under the conditions of apartheid.  And so on: You have to build your own society under present conditions, and put 80-90% of your efforts into this.

Some of the younger generation are beginning to see, but only a few. The majority, I think, still has hopes that pressure from Clinton, the Europeans, the Arab states, all that stuff, will achieve a real break in the situation.  But no, it will not-for the time being, five, eight, ten years, this will not happen.

H.C.: Does Palestinian society have that much independent capacity?  Are Arafat and his clique interested?  Azmi Bishara said today at the LAWE conference [see explanatory note in our previous issue-ed.] that there are 200 insiders and 5000 hangers-on who are chiefly benefiting from the situation.

I.S.: Arafat is interested in only one thing, in power.  I compare Arafat to the czarist-appointed governor of Warsaw, who sometimes by the way was a Pole, an aristocrat.  As long as there was no opposition and the regulations were obeyed, he didn’t care, and I don’t think Arafat does either so long as work is done that doesn’t disturb the regime.

Another analogy: Arafat is called by my Palestinian friends “mini-Suharto.” Suharto was not interested in what happened in the universities; he was very surprised by the student revolt, before which there was no overt opposition.

Arafat has three very important forces that support him in Palestinian society.  First of all he has the secret police, which together with the apparatus of spies must number very many more than a few thousand people.

His apparatus for spying in every family and every locality is really excellent.  And this is his first value for America and Israel: His secret police really know what is happening.  Israel couldn’t do it; only the local regime can really rule its own people.

Second, his bureaucracy: I mean everyone employed by the Palestinian Authority.  In fact, European aid to Palestine goes more than half to sustaining the PA apparatus alone, and under the social conditions those people are loyal to their bread-giver.

And there is a third factor, which is ignored by a great majority of modern sociologists who look only at highly educated people.  In the West Bank, which I know (I don’t know whether the same thing exists in Gaza), there is a cleavage between the traditional Palestinian society as represented by the villages and the poor parts of the towns, and the more modern society which represents the richer and especially more educated people.

The people who have remained in the traditional sector support Arafat whatever he will do. The traditional Muslim attitude as crystallized through more than a thousand years, and by the way the Muslim religious law, is that the ruler has the right to be corrupt so long as he provides a modicum of law and order.  It is unwise and unlawful to rebel against him because the alternative is anarchy.

To this you can add the traditional attitude, which is global, toward the ruler as the all-knowing father.  I assure you that about half of Palestinian society in the West Bank regards Arafat as its father -maybe sometimes a bad father, but still a father who has the right to rule and decide.

What is more important, it is this part of society from which Hamas supporters come, and because of this Hamas has decided in the past year that it will not rebel in the foreseeable future against Arafat because its own supporters, actual and potential, are against such a rebellion.

But I will give you an actual example of the work that can be done. An Israeli friend of mine who is also anti-Zionist and who is a professor of mathematics at Bir Zeit University [the major Palestinian academic institution in the Occupied Territories-ed.], decided that Palestinian students would begin to appear in a Youth Mathematics Olympiad to be held every year, with competition between schools and local competitions to choose the team.

The level of mathematics is key to computers, of course.  Arafat didn’t give it a penny.  But after his henchmen in Bir Zeit convinced themselves that this event would be completely non-political, that only mathematics and teaching of mathematics would be discussed, he gave the green light and it was held.

H.C.: My reservation about the Polish example is that it took a disaster [World War I-ed.] to destroy those three empires and create independent Poland, at least for a short time. What is the corresponding event here?

I.S.  I fully agree with your remark; and the parallel is a revolt against American world hegemony.  I don’t know, of course, how and when there will be a revolt against American hegemony and the dominion of the World Bank and IMF, and maybe I will be dead before it comes, but it will come. But until that time people must build a society as much as they are able instead of spending time in futility.

I believe there is also potential for non-violent mass demonstrations that would have an enormous impact on Israeli society, which as I pointed out is in a very fluid state.  If, for example, a hundred thousand Palestinians were to organize a sit-in strike around the settlements, all around Palestine, the effect would be enormous.  Israel doesn’t have the police to prevent such a gathering.

Arafat would not allow it, because any such demonstration if it lasts more than a day can easily develop into a demonstration against Arafat himself-as he knows, and as of course his secret police and the Israeli secret police and CIA will not allow him to forget.

Even without masses, even if 100 Palestinians came to demonstrate before the Knesset and sit there day after day, they would not be removed and would be covered at length in the Hebrew media.  This is my hunch.  I am not sure about it-but why not try?

The answer is that there is a taboo on demonstrating in front of the Knesset, because Palestinians think that by doing so they would recognize the legitimacy of Israel and Zionism.  Even in Europe and the United States they have not demonstrated at the Israeli embassy-I think you will agree with me that protesting in front of the Israeli embassy is not legitimizing Zionism!

So we are discussing potentialities, but in other societies (mass civil rights action) has been done. But if this is excluded, and I am not dogmatic on this point, then we have to take from the “Polish example” to do what is possible.

H.C.: Is the system in the West Bank dependent on Arafat, or will it continue when he dies?

I.S.: I think that it is a strong system whether he lives or dies. Anyway modern medicine is working wonders, but even if he dies the system as I described is strong enough at the base. It is the CIA that would pick Arafat’s successor, who through the absolute control of the media within a very short time would be enveloped with the halo of the leader.

Modern media as you know are very efficient in this sort of thing.  The status quo is not dependent on Arafat’s life; it is 80-90% dependent on American hegemony and on the great American and especially CIA involvement in the affairs of the Palestinian Authority.

This is the most important point.  By the way, Suharto is now gone but the system in Indonesia remains.

You should take this into account, including the settlements [Israeli expanded settlements all around Jerusalem -ed.] that I have shown you, for my advocacy of what I call the “Polish solution.” Honest people of good will can only promote things which will not be overtly opposed to this system, because the system is very strong.

ATC 79, March-April 1999