Fmr. Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami Debates Outspoken Professor Norman Finkelstein on Israel, the Palestinians, and the Peace Process
Tuesday, February 14th, 2006
What happens when a former Israeli Foreign Minister debates a scholar known as one of the world's foremost critics of Israeli policy? The answer is not what you may expect. We spend the hour with Shlomo Ben Ami, author of "Scars of War, Wounds of Peace," and Norman Finkelstein, author of "Beyond Chutzpah". They joined us in our firehouse studio for a wide-ranging exchange. We discussed the origins of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, to the Oslo Peace Process, right up to the present.
What happens when a former Israeli Foreign Minister debates a scholar known as one of the world's foremost critics of Israeli policy? The answer is not what you may expect. Last week, Shlomo Ben Ami and Norman Finkelstein joined us in our firehouse studio for a wide-ranging exchange that lasted close to two hours. Today, we bring you an edited version of what they had to say.
Shlomo Ben-Ami is 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, his new book is "Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli Arab Tragedy." President Bill Clinton says, "Shlomo Ben-Ami worked tirelessly and courageously for peace. His account of what he did and failed to do and where we go from here should be read by everyone who wants a just and lasting resolution."
Norman Finkelstein is a Professor of Political Science at DePaul University. His latest book is "Beyond Chutzpah: On The Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History." Leading Israeli scholar Avi Shlaim of Oxford University calls Beyond Chutzpah "brilliantly illuminating... On display are all the sterling qualities for which Finkelstein has become famous."
We tried to cover as much ground as we could, from the origins of the conflict, to the Oslo peace process, to the present.
AMY GOODMAN: What happens when a former Israeli Foreign Minister debates a scholar known as one of the world's foremost critics of Israeli policy? The answer is not what you may expect. Last week, Shlomo Ben-Ami and Norman Finkelstein joined us our Firehouse studio for a wide-ranging exchange that lasted close to two hours. Today, we bring you an edited version of what they had to say.
Shlomo Ben-Ami is 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, his new book is Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. President Bill Clinton says, quote, “Shlomo Ben-Ami worked tirelessly and courageously for peace. His account of what he did and failed to do and where we go from here should be read by everyone who wants a just and lasting resolution.”
We’re also joined by Norman Finkelstein. He is a professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago. His latest book is Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. Avi Shlaim, Israeli scholar at Oxford University calls Beyond Chutzpah “Brilliantly illuminating… On display are all the sterling qualities for which Finkelstein has become famous.”
We tried to cover as much ground as we could from the origins of the conflict to the Oslo peace process to the present. I began by asking the former Foreign Minister of Israel, Shlomo Ben-Ami, about the founding of Israel in 1948.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: I did want you to step back, Shlomo Ben-Ami, and give us an overview of the whole peace process, of which you were a part, a critical player in this, the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993. Can you talk about what they entailed, why they failed?
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Well, the Oslo peace process was an agreement -- it started as an agreement between two unequal partners. Arafat conceived Oslo as a way, not necessarily to reach a settlement, but more importantly to him at that particular moment, in order to come back to the territories and control the politics of the Palestinian family. Don't forget that the Intifada, to which Oslo brought an end, started independently of the P.L.O. leadership, and he saw how he was losing control of the destiny of the Palestinians. His only way to get back to the territories was through an agreement with Israel. So in Oslo, he made enormous concessions.
In fact, when he was negotiating in Oslo with us, an official Palestinian delegation was negotiating with an official Israeli delegation in Washington, and the official Palestinian delegation was asking the right things from the viewpoint of the Palestinians -- self-determination, right of return, end of occupation, all the necessary arguments -- whereas Arafat in Oslo reached an agreement that didn't even mention the right of self-determination for the Palestinians, doesn't even mention the need of the Israelis to put an end to settlements. If the Israelis, after Oslo, continued expansion of settlements, they were violating the spirit of Oslo, not the letter of Oslo. There is nothing in the Oslo agreement that says that Israelis cannot build settlements. So this was the cheap agreement that Arafat sold, precisely because he wanted to come back to the territories and control the politics of Palestine.
Now, the thing is that a major problem with Oslo, on top of it, was that it solved very minor issues, such as Gaza, and even people on the far Israeli right were ready to give away Gaza, but it left open the future. The future was unknown. The two sides, the two parties started to embark on a process, when they had diametrically opposed views as to the final objective. There was nothing as to what will happen about Jerusalem. It was only said that we will negotiate Jerusalem. What about refugees? Nothing clear was said, just that we will negotiate the refugees. So the thing that -- the fact that the future was left so wide open was a standing invitation for the parties to dictate -- to try and dictate -- the nature of the final agreement through unilateral acts: the Israelis, by expanding settlements, and the Palestinians, by responding with terrorism. So this symmetry that was created in Oslo persists to this very day, so Oslo could not usher in a final agreement because of the different expectations that the parties had. It was an exercise in make-believe.
The Palestinians didn't even mention self-determination so a leader like Rabin could have thought that, okay, we will have an agreement that will create something which is a state-minus. This was Rabin’s expression. He never thought this will end in a full-fledged Palestinian state. There was a lot of ambiguity, constructive ambiguity might Kissinger say, but I think it was destructive ambiguity. It helped -- this destructive ambiguity helped in clinching the Oslo Agreement, but it was a minefield for those who went to Camp David and later on to Taba to try and solve all the pending issues.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Norman Finkelstein.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I’m going to try to focus on the key points or issues about the refugees in Jerusalem, which for now I can't get into, but I will be happy to return to them later when we discuss what was the impasse at Oslo -- excuse me, the impasse at Camp David and Taba, but I want to set the context, and I don’t think -- I agree in part with the context that Dr. Ben-Ami set out, but not fully.
The main context, in my opinion, is as follows. Since the mid-1970s, there's been an international consensus for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Most of your listeners will be familiar with it. It's called a two-state settlement, and a two-state settlement is pretty straightforward, uncomplicated. Israel has to fully withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza and Jerusalem, in accordance with the fundamental principle of international law, cited three times by Mr. Ben-Ami in the book, his book, that it's inadmissible to acquire territory by war. The West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, having been acquired by war, it's inadmissible for Israel to keep them. They have to be returned. On the Palestinian side and also the side of the neighboring Arab states, they have to recognize Israel's right to live in peace and security with its neighbors. That was the quid pro quo: recognition of Israel, Palestinian right to self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in Jerusalem. That's the international consensus.
It's not complicated. It's also not controversial. You see it voted on every year in the United Nations. The votes typically something like 160 nations on one side, the United States, Israel and Naru, Palau, Tuvalu, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands on the other side. That's it. Now, the Israeli government was fully aware that this was the international consensus, but they were opposed (a) to a full withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and Jerusalem, of course, and (2) they were opposed to creating a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories.
Come 1981, as pressure builds on Israel to reach a diplomatic settlement in the Israel-Palestine conflict, they decide to invade Lebanon in order to crush the P.L.O., because the P.L.O. was on record supporting a two-state settlement. As Dr. Ben-Ami's colleague, Avner Yaniv, put it in a very excellent book, Dilemmas of Security, he said, “The main problem for Israel was,” and now I’m quoting him, "the P.L.O.'s peace offensive. They wanted a two-state settlement. Israel did not.” And so Israel decides to crush the P.L.O. in Lebanon. It successfully did so. The P.L.O. goes into exile.
Come 1987, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories despair of any possibility of international intervention, and they enter into a revolt -- the Palestinian Intifada -- basically nonviolent civilian revolt by the Palestinians. And the revolt proves to be remarkably successful for maybe the first couple of years. Come 1990, Iraq invades Kuwait. The P.L.O. supports, ambiguously, but I think we fairly can say, and I agree with Dr. Ben-Ami on this, they lend support to Iraq. The war ends, Iraq defeated, and all the Gulf states cut off all of their money to the P.L.O. The P.L.O. Is going down the tubes.
Along comes Israel with a clever idea. Mr. Rabin says, ‘Let's throw Arafat a life preserver, but on condition.’ And Dr. Ben-Ami puts it excellently, that “the P.L.O. will be Israel's subcontractor and collaborator in the Occupied Territories,” and I’m quoting Dr. Ben-Ami, "in order to suppress the genuinely democratic tendencies of the Palestinians." Now, it's true, exactly as Dr. Ben-Ami said, that Israel had two options after the Iraq war. It could have negotiated with the real representatives of the Palestinians who wanted that full two-state settlement in accordance with the international consensus, or it can negotiate with Arafat in the hope that he's so desperate that he's going to serve as their collaborator and subcontractor in order to deny the Palestinians what they're entitled to under international law. The Israelis chose Arafat, not only because Arafat himself was desperate. They chose him because they thought he would deny them what they were entitled to. He would suppress all resistance to the occupation.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Norman Finkelstein, author of Beyond Chutzpah. More from his debate with former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami after the break.