Finkelstein Q&A

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

The Caravan sat down with renowned political scientist Norman Finkelstein during his trip to Cairo for a one-on-one interview where he candidly shared his views on the Third Intifada, Obama and the future of the Arab World. Edited excerpts below:

You are here obviously at a very critical time in the Arab World and there are all of these changes going on, so generally speaking how do you feel this so called Arab Spring is going to impact the Palestinian struggle?

It is not just the impact on the Palestinian struggle, it is an historic event, you know. Everybody who participated has participated in an historic event, part of history. I think September 11 will be forgotten much faster than the Egyptian revolution, so it is a stirring moment for all humanity People saying that, it is not just about Hosni Mubarak and Suzy Mubarak, but ordinary people, simple people, that they also are somebody. It is a thrilling thing to behold. [...]

How will it impact the Israel Palestine conflict? As everybody knows you are still in the early stages, you do not know what’s going to come next and one wants to be hopeful but one also has to be sober. Those who love power not just in Egypt but regionally and internationally they are not ready to give it up.

I am old enough to have seen many great historic moments undone [...] so, you now call it the Arab spring, some people call it the Arab revolution, I don’t use that term, it is still the stage of the revolt. Revolution assumes something has been consolidated and it can’t be reversed, that’s a revolution. [...] The people have the enthusiasm and they have the will but they don’t yet have the clarity of where to go.

Against the backdrop of everything that’s going on within the Arab World, we see for first time in years an actual attempt at forming a unified Palestinian government. Do you think that the timing of this is particularly significant?

It is obviously significant because the previous torturer-in-chief, Omar Suliman, he was claiming he was trying to form unity for years and he didn’t do anything, and then the new Egyptian government came to power and in four months this was done. The best line I read was last week in the paper I remember the foreign ministry speaking for Al Arabi, he said we don’t want a peace process, we want peace, and that hit the nail on the head.

We don’t want to be talking for the next 30 years that’s not the point, the point is talking leading to action. I found that the Egyptians are serious, and that I would work with them to be an adviser to try to end the conflict. I am not going to work with anyone who wants to just talk.

You mentioned you think it’s perhaps too early to be able to predict how things are going to go at this point but Egypt has historically played a key role in this mediation process..

Egypt has just played the role of a fig leaf for the United States and Israel, it hasn’t played a role in trying to achieve peace, it just followed the orders of the Americans and the Israelis. They played a key role in enabling Israel to annex more territories, and also to torture the people of Gaza. Israel knows that they are going to have a very hard time now if Egypt takes an active role, because you can't torture the Palestinians without the assistance of Egypt, so they are worried.

What are your opinions on the feasibility of a potential two state solution?

I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding on that particular issue. First of all people talk about the feasibility of a two state resolution as if the one state is feasible. Yes, it is very hard to try and achieve a two state solution, but try to achieve one state... I mean it’s not serious. If Israelis are so resistant to just withdrawing from the occupied territories, try to get them give up a power in Israel proper. so we have to look at things in relatively speaking. So if you are going to make the argument that the two state settlement is very difficult to achieve, okay I will go with you there, but lets add that the one state settlement is ten thousand times more difficult to achieve. Lets see Israelis and Palestinians sitting down and trying to work out a constitution for one state. That’s a circus that will go on for a hundred years. [...]

Israel has clearly stated that it is not willing to deal with a “terrorist organization,” a.k.a Hamas. How do you see this peace process going forward? Do you feel that Israel may adapt its generally hard-line stance to accommodate the changes happening in the region?

Israel says many things, the fact that Israel says it doesn’t make either true, or a principle for resolving the conflict. We have to examine on both sides each of the words and each of the claims. Israel says it wont deal with a terrorist entity, well why should Hamas deal with a terrorist entity, why should it deal with Israel?

There is no doubt that Israel committed massive war crimes and crimes against humanity during the last assault on Gaza, and that’s just one incident, we are not talking about the whole 40 years of occupation.There were 1400 Palestinians killed of whom about 1200 were civilians. On the Israeli side there were 13 Israelis killed, of those 13, three were civilians, ten were combatants, and half of the combatants were killed by other Israelis. Israel wants to say they want deal with terrorism, Palestinians say okay well if we use that standard then there is a hundred time more reason why we shouldn’t deal with you.

You were outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo, and you saw people there gathered in solidarity with the third intifada. What were your personal impressions of the kind of support the third intifada is receiving in Egypt and throughout the Arab world?

First of all we have to be careful, there isn’t an intifada yet. The fact that there is a name doesn’t mean it’s a movement so we have to be cautious about those things because people’s expectations rise and they fall. Like the Egyptian revolt intifadas don’t happen just because somebody says they are happening, historically there have been spontaneous eruptions of the people, exactly what happened in Egypt and the first and second intifadas [...]

But it wasn’t someone saying go out, second intifada time, it just happened, it erupted and right now there hasn’t been a massive eruption among the Palestinians. I don’t think they are there yet because people’s spirits have been broken. Palestinians have seen it twice [revolts] and each time they got nothing for it. So they are not yet ready to go out a third time because their experience tells them lots of hope lots of sacrifice and nothing at the end. If the Egyptian revolution consolidates and they see its possible, not just a revolt, but a revolution, that people can consolidate their power, hold it and it doesn’t get reversed that may inspire them.

How would you compare the possibility of a third intifada to other waves of revolution in the region?

There are comparisons, but the Palestinian struggle has many strange features to it. There is the Jewish lobby, it is a strange feature. There is this very powerful lobby around the world that seems to have enough power to get government do things they otherwise would not do. There wasn’t that kind of lobby for any other struggle you can think of. [...] A lot of people have developed a stake in Palestinian suffering because it has become an industry. I feel some people don’t want to see it solved so they keep escalating the demands. Since the mid 1970’s, the demand has been for two states, but now suddenly everyone is saying we don’t want two states we want one state. I feel sometimes people don’t want it to end. Their livelihood has become Palestinian suffering. These NGOs, hundreds, like termites. They have a stake in keeping this thing going. Otherwise, its not really complicated at all. It’s an anti-colonial struggle; the problem is what people conceive of where the colony ends and the country begins.

While the ‘third intifada’ had not really materialized into anything, it has symbolic power. It is very clear what the Palestinian struggle symbolizes for people in the Arab world, but how is the struggle perceived in the United States?

Palestinians are not stupid. They have too much life experience. The fact that somebody else says third intifada doesn’t mean they will march to that tune. They will march to it when they believe it is possible that something can come out of it. Symbolic acts have significance when people are ready to respond to these symbolic acts, when these symbolic acts resonate for them. The Palestinians are tired. They don’t believe in Fatah. They don’t believe in Hamas, but they also don’t believe a third possibility is there.

Take for example someone like Mostafa El Barghouty; in typical elections, he would get a two percent of the vote.[...] I don’t think the symbolism is going to work, they have to be ready, they have to believe, and there are excellent reasons for not believing, because the two leaderships they have are bad. Fatah is horrible, Hamas

in my opinion, people can disagree, it was never given a chance. If they were given a chance, they were sectarian, but there’s the give and take of democracy, and the Gazan’s aren’t easily pushed around. They would’ve put pressure on the government, the government would’ve responded, its exactly what happened in Egypt. The army says one thing, the people say another, and then the army retreats. It’s the give and take of democracy. [...]

Can you strike a comparison between what the struggle means for the youth of the Arab world, and how it has been appropriated by the Jewish lobby?

I kept asking when I was at the demonstration - why were these here? I have been involved in this since 1982. I could tell you I never saw an Egyptian in any demonstration about Palestinians. The Egyptians were not de-politicized; they were just not political. Then, Egyptians started having this passion for Palestine, and I kept asking where was this coming from? One person said: now people are free to protest, so they are protesting everything. The Egyptians want to eliminate all the corruption of the Mubarak regime, and the Egyptian relationship with Israel was part of that corruption, so they see it as part of this housecleaning. [...]Most people like Sadat because Sadat finally severed the chord between Egypt and Palestine, but now you see all these Egyptians protesting for Palestine, so its difficult to make sense of it.

There was a great sense of disillusionment with the Obama administration regarding this issue. Do you feel that the US still has a role to play in this conflict?

Obama is an abomination. People were disillusioned only to the extent that they had illusions. Many people who had no illusions were not disillusioned at all. Do you remember how he was lecturing the Palestinians about how not to use violence? This is right after Gaza. Mr. Obama aren’t you lecturing the wrong side? Israel had just killed 1400 Palestinians. [...] Most people who are political commentators say that there is no difference between his policies and Bush. Internationally there is just no difference, everything they are supporting now, including the targeted assassinations [...] I don’t know why Egyptians have this blind belief in Obama. Every step along the way of the Arab revolts, he was trying everything he could to stop it. Obama did everything he could to preserve Mubarak’s regime. Invest no faith in power and you’ll never be disappointed.

Special thanks to Sara Hesham and Mohammed Gamal