Renowned public intellectual and activist Noam Chomsky talks with Frank Barat, coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, about the Middle East, particularly potential military intervention in Syria, peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and the role of US power in the region.
Frank Barat: What is the definition of negotiations in Israel-US language and why is the Palestinian Authority playing along?
Noam Chomsky: From the US point of view, negotiations are, in effect, a way for Israel to continue its policies of systematically taking over whatever it wants in the West Bank, maintaining the brutal siege on Gaza, separating Gaza from the West Bank and, of course, occupying the Syrian Golan heights, all with full US support. And the framework of negotiations, as in the past twenty years of the Oslo experience, has simply provided a cover for this.
FB: Why is the PA playing along with this and going to negotiations time after time?
NC: It’s probably partly out of desperation. You can ask whether it’s the right choice or not but they don’t have many alternatives.
FB: So in your opinion it’s pretty much to survive that they indeed accept the framework?
NC: If they were refuse to join the US-run negotiations, their basis for support would collapse. They survive on donations essentially. Israel has made sure that it’s not a productive economy. They’re a kind of what would be called in Yiddish a “Schnorrer Society”: you just borrow and live on what you can get.
Whether they have an alternative to that is not so clear, but if they were to refuse the US demand for negotiations on completely unacceptable terms, their basis for support would erode. And they do have support – external support – enough so that the Palestinian elite can live in a fairly decent – often lavish – lifestyle, while the society around them collapses
FB: So would the crumbling and disappearance of the PA be a bad thing after all?
NC: It depends on what would replace it. If, say, Marwan Barghouti were permitted to join the society the way, say, Nelson Mandela was finally, that could have a revitalising effect in organising a Palestinian society that might press for more substantial demands. But remember: they don’t have a lot of choices.
In fact, go back to the beginning of the Oslo Agreements, now twenty years old. There were negotiations under way, the Madrid negotiations, at which the Palestinian delegation was led by Haider Abdel-Shafi, a highly respected, Left-Nationalist figure in Palestine. He was refusing to agree to the US-Israel terms, which required crucially that settlement expansion was allowed to continue. He refused, and therefore the negotiations stalled and got nowhere.
Meanwhile Arafat and the external Palestinians went on the side-track through Oslo, gained control and Haider Abdel-Shafi was so opposed to this he didn’t even show up to the dramatic and meaningless ceremony where Clinton beamed while Arafat and Rabin shook hands. He didn’t show up because he realised it was a total sell-out. But he was principled and therefore could get nowhere, and we’ll get nowhere unless there’s substantial support from the European Union, the Gulf States and ultimately, from the United States.
FB: In your opinion what is really at stake in what’s unravelling in Syria at the moment, and what does it mean for the broader region?
NC: Well, Syria is descending into suicide. It’s a horror story and getting worse and worse. There’s no bright spot on the horizon. What will probably happen, if this continues, is that Syria will be partitioned into probably three regions; a Kurdish region – which is already forming – that could pull out and join in some fashion the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, maybe with some kind of deal with Turkey.
The rest of the country will be divided between a region dominated by the Assad regime – a brutal horrifying regime – and another section dominated by the various militias, which range from the extremely malicious and violent to the secular and democratic. Meanwhile, Israel is looking by and enjoying the spectacle. If you look at the New York Times this morning there’s a quote by an Israeli official essentially expressing their joy at watching Arabs slaughter each other.