Norman Finkelstein on Netanyahu’s options for Israel’s illegal annexation of Palestine

With Israel poised to illegally annex parts of the West Bank on Wednesday 1st July, author and scholar, Norman Finkelstein, discussed Netanyahu’s options with The Grayzone’s Aaron Maté. Finkelstein says Netanyahu is exploiting a brief window of opportunity under Trump and will use the deadline to swallow up valuable West Bank while pretending to be making a compromise:

“If there were an Oscar for Best Dramatic Performance by a Nation-State, Israel would win hands down every year,” Finkelstein says. “And so they will manage to turn this illegal annexation, which will enable Israel to appropriate some of the best farmland, agricultural land in the Occupied Territories that will preclude the possibility of a Palestinian state — they’ll manage to turn it into another agonising, gut-wrenching compromise. I could write the script.”

The transcript below is mine:

Aaron Maté: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has set a date of July 1st to begin Israel’s annexation of major parts of the Occupied West Bank. Under Netanyahu’s plan Israel would declare sovereignty over all of the illegal settlements built on Palestinian land since 1967 including in the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu has a green light from Washington. The Trump administration has said it will recognise Israel’s annexation of up to 30% of the West Bank. For the rest of the world, the annexation move is the latest grave escalation of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land since 1967. In a statement, a group of 47 independent UN legal experts call the annexation plan “a vision of a 21st century apartheid.”

Well, joining me is Norman Finkelstein, author and scholar: his latest book is called “I Accuse!” Norman welcome to Pushback.

Uncertainty still about what Netanyahu is going to do on July 1st, but what do you think people should know about his talk of annexing the West Bank?

Normal Finkelstein: Well, there are several things. First of all, it’s clearly illegal under international law. Secondly, what seems to have prompted it is not law but brutal politics; namely, Mr Netanyahu is of the opinion, which is probably correct, that he has an opportunity that won’t come again to carry out a large scale ‘legal’ annexation of parts of the West Bank, and that Trump may not be around after November. It’s a question mark. And he wants to take advantage of that opportunity. And I would say thirdly, you have to always bear in mind two things about Mr Netanyahu:

Number one: he is a showman. He’s not really a statesman; he’s a showman. He’s a performance artist. And number two: he is acutely aware of political opportunities. In that regard he’s a politician for sure. He takes advantage of – he exploits – political opportunities as they come along.

There are many examples: actually you’d be surprised, there’s actually a scholarly and academic literature showing how Israelis exploit – take advantage of – political opportunities that come along in order to achieve their goals. Media opportunities, I should say.

So that in mind, there is the possibility that an annexation will occur, although it’s still a question mark. My own opinion is there seem to be three main variations. (Obviously, there are subdivisions of the variations.) But one is annex the Jordan Valley. Two is annex the settlement blocs. And three is annex large chunks of the West Bank: the official figure is 30%; I’m more inclined to believe it’s 40%, but that’s beside the point.

I do not believe he will annex the Jordan Valley, because it’s a question of how it looks. The image projected. So, I said at the beginning, Mr Netanyahu is basically a showman – a performance artist – and so if you look at the map: what it would look like if on one end is Israel and on the other end is Jordan Valley, and in the middle, sandwiched between, are all these Palestinians who don’t have any voting rights.

If you look at the map, it looks like apartheid. Because it looks like if one border is the Jordan Valley, the other border is what’s called the Green Line; namely Israel before the June 1967 war; and then in between are all these Arabs who have no voting rights. It looks like one state where a large chunk of the population is disenfranchised. That looks like apartheid. So I don’t think he’s going to do that.

September 2019 annexation proposal by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Jordan valley shown in orange and the rest of the West Bank including Jericho shown in white.

A second possibility is annexing the whole of the West Bank, or large chunks of it. Again, same problem: how do you represent to the world all those Arabs in the West Bank who have no rights? Who have no voting rights, which are the baseline for any rights in our world. Or rights in a state, which is citizenship; and they don’t have citizenship. So that doesn’t look good.

But there’s a third possibility. The third possibility is the settlement blocs. Now, if you look at the map – if you annex the settlement blocs – they border the Green Line, mostly. So that looks okay on the map.

Israel officially claims to annex the settlement blocs would mean annexing 5% of the West Bank. In fact it would be 10% because they play with the numbers, they cook the numbers. It would be about 10% of the West Bank. And if you look at the map, there are two settlement blocs, one called Ariel and one called Ma’ale Adumim. Now those settlement blocs on the ground, they bisect the West Bank, more or less at the centre; because Ma’ale Adumim stretches more or less to Jericho. And then there’s the second settlement bloc, Ariel Shomron, which will bisect the northern half of the West Bank.

Green Line indicated with the Ariel settlement located top left and Ma’ale Adumim centre right

However, if you look at the map, it doesn’t quite look that way because the map doesn’t show the mountainous areas, which means it doesn’t look fully like a bisection of the West Bank. The point is, in my view, without going into all the technicalities, you probably can get away with annexing the settlement blocs. First of all, all of the Democrat Party and Republican Party leadership has always said that Israel would get the settlement blocs anyhow in a final settlement. That’s what Dennis Ross says…

AM: Dennis Ross being the so-called “peace envoy” for the Clinton administration.

NF: Yes, and he’s actually recommended now that Israel annex, not the whole West Bank, not the Jordan Valley, just annex the settlement blocs. He’s officially on record supporting that.

And so first of all the political elites have supported the annexation of the Israeli settlement blocs already. Secondly, you can put the pretence, or make the pretence, that there’s still the possibility of a Palestinian state because “it’s only 5% of the West Bank”. Thirdly, it can be cast as Netanyahu making a gut-wrenching compromise: he wanted the whole of the land of Israel and he had to appease the right-wing of his coalition – and so he makes his gut-wrenching compromise to annex some territory because otherwise his coalition is going to fall apart.

AM: Similar to what they did in Gaza back in 2005, around then, when Sharon reluctantly gave up Gaza, and there was this huge staged performance and there were the scenes of the settlers being pulled out, and they were wailing and we were supposed to feel sorry for them. Meanwhile Israel, as it’s pulling out of Gaza, it’s consolidating its control and expanding its control over the much more valuable territory in the occupied West Bank.

NF: Listen, I’ve said many times if there were an Academy Award – an Oscar – for Best Dramatic Performance by a Nation-State, Israel would win hands down every year; there wouldn’t even be competition. It would be like comparing Sir Lawrence Olivier with Brad Pitt.  I mean Israel is so practised at the art of performance.

And so they will manage to turn this illegal annexation, which will enable Israel to appropriate some of the best farmland, agricultural land in the occupied Palestinian Territories that will effectively preclude the possibility of a Palestinian state for geographic and economic reasons which I don’t want to bore listeners with – they’ll manage to turn it into another agonising, anguishing, gut-wrenching compromise by Israel. I could write the script.

So I think that’s probably what will happen. And everybody will be a celebratory mood – no quite the contrary, take that back…

The Israeli right-wing – I should say Israeli right-right-right-wing, because there’s a right-right-right-right-wing and there’s a right-right-right-wing, and there’s a right-wing. There’s no centre and there’s no left in Israel: so an unusual state in the world in that regard. But the right-right-right-right-wing and the right-right-[wing] will be so angry, and they’ll be so indignant, and everybody else, [like] The New York Times, will be celebrating the fact that Netanyahu made a very pragmatic decision that kept the two-state solution alive.

AM: There are countries though around the world who are, at least publicly, criticising this. Does this open up the way possibly for some actions like sanctions to be taken against Israel if it illegally annexes territory that it is not legally entitled to?

NF: I don’t believe that will happen because of the way it is going to be presented to the world. It will be presented as a pragmatic compromise. It won’t be presented as an illegal annexation. They’ll keep repeating the fake figure of 5%. They’re going to keep saying, anyhow, we all know that in the final settlement the settlement blocs would have been annexed by Israel in a land swap. And they’ll make it all legitimate, and there will be no reaction.

I’m very sceptical of the kinds of apocalyptic scenarios which are conjured up, and in fact apocalyptic scenarios abet Netanyahu’s agenda, and probably he does it intentionally – I don’t know how much he calculates down to the fine points, but he likes the idea of these apocalyptic scenarios because then he’s going to say “well it’s only 5%”. And it’s going to make him look reasonable.

So all this talk about sanctions – Did anything happen after Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? No.

AM: But let’s point out something positive, which is that Bernie Sanders came somewhat close to the nomination, and during the process his advocacy of basic Palestinian rights was popular, and that message is increasingly resonant inside the Democratic base. So in terms of holding Israel accountable, pushing back on the Trump administration’s support for Israeli annexation, do you see a ray of light possibly, right here inside the US when it comes to sentiment towards Israel, and people no longer being willing – except for those in Congress – to stand by as it commits its atrocities?

NF: Trump’s biggest ally in the world is Netanyahu. That doesn’t play very well with a lot of people, you know even people who support Israel. It just doesn’t play well because you’re supposed to be anti-Trump if you’re a Democratic Party member or if you support any of the popular causes you’re supposed to be anti-Trump. So it doesn’t play very well that Trump has the closest alliance to any world leader with Netanyahu. So there is an unexpected consequence of the Trump presidency which it ended up even further discrediting the Palestinian cause in even mainstream American politics because of that Trump-Netanyahu alliance.

AM: [clarifying Finkelstein’s remark] Not discrediting the Palestinian cause?

NF: Discrediting the Israeli cause because of that alliance.

Yes, so it’s been a positive development. It’s part of, as I said, the long-term shift in public opinion as Israel has moved further and further to the right, and a lot of the truth has come out making the cause indefensible.

A lot will depend on whether you can make the Palestinian cause again a salient issue in American political life. If for example the Palestinians found the wherewithal to demonstrate and engage in collective action, there’s some reason for hope. It’s going to be very tough under Biden, if he wins; impossible under Trump.

It’s just a very difficult period right now. I don’t believe in giving people false hope. I think it’s a very tough period right now, but as you say, the positive thing is public opinion is shifting; it’s becoming more manifest as against latent; more active as against passive; and it’s an opportunity for people to work for their so-to-speak cause within a larger progressive or radical framework. So there are possibilities. That’s the most I can say.

From a very young age I read a speech by the African revolutionary at the time Amílcar Cabral, who was a leader of a movement called the PAIGC in a tiny, tiny, tiny, little country called Guinea-Bissau. And he had given a speech and the title was “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories”. So that resonated with me. I thought that’s the right approach to politics: Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.

So I’m not one for pep talks. I try to be analytical. I try to be objective. I try to be realistic. Because otherwise I feel it’s patronising. It’s like ‘I know the truth, but I can’t tell you the truth because you’re not ready for it – you’re not equipped for it’. So I have to pretend as if things are better than they actually are so as to lift your spirits because you need useful lies to keep you going, but I don’t. No, I don’t do that.

I think that you can be honest about a situation – I’m honest about the situation with myself – I recognise that we’re at a very difficult moment. But truth be told, it doesn’t diminish an iota of the energy I invest in this, because for me it’s not about Palestinians, it’s not about Jews.

At one point in my life, yes it was. And I’ll acknowledge that. I just felt revulsion at what these people – how they had exploited and corrupted the memory of my parents’ suffering during World War Two for an insidious cause. It’s not about that anymore for me: it’s not about Palestinians; it’s not about Jews; it’s not about corrupting the memory of what my parents’ endured during World War Two.

For me it’s about two very basic things – and it took me a very, very long time to reach this point in my life – that it’s no longer about anything personal. It is about people because the memory of my parents’ suffering is permanently engraved in me. But fundamentally, at root, at its core, it’s about Truth and Justice: those eternal values.

And when I see them sullied, or prostituted, it nauseates me. It makes me so angry that people can be so cheap; sell themselves at such a low price: for a mess of professional porridge [sic], they’ll sell out those values.

It’s a very interesting thing for me, and we’ll leave it at that, that all of these stupid leftist, postmodernists, who say that there’s no such thing as truth, there’s no such thing as Justice – these are all social constructions – these intellectually impoverished morons… and then you go to the demonstrations against police brutality, in commemoration of what happened to George Floyd and many others, and what’s the slogan that’s most popular at these demonstrations?  What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!

And I think to myself while all these stupid intellectually impoverished so-called academics sit around at stupid, ignorant, irrelevant conferences talking about how Justice and Truth are all just social constructions. When the moment comes we all reach back to those same fundamental values: Truth and Justice. What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!

Those values will, so long as humankind endures, forever resonate.

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Filed under analysis & opinion, Israel, Palestine

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