SARE SELVI ÖZTURK
International law professor and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Richard Falk, was in the United Kingdom on March 13 to give a 10-day series of talks for the launch of his new book, “Palestine’s Horizon: Towards a Just Peace.” However, his talks were shadowed by the release of a UN report on March 15 that Falk co-authored with UN Deputy Secretary General Rima Khalaf and the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), which accuses Israel of imposing an “apartheid regime” of racial discrimination on Palestinian people. Following this incident, a string of scandals unfolded leading to a successive cancellation of Falk’s talks by universities across the U.K. and the resign of Khalaf from her position in the UN. Even though the UN report was immediately denounced by newly elected UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres, saying that “report does not represent the views of the secretary-general and was released “without consultations with the UN Secretariat,” the report stands as the first the UN body obviously made such a charge about Israel as being an apartheid regime. In an atmosphere of universities cancelling his scheduled talks in London, we got a chance to interview former UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories who spoke about his being blocked from talks at U.K. universities, the Israel-Palestine issue, the political landscape in Donald Trump’s America and increasing right-wing tendencies of Europe.
Daily Sabah: Over the past two weeks in the U.K., you have found yourself under fire due to the recent UN report. There were pro-Israeli groups lobbying for the cancellation of your talks. Why do you think you have been silenced and why is this situation getting more aggressive?
Richard Falk: I think the main reason is that the position of Israeli domination of the Palestinian people has been going on for so long and the conflict with the basic international law and international morality that they don’t want to discuss the substance. There is an effort to discredit the messenger rather than to deal with the message. Certainly the reaction to our report has exhibited that tendency. It is too threatening to the Israeli narrative to have to defend their practices of systematic discrimination. They have been saying it is all about security. But certainly keeping people in refugee camps for 70 years and the whole policy of not allowing Palestinians to come back to the places where their families live for generations are pretty indefensible policies. The treatment of the people in Gaza has deteriorated now for more than a decade; they are basically trapped in this very crowded and poor area with no clean water and have very limited electricity. Those are situations which Israelis would rather not to discuss. So rather than to discuss these issues, they create an atmosphere which makes reasonable communication impossible.
D.S: We see a quite powerful and dominant Israeli narrative in charge almost in all political arenas which seems to give the impression that “Israel cannot be criticised.” Has this dominant Israeli narrative been challenged? How can this narrative be changed?
R.F: Any narrative has to be placed in its historical context. In the early period, it was challenged by a variety of individuals on all Jewish, Palestinian and Arab sides. But the context was shaped by the memory of the Holocaust and the experience of the Jewish persecution during the Hitler period. So there was a reluctance to criticize Israel. But that was quite a long time ago. It is over 70 years. Now the historical memory is much weaker and the reality of Palestinian oppression is very real and a daily ordeal, it is not a historical past, it is a present. There is no obvious solution in the horizon. Every indication is that Israel has used this long period not to solve this conflict to keep it expanding building settlements and remaining Palestinian territory, doing a variety of things that makes solution to the conflict less and less likely based on any kind of reconciliation between the peoples. The hardening structure of domination which we, in our report, studied to explore the reality from the perspective of apartheid, which is the structure of systematic discrimination in which the dominant side uses that discrimination in order to keep the subordinate side under its control.
D.S: To what does the state of Israel owe its existence and its daring attitude?
R.F: It is really hard to reduce it to any one thing. I think it is a combination of things. Certainly the U.S.’s support is important. Israel has been very effective in using its own arms industry to get diplomatic relations even with governments in the Arab world, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, that would seem to be opposed to it. There is this situation in which the U.S. where you have religious right identifying very much with Israelis for reasons of Christian doctrine, which is last book of the new testament that looks toward the re-establishment of Israel as the pre-condition for the return of Jesus, the second coming of Jesus. You have this peculiar combination of evangelical Christianity and fanatical pro-Israeli policies not widely understood, but it is one of the factors that give Israel external strength and reinforcement. Israel is becoming a military power on its own in the region and it is strategically convenient for the West, Europe and the U.S. to support in pursuing their wider regional interests.
D.S: There are not many people today like yourself, who are Jewish, yet vocal critics of Israeli settlements and its policies with the exception of certain orthodox Jewish groups. What is the main difference between you and the orthodox Jewish people?
R.F: Within the broader Jewish tradition, there are two main tendencies. The first one is the tribalist view of Jews as a chosen people that deserve to be treated as an exception, what is sometimes called Jewish exceptionalism and political expression of that exceptionalism is the state of Israel. Therefore, if you are Jew, you support this idea that optimizes Jewish identity and reaction against the persecution of the Jews and other things. But there is a more cosmopolitan view of the Jewish identity that has to do with justice and identification with those who are suffering and less concerned with the Jewish identity than with this broader role of trying to make the world a better and safer place. I think I would put myself in the second category. I don’t like this tribalism in relation to Judaism. I don’t like hyper nationalism, it is a destructive force. We are all part of the human species. Unless we begin to act as part of that human species we are likely to destroy ourselves as a planetary reality. So I see this question, do you emphasize human identity or do you emphasize particular Jewish identity or American identity. What is your fundamental way of thinking about identity in the world we live in?
D.S: What needs to be done to achieve peace?
R.F: What is really missing is the mobilization of the international public opinion in the direction of a more concrete behavior. For instance, the United Nations Security Council condemned the expansion of settlements by unanimous vote last December. But it was just a statement of opinion, nothing has been done. You need a further activation of the international public opinion so governments begin to think about the sanctions and back up their words with some action and some policies. The hope is that it would lead the Israeli public to begin to rethink their alternatives, which is what happened in South Africa. It also looked like a hopeless situation without a prolonged civil war or some kind of violent transformation. But that pressure from the international community reached a certain level and the leadership in South Africa recalculated its own future and decided that it would be better off giving up apartheid than retaining the structure that was under increasing pressure. Whether that happens in Israel, well, no one can tell. The present seems quiet frozen, but the present is not necessarily the future.
D.S.: Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech in his first Middle East tour after inauguration in 2009 implied a new beginning in the Middle East. But apparently it only brought more conflict to the region and especially this period saw the birth of Daesh. Now, the Trump administration seems to support Israel by suggesting to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Do you think the Trump administration has a clear policy regarding the Middle East and wider region?
R.F: One thing that is clear is that the Trump administration is not clear about anything. That’s the only definite thing we can say for the time being unless there is more pressure on Israel and some change of viewpoint in Israel and the United States. There is no real prospect that a just peace can emerge out of this present situation. The Trump presidency seems not to be very in touch with this dimension and they back the movement of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – they might or might not do it. Obama’s effort to create some kind of a new relationship with the Islamic world and the Middle East was a kind of naive expression of a wish. That naive vision of the Middle East was without the awareness of the difficulties of really implementing that vision even given the resistance that would come from Israel, the Israeli lobby in America and the U.S. Congress. It seemed he underestimated the difficulties of achieving the goals he set and he did the same with nuclear weapons. He went to Prag, making the statement that the U.S. government was going to try to get rid of the nuclear weapons in the world and envisioned the world without nuclear weapons. He underestimated the degree to which nuclear weapons establishment was powerful within the U.S. government and blocked that kind of initiative. So nothing happened. It was his disappointment as well as the Middle East’s policy disappointment. It wasn’t that he was insincere, it was that he was insufficiently aware of the political dynamics that block this policy.
D.S: But the U.S. reached a deal with Iran on nuclear weapons. It was hailed as one of the Obama period’s accomplishments.
R.F: That was such a rational way of avoiding terrible war in the region. That was completely unnecessary from every point of view. Even though the U.S. and Obama took credit with the deal, it was supported by the five permanent members of United Nations Security Council. That was something rare and unusual. International politics and all the powerful states agreed that this was an important step to take in their separate national interests. In a way, it was a no brainer. There was no reason not to do this. It was only this way that Israel and Saudi Arabia seemed to want this conflict. While Saudi Arabia was seeking this with a sectarian outlook, Israel was needing this sense of enemy in the region in order to keep its own aggressiveness as a part of disciplining its society. Except for Israel and Saudi Arabia, there was no real resistance to reaching that agreement which imposed a lot of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. If you think about it, Iran had more reasons to develop nuclear weapons than all states, it was surrounded by hostile forces. You could easily view the acquisition of nuclear weapons as a defensive move and deterrence against the other that would be aggressive. Many people had said if Iraq had nuclear weapons, the U.S. would never have dared to attack Iraq or Libya in 2011. If those two countries had nuclear weapons, they would never be subject to military intervention. The entire understanding of the Iranian issue has been badly distorted in the Western presentation of the issue.