Interviewed by Frank Barat
Frank Barat: Hi Josh, It is great to have you on Le Mur a Des Oreilles, We are obviously going to talk about Israel and Palestine, about your book “Shattered Hopes” but first I would like to start with something very newsworthy: John Kerry who is leading the last attempt to peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine which are officially ending today, the 29th of April, said in a close meeting that if there was no two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict soon, Israel risked becoming an Apartheid state. I first wanted to ask you this question: What was the goal of this round of negotiations and do you think it was meant to succeed? And what does success mean in this case? And also, what do you think of his comment?
Josh Ruebner: I think the negotiations were designed to achieve a full blown peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians. At least that’s what the declared attempt at the outside of these 9 months negotiations which began last July and will end officially on the 29th of April even though they’ve been dead politically for quite some time. That initial goal was later scale back to only been a framework agreement for permanent status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and even that became recently impossible for the State department to scale it back even further so that the negotiators were just negotiating about what more time to negotiate in other words, more process, no peace.
Kerry’s remarks in that close door meeting on Friday that Israel might become an Apartheid State if these negotiations break down is I think one in a long line of statements by the Obama administration that clearly recognise the course on which Israel is embarked. I think that they see the writing on the wall and they desperately trying to save Israel from becoming an Apartheid State and try to warn them of the consequences of their actions but to not avail.
What do you think is going to happen next? Fatah and Hamas have actually signed a reconciliation agreement, Israel has replied by saying that you either make peace with Hamas or peace with us, the PA has also ratified a few treaties at the UN…the question is also for the PA, Mahmoud Abbas has always said that if the negotiations don’t reach any hopeful end, they might dismantle the PA…they are a lot of unanswered questions so what do you think is going to happen next in terms of Israel and Palestine?
I think it is hard to say at this point because it is absolutely right, Mahmoud Abbas the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been pursuing a very contradictory policy and has been putting out very contradictory statements. On one hand, yes, he is talking about dismantling the PA which is a threat that has been issued many times in the past but on the other hand, he is taking steps to consolidate and perpetuate the PA by signing this unity agreement with Hamas and promising to go to Presidential and legislative elections to keep this apparatus going. It is very difficult to say. At the same time, you do have the PLO which has already signed onto 50 different international conventions and UN bodies, now saying that they’ve approved joining 60 additional UN bodies and treaties. We are going to have to wait and see whether one of those organizations is indeed the international criminal court because I think, if Palestine becomes a member of the International Criminal Court, this could have tremendous ramifications for the future of the relations and the way these so call Peace process negotiations are handled in the future. But I don’t know, it is not at all clear that the PA is going that route at this point.
The subtitle of your book is “Obama’s failure to broker Israel-Palestinian Peace”. Could you explain this subtitle? Also, was it really down to him? Could Obama have done it, made history and made peace between Israel and Palestine in your opinion?
I think in President Obama’s mind, he was convinced of both the necessity and the possibility of establishing an Israel-Palestinian peace in his first term. In fact, what we know from documents that were leaked from within the Palestinian negotiating team to Al Jazeera in 2011 is that when President Obama met with Mahmoud Abbas for the first time in May 2009, he promised him that it was his personal promise and guaranteed that he would move expeditiously to establish a Palestinian state in his first term. The hopes were definitely the Presidents but I don’t think President Obama was prepared for the type of structural issues that prevent the United States from acting as an honest broker. He certainly was not prepared for the push back he got from his policies by the Israel lobby. As I document in the book, he capitulated very early on in his first term to these pressures from the Israel lobby which returned the United States to acting in the traditional role of Israel’s lawyers and these negotiations. I think Obama answered the White House definitely optimistic, very much naïve and unprepared to confront and challenge the power of the Israel lobby.
One chapter of your book is called “Obama, an unbelievably informed President”. Can you explain why you gave such a title to a chapter of your book?
This quote “An Unbelievably Informed President” is actually from the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu who said that to a visiting congressional delegation of US members of Congress very early on Obama’s administration. What I do in one of the early chapters of the book is to recount the President’s early engagement with the issue of Palestine to show that he had more of a nuanced understanding and even empathy with Palestinians than any other Presidents did upon entering the White House. Unfortunately, the empathy that he had did not translate into any changes.
Why the change? What does it really say about the real power the President of the United States holds?
Different US Presidents have responded to challenges of the Israel lobby in different ways: some stood up successfully, others capitulated. Obama is not inherently a political fighter, he is a compromiser, he doesn’t like to rock the boat. I think when we was faced with that pressure early on from the Israel lobby he did not want to spend the political capital that it would take to push his policy ideas forward. For example, at the beginning of his administration, he demanded very clearly that Israel halts its illegal colonization of Palestinian land, period. Unfortunately he was not willing to take this demand to the american public who overwhelmingly backed him at the time according to public opinion poll. This was in contrast for example to the policies that were pursued by President Eisenhower backed in the 1950s who was also challenged by Israel and its lobby but nevertheless stood up and exerted significant pressure on Israel to change its policies. Obama was not willing to spend any of the political capital that he had to make this policy changes happen.
Do you think Obama might do a Carter and be more vocal when his mandate ends? Can you see him writing “Israel: Peace not Apartheid”?
I have thought about that. I do think it would be very interesting to hear what President Obama has to say after he leaves office. There is a tradition of American politics. When politicians are no longer in power, they speak the truth about this issue. The exact same thing happen with President Clinton a few years ago. He is infamous for blaming Arafat for the collapse of the Camp David peace talks. At the time, his condemnation of Arafat and the PLO was incredibly damning and was a very difficult discourse to challenge over the years when we had the President of the United State, laying the sole blame of the Palestinians for the failure of these talks. A couple of years ago he came out and said that in fact it was the fault of the Israelis. So I would expect that Obama will have interesting things to say. There is clearly no love lost between President Obama and Israeli PM Netanyahu on the individual level.
I have just watched “Dirty Wars” and was left with the feeling that things under Obama, at least in terms of foreign policy are actually worse than they were under Bush. More illegal. What is your opinion on this when focusing on Israel-Palestine?
One thing that is beyond a doubt is the amount of US military aid to Israel have grown to unprecedented levels under Obama. That was an agreement signed during the Bush administration, but remember when Obama went to Israel for his last trip, which was his first foreign trip following his re-election he stated that he wanted to extend US military aid to Israel beyond the terms that Bush had negotiated. He leaked to the press that he wanted to give Israel an additional 40 billion dollars in weapon all the way to 2028. I think this has created a spoiled child syndrome with Israel. The more Israel defies US policies, the more it hinders US objectives in the broader region, the more it gets rewarded for this behavior by the United States and that is clearly not a way to bring Israel into line with broader US foreign policy concerns.
So if the politicians are not willing to do anything. What can we do? Can you talk to us about your work with the US campaign to End the Israel Occupation?
One of the reasons why I am hugely optimistic about this issue is the tremendous growth worldwide and in the US of the Palestinian civil society led campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, against corporation that are profiteering from the oppression of the Palestinians. We work very closely with the Palestinian BNC (Boycott National Committee) to work on different campaigns, work with our member groups throughout the United States on advancing these BDS campaigns, we are a coalition of more than 400 groups around the country. We are seeing advances today that we really do not think were possible just a few years ago. In fact the issue of Palestine has really turned into one of the most burning issues on college campuses across the US today. Not just foreign policy issues, issues in general that the students are concerned with. So we are seeing tremendous amounts of organizing and activism and successful BDS campaigns on US campuses today, in churches and it is very clear that the Israeli lobby is very concerned and is pulling major energy behind efforts to try to kill these BDS campaigns, but it is not working.
Do you think this can eventually have an impact on US policies?
I would argue that we are already starting to see this impact on policy. By John Kerry talks about Israel as a possible apartheid State, by Obama talking about the growing degilitimization campaign against Israel, it is very clear that US political elites are aware of the growing ferments at the grassroots level and are very concerned about it. So I think that it is already affecting the policy discourse. I think it will eventually result in significant policy changes. If you know the history of BDS organizing in this country to isolate and end the apartheid regime in South Africa, you saw a similar process at work. Grassroots organizing, BDS campaigns, eventually translating into the sanctions that the politicians imposed on the apartheid government of South African, which played a big role in ending apartheid altogether. I do not think we are quite there yet, but I do think we are going to reach a tipping point very soon.
What would you tell US citizens to do if they want to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian People?
They can get involved with the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, by going to our website. There you can find all the different groups that are working locally and nationally within our coalition and get involved on those levels as well with those groups.
– Josh Ruebner is author of “Shattered Hopes”.
– Frank Barat is an activist based in Belgium and is one of the former coordinators of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine.