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Finkelstein’s critique misreads the special relationship and misunderstands political mobilization

by Max Ajl

June 14, 2012

Norman Finkelstein’s criticisms of those working on campaigns to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel continue. The latest was a video appearance in which Finkelstein strongly criticized the "agnosticism" of the movement on the question of Israel, and suggested that it would be criminal to miss this "historic" opportunity to secure some amount of justice for the Palestinians.

I agree neither with the substance of Finkelstein’s comments about the "resolution" of the Israel-Palestine conflict nor with the impolitic and gratuitously abrasive way he has chosen to present them.

And I share Adam Horowitz’s sentiments about Palestinian self-determination. The question of the temporary or final resolution of the conflict is for Palestinians to decide.

It is their liberation struggle.

However, it is worth noting that many of the Palestinian groups which signed onto the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions are two-staters. It is the BDS call’s plasticity which has allowed it to unite Palestinian civil society in the Occupied Territories. Furthermore – like it or not – a plurality of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are in favor of two states, as are the major Palestinian political parties. In that sense, criticisms of Finkelstein for disrespecting Palestinian self-determination are often tinged with opportunism. Animating them is a dislike for the two-state platform.

That’s what those who say so mean, and that’s what they should say.

Anyway, I agree, although maybe for different reasons.

I think the bourgeois nationalist struggle has reached a dead end and that the only hope for Palestinian freedom is a regional revolution. For it to occur with a minimum of bloodshed and a maximum of transformation, it should eventually draw on the Israeli Jewish lower class.

The precise shape of that political solution will be worked out on the ground, and it is not the job of international solidarity activists to decide the particular (and temporary) political resolution of a conflict far across the ocean.

That said, many have missed the point of Finkelstein’s criticism.

The key claim is simple, although it's adorned with a lot of alienating rhetoric.

Finkelstein argues that to maximize the mass capable of putting pressure on the US government to pressure Israel to cede Palestinians some measure of justice, the Palestine solidarity movement’s advocacy should be for goals which "mainstream liberal opinion" is prepared to accept. Because of escalating Israeli criminality, American liberals – and especially American liberal Jews – are increasingly unwilling to accept Israeli rejectionism and abuse of Palestinian rights.

What they are willing to accept is action to secure a resolution outlined in a specific body of international law: two states and a just resolution of the refugee question. To secure Palestinians a place to live in peace and security – in the short-term – the solidarity movement should act on that latent consensus. To fail to act in a specific way when the external circumstances allow for it would be to commit a "historic crime," since it would force the Palestinian population living under occupation and languishing in the camps of the Levant to remain under those conditions when some kind of freedom is possible.

That is Finkelstein’s argument.

It has two core problems.

One, it implicitly relies on a misreading of the intersection of shifting American and European opinion and the needs of American and Israeli power. Two, it misunderstands the nature of political mobilization.

I will treat the issues in turn.

First, Finkelstein’s suggestion that a sanctions campaign with relatively apolitical liberals at its core will be able to beat back Israeli-American rejectionism underplays the degree and reasons for America’s support for Israeli rejectionism.

When Finkelstein argues that the American establishment has no vested interest in the occupation, it is only true in the most literal and narrow sense. What the American establishment cares about is the integrity of the Israeli state. Insofar as the Israeli government feels that the safest route to ensure social stability is to maintain the occupation, the American government will echo that policy. Finkelstein appears to think that if not for the Israel Lobby, the US establishment would not support the occupation.

He is dead wrong.

America has agreed to the occupation since support for Israeli control of Palestinian land became official policy under the Nixon-Kissinger administration, when the latter realized the immense profits to be made from a militarized Middle East: great for arms merchants, the oil conglomerates, and, behind it all, finance, heavily invested in recycling the petrodollars and profiting off the high prices the price-setting petroleum firms could fraudulently pass off as the result of regional chaos.

Rejection of substantive Palestinian statehood is a shared policy of Israeli and American elites, and beyond fevered speculation and the confessional autobiographies of disgruntled Congresspeople and State Department functionaries, no one has ever established otherwise.

There are differences of opinion not only within the American and Israeli establishments, but also between them, with the Israel lobby generally lining up behind the Israeli ruling class, with which it shares so much, especially investments. And there have always been currents within the oil sector and elsewhere pushing not for an end to the occupation but for a settlement that at least limits the settlement project to existing facts on the ground. Still, they never push particularly hard.

Since the pushes are never too hard, and since they tend to collide with the obdurate obstacle of the Israel lobby, they tend to fail. Obama's palsied pushes have been no exception to that pattern of failure. But even had those pushes succeeded and succeeded wildly, they would not have achieved anything resembling even minimal Palestinian national demands. There is no question that the Israel lobby constricts the American debate on Israel, but nor is there a question that, even without the lobby, negotiations would be about the dimensions of the Palestinians' cage.

Decolonization is not on Washington's agenda. It will only get there if the issue is forced.

The current theater around AIPAC and Netanyahu and settlements is not about Palestinian liberation. Nor is it about the United Nations-sanctioned two-state solution. It’s about a rising realization in the Obama administration that it’s past time to put a veneer of justice on an unjust situation.

Not fully understanding this point, Finkelstein conflates the cages envisioned by Israeli and American elites with a serious and substantive two-state settlement, not paying sufficient attention to the fact that the slippage from one to the other has been one of the pillars of the rejectionist strategy from day one.

Still, American civil society pressure could help to secure a real two state settlement.

This takes us to the second issue – political mobilization.

Finkelstein, gesturing at one poll after another, suggests that public opinion both exists and is shifting against Israeli policies. The problem is that for political purposes, public opinion is always latent. It is meaningless until it is directed into meaningful political action. This is not a simple one-way process. The work of activism is not merely to turn public opinion into a political force, but also to change public opinion through small-scale political action. Since this means direct engagement, it should be added that most people are willing to listen to all kinds of ideas. Many Americans, once they understand that even a one-state settlement could still secure a place for Israeli Jews as a political community, might agree with such a program. Indeed, it is often overlooked that a one state "solution" could be consonant with continued Zionist domination of the Palestinians, as white dominance continues in "post"-apartheid South Africa.

Finkelstein argues that reasonable advocacy must work within the confines of what the public already accepts, and that what the public already accepts is an "international consensus" supported by a massive corpus of international law.

In making this argument, Finkelstein collapses the distinction between "international law" and the versions and interpretations of international law that the "global community," or the ruling classes of the US, Europe, and the post-colonial states, have favored and pushed. The statement that international law is "categorical and absolute" is simply nonsense. International law is drenched in ambiguity.

Finkelstein’s reading of international law is merely the one which the preponderance of international tribunals have shared, the one increasingly solidified into a "rock-solid consensus" on "resolving" the conflict. But they have done so as a compromise between imperial power’s need for a rejectionist policy vis-à-vis the occupation and Europe and the Arab states’ needs to keep their populations quiescent. International law in its dominant interpretations condenses the concessions power has had to make to principle, in the process containing them within the bounds of its actual needs. International law is not just a symbolic consensus on the rightness of Palestinian rights. It’s also a way of containing actual action to secure them, and in turn reflects only partial concessions to Palestinian rights even on the symbolic level. We should never forget that the pre-67 armistice line of the "consensus" was baptized by Israeli violence (and for more in that vein, Richard Seymour’s reflections on the class dimensions of law and Finkelstein’s use of it are well worth reading and re-reading).

Furthermore, international law is hardly silent on the internal composition of Finkelstein’s imagined two-state settlement. It rejects institutionalized racial discrimination. The right of return is likewise anchored in international law if not exactly the "consensus" which the United Nations ceremonially and uselessly ratifies every year.

Israel’s right to be a Jewish state is not secured by international law. It’s an artifact of colonial and imperial power. So the question of what "international law" says about Palestine and how that relates to the BDS call is much more complex and contingent than Finkelstein makes it out to be – insofar as it matters. In making it simple, what Finkelstein is arguing is that proponents of BDS should maneuver only within the space secured by a certain reading of international law.

That argument does have its strengths, in accommodating the perspectives of the "mainstream," and, perhaps, pushing them into political action. But it also has weaknesses.

The most glaring of them is that this my-way-or-the-highway tack sidesteps the ingenuity of BDS: that it withstands and accommodates several readings of international law as well as several political programs. One-state activists and those who hedge the issue can all partake in boycott and sanctions activity without forcing unnecessary divisions precisely because of the malleability of both international law and the boycott call. By imposing on this cacophony a sectarian reading of what must be done to make a political program viable in the United States, Finkelstein is the one being divisive.

And he is doing so against the grain of concrete political reality, in two senses.

First, he suggests that one-staters and other radicals in the Occupied Territories should simply cease political agitation. This involves conjuring up a non-existent Palestinian leadership that can fight for a two-state settlement along the lines he envisions. That Palestinian leadership does not currently exist, and in the absence of strong internal political leadership, the "line" of the solidarity movement means very little. Indeed, political programs cannot and should not come from the solidarity movement, although many are eager to encourage turning "one state" – the composition of that state is usually left unsaid – into a line in the sand. Such a line is of minimal utility. A political position must emerge from within, and it must emerge organically. Furthermore, solidarity is less about toeing this or the next political line, but about supporting both self-determination and a continuous resistance oriented to decolonization, a fact lost amidst the rhetorical volleys launched back and forth between "one-staters" and "two-staters."

Additionally, it is the sometimes-incoherent BDS campaign, with its myriad problems, the ultra-left tendencies and the posturing and useless purity tests which rightfully aggravate Finkelstein, which has done a wonderful job of advancing both the level and tempo of activism for Palestine.

It has been the best tool for drawing in activists to actual action, and in creating the simplest red line of all: either support action in favor of Palestinian rights, or don’t. Incidentally, this is why Finkelstein’s none-too-ginger attacks piss so many people off. Not paying close attention to his precise wording, he seems far too much like he is attacking the work that has been on BDS thus far – he is generally not – rather than attacking the political program and strategy he (incorrectly) imputes to it.

Additionally, Finkelstein must acknowledge that focus on the "two-state solution" froze that activism into near-stasis for decades – perhaps a broader indictment of a strange focus on "solutions," as though a 130-year process of settler-colonialism will suddenly be "solved" at one fell swoop by this or that campaign emanating from Western civil society.

His argument contains very little apprehension of the use of the "two-state solution" as an international-law sanctioned smokescreen for Israeli occupation and settlement building, nor of the fact that it’s a consensus shared by such varied actors – effectively, from Hamas all the way to the iron core of imperial rejectionism, the US – as to mean nothing.

And to have meant nothing for all these decades.

Second, there is the key question of who composes Finkelstein’s social movement. It is directly related to the question of which reading of "international law" he endorses, since "international law" cannot "win" anything independently. It’s not self-implementing. If it were, Palestinians would have their state. Since international law is a not weapon but a terrain of battle, it begs the question: what is the army Finkelstein plans on deploying? (A question too that could be asked of those most vehemently opposed to Finkelstein’s rhetoric).

It turns out that when Finkelstein refers to a "broad public," he is mostly referring to middle-class and upper-middle class liberals, and especially liberal Jews. Not too radically inclined, but the sort for whom international law really is the be-all and end-all. These are people (purportedly) scared of radical action, but who will mobilize around a campaign framed against a backdrop of international law supporting a two-state solution which secures a Jewish majority in Israel. This, in turn, is directly tied to his flatly incorrect reading of the "Israel Lobby" as the motor of American rejectionism, a reading widely shared, even by people otherwise antagonistic to Finkelstein.

Anyway, let us continue. Imagine that a social movement of the American middle class rises up, demanding sanctions on Israel until it ends the occupation, and enforces "international law."

How does the Israeli elite react?


First, it looks for a Palestinian leadership which looks like it will sell out its people. This is not hard.

Second, it starts squeezing them, as well as the populace, politically and economically. Also not hard.

Third, it puts forth a bridging proposal. Something like the Arab Peace Plan: a demilitarized Palestinian state, with Israeli control over resources and the electromagnetic spectrum, most of the settlement blocks intact. Something somewhat better than what was offered at Camp David, but not much.

Because Finkelstein’s social movement isn't made up of people cued in to Palestinian sentiment but instead is composed of people taking their political positions from Human Rights Watch, because they are – we are to suppose – Jewish and Zionist and committed to the Jewish state, they are not particularly attuned to the disjuncture between the substantive settlement and the kitted-out pseudo-sovereign Bantustan Israel and America have put in place. Furthermore, they’re told that that it is sovereign, all over the corporate media. And this is not some logical conceit to cleverly "smuggle in" one state advocacy – which, to repeat, is not the primary work of a movement in solidarity with Palestinian self-determination. It’s a simple what-if, informed by history: stuffed into the Trojan horse of previous moves towards two-state solutions have been Bantustans and unsovereign states.

Finkelstein cannot pretend not to know this.

He’s done some of the best histories of these capitulations, highlighting the absurdity of negotiating for Palestinian freedom in Washington.

Returning to the scenario, there would be additional fallout, rehearsing the destruction of Palestinian resistance and the Palestinian left after Oslo. The struggle would be hamstrung. The Special Relationship would continue – as Finkelstein openly acknowledges –and Israel’s arms-and-security-based accumulation pattern would remain unchanged. War would loom, since Arabs are the traditional lab animals for Israeli weaponry. Meanwhile, rising world impatience with Israeli irredentism, as well as the symbolic cachet Palestine has with the peoples of the global South as the last anti-colonial liberation struggle, would evaporate. The boycott campaign would be dealt a crushing blow. And the victory would turn in our mouths into ash.

This is the best-case scenario, the campaign for whose sake Finkelstein demands that the BDS campaign and implicitly Palestinian civil and political society should engage in a sectarian house-cleaning, splitting one-staters and two-staters, demanding that revolutionaries – sorry, cultists – simply shut up about their visions for a far better future for the region, that we close our eyes to the tumult in the Arab surrounds for which Palestine continues to be an activating force, all so that we can grasp this "historic opportunity," which, it turns out, all the forces Finkelstein dismisses would be the ones to actually bring into being.

This is the tableau which Finkelstein calls a "more or less reasonable" resolution.

One appreciates Finkelstein’s political clarity, when so much of what so many offer is so murky and naïve. Nevertheless, in this case, I think the outcome would be less reasonable, rather than more.

And if it’s more rather than less, we want to know why and how.


:: Article nr. 88859 sent on 15-jun-2012 18:42 ECT


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