Dr. Chomsky is [emeritus] Institute Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (1983). The following interview was conducted by Anne Joyce, editor of Middle East Policy, on October 18, 1984 (when the title of this publication was American-Arab Affairs).
ANNE JOYCE: It is a widely held view in the United States that it is the fault of the PLO that peace hasn't been achieved between Israel and its neighbors and that talks could begin immediately upon the PLO's recognition of Israel's right to exist. Is this view based on fact?
CHOMSKY: No, the view is not based on fact. The position of the government of Israel has always been that the Palestinians — not simply the PLO — are not a party to the dispute and that no organization of Palestinians can have any part in political negotiations. The narrow reason is the commitment on the part of both major political groupings to maintain effective control of the occupied territories. A deeper reason is a concern, often expressed, over the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise if the indigenous population have a claim to national self-determination in the Land of Israel. This position has been stated very explicitly by the Labor party. Abba Eban back in 1969 stated that the Palestinians "have no role to play" in any peace settlement. Israel's high court, in fact, maintained that they "are not a party" to the dispute. Yitzhak Rabin in a later Labor government in 1975 issued what the Israeli press referred to as his "three nos." One of the nos was no negotiations with any Palestinians on any political issue. That remains essentially unchanged within the Labor party — and obviously within the Likud. The latest platform of the Labor party in the recent elections included four nos; in particular, no negotiations with the PLO. Another one was no withdrawal of settlements from the West Bank. In other words, "no" on everything substantive.
When Arafat made his offer last May, which was barely reported in the United States, with respect to negotiations leading to mutual recognition, Israel immediately responded negatively. I was able to find no official statement by the Labor party, and only a few Israeli commentators who gave some tentative indication this would be worth following up. The government rejected it outright. As far as I know, there has been no deviation from this position.
Regarding negotiations and peace talks, the two sides are simply talking past each other. The Arab states and the PLO for several years now have been willing to enter negotiations if they include the Palestinians as participants. And everyone knows that "the Palestinians" means the PLO. The PLO has the same kind of legitimacy that the Zionist organization had in the 1940s; it's essentially no different. In the 1940s, to talk of negotiations with Jews with the thought of excluding the Zionists would have been absurd. The same is true today for the PLO. The framework for negotiations which has been offered by a very broad range of Arab opinion — including, for example, King Hussein just a couple of weeks ago, the Palestinians themselves, Egypt for a long time and most of the other Arab states — has been a framework, probably under UN auspices, which would include all participants: Israel, the regional states and the Palestinians.
Israel, on the other hand, has offered negotiations on totally different grounds. It wants to negotiate with the Arab states, specifically excluding the Palestinians. If you check through every interchange on this issue over the years, that's exactly where it has foundered. This just happened within the last few weeks. In the American press there were big headlines in the newspapers stating that Israel offers peace and the Jordanians reject it. Actually what happened was rather different. The Jordanian statement, which was interpreted as a rejection of the peace offer, in fact offered peace negotiations on the basis of an arrangement which would include the Palestinians as a participant.
The United States has blocked a peace settlement throughout by supporting the Israeli position that the Palestinians have no role to play. So, for example, again in January of 1984, the secretary-general of the United Nations, at the request of the General Assembly, attempted to organize peace negotiations which would include the members of the Security Council, [and] the regional states, including Israel, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians. [UN Ambassador] Jeane Kirkpatrick announced at once that the United States would have nothing to do with it, that the United States regarded this and any such proposal as intolerable. What blocked this initiative was the participation of the Palestinians. Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar continued his efforts; he went to the Middle East and apparently got a reasonably positive response from most participants. Israel and, of course, the United States refused totally, and as long as the United States refuses, nothing can happen in the Middle East.
There have been quite explicit proposals from the Arab states and the PLO, in particular one very important proposal that was actually vetoed by the United States at the United Nations. There was a proposal in January 1976 for a two-state settlement along the internationally recognized pre-June 1967 borders, using the wording of UN [Security Council Resolution] 242 concerning its territorial guarantees and so on. That meeting was initiated by Syria, Jordan and Egypt — the "confrontation states" — and the proposal was backed by the PLO. According to Chaim Herzog, who was then Israel's UN ambassador and is now president, it was not only backed by the PLO, but was in fact prepared by the PLO. It was backed by just about everyone, including the Soviet Union and the Palestinians. It was vetoed by the United States. That was the occasion on which Yitzhak Rabin announced that there would be no negotiations or dealings with the Palestinians on any political issue.
A few weeks before that, when the UN session was called in late November (it met the following January), Israel's response was to carry out unprovoked bombing in Lebanon, killing about 50 people. They didn't even call it retaliation, but rather a preemptive strike. It was plainly a response to the calling of the UN Security Council session. There was great outrage in Israel at the idea that the Palestinians should be a participant in any form of negotiations. It should be recalled that this was the dovish Rabin cabinet. To my knowledge there has been no change in position, and I think what happened this May with the Arafat proposal is a striking example. It is hard to imagine that the PLO could go further than what he proposed: negotiations which would ultimately lead to mutual recognition.
Q: Why is the United States reluctant to encourage peace talks and to put pressure on Israel to negotiate?
CHOMSKY: I think the reasons are complex. Since about 1970, the United States has blocked any meaningful peace settlement. It has been committed to a sort of Greater Israel. Although at the rhetorical level the United States is in favor of UN 242, at the policy level at every point the United States has supported a position which grants Israel effective control over substantial parts of the territories occupied in 1967. U.S. policy, although it hasn't been formulated into words, operates almost in parallel with Labor Party policy, which since about 1968 or 1969 has been that Israel should maintain control of the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and, under the Allon plan, something like 40 percent of the West Bank. Labor originally wanted to keep the Eastern Sinai, but that was settled, over considerable Labor opposition, at Camp David. The current version of the Labor party policy is essentially the old Allon plan. The United States has backed it, as shown in two ways. One is by diplomatic measures which bar any attempt to resolve the conflict in a way that would require Israeli withdrawal or recognize Palestinian national rights — for example, blocking Sadat's 1971 peace offer (which ignored the Palestinians), vetoing the 1976 UN resolution, blocking the 1984 UN meeting and totally ignoring Arafat's offer last May.
The other mode of support for this policy has been economic. American aid to Israel, which everyone knows is phenomenal, also has another property that people don't know much about: it is given unconditionally. U.S. aid to other countries is project-oriented and supervised. For example, U.S. aid to Egypt, which is the next-highest recipient of aid, is very closely monitored and controlled. Israel has different and, to my knowledge, unique arrangements. The money is just given, which is a way of saying: do anything you like with it. Since we know exactly what they like, what we are telling them is, use it for settlements in the West Bank, for invading Lebanon and so on. There couldn't be a more clear way of telling Israel that we want them to go on doing exactly what they are doing. In fact, that is how the Reagan plan collapsed. The Reagan plan was announced on September 1, 1982, and was immediately rejected by Israel. It received varying reactions from the Arab states and the PLO — some interest but not outright rejection or acceptance. Israel flatly rejected it, as did the United States. The way we did it was this: a few weeks after the Reagan plan was announced, the administration proposed a substantial increase in aid to Israel and Congress raised that increase still further. There couldn't have been a clearer way of telling them, "You did the right thing. We are now praising and rewarding you for invading Lebanon, for bombing Beirut, for the Sabra-Shatila massacre, for rejecting the Reagan plan. This is your reward: we will now increase the payments." As George Ball puts it rather nicely, "I know of no nation in history that ever launched a serious diplomatic initiative to bring about peace among quarreling nations and then paid one of the parties to sabotage it" ["What Is An Ally?" American-Arab Affairs, Fall 1983, p. 13].
In effect, the Reagan plan was killed by the United States almost immediately after it was proposed. This is typical; it has been going on since about 1970, when a split among American planners became very clear. Secretary of State William Rogers and the State Department at that time were in favor of a settlement on approximately the pre-June 1967 borders, the kind of settlement that the international consensus supports. Kissinger, on the other hand, was opposed. There was a struggle between Kissinger and the State Department and Kissinger won. It is rather clear from his memoirs that his greatest enemy was not the Soviet Union, but the State Department, and his major battles were against that adversary, although he was playing games with the Russians and others on the side. He did succeed in winning that fundamental battle of his career. He says in his memoirs that he was able to achieve "stalemate," and he was very proud of it — to achieve a stalemate to block the efforts of the State Department to move toward a political settlement on essentially the 1967 borders of Israel.
It is interesting how he explains why he wanted to achieve a stalemate. He says until the Soviet Union was willing to dissociate itself from the maximal Arab program and until some Arab state recognized that the path to peace was through Washington and was willing to separate itself from the Soviets, we felt we must pursue our policy of stalemate. In their geopolitical fantasies and unspeakable ignorance, these statements have almost no parallel that I can think of. First of all, Sadat had made it plain by 1971, which is the period he is talking about, that the path to peace was through Washington. In fact, he offered a peace proposal in February 1971, which was rejected by Israel and the United States. How could Kissinger not have seen that Sadat was asking — virtually begging — to turn Egypt into an American client-state?
As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, what it was supporting was what it has always been supporting: a settlement in accordance with the international consensus, which recognized the rights and security of Israel. As far as no Arab state separating itself from the Soviets, technically he's right, but the reason he is right is that it would have been a logical impossibility. Most of the Arab states didn't even have diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia, which is the most important, not only didn't have diplomatic relations, it never had had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Here is a man who is controlling the foreign policy of the most powerful country in the world saying that we have to have a stalemate because Saudi Arabia won't separate itself from the Soviets.
That was the thinking that led to the insistence on the policy of stalemate and to the rejection of Sadat's very important February 1971 offer. This led directly to the 1973 war, which ought be called "Kissinger's war." Kissinger was being informed from every source — American ambassadors, oil companies and Egypt, constantly — that if the United States continued to block every path to a diplomatic settlement, Egypt would have no choice but to go to war. Kissinger couldn't hear it; it just never got through.
After the war American policy shifted, because then Kissinger finally understood — there was a war, and in fact Egypt and Syria did surprisingly well in the initial stages. So then Kissinger shifted to shuttle diplomacy, which was mostly razzle-dazzle, covering up the policy. The policy was to separate Egypt from the conflict. Once Egypt was separated from the conflict, then Israel would be free to continue its integration of the occupied territories and, of course, to attack its northern neighbor without hindrance, since Egypt would be neutralized. That was the obvious significance of Kissinger's interim agreements and, in fact, of the Camp David accords, which removed Egypt from the conflict. There was no longer any deterrent to the policies that Israel was conducting. They were doing it always with our support, whatever the rhetoric may have been; we were paying them to conduct it, and that's all that counts.
Even before the Camp David agreements were signed, Israel increased its integration of the occupied territories and attacked Lebanon. The first attack was in 1978; in 1979-80, there was heavy bombing. Another ceasefire was broken by Israeli bombing in the summer of 1981, leading to about 451 Arab casualties, mostly Lebanese civilians, along with six Israelis. The subsequent July 1981 ceasefire in southern Lebanon was scrupulously observed by the PLO, which was one of the reasons Israel felt it had to attack. The PLO was gaining too much respectability, so Israel attacked again in June 1982, always with American support, despite occasional rhetorical slaps in the face. It was obvious at the time that this was the content of Kissinger's interim agreement and of Camp David, and it's an astonishing fact that this could not be perceived by American commentators. Even in retrospect people don't appear to have perceived it, though by now it's transparent. There could have been no other meaning to these negotiations. Throughout, the Palestinians were excluded; they were never a party to the negotiations, in accordance with the longstanding policies of Israel.
This is what has been going on; the question is, why? It seems to me that there has really been a split among American policy makers as to the role that Israel should play in the Middle East. The fundamental American interest in the Middle East, everyone agrees, is oil. The question is, how do we best guarantee that these resources will remain effectively under our control. There are two paths that could be taken toward that goal: one path is negotiations, diplomacy and trade; the other path is force. From a purely tactical point of view, putting aside all moral considerations, it is not obvious what the right path is. Rational people could disagree. A very substantial group among American planners and corporations and so on has felt that the United States should pursue diplomacy, trade, negotiations and political settlements. Such people are in favor of a diplomatic settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute along the lines of the international consensus, which has been possible for many years.
On the other hand, there is the view represented by Kissinger, which won out and which we continue to maintain, that we have to control the region by the threat of force. That was the Nixon doctrine, which said that we must have regional surrogate powers which will be guardians of our interests. Now, the rhetorical enemy is the Soviet Union; the actual enemy is the indigenous population. There has never been any reasonable likelihood that the Soviet Union would make any move toward this region because they know that if they did the world would blow up in a matter of minutes. They have never given any indication of being that crazy. Europe is also something of an enemy; one of the major elements in Kissinger's post-1973 diplomacy was, as he stated, to keep Europe and Japan excluded. That's another reason why we always refused UN negotiations and tried to block the Euro-Arab Dialogue. The Europeans are very serious competitors for the control of the region. But the main worry is the indigenous population, what is called "radical Arab nationalism." The Kissinger-Nixon doctrine held that since the United States couldn't enforce its military will everywhere at one time, we require surrogate military forces to serve as a base for the projection of American power as needed and as a threat to indigenous radical movements, where "radical" means not obeying U.S. orders. The early plan was for Iran under the shah and Israel to be the guardians of the Gulf, the policemen on the beat. American aid to Israel increased rapidly during that period. Once the shah collapsed, Israel became the last guardian of the Gulf.
If you look at the whole relationship between Israel and the United States over the years, it's very closely keyed to the perception of Israel as a military force that can guard American interests. In the 1950s, relations between Israel and the United States were often rather strained; Eisenhower pushed them out of Sinai in 1956. But by 1958 the National Security Council had stated that a logical corollary to opposition to so-called radical Arab nationalism would be support for Israel as the one reliable pro-Western force in the region. In the early 1960s, this became a very serious issue, because Nasser and radical Arab nationalism threatened American domination of the oil-producing regions. There were problems in the Gulf and in Saudi Arabia. Nasserite pressures on the American clients there were quite significant, and that mounted through the ‘60s. Israel's victory in 1967, which the United States supported and may have participated in, was a smashing blow to Arab nationalist forces and hence a great contribution to the concept of Israel as a guardian of American interests. American aid shot up at that point. In 1970, when Israel threatened to intervene to block possible Syrian moves to support the Palestinians during Black September [the Palestinian uprising against King Hussein in Jordan], that was again recognized as a major contribution to American interests, since the United States was really not capable of intervening at that point — it was right after the Cambodian invasion and the country probably would have blown up. There was concern that the Syrian move might threaten the oil-producing monarchies. Israel was capable of blocking any such possibility, and American aid to Israel quadrupled right after that period. Then through the 1970s, under the Nixon doctrine and its successors, this became established as the core of American policy.
Meanwhile, there were several crucial parallel developments. One was the development of a very close relationship between Israel and the American military system. For example, Israel tests American weapons under live battlefield conditions. Israel is a very effective military force. U.S. policy is turning Israel into a kind of Sparta, a highly militarized and technically advanced state. Just today it was announced that high-technology aid will be given to Israel for the production of the Lavi fighter. According to this morning's New York Times, the United States is going to give more aid to Israel to develop the fighter than it is to the Northrop company, which is building the American variant. This is one piece of a long, developing story in military relations, where Israel does the fighting with American weapons, tests them out, capturing Soviet weapons and providing valuable intelligence. It's been a very close, evolving relationship.
Another factor that has become increasingly important over the years is that Israel provides subsidiary services to American power elsewhere in the world. For example, in the 1960s Israel was intervening under a very substantial CIA subsidy in black Africa to support American clients. Mobutu in Zaire is the most successful case; there were others that didn't turn out so well, such as Idi Amin and Bokassa. Israel supported Ethiopia under various of its rulers, both Haile Selassie and Mengistu. With regard to white Africa, there was a UN blockade against Ian Smith's Rhodesia. Israel assisted the United States in evading the blockade by serving as a conduit for oil to Rhodesia in violation of the agreement.
Israeli relations with South Africa are more complex. Probably to some extent the United States approves of the military and commercial relations that have developed between Israel and South Africa, both of which serve as local gendarmes. South Africa plays the same kind of role in disrupting black Africa that Israel is supposed to play in the Middle East in American policy planning. The nuclear relations between Israel and South Africa may not be to the taste of the American government — we don't know, there hasn't been anything made public on this — but it has been a relationship under the aegis of American power. The main countries that the United States supports, like South Africa and Israel, cooperate to insure that no nationalist threat to American domination develops in those regions.
Increasingly in the 1970s, the main focus shifted over to Latin America. Israel was supporting the dictatorships in the southern cone at a time when Congress was invoking certain constraints on the administration with regard to its support for General Pinochet of Chile and the Argentine generals. And in Central America recently, where the U.S. administration has been blocked by Congress and public opinion from intervening too directly, Israel has been able to move in. It provided most of the support for Somoza at the very end: it supported the Guatemalan massacres of 1982 and has supported the government of El Salvador. It has also happened elsewhere in the world. For example, when the Carter administration was trying to figure out a way to help Indonesia complete its brutal subjugation of Timor but couldn't do this directly, they turned to Israel at one point and asked them to send jet planes to Indonesia. There have been other arrangements of this kind. For a world power which is trying to dominate and organize much of the world and to repress nationalist tendencies it doesn't like, it is useful to have a Sparta to turn to for military force that is efficient and versatile.
In my opinion, the United States is happy with Israel's dependence. I looked at a set of international credit ratings recently, ratings established by the international banks, and they were ranking Israel below Mozambique and Bangladesh. Without the American subsidy, the nation couldn't exist. Israel has perhaps the highest per capita debt in the world. It is losing an independently functioning economy. I think that is much to the taste of the American planners, because they want it to be a country that is dependent and dependable, highly efficient and technologically advanced, capable of carrying out tasks that not many people would be willing to undertake, such as supporting the near-genocide in Guatemala. They are the guardian of the Middle East region, a base for the projection of American power. I haven't seen the secret agreements but I'm sure the plans of the Central Command include basing facilities in Israel and cooperation with the Israeli military.
This is the conception that over the years has dominated American policy, although there has been conflict within elite circles. One of the major problems in the United States, in my opinion, is that public debate on this conflict has been almost totally stilled. The United States is the only country that I know of where you can't discuss these matters. In Israel, there is much more open discussion of them. Here there has been a very successful campaign of intimidation. It is reminiscent of the situation with the Communist Party in the 1930s, except that the groups that are doing it now have much more effectiveness and power. The kinds of attempts that were made in the 1930s to stifle debate on the Soviet Union, we are seeing used now, but in a much more effective and widespread way, to intimidate critics of Israel into silence. Discussion of the kinds of things that we have been talking about is virtually unknown in the United States. Many essential facts have been eliminated from the record, including, crucially, the actual diplomatic history. The kind of lively, healthy discussion that goes on in Israel itself and in Western Europe, to some extent, doesn't exist here. While there has been a policy debate between those who are interested in pursuing a peaceful diplomatic settlement and those who want to maintain the military conflict and a powerful, militarized Israel as a center for American power, the public has not been able to take part in it. The public doesn't have command of or even access to the relevant facts to know how to participate. The issue has been removed from the arena of democratic politics. It is almost as if we were in a totalitarian state, with an internal debate going on from which the public is excluded. That has in the past been a very dangerous thing in other countries, and it's very dangerous in this one, too.
Q: What is the mechanism for keeping U.S. policy options toward Israel out of the public debate?
CHOMSKY: It's complicated. Sometimes it's simply intimidation: vilification, denunciation, screaming about anti-Semitism. There are groups that are devoted to this. To give you one example of my own, I recently got, by a leak which I don't want to describe, a copy of my file from the New England office of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. It's just like an FBI file — 150 pages of material, clips from newspapers and inter-office memos saying I was going to show up at this or that place, surveillance of talks I have given, characterization of what was said in the talks (often falsified, as is the case with FBI files and others). All this material goes into a central source. Then when I give a talk somewhere, my file will be given to the appropriate local group, who will be able to dig through it, come up with statements that I allegedly made at some time during the last 15 years to be publicized in unsigned pamphlets. The file is also sent to people with whom I have public debates so that they can extract fabricated defamatory material from it. This is done, incidentally, under a tax-free grant to a religious and educational organization.
There is an amazing campaign also in those parts of the media that are controlled by so-called supporters of Israel, who act very much as in the heyday of the Communist Party. Everybody who has been involved has been exposed to this sort of thing, and a lot of people just don't want that kind of bother in their lives — to be subjected to lies and intimidation by accusations and so forth. I don't think the press wants it. The press is put under a lot of pressure. If they ever make a move towards presenting something which the local supporters of Israel don't like, they are subjected to harassment. They don't like it when it comes from their advertisers or the reading public. Politicians are also intimidated. They know that they can't open their mouths on this issue. If they do, they will be subjected to the same thing: accusations of anti-Semitism and forgetting of the Holocaust. A whole barrage of techniques is used, which have been highly refined simply to silence criticism, and they are very effective.
Of course, substantial parts of the elite groups really agree with the current policy and automatically are going to go along with it. The media are, contrary to the public image, quite subservient to the state. They rarely expose or critically analyze state policies. This was demonstrated right through the Vietnam War and the Watergate period. The media are major corporations; they share interests and perceptions with other elite groups. They see things the way central power sees them. So, for example, it was an immediate reaction on the part of the national press to suppress Arafat's spring 1984 offers, because to report them is to admit that the United States is once again blocking peace. Which newspaper in the United States is going to come out with a headline saying that the United States and Israel, for the hundredth time in the last 15 years, are again blocking a peaceful settlement? Not only can't they do it, they can't even perceive things that way. There is too much cognitive dissonance. They have to accept the picture of their own state as capable of making mistakes but fundamentally decent, not as one of the amoral agents that interact to realize national and private interests in world affairs. That is not the way we perceive the United States, and if you start with familiar ideological preconceptions, you just can't see what's happening before your eyes.
There are all sorts of factors that lead to this, but the net effect is obvious. The non-reporting of Arafat's offer is a perfect example. It literally was not mentioned in The Washington Post or The New York Times when it occurred. Several months later, the Post had a dismissive reference to it. They certainly knew of it. It was on the UPI wires. The San Francisco Examiner, which has the reputation of being one of the worst papers in the country, had a big front-page headline that day saying, "Arafat to Israel, let's talk," followed by a UPI story which was reasonably accurate. Now that's the way the story should have been treated; it is important. What they should have said is that Arafat once again says, let's talk. There were stories in the second-level press, the quality press that has a local audience, like The Los Angeles Times or The Boston Globe or The Philadelphia Inquirer, which didn't really get at the heart of the matter, but at least they had the facts.
To take one more case, when Sadat was assassinated, it was a big news story, and there was a lot of talk about Sadat and what a great man he was. If you read through the commentary, you will notice something quite interesting about it. The New York Times had a two-page obituary written by Eric Pace, one of their experts, giving the standard story — that Sadat tried to destroy all the Jews and Israel. He tried in 1973, but under the kind tutelage of Kissinger and later Jimmy Carter, he opted for peace, became a great hero and went to Jerusalem in 1977. That is the story that everybody believes. The fact that Sadat had offered peace in February 1971 and been turned down by the United States and Israel and had then for the next couple of years said he would like to make a peaceful settlement, but failing that, he would have to go to war — that was outside of history.
The Israeli equivalent of The New York Times, Ha'aretz, had an obituary about Sadat, too, except they referred to what they called his "famous" 1971 peace offer. In Israel, it is his "famous" peace offer, and in the United States it doesn't exist, because we cannot perceive that the United States has been blocking peace and was responsible for war. Just how that works in the editorial offices I can't tell you, but this happens over and over again. It feeds into itself, creating an image which then provides the basis for interpreting the next thing that happens.
Q: Are you saying that this takes place at the editorial level rather than at the corporate level?
CHOMSKY: Only the newspapers can really answer that question. But I think that there are many different factors that tend to press in the same direction: shared interest, the natural tendency to trust the state and think the best of it, pressures and intimidation that come from the outside. There is also a lot of admiration for the successful use of military force. When Israel showed in 1967 that it was capable of smashing up its enemies, that aroused a lot of admiration in the United States. It was particularly striking because, at that time (1967), the United States was trying to crush the South Vietnamese resistance — what we called blocking North Vietnamese aggression, in fact continuing our aggression against South Vietnam — and we were incapable of doing it. Israel came along and showed us how to deal with Third World upstarts properly. That had a lot of resonance in the United States. At the psychological level, that explains in part the support for Israeli power and successful use of violence. So there are many factors that have led to the current situation in which the simple perception of the basic facts is so distorted that the whole issue is removed from the political arena. This has resulted in total victory by those who want to turn Israel into a militarized society, dependent on the United States, having no independent viability and blocked from a political settlement.
Terrorism is treated in the same way. When there is an Arab terrorist act in Israel — say highjacking a bus — it's denounced by everyone as a terrorist act. When Israel captures a boat on the high seas, which is piracy, and kidnaps people, it may be reported, but no one cares. I remember during the last prisoner exchange there was a little note at the end of one of the articles in The New York Times, which said that 30 or so of their prisoners were people who had been captured by Israel on the high seas. Like highjacking, that's piracy. Israel has been doing it for years, and we say it's their right. Last January, when Israel bombed heavily around Baalbek, Lebanon, locally reported casualties were about 400 or 500, including a couple of hundred children. The school was completely demolished. That was reported but it was not regarded as an act of terrorism. If the Palestinians had carried out a bombing in Tel Aviv with 500 casualties including many children, we would be talking about a holocaust.
This is part of a pattern. The Washington Post, one of the more balanced papers in this respect — much more so than The New York Times — ran an editorial that I will never forget on April 22, 1982. The day before that, Israel had carried out a completely unprovoked bombing of Lebanon, killing many people. The alleged provocation was that an Israeli solider in Lebanon had hit a mine and been killed. In response, Israel bombed Lebanon and killed several dozen people. The Post editorial said that this was not a time for sermons to Israel: this was a moment for respect for "Israel's anguish." We have to consider Israel's anguish when it kills still more Palestinians in Lebanon. When people in the government of Israel read that, they realize they can carry out as much terrorism and violence as they like and American liberal opinion, which is supposed to be that part of public opinion which is even moderately critical, will approve it. Israel went on from there to further bombing in May and the June invasion. It is that kind of public reaction that laid the groundwork for the invasion. Why shouldn't they go on? If they know that any act of violence and terrorism they are going to carry out will be either dismissed or regarded as somehow legitimate because the Arabs are so terrible, why shouldn't they go on? One can't conceive of a comparable reaction where the Arabs are concerned. Suppose Syria had bombed Israel, killing 25 people because a Syrian solider had been killed by a land mine in northern Israel. Could The Washington Post have had an editorial saying that this is the time to respect Syria's anguish? It's unimaginable. But there is case after case of this, and by now it is self-reinforcing. A climate of opinion has been created in which things are perceived a certain way. To break out of it, even just to lay the simple facts on the table for discussion, is already a tremendous emotional as well as intellectual problem.
Q: Moving to another medium, the new book From Time Immemorial has attracted both praise and scathing criticism. Joan Peters, the author, claims to have found evidence that the Jews have a prior claim on Eretz Israel and that they didn't displace an indigenous population, but rather attracted Arab immigrants to Palestine during the 19th and early 20th centuries with economic opportunities. What is your opinion of the book and of the reviews it has received in the press?
CHOMSKY: This is an old Zionist propaganda line, despite the reviewers' claim that it's an amazing new idea. What's more interesting is that this kind of nonsense has been denounced by reputable Israeli scholars for years. Back in 1975, I read a statement in a Hebrew publication by Yehoshua Porath, Israel's leading scholar on the Palestinians and the author of the standard works in the field, in which he pleaded with people to stop creating fake census figures and other falsifications to try to prove what is patently false: that there were no Palestinians in Palestine. This has been picked up again as part of the attempt to resurrect Israel's somewhat battered image after the Lebanon war.
Peters' book contains page after page lifted almost verbatim out of old Zionist propaganda tracts without any reference. The egregious errors that appeared in the original are repeated. For example, Alexander Cockburn has pointed out in The Nation that she quotes a 14th-century Arab as an authority on something that happened in the 19th century. That is the amazing research that is supposed to be so impressive. The references to the documents reveal a level of falsification rarely seen anywhere since the Stalinists' rewriting of history. A graduate student at Princeton, Norman Finkelstein, has traced almost every quote back to its source ["A Spectacular Fraud," In These Times, September 5-11, 1984]. Virtually every major reference is a gross falsification, one that couldn't have been done by error.
The demographic figures can only be described as a hoax. In an effort to show that the refugees that fled were from the West Bank, she simply eliminated the ones from Western Galilee, where over 100,000 people were missing. She quotes figures from the Turkish census to try to show that the Jews were a majority in the area that became Israel. Her own figures in the footnotes show this to be false; the Palestinians were a big majority. The book is almost totally incoherent; if you go back to the footnotes you often find accurate quotes. But if you look at the thrust of the text there are gross distortions. She refers repeatedly to the Hope Simpson report of 1930, which she claims stated that illegal Arab immigration was very unfair to the Jews, but it should be tolerated anyway. What the actual statement said was that illegal immigrants should be immediately expelled and that pseudo-travelers — visitors who had overstayed their time — in cases that weren't flagrant should be allowed to stay, even though this might do some injustice to the Jewish immigrants. And even in this small category, it turns out that these pseudo-travelers were Jews by a large margin! This gets transmuted in the Peters account into an admission by the British that hordes of illegal Arab immigrants were coming in unnoticed, to the detriment of the Jewish immigrants.
It would be interesting to see how people in Israel would react to the Peters book. Although it has been out for a long time now, I have only seen one review in the Hebrew press. That was in Maariv, a mass-audience, right-wing publication, and it was written by a government official — they didn't even give it to a serious reviewer. My guess is that it embarrassed them.
What I find interesting is that whoever wrote the book — Joan Peters herself or whoever is behind it — felt that the American intellectual community is so subservient that it would work; that no matter how extensive the lies or the distortions, it would still be successful. That is somebody's evaluation of the nature of American intellectual culture, and it is probably accurate. Finkelstein and Cockburn and others have published enough information about this book already to make anyone recognize that it's at least dubious, and probably sheer fraud. But this has no effect at all. That means that the assessment of American intellectual culture is correct. It says that any amount of lying, any amount of fraud, is going to be tolerated by the American intellectual community, as long as it conforms with established doctrine. Things like this happened in the 1930s, although not to this extent. For example, when George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia came out, it wasn't published in the United States because it was critical of the Communists, an unpopular position among the intelligensia at the time. It was later published as a cold-war document when things had changed. This sort of thing is not unfamiliar, but now it's happening on a scale that really has no counterpart in the past. It's very dangerous, because by removing these issues from public debate, and in the case of the Peters book by introducing absurd, fraudulent arguments which have nothing to do with the facts in an effort to try to justify Israel's expansionism and aggression, we risk disaster not only for the region but quite probably for the world.