Daniel Falcone: Could you give the context of the framework that brought us to Amnesty International’s findings regarding Israel and Palestine? What has changed regarding the organization to make this happen?
Richard Falk: I have no insight into the inner workings of Amnesty International, but it seems obvious from the length and detailed coverage in their 278-page report that this undertaking was begun years earlier. There were undoubtedly several elements in the background that prompted AI to undertake an inquiry that was bound to be controversial, and from experience to result in an insulting backlash with likely adverse impacts on funding. It has, perhaps, become a bit awkward for AI to dodge the issue of apartheid any longer given the 2001 reports of the two of the most prominent civil society human rights NGOs, Israel’s B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch, which detailed their reasons for concluding that the allegations of apartheid were well grounded in factual evidence and legal analysis.
I would also add that the UN Social and Economic Council for West Asia (ESCWA) academic report co-authored by Virginia Tilley and myself, released in March 2017 had reached similar conclusions, producing acrimonious reactions by Israel and the United States. This pushback reached a climax in a Security Council session, when the American representative, Nikki Haley arrogantly threatened the UN with a punitive response unless this report was repudiated. The recently elected Sec. General, dutifully ordered the report removed from the ESCWA website, which led the director of ESCWA, Rima Khalaf, to resign rather than carry out, a task left to her more compliant successor. So far as I know our report, although removed from the ESCWA website, was never repudiated.
Daniel Falcone: Yair Lapid called the report “false” and “antisemitic.” Do you suppose he believes this to be the case? It seems to be a talking point that is losing its effectiveness.
Richard Falk: I have now carefully read the AI Report and have concluded that it maintains the highest professional standards of research and analysis throughout. Of course, any legal argument made in the context of a complex fact situation of this sort is subject to logically plausible divergent interpretations. Lawyers earn their livings by learning how to mount arguments defending their respective clients, and I am sure Israel and its supporter abroad have many qualified jurists who can interpret the evidence along lines consistent with Israeli claims of constitutional democracy with human rights equally protected whether the objecting party is a Jew or Palestinian.
Yet for Yair Lapid and others to attack the AI Report as ‘a despicable lie’ that is full of falsehoods, as well as being the work of anti-Semites is nothing other than a shaming tactic designed to redirect the conversation away from the substance of the apartheid allegations to an inquiry into the dubious motivations of AI. This is in an inflammatory and disgracefully irresponsible way of responding in view of AI’s long, distinguished identity as among the most trusted and professional human rights organizations in the world. It is reminiscent of the manner Israel has chosen to respond to all criticisms over the course of the last decade, especially during the period when Netanyahu was prime minister. A similar diatribe was launched against the International Criminal Court a year ago when it formally authorized an investigation of Israeli criminality in response to well-evidenced allegations of a series of distinct crimes by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Incidentally, the PA did not list ‘apartheid’ among its legal grievances.
Daniel Falcone: Lawrence Davidson just wrote a piece called the “Israeli Pogrom,” citing a Zionist group’s attack on Palestinians. Do you see this type of extreme violence as cause for leading up to the report?
Richard Falk: The Davidson essay is devoted to a critique of Israeli settler violence directed at Palestinian civilians living in the West Bank. It shows significantly the double standards manifested by Israeli indulgence of Palestinian abuse by Israeli settlers, while displaying a contrasting vigilance with respect to protecting Jews from Palestinian violence whether in Occupied Palestine or Israel. This certainly manifests racial discrimination carried out with the complicity of the Israeli State. However, it is not evidence of the ideology or even the existence of an apartheid system of control, which either explicitly or implicitly premises governance on racial inequality as between a dominant and subordinate race and adopts specific policies to ensure the persistence of structures of inequality. In Israel’s case it denies complicity and rejects racism as part of its governance plan.
Whether such Israel’s persistent disregard of the obligations of an Occupying Poweras set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention played any role in leading AI to investigate the apartheid allegation remains unknowable as the organization has made no such reference. It is more plausible to suppose that the earlier reports on the apartheid claim played a principal role in leading AI to join the chorus although this is also a matter of conjecture.
Daniel Falcone: According to Haaretz, the US seems ready to dismiss the Amnesty International findings, can you comment on the state of the bipartisan consensus?
Richard Falk: I never for a minute expected the U.S. Government, including Congress, to accept an accusation of apartheid directed at Israel, no matter how impeccable the source and how persuasive the evidence and analysis. For one thing, it would break the special relationship causing a serious disruptive backlash domestically as well as gravely weaken the anti-Iran alliance in the Middle East. We should by not be surprised by the primacy of geopolitics when it collides with the requirement of international law and human rights standards, as well supposedly affirmed national values such as here, anti-racism.
For another, Biden like most of his presidential predecessors unabashedly follows unwaveringly a pro-Israel path in relation to grievances of the Palestinian people, although less crudely than Trump. This predisposition led Biden even to accept several of Trump’s more extreme shows of support for Israeli defiance of the UN consensus, including moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the normalization agreements with Arab neighbors, and the annexation of the Golan Heights. In effect, Biden has lowered his voice while maintained continuity most of Trump’s policies. The apparent discontinuities in the form of reviving support for a two-state solution or objection to further settlement expansion are gestures at best, widely known to be policy non-starters having a long record of zero behavioral impact. Above all, because the Oslo-type diplomacy has become superseded by Israeli disinterest in negotiating with the Palestinians, as equals with a shared acceptance of the principal goal being the establishment of an independent sovereign Palestine.
As a result, there is a wide gap in perceptions and attitude between the U.S. Government and the human rights civil society consensus on this crucial question of how to evaluate the apartheid charges. As the AI Report clearly argues, the evidence points to apartheid, and this engages international responsibility to take positive steps to suppress and punish the crime. On this basis AI recommends imposing an international arms embargo on Israel and urges the ICC to investigate the question of Israeli criminality and its legal consequences that is raised by the evidence of Israeli apartheid.
Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on how the Palestinian question is evolving in mainstream US circles? It seems that both individuals and institutions have become more robust to deal with the potential consequences of this political engagement. Can the movement maintain its intensity and enter liberal pragmatic spaces at the same time in your estimation?
Richard Falk: Despite notable developments, Israel continues to hold most of the cards as to the approach taken to the Palestinian question in the U.S. Although the bipartisan consensus and the Zionist civil society infrastructure has somewhat frayed due to the excesses of illiberal Trumpism and because of the increasing normalization of the apartheid critique, Israel still has the upper hand with respect to Congress, White House, and Beltway think tanks.
At the same time, the symbolic victories achieved by the Palestinians over the course of the last two years are significant from a Legitimacy War perspective. Admittedly, to an uncertain extent these developments have been offset by the successes of Trump’s normalization diplomacy (‘The Abraham Accords’), especially as endorsed and extended during the first year of the Biden presidency. It seems premature to reinterpret the symbolic balance between Israel and Palestine as it plays out in the U.S., The picture should become clearer during the next two years.
Because the apartheid line of critique indicts Israel for systemic criminality, which can only be overcome by renouncing the fundamental Zionist claim to secure a fully sovereign Jewish state, it will likely run into a stone wall of resistance in the United States, including in liberal Zionist circles. This resistance may take the form, as it has in NYT/CNNresponse to AI Report, which has been to maintain a stony silence. It is my impression that, not only in the U.S. but throughout the West, liberal opinion with respect to Palestinian grievances is evasive, if not entirely silent. Neither the alternative of implementing the AI recommendations nor the alternative of endorsing the official Israel pushback by way of attacking the reports as full of falsehoods and the work of anti-Semites is acceptable. Under these conditions silence and evasion seem like preferred options.
Yet such a course of action amounts to a validation of critiques of double standards. To weep about excess police force in responding to Hong Kong protest demonstrations or the treatment of the Uyghurs but avert eyes when it comes to the reality of prolonged Palestinian suffering and suppression of basic rights may be a contradiction is morally unacceptable, especially given the history of Western involvement in the political evolution of the Israeli state. At some point, the contradiction may become too blatant to accept even if it currently seems to remain an attractive pragmatic solution in relation to the apartheid critique.
Daniel Falcone: Is there any possibility that mainstream groups labeling the situation as “Apartheid” are making an oversimplification? Aren’t some parts of the region “better” than conditions were in South Africa, and some “worse,” as Chomsky points out. Also, is there a fear that the Palestinian cause is being reduced to a type of US middle class classical rights movements discourse, largely focused on symbolic political rights without constructing a path to wholesale economic policy and transformative justice?
Richard Falk: You raise an important set of overlooked issues. In retrospect, many progressives in South Africa feel that it was a severe mistake to settle for political rights and forego any challenge to white economic and social privilege. And it is also true that when Nelson Mandela was hailed for achieving the breakthrough agreement bringing the apartheid regime to an end, little attention was given to the widespread poverty of the black majority or the gross inequalities in health care, housing, educational opportunity that have hardly changed in the more than 30 years sincepolitical apartheid was dismantled.
At the same time, if Mandela had pressed demands for a more comprehensive approach to societal injustice no agreement at all would have been forthcoming. I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s comparison between the American Revolution and the French and Russian Revolutions. She argues that the American Revolution was a humanitarian and political success because it didn’t seek to challenge economic and social structures, whereas the French and Russian Revolutions fell a bloody victim to their own laudable ambitions. Arguably the popular movement in Egypt that overthrew an autocratic leader settled for too little, making itself vulnerable to counterrevolutionary reversal, which occurred two years later. I think we are left with an insoluble problem that must be addressed in terms of the particularities of the situation.
Applying these considerations to the Palestinian situation, I would argue that it is preferable to accept limited goals in a manner like what ended apartheid in South Africa. This is ambition enough given the Palestinian circumstances and might make apartheid-ending diplomacy eventually negotiable. As in post-apartheid South Africa, I believe it best to leave the admittedly important economic and social agenda to post-apartheid Israel/Palestine, although realizing that these formidable justice issues remain unresolved.
Daniel Falcone is an activist, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He teaches humanities at the United Nations International School and resides in Queens.