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Noam Chomsky on Middle East Politics

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The current election results in Israel have roots in a legacy of occupation and failed peace efforts. Noam Chomsky, longtime activist and professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, takes a look at Middle East politics. [includes rush transcript]

Tape:

  • Noam Chomsky, speech, spring 1999 at Columbia University.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is an article from the Guardian newspaper in Britain, the mainstream press, last October. It says, “If Palestinians were black, Israel would now be a pariah state. [...] Its development and settlement of the West Bank would be seen as a system of apartheid, in which the indigenous population was allowed to live in a tiny fraction of its own country, in self-administered 'bantustans.'” And it goes on from there.

But in the US, we have to turn to voices like that of Noam Chomsky to give analyses of the Middle East rarely heard in the mainstream media. The current election results in Israel of Ariel Sharon as prime minister have roots in a legacy of occupation and failed peace efforts. Noam Chomsky, longtime activist and professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently spoke about the history and politics of Israel and the Occupied Territories.

NOAM CHOMSKY: The core issue in the Middle East is very straightforward, namely oil. Since World War I, when the world began to move on to an oil-based economy, the Middle East has become central in world affairs for the very obvious reason that it has the — by far the largest and the most accessible petroleum resources, primarily in Saudi Arabia, secondarily in Iraq, and thirdly in the Gulf Emirates, then elsewhere. It is, as the State Department described it during the Second World War, when the US was taking over: "It’s a stupendous source of strategic power and the greatest material prize in world history.” "It’s strategically the most important part of the world,” as the president of Columbia University described it, as he was making his transition from Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe to supreme commander of the world, in the White House, which I guess says something about Columbia’s rank in world order.

The smaller, more expensive reserves, like North Sea and Alaska, are declining. The role of the Middle East in the world energy system is accordingly increasing. And it will become critical, probably in the not-too-distant future, if, as is widely anticipated, the current oil glut proves to be temporary, which is not unlikely. The rate of discovery has been declining since the 1960s, despite high technology and deep sea drilling and so on, and the usage of energy has been sharply increasing. In fact, about half of the total usage in history is since the oil price rise in the early 1970s, and it’s going up. It’s expected at, you know, “the magic halfway point,” as it’s called, when half of the known, accessible resources are used, is coming fairly soon. All of this spells crisis.

It’s possible, of course, that some unpredictable breakthrough will take place and things will change, but policy planning is not based on unpredictable technological breakthroughs. So we can pretty confidently expect that the United States will continue, as in the past, to do everything it can to make sure that the "greatest material prize in world history” remains firmly in its hands.

Well, the United States took over from Britain in the Middle East, and in fact much of the world, after the Second World War, actually took — replaced Britain and France. France was summarily expelled; they weren’t given the time of day. Britain, however, was given a role. It was given a role of “junior partner,” as the British Foreign Office rather ruefully described it, accurately. It was — Britain was going to be our lieutenant. The fashionable word is “partner,” as they were described by a senior adviser of the Kennedy administration. The US — now that’s reasonably accurate. Actually, you’re seeing an example of it right now. The lieutenant is doing its job. Attack dog, maybe.

The United States took over from — inherited from Britain the modalities of control of the region, as well. These modalities had changed during and after World War I, when Britain no longer had the force to rule the empire directly by occupation and therefore had to turn to air power and high technology, advanced technology. So, it was explained pretty frankly. The distinguished statesman Lloyd George — he was commenting on Britain’s success in undermining a disarmament conference, which would have barred the use of air power against civilians — he pointed out that that was a success because, as he put it, “We have to reserve the right to bomb the niggers,” which kind of sums up world affairs rather nicely.

Winston Churchill, who was then the Secretary of State at the War Office, was a great enthusiast for using advanced technology to achieve the same end. His favorite was poison gas. He said back in the early '20s that “poison gas would be a fine weapon,” he thought, against "uncivilized tribesmen” and “recalcitrant Arabs.” Now, that's referring to Kurds and Afghans at the time, but they apparently qualified. He said it should inspire “a lively terror.” You recall that poison gas was the ultimate atrocity in those days. And he said that this is simply the use of — it’s an application of Western science to military warfare, to measures of warfare, therefore we shouldn’t back off from it. Well, those were the military tactics. They’ve had distinguished career ever since.

On a the political side, Britain — we know from the British Foreign Office records, Colonial Office records, which have been declassified — they developed a system which, in fact, the US has taken over. The idea was that the oil-producing states would be administered by what the British called an Arab — secretly, of course — what they called an “Arab façade,” constitutional fictions behind which Britain would continue to rule. Now, the façade has to be weak, because it has to be dependable, has to do what you tell it. But then there’s a problem, because if the façade is weak, it may not be able to control its own population. And its own population is "uncivilized" and "ignorant." They do not understand that they can be easily infected by what’s called a "virus" of radical nationalism, which was defined by the State Department back in the 1940s as the belief that the first beneficiaries of a country’s resources ought to be the people of that country. And that, of course, is intolerable, because any sane and civilized person can understand that the first beneficiaries of a country’s resources have to be wealthy investors in the United States and so on. So, these people just don’t understand that and are always causing trouble. They’re "uncivilized tribesmen" and so on.

And sometimes poison gas doesn’t work. So you have to have some way of keeping the Arab façade in power. And to do that, as the US developed the system, there’s two levels of violence required. Actually, this is all over the world. I mean, much of the history of the last half century is the playing out of this issue in Southeast Asia and Latin America and Middle East and all over. It’s not put that way, but that’s the way it is.

In the Middle East, the way it was worked out is that there are to be what the Nixon administration called “local cops on the beat.” That is, local gendarmes who sort of keep order in the neighborhood. And it’s best to have them be non-Arab — they do better at killing recalcitrant Arabs. So there’s a periphery of, in fact, what David Ben-Gurion, Israeli prime minister, called the "periphery policy” of non-Arab states — Iran under the Shah, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan. There they are to be the local cops on the beat. The understanding, of course, is that police headquarters remains in Washington. And if things really get out of hand, the local cops on the beat can’t handle it, there’s British and US muscle in reserve to be used when needed. That’s essentially the modality of control.

The Central Command, as it’s now called, which was initiated by Carter as the Rapid Deployment Force, is the major US intervention force, by far, in the world. And it’s an enormous force. It’s based from Guam to the Azores, even with bases in the Indian Ocean, where the junior partner was kind enough to drive out the population of an island so that US bases could be put in there, all aimed at the core area, the Middle East intervention forces.

In 1980, when the Carter administration was explaining this to Congress, they pointed out that the problem wasn’t the Russians. In fact, this was after the invasion of Afghanistan, but they realized that’s not the problem. The problem is regional unrest. That is, the virus of radical nationalism. Well, that’s essential, and that remains the case. So, as for the Russians, we don’t have to argue about it anymore. After the fall of Berlin Wall, the Bush administration, in a very important and therefore unreported declaration to Congress, explained that everything has to remain exactly the same — same military budget, you know, everything, including the intervention forces, aimed at the Middle East, where, as they put it, the threat to our interests “could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door.” I mean, “Sorry, guys, we’ve been lying to you for fifty years. But now there’s no Kremlin, so let’s be straight. The threat to our interests is regional unrest, and we got to control it.”

Incidentally, notice the threat to our interests could not be laid at Iraq’s door either. At that point, Saddam Hussein was a great friend and ally. He had — it’s true he had gassed Kurds and tortured dissidents and, you know, massacred people and so on. But he hadn’t yet committed any crimes. The crime was disobedience. That’s a crime. That came a couple of months later. But at that point he was a great friend and ally, and the US continued to support him right through, you know, these things that maybe you and I would call crimes.

It’s kind of a — it’s interesting to hear, just to switch to another period. Like right now, when the US and its attack dog attack — bomb Iraq, the line that you hear from Tony Blair and Madeleine Albright and other distinguished figures is that "We have to do this. How can we let such a creature survive? Even committed the ultimate crime, gassing his own population." Their willingness to say that over and over expresses extraordinary trust in the educated classes in England and the United States, who they trust not to say what everyone knows: that that can’t possibly be the reason, because we supported Saddam right through those atrocities and continued to increase the support after it. But their trust is warranted, as you can tell by looking at the press and commentary.

Going back here, if you look at the structure of the system of control, you can determine very quickly how policy works. Participants have rights, which are commensurate with their role in the system. So, the United States has rights, by definition. The junior partner has rights, as long as it stays loyal. The same with the Arab façade, and the same with the local gendarmes. What about the peasants in Iraq or people in the slums of Cairo? Well, they don’t contribute to the system, so they have no rights. What about the Palestinians? Well, they actually have negative rights. The reason is that they’re a disruptive element. The fact that they were displaced arouses nationalist feelings and causes problems for the façade and the gendarmes and the attack dog, so therefore their rights are negative. Well, you know, from those — these are just kind of elementary principles of statecraft. You master those, you can predict very easily the way policy develops. And it works quite well.

The end of the Cold War changed nothing. And that was well understood. So, one of the leading Israeli strategic analysts, formerly head of military intelligence, Shlomo Gazit, about a year after the end of the Cold War, wrote that Israel’s main task has not changed at all, and it remains of central importance. Israel remains of central importance as “the devoted guardian of stability in the region.” Its role is “to protect the existing regimes,” namely the façade, and to prevent "radicalization." That’s accurate. You have to do a little translation. So, “stability” means US control. And Israel is the devoted guardian of the control of the master, and it’s amply paid for its service. “Radicalism” means misunderstanding of who the first beneficiaries of a country’s resources are. And “fundamentalist religious zealotry” does not — you know, [inaudible] — does not entail that we have to, say, bomb Saudi Arabia or bomb Jerusalem or bomb most of the United States, which is the most extreme radical, fundamentalist religious state in the world, I suppose. Rather, what it means is — this is a code word which means the particular forms of radicalization — that is, failure to understand who the first beneficiaries are — the particular forms of radicalization that happen to take a religious cast when secular nationalism is destroyed. That’s a pretty common pattern. But if you make the translations, what Gazit was saying was certainly accurate.

Well, US-Israeli relations developed in that context. So, in 1948, the US military was quite impressed by Israel’s military actions. They were described a couple of days ago in Israel’s leading paper Ha’aretz by a good reporter as being “Kosovo without TV cameras” — approximately accurate. In 1949, the US Army planners concluded — I’m quoting — that “Israel had demonstrated by the force of arms its right to be considered the military power next to Turkey in the Near and the Middle East.” In 1958, the US intelligence concluded that it’s a logical corollary of opposition to radical Arab nationalism to support Israel as the only reliable US ally in the region.

Actually, 1958 was a very important year in modern history. The US was facing three major crises at that time. They were described in declassified — now-declassified records by Eisenhower and Dulles at the National Security Council. They said the US was facing three major crises: Indonesia, North Africa and the Middle East. They also — Eisenhower and Dulles — both explained vociferously, according to the notes, that there was no Russian involvement in any of them. Well, these are all, of course, Islamic countries, maybe like an early illustration of the clash of civilizations. But that was irrelevant. I mean, they could have come from Mars. The crucial thing about those three regions is they were all oil producers. And the planning — the concern over them was interrelated, having to do with a threat to US domination of oil production in the Middle East and maybe use of Indonesia as a temporary substitute.

And there were very significant actions that took place, among them the destruction of Indonesian democracy. The US carried out a huge clandestine operation to try to break up Indonesia, to separate off the outlying islands, the ones that are the oil producers. That had all kinds of consequences. In the Middle East, the US landed troops in Lebanon, armed, apparently, with authorization to use nuclear weapons, according to high US officials. It was a serious matter.

The concern at that point was Iraq. Iraq had broken the Anglo-American condominium over oil. And remember, it’s the second-largest producer. A military coup, which the US regarded as Nasserite in inspiration, had sort of pulled the country out of the system, and that caused real hysteria. I won’t have time to go into it now; I’ll talk about it if you like. But there were — the British foreign secretary flew to the United States immediately, and they laid plans, which are extremely revealing. They explain just about everything that was going on in 1990 and ’91, almost verbatim. Anyhow, it was taken pretty seriously. That’s 1958. In the early 1960s, there was a proxy war going on between Nasser and — Nasser was considered the heart of the rot, you know, the source of radical nationalism. And there was kind of a proxy war going on between Nasser and Saudi Arabia, the main oil producer, which was very threatening. In 1967, Israel intervened and smashed Nasser, and that was a major contribution. The US-Israeli alliance was solidified. After the Israeli military victory, Israel also became the darling of American intellectuals.

AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, well-known scholar and activist on foreign policy, particularly US foreign policy around the Middle East. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Professor Chomsky’s speech in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We continue with the speech of Noam Chomsky given in the spring of 1999 at Columbia University, talking about Middle East history and politics. Noam Chomsky.

NOAM CHOMSKY: After the Israeli military victory, Israel also became the darling of American intellectuals, from — going from far right to left liberal, which is an interesting phenomenon about the United States. But its consequences show up mostly in the coverage of these events and discussion about them.

In 1970, Israel again served — proved that it’s a devoted guardian. The US needed it to intervene to prevent possible Syrian involvement to try to block Jordan, which was then massacring Palestinians. And Israel did intervene and barred that. And that was considered a very welcome contribution. US aid to Israel quadrupled at that point. In 1979, when the Shah fell, Israel’s role simply increased. One of the main guardians was gone. That’s actually the origins of the — what’s falsely described as the "arms for hostage" deal, began at that time. There were no hostages. It’s completely different. But anyhow, it did solidify the alliance further.

Well, going back to '67, that war was dangerous. It came — well, to quote Secretary McNamara, who was then Secretary of Defense, “We damn near had war,” he said, with the Russians. There was an actual confrontation between the Russian and American navies in the eastern Mediterranean, and it was realized that we'd better quiet things down. So there was a diplomatic settlement worked out under the initiative of the United States and its junior partner. That’s the famous UN 242. UN 242, November 1967, basically called for full peace in return for full Israeli withdrawal. Notice that UN 242 was completely rejectionist. That’s very crucial for understanding what’s happening now. It offered nothing to the Palestinians, with agreement among states. So, full peace in return for a full withdrawal. There was a deadlock. The Arab states refused full peace; Israel refused full withdrawal.

That deadlock was broken in February 1971. At that point, President Sadat of Egypt offered full peace to Israel for only partial withdrawal, namely withdrawal from Egyptian territory. Well, the US kind of had an internal problem at that time There was a bureaucratic battle that went on. It was won by Henry Kissinger, who preferred force, what he called “stalemate,” no negotiations. So he refused Sadat’s offer. He took over. A very important date. That terminated US support for UN 242. Since that time, the United States has not supported it, contrary to what you read, because it has reinterpreted it to mean partial withdrawal, as the United States and Israel determine.

Israel, at that point — this was a period of enormous triumphalism, which Kissinger shared. He thought Egypt was kind of a basket case. And his ignorance and stupidity, which are really colossal when you look at the documents, led directly to the 1973 war, which did demonstrate that Egypt wasn’t a basket case. You had to pay some attention to it. That even got through the clouds to Kissinger. He then undertook shuttle diplomacy. And the plans at that point were to try — since you can’t forget about Egypt, let’s eliminate it. It’s the major Arab military force, let’s remove it from the conflict, so that then Israel can proceed, with US support, to integrate the territories and attack Lebanon. That’s policy, which then reached — you know, it was concluded at Camp David. That’s known in the United States as the peace process. And that’s, in fact, exactly what happened: US support for Israel reached 50 percent of total aid at that point.

Well, meanwhile, there was a shift in the international consensus going on. It was shifting away from pure rejectionism towards recognition of Palestinian rights. That became a crisis on another crucial date, namely January 1976, when the Security Council debated a resolution, calling — which included UN 242, all of its wording, but also called for a Palestinian state in the territories that Israel was to leave, you know, under 242. Well, that was supported by the whole world, virtually — the Arab states, the PLO, the Russians, Europe, Latin America, everybody — except the one state that counts, which vetoed it. So the US vetoed that resolution, and it’s also vetoed from history. You might try to search for it. But it was a very crucial date. At that point, the US became doubly rejectionist in a strong sense — no 242 and no Palestinian rights — alone in the world, virtually, except for Israel.

Well, then matters continued. Things shifted over to the General Assembly. There were almost annual votes of a similar nature, usually like 150 to two or something like that. There were initiatives from Europe, from the Arab states, from the PLO, all rejected by the United States. The leading journals, like, say, the New York Times, refused even to publish most of them, even letters referring to them. All of this is what’s called the peace process again. That continued until 1990. The last General Assembly vote was December 1990, 144 to two. Then came the Gulf War. The Gulf War established — as George Bush put it, the Gulf War established that “what we say goes,” and you’d better understand it. It was understood.

So, what we say goes. The US returned to its support for its old friend Saddam, while he murdered Shiites and Kurds, since then has been turning to a rather rational policy of destroying Iraqi society. That’s highly rational, especially for an oil-producing state. If you destroy the society and the population, there’s much less concern that the first beneficiaries might be the people of the region, because they’re not going to be able to ask for anything. So, the policy that’s going on now, of basically mass murder, is a very reasonable policy, particularly for an oil producer.

With regard to the Israel-Arab problem, the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the US immediately moved on to Madrid. Fall of 1991, the Madrid Conference met all US conditions. First, it was unilateral — no interference from Europeans or anyone else. Secondly, it was totally rejectionist, so the US could ram through its rejectionist program. That was the official program, actually has yet to be reported in the United States, as far as I’m aware — in the mainstream, that is. But it was the Baker Plan, the Baker Plan which simply endorsed the Shamir-Peres plan, which stated that there cannot be an "additional" Palestinian state — “additional” because there already is one, namely Jordan. So there can be no "additional" Palestinian state, and the fate of the territories has to be settled according to the guidelines of the state of Israel. That was the official US program endorsing the Shamir-Peres consensus, which was instituted at Madrid.

We then move on to Oslo. September 1993, the Declaration of Principles was signed, and it was an enormous victory for the United States. I don’t know if you’ve look at it, but you should look at what it said. It didn’t say much, but it said something. It described the permanent settlement that is the long-term end goal which must be achieved. And that must be strictly UN 242, not the other UN resolutions which called for Palestinian rights alongside of Israel. And, of course, UN 242 means the US interpretation of it, which rejects UN 242. So the permanent settlement is doubly rejectionist: no Palestinian rights, no UN 242. Israeli withdrawal just as the US and Israel decide.

The US and Israel had decided. They were pursuing a program that was called the Allon Plan, that the Israeli labor government instituted in 1968, which essentially — it’s varied a little bit over the years, but the basic idea is that Israel keeps roughly 40 percent of the Occupied Territories; the resources, primarily water; the usable land; the nice suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which are mostly in the West Bank; and the part of Gaza Strip they want, and so on. And the rest sort of, you know, you can leave to the "recalcitrant Arabs,” the "uncivilized tribesmen.” That’s changed a little bit over the years. Right now, it’s a little different. Netanyahu calls for what he calls “Allon Plus," so the Allon Plan plus a little bit more. His opponent, of the Labor Party, Barak, he calls for the expanded Allon Plan. Those are two political groupings in Israel, either Allon Plus or an expanded Allon Plan. One political commentator, in Ha’aretz again, says that “One listens to the ideas of Barak and hears the voice of Netanyahu” — kind of paraphrasing a Biblical passage. And the US supports it, of course.

After Oslo, Rabin and Peres immediately moved to expand settlement and development, took over about 30 percent of the Gaza Strip, most of its meager resources. In the West Bank, the most crucial part of development is the area which is called Greater Jerusalem. Greater Jerusalem is — you know, it’s a huge area. It extends from Ramallah to Bethlehem and as far east as Jericho. And since Israel is keeping the Jordan Valley, it effectively breaks up the West Bank into two cantons. There are other developments which break it into further ones.

The Oslo II, September 1995, spells all this out further. There’s a Palestinian Authority, which can sort of run affairs in downtown Nablus. And then there’s roughly a hundred — actually, more than a hundred scattered Palestinian settlements, separated from one another and crucially isolated from the economic, cultural, even medical center in Jerusalem — centers of Palestinian life. There are — the Jewish areas are connected by super highways. You can drive through them and not even know there are any Palestinians. Then there are things which are officially called “Palestinian roads.” Actually I drove one not long ago, from Bethlehem to Ramallah. I mean, if you make it alive, you’re lucky. If it’s raining, very lucky. Those are the Palestinian roads, which interconnect the Palestinian settlements.

Well, somebody has got to manage the Palestinian population. OK, that’s where Yasser Arafat and the PLO come in. They’re — that’s a a gangster regime, based on robbery and brutality. The managers of it are to enrich themselves and to suppress the locals. The more brutally they do it, the more they’re applauded by Al Gore and Bill Clinton. That’s the central content of the Wye Accords. The CIA is now there to supervise and make sure it works right. This should not surprise anyone. This is an absolutely typical colonial pattern. That’s the way the British ran the Raj. That’s the way the US runs Central America. It’s just standard. Now it’s being carried over to this case.

Well, the goals have been perfectly obvious for years to anybody with eyes open. It takes real dedication to miss them. And remember that these are the plans of the Labor doves, even if the voice is Netanyahu’s. I was in Israel not too long ago giving talks about this, and I started by just reading a paragraph from a standard history of South Africa in the early 1960s, at the time when they were setting up the first homelands, Transkei. It’s a kind of late, so I’ll skip the paragraph, unless you want me to read it. But the point is that I didn’t have to comment. You know, you read the paragraph about the establishment of Transkei, and everybody could recognize what’s happening right outside their door. Yeah, that’s exactly it. That’s the position of the doves.

Now, there are differences between Rabin, Peres, two heroes, and Netanyahu, the villain — a number of differences, contrary to the comment in the Israeli press. Rabin and Peres were adamantly opposed to allowing the Palestinians to call, whatever they got a state. On the other hand, Netanyahu has been more ambiguous. So his minister of division — of communications and policy planning — director so communications and policy planning, David Bar-Illan, recently said that, well, you know, "If the Palestinians want to call these scattered areas a state, we won’t mind; in fact, if they want, they can call it fried chicken," he said, elegantly. That’s — you know, there’s a little different between the two.

There’s also a difference of style. And the style is important. And the style reflects their constituencies. Labor is the party of the rich, and it’s the party of the professionals, the Westernized, secular elements. Likud, the other party, grouping, is the party of the poor, you know, working people, Oriental Jews, religious and so on. And those divisions do reflect themselves in the style by which they behave. So, Labor is much more attuned to the norms of Western hypocrisy, and they do know things in the way they know the West is going to like. So they have spokesmen like, say, Abba Eban, who knows how to put in nice phrases things like beating people up and smashing them, and so on and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Noam Chomsky teaches linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a well-known political analyst and critic, is the author of numerous books, particularly on the Middle East.

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