- Phyllis Bennisfellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., specializing in Middle East and United Nations issues. Her books include Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power and Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.
On the diplomatic front, the Security Council is meeting again today to discuss the crisis, after Sunday’s emergency session did not produce a ceasefire resolution. On Saturday, the United States blocked a UN Security Council statement calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Egypt, meanwhile, is hosting meetings for a European-backed ceasefire today. [includes rush transcript]
We stay in Washington now with Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis Bennis is with the Institute for Policy Studies, a fellow there, specializing in Middle East and United Nations issues. Her books include Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power and also Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.
Phyllis, can you talk about what happened at the United Nations this weekend?
Well, as we’ve seen so many times before, Amy, we have an instance of the United States preventing the Security Council from taking any action in the crisis in Gaza, whether it would be an actual move to impose a ceasefire, but they even went further than that to prevent even a statement from being issued, the sort of the lowest level of response from the Security Council. The UN diplomats essentially said exactly what Condoleezza Rice said two years ago at the time of the Israeli attack on Lebanon, when she went before the council and said, “We don’t want a ceasefire yet,” essentially telling the world, “There is not enough dead people yet. We want more dead people before we will call for a ceasefire.” And that has been the consistent position of the Bush administration, including President Bush himself on his weekly radio address, and it was the same position taken this weekend.
This was now the second time that the council has discussed the issue. Unfortunately, despite some discussion among non-aligned countries on the council and off the council about the importance of forcing the debate to be public, demanding a public meeting, having the resolution as a proposal on the table and force the US to publicly use its veto, that — there wasn’t enough courage in the council to even make that happen. So, all of this happened behind closed doors in what are known as informal consultations, meaning the council members just talk among themselves, they come out, and one or another or several spokespeople say, “Sorry, we couldn’t reach agreement.” And then they put their own different national spin on it.
This is the moment when I think we’re going to see a much more likely response from the General Assembly, which is, of course, a much more representative part of the UN, much more democratic. There is no veto. And the president of the General Assembly, Father Miguel d’Escoto, the former foreign minister of Nicaragua, has been very strong in his statements that the failure of the Security Council is a systemic problem at the United Nations and that in the face of that failure, with a crisis like what’s going on in Gaza, there is an absolute need for the General Assembly to act. And I expect in the next several days we will see action from the General Assembly. The Security Council is scheduled to meet again today. I don’t anticipate that the result will be any different than what we saw over the weekend.
The UN General Assembly president, Father Miguel d’Escoto of Nicaragua, did something unusual: he went to the microphone of the UN Security Council. Can you talk about the significance of this?
This was a very interesting move, because traditionally — it’s not a rule, but by tradition — the General Assembly president does not participate in the discussions of the Security Council. In general, I must say that the past presidents of the General Assembly, who are appointed as individuals — they’re not there to represent their country, they’re there as an international diplomat — they have taken very soft positions. They’ve not really functioned as political actors in the UN context. The experience that we’ve had just in the last couple of months that Father Miguel has been the president, he has taken a much more assertive position, has taken much more responsibility as the president of the General Assembly, the most important part of the United Nations, in fact, because it represents every member state.
So his going to the council, walking into the room, coming out and talking to the press, was quite unprecedented and very important, as was his statement where he identified the failure of the council as a systemic problem of the United Nations and talked about the international law violations that are part of the Israeli invasion — certainly, this was before the ground invasion, but even with the air attacks — the obligations of an occupying power that are being directly violated by these military assaults. And for the president of the General Assembly, arguably the highest ranking official of the United Nations, to say that was very important, and it really exposed the failure of the Security Council and the impact of the United Nations being so controlled in this situation by the United States.
That’s something that I think many at the UN and many around the world are looking to for major change with Barack Obama’s presidency, who has claimed that he has a far greater commitment to internationalism and to the rule of law and to the United Nations, making again the UN ambassador to the US a cabinet-level position. These are all symbols that, perhaps, we will see some change in the US posture towards the UN.
There have been massive protests all over the world. Thousands of people marched in New York, among many other cities, this weekend against the Israeli attack on Gaza, holding up signs around the issue of divestment from Israel. Can you talk, Phyllis, about the significance of this movement?
Well, you know, this has been an extraordinary movement, because we’ve seen both the rise of an existing movement, which globally has been calling for some years now for a policy known as BDS — boycott, divestment and sanctions — as a way of bringing nonviolent economic pressure on Israel to enforce international law. That’s now been joined by a huge number of people who had not been engaged in this issue before but were so outraged by what they saw on television of the civilian consequences of this horrific Israeli attack. And we’re now seeing that being talked about in the same way by some at the United Nations.
It raises the possibility that what we might see is a parallel to the movement that grew in the months and the year or so in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, where you had the United Nations on the same side as this global civil society movement. And I think that there is some great hope among civil society activists, those who are — such as the activists inside Israel who sat in on the tarmac of the military airfield to try and prevent the planes, the bombers — made, of course, in the United States — the work here in the US of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, focusing on the US military aid. All of that is now being joined by statements coming from various parts of the United Nations, from the special rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Territories, Professor Richard Falk, who of course has been on Democracy Now!; Father Miguel d’Escoto, the current president of the General Assembly — have referred to the role of civil society, and, in fact, Father Miguel has referred to the importance of the UN following the example of civil society in considering these kinds of sanctions, perhaps military sanctions, against Israeli violations. So it’s a very important collaboration that we’re now seeing on the rise again between civil society and social movements and the United Nations.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Beersheba right now in Israel to Neve Gordon, chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. He’s author of the book Israel’s Occupation.
We just heard a description of the rockets going as far as the Negev. Can you talk about the effects of what is happening right now in Israel proper and what your thoughts are on this movement that Phyllis Bennis is describing around boycott, around divestment?
Well, we just had a rocket about an hour ago not far from our house. My two children have been sleeping in a bomb shelter for the past week. And yet, I think what Israel is doing is outrageous, as opposed to what Meagan said before. We have here a situation where actually Israel did leave the Gaza Strip three years ago, but it maintains sovereignty in any political science sense of the term. We’ve controlled all the borders. We’ve basically had an economic boycott on the Gaza Strip. And the people there have been living in what one should probably call as a prison. And they’ve been reacting with rockets, because probably that’s the only way that they can react.
And I think what Israel has been doing now has little to do with stopping the rockets, but actually it’s an election move inside Israel. It’s a move to build the reputation of the Israeli military after its humiliation in 2006. And what they’re actually doing is bombing from the air and massacring people, and we have to say no to this from here.
I’m not sure an international boycott on Israel is currently the way to go, because I think what we need is pressure from below, pressure from within Israel. As an Israeli citizen, I still believe in the importance of democracy and in the importance of the Israeli people also making a decision. This should be done through pressure. I agree with Phyllis on that. I think international pressure has to come. I think a divestment of the Occupied Territories and everything made in the Occupied Territories should be the first stage.
I think that Obama has a major role to play. He has been silent. And I think he can pressure the Israeli government into reaching agreement with the Palestinian people. I think today and for the past years, Israel has been the obstacle to peace in the Middle East, because it’s not willing to compromise on the three major issues, which is a return to the 1967 borders, it’s the division of Jerusalem, and it’s a recognition of the right of return of the Palestinians with a stipulation that only a small amount can return back to Israel.
And do you see the Obama administration, as he’s now constituted it, going in this direction? Do you see any signs of this, Professor Gordon?
I see — I hear silence. Now, I think I’ve written that Obama has an opportunity, because what it needs to bring peace in the Middle East is — or between Israel and the Palestinians is now known. We’ve had the Geneva Accords. We’ve had the Sari Nuseibeh and Ayalon. We’ve had the Arab Initiative. What needs to be done is clear. What is also clear is that regardless of the elections in Israel, the government that will be chosen will not go in the direction of peace.
Now, the third facet is that a majority of Israelis will probably vote for a two-state solution. My suggestion to Obama is to take — to write up an Obama plan, which I say I think is clear what needs to be done, and to go over the Israeli government and to bring it to a referendum to the Israeli people, and ask them, “Do you want a two-state solution?” We have a constellation, a configuration in the Israeli government, that a large minority will control any government and not allow it to make peace, regardless of what happens in the elections. And so, what we need is some kind of intervention from outside to go directly to the people. I think the people of Israel, if the American president will come and say, “Listen, you take it, and if not, you’ll be penalized, too. You take the two-state solution, and if not, you’ll be penalized.” And I think that is probably the way to go for Obama. I don’t know whether he’ll do it or not.
Neve Gordon, as you said, your kids are in a bomb shelter now. You’re in the Negev. We have seen many images of the rockets, the effect of the rockets hitting Sderot. But we’ve heard little voice from Israelis like you. And I’m wondering, is that an effect of the US media or the Israeli media? Or are those voices not that loud? In Sderot, for example, there is an alternative group that is called Alternative Voices, who actually, despite the rockets there, are calling for an end to the blockade and are calling for a ceasefire, calling for an end to the attack on Gaza. And this is over 1,800 people of Sderot.
There is an alternative movement. This past Saturday — you mentioned protests around the world — I participated in a protest with my children in Tel Aviv. There were about between 5,000 and 10,000 people, which, proportional to the population, is not a small protest. The vast majority — let us not delude ourselves, because the vast majority of the people in Israel do support. There are plenty of voices against. If you read Ha’aretz, the Israeli newspaper, people like Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, you’ll see that there are voices that are against.
The problem is that most Israelis say what Meagan said before. They say, “Israel left the Gaza Strip three years ago, and Hamas is still shooting rockets at us.” They forget the details. The details is that Israel maintains sovereignty. The details is that the Palestinians live in a cage. The details is that they don’t get basic foodstuff, that they don’t get electricity, that they don’t get water, and so forth. And when you forget those kinds of details, and all you say is, “Here, we left them. Why are they still shooting at us?” and that’s what the media here has been pumping them with, then you think this war is rational. If you look at what’s been going on in the Gaza Strip in the past three years and you see what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians, you would think that the Palestinian resistance is rational. And that’s what’s missing in the mainstream media here. And so, although there are voices of resistance in Israel and although there was a quite big protest on — actually, two big protests on Saturday, one in Sakhnin and one in Tel Aviv, it is still a really small minority.
Neve Gordon, I want to thank you for being with us, chair of the Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, speaking to us from Beersheba. His book is called Israel’s Occupation. Phyllis Bennis, thank you for being with us, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. When we come back, we go back to Gaza.