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Former Amb. Martin Indyk vs. Author Norman Finkelstein: A Debate on Israel’s Assault on Gaza and the US Role in the Conflict

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The Israeli assault on Gaza is entering its thirteenth day. Some 700 Palestinians have been killed, with many thousands more wounded, and a humanitarian crisis is mounting. Ten Israelis have died, four by “friendly fire.” A ceasefire has not been reached, and the offensive continues. We host a debate between Martin Indyk, the former US ambassador to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs during the Clinton administration, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and author of, Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East, and Norman Finkelstein, author of several books, including The Holocaust Industry, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Beyond Chutzpah. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tens of thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes in the southern town of Rafah as Israel intensifies the assault on the Gaza Strip. Palestinians reported Israeli air strikes hit homes, mosques and tunnels in the area. Meanwhile, Agence France-Presse quoted witnesses as saying that dozens of Israeli tanks had entered southern Gaza and were heading towards Rafah. Fierce fighting was also reported between Palestinian fighters and Israeli soldiers around Khan Younis. Earlier today, the UN said Israeli forces fired on one of its relief convoys trying to pick up supplies. Al Jazeera reports at least one Palestinian was killed and two others injured in the attack. Meanwhile, Israel continued its bombardment of Gaza with sixty air strikes overnight. Residents described it as among the heaviest bombardments since the offensive began.

Al Jazeera reports at least 700 Palestinians, including 219 children, have died in Gaza since Israel began its assault on December 27th. More than 3,000 people have been wounded. Ten Israelis have died over the same thirteen-day period, including seven soldiers, four of them by so-called friendly fire.

On the diplomatic front, efforts to secure a truce in Gaza continue, with a senior Israeli official due to travel to Cairo to hear details of a ceasefire plan drawn up by Egypt and France. Israel said on Wednesday it accepted the “principles” of the proposal but wanted to study the plan. A Hamas delegation is expected in Cairo at some stage for parallel talks. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is due to arrive on Friday.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council seems deadlocked over the crisis. Arab countries want the Council to vote on a resolution calling for a ceasefire while Britain, France and the US are pushing for a weaker statement welcoming the Egypt-France proposal.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a discussion on the crisis in Gaza, the US role in the conflict and what the prospects are for the incoming Obama administration.

Martin Indyk is the former US ambassador to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs during the Clinton administration. He’s currently the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He has a new book out; it’s called Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East. He’s an adviser to Hillary Clinton, who was tapped to be Obama’s Secretary of State, and is among those mentioned as a potential special envoy to the Middle East. Martin Indyk joins us from Washington, D.C.

We’re also joined by Norman Finkelstein here in New York, leading critic of Israeli foreign policy, the author of several books, including The Holocaust Industry, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Beyond Chutzpah.

We turn first to Ambassador Indyk. Can you explain why you think Israel began this assault almost two weeks ago now?

MARTIN INDYK: Good morning, Amy. Thanks very much for having me on the show. I feel a little bit sandbagged here. I was not told that I was going to be in some kind of debate with Norman Finkelstein. I’m not interested in doing that. I’m also not here as a spokesman for Israel. But I will try to answer your questions as best I can.

I think that what happened here was that there was a ceasefire, an informal ceasefire, between Hamas and Israel that had lasted for about five months. Hamas decided to break that ceasefire with a prolonged series of rocket attacks on Israeli civilians in southern Israel. And the Israeli government responded with overwhelming force, designed, as they have said, to try to reestablish deterrence, to prevent Hamas from doing that again, and to try to get a ceasefire in place that would prevent Hamas from smuggling in offensive weapons into Gaza, the better to attack Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Finkelstein, your assessment of why Israel attacked now?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, the record is fairly clear. You can find it on the Israeli website, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. Mr. Indyk is correct that Hamas had adhered to the ceasefire from June 17th until November 4th. On November 4th, here Mr. Indyk, I think, goes awry. The record is clear: Israel broke the ceasefire by going into the Gaza and killing six or seven Palestinian militants. At that point — and now I’m quoting the official Israeli website — Hamas retaliated or, in retaliation for the Israeli attack, then launched the missiles.

Now, as to the reason why, the record is fairly clear as well. According to Ha’aretz, Defense Minister Barak began plans for this invasion before the ceasefire even began. In fact, according to yesterday’s Ha’aretz, the plans for the invasion began in March. And the main reasons for the invasion, I think, are twofold. Number one, as Mr. Indyk I think correctly points out, to enhance what Israel calls its deterrence capacity, which in layman’s language basically means Israel’s capacity to terrorize the region into submission. After their defeat in July 2006 in Lebanon, they felt it important to transmit the message that Israel is still a fighting force, still capable of terrorizing those who dare defy its word.

And the second main reason for the attack is because Hamas was signaling that it wanted a diplomatic settlement of the conflict along the June 1967 border. That is to say, Hamas was signaling they had joined the international consensus, they had joined most of the international community, overwhelmingly the international community, in seeking a diplomatic settlement. And at that point, Israel was faced with what Israelis call a Palestinian peace offensive. And in order to defeat the peace offensive, they sought to dismantle Hamas.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to — Ambassador Indyk, this issue of supporters of Israel say repeatedly that Hamas is still committed to the destruction of Israel. Is your sense that over the last year or so there has been some kind of a change in the viewpoints of the Hamas leaders?

MARTIN INDYK: No, I don’t think there’s any evidence of that. Hamas is very clear that it will not make peace with Israel; it will not recognize Israel; its intention is to destroy the Jewish state, that it’s an abomination in the midst of the Arab heartland, Islamic world, and so on. And I don’t see that there’s any change in that whatsoever.

I think the change that’s taken place is a change on the ground. Hamas, having won the PA elections and then — we don’t need to go into the details of that, but essentially what happened was, as a result of a competition between Hamas and Fatah over who would rule, Hamas took control of Gaza by force in what was, in effect, a putsch against the Palestinian Authority. It therefore moved from being a terrorist organization to a terrorist government, responsible for controlling territory in Gaza and responsible for meeting the needs of one-and-a-half million Palestinians in Gaza.

There was a fundamental change in Hamas’s organization. By the way, it was a change which was hotly contested within Hamas. The external leadership of Hamas, which is based in Damascus, led by Khaled Meshal, was at the time deeply opposed to the idea of taking control of Gaza, precisely because he did not want to be responsible for meeting the needs of the Gazans. But the militants of Hamas in Gaza decided to take on Fatah and kick them out.

And as a consequence, Hamas was then placed in a dilemma. It may, over time — as they face the consequences of having to rule in Gaza, it may, over time, moderate their position. Certainly, now they have to consider, in the context of the diplomatic efforts underway that you detailed for a ceasefire, what is more important to them: continuing their ability to attack Israel from Gaza — and in that case, they will not accept the kind of arrangements that Israel is now insisting on that would prevent them smuggling in offensive weapons — or whether they want to focus on meeting the needs of the Palestinian people. For that purpose, they will need the opening of the passages so that goods and people can flow in and out of Gaza. In other words, they’re going to face a choice between whether they want to have the ability to use this ceasefire — eventually, when it will be established — to continue their what they call resistance, what normally we understand as violence and terrorism against civilians, whether they’re going to continue that or whether they’re going to focus on meeting the needs of the people that they’re responsible for in Gaza. And that dilemma, as I say, over time, may lead to a moderation, but I don’t see it yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Finkelstein?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I think the problem of Mr. Indyk’s presentation is he constantly reverses cause and effect. Just as he said a moment ago that it was Hamas which broke the ceasefire, although he well knows it was Israel that broke the ceasefire on November 4th, he now reverses cause and effect as to how the present impasse came about. In January 2006, as he writes in his book, Hamas came to power in a free and fair election. I think those are his words. He then claims on your program and he claims in his book that Hamas committed a “putsch” — his word — in order to eliminate the Palestinian Authority. And as I’m sure Mr. Indyk well knows and as was documented in the April 2008 issue of Vanity Fair by the writer David Rose, basing himself on internal US documents, it was the United States in cahoots with the Palestinian Authority and Israel which were attempting a putsch on Hamas, and Hamas preempted the putsch. That, too, is no longer debatable or no longer a controversial claim.

Now, Mr. Indyk says that Hamas is reluctant or unclear about whether it wants to rule in Gaza. The issue is not whether it wants to rule in Gaza; the issue is can it rule in Gaza if Israel maintains a blockade and prevents economic activity among the Palestinians. The blockade, incidentally, was implemented before Hamas came to power. The blockade doesn’t even have anything to do with Hamas. The blockade came to — there were Americans who were sent over, in particular James Wolfensohn, to try to break the blockade after Israel redeployed its troops in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: The former World Bank president.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Correct. The problem all along has been that Israel doesn’t want Gaza to develop, and Israel doesn’t want to resolve diplomatically the conflict. Mr. Indyk well knows that both the leadership in Damascus and the leadership in the Gaza have repeatedly made statements they’re willing to settle the conflict in the June 1967 border. The record is fairly clear. In fact, it’s unambiguously clear.

Every year, the United Nations General Assembly votes on a resolution entitled “Peaceful Settlement of the Palestine Question.” And every year the vote is the same: it’s the whole world on one side; Israel, the United States and some South Sea atolls and Australia on the other side. The vote this past year was 164-to-7. Every year since 1989 —- in 1989, the vote was 151-to-3, the whole world on one side, the United States, Israel and the island state of Dominica on the other side.

We have the Arab League, all twenty-two members of the Arab League, favoring a two-state settlement on the June 1967 border. We have the Palestinian Authority favoring that two-state settlement on the June 1967 border. We now have Hamas favoring that two-state settlement on the June 1967 border. The one and only obstacle is Israel, backed by the United States. That’s the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ambassador Indyk, why doesn’t Israel accept this ceasefire?

MARTIN INDYK: Look, Amy, I was invited on to talk about my book and the Gaza situation. I was not invited on to debate with Norman Finkelstein, and I’m not prepared to do that. So if you want to talk about the situation, I’m happy to do that, but I’m not here to be the representative of the government of Israel. You can easily invite somebody on to -—

AMY GOODMAN: No, of course not. No, we’re asking your opinion. I don’t see you as the representative of Israel. But let me get your —-

MARTIN INDYK: Well, why don’t we focus on some other issues, like the American role in this or something that -—

AMY GOODMAN: Very good point.

MARTIN INDYK: — can get us out of this ridiculous debate, in which he’s just a propaganda spokesman for Hamas, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me get your response to the current US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, what she said the other day at the UN about reaching a ceasefire agreement. Let me play a clip.

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Hundreds of thousands of Israelis lived under the daily threat of rocket attack, and frankly, no country, none of our countries, would have been willing to tolerate such a circumstance. Moreover, the people of Gaza watched as insecurity and lawlessness increased and as their living conditions grew more dire because of Hamas’s actions, which began with the illegal coup against the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.

    A ceasefire that returns to those circumstances is unacceptable, and it will not last. We need urgently to conclude a ceasefire that can endure and that can bring real security.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Indyk, what is your response to the Secretary of State? You’re the adviser to the incoming Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Do you think the Bush administration should now be — the Obama administration coming in — should be pushing for a ceasefire right now?

MARTIN INDYK: Sorry to make one more correction before I answer: I was an adviser to Hillary Clinton during the campaign, her campaign for the presidency, but I am not advising her at the moment, so nothing I now say should be taken as representing her views.

I think that it is essential to get a ceasefire in place as quickly as possible. I think that there is a serious effort underway, as you have already detailed, to do that. I hope that it can be put in place before President-elect Obama goes into the Oval Office in, what is it, twelve days’ time and Secretary of State-designate Clinton takes up her responsibilities. If that’s not the case, then they’re going to need to work very effectively to put that in place as quickly as possible and — but then they will need to use that as a springboard to undertake an effort, not just to try to move towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but, in my view, it’s important to put that in the context of a new Obama-Clinton-led initiative for a comprehensive peace that would also involve negotiations between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon.

President-elect Obama has said during the campaign that it would be a priority of his from day one, which I think is very important. But that desire of his to pay attention to this problem from day one has now become a necessity because of this crisis in Gaza, a necessity essentially for two reasons. Number one is to end this conflict. Let’s say three reasons. Number one — well, let’s say three reasons. Number one is to end this conflict after so many years and so many dead on both sides. But number two, those in the Arab world who want to resolve the conflict with Israel have necessarily been seriously weakened by this conflict, this crisis in Gaza. There’s a great deal of anger in the Arab street and in the Muslim world. Those who oppose settling this conflict peacefully, starting with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iranian leadership, they, this bloc of rejectionists, have now got the wind at their backs. And it’s very important to show that moderation, compromise, reconciliation and peace can prevail over the view that they are propagating, which is that violence, terrorism and defiance can achieve a better deal for the Palestinians and the Arabs.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for sixty seconds. Then we’re going to come back. We’re talking to Ambassador Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel. He’s currently at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His new book is called Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East. Norman Finkelstein, also with his, his latest piece is called “Foiling Another Palestinian ‘Peace Offensive’: Behind the Latest Bloodbath in Gaza.” This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Ambassador Martin Indyk, his new book, Innocent Abroad — Martin Indyk is currently head of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution — and Norman Finkelstein. Norman Finkelstein is author of several books, including The Holocaust Industry and Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Ambassador Indyk, I’d like to ask you about the timing of this Israeli offensive. Clearly, it’s in the waning days of the Bush administration and before President-elect Obama is inaugurated as president. Your sense of whether the timing had something to do with the reality that the US response, in many ways, would be muted or at least in transition as the administration is in transition?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, I think it’s important to understand that the ceasefire basically had come to an end. It was a six-month ceasefire. And so, I don’t think that the Israelis purposely decided that this was the moment to strike. If Hamas had not launched rockets, I think they would have been perfectly happy to continue with the ceasefire.

But once that rocket barrage came down, I do think that Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defense Minister, who’s really the strategist of this whole operation and is a man who I worked with very closely — when I was ambassador in Israel, he was Israeli prime minister at the time, and we were trying at the end of the Clinton administration to get a full, comprehensive peace in Clinton’s last year and Barak’s first year in office as prime minister. But what I learned in those days of working with him was that he’s a man who looks at operations with the very strict timetable. He actually dismantles clocks for a hobby. In other words, he’s kind of obsessed with timing. And we saw this very clearly — and it’s something I outline in my book — in the way that he tried to conduct the peace operations in the year 2000. And he miscalculated the timing then.

Now, he faces two dates. The first one is the one that you referred to, January 20th, when a new president comes into office here in Washington and a president, George W. Bush, who’s been very supportive of Israel and essentially, for most of the time in office, given Israel a blank check when it comes to dealing with Hamas, which he sees as a terrorist organization, and this is part of the war on terror. So, yes, I think that Barak probably calculated that he needed to get this operation over on Bush’s watch and have it finished before Barack Obama came into office.

There is another date that I think probably was even more important in his own mind, and that is the date of February 10th, in which he, along with Israel’s other politicians, will have to face the Israeli electorate in a general election, unless those elections are postponed, and that doesn’t look likely. And for that reason, as well, he needs the operation over. If, instead, the Israeli army goes in and takes control of Gaza City and Jabalya refugee camp and Rafah City in the south of Gaza, and suddenly, you know, the Israeli electorate on February 10th see that Israel is now back in occupation of Gaza, which they left because they didn’t want to stay in occupation there — they left unilaterally several years ago — and the Israeli soldiers are dying, and the whole world is condemning Israel, and there’s a crisis in US-Israel relations with the new president, they will not reward Ehud Barak at all.

So that’s why I think you see already, today, much greater interest on his part and the part of the government of Israel in working out a ceasefire. I believe that they will try, to the extent that they can do anything about it, to get that in place before Obama comes into office —-

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Finkelstein, let me -—

MARTIN INDYK: — so that he can show an Israeli electorate that this was a successful operation from Israel’s point of view.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Finkelstein, do you agree with Ambassador Indyk that Israel would have continued the ceasefire if Hamas hadn’t started firing rockets into Israel?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, the record shows that Hamas wanted to continue the ceasefire, but only on condition that Israel eases the blockade. As your viewers surely know, long before Hamas began the retaliatory rocket attacks on Israel, Palestinians were facing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza because of the blockade. The former High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, described what was going on in Gaza as a destruction of a civilization. This was during the ceasefire period.

Now, I think it’s important to keep in mind Mr. Indyk wants to talk about the book. Well, I think we should talk about the book. In fact, I stayed up ’til 1:30 a.m. to complete the book, made sure I read up to page 415, read every word of the book. The problem is, with his book, as with his presentation here, is he systematically misrepresents the record of the peace process. He’s lying not only to his readers, but to the American people. He keeps putting the burden of responsibility for the impasse in the peace process on the Palestinians.

A moment ago, he referred to the “rejectionists” who are trying to block a settlement of the conflict. What does the record show? The record shows, I said a moment ago, for the past twenty or more years, the entire international community has sought to settle the conflict in the June 1967 border with a just resolution of the refugee question. Are all 164 nations of the United Nations the rejectionists? And are the only people in favor of peace the United States, Israel, Nauru, Palau, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Australia? Who are the rejectionists? Who’s opposing a peace?

According to Mr. Indyk’s account of the negotiations that culminated in the Camp David and Taba meetings, he says it was the Palestinians that were blocking a settlement. What does the record show? The record shows that in every crucial issue raised at Camp David, then under the Clinton parameters, and then in Taba, at every single point, all the concessions came from the Palestinians. Israel didn’t make any concessions. Every concession came from the Palestinians. The Palestinians have repeatedly expressed a willingness to settle the conflict in accordance with international law.

The law is very clear. July 2004, the highest judicial body in the world, the International Court of Justice, ruled Israel has no title to any of the West Bank and any of Gaza. They have no title to Jerusalem. Arab East Jerusalem, according to the highest judicial body in the world, is occupied Palestinian territory. The International Court of Justice ruled all the settlements, all the settlements in the West Bank, are illegal under international law.

Now, the important point is, on all those questions, the Palestinians were willing to make concessions. They were willing to allow Israel to keep 60 percent of the settlements, 80 percent of the settlers. They were willing to compromise on Jerusalem. They were willing to give up basically on the right of return. They made all the concessions. Israel didn’t make any concessions. How is this rendered in Martin Indyk’s book? It’s rendered as, quote, “Barak’s bold and courageous initiatives for peace” and “Arafat and the PLO rejecting the bold and courageous initiatives of Barak.” Constantly, he turns reality on its head.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Indyk, your response to that?

MARTIN INDYK: I told you, Amy, I’m not here to debate Norman Finkelstein. That was not the ground rules that you set —-

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I’m talking about your book.

MARTIN INDYK: —- that you set for inviting me on this program. And I’m not going to respond to his ad hominem attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: But he’s talking about —-

MARTIN INDYK: No. Let me just say -— let me just say —-

AMY GOODMAN: But we want to give you a chance to represent your own book.

MARTIN INDYK: Look, yeah. You know, that’s what I thought you were doing. Seriously, I hope your viewers and listeners will read the book and make up their own minds. I tried to give an honest accounting. It’s a self-critical book. And it’s a book in which my account of what happened is critical of -— deeply critical of the mistakes that we in the American peace team made. And — but I do think that there is enough blame to go around. The book is also deeply critical of Ehud Barak. And it tries to lay out, in as honest a way as possible, from somebody, yes, who had a catbird seat —- I was involved in all of those negotiations, intimately involved. And I’ve tried to account that -—

AMY GOODMAN: What were those mistakes, Ambassador Indyk?

MARTIN INDYK: I’ve tried to account that honestly. And what Norman Finkelstein has done is simply distort my argument and load it up with his usual paraphernalia of legal resolutions and so on.


MARTIN INDYK: But if people want to understand just how difficult it is to make peace, then I hope that they will read for themselves, rather than accept his propaganda.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask what you think should happen right now. How does Barack Obama not repeat the mistakes of the past, as you outline them in Innocent Abroad?

MARTIN INDYK: Thank you. I think that one fundamental lesson from both the Clinton approach, which was to try to transform the Middle East through peacemaking, and the Bush approach, which was essentially to try to transform the Middle East through war-making, regime change and democracy promotion, is that Barack Obama, while painting a vision of a peaceful and secure and normal region, needs to be very realistic and to level with the American people about what can be achieved.

Both Clinton and Bush, different in so many respects, sought to transform the region, sought to make it over in America’s image. I think Barack Obama needs to have a more humble approach, a less arrogant approach, one that seeks to work with the region’s leaders and peoples to try to help them move towards a more peaceful world. The American role is indispensable. But we need to be wiser. We need to be more flexible. We need to understand that there are huge differences between us and them. And we need to pay a lot more attention to their culture, their values and their politics, rather than assume that they are like us. And I know that’s a very general proposition, but from that can come the getting of wisdom when it comes to the details of peacemaking.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Finkelstein -—

MARTIN INDYK: They cannot achieve peace without us, but our role needs to be much wiser.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to happen right now, Norman Finkelstein?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I think it’s fairly clear what needs to happen. Number one, the United States and Israel have to join the rest of the international community, have to abide by international law. Martin Indyk dismisses it as what he calls a moment ago these legalistic resolutions. I don’t think international law should be trivialized. I think it’s a serious issue. If Israel is in defiance of international law, it should be called into account, just like any other state in the world.

And I agree on one point with Martin Indyk. Mr. Obama has to level with the American people. He has to be honest about what is the main obstacle to resolving the conflict. It’s not Palestinian rejectionism. It’s the refusal of Israel, backed by the United States government, to abide by international law, to abide by the opinion of the international community.

And the main challenge for all of us as Americans is to see through the lies. And regrettably, those lies are again being propagated by Martin Indyk in his book with his pretense that it’s the Palestinians, and not Israel and the United States, which are the main obstacles to peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you both for being with us, Norman Finkelstein, author of a number of books, including Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Beyond Chutzpah and The Holocaust Industry, and Martin Indyk. His new book is just out in this past week. It’s called Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East. Thanks for joining us from Washington, D.C.

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