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Norman Finkelstein Responds to Clinton, Netanyahu AIPAC Comments

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told attendees at the AIPAC conference on Monday that the US commitment to Israel is “rock-solid,” but Clinton did criticize Israel for continuing to build settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. In a defiant speech hours after Clinton’s address, Netanyahu rejected US criticism and vowed to continue building settlements. We speak with Norman Finkelstein, author of the new book, This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion. [includes rush transcript]

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

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Healthcare is not the only issue on President Obama’s agenda today. He’s also scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.

Last night Netanyahu delivered a defiant speech before an AIPAC conference. That’s the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Netanyahu vowed to continue expanding settlements in occupied East Jerusalem despite criticism from the Obama White House.

    PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Ladies and gentlemen, the connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel cannot be denied. The connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem cannot be denied. The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It’s our capital.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Hours before Netanyahu spoke at the AIPAC conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told AIPAC attendees that the US commitment to Israel’s security and Israel’s future is rock-solid. But Clinton did criticize Israel for continuing to build settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.

    HILLARY CLINTON: New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines that mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides say they want and need. And it exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit. It undermines America’s unique ability to play a role, an essential role, in the peace process. Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they’re courageous and when we don’t agree to say so and say so unequivocally.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now here in studio by scholar and writer Norman Finkelstein. He’s author of a number of books on the Israel-Palestine conflict. His latest is being released this week. It’s called This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion. Norman Finkelstein is also the subject of a new documentary called American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein.

Norman, welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: First, respond to what, well, both Secretary of State Clinton and the Israeli Prime Minister said, Secretary of State Clinton actually criticizing Israel. Did that surprise you?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: It didn’t really surprise me. I think one has to look at the framework of the criticism. There is an international law ruling or opinion on the question of East Jerusalem. In July 2004, the highest judicial body in the world, the International Court of Justice, it rendered what it called its advisory opinion, and it stated unequivocally that East Jerusalem is — and I’m using its words — “occupied Palestinian territory.” It’s not a question here of conflicting claims to Jerusalem, let alone an Israeli exclusive right to the East Jerusalem. The law is clear: it’s occupied Palestinian territory, because it was acquired in the course of a war, in the course of the June 1967 war. And under international law, it’s inadmissible to acquire territory by war.

I would want to add that’s the position of all human rights organizations, and it was the position of the Goldstone report. The Goldstone report repeatedly refers to East Jerusalem as occupied Palestinian territory. And Mr. Goldstone, by his own reckoning, is a Zionist, a lover of Israel. But he also respects the law, and the law is clear.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, let’s talk about the Goldstone report. You write about this extensively in the epilogue of your book. Israel and the US have both rejected that the war crimes allegations in the report. Talk about what the report is, who put together, Judge Goldstone, and what the reaction from the US and Israel has been.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: The Goldstone report was mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Richard Goldstone, the distinguished international jurist, led the mission. And he — at the end, they published a quite substantial report that ran to some 500 pages, 550 pages. It covered a lot of ground. And it has to be said, it was quite devastating in its indictment of Israel. It concluded that Israel used a disproportionate force to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.

Well, Israel was outraged by the report, across the spectrum, not just the right wing, but people like Shimon Peres, who’s said to be a dove. He called Richard Goldstone a “small man” who knows nothing about international law. Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, said the Goldstone report is worse than the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and worse than Ahmadinejad. And the reaction was quite similar in the United States.

And Goldstein replied after the criticism in the US. He said, “OK, you say the report is deeply flawed. Show me where.” And to this day — and I’ve read all the critiques. There have been three major ones, one by this Israeli and American professor Moshe Halbertal, there was one by Professor Dershowitz of Harvard, and the Israelis put out just last week a 500-page rebuttal. And I tried honestly to look at it objectively, but they were very insubstantial responses. I was quite impressed by how well Goldstone has held up to the criticism. It was a very careful, cautious and judicious report.

AMY GOODMAN: And its conclusion?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Its conclusion was that both Israel and Hamas were guilty of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, that Israel has now an obligation to investigate, in an independent investigation of what happened, and if they don’t conduct an independent investigation, they have to go before the International Criminal Court.

AMY GOODMAN: And Obama’s response to this?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: The Obama administration has called the report deeply flawed, but not provided any substantive evidence to support that claim.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And this latest flap between the US and Israel about the expanding Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, it’s been a lot about diplomatic ties, but they have not talked at all about holding any US military aid or economic aid to Israel. Talk about the level of aid to Israel. In fact, Hillary Clinton extolled the fact that it’s increased in 2010 military aid to Israel.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I’m sure all of your listeners and your viewers are familiar with the magnitude of US aid to Israel. I think the important development is what Amnesty International said after the invasion of Gaza. It put out a very substantial report called “Fueling Conflict.” And it said that transferring weapons to a consistent violator of human rights is illegal under international law. Israel is a consistent violator of human rights, and therefore there has to be a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel. And the report went into each country in the world, how it supplies and transfers weapons to Israel. But it has to be said, the focus was on the United States.

And Amnesty International said three main things: number one, that the US is by far the biggest supplier of weapons to Israel; number two, supplying those weapons to Israel is not only illegal under international law, it’s illegal under domestic US law; and number three, it said — and I think it’s important for your viewers to hear it — Amnesty International said what happened in Gaza could — and they describe what happened in Gaza as twenty-two days of death and destruction — what happened in Gaza could not have happened were it not for US taxpayer money. If you’re appalled by what happened in Gaza, you’re appalled by the death, the destruction, the systematic attack on mosques, the systematic attack on ambulances, the systematic attack on hospitals, on schools —-

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And these were detailed in the Goldstone report?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yes. The 6,000 homes which were all either completely or nearly completely destroyed, Amnesty International says all of that was paid for with US taxpayer money.

And now along comes Hillary Clinton, and she’s extolling US military aid to Israel. The part that she left out is, number one, it’s all illegal under international and domestic US law, and number two, it was that US aid that made possible -— you have to bear in mind — I know your program chronicled the use of the white phosphorus — every white phosphorus shell they found — you can see it in the Human Rights Watch report on the white phosphorus — every one was made in the United States. We are responsible for that war. It’s not just a cliché. It’s a factual matter. We made that massacre happen.

AMY GOODMAN: This Time We Went Too Far is the name of your new book out this week.



NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, the quote comes from the Israeli columnist Gideon Levy, and I think it captured the essence of the book, namely that Israel crossed a threshold with what it did in Gaza, because it was actually — in the past, you can say Israeli conflicts with its neighbors had both a military component and a component that targeted civilians. Usually the target — the component that targeted civilians was on par or even larger than the component of military engagement. But Gaza was not about a — it’s not a war, because there was no military engagement. As one of Israel’s strategic analysts said, there was no war in Gaza. There were no battles in Gaza. And Israel conducted or executed a massacre against a defenseless civilian population, and it became indefensible.

And that’s why, to this day — quite a lot of time has already elapsed, and you would think people had forgotten about the Gaza massacre. It’s already a year and a half. People’s memories are short. But they can’t — Israel has been unable to escape the shadow, the ghost of Gaza, in part because they went too far and in part because of the Goldstone report, because typically Israel uses the slurs of anti-Semite, Holocaust denier, self-hating Jew, in order to discredit the critics of its policies. But with Richard Goldstone, given his background — a Zionist, a lover of Israel, sits on the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, his mother was an activist in the Zionist movement, his daughter did Aliyah to Israel — those slurs just didn’t —-

AMY GOODMAN: Moved to Israel.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah -— those slurs just didn’t stick with Goldstone. And actually, Netanyahu, in one of his speeches, he said one of our three biggest challenges — he listed first the threat posed by Iran, and the second biggest challenge that he listed was the Goldstone report.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Norman, speaking of criticism of people who criticize Israeli foreign policy, there’s a new documentary about you called American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein. I want to turn to a clip of it. This bit talks about how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict first piqued your interest.

    NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: My first involvement publicly and politically with the Israel-Palestine conflict was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. The estimates are, you know, somewhere around 20,000 Palestinian Lebanese, overwhelmingly civilians, were killed. Immediately as the war began, I started to demonstrate outside the Israeli consulate right off 42nd Street. I was out there every day, every night, and I had a big poster which read, “This son of survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz and Majdanek will not be silent. Israeli Nazis, stop the Holocaust in Lebanon.” I did manage to get all of that on one poster. And so, I started to read voraciously on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s an excerpt of the new documentary American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein. Norman, your thoughts about this movie? And also, talk about your own family’s history. It’s very interesting. It goes through, talks about your parents, both Holocaust survivors. And also, if you can talk about Benjamin Netanyahu referencing the Holocaust yesterday in his speech to AIPAC?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I’ve not actually seen the movie, but those who are close friends of mine and did see it — most of them, not all, but most of them — thought it was an accurate depiction of me, for better or for worse. It’s like the Chinese proverb: now you live in interesting times. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not, but they say it’s accurate.

My parents obviously had a huge impact on me, especially morally. My mother was very smart, but she did not like to discuss war in intellectual terms, because she felt to intellectualize it was somehow to not capture the horror of what war was. So during, let’s say, the Vietnam War, when we used to watch Firing Line and there would be debates between William Buckley and John Kenneth Galbraith or William Buckley and — well, the fellow’s name just slips my mind, but — and then they would, at the end of the debate, they would get up and shake hands and pat each other on the back, and it was like — for my mother, it was so appalling. You’re debating life and death and dropping napalm on kids, and then at the end you just get up and shake hands like it’s not serious.

So, at that point in my life, I found it very hard to talk rationally about war. And I felt it was a betrayal of my parents to have intellectual debates about it. And I think until I started to read Professor Chomsky’s writings and I found that you can have a reasoned — you can make a reasoned argument and still preserve the moral force behind your feelings, until I read him, I was not very articulate in talking about it. Now I feel pretty able to.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman, we just have, oh, less than a minute to go. You end This Time We Went Too Far by mentioning Gandhi.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I spent the last year reading through about 25,000 pages of Gandhi, which is about half his collected works. I found him a deeply inspiring figure, both personally and politically. And I think his approach can work in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It would take me some time to go through it, because Gandhi is not nearly as obvious as people think. They just think Gandhi, nonviolence. No, there was a quite subtle, nuanced theory there. But I think what he has to say is relevant to the Israel-Palestine conflict. And I think the strategy that’s now being used by Palestinians around the wall and in East Jerusalem, the kinds of tactics that Gandhi pioneered, I think those have the best chances for success.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Finkelstein, his book out this week, This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion. The film is also out; it’s called American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein.

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