A one- or two-state solution?
There aren't many intellectuals who can trigger a debate or a media echo with their comments on the Middle East conflict. Noam Chomsky, a godfather of linguistics and one of the best known contemporary political minds, is certainly not one of them. Nor is Ilan Pappe, called "Israel's most courageous and incorruptible historian" by the British newspaper "The Independent". After the last Gaza War, in which more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, the two academics decided to continue their first printed dialogue, "Gaza in Crisis" (published 2010).
In their recently released book, "On Palestine", both Chomsky and Pappe make it clear on which points they share the same views on politics and activism, and where their opinions differ.
No ideal solution to the conflict
Although Chomsky and Pappe agree on many issues, the central question of the number of states required for a solution is not one of them. Like many others, Chomsky appeals for the classic two-state solution, citing the fact that there is international consensus on the issue as his reason.
Pappe, on the other hand, is in favour of a strict one-state solution, in which the rights of all citizens must be guaranteed, be they Jews, Christians, Muslims, Israelis or Palestinians. The historian takes his argument a step further, comparing the Israeli state in its present condition to the former apartheid system in South Africa, arguing that it is a state dominated by structural anti-Palestinian racism that has now become part of everyday life.
Pappe feels that this system, which he regards as a pillar of "Zionist ideology", would remain in place in the event of a two-state solution. What's more, he points out that such a solution would completely ignore the Palestinians' right to return, which was resolved by the UN General Assembly as long ago as 1948.
Chomsky only agrees in part, emphasising that it might be possible to solve the dilemma step by step, but not all at once. After all, he points out, neither in the European Union nor in the USA are there currently any powerful voices willing to support a single-state model. Nor does he consider the South Africa comparison appropriate, as the white South African minority was dependent on the black majority and its manpower, whereas forces in Israel appear to want to simply get rid of the Palestinians by permanently confiscating their land or locking them away (e.g. in the Gaza Strip).
Nevertheless, both Pappe and Chomsky come to the conclusion that Israel originated as a colonial settlers' project. This, according to both authors, is also the reason why above all the USA, Canada and New Zealand – all states founded on colonisation and the expulsion of the indigenous population – are among Israel's strongest supporters and feel a connection with the state.
The boycott question
Another important point on which the authors' opinions clearly diverge is the question of boycotting Israel. Their focus in this context is on the BDS campaign, which has meet with approval from many around the world in recent years and is supported by numerous politicians, academics and activists of diverse origins.
BDS stands for "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions". Activists, including Ilan Pappe, believe that such strict sanctions are the only way to put effective pressure on the Israeli government to end its constantly repeated violations of international law. Here again, the "South African model" serves as an orientation, the old regime having been brought to its knees using similar methods. Chomsky, however, counters that Israel will maintain the status quo for as long as it has the USA's support – a key factor in the case of apartheid South Africa.
Instead, Chomsky hopes for a radical change in public opinion resulting from alternative media and social networks. This alteration of perceptions could also help reach the point where the USA no longer provides unconditional support to Israel. One problem with this, however, is the fact that both political players, in other words Israelis and Palestinians, are portrayed in the mainstream media as being equally strong and equally responsible.
According to Chomsky, constantly repeated phrases such as "Israel is only defending itself" or "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East" partly result in a role reversal between victims and perpetrators, giving certain players – like Hamas – the sole blame for the conflict's escalation and entirely ignoring factors such as the ongoing deprivation of rights for Palestinians living in Israel.
In this context, Pappe emphasises that even terms such as "Israeli–Palestinian conflict" are misplaced, as the imbalance between the two states with regard to the real balance of power could not be more obvious. The alleged complexity of the subject, Pappe argues, is cited only by those who want to continue justifying the Israeli government's violations.
Only Pappe favours a complete boycott – including on the academic level. Chomsky, for his part, criticises that the BDS campaign has not defined its goals clearly. He says that among other things, the main problem is the fact that the campaign is only aimed against Israel, whereas no pressure is placed on the US government at all. Furthermore, he writes, there is a risk that many people in Europe or the USA, who are scarcely aware of the political realities on the ground, might associate the BDS movement with a kind of "boycott of Jews". This false perception, he writes, could then also harm the oppressed Palestinians' case.
Chomsky considers a boycott limited to the occupied territories to be a far more effective and useful tool. As most people are now familiar with Israel's programme of building illegal settlements, he thinks that many more people would understand such an appeal rather than a complete boycott.
Lack of Palestinian perspective
This point reveals what is missing in the dialogue: a Palestinian voice. Chomsky, an American of Jewish origins, and Pappe, born and bred in Israel, are certainly aware of the realities in the Middle East and possess outstanding intellectual expertise. Nevertheless, there is no Palestinian perspective in the dialogue, although numerous contributors would be available.
A Palestinian who has lost his or her homeland, been dispossessed of property, whose relatives are possibly harassed on a daily basis in the West Bank or East Jerusalem or have to persevere in the Gaza Strip, could certainly have made this emotional standpoint much clearer.
It is this perspective too that would make it clear that campaigns such as BDS by no means constitute a "boycott of Jews", but merely point to the roots of the conflict. Ilan Pappe does emphasise this throughout the dialogue, pointing out that Israel did not come about out of thin air, but through the expulsion and ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians through the "Nakba".
However, a third voice illustrating this fact more clearly would have done the dialogue good. That is certainly not to say that "On Palestine" is not worth reading. Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe show that the status quo in the Middle East is no longer tenable and that activism has now become a duty – at international level.
At this point in time in particular, when one of Israel's most extreme right-wing governments ever has just been elected and the two-state solution has been more or less declared dead in the water, such appeals are more important than ever.
© Qantara.de 2015
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe: "On Palestine", Haymarket Books, March 2015, ISBN: 9781608464708