Noam Chomsky on the Middle East


Eyes have turned toward developments in the Middle East in recent weeks as negotiations between the Palestinian National Authority and the Israeli government hit crisis point. Forty-seven per cent of Israelis polled by the newspaper Yediot Aharonot in January supported the continuation of Israeli settlement construction in the occupied territories. Palestinian confidence in the process is at a new low, with only 38% of those polled in a recent survey believing that the Palestinian Authority should continue negotiations. Green Left Weekly's JENNIFER THOMPSON asked NOAM CHOMSKY, renowned author and long-time critic of United States and Israeli foreign policy, for his views on US policy in the region and the Middle East peace process.

Let's just take the period since 1967. The 1967 war was considered extremely dangerous; it almost led to a conflict between Russia and the US. Without going into details, by around 1970 there was a very sharp split. The US and Israel rejected a diplomatic settlement which everybody else accepted. In 1971, when President Anwar Sadat of Egypt offered a full peace settlement in accord with US official policy, the US backed off from its official policy.

There were several issues, including Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Until 1971, the US with the rest of the world agreed there had to be withdrawal in accordance with various international directives. After 1971, however, the US said no withdrawals. The second question was whether the Palestinians got any rights. Until the mid-'70s the international consensus was that the Palestinians should not get rights. If you look at the basic UN declarations, [for example Resolution] 242, there's nothing in it for the Palestinians.

By the mid-1970s, Security Council resolutions, supported by just about everybody — except the US — said that there should be two states, recognising Palestinian and Israeli rights. The US started vetoing Security Council resolutions, voting against General Assembly resolutions and blocking every form of diplomacy. If you look at the General Assembly resolutions, the votes are like 150 to two — the US and Israel.

The last vote was in December 1990, before the US had carried out a big power play — the Gulf War. The US had nothing against Saddam Hussein; they thought he was a great guy. He was George Bush's favourite friend and trading partner and Robert Dole's and everyone else's until he stepped out of line. As long he was just gassing the Kurds, torturing prisoners and murdering people, they didn't care. But he interfered with Western control of the oil system, and that didn't work. At that point the US decided on a big power play.

Hussein actually offered to withdraw, but they didn't want that; it was considered a nightmare scenario. The US wouldn't have a chance to show what it could do with the use of force against a defenceless Third World country. The US blocked the nightmare scenario of withdrawal and then came the so-called war.

A war is when two sides shoot at each other; it's not a war when one side smashes the other with missiles. Immediately after this slaughter, the US moved right back to supporting Hussein. Within days the popular revolts began and the US didn't want that, so they went back to supporting their old buddy Hussein, and they've been doing it ever since.

That power play had an effect, including teaching Europe to "get your fingers out of our turf". By that time, the Third World was in total disarray, wiped out by the catastrophe of capitalism in the 1980s, and the Arab world was in collapse. The US was able to ram through its rejectionist program. That is why the last vote was in December 1990, before everybody said, "Okay, it's your turf, you can do what you like". At that point the so-called peace process begins.

It's called a peace process in the West if it follows Washington's orders. If Washington's position is to block any diplomacy, that's the peace process; if Washington rams through its own policy, that's the peace process.

The peace process started right after the Gulf War in 1991, when the US could unilaterally impose its position of no Israeli withdrawal except from administering people, Israel to take the resources, no Palestinian self-determination and no international conferences. That continued right up to the Oslo agreement [in September 1993], which simply institutionalised US-Israeli rejectionism.

One side question is why Arafat went along [with it]. The answer is pretty obvious. He was on the verge of being thrown out; there was a lot of internal protest in the territories against the PLO, which was extremely corrupt and oppressive. It's one of the most incompetent Third World liberation movements I've ever seen; it was a bunch of rich guys with too much money. I was in the territories in the middle of the intifada, and the protests were extraordinary.

I think that Arafat has assumed the only way he can retain any authority will be by becoming an Israeli pawn. There's a deal, not with the PLO, but with the clique around Arafat who are going to manage the Palestinians in the standard Third World style.

Third World countries are not run directly by the imperial power, but by the local clients. When the British ran India, about 90% of the soldiers were Indian. The British were always there, in reserve, in case anything went wrong, but the repression was supposed to be carried out by local thugs.

The Israelis were pretty stupid in the way they ran the territories; the smart way would be with local mercenaries, as it's done in Central America. There, the US has local terrorists, called armies, who run the countries. If the local terrorists can't handle it, the US moves in. Israel is now moving to that system. They say pretty openly that they're trying to move from colonialism to neo-colonialism, which is a much smarter and more efficient way of controlling and destroying people.

It was completely stupid for Israel to bring Palestinians into Israel to work. It makes a lot more sense to move the assembly plants two miles over [into the territories], like the US along the Mexican border. They don't have to worry about labour rights, protests and environmental constraints. The smart way, if you're not too racist, is to move towards this type of neo-colonial arrangement, with local terrorist forces running the population and no possibility of self-determination.

Since the agreement, Israeli settlement is booming all over the territories. If you read the Hebrew press, there's nothing secret about it. The US has imposed its rules on this region, and they don't really care much about Israel. They're always talking about moral commitments, but what they care about is controlling Gulf oil.

To control Gulf oil, you have to have what the US defence secretary about 20 years ago called "local cops on the beat", in case the local population gets funny ideas. Israel has been part of the gendarmerie along with Turkey, Pakistan and Iran under the shah. There was a peripheral system of local cops with police headquarters in Washington, and now that is what they're institutionalising.

There have always been close relations between the family dictatorships that run the oil for the US and the local cops. The family dictatorships, like Saudi Arabia, can be as brutal as they like. But they have a job: they make sure that the profits and wealth from the oil system do not go to the regional population. That is why the Kuwaiti investment firm was in London.

One of the real achievements of Western journalism and scholarship has been to suppress all of this [information] right through the Gulf War. The declassified documents were available, and both the British and the American foreign office documents from the 1950s spell out the whole system. They said that Kuwait was going to support sterling and the British economy. If they didn't, Britain would move in ruthlessly no matter where the threat comes from. The US has the same system in the big places like Saudi Arabia. Britain's a little guy, so they only get Kuwait. The Gulf War was all spelled out in complete detail.

The thugs that run these places need protection from their own populations — not from the Russians or the Chinese — and that protection is supposed to be given by the local gendarmerie, in which Israel plays a big role. In the background you have US muscle in case anything goes wrong. That is the system which the British installed back in the 1920s and the US took over. It's institutionalised now in the current US peace process.