Q&A: The Oslo Accords, Syria, and ‘responsibility to protect’

Noam Chomsky discusses the Palestinian Authority’s weakness and the implications of a US strike on Syria.

"There’s no bright spot on the horizon" for Syria, says Chomsky [Reuters]
"There’s no bright spot on the horizon" for Syria, says Chomsky [Reuters]

As the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords approaches, the issue of Palestinian statehood and Israeli hegemony continue to be a major flashpoint in the Middle East. Meanwhile, all eyes are on Syria, where the US has threatened to launch attacks on Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

Frank Barat speaks to Professor Noam Chomsky, a linguist and scholar who has written extensively about US foreign policy and Palestinian/Israeli relations, about the Palestinian Authority, a potential US attack on Syria, and the doctrine of “responsibility to protect”.

Frank Barat: What is the definition of negotiations in Israel-US language, and why is the Palestinian Authority playing along?

Noam Chomsky: From the US point of view, negotiations are, in effect, a way for Israel to continue its policies of systematically taking over whatever it wants in the West Bank, maintaining the brutal siege on Gaza, separating Gaza from the West Bank and, of course, occupying the Syrian Golan Heights, all with full US support. And the framework of negotiations, as in the past 20 years of the Oslo experience, has simply provided a cover for this.

FB: Why is the PA playing along with this and going to negotiations time after time?

NC: It’s probably partly out of desperation. You can ask whether it’s the right choice or not, but they don’t have many alternatives.

FB: So in your opinion, it’s pretty much to survive that they indeed accept the framework?

NC: If they were to refuse to join the US-run negotiations, their basis for support would collapse. They survive on donations essentially. Israel has made sure that it’s not a productive economy. They’re a kind of what would be called in Yiddish a “schnorrer society”: you just borrow and live on what you can get.

Whether they have an alternative to that is not so clear, but if they were to refuse the US demand for negotiations on completely unacceptable terms, their basis for support would erode. And they do have support – external support – enough so that the Palestinian elite can live in a fairly decent, often lavish, lifestyle, while the society around them collapses

FB: So would the crumbling and disappearance of the PA be a bad thing after all?

NC: It depends on what would replace it. If, say, [imprisoned Intifada leader] Marwan Barghouti were permitted to join the society the way, say, Nelson Mandela was finally, that could have a revitalising effect in organising a Palestinian society that might press for more substantial demands. But remember: They don’t have a lot of choices.

In fact, go back to the beginning of the Oslo Agreements, now 20 years old. There were negotiations underway – the Madrid negotiations – at which the Palestinian delegation was led by Haider Abdel-Shafi, a highly respected, left-nationalist figure in Palestine. He was refusing to agree to the US-Israel terms, which required crucially that settlement expansion was allowed to continue. He refused, and therefore the negotiations stalled and got nowhere.

Meanwhile, Arafat and the external Palestinians went on the side-track through Oslo, gained control and Haider Abdel-Shafi was so opposed to this he didn’t even show up to the dramatic and meaningless ceremony where Clinton beamed while Arafat and Rabin shook hands. He didn’t show up because he realised it was a total sell-out. But he was principled and as a result, could get nowhere – the same thing will happen to us unless there’s substantial support from the European Union, the Gulf states and, ultimately, from the United States.

FB: In your opinion, what is really at stake in what’s unravelling in Syria at the moment, and what does it mean for the broader region?

NC: Well, Syria is descending into suicide. It’s a horror story and getting worse and worse. There’s no bright spot on the horizon. What will probably happen, if this continues, is that Syria will be partitioned into probably three regions; a Kurdish region – which is already forming – that could pull out and join in some fashion the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, maybe with some kind of deal with Turkey.

The rest of the country will be divided between a region dominated by the Assad regime – a brutal, horrifying regime – and another section dominated by the various militias, which range from the extremely malicious and violent to the secular and democratic. Meanwhile, Israel is looking by and enjoying the spectacle. If you look at the New York Times this morning, there’s a quote by an Israeli official essentially expressing their joy at watching Arabs slaughter each other.

CF: Yes, I read that.

NC: For the United States, that’s fine, they don’t want an outcome either. If the US and Israel wanted to assist the rebels – which they do not – they can do it, even without military intervention.

For example, if Israel were to mobilise forces on the Golan Heights (of course, it’s the Syrian Golan Heights, but by now the world more or less tolerates or accepts Israel’s illegal occupation), If they would just do that, It would compel Assad to move forces to the south, which would relieve pressure against the rebels. But there’s no hint even of that. They’re also not giving humanitarian aid to the huge number of suffering refugees, not doing all kinds of simple things that they could do.

All of which suggests that both Israel and the United States prefer exactly what is happening today, just as reported in that NYT story this morning. Meanwhile, Israel can celebrate, and its status as what they call a “villa in the jungle”. There was an interesting article by the editor of Haaretz, Aluf Benn, who wrote about how Israelis are going to the beach and enjoying themselves, and congratulating themselves as being a “villa in the jungle” while the wild beasts out there tear each other to shreds. And, of course, Israel under this picture is doing nothing except defending itself. They like that picture and the US doesn’t seem too dissatisfied with it either. The rest is shadowboxing.

FB: What about talk of a US strike, then – do you think it’s going to happen?

NC: A bombing?

FB: Yes.

NC: Well, it’s kind of an interesting debate in the United States. The ultra-right, the right-wing extremists who are kind of off the international spectrum, they’re opposing it, though not for reasons I like. They’re opposing it because “Why should we dedicate ourselves to solving other people’s problems and waste our own resources?” They’re literally asking, “Who’s going to defend us when we’re attacked, because we’re devoting ourselves to helping people overseas?”

That’s the ultra-right. If you look at the “moderate” right, people like, say, David Brooks of the New York Times, considered an intellectual commentator on the right. His view is that the US effort to withdraw its forces from the region is not having a “moderating effect”. According to Brooks, when US forces are in the region, that has a moderating effect; it improves the situation, as you can see in Iraq, for example. But if we’re withdrawing our forces then we’re no longer able to moderate the situation and make it better.

That’s the standard view from the intellectual right over to the mainstream, the liberal democrats and so on. So there’s a lot of talk about “Should we exercise our ‘responsibility to protect’?” Well, just take a look at the US record on “responsibility to protect”. The fact that these words can even be spoken reveals something quite extraordinary about the US – and, in fact, Western – moral and intellectual culture.

This is quite apart from the fact that it’s a gross violation of international law. Obama’s latest line is that he didn’t establish a “red line”, but the world did through its conventions on chemical warfare. Well, actually, the world does have a treaty, which Israel didn’t sign and which the US has totally neglected, for example when it supported Saddam Hussein’s really horrifying use of chemical weapons. Today, this is used to denounce Saddam Hussein, overlooking the fact that it was not only tolerated but basically supported by the Reagan administration. And, of course, the convention has no enforcement mechanisms.

There’s also no such thing as “responsibility to protect” – that’s a fraud perpetrated in Western intellectual culture. There is a notion, in fact two notions: There’s one passed by the UN General Assembly, which does talk about “responsibility to protect”, but it offers no authorisation for any kind of intervention except under conditions of the United Nations charter. There is another version, which is adopted only by the West, the US and its allies, which is unilateral and says R2P permits “military intervention by regional organisations in the region of their authority without Security Council authorisation”.

Well, translating that into English, this means that it provides authorisation for the US and NATO to use violence wherever they choose without Security Council authorisation. That’s what’s called “responsibility to protect” in Western discourse. If it weren’t so tragic it would be farcical.

FB: Thank you, Professor Chomsky.

A version of this interview was first published on Ceasefire.

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