The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky. South End Press, 481 pages, $10 paper.

Printer friendly version |

On June 12, 1982, three-quarters of a million people marched through New York City and assembled in Central Park to demand a freeze on nuclear weapons. At the same moment, a few blocks away, several hundred people gathered outside the Israeli consulate to protest Israel's then six-day-old invasion of Lebanon. "The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians" (South End Press, 481 pages, $10 paper), Noam Chomsky's latest book, raises the possibility that the latter demonstration may have been the more significant one.

How is nuclear conflict between the superpowers most likely to come about? A "bolt from the blue" first strike (or its equivalent, a Soviet invasion of Western Europe) is plainly suicidal, and therefore unlikely. War through technical malfunction is not at all unlikely -- in fact is inevitable in the long run, or perhaps sooner as both sides adopt "launch on warning" strategies -- but at any given moment is a remote contingency. Far more likely is the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used in the future as they have come closest to being used in the past: as part of one superpower's response to the other's intervention somewhere in the Third World. It should be obvious that now and for a long time to come, the most probable arena of superpower confrontation is the Middle East. As Chomsky argues in this book and in his other recent writings, a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, for Americans, a matter not merely of abstract justice but of stark and immediate self-interest. Here above all, illusions can be lethal.

Unfortunately, here above all illusions are rampant, at least in the United States. In his previous books, most notably "American Power and the New Mandarins" (1969), "The Political Economy of Human Rights" (1979), and "Towards a New Cold War" (1982), Chomsky has pursued two aims: to describe the realities of domination within the American global system, and to analyze the domestic political ideology that conceals or rationalizes those realities. "The Fateful Triangle" sustains that dual focus, exhaustively documenting Israeli military, economic, and diplomatic policies toward the Palestinians and relentlessly dissecting the abundant illusions about these policies among those who finance them and therefore share responsibility for them -- i.e., us.

Since the late 1960s the United States and Israel have maintained what is generally referred to as a "special relationship." The level of American military and economic aid to Israel has been phenomenal, reaching (when all sources are included) more than $3 billion in fiscal 1983, a figure that approaches $1000 per capita. The terms on which this aid has been extended are uniquely generous, and the latitude with which it has been administered is exceptional, as American foreign programs go. And apart from the mild, ineffectual expressions of "concern" over the bombardment of Beirut, the Sabra/Shatila refugee-camp massacre, and the creeping (lately galloping) annexation of the West Bank, American diplomatic and moral support has remained firm.

What is the basis of this "special relationship"? In popular political folklore, it is the effect of the "Jewish lobby," the highly organized American Jewish community, on Congress and the media. Chomsky dismisses this explanation out of hand, arguing that "no pressure group will dominate access to public opinion or maintain consistent influence over policy-making unless its aims are close to those of elite elements with real power" and citing the conclusion of Harvard Middle East specialist Nadav Safran that the "special relationship" has been "determined primarily by the changing role that Israel has occupied in the context of America's changing conceptions of its political-strategic interests in the Middle East."

What, then, are these "political-strategic interests"? According to Chomsky, one leading aim of "elite elements with real power," and of those who formulate foreign policy in their behalf, has been to maintain American control over or privileged access to the enormous energy reserves of the Middle East. In a policy-planning document of 1945, the US State Department-described these reserves as "a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history." This insight has guided American policy ever since. (A recent corollary is that "petrodollars" must be returned to the American economy by way of arms sales, construction projects, bank deposits, Treasury securities, etc.)

Contrary to Cold War myths, the main threat to American control of this "prize" is indigenous: not Soviet imperialism, but the emergence of radical nationalist regimes in the oil-producing states. Herein, claims Chomsky lies Israel's contribution to the "special relationship." After its smashing victory over Arab adversaries in 1967 (at a time when the United States was trying in vain to suppress insurgent nationalism in Southeast Asia), Israel appeared to be a vital "strategic asset": a barrier against radical Arab regimes and a base for the projection of American power in the Middle East. Israel and Iran (under the Shah) were to be America's "regional gendarmes." And in return for turning itself into an increasingly militarized American dependency -- and performing subsidiary services, e.g., providing extensive support for right-wing regimes in Latin America and Africa -- Israel receives vast aid and a free hand in the occupied territories.

"The Fateful Triangle" is organized along two dimensions -- the realm of fact and the realm of ideology. Chomsky's analysis of the "special relationship" and the "strategic asset" theory, along with his detailed exposition of Israeli policies in the occupied territories and in Lebanon, form one axis of the book. The other is his critique of the mythology that surrounds and hallows the "special relationship." Among the many widely held illusions that Chomsky demolishes: that Arab citizens of Israel enjoy full civic equality; that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank has been "benign" and "enlightened"; that the political aspirations of Palestinians in the occupied territories have never been clearly expressed; that the Israeli Defense Forces were welcomed as "liberators" by most Lebanese in the summer of 1982; and that the Kahan Commission report on the Sabra/Shatila massacre was a "sublime" moral achievement. But the heart of Chomsky's critique is his demystification of three highly charged terms, all of them central to American political discourse about the Middle East: "rejectionism," "terrorism," and "support for Israel."

The first of these terms refers to rejection of the right of national self-determination for one of the two peoples who inhabit the territory of Israel/Palestine. In American parlance this term has been applied almost exclusively to the position of the Palestinians and their representatives (the PLO) or sponsors (the Arab governments). This allegedly unwavering Arab rejectionism has been widely held to be the main obstacle to a peaceful settlement.

But as Chomsky shows, that view was never more than half-true, and since the early 1970s it has been even less than half- true. For example: in 1970 Gamal Abdel Nasser declared that "it will be possible to institute a durable peace between Israel and the Arab states, not excluding economic and diplomatic relations, if Israel evacuates the occupied territories and accepts a settlement of the problem of Palestinian refugees." In 1971 Anwar Sadat offered Israel a full peace treaty on the pre-June 1967 borders, with security guarantees, recognized borders, and no mention of a Palestinian state. In 1972 King Hussein proposed a confederation of Jordan and the West Bank under Jordanian auspices (supposedly the Israeli Labor Party's position). In 1975 three official and semiofficial spokesmen for the PLO publicly indicated a willingness to accept a Palestinian state in the occupied territories and thereafter renounce violence as a means toward national unification. In 1976, at the instigation of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, a UN Security Council resolution was introduced (and vetoed by the United States) calling for a Palestinian state alongside Israel and for "appropriate arrangements to guarantee ... the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries." In 1977 (according to a report in "The New York Times") Egypt, Syria, and Jordan "informed the United States that they would sign peace treaties with Israel as part of an overall Middle East settlement." Later that year the PLO promptly endorsed a joint US-Soviet communiqué (angrily rejected by Israel and thereafter repudiated by the US) calling for a two-state solution, with peace treaties guaranteed by the superpowers.

Some, perhaps all, of these Arab initiatives were ambiguous or inadequate. But they have something else in common: without exception they were ignored or rejected by Israel (with American backing), and they have all virtually disappeared from the public record in the United States. Moreover, the rejections came from Labor governments -- which is noteworthy, since the Israeli Labor Party is currently the last best hope of most American liberals and even many democratic socialists. In fact, as Chomsky documents at length, the mainstream of the Labor Party (including every party chief from David Ben-Gurion to Shimon Peres) has been no less consistent than Menachem Begin's Likud in its rejection of Palestinian national self-determination. Rhetorical differences notwithstanding, both Labor and Likud governments have sponsored vigorous settlement activity in the occupied territories and have suppressed all significant forms of political self-organization there. Although the Likud has been more explicit about its intention to retain sovereignty over the territories, all Labor programs, from the Allon Plan to the "Jordanian option," have envisioned effective Israeli control over the West Bank (and, crucially, over its resources of water and cheap labor) while denying Palestinian nationhood. As for the Camp David accords, immediately after their adoption the Israeli Knesset passed a resolution asserting that "after the transition period laid down in the Camp David accords, Israel will raise its claim and act to fulfill its rights to sovereignty over Judea, Samaria and the Gaza district [i.e., the occupied territories]." Chomsky quotes Abba Eban's astonished response that there was no precedent "in the jurisprudence of any government for such a total contradiction between an international agreement and a national statement of policy." And this "national statement of policy" is well on its way to being fully implemented.

As Chomsky points out, there is now an international consensus for a two-state settlement, with security guarantees. The only significant exceptions to this consensus are the Rejection Front of the PLO (until very recently or perhaps still -- a minority within the organization), the Israeli government (along with many of the Labor opposition), and the United States. Obviously, these realities do not exactly square with current American usage of the term "rejectionism."

The term "terrorism" is another curious case. It is properly applied to Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians, violence that is as futile in practice as it is intolerable in principle. However, that is virtually its sole application in mainstream American writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One objection to this usage is general and semantic: what one side in any conflict calls "terrorism" the other side invariably calls "reprisals"; and the violence perpetrated by states (at least states friendly to the US) is rarely considered by mainstream American commentators as being on the same moral level as that of guerrilla movements. But what is even more curious about the restriction of "terrorism" to PLO (or Libyan or Iraqi) violence is that violence's relative numerical insignificance. According to an official Israeli estimate (cited by Chomsky), 106 civilians have been killed in northern Israel by terrorists since the late 1960s; according to an investigation by a former Israeli police official, 282 Israeli civilians in all have been killed in terrorist attacks since 1967. The number of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians killed by the Israeli armed forces since the late 1960s exceeds these figures by an enormous margin (approximately 50 to 1 during 1982 alone, according to Lebanese government estimates). Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Arab civilians involuntarily displaced in wars and "reprisals" from 1948 to 1982.

Semantic dishonesty can be deadly. The Israeli government has attempted, with some success, to eliminate the word "Palestinian" from official Israeli discourse, routinely substituting the word "terrorist," This demotion of the Palestinians from human status made it possible, among other things, to cut off food, water, and electricity to West Beirut during the summer of 1982, to bomb refugee camps (towns, actually) into rubble, and to ship 9000 Palestinian males to prison camps in Israel. The American mass media, through their consistently partisan use of the word "terrorism," also deserve some credit for these accomplishments.

Serious criticism of Israeli state policies is rare in American politics or intellectual life -- in part because apologists for those policies label themselves as "supporters of Israel" and their opponents as "anti-Israel." This verbal gambit is pure demagoguery, comparable to the branding of those who opposed the Indochina war as "anti-American." Yet, it is remarkably effective. Chomsky quotes numerous Israeli doves, many of them near despair over their lack of support from American liberals and American Jews. Their view, as Chomsky formulates it, is that the "support for Israel" (i.e., for its worst excesses of militarism and chauvinism) shown by most American Jewish organizations and by journals like "Commentary" and the "New Republic" should be called by another name: "support for Israel's continued moral degeneration and, quite possibly, ultimate physical destruction."

Israeli doves are not only Chomsky's political allies; they are among his principal sources. In addition to his usual mastery of the American and European press and scholarly literature, he has drawn heavily on the Hebrew-language press. In "The Fateful Triangle" he pays handsome tribute to' "the work of thoughtful and courageous Israeli journalists who have set -- and met -- quite unusual standards in exposing unpleasant facts about their own government and society. There is nothing comparable elsewhere, in my experience." Anyone familiar with Chomsky's frequent criticisms of the American press will recognize in that last sentence a quietly scathing rebuke.

It remains to say a word about the author of "The Fateful Triangle." Fifteen years ago in the "New Republic" (a previous incarnation, of course), a reviewer wrote that "one of the few comforts available at this terrible moment is that we continue to produce men of Noam Chomsky's honesty and stature -- and continue to have them published." I don't know who else that reviewer had in mind, but as of 1983, there is no one in American intellectual life remotely of Noam Chomsky's stature. Over the last 15 years he has published nearly 4000 pages of political analysis and polemic unexampled in scope, rigor, cogency, and moral passion. And it is only a second career: he is, primarily, the foremost linguistic and cognitive theorist of our time.

Chomsky's reward for this unflinching radical criticism has been virtual ostracism by America's mainstream political intelligentsia. Although his political commentary is much sought after in Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan, readers and viewers of the American mass media have generally been spared exposure to it. Academic journals have long been closed to him, and even liberal periodicals like the "New Republic", the "New York Review of Books," and "Partisan Review" are now apparently off limits. All this is not surprising; by and large, those are enemies that a consistent radical must expect. But the likely result -- that this brilliant, crucial book will be widely maligned or ignored -- is unfortunate. Considering the stakes, it may even be fateful.


Powered By Movable Type 4.1

Copyright © 2004-2008
George Scialabba