Commentary on Recent Developments: Interview Responses

2 Mar

The following Q & A interview consists of my responses to questions put to me by the outstanding Greek journalist, C. J. Polychroniou, and is being published in the Sunday edition of the Greek newspaper, Eleftherotypia, March 6, 2011.

1.   Various Arab leaders, from Egypt and Tunisia to Bahrain and Libya, have blamed either Islamic fundamentalist forces or Al-Qaeda for the uprisings, thus refusing to accept the uprisings as popular, secular revolutions.   An indication that the Arab leaderships are truly of of touch with reality in their own country or there is something indeed into their claims?

Such allegations by these embattled dictatorial leaders have no basis in fact as far as I can tell, and seem to be a grasping at straws while straining to survive in the midst of a political maelstrom. Such irresponsible allegations seem to be rather desperate reminders to the West, especially to Washington, that these Arab autocrats have been loyal servants for many years, that it should be appreciated that they are the enemy of the American number one enemy (Al Qaeda), and that these regimes should therefore be treated as trusted friends, and repression of the protestors welcomed. Such pleas are seeking to convey a sense that these uprisings if allowed to succeed will be damaging to Western and American interests, bringing hostile elements into political control of the respective governments, and replacing compliant current officialdom with more antagonistic leaders. Of course, each country is different in its particulars. Mubarak could reasonably pretend to have been serving Western interests during his 31 years of rule, and has long been supported and free from critical scrutiny because of this. Qaddafi, in contrast, until recently was seen by the West as a dangerously hostile presence in the region, a supporter of radical anti-Western political action. He made himself acceptable as a trading partner some years ago when he appeared to cave in geopolitically, abandoning Libya’s nuclear program and renouncing support for terrorist causes. It is almost forgotten that the Bush presidency in the period after its invasion of Iraq in 2003 claimed as a major diplomatic success this dramatic shift in Libya, suggesting that its efforts at ‘democracy promotion’ were bearing fruit.

Looking at the issue more objectively it seems clear that the rise of these democratic popular forces throughout the Arab World is taking place in spite of the Al Qaeda reality in the background rather than as a result of it. As is well known, even the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has an intensely antagonistic relationship with Al Qaeda, and has developed during the last decade a nonviolent and low profile political program that points in a moderate direction. Also, the experience of political Islam in Iran over the past 30 years seems to have influenced other Muslim oriented activists in the region to look to Turkey, not Iran or Al Qaeda, for inspiration. Turkey offers the region an encouraging model of achieving democratic gains and protecting human rights while promoting more equitable, yet successful, forms of economic development that have also seemingly managed to avoid major corruption. What enraged the Arab publics was a lethal mixture of authoritarian rule and gross corruption resting on a pure embrace of neoliberal policies that combined repression with material hardship. Such a pattern of economic growth confers almost all of its benefits on the ruler’s family and entourage, making positive GNP growth a cruel joke for the public as a whole.

2.   After the fall of Mubarak and Ben Ali in Egypt and Tunisia, respectively, the rest of the Arab dictators and monarchs seem to have concluded that using force to remain in power is their preferred option. Is this a viable strategy without suppport from the US and Europe?

It is difficult at this stage to tell whether reliance on force will work or not, and if so where, and to what extent it has been encouraged or at least tolerated by Washington and Europe. Of course, Libya is a special case in at least two senses: (1) the U.S. would not mind seeing the Qadaffi regime collapse, and take its chances with whatever comes next; (2) the Qaddafi response seems to rely on a more vicious and widespread use of force than has been used elsewhere in this period, and includes deploying high technology weaponry against initially unarmed demonstrators that seems to be leading toward widespread and bloody civil strife in the country. Elsewhere in the region, and especially, Bahrain because of oil, it is more likely that the U.S. would like to see the regime survive, using force if necessary to quell protests. Iran, although not an Arab country, is the extreme instance in the opposite direction. The U.S. seeks to mobilize opposition and stiffen sanctions in response to uses of force by the Tehran regime, and encourages oppositional activity by covert means, openly favoring a regime change. Iran’s experience is in many respects different that that in the Arab countries, but the internal confrontations in Iran have much in common with the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, given the goals of the Green Revolution and the resistance of the regime.

One generalization that has not yet been fully tested as yet is whether, as now seems to be the case, the monarchies in the region have more political space available to reach accommodations with opposition movements than do the secular regimes of the sort that existed in Egypt and Tunisia. The monarchies are perceived as less corrupt, more legitimate in terms of the political culture, and their leaders regarded as less usurpers than royal autocrats who have abused their role as rulers, but who can recover considerable popular respect if genuine reforms take place, granting more freedom and seeking greater economic justice.

3.   Should the UN or even NATO use force to get Gaddafi out of the picture, or best to reach an agreement with him and have him disappear in some remore corner of the globe?

I am opposed to military intervention for several reasons. It will tend to support Qaddafi’s claim that he is the victim of foreign subversion, either in the form of colonialism or Muslim fundamentalism. It would also fuel suspicions that the West will intervene where oil is at stake as in Kuwait, Iraq, or Libya, and invokes humanitarian issues as a cover for imperial goals. Intervention would likely generate more violence and suffering for the Libyan people by intensifying the military dimensions of the conflict. A humanitarian intervention could not likely be carried out in an effective manner in the short run, especially as American capabilities are stretched thin, and the Tripoli regime has the means to offer stiff resistance. If the UN had a protective force in being under its authority, then maybe a protective emergency mission could be undertaken, but even this would be risky. NATO acting beyond Europe, as in Afghanistan, creates the impression of post-colonial imperial ambitions, and should not be seriously considered. Overall in the post-colonial era, especially lacking a clear UN mandate, it is best to show respect for the dynamics of self-determination even in situations where vulnerable elements of the population is at risk, at least to the extent of refraining from military intervention.

Whether Qadaffi can be enticed to leave for comfortable exile in the manner of Ben Ali is an open question. So far, he has seemed to resist such a suggestion, preferring to die together with his family in Libya, casting himself and sons in the role of martyrs. All in all, none of the available options seem promising at this time. Some of the deficiencies of the current structure of world order are exposed: intervention is unacceptable, but so is being a helpless spectator as a humanitarian catastrophe of these proportions unfolds. Imaginative diplomacy that emphasizes soft power tactics and brings to bear civil society influences may turn out to be most effective and least costly.

4. You’ve been involved with developments in the region for many decades. What explains the sudden explosion of public anger throughout the Arab world?

It is too early to offer much commentary about the future of the Middle East. The coming months will tell us whether these uprisings are reformist or revolutionary in content. So far, the trajectory seems decidedly reformist, taking the form of either forcing the leaders out as in Tunisia and Egypt, or by inducing the existing regime to seek to regain stability by meeting some core demands of the populace as in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Oman, and Bahrain. To be revolutionary, the political changes would have to be complemented by a partial rejection of neoliberal economic orientation, and that doesn’t seem likely without further radicalization of the uprisings. At this point the question is whether the political reforms will be deeper than cosmetic, establishing a genuinely democratic governance structure including independent political parties, a constitutionally functioning judiciary, an accountable bureaucracy, human rights, and a media free to criticize without risk. How these reformist governing structures will deal with jobs, food security, and general conditions of poverty and inequality remains to be seen, and will have a big bearing on whether the post-autocratic leaders gain political legitimacy and public acceptance.

It is always difficult to assess after the fact what looked extremely unlikely until it happened. Tolstoy in the Second Epilogue of War and Peace asks why historians always get things wrong when they look toward the future. Tolstoy’s answer is that historians look at the surfaces of social action, whereas the dynamics of history are shaped by unanticipated explosions from below. In effect, the changes that we are witnessing in the Middle East were long brewing, both as anger and as resistance. The uprisings seemed spontaneous, but on further reflection, it is clear that both the rage and the resistance were preexisting conditions that had evolved during prior years. Rage and resistance came together in an extraordinary kind of political chemistry that was sparked by the suicide of a young street vendor in an interior Tunisian town, an event igniting a wildfire that spread quickly as the winds of protest carried the sparks of outrage throughout Tunisia, and then to neighboring countries where additional political suicides also fanned the flames of discontent. As with an earthquake, the risks can be noted beforehand, but the event is not predictable in time or exact place.

In the Arab world, few anticipated this kind of mass visible resistance ever occurring in any of the countries, much less in the region as a whole. There was a widespread realization of acute discontent among the peoples of these countries, but little expectation that these feeling would morph into a series of revolutionary challenges to the status quo. Even the Western intelligence agencies, despite their extensive activities throughout the region and their tendency to posit alternative scenarios, were caught by surprise. In the aftermath, we find lots of ‘learned’ explanations being suddenly forthcoming as pundits scrambled to regain their reputations as ‘experts’ on the region or country.

5.   You serve as a UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories. What impact, if any, will the Arab revolutions have on the Palestinian issue?

Without wanting to evasive, my answer here too is that it is hard to say at this stage. A realistic Israel, which is itself a kind of utopian expectation, would urgently be seeking a quick peace with the Palestinians by rushing to accept the Arab League Mecca Proposals of 2002. The Palestinian Authority has already clearly indicated its willingness to accept such a settlement as full satisfaction of their search for a Palestinian state. Despite the realist logic behind such positive developments, the situation is almost certain to remain dangerous frozen for the foreseeable future.

What we are likely to witness is more stalling by Israel, vigorously claiming an interest in direct peace negotiations, while feverishly acting to undermine any prospects of a successful and just outcome by continuing with its program of unlawful settlement expansion in the West Bank and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. In the background is the daunting question of Palestinian representation. Gazans are not currently represented at all in international venues due to the Hamas/Fatah split. This is also true of Palestinians living as a discriminated minority in Israel nor of the several million Palestinians living in refugee camps of neighboring countries or in exile.

There are some unconfirmed reports that Netanyahu is about to offer the Palestinian Authority a Palestinian state on 40-50% of the West Bank (that is, less than 11% of the historic Palestine) as an interim solution, with permanent borders to be established at a later date. There are media reports that Netanyahu is considering this diplomatic move as a direct reaction to the regional development of the last two months. In some respects this possible Israeli offer corresponds to the Fayyad approach adopted by the PA Prime Minister. Whether such a step moves toward a just outcome of the Palestinian struggle is doubtful as it leaves many contested issues out in the cold, perhaps permanently: refugees, separation wall, Jerusalem, Gaza, water, permanent borders, status of Palestinian minority in Israel.

If these Arab revolutions do manage to achieve real governmental transformations in a democratizing direction, then regional pressures on Israel are likely to mount, including pressure to renegotiate the 1979 Peace Treaty with Egypt. At minimum, one would expect an end to the blockade of Gaza that has gone on for more than three years, a cruel and criminal form of collective punishment of the 1.5 million civilians living at near subsistence levels.

My main hope for the Palestinian struggle rests on the soft power initiatives embedded in the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign that has been growing in strength around the world. With the greatly reduced reliance on hard power resistance, the Palestinian movement has increasingly the shape of what I call a Legitimacy War. Such a strategy resembles the anti-apartheid campaign that was so effectively globally waged against the South African racist regime In the late 1980s and early 1990s. While noting the similarities, there are also significant dissimilarities, and the analogy should be noted, but not pushed too far.

There is no doubt that the Palestinian quest for self-determination is the major symbolic global justice issue of our time, and it will not be easily resolved. Israel will have to drastically downgrade its ambitions, and accept either a genuinely viable and independent Palestinian state within 1967 borders (requiring dismantling most of the settlements, the separation wall, reconstituting the Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem, and compromise on the refugee issue) or give up on the existence of a Zionist Israel and agree to a bi-national secular single state for both peoples. Neither option seems remotely acceptable to the current Israeli leadership, meaning that in all probability the conflict will in go on for many more years with continuing tragic results, especially for the Palestinians.

19 Responses to “Commentary on Recent Developments: Interview Responses”

  1. notexactlyhuman March 2, 2011 at 11:33 am #

    Have you seen this yet:

    “Veteran diplomat Ilan Baruch quits, says he can no longer represent government; Israel’s foreign policy is ‘wrong,’ he says, adds that blaming global anti-occupation views on anti-Semitism is ‘simplistic, artificial'”,7340,L-4036889,00.html

  2. Ray Joseph Cormier March 2, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    Well reasoned and thoughtful answers.

  3. aletho March 2, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Two errors of note:

    1) Reports of Libya using “high tech weapons” (aerial attacks) have proven baseless.

    2) Bahrain exports negligible oil.

  4. YM March 2, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    Richard, as you are someone who is against a two-state solution, there is no possible way you should be allowed to represent the UN in Israel/Palestine. Your representation of the UN there is proof of the UN’s bias against Israel. Why should Israel commit suicide, just to support your warped sense of justice?

    • Richard Falk March 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

      No, I am not against the two state solution. In fact, I have for most of my life favored it, but recent developments make it increasingly implausible to envision a viable Palestinian state coming into being. This means that the alternatives are permanent occupation or a binational unified state based on secular principles, and I think the latter is more likely to work for the benefit of the two peoples, but it will be up to the dynamics of self-determination to shape the future, not the views of outsiders.

      • YM March 3, 2011 at 11:27 am #

        I know why you consider the two state solution “implasuable”; it is because Israel won’t agree to withdraw to the 1967 borders and give up the old city of Jerusalem, and it won’t agree to millions of Palestinian refugees being given the right to move to Israel. Israel can never agree to these things, it is not fair to expect Israel, which would have disappeared with the murder of 500,000 Jews in 1948 if the Arabs had been successful, to agree to these conditions, which would mean the end of the Jewish State. While the absence of a Jewish State, and its replacement by a “bi-national” state may be fine in your opinion, it is a disaster in my opinion, and I woudl fight it with every weapon at my disposal.

        A fair peace deal, which would include most of the west bank and Gaza in a Palestinian state, along with land given from Israel to Palestine from the Galilee and/or areas bordering Gaza, a division of Jersusalem where Israel and Palestine split the old city of Jerusalem, security guarentees and arrangements so that Israel doesn’t have to worry about the lands they are vacating being used to make war against them, and an agreement that Palestinian refugees can move to Palestine, but not Israel, and you would have a peace agreement. This is what I believe resolution 242 calls for, and I believe Israel would agree to it.

      • Richard Falk March 3, 2011 at 12:47 pm #

        I understand these concerns, and regard them as valid up to a point. I believe you are overlooking the
        degree to which Israel does not want a solution along 242 lines. The PA offered this in serious negotiations
        that have been now disclosed in the published Palestine Paper bask in 2007-2008, and the Israeli negotiators
        showed no interest in exploring the specifics of such an arrangement. The settlement process has continued too
        long, and the recent accelerated pace of demographic changes in East Jerusalem convey to me strong signals that Israel
        is not interested in any solution that leads to a Palestinian state that is a viable entity.

  5. Norm Depalma March 3, 2011 at 3:17 pm #

    Richard, you state, “There is no doubt that the Palestinian quest for self-determination is the major symbolic global justice issue of our time.”
    Can you please explicate?

  6. notexactlyhuman March 6, 2011 at 11:32 am #

    Hundreds of Egyptians are marching to the country’s border with the Gaza Strip to demand that it be opened.

  7. YM March 7, 2011 at 8:01 am #

    Professor Falk, if what you say is correct, then there is no reason for the US not to propose this as a final settlement and invite the Israelis and Palestinians to accept it. I believe that the reason the US hasn’t done so is because the Palestinians will never accept it.

    Also, realize that for peace and for not peace Israel has dismantled settlements. It can and will be willing to do so when the deal is there.

    • Richard Falk March 7, 2011 at 11:23 am #

      It is my understanding that the PA more or less offered Israel this outcome at the private negotiations prior to the 2007 Annapolis meeting, and Israel did not then seem interested. This assessment is based on the transcripts of these negotiations released as ‘The Palestine Papers,’ whose authenticity has not been questioned, and reinforced by Israeli settlement expansion. The US Government will not put forward a proposal that has not been previously cleared with Tel Aviv, as far as I know.

      • Norm Depalma March 8, 2011 at 9:05 am #

        Once again, I ask you what you mean by your statement, “There is no doubt that the Palestinian quest for self-determination is the major symbolic global justice issue of our time.”
        Please define the terms “no doubt”, “symbolic”, “global justice” and “our time”?

        I understand you are Jewish and thus extremely concerned with the state of Israel. But seeing what is happening in the rest of the Mid-East now, do you not now regret your life of myopia? Of missing the concrete issues of global injustice (i.e. Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Iran etc), by concentrating on Israel?

        I am asking because I worry for you. An 80 year old man of import, who one day awakes to discover that the issue that has consumed him for decades, is actually functionally irrelevant. How difficult it must be for you, on the edge of mortality, to realize that all your work has been, at best, for naught, and, at worst, has indirectly led to the suffering of hundreds of millions of Muslims who could have used your assistance.

  8. notexactlyhuman March 8, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    Norm Depalma

    What a rotten, spiteful, militant, and ultimately nefarious thing for you to post. No man or woman who has ever stood up for human dignity for all, by acting out against injustice, has done so in vain.

    The massive campaign of apologetics for continued crimes against humanity, committed by Israel’s USG supported fascist supremacist “vibrant democracy”, is the primer for all other human rights abuses what are condoned by Empire. All humans suffer when such tyranny as the Zionist wing of the Israeli government is allowed to terrorize civilians under the false flags of liberty and righteousness.

    The earth’s citizens are awakening to the massive fraud perpetrated upon them, whereby the ruthless and degrading pursuit of capital gains by a global mafia is spun to represent a noble nationalist or ethnic cause. It is only a matter of time before humanity discovers how an corrupt oligarchy has plundered and squandered our most valuable resources so that they can play war-games with their marionettes for sport, and it all begins with an unveiling of the U.S. and Israeli propaganda machine. This is what frightens you, “Norm”. The illusion is failing. Secrets, hidden in plain sight, are being exposed. Zionism is fascism, is Nazism, and is neither representative or related to any Abrahamic doctrine or faith, but is the cult of Empire, of death, of human exploitation and slavery.

    It is you, “Norm”, who ought question the trajectory of his soul.

    • Norm Depalma March 8, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

      Response to Not Exactly Human’s screed above:

      Sorry, NEH, I was directing my question to Mr. Falk, a thinking, sentient human being, not to you, an obvious bot type simulacrm (with a perfectly appropriate moniker)
      I try not to waste time ‘speaking’ to droids who spout the talking points devised by an algorithm:
      (‘zionism is fascism’, ‘cult of empire’, ‘corrupt oligarchy’, ‘propoganda machine.’).
      I prefer speaking to a man like Mr. Falk, a man with an actual conscience, with humanity.

      And NEH, please spare us the rote, by the numbers, reply to this post. You will be wasting my time and Mr. Falk’s. I understand that as a computer program, you have no human conception of time…but still, give us a break…

      • notexactlyhuman March 8, 2011 at 6:11 pm #

        The first thing a racist does is accuse his victims of the very act the racist himself committed. This pathology extends to all bigots and liars, of course. Thanks for the demonstration, “Norm”.

        You, “Norm”, are one of the sadists that Naomi Klein wrote about in the University of Toronto school paper. Says a lot about why you troll the internet looking for non-militants to pounce on. You’re a pervert, sullied by an unholy embrace of Zionism.

        And thanks for the lesson on why not to engage AIPAC donors. Everyone needs a refresher from time to time.

  9. Dave March 21, 2011 at 10:59 am #


    When you reach the horizon in your life, I want you to sit and think about everything that you have accomplished. I also want you to think about, how your actions contributed to the murder of innocent Jewish children. Think about how you betrayed your own people and disgraced the memory of your parents, grandparents, and ancestors.

    I wish you nothing bad, and I have no anger towards you, but I hope that one day you will realize what you are doing….

    • Richard Falk March 21, 2011 at 11:33 pm #

      I appreciate the tone of your comment, however darkly it suggests my moral depravity.

      I am not sure whether you are referring to the recent Itamar massacre of a Jewish family, but if you are,
      the best evidence now available is that the guilty party was a Palestinian but a Thai guest worker who was
      responsible and worked for the family, escaping to a nearby village. I would like to see a just peace that
      including an acknowledgement of the rights and suffering of the Palestinian people. Is that a betrayal of
      my Jewish heritage?

      In the end, I believe that unless we learn to live together on this planet as a single species our collective
      future is doomed.

  10. bg March 21, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

    I fully understand your position on human rights. Just look at the repressive regimes that are in powerful positions on the various UN human rights cttees. It is clear your bias against the truly pluralistic state that is Israel makes you blind to reality. Keep your bias with referral to these cttees; they are irrelevant and a laughing stock to every thinking person. Do you talk about how brutally demonstrations on the West Bank of Israel or Gaza are brutally suppressed? Ethnic cleansing actually happens in Gaza against the Christians there and on the Israel West bank in Bethlehem and it is carried out by people you call Palestinians. Get real. What is your angle Falk/ Who pays you to say such rubbish?


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