French journalist Alain Gresh, editor of the online journal Orientxxi.info, was formerly editor-in-chief of Le Monde diplomatique. His many books include Islamophobie et judéophobie: L'effet miroir (with Ilan Halevi, 2015), The New A to Z of the Middle East (with Dominique Vidal, 2004) and the illustrated Un chant d'amour: Israel-Palestine, une histoire française (2017). He was interviewed at his home in Paris on December 11, 2017, by Roger Gaess, an American freelance journalist based in Brussels.
MEP (Roger Gaess): In the June 2017 issue of Le Monde diplomatique you wrote, "‘Reviving the peace process' now seems an illusion, except to [Palestinian] President Mahmoud Abbas and the ‘international community,' which views keeping his administration going on life support as vital, to justify its own failure to act or to come up with any innovative proposal grounded in international law." I'd like to use that thought as a starting point.
In response to Trump's pronouncement (December 6) on Jerusalem, UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson said if the Trump administration does in fact have an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan to present, it must do so soon, the suggestion being that it's time to put up or shut up on the United States as an effective mediator. This, of course, assumes the Palestinians still allow further U.S. involvement. The United States, after all, was entrusted with the role of mediator on the assumption it could be somewhat even-handed and break Israel out of its intransigence; but, the United States has primarily functioned as a conduit for hard-line Israeli positions. The Palestinians might move toward an internationalization of the process but, given the impact of the international community to date, how optimistic should anyone be?
GRESH: I think "the peace process" is dead. I mean that peace process which began in Oslo in 1993. We can discuss at length why it failed — and as you know, there are differing opinions — but what is now clear is that it has failed. The core idea had been five years of autonomy to create a virtuous circle that would forge separate Palestinian and Israeli states, more or less on the June 4, 1967, borders. That has failed for three reasons. First, for the past 15 years we've had an Israeli government that has blocked that outcome, not only through its continuing colonization — since Oslo the number of settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has doubled to almost 700,000 — but also because, in principle, it doesn't want a real independent Palestinian state to emerge, even within the limitations the Palestinians are ready to accept. We can say the maximum this Israeli government would give to the Palestinians is much below the minimum any Palestinian leadership can accept. Netanyahu really thinks the West Bank is a part of Eretz Israel (Greater Israel). They are not joking about it; it's not a tactic. They really think this, and the only thing they are willing to accept, in part because they are to some degree forced to accept it, is a kind of autonomy, a bantustan like South Africa, where the Palestinians will manage their own affairs, and the Israeli government will be able to intervene at any moment.
There's another very important factor in this failure and that is public opinion in Israel. Not only has the government become more and more right-wing, but so too has the Israeli public, for many reasons also. There are very courageous organizations such as Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem, but they are not wide political movements. Even the Labor Party now, with its new leader, can't be spoken of as a leftist party, or even a peace party. The Israeli public is not pushing for peace for one very clear reason: they don't pay any price for the occupation. At times in the past they were paying with an intifada. Today it's a low-level conflict. Every day Palestinians are killed, but the international community has not seen that as important enough to impose sanctions. In Western public opinion, in the United States, in the world, Israel is losing quite a lot of ground. But at the official level, they are making political inroads in Asia and Africa, and so too are the Europeans giving them a stature enjoyed by few other non-European countries. This week Netanyahu is meeting with senior representatives of the 27 governments comprising the European Union. So even if Europe from time to time condemns the settlements, as they even condemned Trump's Jerusalem declaration, it has no weight because the Israelis are not paying any price.
The third reason the peace process has collapsed is the failure of the international community. From the onset of Oslo, the idea of the international community has been to say, okay, let the Palestinians and Israelis negotiate directly to find a mutually acceptable solution, their assumption being that the two sides are of equal strength. The main sponsor was the United States, with a little sponsorship from the European Union. Every time there was a clash or a deadlock, what was the position of Europe and the United States? It was to pressure the Palestinians. For me, the best example of this is what happened in Hebron, in Al-Khalil, in 1997, when the international community should have been pressing Israel to evacuate its 500 settlers from the heart of that West Bank town. On the contrary, they accepted a solution which is terrible, and one that is evident to anybody who visits Hebron today. The town is divided into two parts, and many Palestinian commercial streets have been closed. Some 30,000 Palestinians are living under direct Israeli occupation to protect 500 people who are really crazy and fascist. And this reality is due to the philosophy of the international community. If there is a problem, they pressure the Palestinians because it's easier to pressure the weaker side.
MEP: Have we reached the point where the only reasonable alternative to the status quo is the two-state solution — but that option is rendered virtually impossible because (with implicit U.S. backing) Israel's hell-bent priority is not peace but its continued colonization of Palestinian land so as to ultimately achieve maximum territorial annexation? If so, what can be done to stop it?
GRESH: There has never been an occupation that ended because the occupier suddenly became a nice guy. The history of colonization is a history of the balance of force. The French were forced out of Algeria because they lost politically, even more than militarily. The Americans were pushed out of Vietnam for the same reason. The problem today is, as I said, neither the Israeli government nor the public are paying any price for the occupation.
To change that, we must change the prevailing philosophy. We must return to international law, international legality. There are numerous resolutions. They more or less say that on the land of historic Palestine there are two peoples, both of them with the right to self-determination and statehood, more or less on the June 4, 1967, borders. If the international community does, in fact, think this is the solution, and I believe it does, it must say that bilateral negotiations will not help in any way. Not only do we have a strong party and a weak party, but we know that the strong party, Israel, doesn't want to negotiate. So we must pressure it to negotiate, to ensure that occupation has a price.
If it doesn't have a military price, because the balance of force does not favor the Palestinians, it should have a diplomatic and economic price. I mean, there should be sanctions. Especially on the part of the European Union, which of course differs from the United States in not offering up such official support for Israeli policy. European governments are very forceful in condemning settlements, to say they want a two-state solution, and that East Jerusalem should be the capital of the Palestinian state. The question is, what are we going to do to back up our words? If we don't do anything, it will be a catastrophe that will go far beyond the question of Palestine.
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring and the civil wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, many people are saying Palestine is no longer a central cause for the Arab world. I think that's completely wrong. I think it's a central issue not only of the Arab and Muslim world, but beyond. And I think it remains at the heart of all the problems of the Middle East. That doesn't mean that if you solve Palestine you will solve the whole problem, but Palestine is at the heart of the resentment of the Arabs and the Muslims against the Western world.
The failure to resolve the Palestinian problem is inciting the most extremist groups. They can argue, look, we have tried politics and diplomacy and it has failed, and the Arab governments too are failing us, so what is left? The most obvious alternative is terrorism, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and tomorrow something else, insisting that they must fight not only against Israel but against the Western world and against Christians. We should not be surprised that extremism is gaining ground. Palestine is the oldest colonial problem in the Middle East. Trump's unilateral Jerusalem move prompted demonstrations across the Arab world. The Arabs may well be divided; there are many trends, and opinions differ on Syria, etc., but only one question unites everybody and that is Palestine. Even if they criticize the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, Palestine itself is a very important question. There are, for example, rumors — and not only rumors, I think — about contact between Saudi Arabia and Israel as part of a big front against Iran. But the Saudi government was very strong in condemning the Trump declaration. I don't care if they believe in it or not, but the official Saudi stance reflects their awareness of the depth of their public's feeling on Palestine, especially the question of Al-Quds (Jerusalem).
MEP: Does the average European see a connection between the increased terrorism that has occurred here and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians?
GRESH: This is one of the debates we have in France, and I think in Europe, where terrorism is not linked only with Palestine. On the reasons for terrorism, we hear two explanations. One is that they hate us, they are bad people, they are barbarians, etc. The other, which is mine, is that we cannot bomb these countries and think there will be no consequences for us, that we cannot violate our principles of self-determination and democracy in failing to apply them to Arab nations and think we won't pay a price for it.
European public opinion is complicated. I think one of the setbacks for solidarity with Palestine since, let's say, 2001, is the fact that prior to that time, most people understood it was a question of an occupier and an occupied people. Now with this trend of Islamism, there has been a negative tendency to explain conflicts within the Islamic world as a war with Islamic terrorism, and some of the public sees the Palestinians as part of that system, along with Hamas and Hezbollah.
MEP: After the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, many U.S. supporters of Israel — not only people like Dennis Ross and the Israel lobby, but even more tepid supporters such as Thomas Friedman at The New York Times — were fervent in their rejection of any linkage between Palestine and the attack, despite the fact that Bin Laden affirmed the attack was in part motivated by the breakdown in the Israeli-Palestinian talks at Camp David.
GRESH: It was Gen. Petraeus, later the head of CENTCOM [the U.S. Central Command], who in 2005 said the Palestine issue was killing his soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was very lucid. Of course, the Arab world's resentment against the West is now linked to many issues, but Palestine is a very important factor. And given that the international community has been unable to implement Security Council resolutions on the two-state solution — resolutions about which there is an overwhelming consensus — and we make war in Iraq and Syria, Libya and Yemen, it shouldn't be any surprise that people in the Arab world don't believe what we say.
MEP: With so many Israeli settlers now living in contravention of international law on Palestinian territory, is the two-state solution still feasible?
GRESH: Though it's a complex debate, I think the only game in town today, in the diplomatic town, is the two-state solution. If the Palestinians withdraw from the idea of two states, I'm not sure where they will go from there. If they ask for a one-state solution, nobody in the diplomatic community will take it seriously, so I think it would simply be a tactical move. But in the end, it's the Palestinians who must decide. Even when we say the two-state solution is difficult or impossible to implement, the one-state solution would be no less so, at least in the short or medium term. So should the Palestinians give up what they have gained, at least since Oslo — a kind of international recognition, their presence in the United Nations as a non-member state, in UNESCO, in Interpol and elsewhere? What's clear in any case is that it will not be a two-state solution in the sense of two separate states. That is impossible on this territory, I think, and with the settlements it will be very difficult, but it can also be a transitional solution, a confederation, though this is more for the Palestinians and Israelis to decide.
MEP: Why haven't France and the rest of Europe been more effective on this issue? Are European nations afraid to stand up to the United States and advance different views? What's prevented Europe from making a real difference?
GRESH: There are many reasons. When Europe began to formulate a position after 1967, a position independent from Israel and the United States, Europe [as a forerunner to the current European Union] was six countries. France played an important role in pushing for Europe's adoption in 1980 of the Venice Declaration, which affirmed the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and the necessity of including the PLO in peace negotiations.
After 1993, several factors contributed to pushing Europe out of an active role. First, there were now 27 or 28 member countries, including some eastern European nations that were more pro-Israel than the Israelis themselves, like Czechoslovakia. And there was also the fact that on the international level, any position from the European Union should be unanimous, and with so many members that is not easy to achieve.
Second, with the end of the Cold War something very strange happened. There was a tilt toward the United States in France and other European countries. That had been understandable during the existence of the Soviet Union, but now France not only adopted a less independent policy than we had under de Gaulle, but continued to do so under Giscard d'Estaing and Jacques Chirac — with the exception of the instance in 2003 when Chirac opposed the war against Iraq. But even that moment was short-lived, and Chirac quickly worked to re-establish the relationship with the United States and Israel.
There is also another aspect, at least as far as France is concerned. We have the most important Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe, and there is the fear in the French government that if we take a position, which should at least be in support of the Palestinians, it will create internal problems and exacerbate existing racial tensions. As I said, we are seeing this through the lens of this war on terror, which is a very poor lens, one which doesn't permit us to explain what's happening in Mali, or Algeria or Palestine. This way of seeing is also very negative because in some respects the war on terror is a war on Muslims, a war in which the Israelis are projected as our ally.
Now, it's clear that Trump's policy, not only on the Middle East but in general, has upset an important part of the European establishment, even in Great Britain and Germany, which are closer to the United States. But, again, the structure of the 27-state European Union is not conducive to an active political role. You can play in economics but you cannot play in politics and diplomacy. Or you must decide that you will go it alone. For France, I think this is a possibility — or for France in conjunction with Germany and Italy. But until now it's not happening.
MEP: A number of European parliaments have passed nonbinding resolutions urging their governments to formally recognize the State of Palestine. What is holding up that recognition? They already recognize Israel and have backed a two-state solution.
GRESH: It's very strange. The French parliament, too, passed such a nonbinding resolution, but Laurent Fabius, who at the time was the foreign minister, said, "No, let's suspend it; let's proceed with a diplomatic initiative and, if that should fail, then we will recognize a Palestinian state." We undertook this diplomatic initiative in January 2017 with an international conference in Paris, and Israel refused to cooperate. But we didn't recognize Palestine. There is no good reason for this. We should extend recognition. To be very frank, I don't think it's so important, but at least it's symbolic. It's saying clearly that we are for a two-state solution.
MEP: The Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement with Israel often seems in its application to lack its proclaimed references to human rights. Why has Europe progressed so far economically with Israel at a time when they have so many reasons on a human-rights basis not to? Again and again I hear people emphatically say, "It's only economic measures that will change Israel's behavior."
GRESH: I think Israel has been very effective in its lobbying of European parliaments and in using its claims of anti-Semitism as a blackmail tool. They are really active. In comparison, Arabs and Palestinians are very weak. I'm not saying it's the only reason. Another is what I referred to earlier, the idea that began in France with Sarkozy in 2007, when he said, "We cannot play an active role in the Middle East because we are not friendly enough with Israel. We need to get closer to them to be able to push them to peace." After his five years as president, he recognized that Netanyahu was a liar and that this approach leads nowhere. Unfortunately, François Hollande did even worse. In some ways, it seems we are returning to what we said in the fifties, when there was this alliance between France and Israel, and we were making assertions such as "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East." I have referred to this as a silent about-face in French policy that has occurred during the past 10 to 15 years. We have not changed our basic positions on a two-state solution and condemnation of settlements, etc., but now we are developing our bilateral relations with Israel as though the Palestinians did not exist. Whenever we make small declarations about settlements, the Israelis accuse us of anti-Semitism and say Europeans are not able to understand our situation. So it's playing completely into their hands.
MEP: Is it for these same reasons that BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israeli policies) has been criminalized in Europe in certain instances?
GRESH: Yes. There is now an idea gaining in political circles that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism and that BDS is an anti-Semitic movement. There are numerous political leaders, both right-wing and left-wing, going in this direction. At the popular level, I don't think this attitude is accepted but it is very negative. They are trying to intimidate the BDS movement by taking it to court, but the results to date are not very clear. There have been different judgments, but when it does go to European adjudication, it will fail. It's clear that it's illegal to ban BDS. Federica Mogherini, the European Union's foreign-policy chief, has herself said that, while she doesn't personally back BDS, it is not illegal, that it's a democratic movement with the right to pursue its efforts as long as it does so in a peaceful way.
I think that today the only way at the international level is BDS. If governments are not able to pressure Israel to implement international resolutions, then the popular movement should take the affair into its own hands. To date, I don't think BDS has had any marked economic impact, but it has very important symbolic value. It is the delegitimizing of Israeli policy, and I think Israel is quite sensitive to this movement.
MEP: Do the politicians who equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism really believe what they are saying?
GRESH: That's a good question. In France, prior to Macron's election, François Hollande had never said this, though his prime minister, Manuel Valls, did make comments of this nature. As soon as Emanuel Macron came to power, he invited Netanyahu for the anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv [Velodrome d'Hiver] of 1942, when the Jews of Paris were arrested. On that occasion, he made such a declaration [equating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism], the first time a French president had done so.
I really can't answer the question as to their sincerity. As we know, until the forties, most Jews were not Zionists, either because they were communists or socialists, or because they were in the Bund, or they wanted to be citizens of Britain or France, having immigrated there, or they wanted to emigrate to the United States. There were many reasons, but it's clear they were not Zionists, so it's historically false. Today, of course, you have anti-Zionists who really are anti-Semitic, and I don't deny it. They use anti-Zionist verbiage to avoid being prosecuted for anti-Semitism. But most of the anti-Zionist movement is not anti-Semitic. In the Palestine solidarity movement, you have people who are anti-Zionists and are against the two-state solution, and you have people who are not anti-zionists and for the two-state solution. There are many different points of view.
It's really impossible to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, but perhaps it's a sign of the climate in Europe, which is to say that it's linked with the Israeli-Arab conflict. It's certainly linked with the emergence of some extremist Islamist groups, where you do have a new form of anti-Semitism. These occurrences are in turn used to generalize the fact that anti-Semitism is a big problem in Europe. Of course, you must fight all kinds of anti-Semitism. But France is a country where we can have a Jewish president, where a Jew can be elected to any political, economic or cultural post. All political parties are against anti-Semitism, including the National Front. We have no newspaper that is anti-Semitic. We are not at all in the period of the 1930s. So to use the term "anti-Semitism" is ambiguous. That doesn't mean we shouldn't fight against any resurgence of anti-Semitism, but the idea that anti-Semitism is today the big question of racism in Europe is false. The main racism in Europe today is Islamophobia.
MEP: German political leaders from Merkel on down are emphatic in condemning their country's Nazi past, which was marked by racial discrimination, ethnic cleansing, territorial annexation and the resort to military means to achieve these ends. They say they are against all that, yet they directly and indirectly support these very same policies as carried out by Israel. Isn't that obviously hypocritical?
GRESH: It's not only Germany; this is true across Europe. Germany has, of course, a special place because of the question of genocide, but otherwise it's the same. And I think this is linked with a colonial viewpoint. We don't consider the non-Europeans as our equals, who have the same rights to life, to self-determination, etc. We consider them as less than human. That's why so many Arabs and Muslims denounce what they see as our double standard on human rights. In Europe, we will defend the Ukraine, Bosnia, etc., but as soon as we come to the colonial world, and especially to Palestine, we forget this.
Not long after Hamas won the election in Palestine and the European Union and United States decided to boycott them, I was at a forum in the Middle East of Arab journalists from all tendencies — Islamists, communists, nationalists, etc. They all came to me and said, "You pressured the Palestinians to hold an election after Arafat's death, and you've characterized it as the most democratic election in the Arab world in 50 years. Yet after they voted, you say, ‘Sorry, we don't like the result so we are going to boycott it.' Are you joking?" Really, we don't realize how this hypocrisy plays into the hands of extremists. In the Middle East, they don't believe what we say, whether it's about democracy or human rights or self-determination. After the Egyptian coup d'état in 2013, for example, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, sent a letter to Mohamed Morsi and the head of the Muslim Brotherhood and said, "I have said it from the beginning, the road of democracy is closed." So we close the door on democracy we close the door on a diplomatic solution, and we are astonished to be the targets of bombs. No, I don't think it's astonishing.
MEP: Where do you think the status quo is leading us?
GRESH: We are seeing the consequences. We have waged this "war on terrorism" since 2001, and after all this time we have more wars, more terror, more attacks on our ground. You remember, at one stage there were speeches by Europeans and Americans saying, okay, we are going to fight in Afghanistan so that the war will not come here. Well it's arrived! And it's normal: If we bomb them, they will bomb us. It is so easy to understand if you consider the other as an equal.
I think we are going from worse to worse, we are going from war to war, and now when you look from Afghanistan to the Sahara there are many conflicts, all of them rooted in local conditions, and we are trying to fit them into our conception of a global war on terror. We are, for example, pushing a group of Tuareg, some of whom are not even believers, into saying they are part of al-Qaeda because it gives them a kind of strength. One hundred years ago, Europe was able, more or less, to reshape all the Middle East, to establish new borders, to suppress different insurrections. You could have a French or British general say, okay, the border will be right here. That's not possible anymore. We have seen it with the Americans in Iraq. The Americans had the best conditions for meeting their interests. They had the majority of the population against Saddam; the Shia and Kurds, and I think an important part of the Sunnis were also happy to get rid of Saddam. And in the end we've had 15 years of chaos. We in France intervened in Mali in such a stupid way, and now Macron doesn't know how to get out of this war, and it is spreading across the Sahara.
MEP: What should Europe's primary consideration be now, its main focus, especially with the Palestinians? If the Europeans are going to get tough, how are they going to do it? Or do they just lack the political will in the end to do what's necessary?
GRESH: There are many measures Europe can take. I'll give you a little example. The Israeli government seized solar panels that had been donated by Norway to a Palestinian village. There was a very strong protest from the Norwegian government with a threat of sanctions, and in two weeks it was solved. I don't think it's difficult to take some positions: for example, to not give Israel easy access to European research funds. One Israeli friend told me: "Take a very simple measure; you will require any Israeli living in the settlements to have a visa when they come to Europe. They are not living in Israel, so why should you give them free entry into your country without a visa?" We have 100 measures we can take that would press both the Israeli government and its population. We could say, if you want the occupation, you will pay a price for it. But we are seemingly not ready for this. Arafat was a leader able to sign a peace treaty with Israel. He had the strength. Mahmoud Abbas is very moderate and would be able to ratify an agreement with Israel. But after that, we don't know what will come. In the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon you now have an Islamic State presence. There is such despair that at any moment people can turn to extremism if they don't see any viable solution.