Michael Slate Interviews International Law Professor Richard Falk on U.S. and Israel:

"Iron fist geopolitics where law and morality are completely marginalized"

December 25, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The following is excerpted from an interview with Richard Falk on Friday, December 13, 2017 for The Michael Slate Show on KPFK Pacifica radio. Richard Falk is a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, and he has been teaching at UC Santa Barbara. He is a former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. As background to this interview, we encourage readers to explore the special issue of Revolution: Bastion of Enlightenment... or Enforcer for Imperialism: The Case of ISRAEL.

Revolution/revcom.us features interviews from The Michael Slate Show to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theatre, music and literature, science, sports, and politics. The views expressed by those interviewed are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere by Revolution/revcom.us.


Michael Slate: Trump announced he’s going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and is going to move the U.S. diplomatic embassy to the city of Jerusalem. What’s the problem here, Richard?

Richard Falk: Well, there are a number of problems. For one thing, there’s an international consensus that Trump’s announcement broke, to the effect that no change in the status of Jerusalem would be made until the parties themselves—in other words, Israel and Palestine—reached an agreement as to how they would share control over the city. That was understood to be something that would be deferred until the last stages of supposed peace negotiations. So that’s one aspect of what’s wrong and disruptive of that.

The other is the fact that Israel is trying to establish a capital in an occupied territory, which is not its own territory. The assumption being made by the Israeli assertion is that Jerusalem as a totality is part of Israel. But the whole international law understanding of the status of Jerusalem is that it is not resolved as to its proper legal status, and in the interim, it’s occupied territory, at least so far as East Jerusalem is concerned. And the whole of Jerusalem is in a kind of legal abeyance. So you have two big problems there.

Michael Slate: Israel is probably the only country in the world that has refused to define its borders in all these decades.

Richard Falk: Yes, exactly. Because there’s the tension between Israel as an established political entity, and the ambitions of Israel to satisfy the maximal Zionist vision of biblical Israel, which extends at least to the West Bank and the whole of Jerusalem. So there’s always been that tension, and Israel has cleverly avoided committing itself publicly to this vision of a Greater Israel, which is a direct confrontation with the international consensus, and to the establishment of its own legitimacy back in 1948, when it was accepted as an independent state on the basis of UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which was a division of the territory of Mandated Palestine between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and even at that time was considered by the Arab world, and certainly by the Palestinians, to be a highly unfair territorial allocation.

The way in which Israel has been able to project its effective control over Jerusalem is a geopolitical one in which it was content with U.S. ambiguity—that it would support Israel in terms of its own extension of control, but until Trump, it would adhere to the international consensus that the legal future and the political future of Jerusalem would be determined by negotiations, by diplomacy, between the two parties. And why this decision is seen as a rupture and a repudiation of this longstanding international understanding is that it looks like a way of affirming Israel’s determination to have an endgame to the conflict imposed by its unilateral edict or decree. In other words, abandon diplomacy, and not even pretend that it’s interested in a negotiated solution.

Michael Slate: There is a particular importance in relation to the West Bank and how Israel views that. It’s also true, you’d have to say, about Gaza, when you look at the seemingly never-ending attacks on Gaza, that it’s very much bordering on the denial of the existence of Palestine as a legitimate state and the Palestinian people as a legitimate people.

Richard Falk: No question. From the very beginnings, the puzzle challenging Zionism was how do we get rid of the Palestinian majority. Remember that when the Balfour Declaration1 100 years ago was issued, the Jewish population of Palestine was no more than six percent at the most. And even at the end of World War 2, when the partition resolution was adopted, the Jewish population of Palestine was only 33 percent. And to make Israel fulfill the Zionist vision of a democratic and Jewish state meant they had to establish a Jewish majority. The only way they could do that was to get rid of most of the Palestinians. The Nakba,2 or dispossession of Palestinians that occurred in the 1947-48 War, achieved that result, but it’s been a continuous process of how do we deal with this demographic, so-called “ticking bomb,” without repudiating our legitimacy claims that rest on being a liberal democracy.

Increasingly, as they’ve moved toward this unilateral end of the conflict, they’ve abandoned any serious claim of being a democratic state as distinct from a kind of ethnocratic state. It’s clearly intended to be a Jewish state, and the idea of democracy and human rights is definitely subordinated, and that is why we concluded in our UN study that Israel’s structure of control over the Palestinian people as a whole really rested on apartheid structures of victimization and subjugation based on ethnic identity.

Michael Slate: I spent a lot of time studying apartheid in South Africa, and went there when it was an apartheid state and interviewed all kinds of people. There’s a lot in common there [between apartheid and Israeli occupation of Palestine]. But there is this ethnic cleansing that they’ve done with the Palestinian people—that they don’t really need the Palestinian people, and they don’t really want them.

Richard Falk: In that sense it’s very different because the South African economy was premised on cheap African labor. Israel has deliberately not wanted to base its economic viability on Palestinian labor for precisely the reasons you suggest. But they want to get rid of as many Palestinians as possible. And ethnic cleansing is the gentlest accurate word for what happened in 1947-48, which meant the expulsion of 700,000 to 750,000 Palestinians, and the denial of any right of return, regardless of how deep the connections of the Palestinians were with the land, and with family, and other connections.

Michael Slate: And that leads to something which is really important for understanding this: There is a certain bowing down to the Christian fascists in this country, personified by Pence.

Richard Falk: That’s a very good point. One of the things that’s interesting about this decision is that it joins the kind of unilateralist foreign policy that Trump champions, which was epitomized perhaps by the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, being the only country out of 193 that repudiates this seminal experiment in international cooperation to solve common problems.

So you have on one side this unilateralism, ignoring international cooperative arrangements and structures. And on the other hand, you have this double policy domestically, satisfying donors like Sheldon Adelson, and satisfying Christian evangelists like Mike Pence—and at the same time serving the interests of class-based politics associated with Wall Street and the financial world.

These two domestic and international vectors of Trump’s policy converge in this Jerusalem issue.

Michael Slate: How does General Assembly Resolution 181 [the U.N. resolution that divided Palestine into what were to be Palestinian and Jewish states] fit into things?

Richard Falk: It fits in, again, in at least two ways. One is that Israel’s own legitimacy as a state is premised on the partition resolution that was adopted in 1947 and served as the basis of Israel’s admission to the UN a year later. Secondly it disposes of Jerusalem as belonging neither to Jews nor the non-Jewish communities in Palestine, but as an internationalized city under UN administration. And the notion here was that this particular city with its religious symbolism should not be part of the partition arrangement. So, there was in a sense a territorial denial in the very foundation of Israel’s own legitimacy from a UN point of view that took place as soon as Israel in 1967 took over the whole of Jerusalem militarily, and immediately doubled its area by Israeli law and then declared it to be the unified eternal city of the Jewish people. So 181 is very fundamental, I think, to a correct understanding of the evolution of the conflict and its relation to Jerusalem as a particular place.

Michael Slate: Israel has been pretty open about what it’s doing today in relation to Jerusalem, that it is their capital.

Richard Falk: Yes, they were saying that, but even the U.S. refused to endorse that. And what’s different now is that the Trump diplomacy, such as it is [laughing], is an unconditional endorsement of what Israel was unilaterally proclaiming ever since 1967, essentially.

Michael Slate: I read somewhere where international law says that East Jerusalem is occupied territory, and therefore, anything that is done to it is subject to the Fourth Geneva Convention [which, among other things, defines the rights of civilians in occupied territories]. But it appears that doesn’t seem to mean anything to anybody.

Richard Falk: Well, what you’re really saying indirectly is that geopolitics trumps—and that’s a bad pun—international humanitarian law. And where there’s a sufficiently strong geopolitical move, the U.S. and other countries push international law to one side. That happens particularly in relation to security issues and war-peace issues. It doesn’t happen so much in commercial, trade, or investment issues or maritime safety—a whole series of things where international law works pretty well.

It doesn’t work well where hard power is part of the core of the problem. And that’s been the case in all of these territorial conflicts. And the Zionist movement, and Israel as a state, has been very opportunistic in the way it’s disguised its real goals and pursued them stage by stage. Going back again to the Balfour Declaration, where they were only aspiring to achieve a homeland within the established entity of Palestine, of which they were a small minority as I said earlier, to then wanting to be a state in accordance with the partition conception, to then wanting to be a state that could encroach upon the occupied Palestinian territory and become a state that was larger than what was envisioned either by partition or by the end of the so-called War of Independence in 1948.

So at every stage, Israel has escalated its real demands, beyond what its public posture had been at an earlier stage. That makes it extremely difficult for the ordinary person to understand the progression and escalation of Israeli ambitions. Because the full extent of them were not publicly visible until very recently. And now with the green light given by the Trump administration, they’ve become more and more visible.

Michael Slate: There’s been a campaign that’s gone on over the years to not just verbally but physically do away with the Palestinian population in whatever means was necessary.

Richard Falk: Yes, but “do away” has been somewhat ambiguously implemented, and may mean different things to different strands of the Israeli leadership. One meaning of “do away” is to effectively subjugate, whether the Palestinians are treated as a discriminated minority in Israel, or as a captive population in Gaza, or as insecure residents of Jerusalem, or as an occupied West Bank, or permanent consignment to refugee or involuntary exile status.

So one whole sense of what it means to get rid of the Palestinians is to subjugate and effectively control. The other, which overlaps with this, is to seek to avoid demographic ambiguity by the growth of Palestinian population by actually physically getting rid of Palestinians to the extent possible.

One of the ways this is currently being considered within Israel is to somehow get rid of Gaza as part of the Palestinian entity, and persuade either Egypt or Jordan to absorb and administer Gaza, either as part of their own territory or as some sort of protectorate within their territory. This effort has so far failed, but it’s indicative of this effort to combine on the one side ethnic cleansing with on the other side, complete subjugation.

Michael Slate: It’s a very bad situation for the Palestinian people. We lose some of our own humanity if we stand there and allow yet another genocidal assault to go on.

Richard Falk: I completely agree with you, Michael. It’s a precedent for precisely that kind of unilateral, geopolitical militarism, or iron fist geopolitics, where law and morality are completely marginalized and a bunch of calculations have been made. I think two of the things that are different in the Trump presidency is, first of all, intensifying these dysfunctional special relationships that pre-existed Trump, with Israel and Saudi Arabia. And secondly, this pandering in an even more extreme way to the major Israeli donors within the United States, and the Christian Zionists who have somehow wrapped up their own expectations of the second coming of Jesus with the transcendence of Israel as a renewed biblical state.

1. A declaration issued by British Lord Balfour in 1917 that promised a “national home” for Jews on Palestinian land. [back]

2. In Arabic, “nakba” means “catastrophe.” [back]


Volunteers Needed... for revcom.us and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.