The Decline of Israel
Jonathan Cook interviewed
In a wide-ranging interview with the New
Left Project, Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook describes
the increasingly repressive nature of Israeli society and the
prospects for a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict
NLP: What did you make of Ehud Barak's recent comparison of Israel
to South Africa?
JC: We should be extremely wary of ascribing a leftwing agenda
to senior Israeli politicians who make use of the word "apartheid"
in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Barak was not claiming that
Israel is an apartheid state when he addressed the high-powered
delegates at the Herzliya conference last month; he was warning
the Netanyahu government that its approach to the two-state solution
was endangering Israel's legitimacy in the eyes of the world that
would eventually lead to it being called an apartheid state. He
was politicking. His goal was to intimidate Netanyahu into signing
up to his, and the Israeli centre's, long-standing agenda of "unilateral
separation": statehood imposed on the Palestinians as a series
of bantustans (be sure, the irony is entirely lost on Barak and
others). Barak knows that Netanyahu currently has no intention
of creating any kind of Palestinian state, even a bogus one, despite
his commitments to the US.
The last senior Israeli politician to talk of "apartheid"
was Ehud Olmert, and it is worth remembering why he used the term.
It was back in November 2003, when he was deputy prime minister
and desperately trying to scare his boss, Ariel Sharon, into reversing
his long-standing support for the settlements and adopt instead
the disengagement plan for Gaza. Olmert's thinking was that by
severing Gaza from the Greater Israel project - by pretending
the occupation had ended there - Israel could buy a few more years
before it faced a Palestinian majority and the danger of being
compared to apartheid South Africa. It worked and Sharon became
the improbable "man of peace" for which he is today
remembered. (Strangely, Olmert, like Barak, defined apartheid
in purely mathematical terms: Israeli rule over the Palestinians
would only qualify as apartheid at the moment Jews became a numerical
Barak is playing a similar game with Netanyahu, this time trying
to pressure him to separate from the main populated areas of the
West Bank. It is not surprising the task has fallen to the Labor
leader. The two other chief exponents of unilateral separation
are out of the way: Olmert is standing trial and Tzipi Livni is
in the wilderness of opposition. Barak is hoping to apply pressure
from inside the government. Barak is eminently qualified for the
job. He took on the mantel of the Oslo process after Yitzhak Rabin's
assassination and then tried to engineer the final separation
implicit in Oslo at Camp David in 2000 - on extremely advantageous
terms for Israel.
Can he succeed in changing Netanyahu's mind? It seems unlikely.
NLP: Avi Shlaim recently described Tony Blair as 'Gaza's Great
Betrayer'. What do you make of Tony Blair's role as Middle East
JC: Blair is a glorified salesman, selling the same snakeoil to
First, he is here to provide a façade of Western concern
about mending the Middle East. He suggests that the West is committed
to action even as it fails to intervene and the situation of the
Palestinians generally, and those in Gaza in particular, deteriorates
rapidly. He sells us the continuing dispossession of the Palestinians
in a bottle labelled "peace".
He is also here as a sort of European proconsul to advise the
Americans on how to repackage their policies. The US has become
aware that it has lost all credibility with the rest of the world
on this issue. Blair's job is to redesign the bottle labelled
"US honest broker" so that we will be prepared to buy
the product again.
His next task is to try to wheedle out of Israel any minor concession
he can secure on behalf of the Palestinians and persuade Tel Aviv
to cooperate in selling an empty bottle labelled "hope"
as a breakthrough in the peace process.
And finally, he is here to create the impression that his chief
task is to defend the interests of the Palestinians. To this end,
he collects the three bottles, puts them in some pretty wrapping
paper and writes on the label "Palestinian state".
For his labours he is being handsomely rewarded, especially by
NLP: You have described how Israel is becoming increasingly repressive
regarding its own Arab population. In what ways?
JC: Let's be clear: Israel has always been "repressive"
of its Palestinian minority. Its first two decades were marked
by a very harsh military government for the Palestinian population
inside Israel. Thousands of Bedouin, for example, were expelled
from their homes in the Negev several years after Israel's establishment
and forced into the Sinai. Israel's past should not be glorified.
What I have argued is that the direction taken by Israeli policy
since the Oslo process began has been increasingly dangerous for
the Palestinian minority. Before Oslo, Israel was chiefly interested
in containing and controlling the minority. After Oslo, it has
been trying to engineer a situation in which it can claim to no
longer be responsible for the Palestinians inside Israel with
This is intimately tied to Israel's more general policy of "unilateral
separation" from the Palestinians under occupation: in Gaza,
through the disengagement; in the West Bank, through the building
of the wall. Israel's chief concern is that - post-separation,
were Palestinian citizens to remain inside the Jewish state -
they would have far greater legitimacy in demanding the same rights
as Jews. Israelis regard that as an existential threat to their
state: Palestinian citizens could use their power, for example,
to demand a right of return for their relatives and thereby create
a Palestinian majority. The problem for Israel is that Palestinian
citizens can expose the sham of Israel's claims to being a democratic
So as part of its policy of separation, Israel has been thinking
about how to get rid of the Palestinian minority, or at the very
least how to disenfranchise it in a way that appears democratic.
It is a long game that I describe in detail in my book Blood and
Policymakers are considering different approaches, from physically
expelling Israel's Palestinian citizens to the bantustans in the
territories to stripping them incrementally of their remaining
citizenship rights, in the hope that they will choose to leave.
At the moment we are seeing the latter policy being pursued, but
there are plenty of people in the government who want the former
policy implemented when the political climate is right.
NLP: The frequent claim by Israeli officials is that Israel is
a democracy and that Israeli Arabs are afforded the same rights
as other citizens. What is your view?
JC: The widely shared assumption that Israel is a democracy is
a strange one.
This is a democracy without defined borders, encompassing parts
of a foreign territory, the West Bank, in which one ethnic / religious
group - the Jewish settlers - has been given the vote while another
- the Palestinians - has not. Those settlers, who are living outside
the internationally recognised borders of Israel, actually put
Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman into power.
It is also a democracy that has transferred control over 13 per
cent of its sovereign territory (and a large proportion of its
inhabited land) to an external organisation, the Jewish National
Fund, which prevents a significant proportion of Israel's own
citizenry - the 20 per cent who are Palestinian - from having
access to that land, again based on ethnic / religious criteria.
It is a democracy that historically gerrymandered its electoral
constituency by expelling most of the indigenous population outside
its borders - now referred to as the Palestinian refugees - to
ensure a Jewish majority. It has continued to gerrymander its
voting base by giving one ethnic group, Jews around the world,
an automatic right to become citizens while denying that same
right to another ethnic group, Palestinian Arabs.
This is a democracy that, despite a plethora of parties and the
necessity of creating broad coalition governments, has consistently
ensured that one set of parties (the Palestinian and anti-Zionist
ones) has been excluded from government. In fact, Israel's "democracy"
is not a competition between different visions of society, as
you would expect, but a country driven by a single ideology called
Zionism. In that sense, there has been one-party rule in Israel
since its birth. All the many parties that have participated in
government over the years have agreed on one thing: that Israel
should be a state that gives privileges to citizens who belong
to one ethnic group. Where there is disagreement, it is over narrow
sectoral interests or over how to manage the details of the occupation
- an issue related to territory outside Israel's borders.
Defenders of the idea that Israel is a democracy point to the
country's universal suffrage. But that is hardly sufficent grounds
for classing Israel as a democracy. Israel was also considered
a democracy in the 1950s and early 1960s - before the occupation
began - when a fifth of the populace, the Palestinian minority
inside Israel, lived under a military government. Then as now,
they had the vote but during that period they could not leave
their villages without a permit from the authorities.
My point is that giving the vote to 20 per cent of the electorate
that is Palestinian is no proof of democracy if Israeli Jews have
rigged their "democracy" beforehand through ethnic cleansing
(the 1948 war); through discriminatory immigration policies (the
Law of Return); and through the manipulation of borders to include
the settlers while excluding the occupied Palestinians, even though
both live in the same territory.
Israeli academics who consider these things have had to devise
new classifications to cope with these strange features of the
Israeli "democratic" landscape. The generous ones call
it an "ethnic democracy"; the more critical ones an
"ethnocracy". Most are agreed, however, that it is not
the liberal democracy of most Westerners' imaginations.
NLP: You describe the long time anti-occupation activist and writer
Uri Avnery as being a "compromised critic" of Israel.
What do you mean by this? What is wrong with Avnery's position
on the occupation?
JC: There's nothing wrong with Avnery's position on the occupation.
He wants to end it, and he has worked strenuously and bravely
to do so over many decades.
The problem derives from our, his readers', tendency to misunderstand
his reasons for seeking an end to the occupation, and in that
sense I think his role in the Palestinian solidarity movement
has not been entirely helpful. Avnery wants the occupation to
end but, it is clear from his writings, he is driven primarily
by a desire to protect Israel as a Jewish state, the kind of ethnocratic
state I have just described. Avnery does not hide this: he has
always declared himself a proud Zionist. But in my view, his attachment
to a state privileging Jews compromises his ability to critique
the inherent logic of Zionism and to respond to Israel's fast-moving
policies on the ground, especially the goals of separation.
In a sense Avnery is stuck romantically in the 1970s and 1980s,
the heydey of Palestinian resistance. Then the Palestinian struggle
was much more straightforward: it was for national liberation.
In those days Avnery's battle was chiefly inside the Palestine
Liberation Organisation, not inside Israel. He favoured a two-state
solution when many in the PLO were promoting a vision of a single
democratic state encompassing both Palestinians and Israelis.
As we know, Avnery won that ideological battle: Arafat signed
up to the two-state vision and eventually became the head of the
Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian government-in-waiting.
But with Oslo, and formal Palestinian consent to the partition
of historic Palestine, Avnery had to switch the focus of his struggle
back to Israel, where there was much more resistance to the idea.
While the Palestinian leaders were willing, even enthusiastic
participants in the Oslo process, Israel's leaders were much more
cynical. They wanted a Palestinian dictatorship in the OPTs, led
by Arafat, that would suppress all dissent while Israel would
continue exploiting the land and water resources and the Palestinian
labour-force through a series of industrial zones.
Because of his emotional investment in the separation policy of
Oslo, Avnery has been very slow to appreciate Israel's bad faith
in this process. As the horrors of the wall and the massacres
in Gaza have unfolded, I have started to see in his writings a
very belated caution, a hesitation. That is to be welcomed. But
I think looking to Avnery for guidance about where the Palestinian
struggle against the occupation should head now - for instance,
on the question of boycott, divestment and sanctions - is probably
unwise. On other matters, he still has many fascinating insights
NLP: You are an advocate of a one state solution to the conflict.
Given the overwhelming opposition of most Israelis to such a solution
how is this to come about?
JC: Let me make an initial qualification. I do not regard myself
as being an "advocate" for any particular solution to
the conflict. I would happily support a two-state solution if
I thought it was possible. I do not have a view about which technical
arrangement is needed for Palestinians and Israelis to live happy,
secure lives. If that can be achieved in a two-state solution,
then I am all in favour.
My support for one state follows from the fact that I have yet
to see anyone making a convincing case for two states, given the
current realities. Those in the progressive community who advocate
for the two-state solution seem to do so because their knowledge
of the conflict is based on understandings a decade or more out
of date, and typically because they know little about what drives
Israeli policies inside Israel's internationally recognised borders
- which is hardly surprising, given the dearth of reporting on
This relates to the question of how Israelis can be won over.
If the criterion for deciding whether a solution is viable is
whether it is acceptable to Israeli Jewish public opinion, then
the two-state crowd have exactly the same problem as the one-state
crowd. There is no popular backing in Israel for a full withdrawal
to the 1967 borders; a connection between the West Bank and Gaza;
open borders for the Palestinian state and the right for it to
forge diplomatic alliances as it chooses; a Palestinian army and
air force; Palestinian rights to their water resources; Jerusalem
as Palestine's capital; and so on. Almost no Israeli Jews would
vote for a government advocating that solution.
When we hear of polls showing an Israeli majority for a two-state
solution, that is not what the respondents are referring to: they
mean a series of bantustans surrounded by Israeli territory and
settlers; severe controls on Palestinian movement between those
bantustans; Palestine's capital in Abu Dis or some other village
near Jerusalem; Israel's continuing control of the water; no Palestinian
army; and so on. The Israeli public's vision of Palestine is the
same as its leadership's: an extension of the Gaza model to the
So we might as well forget about pandering to Israeli public opinion
for the moment. It will change when it is offered a different
cost-benefit calculus for its continuing rule over the Palestinians,
as occurred among white South Africans who were encouraged to
turn against the apartheid regime. That is the purpose of campaigns
like boycott, divestment and santions. Let's think instead about
workable solutions that accord with the rights of Israelis and
Palestinians to live decent lives.
Interestingly, despite the mistaken assumption that Israelis favour
a (real) two-state solution over a one-state solution, there are
now indications that a broad coalition of Israelis accept that
the moment for a two-state solution has passed. Meron Benvenisti,
the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, is one from the Zionist
left. But surprisingly he was recently joined by Tzipi Hotovely,
an influential MP from Netanyahu's Likud party, who argues for
granting citizenship to Palestinians in the West Bank.
NLP: Other writers such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein
argue in favour of a two-state solution, pointing out that world
opinion and international law is firmly on the side of such a
solution. How do you respond?
JC: Much as I respect Finkelstein and Chomsky, I find those arguments
"World opinion" in this case means little more than
opinion in Washington, and as Chomsky has eloquently pointed out
on many occasions the US, along with Israel, is the rejectionist
party to the conflict. In fact, it is precisely because the US
and Israel are the rejectionist camp that we should be wary of
accepting that a two-state arrangement is a viable solution to
the conflict now that the leaderships of both countries ostensibly
Rather I would argue that the US and Israel pay lipserve to a
two-state solution to provide cover for the emerging reality on
the ground, in which Jewish privilege is being maintained in a
unilaterally imposed one-state solution by Israel. Without that
cover, the apartheid nature of the regime and the creeping programme
of ethnic cleansing would be blindingly obvious to everyone.
Since Oslo, Barak, Sharon, Olmert and Livni all understood that
"world opinion" could be kept at bay only as long as
Israel appeared to favour a two-state solution. Netanyahu has
embarrassed the West, and the US in particular, by dropping that
pretence. It is why he is so unpopular and why we are starting
to see more critical coverage of Israel in the media. Things are
not worse, at least in the occupied territories, than they were
under Olmert and co (in fact, it could be argued that they are
moderately better), but it is much easier for journalists to cover
some of the reality now. I guess this is a way of bringing Netanyahu
The international law argument in this context is not much more
helpful. While international law offers a discrete and invaluable
set of principles when it comes to determining the rules of war,
for instance, matters are not so straightforward when related
to borders and territory.
Which bit of international law are we referring to? Why not take
as our reference point the 1947 partition plan, which would see
nearly half of historic Palestine returned to the Palestinians,
and Jerusalem under international control? And what are we to
make of UN Resolution 242, which refers to "the acquisition
of territories" in the English version and "the acquisition
of the territories" in the French version? Should the Palestinians
be offered 28 per cent of their homeland or less than 28 per cent?
And what do the Oslo accords mean in practice for Palestinian
statehood, given that the final status issues were left open?
One can argue over these points endlessly, and dwelling on them
to the exclusion of all other considerations is a recipe for helping
the powerful in their struggle to ensure that the status quo -
the occupation - is maintained.
The primary goals of international law are twofold: to safeguard
the dignity of human beings; and to ensure their right to self-determination.
In my view, those aims cannot be realised in a two-state solution,
given both the realities on the ground and the conditions on Palestinian
sovereignty being demanded by Israel and the international community.
Instead we should look to international law to provide a frame
of reference for finding a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, but it should not tie our hands. The objective is to
find a practical and creative political arrangement that has legitimacy
in the eyes of both parties and can ensure that Israelis and Palestinians
lead happy, secure lives. The goal here is not a technical solution;
it is an enduring peace.
NLP: British media coverage of the conflict is typically more
sympathetic towards Israel than towards Palestinians and generally
fails to give proper historical background to the conflict. Why
do you believe the British media behaves in this way regarding
JC: There are various reasons that are sometimes difficult to
disentangle. For the sake of simplicity, I will separate them
into three categories: practical issues facing journalists covering
the conflict; expectations imposed by the supposed "professionalism"
of journalism; and ideological and structural constraints that
reflect the fact that the dominant journalism practised today
is a journalism cowed by corporate interests.
Of the practical issues, one of the most important - though least
spoken of, for obvious reasons - is the fact that foreign desks
prefer to appoint Jewish reporters to cover the conflict. In part
the preference for Jewish reporters reflects an assessment, and
probaby a correct one, by editors that Israel, not the Palestinians,
makes the news and that Jewish reporters will fare better as they
negotiate the corridors of power in a self-declared Jewish state.
Faced with candidates for the job, a foreign editor will often
take the easy choice of a Jew who speaks fluent Hebrew, has family
here who will provide ready-made contacts, and has some sort of
commitment to living here and gaining a deeper understanding of
(Israeli) life. Of course, those are precisely the reasons why
an editor ought to judge the reporter unsuitable, but in practice
it does not work that way.
I know from my own experiences that most Israeli officials try
to find out whether you are Jewish before they will build any
kind of intimacy with you as a reporter. That works to the advantage
of Jewish reporters when a job comes up in Jerusalem.
I should add that the historical tendency of the Britsh media
to appoint Jewish reporters has diminished in recent years, possibly
because the desks have become more self-conscious about it. But
it is still very strong among the American media, and it is the
American media that set the news agenda on the conflict. The NYT's
Ethan Bronner is fairly typical on that score and the paper's
indulgent decision to allow him to continue in his posting after
revelations of a clear conflict of interest - that his son has
joined the Israeli army - simply highlights the point.
A second practical issue is the location of British bureaus: in
Jewish West Jerusalem. That results in a natural identification
with Israeli concerns. It would be just as easy, and cheaper,
to locate journalists a short distance away in Ramallah, or even
in a Palestinian neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, but few if any
Then there are the local sources of information that a reporter
relies on. He or she reads the Israeli media, most of which have
English editions, and comes to understand the conflict through
the analyses and commentaries of Israeli journalists. This is
even more true for those reporters who read Hebrew. Are there
any British journalists reading the Palestinian media in Arabic?
I doubt it.
Similarly, Israeli spokespeople are much more likely to be sources
of information: they usually speak English; they are accessible,
especially if you are Jewish and seen as "sympathetic"
to Israel; and they are authoritative from the point of view of
the correspondents. By contrast, the Palestinians are in a much
weaker position. Who counts as a Palestinian spokesperson? Usually
reporters turn to the Palestinian Authority for comments, even
though the PA's agenda is severely compromised and Palestinian
opinion is deeply divided. In addition, official Palestinian spokespeople
are often hamstrung by a rigid bureaucracy, lack of accountability,
problems of language, and little knowledge of the decisions being
taken in Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem that shape their lives.
Issues deriving from journalism's so-called "professionalism"
must be factored in too. The professional training of journalists
encourages them to believe that there are objective criteria that
define what counts as news. A consequence is that professional
journalists are expected to follow similar lines of inquiry and
turn to the same groups of "neutral" contacts. This
justifies both the hunting-in-packs philosophy that underpins
most mainstream journalism and the reliance on establishment sources
whom journalists use to interpret the news story.
In the case of Israel-Palestine, we end up with very similar looking
accounts of the conflict that are usually filtered through the
perspectives of a narrow elite of politicians, academics and diplomats
who share in the main fanciful assumptions about the conflict:
that there is a meaningful peace process; that Israeli leaders
are acting in good faith; that the occupation is unpleasant but
temporary; that the Palestinians are their own worst enemies or
genetically prone to terrorism; that the occupation in Gaza has
ended; that the Americans are a neutral broker in the conflict;
and so on.
"Balance" is also seen as an essential quality in any
professional news report. Balance of the "Israel said-the
Palestinians said" variety encourages a view that the two
sides in the conflict are equal. It favours the status quo, which
favours Israel because it is the dominant party.
Another issue that skews coverage is the fact that professional
journalists are supposed to take directions in their coverage
from senior editors, usually thousands of miles away. The mainstream
media is very hierarchical and few journalists will risk engaging
in repeated fights with senior editors if they wish to be successful.
The problem is that those editors have formed their views of the
conflict in part by reading influential columnists, particularly
those in the US who are considered to be close to the centres
of power. That means that Zionist commentators like Thomas Friedman
and the late William Safire shape British editors' understanding
of the region and therefore also the sort of coverage they expect
from their reporters. Professional journalists do not usually
invent things to satisfy their editors but they do steer clear
of certain topics and lines of inquiry that conflict with their
This tendency is strongly reinforced by the pro-Israel lobby in
Britain, which gives reporters and their editors a hard time whenever
they depart from common, and usually erroneous, assumptions about
Israel. The sheer weight of the lobby, both in terms of its leaders'
connections to the British elites and its large number of foot
soldiers, makes it very intimidating to the media. Minor matters
of interpretation by a reporter can quickly be blown into a full-scale
scandal of biased reporting or accusations of anti-Semitism. Even
accurate reporting that is critical of Israel can be damaging
to a journalist's reputation, as Jeremy Bowen found out last year
when absurd complaints against him were upheld by the BBC Trust.
The effect of the lobby in Britain is further heightened by the
far greater power of the pro-Israel lobby in the US. British editors,
as we have already noted, look to US commentators for guidance
about the conflict. So the US lobby, in shaping the views of the
American media, also affects the British media's conceptions too.
These last problems are closely related to the much larger structural
and ideological issues affecting modern journalism that direct
the coverage of Israel-Palestine.
In my early career working for British newspapers, I was a very
traditional liberal journalist. Only when I turned freelance,
moved to the Middle East and started covering the Israel-Palestine
conflict from a Palestinian city did I discover that most of my
life-long assumptions about the liberal British media were untenable.
It was a period of rapid and profound disillusionment. Out here,
I was faced with a stark choice: report the conflict in the same
distorted and misleading manner adopted by the mainstream reporters
or become a so-called "dissident" journalist. I struggled
with the first option for a while, publishing in the Guardian
and the International Herald Tribune when I could, but it was
with a heavy conscience. It was during this period that I heard
about the propaganda model of Ed Hermann and Noam Chomsky, as
well as websites like Media Lens, which finally made sense of
my own experiences as a journalist.
The structural problem of modern journalism is a huge subject
I cannot do more than outline here.
Professional journalism exists in its current state because it
is subsidised by fabulously wealthy owners and fabulously wealthy
advertisers, both of whom share the interests of the corporate
elites that rule our societies. The corporate-owned media ensures
its journalists share its corporate values through a process of
"filtering". Journalists who make it to a position like
Jerusalem bureau chief, for example, have gone through a very
lengthy selection process that weeds out anyone considered undesirable.
Typically an undesirable journalist fails to abide by the implicit
rules of the profession: she is not intimidated in the face of
power and authority, she looks beyond the elites to other sources
of information, she rejects the bogus idea of objectivity and
neutrality, and so on. Such journalists either get stuck in lowly
jobs or are pushed out.
The result is a sort of Darwinian natural selection that ensures
corporate, clubbable journalists rise to the top and select in
their image those who follow behind them.
Given this analysis of corporate journalism, it becomes much easier
to understand why the media in the West, where financial, military
and industrial interests prevail, should demonstrate a much greater
sympathy for Israel's concerns than the Palestinians'.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel.
His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations:
Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto
Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments
in Human Despair" (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.