by Emile Badarin
Based on the talk given by Professor Norman Finkelstein at University of Exeter (11 February 2012 at 18:00), I will summarize his argument as the following. To resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Professor Finkelstein argues for a two-state solution: an Israeli state and a Palestinian one based on the 1967 borderlines (West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip). His account is founded on two key points: first, public opinion (i.e., what the public is ready to accept), and second, international law and the standards of “mainstream” human rights organizations. In this article, I will argue that there is a sheer inconsistency and incoherence in his account. Thus arguing for a two-state settlement in the light of Finkelstein’s account puts the framework of the two-state settlement itself into question.
1. Public Opinion (Which Public?)
Finkelstein argues that “public opinion”, or “the broad pubic” is in favor of the two-state settlement based on international law. As he puts it: “the public is ready to accept what the international law says”. Hence, he conceives his mission as getting the public to “act” on what they already believe is right, namely, to mobilize the public to act in order to realize the two-state settlement.
To support his claim about “public opinion”, he cites the BBC poll on 18 September 2011. In simple words, public opinion is the collective beliefs of an adult group of people about a particular matter. Accordingly, it is essential to demarcate the “group of people” whose beliefs were combined. A little reflection on the BBC poll is revealing. Most, if not all of the public opinion surveys on the matter so far have been made by-and-for Western Europe and North America. First, the BBC poll covered 19 countries (Canada, USA, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Turkey, France, Germany, UK 53, Russia, Egypt, Ghana, China, Philippines, Pakistan, Indonesia, Australia, and India).
Second, the total poll sample is 20,446 people out of approximately 2.2 billion adult people in the world. However the BBC poll was portrayed as if it represents the “broad public opinion”.
Third, the BBC poll is not designed to measure the attitude of the people about settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but rather it is designed to measure what stance the respondents would like their governments to take with regard to the “recognition” of “the Palestinian Territories” as a state and a UN member-state. There is no reference to the two-state solution. BBC poll phrased the question like this: “As you may know, the Palestinian Authority is planning to request that the UN General Assembly recognize the Palestinian Territories as a state and as a member of the UN. Do you think [RESPONDENT’S COUNTRY] [sic] should vote for or against this request?” The poll provided four possible answers: “Should vote for it, Should vote against it, It depends / should abstain and DK/NA”.
Finally, there is no “broad public opinion” in favor of the recognition of the Palestinian state, let alone the actual implementation of the two-state solution. In fact, only 49% thought that their governments should vote for the recognition of the Palestinian state as figure 1 illustrates.
|Figure 1: Opinion on How Countries Should Vote on Recognition of Palestinian Territories as a State. 19 countries, 2011 (Source: BBC Poll 18 September 2011)|
To avoid a charge of poll unrepresentativeness, Finkelstein brings the United Nations (UN) General Assembly voting record on the question of Palestine support his argument. All of the UN state-members have voted for the two-state solution (with the exception of the United States, Israel, a few pacific islands and sometimes Australia). Since the Arab and Islamic states (e.g., he cites Iran as an example) have been voting in favor of the two-state settlement, he extrapolates that “public opinion” in the Middle East supports the two-state solution. This claim does not withstand the simplest critical evaluation. After all, all of the Arab states have been ruled by dictatorships, therefore, to claim spuriously that the Arab states represent the public opinion of their citizens is implausible.
Moreover, public opinion is something constructed, not given, and pliable to change. The twenty-year old (so-called) “peace process” and “the two-state solution” have been saturating the media, which in turn constitute the two-state solution as if it is the only imaginable and viable solution. Further, not only public opinion is a construct, but also the questionnaire framing, provided answers and timing help establishing particular results. It appears to me that only the “messengers of peace” have been living in bubble of the two-state solution. On the ground there has been no in/significant indication of a “solution”, be it one, two, three, or five states. There is only occupation, discrimination and abuse of humanity.
The public opinion logic brings the majority rule principle and the “will of the majority” to the fore. Assuming that public opinion represents the desires of the majority, anything the majority decides (supposedly) must be the solution. Bearing in mind that the public opinion and desires are a construct and an interpretation, “public opinion” on the Israel-Palestine conflict may sway and accept the cancellation of some of the Palestinians’ rights endorsed by the international law. This is not only a philosophical and theoretical argument but also a real one. For example, it is possible that the Western public opinion could with time change to consider “the right of return”, Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem or “settlement blocs” to be unacceptable.
À la utilitarianism, taking the “will of majority” as a rule, then a greater number of people would (supposedly) be happier by implementing the two-state settlement. We need to ask this question: Does this solution leave the people who are supposed to live by it happier? It may leave some happier, but necessarily not all, especially the 5 million Palestinian refugees. Therefore, Finkelstein’s end citation of Aimé Césaire’s “there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory” is inappropriate and ill-placed because half of the Palestinian people have virtually no place in the rendezvous of the two-state solution.
2. International law
I will briefly sketch out the main UN resolutions on the question of Palestine. Several UN General Assembly (UNGA) and Security Council (UNSC) resolutions were passed on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The UNGA resolution 181 (November 1947) ruled on the partition of Palestine into a state for the Jews (on 56% of the historical Palestine), a state for the Palestinians (on 43%) and an international status for Jerusalem. However, since resolution 181 comes from the UNGA, it has no legal leverage. Also it was composed under predetermined and unjust circumstances.
In December 1948, the UNSC issued resolution 194 calling for “the right of return and compensation” for Palestinian refugees. The number of Palestinian refugees now is about 5 million, and all of them ––according to international law, the laws of refugees and resolution 194–– have the right to return to their homes. After the Six-Day War in June 1967, the UNSC passed resolution 242 which prohibited acquiring land by acts of war and called on Israel to withdraw “from territories occupied in the recent [June 1967] conflict”. Since that time, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip have been considered Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). With the advance of the so-called Oslo process, the two-state solution and the “peace process” have become the official and the most célèbre term in foreign policy regarding the Middle East. In 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) resolved that the Wall in the West Bank is illegal, all the Israeli settlements are illegal and the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip are OPT.
This short history reveals that international law, and UNGA and UNSC resolutions on the question of Palestine are not fixed and can change. Accordingly, it is not impossible for the UNGA or UNSC to eventually pass a resolution legalizing “the settlements blocs” and to be annexed to Israel, or to omit the word “return” from the resolution 194, which may become an established (Western) “public opinion”. Is such a stance defendable? Should the Palestinians submit to that and accept such a decision?
Finkelstein formulated his argument in light of such an account of international law and public opinion. Moreover, he often juxtaposes the two-state settlement with the record of what he likes to call “mainstream” human rights organizations. As he puts it:
International law is unambiguous, uncomplicated, there is a near unanimous consensus on what the law says. But the law is clear, the settlements are illegal that is correct, East Jerusalem is OPT, that is correct, the West Bank and Gaza are OPT, but it is also correct that Israel is a state. If you want to use the law as weapon or as leverage in order to reach public opinion you cannot be selective … The law is a package deal.
Yet when one (e.g., solidarity and BDS movements) asks for the application of the very rules on which Finkelstein built his argument, he is hesitant and ambivalent. In his view, asking for “end of the occupation, right of return and equal rights of the Arabs in Israel” is a pretense and selectivity: “they know the result [of implementing the law]… there is no Israel.”
When Finkelstein is asked about the international law concerning the right of return, he is ambivalent about the numbers (“do not inflate the numbers”). Additionally, he agues that “there is nothing anywhere in international consensus for resolving the conflict that says anything about the minority inside Israel, the Palestinian-Arab minority.”  First, on the refugees’ issue, all of them regardless of the numbers have the right to return to their land or be compensated according to their choices. On the question of Palestinians in Israel (i.e. in their own land, or being displaced elsewhere inside what used to be their homeland before 1948), international law, “mainstream” human rights organizations, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are clear: all endorse the equality of rights and nondiscrimination principles.
If we accept the condition to limit the numbers of the refugees who are willing to return home (not to inflate the numbers) to only 20% (approximately one million), we are still left with the question of the status of the returnees in Israel. If the “equality of rights” principle is not part of the “package”, undoubtedly their status would be anything but equal citizens in what is represented to be a just and reasonable settlement. Such just and reasonable settlement requires from the Palestinians to give up not only 78% of their land, but also 50% of their population. As such, so long Finkelstein does not have a clear position on the status of the Palestinians living in Israel now he is not only contradicting his own argument, but also it renders the right of return obsolete and meaningless.
It is not true that asking for equality of rights is a pretense to end Israel, which some supporters of Israel fear and even Finkelstein appears to sustain in his argument. Palestinian-Israeli citizens have been themselves struggling for equality in Israel for a very long time now, and have even established institutions based on human rights principles (e.g., Adaala) to pursue this aim within the state of Israel, not in seeking out the destruction of Israel but the system of discrimination. I argue that the implication of Finkelstein’s argument is far-reaching: it gives the Israeli system of discrimination against the non-Jewish citizens an academic rationalization.
In the light of this short analysis, I would like to contend that Finkelstein’s account is based on a selective use of international law, public opinion, and human rights standards as points of convenience to find a solution. Nonetheless, Finkelstein’s sincere drive and passion for finding a solution that would lessen the pain the suffering of the Palestinians is unquestionable. His contributions to the Palestinian question in academia and in the real world are acknowledged. Therefore, by no means my analysis represents a condemnation of Professor Finkelstein, but rather it aims evaluate the account he made.
Emile Badarin, PhD candidate in Middle East Politics at University of Exeter, MSc. International Relations, MSc. Political Science, MSc. Spatial Planning.
 BBC Poll on the Recognition of the Palestinian Statehood as a UN member-state, 18 September 2011. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14946179 [accessed 5 March 2012]
 See, Ilan Pappé (2006). The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, pp. 29-38.
 Norman Finkelstein (2012). Interviewe, “Arguing the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign with Norman Finkelstein”. Imperial College London. Available at: Available at: http://vimeo.com/36854424 [accessed 25 February 2012]http://vimeo.com/36854424
 On this account see, Sari Nusseibeh (2011). What Is a Palestinian State Worth? Massachusetts: Harvard university press, pp.70-92.
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