Noam Chomsky commented last week on the Iraq Survey Group report; you can find his interview here. This passage, in which Chomsky gives his view on the report's recommendations concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly caught my eye:
Interviewer: The report points at the connectedness of the Iraq crisis with the Arab-Israeli conflict, recommending a more spirited US role regarding the latter. What are the chances that this will happen?
Chomsky: The Report refers to Bush's "commitment to a two-state solution," failing to mention that Bush rejects this long-standing international consensus even more strongly than his predecessors, who, with only occasional departures, have blocked it (with Israel) for 30 years. In Bush's version, Israel will annex valuable lands and major resources (particularly water), leaving the remnants dismembered by infrastructure project and other modalities, and imprisoned as Israel takes over the Jordan valley.
The Report calls for direct talks for Palestinians who "accept Israel's right to exist" (an absurd demand) but does not restrict Israelis to those who accept the right of a Palestinian state to exist, which would, for example, exclude Israel's Prime Minister Olmert, who received a rousing ovation in Congress when he declared that Israel's historic right to the land from Jordan to the sea is beyond question.
The proposals offer little hope for a reversal of long-standing US-Israeli rejectionism, which in fact reached its peak with Baker's endorsement of the Shamir-Peres rejection of any "additional" Palestinian state in 1989 (Jordan by implication being a Palestinian state), in response to the formal endorsement by the PLO of the international consensus.
Chomsky's depiction of the Bush administration's approach to a Palestinian state is pure rhetoric. It involves attributing to the President underlying assumptions that are not present in declared policy. It is a fact that Bush is the first President to support an independent Palestinian state. (The Reagan administration, in December 1988, initiated dialogue between the US and the PLO after Yassir Arafat declared acceptance of Israel's right to exist, but that didn't involve acceptance of a Palestinian state.) Moreover, the "version" of a settlement envisaged in the Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which remains the administration's policy despite the obvious failure of its timetable, says nothing of the conditions that Chomsky asserts as Bush's view. The Roadmap instead envisages in its second phase an independent state with unspecified provisional borders, and its third and final stage a permanent status agreement in which borders will be settled.
Doubtless Chomsky believes declaratory policy is a mere feint for the real aims of the Western powers, but that is the policy nonetheless; there isn't anything else. The only apparent development is that the proposals of the Roadmap remain policy while the timetable has been extended. Reportedly, the administration is now considering a plan to declare an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders by the end of this year. To render the adminstration's policy as Chomsky does is unfalsifiable psychological speculation, which is the quality that renders his writings valueless as diplomatic history.
Chomsky does the same thing with his castigation of James Baker as Secretary of State. It is true that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Peace Plan of May 1989 explicitly "oppose[d] the establishment of an additional Palestinian state in the Gaza district and in the area between Israel and Jordan". The phrase "additional Palestinian state" also, as Chomsky says, implied "additional to Jordan". It was a popular slogan of the Likud Party at the time that "Jordan is Palestine", and that view was both historically unwarranted and politically destructive. But James Baker did not "endorse" it; in his own Five-Point Plan of December 1989, this was the fourth point (emphasis added):
The United States understands that the Government of Israel will come to the dialogue on the basis of the Israeli Government's Initiative. The United States further understands that Palestinians will come to the dialogue prepared to discuss elections and the negotiating process in accordance with Israel's initiative. The United States understands, therefore, that Palestinians would be free to raise issues that relate to their opinions on how to make elections and the negotiating process succeed.
So what Chomsky presents as an endorsement of Israel's negotiating position was in fact merely an acknowledgement of what Israel's negotiating position was, coupled with a wish that negotiations with the Palestinians proceed. Baker's plan explicitly stated that those negotiations would include issues that the Palestinians regarded as essential to successful negotiations. Chomsky's account of US policy is a blatant distortion.
Finally, Chomsky regards it as an "absurd demand" to require that Palestinian interlocutors recognise Israel's right to exist. He cites by analogy "Israel's Prime Minister Olmert, who received a rousing ovation in Congress when he declared that Israel's historic right to the land from Jordan to the sea is beyond question".
Here is what Olmert said to Congress in May of last year, as transcribed in the Washington Post. It is the passage Chomsky is referring to:
For thousands of years, we Jews have been nourished and sustained by a yearning for our historic land. I, like many others, was raised with a deep conviction that the day would never come when we would have to relinquish parts of the land of our forefathers. I believed and to this day still believe in our people's eternal and historic right to this entire land.
And here is the passage from Olmert's speech that follows immediately:
But I also believe that dreams alone will not quiet the guns that have fired unceasingly for nearly 100 years. Dreams alone will not enable us to preserve a secure democratic Jewish state.
Jews all around the world read in this week's Torah portion, "And you will dwell in your land safely, and I will give you peace in the land, and there shall be no cause for fear, neither shall the sword cross through the promised land."
Painfully, we, the people of Israel, have learned to change our perspective.
We have to compromise in the name of peace, to give up parts of our promised land in which every hill and every valley is saturated with Jewish history and in which our heroes are buried.
We have to relinquish part of our dream to leave room for the dream of others so that all of us can enjoy a better future.
It makes a difference. Chomsky has taken a passage out of context in order to fabricate his conclusion. In context, Olmert is clearly stating that Israel's historic claims are superseded by the need for compromise so that the dreams of others may be realised. He does so, moreover, after a passage in which he states:
[T]he Palestinians will forever be our neighbors. They are an inseparable part of this land, as are we. Israel has not desired to rule over them, nor to oppress them. They, too, have a right for freedom and national aspirations.
I mention this because it is the context in which Olmert's listeners applauded his belief in Israel's historic national claims. Olmert had already stated that the Palestinians have a right to freedom and legitimate national claims of their own. His later assertion of his own tradition was a counterpart, or balance. That balancing of national claims, and not any supposed assertion (made up out of whole cloth by Chomsky) of territorial aggrandisement, was the reason Olmert's Congressional audience applauded that statement.
I frequently receive emails from inquirers who assert how much they admire and have been influenced by Professor Chomsky's political writings. I usually reply that Chomsky can be highly convincing in the absence of background material or exposure to reputable historical sources and scholarship. The appearance of a logical argument constructed from a range of sources, and with copious footnotes, gives an impression of mastery of the relevant material. But an impression is all it is. Once you look below the surface, and consider Chomsky's work alongside the writings of historians and other specialists in the fields he writes about, you gain a different impression.
Whatever your view, or mine, of the historical rights and wrongs in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it should be possible at least to give an accurate account of the historical positions of the parties within that dispute, and of successive US administrations. But Chomsky's account of only a week or so ago is transparently a series of fabrications. It exemplifies his status as a writer on politics and international history. Not everything Chomsky says is wrong, but the manner in which he weaves his historical account involves the suppression of relevant material, the excision of context, and sometimes invention to force a prespecified conclusion. In short, nothing Chomsky says in his political writings can be taken on trust. Whether by design or incompetence, his handling of source material is a standing affront to the notion of disinterested inquiry.