Hurtling Towards the Next Intifada
An Interview with Jonathan Cook
by Andrea Bistrich
This is an edited version of an interview
published in German in the newspaper Die Junge Welt on July 1,
2006 between Andrea Bistrich and the British journalist Jonathan
Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel, about his new book Blood and
Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish State (Pluto Press, 2006)
about Israel's plans for the further dispossession of the Palestinians.
The interview was conducted before Israel's attack on Lebanon.
Andrea Bistrich: Your book has been released in Britain and is
about to come out in the US. Already it is widely praised by various
experts and academics related to the Middle East. Why does the
"Jewish and democratic State" need to be unmasked?
Jonathan Cook: I chose the word "unmask" because it
was the term Ehud Barak used about Yasser Arafat after the failure
of the Camp David negotiations in June 2000: he said he had unmasked
the Palestinian leader as no partner for peace. But in fact the
reverse happened: the Camp David failure and Israel's subsequent
actions during the second intifada unmasked those like Barak who
claimed that Israel was a partner for peace.
The nature of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians
is irreconcilable as long as Israel sees itself as a "Jewish
and democratic" state. This is the premise of my book. The
Jewish and democratic myth keeps Israelis both from examining
the essentially undemocratic nature of their state -- what social
scientists often term an ethnic state or an ethnocracy -- and
from finding a peaceful solution to their conflict with the Palestinians.
AB: Can you explain the problems of a "Jewish and democratic
state" in more detail?
JC: Most educated Israelis are made uncomfortable by the idea
that Israel is simply a Jewish state; it sounds a little too like
an Afrikaner state or a Catholic state. So the "democratic"
is added as a kind of public denial that Israel is an ethnic or
religious state. The Jewish and democratic idea is crucially important
to Israel and Israelis; it is, for example, the central tenet
of the 1992 Basic Law on Freedom and Human Dignity, the nearest
thing Israel has to a Bill of Rights. This document defines Israel
as a Jewish and democratic state and, in contradiction, also excludes
equality as one of its principles. That's because most Israelis
believe that equality applies only to Jews inside Israel, not
to the one in five Israeli citizens who are not Jewish but Palestinian.
These one million or so Palestinians
are the remnants of the Palestinian majority that once inhabited
Palestine. They have been given citizenship but are treated as
a sort of abscess -- or cancer, as they are often referred to
-- in the Israeli body politic. Israel has not tried to integrate
or assimilate them. Why? Because, as non-Jews, they threaten the
Jewishness of the state. So they have to be kept apart, separate,
as pseudo-citizens. Although usually ignored in discussions about
the regional conflict, Israel's relationship to its Palestinian
"citizens" is, I think, revealing about what Israel
wants to be and how it sees itself. For Israelis, "Jewish
and democratic" means democratic for Jews only. The opposite
of a Jewish and democratic state would be a "state of all
its citizens" (what we think of as a liberal democracy),
which has been the main campaign platform of Israel's Arab political
parties since the Oslo agreements were signed in the 1990s. These
Arab parties want every Israeli to be treated as an equal citizen
irrespective of ethnicity. Such a platform is technically illegal
in Israel, and parties and candidates can be banned for promoting
In other words, the overriding concern in Israel has nothing to
do with being democratic and everything to do with being Jewish
-- at all costs. This is backed by polls of Israeli Jews which
show an overwhelming majority reject the idea of Israel being
a liberal democratic state.
All of this is the context for my main argument, which is that
the recent developments in the conflict have been almost entirely
driven on the Israeli side by concerns about demography, about
Palestinians becoming a majority in the region and Israel being
compared to an apartheid state like the old South Africa. The
question facing Israel has been how to ensure the Jewish state
remains entirely in the hands of Jews, and how to distort the
reality entailed by this so that Israel can continue to claim
it is both Jewish and democratic.
The disengagement from Gaza last year and now the convergence
plan for the West Bank are about two things: protecting Israel
as a "Jewish and democratic" state in the sense that
Palestinians, citizens and non-citizens alike, will be excluded
from any say in its future; and emasculating the region's Palestinians
by locking them up in a series of ghettoes so that they pose no
threat to the Jewish state because they are powerless to assert
their rights as a single national people and their historical
rights to most of their own land. Israel is hellbent on achieving
these two goals because in fact they are inseparable: the more
space in what was once known as Palestine Israel takes for itself,
the weaker the Palestinians will become. In that way, Israel thinks
-- wrongly, I believe -- its future as a Jewish state is more
AB: What are your major conclusions?
JC: I explain how Israel presented a distorted image of Palestinian
behavior during the intifada, and then used that image to justify
certain policies, in particular the Gaza disengagement and the
building of the West Bank wall. I place -- and to the best of
my knowledge no one has done this before -- Israel's Palestinian
citizens at the center stage of the conflict in terms of understanding
what has been going on during the last six years of the intifada.
When Israel went to Camp David to offer the Palestinians some
sort of state, we know from Barak's advisers that it did not meet
the minimal expectations of the Palestinians: it was a very shrunken
state, and it did not include East Jerusalem, which any Palestinian
state needs as its capital. The breakdown of the talks led directly
to the Palestinian intifada, the outpouring of anger from ordinary
Palestinians. Israeli military intelligence knew a lot about the
intifada's causes: that it was because of Palestinian frustration
at being denied a proper state; it was a popular, grass-roots
rebellion; and that Yasser Arafat was largely caught unawares
by its ferocity. We also know now, because of leaks from the generals
in charge of Israel's military intelligence, that this information
was misrepresented to and entirely ignored by the political leadership
The politicians, notably Barak and Ariel Sharon, argued instead
that the intifada was long planned by Arafat and that it was last-ditch
attempt by him to defeat the Jewish state. At the Camp David talks,
they claimed, Arafat insisted on a right of return to Israel for
the millions of Palestinians living in refugee camps outside Israel
and occupied territories so that Israel's Jewish majority would
be decimated. When his demands were rejected, he chose another
weapon: an armed uprising, the intifada.
Both, Barak and Sharon believed Arafat had a second weapon: a
Trojan horse inside Israel that he hoped to use to subvert the
Jewish state from within. The Trojan horse was, of course, the
one in five Israeli citizens who are Palestinian. Arafat, they
said, was secretly conspiring with the Palestinian minority inside
Israel to destroy Israel as a Jewish state.
Israel's leaders also believed, or at least claimed to believe,
that the country's Palestinian citizens had a twin-track for defeating
Israel. First, they could step up their political campaigns for
a state of all its citizens to end the Jewish dominance of the
state; in Israeli eyes that was simply a prelude to engineering
a right of return for the Palestinian refugees. And if they failed
in this strategy, they could try to erode the Jewish majority
by marrying Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and thereby
winning them citizenship.
As a result we have seen in the last few years two major policy
changes to negate both of these supposed threats:
First, the establishment of the final borders of an expanded Jewish
state through the Gaza disengagement and the building of the West
Bank wall, designed to exclude Palestinian claims inside an enlarged
Israel. If these borders are completed, Israel will be able to
dismiss Palestinian political demands inside Israel, even from
its own citizens, by arguing that Palestinians have their own
(ghetto) state next door in which they can exercise sovereignty.
Second, the banning of marriages between Palestinians from the
occupied territories and Israelis, meaning in practice Palestinians
with Israeli citizenship, to prevent a "right of return through
the back door", as Israelis like to call it.
These policies are meant to remove once and for all any demographic
threat the Jewish state faces from the Palestinians.
AB: You use the term "glass wall" in the book. Can you
explain what you mean by this?
JC: I contrast the idea of the "glass wall" with the
famous revisionist Zionist philosophy of the "iron wall".
The Revisionists argued that the Palestinians would never agree
to their dispossession so the Jewish state's leaders must force
them to submit with an iron wall of force -- a sort of "might
makes right" philosophy. I argue that in practice Israel
developed a different strategy for dealing with the Palestinians:
what I call the glass wall. Israel separated the two ethnic populations,
Jews and Palestinians, both inside Israel and in the occupied
territories, and for most of its history managed to make this
division invisible to the world. The separation walls existed
but you couldn't see them. This is what I call the glass wall.
In the occupied territories, for example, Jewish settlers lived
next to Palestinian communities in a way that made it possible
to believe they were simply neighbors. But of course in practice
the settlers had full rights under Israeli civil law, both in
the occupied territories and inside Israel while the Palestinians
were governed by a much less benign military law. Movement was
unrestricted for Jews but not for Palestinians. Water resources
were provided to the settlers but were severely rationed to the
Palestinians. In this way Israel maintained the pretence of a
benevolent occupation for a couple of decades. Much the same has
happened inside Israel for the country's Palestinian citizens.
That all began to crumble in the occupied territories in the late
1980s when the Palestinians refused to have their lives and the
occupation's image managed by Israel. The first intifada forced
Israel to convert the glass walls into concrete and steel walls:
first the Gaza strip was sealed off from Israel and now the same
is happening to the West Bank. That has been very damaging to
Israel's image as a Jewish and democratic state, and the political
leadership is now desperately trying to recover the high ground.
The completion of the West Bank wall, I think, is the key to succeeding.
If Israel can create the appearance of a Palestinian state without
the reality of one, then it is simply erecting again the glass
wall as cover for the real concrete and steel walls around the
West Bank and Gaza. It is making a series of prisons look like
a state. That is the real point of Olmert's convergence plan.
AB: What exactly is behind Olmert's "disengagement"
or "convergence" plan?
[Author's note: Since Israel's failure to defeat Hizbullah in
south Lebanon, Olmert has been forced officially to shelve his
convergence plan. However, the author believes this is merely
a postponement of the completion of the physical separation program
begun with the signing of the Oslo accords. None of the demographic
pressures on Israel have abated. With his reputation battered,
Olmert does not currently have the political support to dismantle
even the small number of Jewish settlements on the wrong of the
wall required by the convergence plan. But pressure will mount
for the wall to be completed at some stage in the future, whether
it is because Palestinians begin demanding political rights inside
Israel or because they relaunch their suicide attacks. Either
way, given its view of the conflict and its refusal to stop being
a Jewish state, Israel has no choice but to pursue separation.]
JC: Let's be clear: Olmert's plan isn't about a disengagement.
The word in Hebrew is hitkansut. The English equivalent is something
like "convergence," "consolidation," "ingathering."
There are important differences from the Gaza disengagement last
year, which is why Olmert has used a different term. This plan
is really about consolidating Israel's Jewish population wherever
it has managed to entrench itself over the four decades of the
occupation, including the majority of some 430,000 settlers who
live on Palestinian land in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem,
both of which were occupied by Israel in 1967. Only a tiny number
(maybe 60,000 settlers, maybe far less) will have to move from
their homes, usually those in isolated, remote settlements. They
will be mainly relocated to the large settlement blocs, the long
fingers of which probe deep into the West Bank severing it into
a series of cantons or ghettoes, each physically disconnected
from the next.
Also, there is much talk of "consolidating" the Jordan
Valley, the long flank of the West Bank that is the border with
Jordan. Even though it's sparsely populated with Jews, this huge
stretch of land was annexed de facto by Israel many years ago:
the main road connecting the Galilee in northern Israel to Jerusalem,
and open only to Israelis, runs much of the length of the Valley;
Palestinians who don't live in the Jordan Valley need special,
almost-impossible-to-obtain permits to enter the area, even if
they have family living there. So the Jordan Valley is a sort
of closed military zone as far as Palestinians are concerned.
If Israel keeps the Jordan Valley under its convergence plan,
which seems almost certain, then we are talking about some 40
per cent or so in total of the West Bank being out of bounds to
most Palestinians. (And remember even if the Palestinians got
all of the West Bank and Gaza, they would have only 22 per cent
of their historic homeland.) So let's first dispel the myth that
Israel is suggesting that it will disengage from the West Bank.
The point of the convergence is for Israel to add a veneer of
legitimacy to the annexation of the main Jewish colonies in the
West Bank, and to imprison the Palestinians in the space left
behind, in the hope that eventually they will grow so desperate
they will leave. It is about the theft of some Palestinian land
now, and all the Palestinian land later.
AB: So you don't think the occupation is about to end?
JC: Israel and the international community may claim that the
occupation is coming to an end, but let's look at the facts. If
Israel controls the eastern flank of the West Bank, the long border
with Jordan, and has a series of long territorial fingers of settlement
blocs behind a fence-cum-wall dissecting the West Bank in at least
three strategic points on its western flank, how exactly has the
occupation ended? Who will control the borders and movement between
the West Bank and Gaza and between the West Bank cantons? Israel,
which will doubtless continue the checkpoints and pass systems
it evolved in the 1990s. Who will control the scarce water resources?
Israel, because its settlements blocs have been positioned to
sit over the main aquifers. Who will deliver services, such as
electricity and water? Israel, which can use the supplying and
withholding of these services as forms of collective punishment.
Who will control the airspace, including flights in and out of
the West Bank? Israel again. And the radio frequencies. And of
course there is no possibility that the Palestinians will be allowed
their own army. So what we are talking about here is a reinvention
of the occupation. It's a bit like a prison that through technological
advances dispenses with the need for guards. Cameras control the
doors of the cells, and machines deliver the food. Would we say
that such an institution is no longer a prison? Well, the same
goes for the occupation, I think.
AB: Israeli peace activists such as Jeff Halper from the Israeli
Committee Against House Demolitions are quite clear that "the
two-state solution is now dead." Would you call this estimation
JC: Not at all, they are right. It died years ago, only the international
community didn't notice or was too afraid to point it out. I think
there are clear reasons why Israel fears a two-state solution.
Remember Barak and Sharon were both profoundly opposed to the
Oslo agreements because they saw them as creating a proto-Palestinian
state in the West Bank and Gaza under the government of Yasser
Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. They feared that with a
fledgling Palestinian state emerging on Israel's doorstep, the
Palestinian leadership could assert its rights not only inside
the Palestinian state but also inside Israel, through the subversive
activities of Israel's Palestinian citizens.
Of course, I think they were entirely wrong in that reading of
Palestinian intentions. The reason Israel's Palestinian citizens
were demanding "a state of all its citizens" was that
they wanted civic equality, they wanted an end to discrimination.
AB: There have been numerous proposals and agreements attempting
to address this conflict -- Geneva conferences, the Mitchell Plan,
Camp David Accords, Oslo Accords, Camp David Summit -- but they
all have failed. What are the reasons for these constant failures?
JC: The reason for the continuing failures is the false assumption
that Israel is acting in good faith in the peace negotiations.
But as I've pointed out, it isn't. It doesn't want a real Palestinian
state and any agreement that sets that as a precondition will
either be rejected by Israel or manipulated, as the Road Map has
been, so that in practice the deal is worthless.
AB: What role and responsibility do you see for the international
community and the UN to end this conflict and to deal with Western
JC: Absolute responsibility. Israel has no will to end this conflict
and the Palestinians have no power to end it. So a solution must
be imposed from outside. The problem is that the US, the world's
sole superpower, is in charge of determining the outcome of the
conflict, not the UN or the Quartet, as the Israelis understand
only too well. Washington portrays itself as an honest broker
when in truth it is exactly the opposite. It is fully committed
to supporting Israel, wrong or right. So for the time being any
international solution appears to mean an Israeli solution. That
is why unilateralism is now the name of the game.
One can ponder the reasons for Washington's blind loyalty to Israel.
It may be that the Israel lobby is phenomenally powerful and wealthy,
and American politicians are afraid of it; or it may be that Israel
is a very useful ally in the region to the US. That is another
debate. But the upshot is that Washington has so far refused to
put any real pressure on Israel to reach a fair accommodation
with the Palestinians.
AB: Ultimately, you conclude, there will be a third, "far
deadlier intifada." Could you specify the reasons that led
you to this prognosis?
JC: Vladimir Jabotinsky, the early leader of revisionist Zionism,
coined the phrase the "iron wall", meaning the use of
unremitting force against a Palestinian population that he believed
would never submit to their national dispossession and enslavement.
Well he was right about the Palestinians refusing to submit willingly,
I think, but a little optimistic that simple force would be enough
to subdue them for good. You can't steal from a people, then lock
them up in prisons if they demand their possessions back, and
expect them to keep quiet for ever. Israel can seal the Palestinians
into a series of ghettos but that will not contain them indefinitely.
Sooner or later they will find a way to fight back, even from
behind their walls. My guess is that the next intifada will be
called the Qassam intifada after the homemade rockets Palestinians
fire out the Gaza Strip to try to hit Israeli communities. We
are going to see more of that kind of resistance.
Also, my view is that in the longer term the convergence plan
will envision sealing Israel's Palestinian citizens into their
own ghettoes, some severed from the new borders of the Jewish
state and others corralled into areas where they will become effectively
guest workers. So Israel is creating common cause among the region's
Palestinians, whether those in the occupied territories or those
currently inside Israel. That raises the stakes on both sides
AB: What are the prerequisites for both sides in this conflict
in order to achieve a genuine and durable peace?
JC: To be honest, nothing less than the eradication of Zionism
as Israel's national ideology. In the current circumstances, you
can no more have a Zionist state committed to peace-making with
the Palestinians than you could an apartheid South Africa ready
to make peace with its native black population. Maybe Zionism
at an earlier stage in its development was capable of it, but
the Jewish state we have today is incapable of making a deal with
the Palestinians unless it renounces Zionism or is forced to do
Andrea Bistrich is a writer based in Germany.
Jonathan Cook, a British journalist living in Nazareth, is the
author of Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and
Democratic State (Pluto Press, 2006). Visit his website at: www.jkcook.net.