Palestine, Israel, and the UN: A PassBlue Interview
PALESTINE - ISRAEL, 6 Aug 2018
4 Aug 2018 – I am posting an interview with Dulcie Leimbach, the wonderfully probing editor of PassBlue, an online new service covering the United Nations. PassBlue is sxc r.la nonprofit digital journalism website covering the United Nations.
The interview was initially published on July 17, 2018, and Dulcie managed to get me to talk more about my personal background than I intended, but here it is for those with curious eyes, although most of the private disclosures were not in the published text. Part of the motivation for the interview stems, I suppose, from the bewilderment of how a Jewish boy from Manhattan’s West Side should become so committed to the Palestinian national struggle. I could evade the issue by insisting that before the Palestinians I was an ardent advocate of the Vietnamese people, the anti-apartheid campaign targeting South Africa, and on behalf of other peoples struggling against heavy odds to achieve their rights, including Native Americans and indigenous Hawaiians. I would like to think of my commitments as flowing from a global humanist perspective rather than offering hostile critics an example of an inverted ethnic attachment that marked me at birth, but only seems relevant by referencing the still prevalent markers of a tribalized world order. As a self-proclaimed citizen pilgrim I have sought for myself the markers of an ecologically sensitive and morally attuned citizen pilgrim, and invite others to join this invisible, yet deliberately subversive and potentially transformative, world political movement.
Dulcie Leimbach’s Introductory Note
Richard Falk is an American academic and writer who from 2008 until 2014 was the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine since 1967, a post that nearly always invites controversy. For Falk, however, the work compelled him to declare, among other things, that Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza in 2008 amounted to “war crimes.” He has been banned from Israel since then.
His appointment in 2008 by consensus in the Human Rights Council was criticized at the time by John Bolton, United States Ambassador to the United Nations from 2005-2006, who said, “This is exactly why we voted against the new human rights council,” and that “He was picked for a reason, and the reason is not to have an objective assessment — the objective is to find more ammunition to go after Israel.”
Falk, who is 87, was born in New York City and raised in midtown Manhattan. He graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1952, before completing a Bachelor of Laws degree at Yale. He obtained a doctorate in law from Harvard University in 1962.
His academic career started at Ohio State University and eventually landed him at Princeton University for 40 years as a professor of international law. He is now affiliated with the University of California at Santa Barbara.
First things first, what you have been doing since your work ended as the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967? Are you still affiliated with the University of California at Santa Barbara? You live in the city year-round, but you spend some months in Turkey, where your wife, name tk, is from and where you are right now?
Falk: Since ending my role as special rapporteur in 2014, I have continued to write on various international topics, publishing two books on general international relations, Power Shift: On the New Global Order, Zed, 2017) andRevisiting the Vietnam War (edited by Stefan Andersson, CUP, 2018) as well as a book on the ongoing Palestinian national struggle, Palestine Horizon: Toward a Just Peace, Pluto, 2017). I was also the co-author with Virginia Tilley of a controversial report to the UN Economic and Social Council of West Asia [ESCWA], released on March 15, 2017, as to whether Israel’s practices and policies toward the Palestinian people amounted to apartheid. The report was harshly attacked by Ambassador Nikki Haley with a demand that it be repudiated by the new UN secretary-general, António Guterres. Haley’s rant included an attack on me but without any specific criticisms of either my record or the report. The SG ordered the report removed from the website of ESCWA, but its director [Rima Khalaf, a Palestinian living in Jordan] resigned in protest, explaining her reasons in an open letter to the SG, rather than follow this instruction. Formally, the report has never been repudiated, has been officially archived by ESCWA and was always meant to be an academic study without necessarily pretending to reflect UN thinking with a clear disclaimer to this effect. Of course, the fury of the attack gave this otherwise obscure report much more attention than it would otherwise have likely received. The text is available on several websites under the title, and has been published in French, Spanish, and Arabic. Here is a helpful link.
“Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, March 15, 2017.
I am continuing to live most of the year in Santa Barbara, where my wife and I both maintain an affiliation with UCSB, as research fellows. We do spend several months in Turkey every year, and have some academic and journalistic affiliations there. I am currently completing work on a volume of my collected writings over the years on issues affecting nuclear weapons, as well as struggling with a memoir. All in all, I think I am entitled to claim “an active retirement,” at least from Princeton, where I taught from 1961-2001.
What is it like to be in Turkey now, as an American, as the nature of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “executive presidency” becomes apparent?
This had been a period of intense contestation in Turkey, especially in view of the national elections on June 24, the most important in the history of the country, which not only resulted in the re-election of Erdogan as president, but involved implementing the constitutional transformation of Turkey from being a parliamentary system to a presidential system with a very strong concentration of power in the presidency and few of the constraints that we associate with a “republican democracy” (checks and balances, separation of powers, independent judiciary, human rights as beyond governmental reach). At the same time, two things should be kept in mind: the changes have not yet altered state/society relations in Turkey; what had previously been done by Erdogan in a de facto manner over a period of almost 16 years is now given the blessings of law, making it de jure. Also, it should be remembered that before Erdogan and the AK Party [Justice and Development Party] came on the scene, the elected government was subject to a military tutelage system with periodic coups taking place whenever the military leadership felt dissatisfied with the policies pursued by the elected leaders. It should also be kept in mind that when the Turkish government made many changes enhancing human rights in the early years of Erdogan leadership, from 2002-2009, partly to satisfy its ambition to gain membership in the European Union, it received no encouragement; in fact, the opposite. Nevertheless, in the period since the failed coup of July 15, 2016, there has been a serious repression of dissent, affecting freedom of expression in universities, media and the governmental civil service, as well as a clampdown on the Kurdish national movement. There are extenuating circumstances, involving the penetration by the [Fethullah] Gulen movement of all sectors of government, as well as security threats from the conflicts in the region. The Erdogan leadership has delivered many benefits to the more disadvantaged classes in Turkey and public funds for development of the previously neglected eastern part of the country.
Your work as the UN special rapporteur was controversial, given the topic of Palestine. The US government, including Susan Rice, as ambassador to the UN, consistently rejected your findings. How did you feel when your work was refuted by the US? Would you have done your work differently, in hindsight?
I felt during the period disappointed by the criticism from high officials in the US government (during the Obama presidency) and that of a few other governments (Canada, Australia, UK), which seemed in all instances to be based on pressures exerted and “information” supplied by ultra Zionist NGOs, such as UN Watch and NGO Monitor. These pressures took no account of the substance of my reports but attacked me as biased and unbalanced, misleadingly referring to my supposed views on other issues, taking them out of context and then exaggerating their contentions. I realized when I accepted the position that some of this defamatory pushback came with the territory, but its intensity and personal invective surprised me somewhat, as well as the irresponsible reinforcement by high officials in my own government. I would not report differently in hindsight.
I have told journalists that anyone with 10 percent objectivity would come to the same assessment of Israeli occupation policies and practices from the perspective of international humanitarian law. There was no need to be balanced to reach these conclusions, as the realities associated with Israeli control of Occupied Palestine were so clear, and really mostly beyond dispute and often confirmed even by official Israeli sources. I came to the view that this explains why the pushback on criticism of Israel is not substantive, but focuses on killing the messenger while ignoring the message, and even in discrediting the institution rather than refuting the criticisms.
What was the most rewarding aspect of your work as UN rapporteur? How can the role of the rapporteur be enhanced and more influential more generally?
I found that despite the attacks that were directed at me, and possibly partly because of them, there was much offsetting appreciation from many governments, including those in Europe that conveyed views privately that were more critical of Israel than the posture taken publicly. Within the UN, my reports did have some effect on changing the discourse with respect to the use of some words that were more illuminating than the standard ways of describing the situation. For instance, talking of “de facto annexation” with respect to the impact of settlement expansion in the West Bank rather than the static term “occupation,” and calling attention to the “colonialist” nature of the dispossession of the native population, which was a long-term phenomenon continued after the mass dispossession in the 1948 War through the “settlements,” which violated Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
I also discovered that several important governments relied on my reports to shape their understanding of the situation, and shaped their policies responsively. Perhaps, most importantly, these comprehensive reports that I submitted twice a year (once to the Human Rights Council in Geneva and once to the General Assembly in New York) were relied upon by many influential groups in the NGO world, including religious organizations like the World Council of Churches. The role of Special Rapporteurs [SRs] has become more recognized in recent years, and receives more attention and respect from the global media. The position is unpaid and voluntary, and as a result, SRs are not formally part of the UN civil service, giving those selected a valuable degree of independence, and this has come to be more widely understood in public spaces concerned with various issues of global concern. Even in the face of my difficult tenure, many excellently qualified persons applied to be my successor, and despite a great effort being made by the US government and Israel to influence the electoral process in the Human Rights Council, which did have some effect in disqualifying suitable candidates, but not enough to avoid the selection of someone who has turned out to be as critical of Israel as I was, Michael Lynk, a widely respected law professor from Canada.
What do you see as the most profound changes in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since you stopped being the UN rapporteur?
The advent of the Trump presidency has changed the tone of the relationship between the United States and [Israel] with Washington abandoning any pretense of impartiality, making clear that Palestinian interests and concerns are irrelevant to the US government’s public discourse and concrete policies. This development has been accentuated by the shifts in approach taken by Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which have been outspoken in their comments encouraging the Palestinian Authority to accept whatever is offered to them by Washington.
In the opposite direction, the BDS [Palestinian-led and originated Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] Campaign, having its 13thanniversary, has gained momentum in the last year, and governments, including South Africa and Ireland, are moving toward endorsements of boycotts. There is also a sense in the European Union that if a diplomatic solution is to be reached it will require a more balanced intermediary than what the US has provided.
In this context, Israel has felt empowered to move to maximize settlement expansion and legalization (within Israeli law), while using excessive force in response to shows of Palestinian resistance.
The most basic development in the last few years has been the marginalization of the Palestinian issue due to the priorities of leading Arab governments, the sense that further diplomacy is futile, and some international acceptance of the Israeli claim that the conflict is essentially over, and a “solution” can be reached only if Palestinians can be persuaded to accept political defeat, abandoning their struggle to achieve the central national goal of self-determination, and some kind of sovereign polity, whether in a two-state or one-state format.
Do you think President Trump has an actual peace plan? If so, what do you know about it and how do you think Palestinians will react to it? Some people think Trump will announce the peace plan close to US midterm elections in November to boost the prospects of the Republican Party?
My understanding of the Trump proposals is that they are built around the idea of “economic peace,” — support for enhancement of Palestinian material circumstances and daily experience, if and only if the political goal of genuine statehood and the normative pursuit of self-determination are quietly renounced, or nominally satisfied in a way that does not emancipate the Palestinian people from the realities of subjugation. Such proposals are likely to be so unsatisfactory to the Palestinian leaders and public, including from the perspective of the quasi-collaborationist Palestinian Authority, as to be rejected without any effort to negotiate on such a one-sided basis. If this happens, Israel will rejoice, and Trump will almost certainly condemn the Palestinians as “rejectionist,” allowing the Israelis to insist, as they have in the past that they have “no partner” in the search for peace.
How this turn of events will play politically in the US prior to the midterm elections is hard to foresee. Trump may get some credit from his base by claiming that he has done his utmost to promote peace, but could not overcome Palestinian rejectionism. Without much doubt, his main Zionist donors will express some gratitude by upping their donations, but whether this will make any tangible difference in an election that is almost certain to be essentially a popularity contest about Trump and Trumpism, even though the November elections are limited to Congressional races. Aside from the balance between pro- and anti-Trump sentiments, the Republican electoral performance will likely hinge on the public perception of economic factors, and may reflect the outcome of the Mueller investigation, especially if the Special Counsel submits his final report in October, as rumored. As Mueller was my senior thesis advisee 52 years ago at Princeton, I have some sense as to his style of reasoning, and believe there are grounds for supposing that he will follow the trail of the evidence wherever it might lead. I attach here the link to my article that discusses what I learned from rereading his thesis a few weeks ago. https://www.thenation.com/article/robert-muellers-undergraduate-thesis-adviser-wrote-gives-hints-hell-special-counsel/
What do you recommend that the Palestinian leadership – Mahmoud Abbas – do for Palestinians in this increasingly difficult situation, with the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem, the murders of Gazans during the Great Return March with impunity and zero progress on a two-state solution?
It is a difficult, no-win situation for Abbas and the PA [Palestinian Authority] in this setting. The present posture of public defiance, indicating objections to the embassy move and Israel’s use of excessive force, while collaborating with the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] in maintaining West Bank security and suppressing Hamas is not contributing to the legitimacy of Abbas as leader or the PA as international representative of the Palestinian people. Abbas is caught in a swirl of contradictory dimensions of his leadership role, which is itself under attack by Palestinians under the PA administration and throughout the refugee and exile communities.
There have been some less-noticed PA initiatives that disturb Israel, such as recourse to the International Criminal Court, and continuing efforts to establish the trappings of statehood via increased diplomatic recognition (over 130 countries), membership in international institutions, and adherence to international treaty arrangements. These formal developments have raised the Palestinian status as a participant in the UN system and generally, but these changes have had no positive effect on the lives of Palestinians living under occupation or in refugee camps. For Palestinians, their living circumstances have continued to deteriorate.
It might be possible, given other pressures for the PA to work out some sort of sustainable reconciliation with Hamas that would give the Palestinian people a more unified and credible representation in international settings. Hamas seems receptive, and has moderated its tactics, ideology and goals in recent years, but this has not led to any lasting cooperation between the PA and Hamas. Israel strongly favors maintaining these existing tensions, which are regarded as contributing some political force to their apparent interest in separating Gaza from the rest of Occupied Palestine, encouraging Jordan or Egypt to resume administrative responsibilities, and thus allay Israeli concerns about “the demographic bomb” if Israel moves toward an Israeli one-state endgame.
Why do you think the Trump administration – and Nikki Haley as US ambassador to the UN – are seemingly so averse to remedying the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation? Do you think they have intensified the problem with their rhetoric and actions?
My sense is the Trump administration—and Haley as the lead voice—seek to please their domestic political base by killing two birds with one stone: attacking the UN and siding with Israel as supreme counterterrorist, anti-Islamic ally. In this regard, the policies are not qualitatively different than what was done during the Obama presidency, but more bombastically and belligerently articulated by Trump and Haley, and backed by some tangible reinforcement—especially, the embassy move to Jerusalem while ignoring the massacre at the Gaza border, signaling that so far as Washington is concerned Israel can do what it wants in the name of security and without any regard to international law or UN majority views. There was almost no prospect for a sustainable peace during the Obama years and less than zero now.
Is the Trump administration’s increasing global isolationism seriously damaging the UN? What do you think are the motives of Trump and Haley for walking away from many aspects and agencies of the UN, such as the Human Rights Council? What do you predict will happen to the Human Rights Council without the US as a member?
It is helpful to realize that the Trump hostility to the UN is part of a broader retreat from American involvement in international institutions and multilateral arrangements. In this regard, the UN posture is fully consistent with the American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran nuclear agreement and the Transpacific Trade Partnership (TPP). Trump questions multilateralism in general as he seems to believe it weakens the bargaining advantages of the US as the strongest state, militarily, economically and diplomatically. For these reasons, Trump is seen as an advocate of transactional approaches to international cooperation based on bilateral agreements worked out by threat, coercion and, above all, reflecting disparities of power. One outcome is the unfolding trade war with China, and tension with even close allies in Europe and North America. Another is the great loss of soft power leadership that had been exercised by the US ever since World War II, a reputational decline that leaves the world without much capacity for global policymaking at a time of several urgent global challenges.
The Human Rights Council loses some of its stature without the participation of the US, and creates enmity by withdrawing when it could not force its will on this leading UN human rights arena. At the same time, without US obstructionism, the proceedings of the Council should be more amicable and possibly more fruitful and constructive.
If you had lunch with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, what would you say to him?
I would, of course, suggest meeting at the best Portuguese restaurant in New York City. I would express empathy, first of all. It is not pleasant to become secretary-general at a time during which the UN faces financial pressures and the loss of prestige due to the rise of nationalistic tendencies throughout the world, the bullying diplomacy of Haley/Trump, the decline of human rights amid a rising tide of migration. Never has the global setting been more averse to the pursuit of UN goals. At the same time, never has the world more needed a robust global problem-solving capability. The UN suffered serious losses of credibility by its failures to protect Iraq against American aggressive warfare in 2003 and its seeming irrelevance to the Syrian strife that has continued since 2011 at great human cost.
I think that Mr. Guterres would do well to speak more openly and directly to the peoples of the world, accepting invitations to address influential conferences and set forth the case for a more responsible participation in the activities of the UN. His position as SG [secretary-general] still enjoys prestige as a source of commentary on the human condition — what is encouraging and what it discouraging. Along with Pope Francis, the SG post enjoys the greatest weight with respect to voicing opinions on the morality of international behavior. If Mr. Guterres articulated effectively a positive role for the UN at this stage of world history he could exert a benevolent influence on world public opinion that could affect governmental attitudes and behavior especially if there are swings back to more internationalism in important states in the next few years. In this regard, the US remains the most important national arena with respect to the UN, both because of its funding role and the symbolic fact that UN headquarters and its most important organs are situated within the US.
During dessert, I would encourage Mr. Guterres to focus on those issues that affect humanity as a whole, and are not currently contentious as between states. I would thus emphasize the importance of climate change, extreme poverty, nuclear disarmament and the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. The SG has an opportunity to become the most visible exponent of the conscience of the world. I think if this were done imaginatively, with a certain ironic humor, it would have spillover effects allowing the UN to become again more effective in addressing immediate challenges in the domain of war and peace, thereby recovering from its various disappointing roles in the Arab world, including Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.
To be effective, considering the UN structure, heavily weighted in favor of the five permanent members of the Security Council [Britain, China, France, Russia and the US], the SG must navigate between the pressures exerted by geopolitical actors and the high ideals and procedures embedded in the UN Charter. This requires skillful navigation, but it also holds out the possibilities of lighting candles that could illuminate a path to a safer and more sustainable and satisfying future for the peoples of the world.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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