Michael Busch Jamie Stern-Weiner

As Jamie Stern-Weiner notes in his introduction to Moment of Truth, a new collection of essays on Israel-Palestine from OR Books, the conflict “has endured so long that it has acquired about it an air of timelessness, and normalized into background noise,” a situation that carries with it “the twin risks of complacency and despair.” To be sure, following the Arab Spring, spiralling crises in Libya, Syria and Yemen, and renewed confrontations with Iran over the past year, the Palestinian struggle has been firmly placed on the backburner by many throughout the region and the West.  

Moment of Truth seeks to re-start serious deliberations on the main issues frustrating a proper resolution to the conflict without falling into the trap of rehashing shop-worn positions that have come to characterize the debate. In service to this goal, the book features an impressive line-up of contributors addressing a full-spectrum of issues: As’ad Abukhalil, Mkhaimar Abusada, Shaul Arieli, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Diana Buttu, Richard Falk, Gideon Levy, John Mearsheimer, Norman Finkelstein, Nathan Thrall, and Ahmed Youseff, among many others. 

Rather than have each writer present a standalone chapter, the book creatively curates a series of debates between experts in sustained exchange. What emerges is a volume that at once provides a thorough introduction to Israel-Palestine, and a deep-dive into the most critical problems animating the conflict. I recently talked with Jamie Stern-Weiner about Moment of Truth, his approach to curating such a wide-ranging and interactive series of essays, and the prospects for Palestinian liberation through nonviolent resistance and protest.  

Let’s start by discussing the book’s title, Moment of Truth, which it seems to me can be taken a couple of different ways. Can you talk about what it signifies, and what, to your mind, distinguishes the current moment from others in the tortured history of Israel/Palestine?

The book’s title was intended, in part, to reflect the growing sense that the Palestinian struggle for self-determination has reached an impasse, perhaps even a dead end. 

We are now a full century into the conflict, if one dates it back to the Balfour Declaration, and more than a half-century into Israel’s occupation. This is really quite astonishing when you think about it. The dispiriting truth is that, notwithstanding decades of struggle and endeavour, courage and heroism, by Palestinians first and foremost, Israel’s military rule in the Palestinian territories is more entrenched than ever, while the prospect of Palestinian self-determination has never been so remote. 

Against this backdrop, there’s a growing feeling that the means by which the Palestinians have prosecuted their long struggle, as well as the goals to which that struggle has been oriented, have been exhausted. They’re past their sell-by date, no longer viable. But even among those who adopt this position, there is a lack of clarity, and certainly a lack of consensus, about how the struggle should proceed from here. 

This brings me to the title’s second meaning. It is precisely this moment that Palestinians can least afford illusions. Palestinians and their supporters have experienced decades of defeat and despair, and there is an absence, at present, where a national movement and a national leadership ought to be. All of those ills are apt to breed illusions: excessive despondency and despair, on the one hand, and fantastical departures from political reality, on the other.

This book is an attempt to use the current moment to soberly examine the situation on the ground, to assess and re-assess on the basis of evidence the principle obstacles to and opportunities for resolving the conflict, to draw lessons from the past five decades of struggle against Israel’s occupation, and thereby to think through, in a clear-headed and informed way, just what is--and what is not--possible in Palestine in going forward.

The book is remarkably comprehensive and dynamic. Explain its structure, and how you approached organizing the various strands of debate that animate its pages. 

The book is unusual in focusing so directly on a broad range of the conflict’s core problems and dilemmas. Each of its fifteen chapters addresses a central question bearing on the prospects for resolving the conflict. For example, chapter titles include: “Can Hamas be part of the solution?”; “Can armed struggle end the siege of Gaza?” and “Is Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem irreversible?” 

The chapters are organized in three sections: Palestine, Strategy, and International. I began with Palestine because the history of self-determination movements makes clear that, even in internationalized self-determination conflicts like this one, the situation on the ground--the struggle for liberation among the people under occupation--is paramount. I also began with Palestine because, at the present moment, this is the arena in which the challenge is greatest. As the book’s opening chapter on the Palestinian leadership makes clear, Palestinian institutions are hopelessly fragmented and bereft of strategic vision. Building a revived national movement is a formidable task indeed, but there is no way around it if Palestinians are to bring Israel’s occupation to an end.

The book’s second section is devoted to political strategy. Here, various chapters weigh alternative tactical and strategic paths forward. This section is particularly relevant for assessing the current mass protests in Gaza--and the West Bank’s failure to mobilise in support of them. The book concludes with a look at the regional and international scenes, which have always played a crucial role in determining the prospects of the struggle in Palestine.  

The book’s structure is also distinctive in two ways. First, it features nearly sixty contributors from a very wide range of perspectives and positions. These include Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals, among them academic authorities, political officials, and activists. Second, this broad array of contributors are presented in direct critical exchange with each other. There’s a dialogical, debate structure to the book, wherein each chapter comprises multiple authors in critical discussion with each other.

I chose this format, in the first place, because it’s more interesting to read. It is much more exciting to watch arguments in combat with each other than it is to read them in isolation. More importantly, you can only really know an argument and reach an informed assessment of its merits once you’ve seen how it holds up against informed opposition. John Stuart Mill wrote that “the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners” is the best route we’ve discovered to an accurate picture of the world. I quote these words in the introduction, and the principle they express guided my structuring of the book.   

Three sections of Moment of Truth really stood out to me while reading. First, Norman Finkelstein’s contribution to the book, an examination of Jimmy Carter’s approach to Middle East diplomacy, breaks some new ground in the literature.

I would agree with that assessment. In that chapter, which is entitled “How to Get Israel to Withdraw: Lessons from President Jimmy Carter’s Middle East Diplomacy,” Norman G. Finkelstein investigates the conditions under which the United States might decide to pressure Israel to withdraw from occupied territory.

He examines, as the most instructive precedent, the Carter Administration’s brokering of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979. Drawing upon some 3,000 pages of recently declassified Foreign Relations of the United States documents, he examines the U.S. role in Israel’s agreement to withdraw from the Sinai, and considers why President Carter chose to expend political capital to pressure Israel to reach an agreement. 

Finkelstein reaches two principal contributions. First, he argues that Israel was persuaded to evacuate the Sinai only as the result of direct and intense personal involvement by the U.S. president. It took a great deal of arm-twisting and ruthlessness from President Carter to get Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin to agree to withdraw. 

Second, Finkelstein finds that that Carter was guided in his diplomatic efforts by his sense of U.S. national interests, not by a commitment to moral principles. This is a somewhat revisionist portrait of Carter, whose post-presidency advocacy of human rights has tended to colour retrospective assessments of his time in office.

This understanding helps to explain why Israel-Egypt peace yielded so little for the Palestinians. The negotiations had two tracks. The first concerned the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. The second concerned Palestinian rights. But while Carter was able to pressure Israel to withdraw from Sinai and sign a pact with Egypt on that basis, he was unable to extract any real and enduring concessions from Begin on the Palestinian question. In fact, Finkelstein finds that Carter didn’t really put significant pressure on Israel on that front.

Whereas the United States had a national interest in peace between Israel and Egypt--Egypt was a serious military power in the region and its entering into the American orbit of influence would be a real gain, as would the elimination of instability brought about by the Israel/Egypt conflict--the Palestinians didn’t register to anything like the same extent in the calculus of power. The incentive for Carter to expend political capital on the Palestinians’ behalf was correspondingly small, and so he didn’t. 

The political upshot is, only when a U.S. administration can be brought to see that the end of Israeli occupation is in the U.S. national interest, is it likely that the United States will bring serious pressure to bear on Israel to withdraw. 

I was also really taken with the debate between Shaul Arieli and Jan de Jong on whether the settlements have rendered a two-state solution practically impossible.

Chapter Three tackles what I think is the most important question in the book--namely, whether Israel’s settlements have made a two-state solution impossible. 

It is commonly imagined that the settlements now take up so much of the West Bank that there is no space left to establish a viable Palestinian state. The exchange in the book between Shaul Arieli and Jan de Jong refutes, in my view, both those premises.

Arieli and de Jong are former advisers on borders and settlements to Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, respectively. They speak to these issues with scholarly authority but also political authority, and the book features a direct and frank critical debate between them. 

In his contribution, Arieli makes the case that a two-state solution is still viable. He points out that Israeli settlers are overwhelmingly concentrated in a small number of large settlements located close to the pre-June 1967 border, the Green Line. These so-called settlement blocs take up only about 4 to 5 percent of the occupied Palestinian territories. Arieli argues that a land-swap between Israel and the future state of Palestine of about 3 to 4 percent of the occupied territories would allow Israel to annex roughly four-fifths of its settlers while also allowing for the establishment of a Palestinian state on territory equivalent in size to 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. If Israel only has to evacuate a fifth of its settlers, then, Arieli argues, two-states remains a feasible goal.

Jan de Jong writes in critical response to Arieli’s proposal. He makes a crucial point that I think people ought to keep in mind when they read media reports about so-called generous Israeli offers to Palestinians, which always turn out to be nothing of the kind. De Jong points out that when discussing land-swaps the mere percentages are not what matters. Israel can say that it is willing to withdraw from 96 percent, say, of the West Bank, and this might sound very good. But what matters, de Jong argues, is not the percentages but the consequences of particular land-swap proposals for Palestinian self-determination. In other words, it matters which 4 percent, which bits of land precisely, Israel is proposing to annex. 

To take an obvious illustration, East Jerusalem takes up less than 1 percent of the occupied Palestinian territories, but a Palestinian state is inconceivable without it. 

So De Jong argues that quality, not just quantity, of land is what matters. In his assessment, any land-swap that is larger than about 2 percent of the occupied territories will severely and perhaps fatally harm Palestine’s contiguity and socioeconomic viability. That 2 percent figure is not accidental, by the way. The Palestinian negotiating team offered Israel a land-swap of 1.9 percent of the occupied territories during the 2008 Annapolis negotiations. That offer, which wasn’t reported anywhere in the American press even after its details became public knowledge through the Palestine Papers, would have allowed Israel annex more than 60 percent of its illegal settlers. Israel refused. 

If we take Arieli and de Jong in this exchange as representing the two opposing poles of the informed debate over the prospects for a two-state solution, we can say that for a viable Palestinian state to be established, Israel would have to withdraw from all but 2 to 4 percent of the occupied territories and uproot between 125,000 (Arieli) and about 250,000 (de Jong) illegal settlers. 

In either case, this is no doubt a formidable obstacle. And political trends within Israel now hold out little hope that any Israeli government in the near future would agree to such a measure. But on the other hand, these political trends are unfolding in an environment where Israel pays no cost whatsoever for its occupation. 

In my view, the upshot from the exchange between Arieli and de Jong is that the settlements have not rendered the two-state solution physically unviable, while politically, the obstacle they pose is less decisive than is commonly assumed. 

Finally, there's Gaza. Things have gone from bad to worse there in the brief period following the book’s publication. Can you reflect both on the substance of engagement on the issue in Moment of Truth, as well as what’s changed since the book came out?      

The book features a debate between As’ad Abukhalil, a Lebanese-American professor based in the United States, and Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, over whether armed struggle can end the siege. This debate is followed by a number of responses, including from Ahmed Yousef, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.

I found this debate fascinating, because in Western discourse, the question of Palestinian armed struggle is usually approached entirely in moralistic terms: is it right for Palestinians to resort to violence? Even there, it usually isn’t really a debate: it’s just assumed that Palestinians have no such right. (It should be noted this this upends international law, which does not debar the use of force by a national liberation movement but does prohibit the use of force in order to suppress a self-determination struggle.) But the question of efficacy of armed resistance is rarely addressed. 

Gaza has reached the point of physical unlivability in the view of UN officials. It has become, as the UN human rights chief has put it, a toxic slum. One million children are being poisoned by the water they are drinking, as Sara Roy, a Gaza specialist at Harvard, observes. It is not a sustainable situation. So the question is: what prospects does Gaza have for breaking out of or at least substantially easing the siege?

My own view is that armed struggle has proven ineffective in Gaza. An fair case is made in the book for the deterrent effects of armed struggle, which is to say: as a result of Hamas’s military capabilities, Israel is now afraid to reoccupy Gaza. But as Abusada notes, the deterrence is mutual to say the least. It therefore upholds and sustains the status quo, which is a state of siege. This is just fine with Israel, but for Gaza it spells doom. 

I personally found Abusada’s case for mass nonviolent resistance compelling. But at the time the book was written, the prospect of a mass nonviolent movement in Gaza seemed remote. The book featured a contribution from Muhammad Shehada, a brilliant writer and activist from Gaza, which despaired of the prospects for popular resistance in Gaza. He pointed out that people have become cynical concerning the leadership in Gaza, and most young people just want to get out. For its part, Hamas distrusts not just the Palestinian Authority but also independent popular organizations as a threat to their rule instead of an asset in the struggle against Israeli occupation.

Since the book’s publication, there has been a courageous and inspiring mass, overwhelmingly nonviolent protest campaign in Gaza. It began as an initiative by independent activists, and then Hamas got on board, probably due to a lack of any other options. I would say that the Great March of Return has definitely illustrated the potential of a nonviolent strategy. The international attention and outcry generated by Israel’s brutal repression of the nonviolent demonstrations exceeded that provoked by the equivalent bloodshed in the context of armed conflict. However, Israel has, I think, unfortunately succeeded in muddying the waters as to the nonviolent character of the demonstrations. It has managed to portray the demonstrators as violent, which obviously impedes the political efficacy of the protests in terms of mobilizing public opinion abroad. 

Moreover, the current international environment is particularly adverse to the prospects for a nonviolent movement succeeding. Regionally, the Arab states have drawn into alignment with Israel against their common rival, Iran. Arab public opinion, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the myriad other crises wracking the Arab world. Palestine is no longer the paramount issue on the agenda. Further afield, the Donald Trump administration is particularly insensitive to moral pressure on this issue, and the position of the United States combined with Arab indifference also draws the European Union to the Right. The position of European governments on Israel’s “murderous assault” (Amnesty International) against unarmed demonstrators merely calling for an end to Israel’s illegal siege has been truly despicable. 

It’s still too early to draw firm conclusions whether or not the current nonviolent protest campaign will yield any concrete achievements, but I do think the potential of the strategy has been demonstrated. The question is whether the people of Gaza can, through continued perseverance and creative thinking, manage to overcome the very adverse conditions--locally, regionally, and internationally--that now prevail.  

Michael Busch is Senior Editor of Warscapes Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @michaelkbusch.

Jamie Stern-Weiner is a PhD student in Area Studies at the University of Oxford. Follow him on Twitter @jsternweiner