Interrogating the Amnesty International Apartheid Report

Thursday, 17 February 2022 — Global Justice in the 21st Century

By Richard Falk

[Prefatory Note: The following interview conducted by Daniel Falcone appeared in COUNTERPUNCH in February 11, 2022. Small modifications have been made. While the Report significantly strengthened the civil society consensus to the effect that Israel is guilty of the continuing crime of apartheid, it has not [had an] overt impact in governmental policy circles in the West nor even within UN settings–a classic example of the primacy of geopolitics when [it] collides with normative imperatives.]

  1. Could you give the context of the framework that brought us to Tuesday’s Amnesty International findings regarding Israel and Palestine? What has changed in regards to the organization to make this happen?

I have no insight into the inner workings of Amnesty International, but it seems obvious from the length and detailed coverage in their 278 page report that this undertaking was begun years earlier. There were undoubtedly several elements in the background that prompted AI to undertake an inquiry that was bound to be controversial, and from past experience to result in an unpleasant backlash with likely adverse impacts on funding and reputation. Perhaps, it became awkward for AI to dodge the issue of apartheid any longer given the 2001 reports of the two rival prominent civil society human rights NGOs, Israel’s B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch, which detailed their reasons for concluding that the allegations of apartheid were well grounded in factual evidence and legal analysis.

I would also add that the UN Social and Economic Council for West Asia (ESCWA) academic report co-authored by Virginia Tilley and myself, released in March, 2017 had reached similar conclusions, producing at the time acrimonious reactions by Israel and the United States. This pushback reached a climax in a Security Council session, when the American representative, Ambassador Nikki Haley, arrogantly threatened the UN with a punitive response unless this report was repudiated. The recently elected Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, dutifully ordered the report removed from the ESCWA website, which led the director of ESCWA, Rima Khalaf, to resign rather than carry out, a task left to her more compliant successor. So far as I know our report, although removed from the ESCWA website, was never repudiated.

  • Yair Lapid called the report “false” and “anti-semitic.” Do you suppose he actually believes this to be the case? It seems to be a talking point that is losing its effectiveness.

I have now read carefully the AI Report, and have concluded that it maintains the highest professional standards of research and analysis throughout. Of course, any legal argument made in the context of a complex fact situation of this sort is subject to logically plausible divergent interpretations. Lawyers earn their livings by learning how to mount clever arguments defending their respective clients, and I am sure Israel and its supporters abroad have many qualified jurists who have the ability to interpret the evidence along lines consistent with Israeli claims of constitutional democracy, including the protection of human rights whether the complaining party is a Jew or Palestinian.

Yet for Yair Lapid and others to attack the AI Report as ‘a despicable lie’ that is full of falsehoods, as well as being the work of anti-Semites is nothing other than a shaming tactic designed to redirect the conversation away from the substance of the apartheid allegations to an inquiry into the supposedly dubious motivations of AI. This is in an inflammatory and disgracefully irresponsible way of responding in view of AI’s long, distinguished record of being among the most trusted and professional human rights organizations in the world. It is reminiscent of the manner Israel has chosen to respond to all criticisms over the course of the last decade, especially during the period when Netanyahu was prime minister. A similar diatribe was launched against the International Criminal Court a year ago when it formally authorized an investigation of Israeli criminality in response to well-evidenced and scrupulous allegations of a series of distinct crimes by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Incidentally, the PA did not list ‘apartheid’ among its legal grievances when appealing to the ICC.

  • Lawrence Davidson just wrote a piece called the Israeli Pogrom, citing a Jewish extremist group’s attack on Palestinians. Do you see this event as leading up to the Amnesty International report?

The Davidson essay is devoted to a critique of Israeli settler violence directed at Palestinian civilians living in the West Bank. It shows significantly the double standards manifested by Israeli governmental indulgence of Palestinian abuse by Israeli settlers, while displaying a contrasting vigilance with respect to protecting Jews from Palestinian violence whether in Occupied Palestine or Israel. This certainly manifests racial discrimination carried out with the complicity of the Israeli State. However, it is not evidence of the ideology or even the existence of an apartheid system of control, which either explicitly or implicitly premises governance on racial inequality as between a dominant and a subordinate race, and adopts specific policies to ensure the persistence of structures of inequality and racial supremacy. In Israel’s case it denies complicity and totally rejects racist considerations as part of its governance plan, which involves verbal gymnastics since Knesset passed the Basic Law of 2018 proclaiming Jewish supremacy of Israel, with Jews alone enjoying a right of self-determination.

Whether such Israel’s persistent disregard of the obligations of an Occupying Power as set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention played any role in leading AI to investigate the apartheid allegation remains unknowable as the organization has made no such reference. It is more plausible to suppose that the earlier reports on the apartheid claim played a principal role in leading AI to join the chorus although this too is a matter of conjecture.

  • The US seems ready to dismiss the Amnesty International findings, can you comment on the state of the bipartisan consensus?

I never for a minute expected the U.S. Government, including Congress, to accept an accusation of apartheid directed at Israel, no matter how impeccable the source and how persuasive the evidence and analysis. For one thing, it would be inconsistent with the special relationship causing a serious disruptive backlash domestically as well as gravely weaken the anti-Iran alliance in the Middle East. We should by not be surprised by the primacy of geopolitics when it collides with the requirement of international law and human rights standards, as well supposedly affirmed national values such as here, human rights and anti-racism.

For another, Biden like most of his presidential predecessors unabashedly follows unwaveringly a pro-Israel path in relation to grievances of the Palestinian people, although less crudely and provocatively than Trump. This predisposition led Biden to accept several of Trump’s more extreme tangible expressions of support for Israeli defiance of the UN consensus, including moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the subsidized  normalization agreements with Arab neighbors, and the annexation of the Golan Heights. In effect, Biden has lowered his voice while maintaining continuity with the substance of Trump’s policies. The apparent discontinuities in the form of reviving zombie support for a two-state solution or injecting mild objections to further settlement expansion are gestures at best, widely known to be policy non-starters with a long record of zero behavioral impact. In this period, Oslo-framed diplomacy has become superseded by Israeli disinterest in negotiating with the Palestinians as formal equals with a presumed shared acceptance of an overriding goal of establishing the independent sovereign state of Palestine. Naphtali Bennett is the first Israeli Prime Minister to be forthright about his opposition to Palestinian statehood.

As a result, there is a wide gap in perceptions, attitude, and discourse as between the U.S. Government and the human rights civil society consensus on this crucial question of how to evaluate the apartheid charges. As the AI Report clearly argues, the evidence conclusively points to apartheid, and this has the important legal consequence of obliging the international responsibility to take positive steps to suppress and punish the crime. On this basis AI recommends imposing an international arms embargo on Israel and urges the ICC to investigate the question of Israeli criminality and its legal consequences that is raised by the evidence of Israeli apartheid. The finding by AI of apartheid also indirectly validates global solidarity initiatives, including the BDS campaign.

  • Can you comment on how the Palestinian question is evolving in mainstream US circles? It seems that both individuals and institutions have become more robust to deal with the potential consequences of political engagement. Can the movement maintain its intensity and enter liberal pragmatic spaces at the same time in your estimation?

Despite notable developments, Israel continues to hold most of the cards as to the approach taken to the Palestinian question in the U.S. in policymaking circles. Although the bipartisan consensus in Congress and the Zionist civil society infrastructure has somewhat frayed due to the excesses of illiberal Trumpism and as a result of the increasing normalization of the apartheid critique, Israel wields unshakeable influence in Congress, White House, and Beltway think tanks. However, polls show a sharp decline in public support for Israel, especially among younger Jews, African Americans, and progressives.

It is also appropriate to take account of the symbolic victories achieved by the Palestinians over the course of the last two years, which are of growing significance from a Legitimacy War perspective. Admittedly, to an uncertain extent these developments have been offset by the symbolic successes of Trump’s normalization diplomacy (‘The Abraham Accords’), especially given their endorsement and even extension during the first year of the Biden presidency. It seems premature to reinterpret the symbolic balance between Israel and Palestine as it plays out in the U.S., The picture should become clearer during the course of the next two years.

Because the apartheid line of critique indicts Israel for systemic criminality, which can only be overcome by renouncing the fundamental Zionist claim to secure a fully sovereign Jewish state, it will likely run into a stone wall of resistance in the United States, including in liberal Zionist circles. This resistance may take the form, as it has in NYT/CNN  response to AI Report, which has been to maintain a stony silence. It is my impression that, not only in the U.S. but throughout the West, liberal opinion with respect to Palestinian grievances is evasive, if not entirely silent. Neither the alternative of implementing the AI recommendations nor its negation by endorsing the official Israel pushback by way of attacking the apartheid reports as full of falsehoods and the work of anti-Semites is acceptable at the UN or in intergovernmental dipoma. Under these conditions silence and evasion seem like preferred options, yet at the cost of creating two parallel discourses: the phantom retention and even reaffirmation of a two-state solution at the UN and other international venues and the increasing civil society condemnation of Israeli apartheid. Both of these discourses are presently lacking the needed political traction to secure implementation.

This sterile posturing in the public sphere amounts to a validation of critiques of double standards. To weep about excess police force in responding to Hong Kong protest demonstrations or the treatment of the Uyghurs, but avert eyes when it comes to the reality of prolonged Palestinian suffering and suppression of basic rights is a morally unacceptable contradiction accentuated by the heavy Western involvement in the political evolution of the Israeli state. At some point, the contradiction may become too blatant to accept even if it currently seems to remain an attractive pragmatic alternative to an acceptance or credible rejection of the apartheid critique.

  • Is there any possibility that mainstream groups labeling the situation as “Apartheid” is an oversimplification? Aren’t some parts of the region “better” than conditions under South African, and some “worse,” as Chomsky points out. Also, is there a fear that the Palestinian cause is being reduced to a type of US middle class classical rights movements discourse, largely focused on political rights without constructing a path to wholesale economic policy and justice?

You raise an important set of overlooked issues. In retrospect, many progressives in South Africa feel that it was a severe mistake to settle for political rights, and forego any challenge to white economic and social privilege that rested upon pervasive exploitation of the indigenous African population. And it is also true that when Nelson Mandela was hailed worldwide for achieving the breakthrough agreement bringing the apartheid regime to an end, little attention was given to the widespread poverty of the black majority or the gross inequalities in health care, housing, educational opportunity, and social status that have hardly changed for the African population in the more than 30 years since political apartheid was dismantled.

At the same time, if Mandela had pressed demands for a more comprehensive approach to societal injustice no agreement at all would have been forthcoming, and the country might have been plunged into a harrowing, bloody internal war with an uncertain outcome. I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s comparison between the American Revolution and the French and Russian Revolutions. She argues in On Revolution  that the American Revolution was a humanitarian and political success because it didn’t seek to challenge economic and social structures, whereas the French and Russian Revolutions fell a bloody victim to their own laudable socio-economic ambitions. Arguably the popular movement in Egypt that overthrew an autocratic leader settled for too little, making itself unduly vulnerable to a counterrevolutionary reversal, which occurred two years later. I think we are left with an insoluble problem that must be addressed in terms of the particularities of each situation.

Applying these considerations to the Palestinian situation, I would argue that it is preferable to accept limited goals in a manner similar to what ended apartheid in South Africa. This is ambition enough given the Palestinian circumstances and might make apartheid-ending diplomacy eventually negotiable. As in post-apartheid South Africa, I believe it best to leave the admittedly important economic and social agenda to post-apartheid Israel/Palestine, although realizing that these formidable justice issues would like remain unresolved for many years causing recrimination and even unrest.

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