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Interview With UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk: Legitimacy Is the Agency of History

Richard Falk argues that Palestinian participation in the peace process has few upsides and scorns political leaders who act as though hard power were the agency of history.

Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, assumed the office of United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories since 1967 for a six-year term in March 2008. The following December, he was apprehended by Israeli forces while trying to cross into the occupied West Bank to perform his duties as special rapporteur. He was detained, interrogated and deported from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.

He is an outspoken critic of American and Israeli policy, and controversy has surrounded his tenure at the UN. His comments and reports have drawn criticism from the likes of former US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice and Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki-moon. Many pro-Israeli organizations have called for his resignation.

Falk recently was in Budapest, Hungary, for the first European Blue Sky Conference, where he spoke on the decline of the importance of hard power, or military supremacy, in geopolitics. Independent journalist Creede Newton interviewed him there concerning his time as special rapporteur, the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and other topics.

Creede Newton: You recently presented your final report as UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian Territories since 1967 and met with ambassadors from the Middle East. What is the diplomatic community’s attitude toward the current peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority?

Richard Falk: I think you have to understand the peace talks on at least two levels. One is what is publicly said, which is that these peace talks are an encouraging development and they should be supported and all people of goodwill hope that they will produce a solution. So in a certain sense it’s a kind of optimistic interpretation of what has happened. There is a sort of consensus of support.

On a more private level, there is an equally desponding sense that these peace talks will not lead anywhere, that they are incapable of producing a viable solution – partly because of the disunity of the Palestinian side and partly because of the seemingly expansionist views of the Israeli side. The Netanyahu leadership is not interested in a solution that comes close to acknowledging Palestinian rights, especially the right to self-determination.

I think on a third level, there is a less-prevalent view that these peace talks are an Israeli-American plan to allow for a period of suspended criticism of Israeli settlement expansion and ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem. So that it’s not a neutral development that, if it fails, is a frustration for both sides. Rather, it’s a development that is asymmetrically disadvantageous to the Palestinians. Therefore the Palestinians must ask why they’ve entered into a process that has almost no realistic prospect of success and has heavy costs for them.

They’ll also be blamed for the failure. Israel and the US will propose two unsatisfactory proposals, and the Palestinians will reject them. And the Israelis can say, “We have no partner for peace.” So there is a diplomatic cost as well as the loss of land and the loss of a demographic hold on East Jerusalem.

I think, in short, why the Palestinian Authority agrees and continues to support the peace talks is that they don’t feel they have an alternative. They’re too much subject, too dependent on the US and Israel for their own survival. Funding, security forces, the general credibility of the Palestinian Authority cannot be separated from US hegemony in historic Palestine.

With the questions of legitimacy of Palestinian Authority rule in the occupied West Bank – the lack of democratic elections, human rights abuses, lack of support offered to those unlawfully imprisoned by Israel and the lack of union and agreement between Hamas and Fatah – does the PA have the authority to make any agreements with Israel and the US?

I think that if Israel and the US came with something that acknowledged a Palestinian state within the ’67 borders, it would suddenly acquire legitimacy. But that’s so unrealistic, such a utopian outcome. The short of that is that there is no real foundation for affording legitimacy to the Palestinian Authority.

Not only do they not represent Gaza, but also the refugees in neighboring countries and the Palestinian diaspora, as well as the democratic deficit that you mentioned. For all these reasons, it’s a very thin hold on power, partly sustained because they have a big civil service. A lot of people are economically dependent for their livelihood on the Palestinian Authority.

In your opinion, what are some of the most effective tools the Palestinian people possess in the “war of legitimacy?”

I think that one important way of mobilizing solidarity with the Palestinian struggle is to illuminate the defiance of international law by Israel. This has been very clear to world public opinion, especially since the Gaza attack of 2008-2009.

It’s not that international law is so effective as a way of constraining behavior, but it does clarify the limits of acceptable behavior. I think it’s been very helpful in strengthening the civil society Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign – and even creating some pressure here in Europe to encourage greater corporate responsibility in relation to dealing with settlements on a for-profit basis. So I think there is a set of developments that, in certain ways, resemble what the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa managed to do – which was to create, in its legitimacy war, a global battlefield. The campaign was waged globally.

It’s very interesting that just a few days ago South Africa moved closer to what seemed to be downgrading diplomatic relations with Israel and suggesting even a movement toward sanctions. Because of South Africa’s own experience, that would be a very important development.

Your statements encouraging the boycott of corporations benefitting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory have been met with strong resistance, specifically from Susan Rice, who said such statements “poison the environment for peace.” Why do you think the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement generally and the calls for corporate responsibility specifically continue to face such strong resistance?

Well, I think it’s a reflection of the fact that the world community can live with rhetoric that denounces and criticizes Israel’s behavior, but as soon as rhetoric moves toward implementation, then there is a reaction because material interests are at stake and corporate power, we know, is very strong – corporate, financial power. There is a sense that this is a slippery slope and that once you go down that slope it’s hard to know where it will stop. If you read the reports of Israeli think tanks, they’re very worried about what they call the “de-legitimization project” – more so than armed resistance at this point. That suggests that there is a rational foundation for pursuing this kind of strategy.

What have been the most critical moments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since you assumed the office of special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories in 2008?

I think there are several ways to answer that question. Because I was attacked when I was appointed and expelled by Israel early in my first term, I couldn’t go to the occupied territories, so I had to go to the periphery of Palestine – to Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, which I did several times – so the kind of non-cooperation with Israel was one feature.

[On] another personal level, were these extremely defamatory attacks by UN Watch, which is an ultra-Zionist, ultra-Israeli organization that tries to convert any criticism of Israel into a form of anti-Semitism, which were very strongly directed at me. Because I wanted to talk about issues other than the Israel-Palestine conflict, they attacked me for my views on 9/11 and for my comments on the Boston Marathon incident. It’s what I call the politics of deflection: You attack the messenger or the auspices – the UN or the Human Rights Council – and you avoid the substance of the message. Israel is very good at that and their supporters are equally adept. So that complicated my task. I was, as you suggested, attacked by the American ambassadors in New York and Geneva and by the UN secretary general, actually, on a couple of occasions.

It’s suggestive of the degree to which this conflict is not addressed in an objective way, but rather is part of the geopolitical climate that prevails in the UN. In that sense, it was a learning experience for me.

On a behavioral level, I think the important moments were the Gaza war of 2008-2009 and again the attack in 2012, the Mavi Marmara incident of May 31, 2010, and then the hopes raised and hopes lost in relation to the Arab Spring. The January 25 Tahrir Square developments created the expectation that the Arab world would be much more attentive to the Palestinian struggle, because as these societies reflected the will of their own people to a greater extent, that will would include strong solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, which the regime did not possess.

You often speak of the decline of hard power, the decline of the importance of military supremacy in a post-colonial world. However, it would seem that hard power is still supreme in the occupied Palestinian territories. Do you see evidence of Israel’s hard power eroding?

Yes and no. I think that the short-term horizon would suggest, if anything, that Israel’s hard power dominance is eroding, still further, Palestinian prospects. On the other hand, if you look at the trajectory of other conflicts such as Algeria, Vietnam, South Africa, until they took a dramatic turn, it looked like the hard power side would prevail.

In these legitimacy wars, the soft-power side, the side that is inferior in hard power, looks defeated until it somehow shifts the ratio of expectations. How that happens is unique to each context, and it doesn’t always happen. It happened in these cases I mentioned, but it hasn’t happened in Tibet, for instance, or Kashmir, or some other critical places, but overwhelming the side – in post-World War II conflicts – that’s been able to command the high moral and legal ground has, in the end, prevailed politically. It’s a historical conclusion that hasn’t been integrated into the thinking of political leaders that are still acting as if hard power is the agency of history.

Do you see a just outcome for the Palestinian struggle?

I don’t know what will, in the end, happen in relation to the Palestinian struggle. But I think that there is reason to be hopeful in the longer range because of this flow of history. Being on the right side of history would mean that Palestinian rights would be respected.

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