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UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto referred to Israel as an Apartheid state. Phyllis Bennis analyzes the significance of this identification as compared to South African apartheid and the popular resistance struggles worldwide that helped end it. Isreali apartheid is built into a system of roads, walls, and fences which create segregation of Palestinians and Jews both inside the West Bank and between the West Bank and Israel. Gazan Palestinians are separated from Israel and West Bank Palestinians by the siege imposed by Israel after the election of Hamas. Bennis analyses the validity of the term ‘apartheid’ in the case of Israel and the proposed peace plan many Arab states have presented as a possible solution.

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UN President calls Israel apartheid state

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Last week, the president of the United Nations General Assembly used the word “apartheid” when talking about Israel and the Palestinians. What is the significance of this? Well, now joining us is Phyllis Bennis from the Institute of Policy Studies, and she’s in Washington, DC. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis. So, Phyllis, what’s the significance of this statement?

PHYLLIS BENNIS, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: It was an extraordinary moment. There were actually two statements by the General Assembly president, Miguel d’Escoto, father of Miguel d’Escoto, the former foreign minister of Nicaragua during the 1980s Sandinista years. What he said was that the United Nations should not be afraid to call it what it is, which is apartheid. And he referred back specifically to the role that civil society had played in the era of the anti-apartheid movement around South Africa, and he said, you know, the United Nations had learned from civil society and had taken the lead from civil society in recognizing the need for sanctions and divestment against South Africa. And isn’t it time, he said, for us in the United Nations to go back to that and say we should consider sanctions against Israel to ensure its implementation of international law and to stop its violations? It wasn’t the first time those words had ever been used, but for it to come from the highest levels of the most democratic part of the United Nations, the General Assembly, was really quite extraordinary.

JAY: Now, just to be fair, he is from the Nicaraguan government, which is now controlled by the Sandinistas.

BENNIS: No, no. He doesn’t represent the Nicaraguan government. He served in the Nicaraguan government in the 1980s. He’s been independent since then. The president of the General Assembly is a very odd position in the UN. It’s not representing a country. Whoever is the president, you serve for one year, and that person is elected as an individual, not representing their country, which is important, because it means they are not representing the policies of their own government; they are free to say and do what their own priorities—.

JAY: Well, how were his comments received amongst the general [inaudible]?

BENNIS: In the General Assembly it was received with extraordinary enthusiasm. There was a great deal of excitement that somebody in an official position—. There was also, of course, a civil society representative, Eddie Makue, the head of the South African Council of Churches, spoke that day and used very much the same language, and that’s been traditional at the UN every year in the annual meeting about Palestine. But in this case it was coming not from civil society but from the United Nations itself, from the president of the General Assembly, who was unanimously elected by the assembly. So this is a very important development. It also reflected how the discourse has changed around this issue, you know, not only because of Jimmy Carter’s incredibly important book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, not only because the Walt-Mearsheimer book that broke the taboo of writing about the Israeli lobby, the work of the US campaign to end Israeli occupation, the work of a number of Jewish anti-occupation organizations, and globally the rise of a global movement against Israeli apartheid that’s saying we should call it what it is and we should develop a strategy, a non-violent pressure strategy, using economic pressure—boycotts, divestment, and sanctions—to force Israeli compliance with international law. The statements by Miguel d’Escoto at the General Assembly were very much a reflection of how that shift in the discourse has already happened, and it’s been an extraordinary—.

JAY: What does the Barack appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and his general framing of his vision foreign policy [sic]? What are we to expect from an Obama administration vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine?

BENNIS: Well, I think that we will not see much motion initially. We’re going into a period, of course, where there is complete political paralysis inside Israel. They’re expecting elections in February of next year, and what comes out of that is very uncertain. It’s right now neck-and-neck between the main supporter of the current so-called peace process, which has not gone anywhere since the Annapolis process of a year ago—that would be Tzipi Livni. And she’s neck-and-neck with Bibi Netanyahu from the Likud Party, who basically has said he would end all peace talks now with the Palestinians. There’s one way in which that might not be as bad as it sounds, because although it would reflect a very dangerous shift even further to the right of Israeli politics, it would recognize that the existing process is a false one. It’s not changing, except for the situation on the ground getting worse; it’s not moving towards a real serious solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

JAY: So if Obama were to call Phyllis Bennis and say, “Okay. Then what should we do here?” what would be your answer?

BENNIS: What we should do, number one, has to do with the US relationship with Israel, which is to say that the three-plus billion dollars a year that the US gives in unconditional military aid to Israel is going to be stopped as long as Israeli settlements continue. That means all the settlements, not only these so-called outposts that are officially acknowledged as illegal under Israeli law—which, by the way, have not been eliminated anyway—all of the settlements are illegal under international law. They should all be ended and dismantled. Until that happens, the US should not provide Israel with military aid, period and full stop. That should be president-elect Obama’s first step.

JAY: We’re highly unlikely to see that.

BENNIS: Highly unlikely we see Hillary Clinton, who’s known as an uncritical, fierce defender of US backing for all Israeli policies, including the settlement policy. So I don’t anticipate that we’re going to see significant motion.

JAY: Now, there’s this proposal that came from the Saudis about returning to ’67 borders and building a peace agreement around that, with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. And within that framework, that seems to be what Obama is going to try to push for. As you say, if Likud is elected, it’s going to be difficult. But why isn’t that a basis of a peace plan?

BENNIS: It could be the basis of discussions. There are some serious failures in the Arab peace plan, which is, number one, when it talks about borders, it talks about the settlements, it says that it should be the ’67 borders with minor adjustments—it says “minor”, but it says that must be mutually agreed. So its definition of what those border adjustments will mean. Now, up until this day, the Israeli position has been that border adjustments mean full annexation of all the major settlement blocks, leaving behind—.

JAY: Which are continuing to grow as we speak.

BENNIS: Which are continuing to grow and which include 80 percent of the settler population, which is about 450,000. Half a million Israeli settlers live in occupied East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. Eighty percent of those would remain, under the Israeli definition, which largely follows the route of the apartheid wall, the separation wall, throughout the West Bank. That land grab also puts all the major water sources, the aquifers, on the Israeli side of the wall. And Tzipi Livni, who I’m sure Barack Obama is hoping wins the election because she would be a partner in this negotiation, has said that the wall would be the basis of a border between Israel and a Palestinian state. That would leave 80 percent of the settlers having stolen some of the most fertile land and all the major water resources. It also leaves out the question of the right of return. It essentially says that there would be no right of return except for what Israel might agree to on an individual basis.

JAY: Except they’re now talking about some form of compensation in exchange for right of return.

BENNIS: Yes and right. It could be the beginning of discussion. The problem is so often in these situations, because of the vast power disparity between Israel and the Palestinians, what you have is not the beginning of negotiations but the endgame imposed from above. That’s the danger here.

JAY: Well, thank you very much for joining us, Phyllis. And as we move further into a real Obama administration, we’ll see what their Middle East policy actually is. Thanks for joining us. And once again remember we depend on you to donate. And I’m pointing at a donate button. It’s either up here or down there. But one way or the other we need you and your support to keep doing what we’re doing. Thank you.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.