A majority of United Nations members support a just resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but U.S. political cowardice and the influential Israel Lobby thwart it, says veteran UN correspondent Ian Williams
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. We are continuing our coverage from the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.. Now, here in Washington this weekend AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is holding its annual policy conference but here at the National Press Club just ahead of that gathering, there is a counter-event going on. It’s called the Israel Lobby and American Policy.
Joining us now to discuss the role of the Israel Lobby and its influence at the United Nations is Ian Williams. He is a veteran UN correspondent and the author the book UNtold: The Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War. Ian, hello.
IAN WILLIAMS Hello.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s talk about the UN. You’ve covered the UN for years. A common complaint from Israel and its supporters is that the UN is biased against Israel. Is there a validity to that?
IAN WILLIAMS: It’s the way you look at it. If you keep breaking the law and you keep appearing in the dock, you might think the police are biased against you. Other people will say, “Stop stealing and you won’t end up in court so often.”
AARON MATÉ: The common refrain is that other countries commit way worse human rights violations, but yet Israel is singled out for scrutiny.
IAN WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think that’s a very unethical excuse. The “What about” excuse, I call it. Every country in the world uses that. “What about so-and-so? What about so-and-so? I only beat my wife. I don’t dismember her. What about so-and-so?” On its own ethics, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. However in this particular case, they have, the Israelis do have a point in that there are far, far too many countries, Iraq in the old days and Iran now, and the Saudis, who do indeed use a farrago of complaints against, a barrage of complaints against Israel to deflect from their own sins.
Israel has got a lot to be in the dock for. I mean, they’re occupying territories in defiance of international resolutions. They are mistreating the Palestinians under occupation. They have raided their neighbors frequently and dropped bombs on them. They have invaded Gaza and killed and thousands of people. They’re besieging it. There is a lot for Israel to be held account for. Yes, by all means we should go after the others as well, but that doesn’t mean to say, you really do not get, you don’t up in the court when you’re on trial and say, “What about so-and-so I saw robbing a bank last week?” If you were seen robbing a bank, that’s what the issue is in front of the court or in front of the United Nations. Israel is being caught…on almost all of these issues. Now, it’s actually running for seats on the security council.
AARON MATÉ: Do you think they’ll get it?
IAN WILLIAMS: Very much doubt it. I mean, it’s extremely unpopular. The only way they can get it, they’re running against Germany and Belgium for the West European and other groups seat. The West European group is unique because it actually has elections instead of doing things on a backroom cozy deal.
AARON MATÉ: Elections to become the nominee on the council?
IAN WILLIAMS: Yes.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah.
IAN WILLIAMS: To become the temporary member. The only way they can get it is if they persuade Germany to stand down. I strongly think they’re going to try. They’re going to say to Germany, “You owe us big style. 1945 and onwards, this is your big piece of reparations you’ve got to pay us.” And the Germans are going to say “No, no. Take another submarine and shut up. We’re not dropping out.”
AARON MATÉ: Germany, you can’t accuse Germany of not paying reparations to Israel over the years.
IAN WILLIAMS: Yes, it’s paying through the nose-
AARON MATÉ: Yeah.
IAN WILLIAMS: … including corrupt deals on submarines.
AARON MATÉ: Speaking of corrupt, how corrupt is that process by which countries cajole to get a seat on the council? Is there a lot of, is there bribery involved? How much sort of backroom dealing-
IAN WILLIAMS: Not much. There’s a lot of cajoling. There’s a lot, but generally speaking, the worst bit about it is it’s a…basis so you get completely unsuitable countries. Rwanda had a seat on the security council at the time of the genocide there. Morocco was on while it was occupying Western Sahara. Indonesia was on there all the time while it was occupying East Timor.
AARON MATÉ: One can argue that almost no country has the right to sit on the council.
IAN WILLIAMS: Ethically speaking, very few.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah.
IAN WILLIAMS: I think we’d have to pick somewhere like Ireland and Jamaica.
AARON MATÉ: Right.
IAN WILLIAMS: They do not meet the qualifications for a permanent…[laughs].
AARON MATÉ: Well, let me ask you about another UN member going back to the issue of Palestine which is that in recent years, Palestinians, Palestinian authorities have increased their presence there as a bid to pressure Israel to comply with international law. They’ve used some of the avenues available to them to join the UN, seeking UN recognition, joining forums like UNESCO. And because of that they’ve gotten a really harsh response from Israel and the US. Can you talk about the steps that Palestinians have taken to integrate itself further into the UN body and the retaliation that they’ve gotten in response?
IAN WILLIAMS: Well, it was over 20 years ago. In fact, it was Yasser Arafat’s nephew who was the representative to the UN under him, Nasser al-Qudwa. They began what I call the Resolution Road to Liberation. They basically assessed the Palestine, they realized that liberation struggle was a dead end because they would lose. And so, what they did was to restate the legality of the Palestinian position. So, they got all of these resolutions, they dusted them off and they reiterated them so they couldn’t be accused of going fallow on the shelf. They restated these positions and they refined them. And it annoyed the Israelis to hell because the Israelis are people of law. Okay. They trust the law, the defy the law, the reinterpret the law, they saw the law doesn’t mean what you say it does.
AARON MATÉ: They claim to follow it.
IAN WILLIAMS: They claim to follow. It’s deep in the national psyche, I think.
AARON MATÉ: It’s part of their brand.
IAN WILLIAMS: Yeah. They’re very Talmudic about it in the sense of rabbinical sages will tell you, “No, you can’t switch the light on, but if you wink at somebody and they switch it on for you, that’s okay.” If you belong to a tradition where in a sense you’re trying to cheat God, then cheating the UN is no big deal [laughs].
AARON MATÉ: Right. Right.
IAN WILLIAMS: Or at least play a blinder on God. That tradition works to a large extent. They basically just say, “Yes, yes. We respect the law, but we don’t believe it says what you say it does. Who are you going to believe? Me or the other 193 countries?” So, the Palestinians wanted to restate this, they have restated it and it annoys the hell out of the Israelis. And the recognition as a state, that gets extra stuff now because the noose is tightening with a sense of global legality and law. There are Israeli generals and politicians now who have to check, like Henry Kissinger, with lawyers as well as their travel agents before they go anywhere.
AARON MATÉ: Right.
IAN WILLIAMS: I mean, there was an Israeli politician who was kept on the plane at Heathrow because they were tipped off there was an international arrest warrant waiting for him if he got off.
AARON MATÉ: Right. Tzipi Livni, I think, the former Foreign Minister, she even canceled a trip-
IAN WILLIAMS: Yeah.
AARON MATÉ: … as a result of trying to avoid potential charges.
IAN WILLIAMS: Yeah. Once Palestine becomes a state, then crimes committed on its territory come under the purview of the International Criminal Court. It raises the ramp even further. The stuff in London is universal jurisdiction where it’s the same rap they got Pinochet on for a while before letting him go. This is a whole new departure in international law which in general is good because we don’t think people should have impunity. Obviously, if you think everything you do is good and everything other people do is immoral then you take a different view on it, but, in general, this is what Nuremberg was about. The fact that these were German generals who were accused of killing Germans, it was a universal crime that was committed. And they were rightly held to task by the whole international community for it. That’s what the UN is about.
That’s one of the reasons why Israel is so worried about this resolution legal road to liberation. It’s their big incentive to… between the boycotts and sanctions and the legal stuff. I think that’s where the real squeeze is coming, which is what happened with South Africa, remember? It was the boycott of South Africa, the economic sanctions and the cultural boycott which really sapped the will of the white South Africans to allow the apartheid regime to continue.
AARON MATÉ: All true, but also critically it was also the US government deciding after years of propping up apartheid to drop its support which seems like a long way off when it comes to Israel.
IAN WILLIAMS: That’s the key part, yes. I mean, look, if we want Middle East peace then the President of the United States has to call Benjamin Netanyahu or successor and say, “You don’t pull out, the checks stop coming forthwith. Go fight your next election on that program and tell them that you’ve teed off your biggest donor.” Netanyahu is going to lose the election. At the moment, the Israeli electorates have nothing to lose. Netanyahu can do anything, no matter how atrocious and get away with it, so, “Yeah, of course let’s keep it. Why should we give it back to them?” There’s no downside for them.
If the only possible downside short of thermonuclear war which none of us particularly want is the US saying, “We’re stopping the checks or we’re stopping the diplomatic support,” that’s what Obama very belatedly tried to do. If he’d done that at the beginning of his eight years, put in the resolution, it might have made a difference. But then I don’t think he’d have served a second, he mightn’t have served a second term.
AARON MATÉ: Exactly. The key point is that he did it in literally his final month in office or his final two months in office in December 2016.
IAN WILLIAMS: Clinton did the same by the way. He signed on for the International Criminal Court just before he left the office.
AARON MATÉ: Right. Clinton also tried to push through a peace process with just a few months left in his-
IAN WILLIAMS: You have to do these things at the beginning. I honestly think politicians are inherently cowardly. And if they started a term of office with this and followed up for the duration, I think the public would reward them. I think the world would reward them. The adulation would come through. One of the points about lobbies, both the NRA or AIPAC, the Israel Lobby, is they’re not actually very popular with voters. Lobby is distilled essence of political power. It’s not about votes. It’s about campaign contributions. It’s about rallying media opinion, about rallying, about getting people speaking up and for you.
And this is why, despite public support for gun control, the NRA keeps winning and stopping it. Public want it, NRA doesn’t. No congressman is prepared to risk their seat and their salary and their free car park at national airport by defying them. The same with AIPAC, even more so, is that it has a ferocious reputation which is not always entirely justified by the way. There are people who have defied the Israel lobby and survived because in the end when they made threatening noises about Senator Bob Dole over his support for the refusal to pay mortgage guarantees, if you remember?
AARON MATÉ: Oh, back with the settlements when-
IAN WILLIAMS: Yes…
AARON MATÉ: The loan guarantees for the settlements, they froze those in response to Israeli settlement building.
IAN WILLIAMS: Yeah. They said, “We’re not going to give you money. We want guarantees that you’re not going to build any settlements if we give you money to resettle Russian Jews.”
AARON MATÉ: For a bit, for a bit. They-
IAN WILLIAMS: Clinton caved. He put so much small print in it, but Bob Dole stood up against them. AIPAC did not try to unseat him because if he’d have got up, if he’d have got up in the midwest and said, “I am running for president and these people are stopping me because they wanted me to give $10 billion to a foreign country on the other side of the Mediterranean,” he’d have got in with an increased majority.
AARON MATÉ: Right.
IAN WILLIAMS: If he had the courage to actually say that.
AARON MATÉ: But then you have people like Donna Edwards of Maryland who expressed minimal support for Palestinian rights. AIPAC came out strongly against her and she ultimately lost her seat. We have to leave it there. Ian Williams, veteran UN correspondent, author of UNtold: The Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War. Ian, thank you.
IAN WILLIAMS: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.