Chomsky and Pappe clash on “solutions” for Palestine in new book

On Palestine by Ilan Pappe and Noam Chomsky (UK: Penguin, 224 pp, US: Haymarket)

When they write or speak about Palestine, few academics on the left command the same attention as Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe. Their latest joint effort, a sequel to the 2010 book Gaza in Crisis, is titled simply On Palestine.

This slim volume, which runs to approximately 200 pages, is notable not only for the many issues on which the two men agree but also for their disagreements. Both center on some of the principal strategic and tactical issues facing the global Palestine solidarity movement.

These include applying the “apartheid model” to Israel, the effectiveness of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, and the debate over the one-state and two-state solutions. For these discussions alone, this book merits attention.

The first part of the book consists of dialogues between Chomsky and Pappe on Palestine’s past, present and future. Editor and human rights activist Frank Barat guides these conversations. He also separately interviews Pappe on the current political situation inside his native Israel and Chomsky on the current role of the United States in the so-called peace negotiations.


An introductory chapter by Pappe helps frame these conversations. In it, the historian and author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine outlines four paradoxes confronting the solidarity movement.

The first paradox is why international public opinion overwhelmingly condemns Israel’s human rights violations and yet Israel can still rely on the support of Western governments. The second is why Israeli society has failed to acknowledge global opinion and continues to perceive itself in a positive way.

The third is why the Palestine solidarity movement has largely failed to make Zionist ideology the centerpiece of its critique of Israel despite the fact that Zionism is at the root of Israel’s criminality. The fourth paradox is why Israeli propaganda has still largely succeeded in portraying the conflict as “complicated” when in reality, as Pappe puts it, it’s a familiar and simple case of settler colonialism.

To address these paradoxes, Pappe suggests that the solidarity movement needs to introduce a new lexicon that frames the struggle in terms of decolonization, “regime change” and the imperative of a one-state solution. These terms, Pappe argues, give activists a way of getting beyond the old orthodoxy of resolving the conflict through peace negotiations and a two-state solution, which have failed, he says, because Israel is guided by an ideology that seeks to “de-Arabize” all of historic Palestine.

The Israeli government will never cease to seek this goal until it’s confronted with the necessity to end its colonial project, become a state of all its citizens, pay reparations to the Palestinians it forced into exile, and abandon the project of apartheid that is implicit in the two-state solution.

Tantalizing ideas

Chomsky and Pappe agree on many of these issues. The dialogues show both men acknowledging that Israel is a settler-colonial society.

Chomsky notes that this fact probably explains why Australia, Canada and the United States are Israel’s most consistent supporters since the settler-colonial origins of all four countries make them natural allies.

Like any conversation, much of the content in these dialogues is often suggestive rather than grounded in rigorous argument. The two scholars throw out some tantalizing ideas.

Pappe, for example, proposes that Islamophobia is not a recent phenomenon and that it played a prominent role in winning Western support for Israel’s existence. Chomsky says it is critical for the BDS movement to target the US role in supporting Israel since Israel, like apartheid South Africa before it, understands that it can persist as a “pariah state” as long as it has US backing.

Chomsky comes off as much less hostile to and dismissive of the BDS movement in this volume than he was in a notorious article he wrote for The Nation last year. He criticizes advocates of an academic and cultural boycott for failing to prepare the groundwork for their campaign, resulting, he says, in a vulnerability to charges of violating academic freedom.

Pappe disagrees, but despite his defense of the academic boycott, one of the deficiencies of this book — namely the absence of Palestinian voices — becomes particularly glaring here.

Chomsky also appears to be much less rigid in maintaining that US support for Israel is solely guided by its own imperialist interests, an argument forcefully sustained in his 1983 book The Fateful Triangle. Here he appears to envision waning US support for Israel, especially because of the shift in US public opinion among young people.

Peace talks charade

The sharpest divergence between Pappe and Chomsky becomes apparent in part two, which consists of several articles previously published by Chomsky and original contributions by Pappe. Both scholars agree that the peace negotiations have been an elaborate charade allowing Israel to continue to colonize the West Bank.

Chomsky argues that Israel’s conception of a two-state solution is at best a group of isolated, landlocked cantons in the West Bank in which a tiny Palestinian elite enjoys limited autonomy in Ramallah and Gaza exists wholly apart so that a Palestinian state will have no access to the outside world.

Nevertheless, Chomsky believes that a two-state solution is the only realistic one given that there is an international consensus behind it. The US government, he argues, could be compelled to cease providing support for Israel’s violations of international law.

Facing that prospect, Israel might recognize its total international isolation and negotiate a two-state solution based on the international consensus.

Pappe, on the other hand, argues that the two-state solution is no solution at all because it doesn’t address the problem: Zionism as a colonialist movement and Israel as a “racist, apartheid state.” The solution starts, he writes, “within a framework where all [including Palestinian refugees] enjoy full rights, equality and partnership.”

Unfortunately, neither Pappe nor Chomsky invoke the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. That was the fundamental right denied the Palestinians in 1948, and until that right is exercised, it’s hard to see how the Palestinian people will win liberation from colonialism.