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.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is active with Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland Chapter and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign.




'self-determination' assumes the existence of a nation with land and people. Palestinians are deprived of both through colonial settlement and cyclical savage massacres since 1948. 'Self-determination' on pockets of scattered one mile square area!?


Palestine liberation/freedom will only follow a clear, sustained, massive Palestinian demand for freedom. One way is for the Palestinian people to demand their right to self-determination. Endless sorrow is wrong that self-determination requires the existence of a nation with land. But it does require a united people. And the later is lacking among Palestinians.


The principle of "self-determination of peoples" has supported innumerable violent injustices in the post-WWI world. It has encouraged imagined ethnic communities to lay exclusive claim to geographical landscapes that are homelands for other imagined ethnic communities. That pernicious "principle" is at the root of the ongoing Nakba. But if Jewish ethnic "self-determination" is replaced by Palestinian ethnic "self-determination" in geographical Palestine, is that really a triumph of justice and a formula for durable peace? It is people, not "peoples," who have rights. And like it or not, the Jews of geographical Palestine, some now in their fourth generation after their forebears' immigration, have only one homeland: the same homeland as the Arab Palestinians they and their forebears have dispossessed. The fundamental conflict is not between ethnic communities, but between basic, inalienable rights of individual people versus their denial.


Yes it is true that individuals have inalienable rights, but the reality of how lands are governed, comes down to a national identity. I have been on a personal quest, to understand why we as humans, do awful things to each other. I keep seeing the same theme - one's identity is tied to their geographical location, with it's own set of rules and laws. The Palestinian People must be free, Muslim, Christian or secular. As a Jew opposed to Zionism and Israel, the Palestinian people need to be completely free of any outside interference. The Germans fought till the end of WW2, told hold onto to their insane idea of who makes a perfect citizen based off of race. In my humble opinion, the Israelis are doing the same. With enough support, we as humans, can bring down this Evil Empire.

Jane Zacher Student Philadelphia PA Turtle Island


Palestinian self-determination has been defined by international law as the establishment of a viable Palestinian state in the whole of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. This happened in the early 70s when the UNSC brought Palestinian nationalism into the solution for the conflict, creating the two-state solution option we hear about today.

It was because of the inclusion of this manifestation of self-determination that Syria - the last Arab country to hold out on the 1967 borders - and the PLO, joined the international consensus on how to resolve this issue (although the PLO had been working since the late 60s to reorganize it's internal leadership along these lines).

Given that all major, leading Palestinian representatives - the PLO, Hamas, Fatah, PA - accept the two-state solution (very, very different from the Oslo-based, US-led "peace process", in all it's various forms) as a framework to resolve the issue, and this is the position Chomsky has maintained for decades, I'm not sure how the author here can claim, with confidence, that Palestinian "voices" are missing.

This is a book on interviews with Chomsky and Pappe, with written works of theirs included. Every book released by Chomsky must include comments by a Palestinian? Is that the suggestion? Or is Chomsky's support for the position of Palestinian leadership, as well as Palestinian public opinion (polls over decades have shown majority support for the two-state solution), and the overwhelming international consenus, not enough?


The so-called “two-state solution” is the very negation of Palestinian self-determination, the cancelation of fundamental Palestinian rights and an affirmation that the usurpation of Palestinian rights in 1948 was correct. The Palestinian people as a whole, the only ones who can determine their destiny (as opposed to the one third of Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza) have never been given a say on any of these issues.

I’ve explained this in my article “Reclaiming Self-Determination.”


Mr. Abunimah, I'm somewhat familiar with your position on this, and you're correct, limiting Palestinian self-determination to the pre-June 1967 borders does cancel Palestinian national rights inside Israel proper, and relegates their struggle their to one of domestic rights. But that's what the law says, that's how Palestinian self-determination has been defined since the 70s.

And I don't think in any way does this interpret the ethnic cleansing of '48 or '67 as "correct". So, for example, accepting, as fact, that my country is Canada, and that it was established through theft, genocide, imperialism, colonialism, and outright brutality, does not make those historical actions correct (or excuse the current behaviour of my country and people towards what's left of the Native population). What it does though, is allow for things like trade and political relations to function, by accepting the jurisdiction of the state of Canada.

Similarly, we could look at Mexico, which recognizes the jurisdiction of the US within its legal borders, even though that includes about half of historic Mexico. This in no way implies that the theft was "correct", except maybe by a few jingoist Americans.

You're free to disagree with the law, and personally, since I learned about Palestine, I have felt that a just solution would be a single state in all of historic Palestine. Or actually, no state at all (I don't believe in the state structure). But given the international weight of this conflict, and the fact that ALL relevant laws are favourable to the Palestinians (whether those laws are enforced or not is a different topic), I discard my personal views in favour of tactics which are most likely to achieve the goal of ending the suffering, the occupation, as soon as possible.

I don't have to lay it out for you, you're familiar with Chomsky, Finkelstein and others that speak about this, probably way more than I am. You know full well that what they advocate is better tactics, tactics which are more likely to reach a broad public which can then in turn apply sufficient pressure on governments to enforce the law, to enforce the international consensus. If you wish to throw away the strongest asset your people have - international law - that's your choice. But you're not going to convince me, and you won't convince most people, as I think is demonstrated by the public disagreements and positions we see on this issue.

Another example would be the so-called rockets. Personally, I applaud their use. And I can cite the international laws which support their use (like the concept of "reprisals"). But as a strategy? Terrible. They have zero military capability to achive an end to the seige or occupation. All they do is invite more Israeli crimes, brutal attacks and vicious propaganda. This doesn't mean Palestinians under occupation don't have a right to use those rockets (they do), it just means it's not the best course of action. I may be right when I fight with my wife about something, but that doesn't necessarily mean that focusing on whether I'm right or not is the best course of action every time, especially if my end goal is a happy marriage and life.

Ending the PA co-operation with Israel, going to the ICC, waving the ICJ ruling around whenever someone claims Israel has a "right to defend itsefl" (it doesn't, in relation to the OPT, the ICJ was clear about this, Israel is an Occupying Power and cannot invoke Chapter 7 of the UN Charter in the OPT), would do more to end the occupation than 10,000 rockets could.

When I first heard about Israel-Palestine, I wondered why Palestinians were complaining, I thought they should just fight back and stop appeling to the world. When a Palestinian explained that they were under military occupation, and were throwing stones at tanks, it blew my mind and inevitably framed the conflict in my mind as an occupation. Had I heard that the Palestinians were using rockets, I probably wouldn't have cared much. Understanding now, that the US' tacit support for the occupation is the main obstacle to achieving a solution to the conflict, it doesn't make sense to me to support rockets as a tactic - even though I acknowledge that Palestinians have a right to use those rockets the way that they do. Because those rockets have zero prospect of ending US support for the occupation. But pointing out the law, that might work to get the global public, and the US public to apply pressures on their governments.

Just like with self-determination, if you wish to support the "rockets" as a right, that's fine, but I'm gonna stick to tactics that actually have some hope in suceeding. And on self-determination, the case is weaker than the rockets. We have laws about reprisals, we have UNGA resolutions from the 70s and 80s confirming the right of Palestinians to use armed force in the course of their struggle, and no specific laws outlawing them to use such force (in international law). But self-determination has been decided by UNSC resolutions to mean, in the case of Palestinians, a Palestinian state on the '67 borders. It's going to be hard for you to appeal to anyone on the basis of any laws - say regarding settlements, East Jerusalem, resource theft, the occupation, whatever - when you disregard other laws you don't like, like what's been defined by the law as Palestinian self-determination.


I am indeed fully aware of the lecturing and hectoring that Palestinians receive from several quarters about what rights they should limit themselves to demanding and how they should let others tell them the right way to pursue them.


lol, Mr. Abunimah, I'm not sure where the "lecturing" or "hectoring" comes into play here. I'm not trying to be hostile here, and I hope you don't take it like that. I know who you are, and given that you took the time to comment, I see an opportunity to engage in discussion. Nothing else.

You know, better than I do, that international law on this topic - largely UNSC resolutions - pretty much ignores Palestinian national rights. Even those rights like the right of return, and universal human rights, don't provide any national rights to Palestinians inside the legal borders of Israel. Focusing on the '67 borders has nothing to do with "limiting" any rights, it has to do with realizing and enforcing actual rights, not perceived ones.

Like I said, I'm kinda familiar with your positions, I know who you are and the link you posted was no surprised. You conflate the US "peace process" with the two-state solution and then proceed to say that a two-state solution will not satisfy your definition of self-determination.

In fact, the two-state solution - the one endorsed by the whole world, every year at the UNGA - is the only possibly viable solution that could address some minimal level of self-determination for your people. The right of return is based on return and/or compensation. If Israel put enough money on the table, it could legally prevent a single refugee from returning.

Equal rights within Israel is a domestic Israeli issue, as far as international law is concerned. Yes, there are international treaties which require certain universal rights, but these are weak and usually do not trump the rights of states to sovereignty and non-interference. Also, given that this issue of domestic rights, inequality and the marginalization of minorities is found in pretty much every state on the planet, you're not going to attract much more support on that point than other movements in other countries do.

Where international law has a gap - Palestinian national rights - the international consensus, the two-state solution comes in, and demands that a Palestinian state be established in the OPT after a full Israeli withdrawal. This was settled in the 70s when the PLO began backing this consensus, as I'm sure you know. Like I said, if you wish to ignore this asset, this minimal level of self-determination that your people can hope to achieve, that's up to you.

If we want to follow your logic though, that the only acceptable realization of self-determination will be a single state in all of historic Palestine, then we have to accept the real, and obvious US-Israeli reaction to such a goal - they will entrench the occupation further, and continue to annex land and steal resources, while continuing to brutalize, imprison and attack your people. You can sit there and feel like the two-state solution - whether you mean the US "peace process" or the actual two-state solution - is not an option, and then try to achieve a single state. But you have almost zero support for that goal, and on the international political stage, you have exactly zero support for that. It will take 20, 50, 100 years, maybe, to change the international consensus. In the meantime, Israel will carry on with its status quo. If you believe that a single state can be realized within this context, that's up to you.

If that's the course you wish to pursue, you have every right. But follow through with the logic. How many people will support you in this goal, how do you propose to be taken seriously when you confuse what you want with actual rights, and then speak of the law and realizing those real rights? If someone points out to you that your plan - the goal you have and the framework you propose to realize that goal - contains a huge, gaping hole of viability, is this lecturing?


Chomsky should stop clinging to the illusion of a two-state 'solution'. When even Bibi declares that the marionette has collapsed, it's long past time for people who support human rights and international law to stop spouting about 'international consensus' that in practice is a chimera.