Amandla! interviews Gilbert Achcar
Amandla: What do you think were some of the principal motivations for the recent Israeli assault on Gaza?
Gilbert Achcar (LGA): Well, the onslaught came just before the Obama administration starts in Washington. And there was a window of opportunity for Israel to seize before being faced with a new administration that would actually consider what the general policy of the US government will be. The general issue for Israel is the issue of so-called deterrence, which after the Lebanese fiasco of 2006 which was very widely perceived as a major Israeli failure and a major setback for Israeli policy because of the resistance of Hezbullah, and an inability of Israel to achieve the ending of the political resistance. And this was of course at a political moment where Israel itself was undergoing crises, commissions of inquiry, and the Olmert government was still then in a relatively weak position.
And so they had on the one hand to compensate for the Lebanese fiasco – and they could not do it in Lebanon itself; they chose to do it against Hamas in Gaza which is an easier target and much easier to achieve than in Lebanon for obvious reasons, most obvious of which is the geography concerned: the Gaza Strip is an isolated strip of land. And also in what they perceived as some boldness within the Palestinians in Gaza, which is not only Hamas, in launching rockets and the risk was something that the Israelis found that they had to take. And hence this very brutal onslaught which, contrary to previous wars, did not have any specific agenda besides targeting Hamas and surrounding and laying siege to the Gaza Strip. You have a full range of goals that have been defined from the most immediate to the general, but none of this was really on the agenda in this onslaught. The key thing was for Israel to reinvigorate its so-called deterrent power by inflicting the maximum damage and killing on the Palestinians in a very short time; and they knew that they had a very short time because they had to stop before the inauguration of Obama. And this is what they’ve done and this is what may be called ‘one hundred eyes for one eye’ – they had 13 Israeli casualties and you had 100 times that number on the Palestinian side. So that was terrible, not to mention of course the destruction was absolutely huge, almost one-sixth of housing in Gaza has been destroyed. And there is the general logic of Israel trying to intimidate the whole Arab environment and starting with the Palestinians – with the idea that whoever tries to resist Israel in whatever form will bear its wrath and get destroyed.
Amandla: In your opinion, do you think Israel was able to achieve its stated and unstated aims?
(LGA): Let me first just add the immediate considerations behind that, which were political developments in the US and, of course, the deadline that had to be met was the Israeli election. And the coalition within the Olmert government, composed of Likud and the Labourites, was claiming that they needed to compensate for the Lebanese fiasco. This would allow them to redress their situation in the elections as they were given for losers facing Likud led by Natanyahu. And, well, these were the circumstances. Now coming to your second question about whether the goals were achieved, I would say that the message that Israel can behave in the most murderous way and inflict very heavy damage and suffering on people is something that becomes clear to everybody. If there was anybody having doubts about that, already the onslaught of Lebanon was terrible enough.
In terms of concentration of killing and destruction, Israel is in a permanent escalation now for several years. There was already massive Israeli destruction and killings In Lebanon since 1982. But then the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006 had a much more concentrated rate of killing and destruction. And now we have a new threshold, which would be this most recent onslaught on Gaza. So the message of deterrence is trying to be conveyed but the Arabs are not deterred from this as we have seen the reaction of the Palestinians in Gaza. They are not really intimidated, they are not deterred, and from that angle if we have to judge by whatever political results Israel could reap from this– they are non-existent. So in that sense, despite the fact that this time the Olmert government claimed that this was a victory for Israel, that will just be compensation in their eyes. This would not be accepted unanimously in Israel; far from it.
And this does not prevent Netanyahu from continuing to outbid Labour and Kadima and denounce what he perceives as their failure because the goal was supposed to be to eradicate Hamas, to wipe it out. The domestic political results in Israel are also instructive: Kadima, led by Livni, has managed to stay in the first position, by a small margin, but the fact is that in second and third position you have Likud and Lieberman’s group, Yisrael Beytenu, which is a quasi-fascist sort of group – Lieberman is openly racist, wanting to actually get rid of some non-Jewish citizens. And this is an indication of a very worrying divide that started many years ago with the victory of Likud in 1977. Likud would be called as the political heir to what is called Zionist Revisionism that was founded by Vladimir Zhabotinsky, and which even the Labour wing by Ben Gurion used to describe this group as fascist and ignorant. So now what you’ve got in Israel is the three largest groups are two factions of the Likud, that is of the historical Revisionism founded by Zhabotinsky, and of course Kadima which is a split from it and Likud. And then a third group which is a newcomer on the Israeli scene and which is even further to the right than the two others. So this is a very worrying trend in Israeli politics.
Amandla: If we could now turn to US policy toward the region, particularly under the new Obama administration. Do you feel that the Obama administration will have a fundamentally different policy toward the region from previous US administrations, and if so, is that simply because of more enlightened personnel in the administration or is it a reflection of deeper crises that the empire is facing in the region?
(LGA): It is definitely first and above all the second. Any sensible observer of the region will note that this is a very explosive and dangerous region. But thissituation is a source of concern for the United States since it is the centre of the global empire and global capitalism.Washington is worried about any new explosion in the Middle East, something that might entail really catastrophic consequences economically speaking
– a surge in oil prices, for instance. And so I think that the concern about this and the clear failure of the Bush administration project in the region is actually one of the key reasons why you have the people that you have now in Washington – that it’s not that you would have some change of policy because you have some more enlightened people; it is just that you have some people who claim to be more enlightened or to have more smart power, as Hillary Clinton put it, because you have had this terribly negative balance of the Bush administration before that. This prompted a major section of US business to support Obama. We know and we appreciate the fact that at the electoral level Obama’s victory was the result of mass mobilisation, especially of African Americans. But we shouldn’t forget the other side of the victory, the fact thatObama has been backed by US business and not out of any affirmative action but because they sense very sharply the need for a change of personnel in the US empire. This empire needs this, and the most dramatic change of face was of course that of Obama’s. So now you have,let’s say, the empire with a more a human face and a black face compared to what you had before with George W Bush. So this is an opportunity to try to restore the dominance of the US empire,globally and of course in the Middle East too.