Finding a rapport

Like anyone who serves as the go between to mediate two opposing sides of a fight, Richard Falk is in a tenuous place.

For the past two years, Falk, who for 40 years was Princeton University’s leading professor of international law, has served the United Nations as a special rapporteur for improving conditions between Palestine and Israel. It’s a role that asks him to seek, through diplomacy, that elusive “two-state solution” to end Israel’s increasing occupation of, and human rights crimes against, the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza territories.

As the U.N.’s chief envoy, Falk’s job has not been easy. In December 2008, Falk was detained in Tel Aviv, denied entry into Israel by authorities.

However, the burdens placed upon the rapporteur haven’t swayed Falk’s core mission. He appears on Friday in Ventura to speak at the Second Annual Free Gaza Event, sponsored by Venturans for a Just Palestine.

Falk spoke with the Reporter this week, elaborating on the topic of his presentation, titled “Peace, Power and Palestine.”

VCR: What will be the main focus of your talk in Ventura on Friday?

Falk: The main focus is on the underlying difficulty that the Palestinians, particularly, have faced in trying to find some solution to the conflict. In the historical background of that difficulty is if you look at the map of Palestine, you’ll see that the Palestinians were seeking to establish their state on less and less available territory. It raises the question as to whether it’s even viable to seek a two-state solution at this stage in the conflict. And so that’s one main emphasis. Another is the shift of the tactics of the Palestinians from arms resistance and political violence to a broader, international effort to challenge the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. In that sense, the more recent phases of the Palestinian struggle has come to resemble the anti-Apartheid movement that was eventually very effective in changing the political climate in South Africa in the early ’90s.

It reminds me of Tibet and China, also.

You’re absolutely right. I refer to this stage of the conflict as a second war, a “legitimacy war.” South Africa is a case where the victory in the legitimacy war was then converted into a victory in the political struggle. Tibet, unfortunately, there’s been a victory in the legitimacy war but it hasn’t produced a victory in the political struggle. So there’s no assurance that prevailing in the legitimacy war can be translated into a favorable political outcome.

The vice president recently talked about the increasing lack of security that U.S. and allied troops stationed in the Middle East may now face from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. What are your thoughts?

I think it’s a tricky but important dimension. It’s really shorthand for saying that the stubbornness of Israel in sustaining the status quo there is inconsistent with American national interests. So it places a strain on the underlying relationships. Of course, the most vivid expression of that strain is it contributes to the Islamic hostility to the West, and particularly to the United States.

Just under two years ago Israeli police had detained you for questioning their country’s policies. Did you anticipate this happening, and how did you go about handling it when it happened?

I had no choice, of course, when it actually happened. I actually didn’t think it would happen because we had submitted the itinerary to the Israeli government prior to my going there. And they had issued visas to the people accompanying me, the U.N. security and technical assistance people, which they didn’t really have to do if they were planning on expelling me. I think they wanted to have this incident in order to send a kind of message to the U.N. that they were not going to cooperate. They denied that, but I think that the actual circumstances convinced me that they wanted to have this incident.

Has that since made your role more difficult?

Yes, it curtails my capacity to really do direct rapporting, because the expectation is that the rapporteur is supposed to visit, at least twice a year, areas that he or she is responsible for. And even countries like North Korea and Myanmar, which also have rapporteurs … they’ve allowed them to come and at least do part of their job. Israel, as a member of the U.N., is legally obliged to cooperate.

You’ve compared the human rights crimes in Palestine to those of the Holocaust during World War II. Being a Jewish American, does it affect you on a personal level?

That was a journalistic piece that I had written prior to being selected for this position. I think it unfortunately holds up fairly well, but I probably would not have written that had I had this U.N. position. It tends to elicit those extreme responses, in both directions, actually. Neither one of them was very satisfying for my point of view. I’m not sure which is worse, the approval or the disapproval.

Israel has occupied Palestine for 43 years now. When do you predict change, and independence for the Palestinians, will come?

I’m increasingly skeptical about whether Palestinian independence in developing conditions can come in the form of a two-state solution. I think it’s up to the Palestinians themselves to determine what kind of future they can accept. But it increasingly seems to be the case that only a single, unified Democratic state could satisfy the aspirations of both peoples at this point. … Probably the most obvious obstacle is that this would mean an abandonment of the Zionist project to establish an exclusively Jewish state. And there doesn’t seem to be any significant political will on the established side to do that. There is no feasible or no likely positive outcome in the foreseeable future, because neither a two-state nor a one-state solution seems politically attainable.

Local grassroots groups, like Venturans for a Just Palestine: Are there any words of advice you can offer them in their pursuits?

It’s so important for the American people to get a clear sense of the underlying circumstances. Political education is very important, particularly because the mainstream media is so biased in Israel’s favor. It’s not true in most of the rest of the world. We have a particular problem, here in the United States, of understanding the nature of the situation. And the degree to which the U.S. government is (involved) is not really qualified to act as an intermediary because it’s so aligned with Israel. To make the strong ally of Israel also the actor that provides a balance between these antagonists, seldom ever works diplomatically.   

A $10 donation is requested for Dr. Falk’s lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 5654 Ralston St., Ventura, on March 26 at 7 p.m., and $20 for the entire event, which begins at 5:30 p.m. with Middle Eastern food and a performance from the UCSB Middle East Ensemble. For more information, call 407-7997 or email