'Killing Palestinians is popular in Israel around election time'

Was Israel’s Pillar of Cloud self defense, or state terrorism? What is the Israeli lobby in the US, and what does the Arab lobby have to counter it with? To get some answers, RT sat down with former US Assistant Secretary of Defense Chas Freeman.

On November 14, Ahmed Jabari, Hamas' military leader in Gaza Strip, was killed in an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) airstrike. It signaled the beginning of the IDF's Operation Pillar of Cloud, which Tel Aviv said was aimed at halting indiscriminate rocket fire into Israeli territory from the strip.

During the eight-day operation, the IDF struck over 1,500 sites in Gaza, occasionally including Hamas command posts and government buildings. Israeli forces killed over 160 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians. Hamas responded with rockets, some reaching as far as Tel Aviv. Hamas retaliation left six Israelis dead. Hundreds of people were injured on both sides.

In an Egypt-brokered truce, both Israel and Hamas claimed victory. But who exactly is the winner, and was Israel’s operation a success, in a broader sense? For that, RT’s Sophie Shevardnadze talks with former assistant US Secretary of Defense and former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman.

­Charles W. ("Chas") Freeman, Jr. (born 1943) is an American diplomat, politician and writer. His major political career began as the principal American interpreter for President Richard Nixon’s first visit to China in 1972. From 1989 to 1992 Freeman served as the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, where he dealt with issues related to the Persian Gulf War. Then Freeman was appointed Assistant Secretary of Defense, International Security Affairs (1993-94). Later he became the president of the Middle East Council and other institutions. In February 2009, a leaked media report indicated Freeman might soon chair the National Intelligence Council in the Obama administration. This triggered a wave of criticism from prominent pro-Israel figures, and after several weeks, Freeman withdrew his name from consideration.

RT: The Operation Pillar of Cloud that Israel carried out in Gaza is over now. Both Israel and Hamas are claiming victory. Who do you think is the winner?

CF: I don’t think Israel is the winner, except in one sense. And that is it demonstrated that the Iron Dome, the missile defense system, will work. Otherwise, in the arena of public opinion – internationally and in the region – Israel lost heavily. Nobody likes to see advanced military aircraft bombing civilian populations, which is what was happening.

And, of course, this energized Egypt diplomatically in a new way. And it generated a lot of support for the Palestinians in Gaza despite the fact that many of the governments that came to visit or sent their foreign ministries to Gaza, for example, don’t like Hamas at all. In fact, they fear it.

So it clearly strengthened Hamas both in the Palestinian territories and in the Arab world, politically. And I think that’s a victory for Hamas and a defeat for Israel.

RT:But Israel invokes the right to defend itself against terrorism, and this is a claim backed by countries such as the United States and Germany. You certainly do not deny this right, do you?   

CF: Certainly not, but that does not mean that you can take preventive action to attack others, especially civilians. The fact that one side commits occasional acts of terrorism does not justify state terrorism. And in this case there was no rocket fire of any consequence from the Gaza Strip into Israel, prior to Israel’s inauguration of the military raid that killed the military leader of Hamas.

'War against Hamas buys the ballot’

RT: Hamas is an organization that does not have much military capacity. Many people, actually, say that Israel, back into 2008-2009, and also this time, if it really wanted to, it could have squeezed Hamas out of Palestine. But it didn’t do so. Why?

CF: Well, I think Israel did attempt to use violence in the earlier Cast Lead operation. It did. That was at the very end of 2008, as there was a change of administration going on in Washington. It’s interesting that this war also happened around US election time.

But Israel failed. And the reason it failed is that the strategy is wrong. You cannot bomb people into peaceful coexistence. It just does not work.

RT:You just spoke about the elections. It was right after the presidential election in the United States, and right before the elections in Israel. What does it suggest to you: is the timing important, or is it a coincidence?

CF: Well, I suspect the timing in this case was dictated by the Israeli election. It’s very popular in Israel to kill lots of Palestinians in Gaza. And Hamas is seen as a monster, and so a war against Hamas… it wins votes.

‘IDF operations bound with religion’

RT: I want to talk about the wording of the operation Pillar of Cloud, obviously referring to the Bible. Back in the Bible, it was the pillar of cloud that let the Israelis out of Egypt and saved them from the Pharaoh. How much does the Torah narrative dominate the mindset of the Israeli war planners?

CF: Well, the religious element in the Israeli armed forces [is] largely settler-driven. Not Orthodox Jews – many of them don’t want to serve in the military, and refuse to do so.

But the religious complexion of the Israeli Defense Forces has steadily increased. So religion is now very much bound up with its operations.

The language of some rabbis during Cast Lead was simply harassing in terms of evoking Old Testament images of genocide against non-Jews.

I think also it’s true that this use of language reflects the fact that the Israeli and Palestinian struggle, which began as a sort of struggle between two competing nationalisms, became a struggle between Arabs and Israelis, and has now become a struggle between Jews and Muslims.

RT: In the Western media the operation Pillar of Cloud was renamed Pillar of Defense.


Oh, I suppose it sounds less alarming. Defense is a good thing, isn’t it? Attacking people behind a cloud, perhaps maybe isn’t. Evoking memories of Old Testament violence raises questions, perhaps, in the broader world. So this is a sort of typical example of what the Israelis call hasbara, which is control of narrative and propaganda – and they do it very well.

‘Thank you for what you did for Israel. What job in Bush’s administration do you want?’

­RT: In 2009 you were nominated to lead the National Intelligence Council in President Obama’s administration, and you declined due to pressure of what you’ve called the Israeli lobby in the United States. You specified later on that it’s actually more correct to call it the Likud lobby, or the lobby of the right wing in Israel. What exactly do you mean by that definition?

CF: If you look at the American Jewish community from which the activists in the Israel lobby are drawn, there is large passive support for Israel among Christian fundamentalists – but they are not active, generally speaking. 

The activists come from a very limited segment – about four per cent of the American Jewish community – and these are people who are strong supporters of the extreme right wing in Israel.

RT: There is another very interesting instance that you described. I am going to read out a quote of yours. You are being told by a senior Israeli official: “Thank you for what you did for Israel. What job in President Bush’s administration do you want?” How exactly does it work? I mean, can a foreign power actually influence the staffing of national security positions in the US government?

CF: Well, when this man, who I had considered a friend and rather admired, tactlessly made an offer to me, I thought he could deliver it. I thought he was making a real offer. I was enraged as somebody who is an American patriot. I don’t like the idea that any foreign country – even one close to us – should be able to dictate hard decisions about our internal politics.

RT: Was it a bluff or could he really deliver it?

CF: I think he might have been able to deliver it. I didn’t take him up on it for an obvious reason: I thought it was a despicable offer.

RT: That is a kind of scary.

CF: It is a little scary, yes.

But you see, there is again a narrative, which is that Israeli interests and American interests are identical; Israeli values and American values are identical. Neither is true, if you examine it.

‘Israel’s echo chamber’

­RT: But then, the Israeli narrative would be nothing without American backing…

CF: Yes, America is a wonderful echo chamber for Israel, because our relations are so intimate. We are so much in contact with each other and the American media are so amenable to spreading the Israeli line in the narrative. And the American media are enormously influential internationally, and so this takes what might be a rather small voice from Israel, and magnifies it and spreads it everywhere.

And Israel is, after all, a very small country that is surrounded by enemies. Whether it made those enemies itself or whether they are simply there, is beside the point. Israel is in a difficult position and uses everything it can use to defend itself – and this is one of the means of defense, a very strong one.

RT: What exactly are the priorities of the [Israel] lobby in the US, and how much power do they actually wield over the US media?

CF: Well, I think it is less the media than the Congress. But ultimately the fuel for our media is advertising, and advertising can be withheld or granted, depending on what you say.

And Congress works on the fuel of its campaign contributions, which is another way of saying our politics is pretty corrupt. You can buy votes.

Why no Arab lobby in the US?

­RT: You know what I always wondered: How come the Arab lobby is not so powerful, when the Arab sheikhs could probably finance pretty much anything they wanted?

CF: Interesting question. First of all I don’t think there is an Arab lobby. I think it is a fiction of the Israel lobby’s imagination, or perhaps a sort of construct they have created because they needed to have an enemy.   

RT: So why isn’t there an Arab lobby?

CF: Well, there are lots of reasons for it. We have a significant Arab-American population, which potentially could produce a lobby, but it’s divided as the Arabs themselves are. So there is no domestic base that could focus the energy of this voting bloc in one direction.

And second, turning to the Arab states, yes, the Gulf Arabs have plenty of money, but they also have no understanding of the importance of institutions, as opposed to people. Their own politics is very personalized – their own societies don’t, in many cases, rest on institutional foundations.

They don’t have a habit of sustained effort on anything. They are more likely to do something short-term – they like the sprint rather than the marathon that is regarded in this arena. And probably many of them consider it improper to, in effect, buy votes. I happen to agree with them, but they are behind the times, unfortunately. Everyone else is doing it.

So you don’t have the domestic base and you don’t have the foreign support, and I might say that the Gulf Arabs, like other Arabs, they don’t like the Arab Americans, who are not mainly from the Gulf.

Gulf Arabs don’t emigrate. There are no Saudi Americans to speak of, there are no Qatari Americans to speak of, there are no Emirati Americans to speak of.

RT: They come and study in the states and then go back.

CF: They come and study, and they maybe have a vacation home, and they enjoy the United States as a visitor, but they don’t emigrate.

In ‘dysfunctional’ govt, one person would make no difference

RT: Do you regret withdrawing in 2009 and not taking the position?

CF: Not at all. I didn’t want to go back into the government. I had given thirty years of my life to public service. I thought that was plenty. I was very reluctant to do that job, and when I was publicly attacked the way I was, it became apparent that I couldn’t do the job.

So the decision to withdraw was simply a matter of logic. And I don’t regret it at all. I have a good life, a better life than I would if I were doing that.

RT:You wouldn’t consider taking another position in the government in future?

CF: No… no. I think I’d let somebody younger have a chance. No, I can’t think of any position that I would really like to do at this stage, in part because at the moment our government is pretty dysfunctional. It is not making any sensible decisions and it seems to find it very hard to do that.

We can’t even pass a budget. We can’t even address our fiscal imbalance. We don’t address any of our fundamental questions of foreign policy; we continue to do more of the same. In this circumstance, the chance that one individual could make a real difference is not very great, and I am happy cultivating my garden.