Chomsky shares Middle East pessimism in Geneva

A planned US-brokered resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians likely won't amount to much, says prominent US academic Noam Chomsky Keystone

New Israel-Palestine peace talks and diplomatic efforts to hold an international conference in Geneva aimed at ending the conflict in Syria offer limited chances of success, warns Noam Chomsky, the prominent US academic and political theorist.

This content was published on July 26, 2013 - 17:33
Simon Bradley in Geneva,

The professor of linguistics and philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was in Geneva to give a talk at the 19th International Congress of Linguists at Geneva University on Thursday.

On Friday he talked politics, especially the situation in the Middle East and US foreign policy, at a packed Geneva press club.

Chomsky – who is a fierce critic of the US government and of Israel, which banned him in 2010 – said it was “hard to be optimistic” about new Israel-Palestine peace talks announced last week by US Secretary of State John Kerry, which could begin as early as next week to end a three-year diplomatic impasse.


Israel says new peace-making will be without preconditions about the borders of a future Palestinian state in territories it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. But the Palestinians say they want assurances about those borders first.

The 84-year-old star activist argued, however, that the US and Israel were insisting on “crucial pre-conditions”.

“The first is that negotiations must be mediated by the US, which is a participant to the conflict and not a mediator; the second is that illegal settlements must be expanded without constraint. This has been going on without a break since the 1993 Oslo accords,” Chomsky told reporters.

In light of such preconditions it is unlikely the negotiations will achieve anything, he said, other than to serve as a framework to allow Israel to continue taking over anything of value in the West Bank and Syrian Golan Heights and at the same time maintaining the siege of Gaza.

“They’ll continue to do so with the critical military, economic, diplomatic and even ideological support of the state running the negotiations. That’s the reality,” he commented, adding that Obama was the first US president not to impose “any limits” on Israeli actions.

Last year, during his first visit to the Gaza Strip, Chomsky called on Israel to end its blockade of the territory run by the Islamic militant group Hamas.

The son of Hebrew teachers who emigrated to the US from the Ukraine and Russia at the turn of the last century, Chomsky began as a Zionist. But these days he argues tirelessly for the rights of Palestinians.


The renowned political critic felt Europe could play a role in a peaceful diplomatic settlement if it was willing to pursue an independent path.

“But that’s rarely the case,” he noted, while adding that the European Union’s recent plans to bar EU financial aid to Israeli organisations operating in the occupied territories “might be a step in this direction”.

Looking at the wider region, Chomsky said the connection between the Israel-Palestine conflict and Iran’s nuclear programme was clear.

“As long as the US and Israel persist in blocking the diplomatic settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict – international consensus on a two-state settlement – there will be no regional security arrangements, therefore no steps towards establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone and perhaps ending what the US and Israel claim to be the greatest threat to world peace – Iran’s nuclear programme,” he commented.

Noam Chomsky

Avram Noam Chomsky was born on December 7, 1928, in an affluent neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the United States. He was the son of Hebrew teachers who emigrated to the US from the Ukraine and Russia at the turn of the century.

Chomsky studied Hebrew and Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently Professor (Emeritus) in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he has worked for over 50 years.

He is described as the "father of modern linguistics". His theories that revolutionised linguistics came to prominence in 1959, with the argument that contrary to the prevailing idea that children learned language by copying and by reinforcement (ie behaviourism), basic grammatical arrangements were already present at birth.

In addition to his work in linguistics, he has written on war, politics, and mass media, and is the author of over 100 books.

In the 1960s he became a prominent critic of the Vietnam War. He has become well known for his criticism of US foreign policy, and the mainstream news media and has also strongly supported the Occupy movement and spoken out against the Obama administration’s use of drones.

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Reflections on Syria were equally gloomy.

“If anyone can share anything constructive about Syria, I’d like to hear it,” the soft-spoken professor challenged the audience.

He said the war-torn country was now heading towards “suicide” and partitioned into three regions – one rebel-held, another controlled by president Bashar al-Assad, and a third under Kurdish control.

So far, attempts to organize a "Geneva II" peace conference on Syria to revive a political transition plan agreed in June 2012 in the Swiss city have come to naught. UN diplomats say it is looking increasingly unlikely that such a conference will take place anytime soon, if at all.

Chomsky concurred: “Efforts by Lakhdar Brahimi, the special peace envoy for Syria of the United Nations and the Arab League, are in the offing, but the chances of success are not very high.”


Turning to events in Egypt, where deposed President Mohamed Mursi, the country’s first freely elected leader, was removed by the army on July 3, Chomsky said it was important to remember that this was “a military coup”.

And chances that the military, which has controlled society since 1953 and is supported by the US, will relinquish power are “pretty unlikely”, the white-haired professor added.

To applause from observers at the conference, Chomsky said former National Security Agency (NSA) systems analyst Edward Snowden should be “honoured”, and not pursued by the US authorities for leaking classified documents that spelled out the huge scale of the government's monitoring of internet and telephone communications.

He insisted the leaked NSA documents exposed no threats to US security, as claimed, and criticized US efforts to try to extradite Snowden back to the US from Moscow airport, where he is currently holed up, and Hong Kong, his previous hide-out.

Friday’s press conference followed a special linguistics evening. On Thursday over 3,000 linguistics experts, some of whom had queued for up to two hours to secure a seat at the main Geneva University auditorium, heard the professor who revolutionised linguistics give a talk on “What is language and why does it matter?”

Demand was so great that five additional video screens were set up in separate halls to broadcast the presentation by the MIT intellectual live.

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