Programmatic confusion

The left must raise the banner of consistent democracy for both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli jews, argues James Mallory. Under present circumstances that means a two-state solution

Recent bloody events in the Middle East culminating in Sharon's invasion of the Palestine Authority's territories and the systematic attempt to destroy every institution of the Palestinian statelet - everything from the police force to the hospitals - has forced a much needed and welcome debate within the ranks of the Socialist Alliance, both on the SA's email discussion list and on the national executive. The second meeting of our national council will also discuss the Palestine-Israel issue when it meets on May 11. Within the context of an Israeli final solution and a growing movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people globally, the importance of such a debate should hardly need emphasising. Unfortunately, as we know, the politics of the alliance majority are characterised by economistic one-sidedness. Hence three of the SA's five principal supporting organisations (Socialist Workers Party, Workers Power, International Socialist Group) line up behind the call for the outright destruction of Israel. Indeed this whole debate around Israel/Palestine shows how the left's position on the national question in general - as well as specifically in regard to the Middle East - is hopelessly muddled, to say the least. Our biggest supporting organisation, the SWP, used the opportunity presented by the April 13 Palestine solidarity demonstration, called by the Muslim Association of Britain, to campaign with a petition under the slogan, 'Two states are no solution' - a position that it has hardly been shy to give expression to. Socialist Worker explains the SWP's position thus: "The only option for real peace and justice in the Middle East is a democratic and secular state of Palestine" which has "full rights for all national minorities" (March 23). So the SWP recognises - literally in passing - that such a state would have a national question to be addressed. Clearly the largest of the "national minorities" would be the Israeli jews. Given that Socialist Worker supports their "full rights", do they thus have the right to secede and form their own state, if they so desire? If not, what exactly is meant by the formulation? Alex Callinicos, writing in one of the SWP's series of 'Education for socialists' pamphlets on the national question, gives a clue. He exhorts his reader to "always remember that Lenin defended the right to self-determination of oppressed nations". The national question is then incorporated into a broader concept of 'anti-imperialist struggle'. Nationalism "which triumphs only through the oppression of others, thereby strengthening imperialism", is not to be supported. The right to self-determination is "confined to those movements whose demands for national independence bring them into conflict with imperialism, and whose victory will therefore undermine imperialism" (original emphasis Marxism and the national question p16). Comrade Clive Searle argued a similar line on the SA discussion list recently. For him, like comrade Callinicos, the issue at hand was simple: "Are you on the side of the oppressed or the oppressor? Israel is the oppressor state" (April 4). Ipso facto support for the Palestinian cause means support for a single state. And by implication support for Israel's right to exist or, as comrade Searle later put it, being an "apologist for Israel" (April 10) means support for the oppression of the Palestinians. Of course, the proponents of this argument are right about one thing. We must distinguish between the two sides. The Palestinian people are oppressed by the Israeli state, which denies them their national as well as other basic rights. Is it really that simple though? Of course not. The picture of Lenin drawn by comrade Callinicos is distorted to the point of being unrecognisable. Lenin, in his own words, pointed out that the right to self-determination was not just "confined" to oppressed nations, but on the contrary was "always advanced for two nations: the oppressed and the oppressing" (original emphasis, VI Lenin A caricature of Marxism and imperialist economism Moscow 1974, p44). Moreover communists start from the perspective of opposition to all forms of nationalism. This is, however, demonstrably not the starting point of either comrade Callinicos or comrade Searle. They start from the position of picking which "side" they are on and are drawn towards an uncritical adaptation to its nationalism. The nationalism of the oppressed, taken in its spontaneously expressed form, is a negative echo of the nationalism of the oppressor. Though they are opposites, they are also intertwined in a dialectical relationship. While the nationalism of the oppressed is directed against oppression it is also, at the same time, potentially oppressive itself. In the context of the current topic of discussion this is easy to prove. While the Palestinian people's striving for their own state is of course entirely legitimate, there is an element, given form by the likes of Hamas, that seeks to establish that state at the expense of the Israeli jews. Not by a voluntary union of the two peoples, but by military conquest or the 'persuasion' - by way of suicide bombing directed at poorer Israelis who use buses and shop in markets - of the jewish population. Likud's 'greater Israel' chauvinism finds in Hamas's call to drive out the 'Zionists', not only a negative echo, but also a symbiotic twin. Communists are opposed to both these sides. Most of the left would no doubt express their formal opposition to Hamas's anti-jewish, anti-woman, anti-working class 'excesses' ... and then blame it on Israeli oppression. But the left's one-sidedness means that instead of a clear voice speaking against Hamas we get a scrambled reproduction of it. Incidentally, this is not, of course, a result of some innate anti-semitism on the part of the left, but the result of adaptation to Palestinian nationalism. Witness Clive Searle's assertion that Israel should be destroyed because it is a "racist, colonial state, based on the expropriation of Palestinian land" (SA discussion, April 4). Are not the USA, Canada, Australia and every country in South America also based on the expropriation of the land of others? Of course, the origins of the state of Israel are not in dispute. There is no doubt that after its formation in May 1948, Israel drove out hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs and never allowed them to return. Equally there can be no doubt that Zionist gangs committed horrific crimes against the Arab population of Palestine (through reciprocal pogroms against jews also took place). Similarly uncontestable is the undemocratic nature of the dismemberment of Palestine by Israel, Egypt and Jordan, Israel's continued expansionism in 1967 and 1982 and the archipelago of fortress settlements seeded provocatively across Palestinian lands by far-right Zionists. However, even in its origins Israel may only be described as a 'settler state' with the heaviest of qualification. To make this argument you would have to ignore the fact that in 1948 jews indigenous to Palestine were a substantial minority. Today some two thirds of Israel's jewish population were born in the country and Israeli jews clearly constitute a nation. They are bound together by a common language (Hebrew), a common culture, a common history and a common territory. As with many other nations, Israel was created through the oppression of another national grouping, but that does not negate the fact of its nationhood. Though this status is seemingly, if eclectically, recognised by the SWP by the phrase "national minorities", in practice Israeli jews are treated simply as a religious grouping and offered non-national "full rights". A favourite argument of the SWP - and indeed many that advance the single-state position - is that the existence of two states side by side would inevitably mean the continuation of Palestinian oppression, because Israel would remain dominant economically and militarily. To raise this objection is to misunderstand the point of the demand. It is not to abolish oppression generally, but to abolish national privilege: ie, the denial of the right of a national group to form their own sovereign state. In other words, it is a demand for the political equality of nations, not for full economic and social equality. Economic and social inequality between nations will remain under capitalism until it is overthrown and nations and nationalities fade away with socialism and finally communism. Capitalism can neither deliver full economic and social equality nor abolish national oppression in the fullest sense of the word. And, of course, communists have an agenda beyond a national one. The right of nations to self-determination is supported in order to remove the national question from the agenda, thus paving the way for the eventual voluntary union of peoples across the globe. Due to a narrow, economistic mindset some would throw out elementary rights in their determination to end privilege. Thus Workers Power is against "having a jewish state built on the ruins of a Palestinian Arab nation" (April). Yet WP member Sandra Griffiths uses the phrase "binational state" - in "recognition of the two national groups that inhabit the land" - to describe the country that will exist after the destruction of Israel (SA discussion list, April 11). 'Recognition', but no rights. Seemingly Workers Power is oblivious to the fact it is actually calling for the reverse of the current situation: the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state on the ruins of the Israeli jewish nation. Any settlement based on the principles of consistent democracy must recognise the national and minority rights of both the Palestinians and the Israeli jews. Arab citizens of Israel must have full rights, and so must jewish citizens of the new state of Palestine - obviously the democratic settlement we envisage implies the ending of national oppression, not murderous ethnic cleansing, as some half-wits allege. The Palestinians' right of return should be recognised, though the precise details of how this right would be exercised are, of course, open to negotiation and not something that can be determined concretely at this time. It certainly does not mean some kind of compulsory volk movement by the 2.3 million Palestinian people who live and were mainly born in Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and even the USA. Denying that right, however, as the AWL does, is to fall into a kind of vicarious Israeli nationalism. Almost certainly the vast mass of the Palestinian diaspora will stay where they are - however, to preemptorily rule out their right to move either to Israel or a PA Palestine or for that matter anywhere else is only to pander to right wing Zionist fear-mongering. What concerns communists and revolutionary socialists is to outline broad principles which can point the way forward to a solution: a democratic and secular Palestine based roughly on those areas where Arabs make up a clear majority, alongside a democratic and secular Israel. Neither state will be ethnically-religiously 'pure' - that goes without saying - and minority rights, whether they be of Palestinian Arabs, christian Arabs, jews or Israeli jewish atheists must be respected - this is not a guarantee, but a programme to win the battle for democracy and break the masses from the constrictions and confines of bourgeois social relations.