Capitulate or die

Once again the Middle East stands on a knife-edge. First we had the latest Israeli invasion of several West Bank cities; and the start the Israelis have made in building a Berlin-style wall to seal off Palestinian-controlled territory from Israel and its settlers in the occupied territories and thereby supposedly keep out suicide bombers. Now, as Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority HQ in Ramallah is once against ringed with Israeli tanks, we have George W Bush's Monday night speech offering a "provisional" Palestinian state if the Palestinian people would only throw out their entire historic national leadership and break with 'terrorism' (ie, any kind of struggle against Israeli occupation). Bush's latest 'peace plan' is simply a brazen attempt to broker a Palestinian surrender: in essence, it proposes another version of Clinton's Oslo accord, but with an utterly bizarre twist to it in demanding the replacement of Arafat's leadership by some (at this point) hypothetical bunch of pro-western, Vaclav Havel-type anti-terrorist 'democrats', who will then presumably sign 'security pacts' with America's friends in the region: Israel, Jordan, Egypt, etc. Only then would they be given the honour of being recognised as a 'provisional' state, and be allowed to build some kind of free market heaven-on-earth in the notably arid strips of land that would be handed to them on retreading the fatuously illusory Oslo road of negotiating a stable and viable set of borders with Israel under US sponsorship. From Bush's speech, it is evident that such a state would, if it ever came into existence, be simply an IMF protectorate and plaything. It is somewhat difficult to see how any US administration could imagine that such an ultimatum could work, since, from the point of view of the Palestinians, the Hamas tactics are causing Israel problems: Sharon - for all his tanks, helicopter-gunships and armoured bulldozers - has been unable to stem the tide of attacks and is visibly floundering. However, this United States administration has arguably boxed itself into a corner, forced by its whole political profile to tacitly endorse most of Sharon's bloodiest actions in the face of much European and world opinion; as the conflict threatens to spiral out of control, it cannot pay the political price of simply washing its hands and giving Israel the green light to do its worst. It needs some political camouflage and means of distancing itself. Hence this grossly hypocritical 'peace plan',which the Palestinian Authority has now checked anyway by calling presidential elections. Two devastating suicide attacks in the Jerusalem area last week, as well as a major strike by Palestinian militants on a West Bank jewish settlement, have again shown that Sharon's claims to be able to bring 'peace' to the region through naked repression is a hollow fraud. Predictably, Sharon is responding by another arrogant escalation of his war against the entire Palestinian people: Israeli forces have renewed their incursions into Palestinian cities such as Jenin, Bethlehem and Nablus; now Sharon is saying that these forces will stay until there is an end to Palestinian 'terrorism'. He is also threatening to seize and occupy more and more of the land that is supposed to be controlled by the Palestinian Authority each time there is any new action by Palestinian militants. Coupled with the threat that relatives of suicide bombers will be expelled from the West Bank to exile in Gaza (where the relatives of bombers from the Gaza strip would be sent is not made clear), these developments point in their logic, as many have noted before, to the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza and the incorporation of these territories into a Greater Israel. 'Operation Defensive Shield', Sharon's invasion of several West Bank cities earlier this spring, with the highly publicised sieges of Arafat's Ramallah headquarters and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, together with the large-scale killing that accompanied the destruction by armoured bulldozers of the main refugee camp in Jenin, self-evidently failed in its objectives. Armed attacks, including suicide attacks often against Israeli civilians, did not stop, though they did moderate for a while as the Palestinians were tied down temporarily by the Israel invasions. The Bush administration was highly sympathetic to Sharon's aims of further brutalising and terrorising the Palestinians, as well as temporarily backing Arafat into a corner. He is compelled to make more and more forlorn denunciations of Hamas terrorism to refute Sharon's ridiculous accusations that Arafat himself is behind the suicide attacks on civilians (which are in reality in part an islamist tactic to undermine Arafat's regime). At that time, however, Sharon's most far-reaching aims were incompatible with Bush's attempts to draw reactionary Arab regimes into a war coalition against Iraq; a veritable storm of popular outrage in the Arab world over Sharon's butchery meant that any Arab regime that enlisted in Bush's coalition would have risked being driven to collapse. Therefore Sharon was in the end pressured to allow a respite. How different it will be this time is difficult to gauge. It is notable that the Bush administration, while maintaining its aim of 'regime change' in Iraq, has backed off in terms of immediate threats largely - because of the worldwide backlash from Defensive Shield. The war threats traded between India and Pakistan over Kashmir in the past few months have also somewhat overshadowed the Iraq issue for Washington, which has been compelled to expend a certain degree of diplomatic effort in attempting to restore some semblance of stability in south Asia. This 'stability' is also, of course, built on sand - at any moment another action against India by Pakistan- or Kashmir-based islamists, or another anti-muslim atrocity by hindu fanatics in India, could trigger off further military confrontation, leading to a major world crisis that would render the Bush administration's own supposed concerns about Saddam's regime something of a secondary question by comparison. So, if anything, the world situation is more fluid than it was at the time of Operation Defensive Shield. Bush is desperately trying to balance both sides of the equation to get things back on track. At the same time, the US has now formally endorsed Sharon's own claimed perspective of getting rid of the current Palestinian leadership - the remarks by Bush's national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, accusing Arafat's regime of being "corrupt" and "terrorist-ridden" prefigured Bush's speech. At bottom, however, US strategists must know that a simple pro-western puppet regime would have little chance of negotiating on behalf of the Palestinians, and would likely be rapidly blown away in some sort of characteristically dramatic action by the islamists. Arafat, with his real, albeit somewhat diminished authority among Palestinians as still the historically-evolved symbol of their national struggle, cannot be easily brushed aside by the Americans, no matter what fantasies may be entertained by Bush and some of his wilder cohorts and advisers. It is probable, particularly in the light of this latest incredible piece of US arrogance, that in the new elections for the Palestinian Authority promised for early next year Arafat would be resoundingly re-elected by the Palestinian masses. So, in reality, the situation in the Middle East at present appears to be one of heavily-armed, political and militarily-charged, stalemate. The Israelis have the military means, of course, to break this stalemate by carrying out the logic of all Sharon's actions - from Defensive Shield to the current promise of long-term occupation and expulsion of 'terrorist' families (for the Sharon regime of course, all Palestinian who are not actually collaborators are regarded as 'terrorists'): ie, the driving out of the mass of the 'terrorist' Palestinian population from the West Bank and Gaza. This is certainly a possibility - indeed it has for decades been one of the cherished ambitious of the Zionist right to do just that. There is even a trend in mainstream American politics that would like to see such an outcome. But this would be an enormous risk from the point of view of the imperialists - the Arab world would explode in national/religious upheaval, and the US fears that the results could be its involvement in a fight with the roused Arab masses over imperialist control of the region's entire oil supplies - with the potential for another Vietnam. Of course, the dynamics of Israeli politics are such - given that Israel has repeatedly shown that it is not simply a puppet state of the US, but has interests of its own that regularly diverge - that such an attempt at mass ethnic cleansing of the occupied territories cannot be ruled out. However, the manifest falsity of Sharon's claim that his brutality will at least ensure the safety of ordinary Israelis from Palestinian suicide attacks - in fact under his government such attacks have proliferated from an occasional occurrence to around one a week - is leading to the Israeli body politic polarising, with semi-pacifist, semi-leftist opponents of the regime (as well as, ominously, some to Sharon's right) beginning to make headway. Hundreds of reservists have refused to be called up to brutalise Palestinians in the West Bank and on May 12 there was a massive, 100,000-strong demonstration in Tel Aviv against the occupation. Such forces, while often originating in the orbit of Israeli Labour, are at the moment at loggerheads with it and outside of its direct hegemony because of Labour's own desperate clinging to the coalition with Sharon's Likud, afraid of being marginalised as an 'unpatriotic' party. This situation in fact should offer real opportunities for a genuine left to begin to crystallise in Israel, acting in collaboration with Palestinians aiming at initiating, from below, real mass struggles for a progressive solution that recognises the national rights of both peoples. In such conditions of putative instability, it would by no means be impossible for a venal, rightwing regime - fearing its support ebbing away - to attempt some extreme action to reassert its authority. So this could be a particularly dangerous period for the Palestinians of the West Bank - a re-run of 1948 in the occupied territories is a real possibility. However, such an event would undoubtedly see an escalation of opposition in Israel, both from progressive jews and Israeli Arabs, and could in turn pose major risks for the stability of the Zionist state itself. It could, in fact, conceivably lead to some kind of civil war - despite the fear of many jews of becoming victims of a reversal of the terms of oppression. Many will be aware that such an action - by intensifying the hatred of the surrounding Arab peoples and destroying much of the remaining international popular sympathy felt for Israel on behalf of survivors of Hitlerism - makes such an outcome more, not less, likely. In these conditions, the impact that a communist programme, seeking to appeal to the exploited and oppressed of both peoples on the basis of a defence of the national rights of both, is obvious. The formation of a genuine Communist Party, initially composed of Palestinian leftwing militants and of radicalised elements from among the Israeli jewish anti-war movement, could rapidly develop deep roots among the Palestinian working class, and pull a significant number of disquieted Israeli workers behind its banner. On the basis of a programme for two equal states with full national rights, such a formation would be crucial in rolling back the tide of extreme reaction that is currently engulfing both the Israeli population (in the ascendancy of Sharon and the Zionist right) and the Palestinians (the form of the 'radical' islamist organisations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad) because of the abject failure of the kind of putatively secular, but thoroughly bourgeois politics that were formerly dominant. This is obviously true in terms of the PLO; it is arguably true also of the Israeli left itself, with the secularist and progressive pretensions of the thoroughly bourgeois so-called Labour Party utterly exposed and discredited, particularly in its more recent incarnations under Rabin and Barak, with the phoney Oslo accord that did not even slow down the creeping theft of Palestinian land in the territories by fanatical Zionist settlers. A genuinely democratic, revolutionary communist alternative to both is the only real hope of bringing real peace and justice to the Middle East. Ian Donovan