Strategies for Palestinian liberation

There are huge differences on the left on Israel and the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. We organised a three-cornered debate at Communist University 2002 between Cathy Nugent of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Afif Safieh, the Palestine Liberation Organisation's UK representative, and John Bridge of the CPGB. All speakers are committed to a two-state solution for the two peoples and yet, especially when it came to assessing Zionism as a political phenomenon, there exist profound disagreements

Cathy Nugent I am going to talk about some of the issues on which the Alliance for Workers' Liberty differs from the CPGB. Because I do not want people to suffer from any misunderstanding about where the AWL are coming from, and also because I think it is right, I want to start and end with solidarity: that is, solidarity with the Palestinians. For me, solidarity has to be based on justice, reason, reconciliation and peace in the Middle East. It is becoming more and more frustrating that you cannot simply concentrate on those issues or talk about solidarity in a straightforward way, because it seems to me that the conditions for peace and justice for the Palestinians are becoming rapidly eroded. I do not want to be overly pessimistic, because I do think there are aspects of hope and genuine factors that can build peace. But I do feel the situation is very sobering indeed. I am sure we could all itemise how things have progressed in the past six months. Sharon has taken the opportunity to put into place a very specific plan, which involves getting the Palestinians to submit - they should live in Bantustans. At the very least this means in the long run a very limited autonomy for the Palestinians. Recently Israel has been focussing very much on undermining and removing Yasser Arafat. The March-April operation did not work within Israel's own terms. The suicide bombings have not stopped. Bit by bit the US is moving closer to Sharon, although there have been a lot of twists and turns, and there are obviously differences within the US bourgeois administration. Because the suicide bombings have not stopped, that pushes people behind Sharon. The Palestinian Authority has been battered. What do they do they now? They have the right to manoeuvre but I very much hope they will not lose support. The Palestinian people are enduring a terrible attrition. They are living with an army of occupation. That army has been brutalised. There is a terrible cycle of violence: the suicide bombings, the army retaliation and vice versa. If anything, the cycle is escalating. Indiscriminate attack on civilians from the Israeli army and the suicide bombings poison everything. They give succour both to the islamic groups and to Sharon. The whole basis for peace is narrowing. The possibility of ceasefire is becoming less tangible. And yet a ceasefire is absolutely critical, to bring some degree of normalisation and space. I do not want to say the situation is hopeless, not least because there are elements on which you could build. There is a powerful secular nationalist movement inside Palestine, and there is a peace movement inside Israel. There is a wide political differentiation between what the AWL would say and both the secular masses in Palestine and the Israeli peace movement. But nonetheless, these two forces have a two-state position that deserve our solidarity. However, because the left does not have a politics which is about peace and reconciliation, it reflects a hopelessness on their part. A lot of the left implies that peace is not desirable, and reconciliation is not possible. For instance, take the slogan 'Liberate Palestine', expressed on various demonstrations. I am for the liberation of Palestine, and for the liberation of oppressed peoples. As a socialist how could you not be for that? But what that slogan implies is a single 'democratic secular Palestine'. And that means that Israel has to give up its nationhood. Why would peoples voluntarily do that? Maybe if they are all convinced to join the Socialist Workers Party. But that is not what we are talking about here. What it implies, logically, is that Israel should be smashed, Israel should be conquered and destroyed. Now that is implicit in what a lot of the left say, including the SWP. Conquest and destruction is not something that socialists should be in favour of. We should not sign up to phrases or slogans which mean that. They are not a recipe for peace. Obviously Israel is not under threat now of invasion from Arab armies or anything like that. But what if the USA goes to war with Iraq? Saddam Hussein has no moral compass whatsoever, and could drop bombs on Israel. A lot of the left sign up to the idea that an attack on Israel, an attack on what they would call the 'Zionist project' - not the Israeli state or the Israeli nation - would be a good thing. What the left does is ignore the Israeli working class, which is part of their assumption that it is impossible to bring about reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian people. They ignore the working class because they say Israel is not a 'proper nation'. Israel is a nation. It has existed for 50 years. Most people who live there were born there. They are people who see themselves as Israelis. They are a political mix just as much as people in Britain are. Why should they give up their right to nationhood? That is not compromise: that is submission. It is the politics of revenge. Submission, revenge and non-compromise is the language of Sharon and Hamas - it is not the language of people who want to bridge the divide between workers. The material, concrete acts of solidarity that the left make with the Palestinians are fine, but the whole framework of that solidarity is flawed, because it is not based on the fight for reconciliation. So, unfortunately, even though the situation is dire for the Palestinians, we cannot just 'get on with the job of solidarity'. If we do not work to extend solidarity, then we are not worth anything as socialists. But equally, if we do not deal with the complexity of the issues, if we do not try to advocate a really democratic solution, then we are also failing. Ourselves and the Weekly Worker agree up to this point - I do not see any differences. But we do disagree on some of the details and emphasis, when it comes to the real Israelophobia that you see on the left. There are two aspects of this. One is anti-Zionism. I would not call myself an anti-Zionist any more than I would call myself a Zionist. Such political labelling has its roots in left anti-semitism, which can be traced back to Stalinism. In the USSR there were anti-jewish witch-hunts in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. That involved conflating Zionism with things like being pro-Nazi, with worldwide conspiracies. I think you can see these kinds of ideas in some of the SWP's propaganda. The anti-Zionism of the left is basically a systematic hostility to the state of Israel - and it has an implication of systematic hostility to anyone who supports Israel. Most jews in the world would see themselves as having some connection to Israel, not necessarily religious. If you call yourself an anti-Zionist then you put yourself in opposition to those people. Then there is the right to return. The return of all 3.7 million registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants is not compatible with the national rights of the people of Israel, their right to exist. Now you might argue that not all Palestinians would want to return to Israel and that is quite possibly true. You might argue that there should be some kind of reparations for the Palestinian refugees, and that is fair enough. But it is not right to say that the return of 3.7 million Palestinians has no implications for the continued existence of Israel. That may be an unpleasant fact, but it is a fact that you have to face up to. It does not mean that you are against Palestinian national rights. That you are not in favour of the Palestinians winning as much territory as they can possibly get in any negotiations. Yet the right of return is a badge of honour for many political forces. It is code, meaning that you do not believe in the right of Israel to exist, that you want history to run backwards. There is no shortage of money in the area, or from the US or the EU. The situation for the Palestinians could have been improved massively, many years ago. But those bourgeois governments that rule the world have absolutely no interest in doing anything for those refugees, or in building a rational or human world. To sum up, I do not think the left is very interested in a peaceful settlement. In fact what they have is a hostility to Israel and by extension to the jews who support Israel. But without a proper political settlement there can be no peace. The left still has a lot of the trappings of Stalinism, and that is something we have to root out. We are for the oppressed, we are for the democratic rights of all peoples. There is a colonial situation in the Middle East, but it is complicated by history and circumstance. We have to advocate the right of the Palestinians to a state - there is no compromise on that. But at the same time Israel has the right to exist - the Israelis have a reasonable fear of future oppression. And political settlement does mean compromise. We should focus now on Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. The socialist message we put forward is one of consistent democracy - two states for two peoples - and an overall settlement between the surrounding Arab world and Israel. And the urgent need is for solidarity with the Palestinians - their right to defend themselves, and their right to fight for a state of their own alongside Israel. Afif Safieh I think we all agree that one has to bear in mind in any discussion of the Middle East that there is no moral equivalence between the two sides. It is not Palestine that occupies Israel: it is Israel that occupies Palestine. We, the Palestinians, have the feeling that we have become in a way the jews of the jews, and that we have never gotten our legitimate share of sympathy, solidarity and support because of history and circumstance, because it so happened that we were the victims of the victims of European history. Now, we in the PLO are a national movement, and that national movement, after the blow of 1948, resumed action in the middle of the 1960s. From 1965 to 1974 we were in favour of one state. Because we had become the jews of the jews we did not want to transform the Israelis into the Palestinians of the Palestinians. So we struggled then, when we thought we could triumph, for a unitary state - democratic, pluri-confessional, multiethnic and bicultural, with equal rights and equal obligations for all its future citizens. That formula did not work, and from the October war of 1973 - the demarcation period in strategic thinking - we gradually moved towards a two-state solution. We moved for two reasons. One, we believed that Israel was not beatable militarily because of American support and because of its monopoly of nuclear power. The second reason is that we never convinced a sufficient number, a significant percentage, of Israeli jews to the idea of a one-state solution. I remember I used to know then individually everyone who was in favour of that idea within Israel. Today some of our supporters are moving back to the one-state solution, because they say that the degree and the depth of colonisation through settlement building is such - there are today over 400,000 illegal settlers, mainly on the West Bank - that the situation has become irreversible. I disagree with them, although I respect that school of thought. The return of the one-state solution is not a sign of new strategic thinking. It is the reheating of an old dish - but with one difference. In the 1960s when we proposed that formula we were going to be victorious and this was our magnanimous offer. Today it is based on a mentality of defeat and resignation. That is the major difference. But I have also a pragmatic, Machiavellian reason why I am for a two-state solution. If you bear in mind the mentality, political culture and institutions of Israel, one state would be a mechanism for the continued subjugation of us Palestinians. We will be better equipped in terms of protection, cultivation of our identity, our future, through a two-state solution. And I believe personally we have to move historically from dependence to independence, to interdependence. Once we get our state, we know that we will need to enter into cooperative transactions and interactions, and that all countries in the modern world abdicate many areas of decision-making and sovereignty in favour of regional structures. I know that there are attempts, including within the left, to rehabilitate Zionism. The fact that I am in favour of a two-state solution does not mean that I am a late convert to Zionism. Rehabilitating Zionism within the left is an exercise which I listen to with great amazement. Firstly, I believe that Zionism was a colonial enterprise - it has succeeded. But there is a limit to what should become acceptable and legitimate, and what should remain unacceptable and illegitimate. I as a Palestinian have always been convinced that our struggle is also against anti-semitism, because I believe that Zionism was a result of anti-semitism. Zionism was born in Paris during the Dreyfus affair, when Theodor Herzl, who was a very assimilated jew, wrote The state of the jews. Up until 1930s Zionism was a minority tendency within jewish communities in Europe. It was Hitler who convinced jews that they had to turn to Zionism because of the barbaric nature of his policy of repression, coercion and extermination. So I have always said that we Palestinians are the direct and indirect victims of anti-semitism. I happen to be a christian. But we declined to open a dialogue with the christian fundamentalists of America 20 years ago, because they were anti-jewish and anti-semitic (today they are the major allies of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington). Now the question of the right of return. In a previous meeting I attended, the AWL's Sean Matgamna spoke with great condescension about the Palestinian refugees, saying they are an Arab responsibility. Then he waved away the right of return of the Palestinian refugees because it might change the jewish character of the Israeli state. He would not accept my argument that maybe one should remember that they were driven out of the country precisely to give a jewish character to the state that was being carved out in 1948. History is stubborn. Facts are stubborn. In Palestine, through terrorism, the minority became the majority and the majority became the minority. Palestinians were driven out of their houses and their homeland so that the minority could become the majority. I am a political realist. Not all Palestinians would like to exercise the right to return. I will give you two examples. My brother is a university professor in Brazil. I do not think he would exercise his right of return. My brother has two children, who have two and three children of their own. He would like to have a Palestinian passport, so that he could send his grandchildren for summer vacations to Palestine to learn Arabic and learn about their heritage. But he would not return. Before 1948 our family lived in west Jerusalem. I was born in 1950 in east Jerusalem. Given a choice, I would not move to west Jerusalem, where I have no memories or connections. I would move to east Jerusalem. I know over four million families would be entitled to return, but many, including mine, would not. I believe that Israeli recognition of the original sin of the birth of Israel is a crucial precondition for the reconciliation the AWL comrade spoke about. This is why in South Africa they have a truth and reconciliation commission. Pascal said each of us could have his own truth. But he was joking - there is only one truth. I believe the Israelis should look in the mirror, and look at history, and admit that at one moment in history, in 1948, there was a deliberate, conscious, theoretically and ideologically prepared machination for the 'transfer' - that is the concept they use - of the Palestinians out of their homeland so as to give a jewish character to the state they were militarily conquering. I am in favour of reconciliation because I am a human being who seeks and wants to live a life of normality or the semblance of normality. I represent my society in that. I believe we Palestinians have been unreasonably reasonable. We have accepted a permanent solution where we would get back 22% - the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza - of what was originally ours. The idea that two years ago we got the most generous offer which we irrationally refused is a big myth. I personally for years have been converted to the necessity of an elegantly imposed solution on both sides. What is democratically acceptable to the Israelis is unacceptable to us, and what is acceptable to us is unacceptable to them. What we need is an Aqaba-plus solution, whereas Israeli society is in the mood to give us Camp David-minus. So the gap between the two sides is unbridgeable. Now, this idea of an elegantly imposed solution is not a new idea. De Gaulle in 1967, because he was a statesman who was aware of the pathology of conflicts, the psychology of belligerence, spoke of the coordination of the major four powers. Unfortunately the Americans were not unhappy with the Israeli military victory - it compensated for the humiliations of Vietnam. The Soviets were short-sighted and preferred a bipolar constellation - why should they bestow equal status to lesser countries like Britain and France? - and Britain was unenthusiastic because the initiative was originally French. So the idea never really took off, and 35 years later, instead of a durable peace, we have the permanent peace process which is a symptom of its failure. Up to March this year, before the re-invasion of the re-occupied territories the equation was the following. Israel could not terminate the intifada. And we have to be aware that the intifada by itself could not terminate the occupation. We had deadlock. So we needed a dramatic initiative that could solve that impasse. We thought the Saudi initiative was going to break the deadlock. It had Palestinian blessing and it was endorsed by the Arab summit group. There is a naive school of thought which says we can have peace in the Middle East if Arafat goes, or we can have peace in the Middle East if Sharon goes. I am in favour of peace while Arafat is there, and I do not mind if Sharon is there. There is a school of thought which says the Israeli Labour Party will come back to power and we agree with them. I always say that the Israeli Labour Party enjoys an undeserved good reputation. The ethnic cleansing of 1948, the colonial war of 1956, the initiative for the 1967 war, the beginning of the settlement were all carried out under Labour. It is Labour that made Palestine unlivable for us Palestinians - Likud makes Israel unlivable for jews. I will conclude with the following. If there was a political willingness - and there is not - the territory that was occupied in six days could be evacuated in six days so that the Israelis could rest on the seventh, and we could start our fascinating journey of nation-building and economic recovery. John Bridge I want to deal with some of the key issues that the other two speakers have touched upon. But before that, it is necessary to make an elementary point. Communists and revolutionary socialists do not call for instant socialism, which has more to do with political alchemy than finding viable political answers. Put another way, socialism must be seen as the end of a process that begins in the democratic struggle of the present. I can illustrate this by looking back to Britain and Ireland in the 19th century. I am sure that everyone will be aware of Karl Marx's call for separation - a two-state solution - in the British Isles. But it is also worthwhile recalling that at different times - for example, during the period when the Chartists were strong and Marx held the view that a Chartist-led Britain would liberate Ireland - he called for a one-state solution. Under less benign circumstances Marx and Engels refer to a federal solution as the offering best option. So there is no principle when it comes to one state, two states or a federal state. We seek the unity of the workers and peoples of the world. Each solution should be judged against this real principle for communists. We want to create conditions where common effort and solidarity achieve maximum effect towards furthering the final aim. Although to a philistine it might appear that advocating separation and two states can only lead to the opposite result - ie, disunity - under certain historically determined circumstances, temporary separation provides the best way of achieving eventual unity. For example, in the 19th century, when the working class movement in Britain was passive, when the bourgeoisie was brutally oppressing Ireland, then, under those circumstances, when the Irish fought back, it was legitimate and necessary to advocate a two-state solution. Paradoxical though it may appear, this would have aided the unity of the two peoples. So, when it comes to Israel-Palestine, we would be well advised to bring that approach to bear. Seeking unity does not provide an instant answer, but it does highlight the real underlying principle which frames a viable solution. Many comrades on the left completely forget that. Unlike Marx they oppose a two-state solution on principle. But their underlying principle is not working class unity. It is vicarious Palestinian nationalism and fake anti-imperialism. In place of a democratic two-state solution we have a forced, bureaucratic unity within a single Palestinian state. Does anyone believe that the jewish Israeli nation would not resist? Such a path cannot today help to bring about genuine - ie, voluntary - unity of the two peoples. Israel was formed on the basis of an historic crime against the Palestinian people. Since 1948 Israel has further expanded at the expense of the Palestinian people, who have been treated as a conquered, colonial people by the Israeli jews. As a result there is a deep antagonism between the two peoples. How to overcome the division? How do we achieve democratic rather than bureaucratic unity? In terms of our Marxist history, our armoury, it is perfectly legitimate to discuss more than one solution. Those comrades who simply adhere to the line that there must be one state - ie, the destruction of Israel and the creation of a secular Palestine - have to tell us why it is illegitimate to consider the possibility of two states or, perhaps, a federal solution. My opting for two states is not based on a fixed constitutional schema. Rather what concretely are the best conditions to overcome antagonism and bring about unity. Let me turn now to the the right of return. The AWL has landed itself with a very dubious position. We favour the free movement of people. I am not saying that such principles are absolute. If, for example, the right of one nation to self-determination meant nuclear war and the destruction of the planet, I would say that that right should not be exercised. Such principles are subordinate to the struggle for socialism and human liberation. In the case of Israel, we have a colonial settler state that has been established on the basis of an exclusivist ideology and driving millions from their homes. That is what Zionism means - that jewish people must have their own homeland. According to its founding myths, they cannot live alongside gentiles, because European history proves they get persecuted and eventually massacred. Maybe that seemed rational, looking at Hitler. But I do not think it is true. I do not think it is something we should pander to - it is something we should criticise as irrational and in the case of the Palestinians brand as anti-democratic. Comrade Nugent seems to be saying that we actually need to defend the right of Israel to uphold an exclusivist ideology and maintain an exclusivist state. Every people could point to an historic crime that was perpetrated against them at some time in the past. We must fight each and every exclusivist nationalist ideology, without exception. That is why we - unlike others - oppose the exclusivist islamic state demanded by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If there was a democratic political settlement which included the right of return, then the idea that the whole of the 3.7 million-plus Palestinian diaspora would pick up their bags and head for the state of Israel just strikes me as science fiction. Most of them will stay where they are - Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Europe and America. Rights are options. Not orders. It reminds me of nonsense that one hears from the wilfully ignorant when we write about the free movement of people: all 120 million Pakistanis are apparently going to rush over to Britain to take advantage of our national health service and system of social security. This is neither rational politics nor even common sense. I do not know how many would exercise their right of return. When people are forced into exile, in general they eventually settle down, get married, have children and start to assimilate into their host society. The desire to go back begins to fade. As I understand it, virtually every person of Irish origin has the right to 'go back' to Ireland. Yet there are more people of Irish origin in American than there are Irish people in Ireland. And I can fully understand why. No one expects an influx of 30 million Irish Americans into Ireland. The reality is that the AWL comrades have made a concession to Zionism - that is how I interpret it their opposition to a Palestinian right of return. In the same way, I do not find the charge of latent Stalinist anti-semitism, directed against the left, at all convincing. Nor is it helpful in terms of encouraging rational debate. As I have said, the proposal for a single-state solution is perfectly legitimate, depending on circumstances - in fact it would be our preferred option. However, it does not help dialogue or clarification to accuse those who want to see a one-state solution of anti-semitism. They do, after all, propose a secular state that incorporates jews, that will be tolerant, that will be democratic - that is what they say. Let us criticise them by all means. But do not hand weapons to our opponents unnecessarily. Instead of being drawn into a rational discussion, the SWP finds it the easiest thing in the world to get a jewish comrade to argue for their one-state position. When the AWL duly charges the comrade with anti-semitism, nobody takes it seriously. In my view the SWP is wrong. But the AWL obscures these SWP shortcomings - downplaying democracy, vicarious Palestinian nationalism and a refusal to admit that after 50 years the Israeli jews are now a nation. The AWL equates anti-Zionism with anti-semitism as a matter of doctrine. But the two are different. Many, many jews do not identify with the Zionist project. Jews are often assimilated to such a degree that they disappear and become something else. More to the point, Zionism is a nationalist ideology: being jewish has something to do with religion, culture and identity. Anti-Zionism and anti-semitism are not the same. Mixing them together is unwarranted and unhelpful.