Fight for two states, fight for Arab unity
A 'secular, democratic Palestine' has suddenly made a reappearance in Socialist Worker, writes Peter Manson. But it turns out that what is envisaged will be neither democratic nor secular
In an article entitled 'Why "two states" is not the solution for Palestine', the Socialist Workers Party's Alex Callinicos states: "The only real way out lies in the policy that the PLO abandoned in the mid-1970s - a single, secular and democratic Palestinian state, in which Jews and Arabs, christians and muslims live together on the basis of equality. This may seem completely utopian amid the present carnage. But don't the horrors currently unfolding demand radical solutions?" (Socialist Worker August 5).
What is particularly notable about this passage is the use of the word "secular". True, a "single, democratic and secular Palestine" has never officially been abandoned as SWP policy, but in recent years the "secular" part has not exactly been shouted from the rooftops. In fact, so rare has the phrase become in SWP circles that we were not the only ones to suspect that the comrades had, like the Palestine Liberation Organisation, dropped it - only in the case of the SWP in favour of simply a 'single, democratic Palestine' (which might actually turn out to be 'democratic', Hamas-style).
After all, the SWP used its block vote to defeat exactly the policy outlined by comrade Callinicos above at the October 2004 conference of Respect. The SWP's Moira Nolan successfully moved an amendment to a motion on Palestine in order to remove a paragraph which included the demand for "unitary, democratic and secular state". "Personally I agree with a unitary state," said comrade Nolan. "But it's about entering into dialogue with people" who "might not join Respect if they disagree" with a one-state solution.
As we commented at the time, it was not the words 'unitary' or 'single' that the SWP actually wanted to 'disappear'. It was 'secular'. That was demonstrated by the fact that the SWP also wielded its block vote to defeat a motion earlier in the same conference which ought to have been completely uncontentious for any socialist: it called for Respect to adopt secularism - the equality of believer and non-believer - both in relation to its own practice and vis-à -vis the state.
This time it was Chris Bambery - Socialist Worker editor - who spoke against the motion. He said he would be "concerned at Respect calling itself secular". After all, secularism had been used in France to justify the islamophobic ban on the hijab in state schools. The implication was that secularism is now a dirty word. He asked: "Do we have a problem here with people with extreme religious views?" No, came his own response to this rhetorical question. The real fundamentalists are Bush and Blair, who are deliberately stoking up islamophobia. Those calling for secularism should "think very carefully" about whose game they are playing.
This was a disgraceful slur on those who, unlike himself, still upheld a principled position on questions the SWP was now mobilising to defeat. It was almost as if secularism was the equivalent of islamophobia: that muslims were somehow automatically opposed to secularism - an idea which is itself a form of islamophobia.
Perhaps it is significant that on that occasion too it was comrade Callinicos who attempted something of a corrective. He wrote a few weeks later: "One of the most exciting things to have happened in Britain in recent years has been the emergence - first in the Stop the War Coalition and then in Respect - of an alliance against neoliberalism, racism and war that unites secular socialists and muslim activists" (my emphasis Socialist Worker November 20 2004).
But why did the SWP "secular socialists" vote against secularism at the Respect conference? The answer is that they believe (correctly) that secularism is a problem for their current allies in the mosque and the muslim establishment. Yet organisations which unite believers and non-believers around a particular cause or set of policies - like the STWC and Respect - can in practice only operate on the basis of secularism: there must be no special place for religion and no discrimination against either the religious or non-religious.
The same applies to the state: no state can be considered fully democratic if it either offers special privileges to or represses followers of a particular belief system. Thus the United Kingdom's democracy is crippled by, amongst other things, its privileging of the Church of England, including the legal requirement for "an act of religious worship" to be carried out daily in all state schools. In a theocracy such as Iran democracy is a mere sham - as it would be in a Palestine where Hamas had secured full control and thus power to impose its islamist doctrine.
Despite his reiteration of the traditional SWP line for a "secular" Palestine in his latest Socialist Worker article, comrade Callinicos strongly implies that, compared to the PLO, a Palestinian state under Hamas would be more democratic. He writes: "Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who embarked on the 'peace process', did so on the cynical assumption that the PLO was an undemocratic organisation that could enforce order on the Palestinians. Hence a dose of real democracy - such as Hamas's election victory - threatens to blow everything apart."
Now, you could say that the elections were an expression of "real democracy" in the narrow sense that they undoubtedly reflected a mood amongst the Palestinian masses. But was "Hamas's election victory" a pointer to "real democracy"? Here is an organisation that still reproduces the anti-semitic Protocols of the elders of Zion and makes no secret of its desire to impose an anti-worker, anti-women, anti-democratic theocracy over the whole of Palestine/Israel. How can support for Hamas be reconciled with the call for a "democratic and secular" state?
But comrade Callinicos skates over this whole question, concentrating his argument on a 'one-state' as against 'two-state' solution. He correctly points out that "For over 30 years the Palestinian movement, supported by much of the left and progressive opinion worldwide, has had an official policy" for two states.
But then he goes on to argue against the latter on the basis of the old, familiar pragmatic acceptance of the current, pro-imperialist balance of forces: ""¦ the experience of the 'peace process' since Oslo has produced very clear evidence that the two-state solution cannot work. One reason is the massive imbalance of power between the two sides. Israel is one of the greatest military powers in the world, backed and subsidised by the US. In contrast the Palestine Authority (PA) is given limited authority over a fragmented territory, and is financially dependent on outside powers such as the European Union that can withdraw their support at whim, as Hamas has discovered. Israeli policy has worked to perpetuate this imbalance - to keep the PA weak and dependent."
Obviously, then, those who talk about two states are just day-dreaming. Unlike comrade Callinicos, who ends the article with the call for alternative "radical solutions". But at least he has the honesty to admit that his demand for the abolition of the state of Israel "may seem completely utopian" - especially if you accept his premise of the current, seemingly unchangeable, "massive imbalance of power". Just who is going to eliminate Israel, if not the Palestinians - who cannot even hope to achieve any kind of viable state alongside Israel, according to comrade Callinicos? Perhaps an alliance of Hezbollah, Hamas and neighbouring reactionary Arab states will do the job? Did he say "may seem utopian"?
It does not seem to occur to comrade Callinicos that a progressive solution cannot be won without the consent of the Israeli people. However, the sad truth is that, despite the courage of the tiny minority of socialists, anti-militarists, democrats and refuseniks, the Israeli people have consistently, often overwhelmingly, supported the wars of their rulers, irrespective of the brutality and atrocities carried out in their name.
Why should that be so? Comrade Callinicos touches upon the reason in his article. He says: "Israel is a settler colonial state "¦ All settler states face the problem of what to do with the people whose land they stole "¦ The Zionist colonisers drove out millions of Palestinians, most to neighbouring countries. The rest are still subject to Israeli rule, which to differing degrees they resent and resist, with enormous sympathy from the Arab masses. The result is to leave Israel in a permanent state of insecurity. It lives alongside those it dispossessed, in a state of perpetual war with them."
This is undoubtedly correct. The "permanent state of insecurity" is not just a propaganda ploy used by the Israeli political and military establishment to justify its latest act of aggression. The Israeli population does feel under siege for the very reason Callinicos gives and therefore tends to support even the most terroristic of actions committed by the Israeli armed forces in the vain hope that hitting out at "the dispossessed" will make them go away and thus end the "perpetual war".
But comrade Callinicos's conclusion is dismal: ""¦ Israel can't make peace with the Palestinians. The only real settlement would be one that allowed the millions of Palestinian refugees to return - but this would destroy the basis of Israel as an exclusively Jewish state. So any Israeli 'settlement' with the Palestinians is necessarily phoney."
It is true that there can be no settlement on the basis of an "exclusively Jewish state" - any more than there can be one on the basis of an exclusively Palestinian, Arab or islamic state. But the Israeli people are a real, living entity and cannot be dismissed, or wished away, because Israel was created as a "settler colonial state." Albeit of a special type - the settlers did not mainly come from a single home country. They came from post-holocaust Europe and more or less throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world. Independence was gained from Britain through a combined war - against both British imperialism and the native Palestinians.
Israel came into existence as a result of horrific crimes. That is true. Yet that is not a reason for refusing to recognise the definite, historically constituted, Israeli Jewish nation that has developed over the last 50-60 years. The fact of the matter is that many, if not most, of the world's states came into existence through bloody oppression. But our programme, while fully taking into account such history, must be based on today's realities, not on some futile attempt to turn back the clock to before 1948. One might as well try and abolish the US, Canada, New Zealand, etc.
That is why the most realistic and progressive solution today is one based on the mutual recognition by both Palestinians and Israelis of the other's national rights. Of course, it would be an excellent thing if both nations chose to live together in a single, democratic and secular state - why on earth would we wish to oppose such a thing? But the problem is, that possibility does not even occur to the vast majority of Israelis. Yet for islamists like Hamas and for much of the left in Britain that matters not a jot - the Israeli nation has no right to exist; therefore the Israeli people do not exist, let alone have any right to determine the kind of state they wish to live under.
So, in the view of the CPGB, a single, democratic and secular state - if it were possible to achieve on a voluntary basis - would not be "reactionary", as comrade Jerry Spring alleges we believe (Letters, July 27). What would be reactionary would be the attempt to impose it against the will of one of the nations involved in the Israel/Palestine conflict - I say 'attempt' because such a 'solution' cannot be imposed and if it were tried the result would most certainly not be democratic.
In fact, as the proponents of 'one state' well know, the Israeli Jews will not accept such a solution at present - the whole of the 20th century since 1933, but especially since 1943-45 militates against it. So it is clear that the immediate call for a single Palestinian state, within which Jewish Israelis are given citizenship but not national rights, is in practice to perpetuate division. The only consistently democratic solution, given present circumstances, is an immediate programme based on two states.
Progressive Israeli Jews must champion the democratic rights of the Palestinians to a separate state, which evidently must cover a much larger area than the Gaza/West Bank Bantustan. Progressive Palestinians must likewise champion the rights of Israeli Jews to a separate state. Only on such a reciprocal basis is it possible to overcome national antagonisms and envisage the eventual unity of these two peoples.
And, of course, both states must be democratic and secular, meaning that full rights must be accorded to national and religious minorities. The suggestion that communists call for 'pure' national-religious states - jewish or islamic - is either malign misrepresentation or the result of sheer ignorance. In addition we demand substantial compensation for the Palestinian people as a whole from the state of Israel for the historic injustice that was perpetrated upon them. And those Palestinians who wish to settle in either of the two states and return to their original home district must be allowed to do so.
However, while the Palestinian right to self-determination is not in dispute by the left, the same cannot be said when it comes to the same right for the Israelis. There are those who say that there can be no self-determination for Israeli Jews because they are a mere "religion". What nonsense. Marxists have always recognised Jews as a people-religion - under slave, Asiatic, feudal and capitalist societies. As for the Israeli Jews, they speak the same language, inhabit they same territory (most of them were born there), and have the same culture and sense of national identity. In other words, a nation. Some are religious, some are not, some are atheists.
Neither do Marxists deny the right of the Israeli Jewish nation to self-determination on the basis of some half-baked or perverted reading of classic texts. The right to self-determination is not a communist blessing exclusively bestowed upon the oppressed. It is fundamentally a demand for equality. All nations must have the equal right to determine their own fate - as long as that does not involve the oppression of another people. Hence communists recognise that the US, German and French nations have self-determination. Today that is generally unproblematic. However, we desire to see that same elementary right extended to all oppressed peoples.
It should be clear from all this that the two-state solution proposed by the CPGB has nothing in common with the version put forward by Tony Blair and George Bush, and reluctantly accepted by the PLO. We do not see ourselves as advisors to the current misleaders of either the Palestinians or Israelis - still less to the imperialists.
The solution we envisage for Israel-Palestine will not be presided over by Ehud Olmert and Hamas. It is a democratic solution - to be fought for and won from below under the leadership of the working class.
However, a solution for Israel/Palestine cannot be achieved in isolation. Continued oppression of the Palestinians and the aggressive instability of the Israeli state negatively impacts on the whole region. It is not only the class struggle in Israel which is frozen or deflected. Throughout the Arab world despots and dictators exploit the instability that poisonously ripples out of the Israel/Palestine conflict to divert anger and stamp down on the democratic impulse.
A programme for a democratic and secular two-state solution to be fought for unitedly by the Palestinian and Israeli masses at least provides leverage against what comrade Callinicos calls the "massive imbalance of power" between the Zionist state and the Palestinian people. It encourages the growth of an anti-Zionist 'enemy within' inside Israel. It builds trust and solidarity and helps to overcome the decades of Palestinian-Israeli hatred. But there is another "massive imbalance" - that between Palestine and Israel's main sponsor, US imperialism.
A democratic, two-state solution for Israel/Palestine must be seen in the context of the struggle to create a counterbalance to US power in the region. The establishment of secular, democratic republics in both Israel and Palestine would be constantly blocked and undermined by US imperialism (so too would a single Palestinian state imposed against the will of the majority of Israel's population, of course).
Yet there is a way to alter the balance of forces by greatly widening the strategic front. There are nearly 300 million Arabs is a contiguous territory that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean, across north Africa to the Gulf. Though separated into 25 different states, they share a strong bond of pan-Arab consciousness, born not only of a common language but a closely related history. Many Arabs consider themselves to belong to one nation.
The fact that Abdel Nasser's short-lived United Arab Republic, bringing together Egypt and Syria in a common state from 1958-61, actually saw the light of day is testimony to mass support for Arab unity. What was a potent sentiment in the 1950s and well into the 1970s needs to be revived and given a new democratic and class content.
Communists needs to take the lead in the fight for pan-Arab unity. Reconciliation between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians can only practically happen in the context of sweeping away the House of Saud, the petty Gulf emirates and sultanates, the corrupt Mubarak regime, the Assad dictatorship, the Hashemite kingdom in Jordan and the creation of a democratic Arab republic.