After the election of Barack Obama, what are the prospects for peace in the Middle East? Jack Conrad outlines the communist programme in the first of two articles
The question of Israel and a Palestinian state remains highly contentious. It is easy to appreciate why. The Nazi genocide perpetrated against European Jewry was a defining world-historic moment. Between four and eight million men, women and children were deliberately, callously exterminated because of their ‘race’. Mass consciousness was forever altered. Capitalist barbarism had plumbed unprecedented depths of inhumanity, depravity and sheer irrationality.
Carried out in the name of German national socialism, the Nazi final solution has been turned into its opposite. Zionism deploys the Nazi genocide as an overarching ideological justification for the colonial-settler project in Israel. There is a well patronised and well financed holocaust industry and not only in Israel. Western Europe and North America also have their monuments, museums and memorial days (the millions of non-Jewish victims of Nazism are all but ignored). Those who oppose Israel, even aspects of its ugly oppression of the Palestinians, are routinely accused of anti-semitism.
Far-right nationalist and religious Zionists envisage a greater Israel - based on various biblical passages: Genesis, Numbers, Ezikiel. At its largest extent their Land of Israel stretches from the Nile to the Euphrates.1 Such grotesque fantasies aside, Israel is the last ongoing colonial-settler project. The aliyah (in Hebrew ‘ascent’ - or migration to Israel) is a fundamental part of the Zionist programme and enshrined in Israel’s ‘law of return’. Any Jew, no matter where they live, no matter how dubious their Jewish antecedence, has the legal right to assisted settlement in Israel, as well as automatic citizenship.
A heterogeneous mixture of the cruelly duped, the genuinely desperate, secular dreamers, religious fanatics and cheap adventurers still trickle into the promised land: mainly from the former Soviet Union, North America and Ethiopia. Necessarily, even a little Israel goes hand in hand with conflict and dispossession. All keenly felt and bitterly resented throughout the Arab world. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood and other forms of pan-Islam have made Palestine one of their sacred causes too. Osama bin Laden vows that the “Palestinian cause is the major issue for my (Islamic) nation” and lies at the heart of al-Qa’eda’s struggle.2
There are over 4.5 million UN-registered Palestinian refugees - in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.3 There is also a Palestinian diaspora living in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Britain, Germany, Chile, Argentina, the US and many more countries besides. Meanwhile, Israel’s remaining 1.5 million Palestinian Arabs are treated as second-class citizens. Officially, after all, Israel was founded as and continues to be a Jewish state.
Since the early 1970s, Israel’s closest ally has been the US. Washington financially underwrites Israel and provides a huge military aid package worth $3 billion annually. In return for imperial sponsorship Israel acts as the regional guard dog (a region which not insignificantly possesses something like 50% of the world’s readily accessible oil reserves). Since 1947-48 Israel has repeatedly fought and/or invaded neighbours: Egypt, Syria, Jordan and most recently Lebanon.
Its armed forces are vastly superior, compared with any Arab country or any conceivable combination of them. Armchair generals rank Israel as the fourth or fifth most powerful state on the face of the planet. The Israeli Defence Force is certainly equipped with top-grade armaments. It is one of the few countries with an operational anti-ballistic missile defence system (using US hardware, satellite technology and funding). And besides F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers and an array of other US-supplied weaponry, Israel has its own arms industry - producing the Merkava battle tank, the Kfir fighter aircraft, the Tavor assault rifle, the Uzi submachine gun, etc. Two-thirds of its output is exported, making Israel the 12th largest arms exporter.
On top of that, Israel is the sole nuclear-armed country in the Middle East. Estimates widely vary. Israel is said to have between 70 and 400 stockpiled nuclear warheads.4 Crucially, Israel has the necessary delivery systems in place, including cruise missiles housed in three Dolphin-class submarines.
Today Israeli hawks clamour for a “pre-emptive” strike to stop Iran “eventually building nuclear weapons”: supposedly a rerun of 1981, when Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in Iraq, and September 2007, when it took out an alleged nuclear site in north-eastern Syria.5 Of course, the CIA has concluded that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons programme in 2003; even if it has been restarted - and there is no serious evidence to that effect - a deliverable Iranian bomb is at least 10 years off.
No-one denies that Iran has a civil nuclear programme. Public knowledge dating back to the 1950s. The US included the shah’s regime in its ‘atoms for peace’ programme. The moot question now is whether or not the mullah’s nuclear programme is designed to produce weapons-grade uranium on the side.
Some commentators argue that there cannot be smoke without fire. That, as Tehran is prepared to defy UN sanctions, it must have something to hide. But this ignores the theocracy’s absolute need for an external enemy. Without the threat from Israel and above all the US ‘great Satan’ the Islamic regime would have been swept away long ago. Popular anger constantly simmers beneath the surface. Hence, while the mullahs are prepared to cooperate with imperialism - eg, over Iraq and Afghanistan - they must constantly bluff, wrangle and provoke. A dangerous game.
An Israeli strike would definitely not be against a pressing Iranian nuclear threat, as ignorantly argued and criminally excused by Sean Matgamna and the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Rather it would be against Iranian future potential and, equally to the point, its constantly reproduced anti-imperialist posturing. However, to be militarily effective this time round, Israel would need more than another US nod and wink.
The IDF has now got its US-supplied GBU-39 bunker busters. Using conventional explosives, they have a proven ability to penetrate 90cm of steel-reinforced concrete. Awesome, but quite possibly not sufficient. Iran’s main nuclear facility at Natanz lies eight metres underground and is covered with layers of steel-reinforced concrete, rock and earth up to 22 metres thick. In all probablility there would have to be return strikes - highly problematic, given the likelihood of losses to ground fire and the severe difficulties Israel would experience re-entering the airspace of other countries, eg, Turkey, Iraq or Saudi Arabia. That or nuclear weapons would be necessary.
In either case there is bound to be considerable immediate, localised ‘collateral damage’. Radioactive dust pluming from the facility would spread the death toll further afield according to wind direction. Neighbouring countries would surely be affected. Saudi Arabia is already constructing fallout shelters.
An Israeli ‘pre-emptive’ strike would trigger a new wave of repression by the Iranian theocracy against the workers’, women’s and students’ movements. And, of course, an Israeli attack invites wild, god-inspired, rhetoric and vengeful retaliation. Iran has between 25 to 100 Shahab-3 missiles which could reach Israel. Not that they would cause much by way of death and destruction. Hamas and Hezbollah would be encouraged to hit out against Israel too with everything they have got. In other words, not very much either. However, such retaliation would doubtless excuse, as already calculated, an obliterating American blitz (and perhaps another bout of ethnic cleansing by Israel).
Those on the left who welcomed the election of Barack Obama - the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, George Galloway, Stop the War Coalition - because they hope he will chart a fundamentally different, peaceful, more even-handed course in the Middle East, will be sadly disappointed. US imperialism is in relative decline, world capitalism faces the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s and with the Keynesian emergency rescue programmes national antagonisms are bound to become more acute. Structural causes of war.
Obama is, of course, committed to upholding “Christian values” - though “intellectually”, he says, he has “drawn as much from Judaism as any other faith”.6 Half of his record-breaking $650-million election war chest came from so-called “everyday voters”. The rest from “the wealthy, big business or other interests”.7 Capital certainly expects a loyal servant.
No surprise. Obama will continue George W Bush’s policy of unwavering support for Israel. Indeed he has been perfectly candid about this: “I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon … Let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel”.8 Obama’s choice of White House chief of staff is therefore instructive. Rahm Emanuel’s father was a fervent supporter of the Irgun terrorist group and he himself has a long and active pro-Israeli record.9
Palestine and Israel
Territorially Palestinian politics are cleaved between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah on the West Bank. Two statelets for one people. Uncompromisingly, the Hamas charter demands an end to the Zionist state of Israel and its replacement by a single Islamic state of Palestine. Towards that end there have been militarily ineffective, but morale-boosting, attacks using home-made missiles and suicide bombings.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation - dominated by Fatah - plead for what they still credit as a two-state solution. The PLO’s two-state line dates back to 1988, when the demand for a return to the status quo ante 1948 was abandoned. But the real turning point here was the US-brokered Oslo accord, signed in August 1993 by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (1922-95). The PLO effectively conceded Israeli hegemony over the whole of mandate Palestine in return for limited self-government in Gaza and the West Bank. Abject surrender. The vital questions of Jewish settlements and the right of Palestinians to return to their lands were put aside. A diplomatic coup for Israel.
Nowadays PLO leaders say they would accept a West Bank and Gaza solution - with “minor” adjustments, including Israeli control over the new and much extended Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem. Palestinian refugees are to have the “right of return” only to this “demilitarised” state.10
Israeli politics are highly fragmented. At least a dozen parties, coalitions and blocs are represented in the Knesset. The nationalist and religious hard right has no truck with Palestinian statehood. Centrists and liberals pay lip service. Only the left, the peace camp, seems serious about a two-state solution: and that means Palestinians getting the West Bank and Gaza, and nothing more. Note, working class politics in Israel, to the extent that it exists, are still those of a labour aristocracy.
Amongst top imperialist politicians the aim is transparently clear. Neutralise Palestinian militancy. Persuade their leaders and opinion-makers to accept the legitimacy of the Zionist state. Let the exile and refugee camp population resign themselves to defeat. In other words, never-ending subordination and a bifurcated statelet or, even more likely, a series of disconnected, impoverished reservations.
That is what Tony Blair’s mission on behalf of the Quartet - USA, European Union, United Nations and Russia - amounts to. Meanwhile, Israeli-Jewish settlements and outposts on the West Bank proliferate and expand. Conditions of the Palestinian masses continue to deteriorate. There are well over 460,000 Israeli citizens living on the West Bank (including east Jerusalem).
Built on less than 3% of the land, due to the extensive network of settler ‘corridor’ roads and restrictions on Palestinian access, Israeli settlements now “dominate more than 40% of the West Bank”. Then there is Israel’s so-called security wall. It has annexed 56 settlements, incorporating 76% of the settler population. That and the “matrix of settlements” cuts the West Bank up into four ‘cantons’.11
Left in Britain
Conventionally, in Britain at least, what passes for the mainstream left damns Zionism as almost akin to fascism. Ignoring the history, power, connections and wishes of the Israeli-Jewish population, there is the call for the abolition of Israel and its replacement by a single state of Palestine.
Jews, most of whom consider themselves secular, will paradoxically be allowed religious freedom, but not national rights under most such schemes. There are some 5.5 million Israeli Jews. About 10-11 million Palestinians worldwide; but only 6-7 million of them live in Israel, the occupied territories, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
It is fair to say, then, that the projected single Palestinian state would include roughly equivalent numbers of Hebrews and Arabs. Presuming, that is, there is no forcible movement of peoples. No attempt to drive the Jews into the sea. No closure of refugee camps and dumping of Palestinians over the other side of the border by Lebanon (where they suffer discrimination and are barely tolerated). No rescinding of citizenship rights and mass deportation from Jordan (where Palestinians are highly integrated). No round-up and expulsion of Palestinian workers in Saudi Arabia, etc.
At its most perverted, the call for the destruction of Israel by the left in Britain - as noted above, long since abandoned by Fatah and the PLO - blurs over into the kind of anti-semitism preached in the 19th century by Mikhail Bakunin. Eg, under Gerry Healy (1913-89), the Workers Revolutionary Party and its colour daily paper Newsline pumped out an endless stream of demented nonsense, much with “strongly anti-semitic undertones” (quote from an internal investigation conducted by a special commission of the International Committee of the Fourth International - a body which till then had been run and controlled by the WRP). ‘Zionist’ was used as a code word for ‘Jew’.
There was also the fingering of Iraqi leftwing oppositionists. The WRP’s central committee actually voted to support the execution of 20 members of the Iraqi Communist Party who had formed secret cells in the army. And Newsline (and the WRP) was well rewarded. Not in the form of sales to an eager British public ... rather deals, subventions and dodges worth well over £1 million from grateful organisations and regimes: PLO, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, etc.
According to the self-admittedly inadequate internal report - much documentation was missing - issued by the ICFI (December 16 1985), in addition to an identified £1,075,163 coming from the Middle East and Libya between 1977 and 1983, there was a further £496,773 handed over to the WRP between 1975 and 1985 by national sections of the ICFI - especially North America, Australia and Germany. It is known, for example, that the Australian section received at least one very substantial payment from Libya. The circle of corruption extended wider. Eg, via the heavily subsidised paper Labour Herald, to figures like Ken Living-stone (a co-editor) and hence to the Labour left. But enough of coprology.
The call for a single Palestinian state “may seem completely utopian”, owns up the Socialist Workers Party’s Alex Callinicos. He also correctly states: “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. Undaunted, he claims, however, that there is “very clear evidence that the two-state solution cannot work”. Crucially, there exists, he says, 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”.13
He is right. Well, at least when it comes to the balance of power. The contrast between Israel and the Palestinian side could hardly be greater. The remit of the Palestinian Authority now only extends to the Palestinian ‘cantons’ of the West Bank. Moreover, the Palestinian Authority is financially dependent on a drip feed provided by outside powers such as the European Union. A drip feed which can be cut off at a whim (as Hamas in Gaza soon discovered). Israeli policy is calculated to maintain this massive imbalance - to keep the Palestinians weak, dependent and prone.
Yet to argue on this basis that a two-state solution cannot work is akin to arguing that the left in the second half of the 19th century was wrong to have campaigned for Irish independence. After all, Britain was then the world’s pre-eminent economic and naval power and had a population some 10 times larger than Ireland’s. Even without the 1921 division, Ireland would have remained economically dependent on and militarily vulnerable to its mighty neighbour.
Of course, the two-state solution fought for by Karl Marx, Fredrick Engels and the First International was primarily about establishing independent working class politics in Britain. If they are to become a ruling class, workers must first have their own foreign policy. That, by definition, necessitated standing against the oppression of other nations.
Hence it is pertinent to ask exactly who is going to establish the single Palestinian state. In other words, we come to the vital matter of agency. After all, according to no less than comrade Callinicos himself, the Palestinians are incapable of achieving any kind of viable state alongside Israel by their efforts alone. Perhaps what he envisages is a combination of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood governments in Egypt, Syria and Jordan. An anti-working class agency if ever there was one. Such a pan-Islamic alliance would hardly produce a secular Palestinian state. Nor would it produce a democratic Palestinian state. True, if such an unlikely conjuncture were to happen - and, just as unlikely, achieve military victory over Israel - it would probably trigger a mass exodus of Jews. But neither the military nor the international balance of forces can be wished away. A brute fact.
No democratic solution can be won without the consent of Israeli Jews, or at least a considerable swathe of them. Yet the fact is, despite the warnings, pained outrage and courage of Israeli-Jewish socialists, anti-Zionists and pacifists, the population at large consistently, often overwhelmingly, supports the wars of their political masters, irrespective of the hatred of Israel that this inevitably engenders.
Why? Israel is a colonial-settler state and all such states face a fundamental problem. What to do with the people whose land has been robbed? During the wars of 1947-49 and 1967 well over a million Palestinians fled or were forcibly driven out and those who remain - constituting some 20% of its population - form a disaffected underclass of second-class citizens.
Both the Palestinian enemy within and the Palestinian enemy without engender a state of insecurity. Israeli Jews collectively and individually live alongside those whom they have dispossessed. Understandably, the Israeli-Jewish population feels under constant threat and therefore - frightened, insecure, maddened - willingly supports, urges on even the most misjudged acts of Israeli aggression, oppression and state terrorism. The hope is to crush or finally remove the Palestinians. An oppressor’s peace.
Does it follow that Israel cannot make peace with the Palestinians? That any Israeli settlement with the Palestinians is bound to be phoney? There can certainly be no democratic settlement with Israel as a Zionist state - any more than there can be with an Islamic Palestine. Nevertheless, the Israeli-Jewish people, the Hebrew nation, is a real, living entity and cannot be dismissed or discounted, just because Israel began and continues as a settler colonial state - albeit not of the standard kind (migrants to Israel originate not mainly from a single home country: they came from Europe, the Middle East, north Africa, Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, etc). Zionism being, of course, a nationalism sui generis. While it now boasts a homeland, Zionism claims purchase over the loyalty of all Jews: ie, the majority of the people-religion who do not live in Israel and who do not speak Hebrew.
Israel emerges out of the last phase of the British empire, covered with the blood, grime and dirt of unforgivable crimes. No-one should forget. That said, there is no reason for refusing to recognise the definite, historically constituted Hebrew nation which took state form with the May 14 1948 declaration of Israeli independence and the nakba.
Since then millions of Jews have migrated to Israel, learnt Hebrew, intermarried, had children, assimilated and made and remade the Israeli-Jewish nation. This recent historical phenomenon has to be distinguished from the much older and much wider Jewish people-religion. The Israeli-Jewish nation alone inhabits the territory of Israel and uses Hebrew as its everyday language.
Of course, most, if not all, the world’s states came into existence by way of ghastly oppression. But, while fully taking into account history, any consistently democratic programme must be squarely based on contemporary realities - crucially human facts on the ground - not on abstract, futile or potentially cataclysmic attempts to turn back the clock.
Abolition of Zionist Israel, terminating the legal privileges granted to Jews, halting expansionism and ending the oppression of the Palestinians are basic democratic demands. None of that, however, should be taken as synonymous with an eviscerating reconstruction of the pre-1948 situation. One might just as well call for the abolition of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc, and a return of lands to the enfeebled remnants of the aboriginal populations.
The only realistic, progressive and humane programme must be based on a mutual recognition by both Palestinians and Israeli Jews of each other’s national rights. Needless to say, it would be an excellent thing if both nations chose to happily live side by side in a binational secular state or, even better, to merge together in a single, centralised state. Why on earth would any rational human being wish to oppose either such outcome? The question is, though, how to arrive at the desired destination? Given where we are situated today, our discussion must necessarily include process as well as agency.
For Islamists like Hamas, and sadly for much of the left in Britain, what Israeli Jews want matters not a jot - the Hebrew nation is an artificial implant, an ally of US imperialism and from the start has oppressed the Palestinians. Therefore, so the argument goes, Israeli Jews have no right to determine the kind of state they wish to live under. Hence we find either explicit or implicit plans for - or, more likely, dreams of - military conquest (which serve in practice to perpetuate national divisions).
Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that such an outcome was on the cards. Israeli Jews would not meekly accept it. They would in all probability desperately fight, with all means at their disposal ... and at huge cost in terms of economic disruption and human suffering. There is also, of course, the consequent certainty that a single Palestinian state born from a violent caesarean operation, would, as Karl Kautsky warned in 1926, merely see the poles of oppression reversed. Israeli Jews would become dispossessed second-class citizens.
However, as the more realistic proponents of a single Palestinian state readily admit, Israel cannot be disposed of so easily. Yes, Israel is allied to the most powerful nation on earth and is a regional superpower in its own right (the IDF’s inability to destroy Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon war does not detract from that).
Furthermore, the majority of Israeli Jews are fanatically nationalistic. Under present circumstances they would not even consider a single Palestinian state, within which “minorities” - not least they, the Israeli-Jewish half of the population - are to be given “full” religious but not national rights: that is, the right to self-determination, up to and including the right to separate. The whole of the 20th century since 1933, but especially the 1943-45 holocaust, ensures that. Without military conquest - a highly unlikely and in and of itself an unwelcome outcome - the immediate demand for a single-state solution is both unhelpful and illusory.14 While the demand sounds reassuringly militant, it offers precious little in terms of bringing about a rapprochement between the two peoples and advancing working class interests.
A democratic solution
Needless to say, ours is not a solution to be negotiated by or presided over by Kadima and Fatah, Likud and Hamas, Labour and the Palestinian National Initiative. Progressive Israeli Jews must be won to champion the right of Palestinians to a separate state, which evidently, if it is to be viable, must cover a much larger area than Gaza/West Bank.
Everything - population numbers, socio-economic coherence, historical wrongs, national antagonisms - demands a contiguous Palestinian state. A state which joins Gaza and the West Bank and has east Jerusalem as its capital.
Borders would doubtless run south of the Jewish-Israeli towns of Sderot and Beer-Sheva, but would include Rahat. There is every reason to include central and southern Negev, right down to the Red Sea resort of Eilat, in a Palestinian state too. Note, while the Negev is sparsely populated, a big slice of its inhabitants are Bedouin. As to its Israeli Jews, many of them are in, or closely associated with, the IDF and are therefore inherently transient.
Progressive Palestinians must likewise champion the right of Israeli Jews to a separate, non-Zionist state centred on eastern Judea, the coastal Akko, Sharon and the Philistean plain and Galilee. That is where the vast majority of Israeli Jews live. Whether Tel Aviv (Israel’s cultural and economic centre) or west Jerusalem serves as the capital can be left open-ended. Tel Aviv is the obvious choice. Anyway, only on such a reciprocal basis is it possible to overcome national antagonisms and look forward to the eventual unity of the two peoples.
Both states must, of course, be democratic and secular - this being the form we envisage for working class rule. Appropriate rights must be accorded to minorities. And there are linguistic, religious and ethnic minorities in both proposed states: Palestinian Arabs in the new Israel, Hebrews in the new Palestine. And let us not forget the Arab Christians, Bedouins, Druze and Muslim Circassians who would also live in both states. The suggestion that communists call for ‘pure’ national-religious states - Israeli-Jewish and/or Muslim Palestinian - is either malign misrepresentation or the result of sheer ignorance. There are few, if any, ‘pure’ states and the left should always support/advocate the deepest and widest voluntary unity of peoples that objective circumstances permit.
So without doubt the Israeli-Jewish state we advocate will include within its borders minorities which should be voluntarily assimilated and therefore not discriminated against - just as with the Hindi, Bengali, Polish, Welsh, Turkish, Gaelic, Cantonese, etc, speaking minorities in Britain. Those who cannot, or will not, grasp this elementary point, desert not just Marxism, but basic common sense.
In addition, there must be substantial compensation for the Palestinian people from the state of Israel. They should be compensated for the historic injustice they have suffered and be hauled out of poverty. That means financial transfers, building programmes, redirecting water supplies, the return of land, etc.
1. “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, the Kadomites, the Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and the Jebusites” (Genesis xv, 18-1).
3. www.un.org/unrwa/publications/pdf/rr_ countryandarea.pdf
5. Los Angeles Times November 2.
8. www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2008/06/05/israel_backers_hear_obamas_vow_ of_ fidelity
9. See electronicintifada.net/v2/article9939.shtml
10. www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=274300&contrassID=2& sub ContrassID=1&sbSubContrassID=0&listSrc =Y
11. www.palestinemonitor.org/spip/spip.php? article7
12. See libcom.org/library/revolution-betrayed-wrp-iraq
13. Socialist Worker August 5 2006.
14. J Rose Israel: the hijack state London 2003, p67.