Israel has a point?

Has the Alliance for Workers' Liberty lost its marbles? Ben Lewis and Mark Fischer ponder the evidence

You may wonder what sort of day people in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty had on February 27. Was it perhaps a frenetic whirl of buzzing activity, as comrades prepared for a huge new campaigning effort? Did the phones ring white hot, as AWLers from around the country checked in to be briefed on their centre’s battle plan to meet the challenging news coming out of the United States?

For this was the day that Barack Obama announced plans to end US combat operations in Iraq by August 2010. “Let me say this as plainly as I can,” he told thousands of soldiers in a marine base: “By August 31 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end” … presumably to the massive consternation of the AWL leadership. Logically, the AWL should now be aggressively campaigning to force imperialism to keep its troops in Iraq - the whole logic of its polemics with the rest of the left since the invasion of 2003 should lead it inexorably to this conclusion.

After all, with its shamefaced ‘troops in’ position, this sect has carved out a uniquely foul position for itself on what could broadly be described as the British ‘left’. Repeatedly, as chronicled by this paper, the sect’s majority voted down the demand for the withdrawal of US-UK troops in any form - not now, not soon (not until, in the words of George W Bush’s unfortunate banner, “mission accomplished”, presumably). The thoroughly reactionary rationale for this scab line was that - objectively, despite itself, even if in a clumsy, maladroit way that the AWL could not ‘take responsibility’ for - US-led imperialism in Iraq was playing a progressive role, in that it provided some sort of makeshift shelter under which the workers’ movement might gain strength.

Yes, the occupation was bad, conceded AWL patriarch Sean Matgamna in 2007. However: “The Iraqi labour movement can still, just about, function in today’s Iraq, at least in those areas where the Sunni-supremacist ‘resistance’ are not dominant. That is, where those clerical fascists (who are the ‘anti-imperialist’ heroes in the anti-working class mythology of our own kitsch left) are not able to destroy the Iraqi labour movement. There still remains a small space for the Iraqi working class to organise in.”1

So should the current state of Iraq, as Obama announces his plans for disengagement, give Matgamna and his troops cause for encouragement? Hardly.

For instance, the fact that a huge force of 50,000 occupation troops will stay until the end of 2011 to “train and advise Iraqi forces” underlines that the country the US will leave behind is fractured and violently divided. As an astute Financial Times editorial noted the day after Obama’s announcement, the occupation “had two noxious outcomes”. First, a “multi-sided insurgency” against the foreign troops raged alongside a “vicious ethno-sectarian war”. Second, it engendered the creation of “dozens of strongmen who sprang up to replace Saddam Hussein”, engaged in “playing deadly zero-sum games, in the knowledge that an American safety net would break their fall and stump up the dollars to finance them.”2

Moreover, the recent provincial elections, which saw an overwhelming triumph for prime minister al-Maliki’s Da’wa party, was widely touted as a victory for nationalism. In fact it entrenched Islamism in the fractured country’s power structures. The difference is simply that Islamists “in favour of a centralised Iraq (Mr Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr) beat the still formidable proponents of an oil-rich Shia mini-state based on Baghdad and the south.”

Thus, the truth is a little different from Obama’s vacuous claim that the work of US troops has given “the Iraqis this chance to choose a better future”. The FT bluntly sketches the real situation: “no agreement on the eventual shape of a confederal Iraq (Arabs and Kurds are ready to fight it out over Kirkuk); no deal on sharing oil revenues; no reconciliation between Sunni and Shia … Iraqi forces now in place, moreover, are little more than rebadged militia - with plenty of unassimilated militiamen waiting in the wings”.3

This then, is the concrete situation in Iraq - including that fragile “labour movement” that Matgamna professes such concern for. This dire perspective is actually the direct product of the imperialist occupation over which the AWL claimed neutrality: “The question, ‘When should the US-UK troops get out?’, is in reality a question between the ruling class and reactionary factions”, the organisation’s May 2007 conference stated.

“In any case, it is the wrong focus,” the motion continued. If “we care about the peoples of Iraq, we should build solidarity with those forces who can ensure that when the troops withdraw [under their own volition and according to their own imperialist timetable - BL/MF], Iraq can be a democratic and secular country”.4

The logic of these passages actually belies the supposed neutrality of the AWL majority on the occupation. The glaringly obviously implication is that the workers’ movement in Iraq would build itself through mundane trade union activity under a protective umbrella provided by imperialist occupiers, whose presence ensures a “small space for the Iraqi working class to organise in”, as Matgamna coyly put it. Then, having abstained on the key democratic question setting the country ablaze, this movement would somehow be in a position to “ensure” that post-occupation Iraq becomes a “democratic and secular country”!

A scab position. A reactionary position. The bitter fruit of imperialist economism, as we dubbed it. This seemed to be a politically defining moment for the organisation, an impression reinforced when late last year Matgamna explicitly excused an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and his organisation’s inner core formed a defensive ring around him, despite serious internal disquiet.5

Then, oddly, along came Gaza …

Clearly, there were internal differences within this increasingly ragged-looking group, possibly along the fault line dividing older cadre from the “Maoist youth”, as the charmless Mark Osborn dubbed AWLers voting for a ‘troops out’ position on Iraq at the organisation’s May 2008 conference.6

Thus, a leaflet used by the AWL on the early Gaza demos and protests in January (though, strangely, with a named individual author - Robin Sivapalan), welcomed “the shutting down of … Kensington High Street outside the Israeli embassy on December 28, largely by ordinary Muslim people, especially children and young people … [we] were proud to be there.” There was some discussion of the leaflet internally, with Stuart Jordan suggesting some mild amendments.

One was a redrafting of the opening paragraph to read along the lines: “For 11 days Israel has been battering the population of Gaza,  escalating its brutal occupation of the Palestinian territories into a mini-colonial war. A bombing campaign in Gaza, one of the most densely populated territories on earth, was always going to mean large-scale civilian casualties. Gaza had justly been described as  an ‘open air prison’; the withdrawal of Israeli troops in 2005 inaugurated not liberation, but what was essentially a prolonged siege. This comes after a long history of injustices meted out to the Palestinians from their time as British colonial subjects, to the forced expulsion of 750,000 refugees in 1948, economic subjugation and military blockades, the theft of land, the cynical refusal of neighbouring Arab states to grant Palestinians civilian status after more than 60 years in exile ...”

Fairly unremarkable stuff from the point of view of any principled leftwinger … which is precisely why the likes of Osborn found it objectionable, of course. He retorted, incredibly, that “the problem” with the passage was what it does not say - that “the biggest problem after 2005” was “the fact that Hamas are Islamists who are building a one-party religious state in Gaza and we should not fade out or downplay the fact the Israel has a point! (Hamas are pledged to destroy Israel and they are firing rockets). That’s not a good thing and we should say so ...” (our emphasis).

Likewise with the solidarity offered to Muslim youth fighting the police in both versions of the leaflet. Tricky, this one, given that Matgamna himself had already characterised the politics of the January 10 Gaza demonstration as “clerical fascist” and “undisguisedly anti-semitic”7. Odd that Sivapalan and others talk of being “proud” to stand alongside these “clerical fascists” as they targeted the Israeli embassy.

According to Osborn, “It is by no means clear that we should be standing with the ‘Muslim youth’ fighting the police. Depends who they are, does it not? ... ‘Ordinary’ Muslim youth do not make petrol bombs and bring them into central London to use following a demo. So who are they?”

In the event, the AWL decided not to go with the ‘Israel has a point’ slogan for their leaflets on the Gaza protests. Although Robin Sivapalan subsequently did make a bold solo effort at forming the ‘Workers’ Liberty Martyrs Brigade’ when he turned up on a picket of the Israeli embassy with a diddy Palestinian flag in one hand … and an Israeli one in the other. He was escorted in the general direction of ‘away’ by the stewards, we understand.

Yet, at the same time, the AWL’s paper Solidarity editorialised that Israel must “withdraw immediately from Gaza and the West Bank”.8 Why, one wonders?

After all, here was Israel - “one of the most democratic societies in existence”, according to previous AWL formulations9 - attacking a “repressive clerical fascist regime”10. In spite of the “disproportion”, wrote Matgamna on the current attack on Gaza, this is actually a “two-sided war”, with “Hamas waging war on Israel too”. Anti-war activists were being led into “one-sided anti-war war-mongering - pro-Hamas; demanding, in different degrees of boldness and clarity, the end of Israel”.11

Then there is leading AWLer Martin Thomas, who once told us that, as far as Iraq was concerned, “negative slogans like ‘troops out now’” should be rejected, as “the actual balance of forces would fill them with a reactionary political content” - ie, the military victory of one brand or another of “clerical fascism”.12 And that’s not true for Gaza?

After all, in relation to Hamas we are not talking in terms of localised militias, but a force that actually is in power and controls the state (such as it is). Surely the forces of the IDF might, just might, be able to provide some sort of “limited space” for democratic and trade union organisation by taking on Hamas?


1. Solidarity December 6  2007.
2. Financial Times February 28.
3. Ibid.
4. Weekly Worker June 14 2007.
5. July 31 2008 - and onwards.
6. Weekly Worker October 2 2008.
7. www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/01/15/poli tics-demonstrations-against-israels-offensive-gaza
8. www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/01/08/israel-must-withdraw-gaza-and-west-bank
9. Weekly Worker April 17 2008.
10 Solidarity May 14 2008.
11. Ibid.
12. www.workersliberty.org/story/2008/03/07/once-again-%E2%80%9Ctroops-out-now%E2%80%9D