Mapping a viable future

Debating Israel/Palestine. Peter Manson reports

The October 11 London Communist Forum saw a well attended and useful debate, entitled ‘Single state for Palestine - principled demand or cul-de-sac?’

CPGB comrade Jack Conrad, the first speaker, was at pains to emphasise that he was not expressing the ‘CPGB line’, but his own view. There are various positions on Israel-Palestine within our organisation, but what they all have in common is that they are all firmly on the side of the oppressed.

The project to found Israel as a settler state was and still is “a crime”, said comrade Conrad. But that crime has resulted in the coming into being of an Israeli Jewish, or Hebrew, nation and a working class solution must recognise this reality. While comrade Conrad could envisage the necessity of expelling recent Israeli settlers from the West Bank as part of an agreed democratic settlement, it was out of the question to talk about uprooting the Israeli Jewish people as a whole. The Israeli Jewish nation, like any other, has the right to self-determination, so long as it is not exercised at the expense of the oppression of other peoples.

The founding of the state of Israel resulted not only in the creation of an Israeli nation, but a Palestinian nation too. So now there are two mutually hostile nations contesting the same territory. Of course, if the two nations were prepared to join together in a democratic, secular state, that would be an excellent thing, but such a merger could only be achieved on a voluntary basis and the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews reject it out of hand. What is more, the Israeli state is “armed to the teeth and allied to the US”, the most powerful imperialist country on earth. So how would it be possible to attain a single state in current circumstances?

Comrade Conrad concluded by saying that we need to approach the whole question from a different angle - taking the perspective of the Arab revolution as our starting point. The working class “must win leadership of the Arab nation” to achieve a democratic solution for the entire Middle East. A voluntary merger of the Arab peoples under working class hegemony, having defeated Zionism, would certainly grant the Israeli Jewish nation the right to self-determination, including the right to form their own state.

The next speaker was Tony Greenstein, long-time campaigner for Palestinian rights and a member of the Alliance for Green Socialism. A two-state solution, he said, has been (half-heartedly) backed by the imperialists, whereas the socialist solution is for a single, unitary state, as in Ireland and South Africa. To advocate two states was to “agree in practice, if not in tactics, with the imperialists”. The majority of Palestinians would prefer a single state.

While comrade Greenstein accepted that a solution could not be obtained within the confines of Palestine, he ruled out national rights for Israeli Jews even in the context of such a wider solution. The right of self-determination “belongs to the oppressed”, not oppressor peoples, he said, and national self-determination for Israeli Jews is “irrelevant”. Instead we should focus on the oppressed group.

For comrade Greenstein the Israeli Jews are not a nation, because their Zionist ideology is still expansionist. The United States only became a nation when it had completed its colonialist expansion - something that Israel cannot do “despite its exterminatory mindset”.

Comrade Greenstein warned the CPGB that if we persist with our advocacy of Israeli national rights we could end up in like the social-imperialists of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. While, of course, he did not accuse the CPGB of AWL-type pro-imperialism, he reminded us of “certain historical processes” that saw the AWL switch camps.

Israeli communist Moshé Machover was the final platform speaker. He started by stating his view that both the previous speeches had concentrated too much on the question of self-determination. The discrete territory of ‘Palestine’ or ‘Israel’ is a given by both peoples, but that ought not to be the case for socialists, he said. Palestine, as an imperialist creation, is “a joke”. The explicit reason contained in the League of Nations mandate to create ‘Palestine’ was in order to accommodate a Zionist state - there was at the time neither a Palestinian people nor a recognisable Palestinian territory.

Comrade Machover also stressed that the problem could not be resolved within the confines of Israel/Palestine (on the face of it a consensus among all three speakers) - “the forces to create it do not exist”. But neither could there be ‘decolonisation’. That was because, in the view of Matzpen - the Israeli socialist party of which comrade Machover was a founder-member - Israel was created on the basis of “exclusion colonisation”, relying mainly on Jewish labour, as opposed to the more normal “exploitation colonisation”, where a minority of settlers live off colonised labour.

Comrade Machover said that the “Israeli exception” lies not in the fact that settlers have formed themselves into a nation - that was a relatively common phenomenon (and he hotly disputed comrade Greenstein’s claim that the USA only became a nation after the complete suppression of native Americans: it was clearly already a nation by 1820, he said). The Israeli exception lies in the formation of an indigenous nation - the Palestinians.

For comrade Machover, this particular national question cannot be solved - we need to fight instead for socialism. That needs forces that are “enormous”: ie, the “unification of the Arab east under the leadership of the working class”. Seen from this angle, the dispute over one state or two was to “project the current absurdity into the socialist future”.

He ended by emphasising his view that the question of self-determination is one for the future. Then it would be ridiculous to say to the Hebrews, as comrade Greenstein does, “You are an oppressor nation even after the overthrow of Zionism”. A nation that is denied self-determination is ipso facto oppressed: “You have to make them want to join - I’m not for a separate Israel.”

Speaking from the floor, Gerry Downing said that the Arab revolution could only be a bourgeois revolution. It was a “fudged position”. There was no prospect of bringing on board Jewish workers “without a socialist revolution”. But there would have to be a single state, since “self-determination would mean separation”. He was backed up in this by Paul Flewers, who said that a two-state solution would “cement anti-Arab sentiment” and “reinforce exclusivism”.

In my intervention I wondered why comrade Downing assumed that an Arab revolution had to be a “bourgeois revolution”, even when its two platform advocates described it as being under working class hegemony. On the question of self-determination, I pointed to France 1940 to demonstrate how an oppressor nation could be rapidly transformed by changed circumstances into an oppressed nation. That is why, although we stress that it is only when a nation is oppressed that it has any problem in relation to self-determination, the demand aims for the equality of nations - those that do not have it must be granted it, while those that do must be able to retain it.

Stan Keable of the CPGB took issue with comrade Greenstein over the question of Ireland: just as in Israel/Palestine, a democratic solution can only be achieved through an agreement between the Catholic-Irish and British-Irish. Another CPGB comrade, James Turley, agreed with comrade Machover that Israel/Palestine would not see a solution before “decisive steps to a socialist revolution”. However, the proposals we put forward now must act as an “advertisement for the future we’re offering”.

Replying to the debate, comrade Machover called for a “moratorium” on self-determination: “I will stop defending it if you stop opposing it.” He ended by reiterating his view that the “problem can’t be solved short of a socialist revolution”. But that does not mean we should “sit with folded arms”. Rather than “bicker about one or two states”, there is “plenty we can do” - not least mobilising the workers’ movement against current Israeli barbarity and to prevent even worse atrocities.

Comrade Greenstein said it was a “cop-out” to say we will solve the national question after we have won socialism: “What about now?” But his solution for now most definitely excluded Israeli Jewish self-determination. While he could envisage the “free association of Jews” in theory, in practice an Israeli state “had to be Zionist”. To argue for two states was to argue for the “historically oppressive Jewish state”, the “solution of imperialism”.

For comrade Greenstein, a single secular, democratic state is “the starting point” - although “how to achieve it none of us know”. He dismissed the notion of voluntary unity: “Coercion is the name of the game” - those with privileges would not give them up willingly. He estimated that between two-fifths and a half of all Israeli Jews would “without a doubt” leave Palestine if a single, democratic secular state was established.

In my view comrade Greenstein’s final comments definitively exposed the bankruptcy of one-state advocates. Not only can they not envisage any realistic means of attaining the solution they profess to believe in: they do believe it would be so unattractive, it would involve a mass exodus of millions of Jews (at least comrade Greenstein is more honest than other single-staters on this).

But think what that would mean not just for those who left, but for those who stayed behind. The economy would be paralysed virtually overnight and the whole infrastructure would be left in tatters. Surely it would be in the interests of the Palestinian people to persuade the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews to remain.

In his concluding remarks Jack Conrad pointed out that comrade Greenstein was in reality advocating a utopia - in other words, an impossibility. If coercion is “the name of the game”, how can we get over the small problem that Israeli Jews, instead of heading for the ports and airports, might employ their “superior means of coercion” to resist what was to be imposed on them?

Responding to comrade Machover, Downing et al, comrade Conrad accepted that it was very positive that we were “all united over Gaza” in opposing the Israeli onslaught. But surely, as well as coming together over immediate practical questions, it is the job of Marxists to formulate a viable long-term strategy that fully takes into account national, global and class realties and maps a way forward: “Just saying ‘socialism’ is as good as useless.”

Comrade Conrad ended by referring to the need to overcome the “specific national and class problems” posed by Israel - including the fact that it does not have a normal working class. It is futile simply to keep repeating the same tired old slogans: “If you’re in a hole, start thinking!”