Israel: a colonial settler state

Standing the test of time

On July 9, the CPGB hosted a fringe meeting at Marxism 2012, which served as a pre-launch of the recently published collection of essays by Moshé Machover.

(Comrade Machover's talk was based on the preface to Israelis and Palestinians: conflict and resolution1 and this is an edited version)

The ideas, theoretical analyses and political statements included in the book are collective products of a remarkable group that I helped to found, the Socialist Organisation in Israel, better known by the name of its journal, Matzpen, the importance of whose heritage is disproportionate to its small size. I am not trying to hide my light under a bushel: I believe I played a significant part in producing, elaborating and formulating these ideas, and especially in arguing publicly for them. But that is what it was: a part in a group dialectic, inconceivable without this collective matrix.

Matzpen was formed in 1962.2 The impetus for this had little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; rather, it was a resolve to break away from the Stalinist tradition and launch an independent, radical socialist organisation. In this respect we were, without at first realising it, part of a 1960s-era world movement of socialist regeneration. In the early years, our main activity was propaganda for promoting workers’ rights by the creation of genuine trade unions, outside the corporatist-bureaucratic stranglehold of the Histadrut. It has taken nearly 50 years for this idea to begin to become a reality, with the recent creation of the Koah La’ovddim (Power to the Workers) union federation.3

Of course, being consistent socialists, we were anti-Zionists. But it took us some time to elaborate an independent, detailed analysis of Zionism and the Israeli-Arab conflict. Fortunately, we had breathing space to do so. The early formative years of Matzpen happened to fall within a period in which the Israeli-Arab conflict was at its most quiescent: between the immediate aftermath of the 1956 Suez war and the June war of 1967. So we were able to deliberate over these issues rather than being forced to react off the cuff to a fast-moving reality under the pressure of current events.

By the time the catastrophic 1967 war broke out, we were equipped with conceptual weapons for confronting it and its consequences. Our analysis can be summarised in the following four points:

1. Zionism is a colonising project, and Israel, its embodiment, is a settler state. The core of the Israeli-Arab conflict is the clash between Zionist colonisation and the indigenous people, the Palestinian Arabs.

This did not require great perspicacity; it was a straightforward observation of evident facts. Nevertheless, it is remarkable how few people in the west see things in these terms even today. In the Israel of the mid-1960s, Matzpen was alone in expressing this view explicitly and clearly. (The Israeli Communist Party avoided using such terms as ‘Zionist colonisation’, and confined the brunt of its critique of Zionism to the latter’s alignment with western imperialism against the Soviet Union.)

2. We pointed out that Zionist colonisation belongs to a different species from, for example, that of South Africa and Algeria: rather than being based on exploiting the labour-power of the indigenous people, it sought to exclude and eliminate them.

This observation - which has profound implications regarding the nature of the conflict and its eventual resolution - came quite naturally to us as Marxists. It was, of course, obvious to the Palestinian victims of Zionist colonisation, and was noted also by many of their Arab and third-world supporters. But it eludes many thinkers and activists whose attitude to colonialism is purely moral: for example, those who regard it as a consequence or manifestation of racism rather than the other way around. For many years we were virtually alone in Israel and the west in stressing the fundamental significance of this feature of Zionist colonisation. In recent years it has been picked up by some academic critics of Zionism, but most of them have failed to recognise or admit that we had long anticipated them.

3. We insisted on the regional context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Due to the specific features of Zionist colonisation, the balance of power is heavily tilted in favour of Israel (backed by its imperialist sponsor) and against the Palestinian people. The imbalance could only be redressed, and Palestinian liberation would only become possible, as part of a revolutionary transformation of the region, by an Arab revolution led by the working class, which would overthrow the repressive regimes, unify the Arab east and put an end to imperialist domination over it.

We were not alone in holding this view: it was shared by leftists in the Palestinian resistance movement. However, as reaction strengthened its hold on the Arab world from the 1970s, many people who initially looked forward to an Arab revolution lost hope and sought short cuts to resolving the Palestine problem- which, predictably, proved to be illusory. We remained rather isolated in clinging to the revolutionary regional perspective.

But very recently, while I was putting together the present book, the eruption of a revolutionary tempest in the Arab world has lent much greater credibility to our regional perspective. I shall return to this point below.

4. Our regional view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict applied not only to the process whereby it would be resolved, but extended also to the form of the resolution itself. Unlike almost all who addressed the issue, we did not believe that a resolution would occur within the confines of Palestine (established by the British imperialists and their French allies following World War I). Thus, we did not advocate a so-called ‘two-state solution’ in a repartitioned Palestine, nor a ‘one-state solution’ in a unitary Palestine. Instead, we envisaged incorporation of the two national groups - the Palestinian Arabs and the Hebrews (so-called Israeli Jews) - as units with equal rights within a socialist regional union or federation of the Arab east.


This book contains a selection of essays, articles, statements and short pieces written by me, or co-written with my comrades, over some four and a half decades, between 1966 and 2010. Inevitably, during this long and eventful period, the original ideas and insights outlined above have evolved and been modified in response to changing reality, as well as in the light of further reflection. The items are presented as they were published originally, except for minor stylistic editing. They represent my opinions at the time of writing; and I would certainly put some things differently today, with the benefit of hindsight as well as second thoughts.

One essay is extremely dated; it is also the one that has been most often reprinted and republished in several versions and widely read on the left. It is the essay on the class nature of Israeli society, which I co-authored with two comrades in 1970-71. It is thoroughly dated due to the profound socio-economic transformation of Israeli society that has taken place, beginning from the 1980s. Savage privatisation has shrunk the public sector - formerly about half of the economy - to a mere vestige of its former self. And neoliberal policy has devastated the welfare state, which had been relatively one of the most well-provided in the capitalist world, at least as far as the Jewish population was concerned. During these recent decades, the ‘socialist’ Zionist parties, such as the Israeli Labour Party, formerly politically dominant, have been reduced to near insignificance. I included this essay in the book primarily due to its historical interest.

On the other hand, the political analyses of Zionism and the Israeli settler state, and their conflict with the Palestinian people and the Arab region - some of them written several decades ago - have for the most part retained their topicality and are hardly dated at all. I say this with some sadness.

When I started putting together the material for this collection, on the one hand, I felt like a Cassandra: my comrades and I were pretty accurate in foretelling the moves made by the forces of oppression. We expected the worst from their side and we warned against trusting in illusory ‘peace processes’ manipulated by them. But few people believed our predictions. On the other hand, I was disappointed by what appeared to be the failure of the forces of our side, those of progressive transformation and regional revolution, to manifest themselves as we had expected and predicted. While never losing faith in the ultimate victory of the forces of progress, and eventually of socialism, I felt that this was a vision for the very long term.

This somewhat wistful mood changed while I was still busy gathering the material for this book, with the eruption of the Arab revolution, which seemed to presage the developments that our theoretical analysis had pointed toward.

Of course, it would be very naive to expect the present upheaval to lead to a decisive victory of the revolution in the near future. Setbacks and counterrevolutionary reactions are most likely. But a victorious Arab revolution is no longer an abstract projection: the events of the Arab awakening of 2011 make it a tangible potentiality. And these events also demonstrate the necessary connection between the revolutionary liberation of the masses of the region and the decline and eventual demise of imperialist hegemony over it.


1. Haymarket Books, www.haymarketbooks.org/pb/Israelis-and-Palestinians.

2. For material in English relating to Matzpen, see its website at www.matzpen.org.

3. See http://workers.org.il/english.