Palestine/Israel: Belling the cat

Does the demise of apartheid provide a model for the ending of Zionism? Moshé Machover exposes this notion for the fallacy it is

Long ago, the mice had a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the Cat.

Some said this, and some said that; but at last a young mouse got up and said he had a proposal to make, which he thought would meet the case: “You will all agree,” said he, “that our chief danger consists in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. Now, if we could receive some signal of her approach, we could easily escape from her. I venture, therefore, to propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when she was about, and could easily retire while she was in the neighbourhood.”

This proposal met with general applause, until an old mouse got up and said: “That is all very well, but who is to bell the Cat?” The mice looked at one another and nobody spoke. Then the old mouse said: “It is easy to propose impossible remedies.”

This fable, attributed to Aesop,1 has a political moral: a political project is purely utopian unless it can indicate a likely agent - a socio-political force able to realise it and whose long-term interests it would serve.

In the present article I propose to apply this precept to the project of the ‘one-state solution’ for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the vision of a single democratic (or secular-democratic) state in the whole of so-called ‘historical Palestine’ - the territory of Palestine as it existed under the British mandate from 1923 to 1948.

I do not intend to criticise here any particular version of that vision, or any particular aspect of it. I grant at the outset - not merely for the sake of argument, but because I believe it to be true - that some version of the one democratic state would be a very great improvement, morally speaking, on the current situation. Severe national oppression of the Palestinian Arab people, theft and colonisation of their land, and denial of their individual human rights would be replaced by equal legal status and democratic rights for all.

Rather, I propose to subject this vision to the test of agency: what socio-political force can be counted on to implement such a vision, and in what circumstances would this be likely to come about? I address this issue from a socialist viewpoint; so my aim is to contribute to elaborating a socialist, working class-based position on the one-state project and, more generally, on resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The one-state project

An early version of the one-state project was put forward by Fatah, the leading party in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, in late 1969. A detailed English-language exposition is in a programmatic article published in early 1970.2

From 1974 the PLO began to shift its position, and by the 1980s accepted a ‘two-state solution’: an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank (including the eastern part of Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip, which would exist alongside Israel. Thus the PLO was resigned to giving up - at least for the foreseeable future - the Palestinian claim over 78% of the territory of pre-1948 Palestine, and making do with the remaining rump of 22%. Support for this project peaked with the Oslo accords of 1993, although these accords made no mention of an independent Palestinian state.

However, during the two decades following the Oslo accords it has become clear that Israel has no intention of allowing the creation of an independent Palestinian state, and is in fact acting consistently and ruthlessly to forestall it. Rapid Israeli colonisation of Palestinian lands is but the most obvious evidence for Israel’s real policy.3

This has led to a revival of the one-state idea among radical/ progressive Palestinian nationalists, as well as among solidarity activists and supporters in various countries, including Israel. As examples of recent advocacy of the one-state project I will cite from the following three texts. First, an article by the progressive nationalist Palestinian activist, Omar Barghouti.4 Second, a pamphlet authored by Ann Alexander and John Rose and issued by the British radical left organisation, the Socialist Workers Party.5 Third, a polemical article by Tikva Honig- Parnass, a veteran Israeli socialist and recent convert to the one-state project.6

In progressive and leftwing discourse, the one-state and two-state projects are often counterposed, as though they are the only options for a benign resolution of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. I have argued elsewhere that this is a fallacy, and that both projects are based on an erroneous conception, which is too narrow geographically and too confined in its historical and social vision.7 However, leaving this aside for the moment, I would like to point out two obvious features of the one-state project, one of which - but not the other - it shares with the two-state project.

First, like the two-state project, the one-state project is bourgeois in the sense that it does not go beyond capitalism. Clearly, the one democratic or secular-democratic state it envisions will be capitalist. Indeed, it says or implies nothing to the contrary: it does not call for a socialist Palestine; nor can it do so, as it is advocated by an alliance (albeit mostly informal) led by Palestinian nationalists, who may be radical or progressive, but are not socialists. Besides, a socialist Palestine outwith the context of socialism in the entire region of the Arab east (at the very least) is obviously nonsensical.

Some socialists may believe that a bourgeois-democratic Palestine may be a stepping-stone to socialism or that the mere struggle for it may somehow be a transitional phase to socialism. But this is quite another matter: the aim that is actually being put forward - whether as an end in itself or as a staging post to a more distant goal - is a democratic capitalist Palestine. So the social forces that may be mobilised for the one-state project must be persuaded that it is in their interest, that they have something to gain from it.

Second, quite unlike the two-state project, the one-state project is revolutionary. The former is perfectly consistent with the continued existence of Israel as a Zionist state. Indeed, the version of that project accepted by the PLO would replace direct Israeli military occupation by political and economic domination of a Zionist Israel over a defenceless and subservient Palestinian statelet. No revolution would be needed. But the one-state project self-evidently requires the deZionisation of Israel: overthrow of its Zionist regime, and complete termination of the Zionist project. Indeed, the Israeli state itself would have to be superseded by a very different polity. So the one-state project can only be implemented by social forces that must not only be persuaded that this is in their interest, but must also be able to overthrow Zionism and the Israeli state structure.

External and internal forces

There are two principal ways in which a regime may be overthrown: either externally, by conquest and invasion; or internally, by coup d’etat or revolution. There are numerous historical and recent examples of each of these modes.

Of course, neither external nor internal agents act in isolation. An external conqueror wishing to replace the former regime of the invaded country will seek - and usually find - local, internal collaborators to administer and police the vanquished under licence. Conversely, internal upheavals are affected and conditioned by external circumstances; and domestic conspirators or revolutionaries may be aided by outsiders.

What about Israel’s Zionist regime? Can we expect some external force or combination of forces to overthrow this regime by arms and dissolve the state of Israel into a new capitalist, democratic state in the whole of pre- 1948 Palestine? The authors of the January 1970 Fatah programmatic article seemed to believe in this scenario. They were writing at the high tide of the Palestinian guerrilla struggle, launched from bases located not just outside Israel, but also outside the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories (OPTs), mostly in Jordan. Its forces were recruited predominantly from Palestinian refugee camps in Arab countries. Eventually, it was hoped, some Israelis would join the armed struggle; but evidently it was mainly to be a matter of destroying the Israeli state from the outside:

A popular war of liberation aimed at the destruction of the racist-imperialist state will create new conditions that make a new Palestine possible. In its process, the alternatives presented to the Jews of Palestine are drastically changed. Instead of the security of Israel vs being thrown in the sea, the revolution offers a new set of alternates: the insecurity of an exclusive-racist Israel vs an open, safe and tolerant Palestine for all of its patriots. The Palestinian revolution thus aims - in the long run - to recruit Jewish Palestinians as well as non-Jews in its liberation forces as an important step towards its final goal.8

In the romantic atmosphere of the time, electrified by the Vietnamese liberation struggle, this may not have sounded totally offbeat. But in fact it was utter fantasy. The Palestinian armed struggle never came close to endangering the Zionist regime or the existence of Israel, and had no real prospect of doing so: the balance of forces was loaded too heavily against it. And it ended in bloody tragedy. In the Black September of 1970, the Jordanian army killed thousands of Palestinians, and eventually the guerrillas were ousted from Jordan and decamped to the south of Lebanon. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon and its forces reached Beirut. Under the watchful eyes of Israel’s army, its Lebanese allies perpetrated a massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The besieged Palestinian leadership was allowed to leave Beirut for far-away Tunisia. The Palestinian guerrilla struggle had come to an end, apart from sporadic, isolated and ineffectual episodes of armed resistance.

There is also no real prospect of the regular armies of any state or coalition of states being able - or even trying - to vanquish Israel, overthrow the Zionist regime and install the one democratic state in the whole of Palestine. And in the highly unlikely event that such an attempt will be made, it will most probably not end up in a benign, liberal democracy between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean, but in calamity.

The South-African paradigm

Neither popular guerrilla war nor defeat by regular state armies are credible scenarios for the overthrow of the Zionist regime and the dissolution of the Israeli settler state. Indeed, the recent advocates of the one-state project appeal to another paradigm: the ending of South African apartheid, in which armed struggle did not play a major part, but relied mainly on mass civil resistance. Thus, Omar Barghouti writes:

Ethical decolonisation anchored in international law and universal human rights is a profound process of transformation that requires, above everything else, a sophisticated, principled and popular Palestinian resistance movement with a clear vision for justice and a democratic, inclusive society, with equal rights for all, Palestinian refugees included. This resistance must include the growing ranks of anti-colonial Jewish Israelis, just as the South African struggle against apartheid included anti-racist and principled whites. It is also premised on two other pillars: a democratised and free Arab region, which now looks considerably less imaginary; and an international solidarity movement supporting Palestinian rights and struggling to end all forms of Zionist apartheid and settler-colonial rule.

The SWP comrades, like Barghouti, point at a regional transformation as providing the enabling external conditions for Palestinian liberation. Writing in 2008, they presciently predict something like what a few years later came to be called the ‘Arab spring’, but warn that it could be hijacked by “Islamist movements”. Remarkably, they predict: “It is highly likely that the Muslim Brotherhood could take power in Egypt following the collapse of the Mubarak regime.”

However, being Marxist socialists, they do not merely look forward to Barghouti’s “democratised and free Arab region”, but point out that “The working class is the only force in society that can escape the limits of national liberation, because it also challenges the rule of imperialism’s internal allies - the powerful local elites in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia”.9 Nevertheless, as a paradigm for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict they too cite South Africa, where the “limits of national liberation” were not escaped, and which remained a capitalist country whose working class is severely exploited and oppressed. Under a heading calling for “One Palestine, a free and single democratic state”, the very last paragraph in their pamphlet is:

How revealing it is that after waves of mass-based struggle in apartheid South Africa, ‘one person, one vote’ finally forced the apartheid regime to crumble. It is a simple truth [sic!] that one person one vote for all Palestinians and Israelis would similarly end the Zionist regime in Israel, opening the way for a genuinely democratic future for all the peoples of the land.

The comrades’ somewhat awkward ellipsis makes this read as a bizarre circular claim that the implementation of ‘one person, one vote’ brought down apartheid and would bring down Zionism. But what they probably mean is that it is the struggle under this slogan that did it in South Africa and would do it in Palestine.

As for comrade Honig-Parnass, a major part of her article is devoted to direct polemic against the analysis of the Israeli socialist group, Matzpen, advocated by me on many occasions. This highlights the decisive differences between the South African and Zionist models of colonisation and their respective political economies, and leads to the conclusion that the ending of South African apartheid is not a valid paradigm for overthrowing the Zionist regime10 - a point to which I shall return below. Here is what she says:

The contention that the [Israeli– Palestinian] “conflict” cannot have a bourgeois nationalist resolution is based on an argument about the differences in the colonial models of Israel and South Africa. Machover emphasises that this difference is central to his analysis of the conflict and his conclusion regarding its resolution. I aim to show that this assumed connection between the colonial model and the resolution is faulty.

The comrade is aware that the bourgeois nationalist resolution of the “conflict” (her inverted commas!) will not complete the democratic tasks:

Indeed, democratic tasks can never be completed under capitalism. Hence the uprisings of the exploited classes and oppressed nationalities will continue to break out time and again. Their failed experiences make the masses realise that their issues cannot be solved in the framework of the current regimes and that capitalism is the source of their oppression. Then, under the leadership of the organised working class, we begin the struggle for socialism. This process is the essence of the permanent revolution theory which has stood the test of time.

I am at a loss to find any evidence that this theory, as she summarises it, has “stood the test of time” on planet Earth. Perhaps this occurred in a parallel, purely ideological universe. Be that as it may, she clearly regards realisation of the one-state project - a bourgeois nationalist resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict - to be necessary before “we begin the struggle for socialism”.

According to this logic, the Zionist regime can only be overthrown by social forces that can be mobilised for achieving a single, bourgeois democratic state in the whole of pre- 1948 Palestine. So let us see where such social agents can be found and who they may be.

In Israel

First, let us look inside Israel. As we have seen, Barghouti mentions in this connection the “growing ranks of anti-colonial Jewish Israelis” - he rightly compares them to the “anti-racist and principled whites” who participated in the South-African struggle against apartheid. But these idealistically motivated Hebrew (“Jewish Israeli”) anti-Zionists, while being a significant moral force, and while some of them - though by no means all! - do support the one-state project, are a tiny minority in Israel, and do not constitute a mass social force that can play a major role in overthrowing the Zionist regime from the inside with the aim of dissolving Israel into the proposed single capitalist, democratic state.

A far more significant social force can be found in the underprivileged Palestinian-Arab minority, constituting about 20% of Israel’s citizens: the Palestinian-Arab section of Israel’s working class and social strata allied to it. This section of Israel’s working class has an objective interest in the one-state project. A single bourgeois democratic Palestine may not radically change its socio-economic position as an exploited class, but can give its members something they have never enjoyed in Israel: full legal political rights with equal citizenship. Right now the Palestinian-Arab masses in Israel are engaged in a struggle to transform the Jewish state into “a state of all its citizens” rather than dissolving it altogether. But potentially they may be mobilised for the one-state project.

However, being a minority in Israel, this social force cannot overthrow the Zionist regime from the inside without the support - let alone against the opposition - of the Hebrew majority.

But in contrast with the Palestinian Arab masses, the Hebrew masses - predominantly the majority Hebrew section of the working class, including white-collar workers who were at the forefront of the massive protests in 2011 against neoliberalism - have nothing to gain from the one-state project. For this class it would mean exchanging its present position as an exploited and dominated class of a privileged, oppressing nation for the position of an exploited and dominated class without national privileges.

In fact, what is being offered to it by the current versions of the one-state project is a less than equal national status. The versions cited above all envisage equality of individual rights for all, but not equality of national rights. The old Fatah version, as well Barghouti’s and Honig-Parnass’s, do not even accept the existence of a Hebrew nation - which is currently a privileged settler nation, but will lose its national privilege with the overthrow of Zionism - as distinct from the worldwide Jewish ‘nation’ of Zionist myth. Comrade Honig-Parnass even goes so far as to claim that the Hebrew nation is my own invention!11

As far as the Hebrew majority of the Israeli working class is concerned, as part of the privileged national majority it is already living in a capitalist country with a bourgeois democratic regime; and the prospect of a capitalist democracy implied by the one-state project does not provide it with an incentive to overthrow the Zionist regime. On the contrary, it is much more likely to be mobilised by the regime to actively oppose this project and fight against it.

But - like all working classes in capitalist countries, including imperialist ones - the Israeli working class as a whole has an objective interest in socialism. The Hebrew majority of the Israeli working class will therefore have not only the ability, but also an incentive to overthrow the capitalist Zionist regime, if that would mean becoming part of a dominant working class in a socialist context. The context would have to be regional, encompassing at the very least the entire Arab east, because socialism in a single country is a non-starter.

So potentially the Hebrew working class can be mobilised for the revolutionary overthrow of the Zionist regime, and for exchanging its position as an exploited and dominated class with national privileges for the position of partnership in a dominant class with no more (and, of course, no less) than equal national rights. But this is not what the one-state project is offering, nor is this project a plausible stepping-stone to regional socialism.

Palestinians outside Israel

The Palestinian masses in the OPTs, as well as the Palestinian refugee diaspora, have clearly much to gain from the one-state project. Their expected gain from it would even be considerably greater than that of the Palestinian-Arab minority in Israel, who at least enjoy partial citizenship rights and limited democratic liberties.

The question is whether these masses are able to overthrow the Zionist regime. Here we come to the crucial difference between the colonial models of Israel and South Africa, which comrade Honig-Parnass is at pains to minimise against all Marxian logic and empirical evidence.

I have argued on numerous occasions that Israel and apartheid South Africa are instances of two different types of settler state, with fundamentally different political economies. Analogies between them are extremely misleading. Still, for the sake of comparison and contrast, it will be instructive to consider how the apartheid regime was ended.

It is quite clear that what brought the apartheid regime down was mainly internal struggle within that country. External political and economic pressure made some contribution, but played no more than a secondary role. Moreover, in the internal struggle armed resistance did not play a major role. It too was secondary. In fact, the internal struggle that led to the demise of the apartheid regime was essentially a class struggle. Not a pure form - there are hardly any pure forms in reality - but a form of class struggle.

By the early 1990s, the leaders of the settler ruling class realised that they would be unable to maintain the apartheid regime for much longer against the growing opposition of the vast majority of the population, which largely consisted of the African working class. On the other hand, the economy depended on exploiting the labour-power of the predominantly African workforce. The option of expelling the indigenous people or shutting them off from the South African economy did not exist.

At that point the leaders of the ruling class accepted an offer they could hardly refuse. They made a deal, which was the best one they could realistically expect. They gave up exclusive political power, while maintaining their wealth and economic power virtually intact. The African majority achieved political gains: formal legal equality and civil rights, but hardly any socio-economic gains. In other words, it was a bourgeois deal, not a socialist overthrow of apartheid.

A socialist overthrow of apartheid was not possible in a single country. Arguably, the indigenous working class was betrayed by not getting a better bourgeois deal. But it is clear that the actual bourgeois deal that was made was feasible because it gave both sides some advantages, although by no means all that they could ideally wish for.

Instead of just repeating myself, let me quote the South African academic sociologist, Ran Greenstein, who is equally familiar with both countries, as he grew up in Israel. His articles contrasting the two systems are worth close reading.12 Here is his summary of the decisive difference between their political economies:

… apartheid of a special type in Israel is different from historical apartheid in South Africa in three major respects:

As a result of the crucial difference in political economy, the Palestinian masses outside Israel simply do not have the economic leverage that the South African, mostly indigenous, working class had, which enabled it to force the ending of apartheid there:

Demography [in South Africa] was never an overriding concern. As long as security of person, property and investment could be guaranteed, there was no need for numerical dominance. When repression proved increasingly counterproductive, a deal exchanging political power for ongoing prosperity became an option acceptable to the majority of whites. Can such a deal be offered to - and adopted by - Israeli Jews, for whom a demographic majority is the key to domination and the guarantee of political survival on their own terms? Most likely, no.14

Repression “proved increasingly counterproductive” precisely because the South African settler ruling class was totally dependent, economically speaking, on exploiting indigenous labour. Ironically, Israeli-style apartheid is more apart than its South African prototype, which imposed social and political, but not economic separation. The apartheid wall and segregated roads are an Israeli innovation, which could not exist in South Africa because they would have undermined its non-apart economy.

Comrade Honig-Parnass notes, quite correctly, that the economy of the OPTs is integrated with that of Israel. But this is a very asymmetric kind of integration: the OPTs are economically dependent on Israel much more than Israel’s economy depends on them. For Israel, the OPTs are mainly a lucrative market and a testing ground for its military and ‘crowd control’ hardware and expertise, which are an important part of its exports. Widespread labour and civil unrest, which could gravely cripple the South African economy, would not have such a serious effect on Israel’s. At best, it may perhaps force Israel to withdraw physically from some of the West Bank, as it did from the Gaza Strip. But this would not lead to the ending of the Zionist regime and the dissolution of the Zionist state.


So we must conclude that the Israeli working class, which is an internal force, is capable of overthrowing the Zionist regime, but will not do so for the sake of the one-state project, because its Hebrew majority has no class interest in this bourgeois goal. Contrariwise, the Palestinian-Arab working class and its close allies, who do have much to gain from it, are for the most part (except for the minority inside Israel) an external force, and are unable to overthrow Zionism. We are left with no social agent both willing and able to bell this particular cat.

This is not a happy conclusion, because, morally speaking, some version of the bourgeois one-state project would be a definite improvement, compared to current reality. But indulging in utopian pipe dreams is not helpful, and may be a harmful opiate.

The only goal at which the interests and forces of the Palestinian-Arab and Hebrew masses can converge and forge an alliance is that of socialism, which is necessarily a regional project, not confined to the Palestinian box. There are no short cuts for overthrowing Zionism. Nor is a bourgeois one-state project a staging post for socialism. A theory of permanent revolution that posits such staging posts - even if it were valid in other colonial situations, which I seriously doubt - is quite inapplicable to this particular case.

Socialism in the entire region offers the only prospect for a benign resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The analysis presented here needs to be supplemented by addressing subsidiary strategic issues: primarily the national identities of the Palestinian- Arabs and Hebrew communities. I plan to do this in a sequel to this article.


1. This attribution has been disputed: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belling_the_cat.

2. ‘Toward the democratic Palestine’ in Fateh Lebanon (January 1970). I have criticised this programme on several occasions: see my book Israelis and Palestinians: conflict and resolution Chicago 2012, chapter 17 and passim.

3. For a realistic assessment of Israel’s real plans, see A Hanieh Lineages of revolt: issues of con­temporary capitalism in the Middle East Chicago 2013, chapter 5.

4. O Barghouti, ‘What comes next: a secular, democratic state in historic Palestine - a promising land’: http://mondoweiss.net/2013/10/democratic-palestine-promising.html (October 21 2013).

5. A Alexander and J Rose, The Nakba: why Is­rael’s birth was Palestine’s catastrophe and what’s the solution? London 2008.

6. T Honig-Parnass, ‘One democratic state in historic Palestine - a socialist viewpoint’ Inter­national Socialist Review No90, October 2013: http://isreview.org/issue/90/one-democratic-state-historic-palestine.

7. See the last three chapters of Israelis and Palestinians.

8. ‘Toward the democratic Palestine’ op cit.

9. Alexander and Rose op cit p.36f.

10. See chapters 33-35 of Israelis and Palestin­ians. Also available separately online: www.israeli-occupation.org/2006-11-30/moshe-macho­ver-israelis-and-palestinians-conflict-and-reso­lution; www.israeli-occupation.org/2009-02-19/moshe-machover-resolution-of-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict-a-socialist-viewpoint; www.israeli-occupation.org/2010-03-07/moshe-macho­ver-israeli-socialism-and-anti-zionism.

11. For the true facts, which refute her ridiculous claim, see my article, ‘Zionist myths: Hebrew ver­sus Jewish identity’ Weekly Worker May 16 2013: www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/962/zionist-myths-hebrew-versus-jewish-identity; or www.israeli-occupation.org/2013-05-17/moshe-machover-zionist-myths-hebrew-versus-jewish-identity.

12. R Greenstein, ‘Israel/Palestine and the apartheid analogy: critics, apologists and strategic lessons’ Monthly Review August 2010, part 1: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/green­stein220810.html; part 2: http://mrzine.monthlyre­view.org/2010/greenstein270810.html.

13. Op cit part 1.

14. Ibid.