SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 199 June 2016

The Marxist left, the national conflict and the Palestinian struggle

The Socialist Struggle Movement (CWI Israel-Palestine) campaigns to end the occupation and the national oppression of the Palestinians and for a just peace based on full equality between the Israelis and Palestinians, including an equal right for existence, self-determination, personal security and welfare.

This is an edited version of a statement agreed by the SSM’s National Committee in April. The full text can be read here.

The escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intensifying national divisions. Destructive trends of nationalist reaction have raised their heads in Israeli society. The horrors of the Gaza war in 2014; the Likud party’s 2015 election win; brutal and murderous attacks by the Israeli regime on the Palestinians (state terrorism); attacks on democratic freedoms and the political persecution of Palestinian MKs (members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament), and of Jewish anti-occupation activists. All of these have contributed to the strengthening of pessimistic moods especially among the Palestinian masses, including Arab-Palestinians in Israel, among more left-leaning Jewish people, and on the left of both national groups. In fact, the left is in crisis, as can be seen in the leadership of the Communist Party (CP) and Hadash (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, established by the CP). These processes do not occur in a vacuum.

Counter-revolutionary trends in the region in recent years – the derailing of the so-called ‘Arab spring’ movements, increased conflict and war, the rise of reactionary forces such as Islamic State (ISIS) – have seen a certain strengthening of Benjamin Netanyahu’s regime. Despair and security fears among the Jewish public, fuelled by desperate, counter-productive individual terrorism against Israelis, serve as a basis for Zionist-nationalist reaction.

Among the Palestinian masses, especially in the 1967 territories, support for a ‘two states’ position has fallen to its lowest point for several years. Opinion polls by Palestinian organisations show a consistent lack of trust in the possibility of a solution to the conflict and of liberation from national oppression. This reflects revulsion at the fraudulent promises for the ‘coming state’, which have led thus far to the worsening of oppression and to mass killing, as well as to galloping settlement building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Moreover, the Netanyahu regime has made it clear that it opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The idea of one bi-national, Israeli-Palestinian state is rejected by an even larger majority of Palestinians, as it amounts to giving up on the demand for an independent nation state. Although there is some sympathy for the old programme of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation), for an Arab-Palestinian nation state on the entire territory west of the Jordan river, that is not seen as practical.

Such a programme really is a bourgeois national utopia. Neither the PLO nor the Palestinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas, can propose any way to ‘occupy’ Israel, which is the strongest military power in the region. Thus, the pro-capitalist leaderships of both those parties seek as a bottom line to lean on alliances with imperialist powers in the hope that they will pressurise Israel for some concessions.

National polarisation

There is a layer of young Palestinians who view the idea of two states with deep suspicion and cynicism. As they do regarding slogans about peace, coexistence, and in relation to social movements among Israeli-Jewish workers and youth. That layer has no trust in the potential for a joint struggle of workers and youth of both national groups on living conditions and against discrimination, exploitation and oppression. In fact, among many activists that is perceived as tantamount to giving up a serious struggle for national liberation and as being incapable of dealing with prejudice and national chauvinism in the Jewish public.

This is not surprising, considering the hypocritical rhetoric of the Israeli regime, the weakness of the left and the experience of recent decades – particularly the Oslo agreements of 1993 and 1995, which were promoted under false slogans about peace but maintained national oppression in other brutal forms. To that should be added the dangerous national chauvinism, including support for attacks against Palestinians, characteristic of leaders of Histadrut (the main trade union organisation), and the Labour and Meretz parties (establishment parties identified with the ‘left wing’ of Israeli politics). In addition are the camouflaged chauvinistic approaches of liberal movements, such as Peace Now, which raise slogans about peace but fail to reject consistently the oppression of the Palestinians.

To the layer of young Palestinians being pushed into struggle there is no visible left-wing, socialist alternative to the fraudulent imperialist programmes. Left political movements, first and foremost the CP and Hadash, which have helped spread illusions in the Oslo agreements and have not corrected their position to this day, bear some responsibility.

The phenomenon of Jews and Arabs photographing themselves, particularly in workplaces, with the message ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies’, or joint demonstrations of residents against the escalation in nationalist violence, is narrow in scope but should not be belittled. It is an honest and courageous response, and helps to undermine nationalist reaction and advance class solidarity.

Nevertheless, amorphous slogans about ‘coexistence’ and ‘Jewish-Arab partnership’, against the background of deep national separation and increased oppression of Arab-Palestinians, is insufficient and, at times, might even serve as hypocritical lip-service. A genuine political struggle of workers and youth of both national groups demands a programme for the elimination of all forms of discrimination and national oppression of Arab-Palestinians and generally.

Advancing such a broad struggle is one of the important tasks of the socialist left. The Socialist Struggle Movement opposes completely the political repression of Arab-Palestinian people in Israel, regardless of the political controversies with other movements, including the Palestinian right-wing. We clearly explained our opposition to the banning in November 2015 (just days after the ISIS attacks in Paris) of the Northern Islamic Movement, linked to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It was a hypocritical and dangerous move intended to assist the Israeli regime with tagging Arab-Palestinians and Muslims in Israel as scapegoats. This measure is intended to facilitate the repression of political struggle and to send a warning to further political movements that come into conflict with the regime – starting with Palestinians but not ending there.

Divide and rule

The lack of general movements of workers and youth in Israel since the 2011 protests allows isolationist perceptions of ‘identity politics’ to strengthen among oppressed groups. Against this background, many activists conclude that the struggle against Palestinian national oppression should be based on ‘national unity’. It is a response to the repression and divide-and-rule policies of the Israeli regime, which is trying to tear apart the Palestinian masses on geographic, religious and ethnic lines.

Rejecting the instigation of ethnic-religious conflict is just, of course, as is the understanding that a broad, strong movement is needed. Nevertheless, both in Israel and the 1967 occupied territories, as well as among the Palestinian diaspora, the watering down of the differences between right-wing and left-wing forces, and between local elites and the workers, farmers and youth, will significantly restrain the potential for a successful struggle.

The embryonic form of the capitalist police state represented by the Palestinian Authority of Fatah and the PLO, and its parallel Islamist version headed by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, is a warning of the direction in which right-wing pro-capitalist leaderships can lead. Within the Green Line in particular, the dimming of political differences among the Arab-Palestinian minority in the name of national unity eventually plays into the hands of Israeli right-wing rule.

In the run-up to the 2015 elections, unfortunately, Hadash did not put forward a prominent left alternative on a countrywide level. Instead, it capitulated to pressures, after the raising of the election threshold, and eventually teamed up in an unprincipled manner to the founding of the Joint List. This was a coalition of left- and right-wing Palestinian forces, in which the left is the wing required to make the more significant concessions. The countrywide profile of Hadash, as the most prominent left force at that level, has been lowered as a result.

There was another option: standing in a separate leftist list. And some within Hadash tried to convince others of this position. Despite claims of a ‘historic’ development, the Joint List has not so far led any significant struggle or made any major gains. It remains neutralised in the parliamentary field. Consequently, it has disappointed those who pinned their hopes on it.

In the long run, the broader Arab population, a majority of who live below the poverty line and under a daily offensive because of their national background, are interested in practical solutions to the burning problems of poverty and national discrimination (which intensifies poverty and the rest of their plight). But the political forces on the Joint List have not managed so far to put forward an effective means to struggle for change – or against the Israeli right, Netanyahu’s rule, national oppression and Israeli capitalism. The weakness in its political programme leads Hadash down the narrow approach of orientating to election campaigns, in a manner almost detached from the building of extra-parliamentary struggle – and to unprincipled political alliances.

Some CP leaders may claim that theirs is a ‘practical’ approach: the only way to change reality in complex circumstances. Of course, serious political organisations need to examine when it is necessary to change demands and tactics. However, such changes should be done on the basis of a principled class approach. Unfortunately, the CP leadership has adopted a reformist approach which weakens the left, as it nurtures illusions in solutions within the framework of capitalist society, keeps broad layers in a relatively passive role and gives up the building of a political struggle based on the working class.

A struggle for socialist change

The demand for two states on a capitalist basis means founding a neo-colonial puppet state for the Palestinians – not genuine national independence. The fundamental problems of the Palestinian masses would not be solved and the bloody conflict would continue. The alternative idea of one bi-national state, in which Israelis and Palestinians coexist, is also completely utopian in a capitalist context. The decisive majority of both nationalities are not interested in giving up independence and sharing a single state. Even if such a state could be brought into being somehow, it would be based on inequality and a deep national schism.

This underlines that, even though the slogan of two states is viewed with deep and increased suspicion, the idea of such a solution – although in a socialist context – remains necessary. At this stage, advancing a programme for a single joint state – even a socialist state – cannot answer the fears and suspicions, or the intense yearning for national independence of both national groups. Nevertheless, the role of the Marxist left is to explain that, at root, the working class and the masses of all national groups have an interest in a united struggle around a programme for socialist change.

Only on a socialist basis will it be possible to raise the living conditions of the Palestinians to those of the Israelis and to guarantee complete equality in all spheres. Only then would it be possible to ensure that all the resources in society could be planned democratically. That would allow for the necessary investment of resources for the Palestinian refugees – as part of a just solution, guaranteeing equality in the region, advancing direct dialogue and consent, and recognising the historic injustice and their right to return. In these circumstances, the diminishing of mutual loathing and national division may eventually prepare the ground for a future joint socialist state.

A class approach to Israeli society

Sections of the international left adopt a narrow national approach and ignore the fears of millions of Israeli Jews and their will for national self-determination. However, the catastrophic occupation, expropriation and oppression of the Palestinians by the Zionist movement and the State of Israel do not negate the fact that masses of Jewish refugees from European, Arab and Muslim countries have been cynically exploited by the world powers and the nationalist Zionist elite. The simplistic reference to all Israeli Jews as ‘settlers’ also ignores the fact that the majority were born in the country, without an affinity to any other state.

Considering the Holocaust, the historic persecution of the Jews and the anti-Semitic threats of reactionary Arab and Islamist forces in the Middle East, any programme that means that millions of Israelis simply give up national independence will be perceived as an annihilation plan. It will push the Israeli working class more strongly into the hands of the Israeli right-wing, for a survival war by any means including nuclear weapons. Even in a hypothetical bloody scenario in which an external force subdues Israel militarily, millions of Israeli Jews would become an oppressed national minority and the conflict would continue in a terrible new form.

True, the Zionist movement and the State of Israel continue to implement a colonialist policy, striving to push aside the Arab-Palestinian population in favour of the Israeli-Jewish population. This includes uprooting the Palestinians in 1948, the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and plans for the ‘Judaization’ of territories within the Green Line, particularly in the Negev and Galilee.

The Israeli ruling class sees the expropriated Palestinian masses as an existential threat for the future of its rule. It strives to base its existence on mobilising support from the Jewish population in Israel and through collaboration with the imperialist powers, especially the US, as well as with autocratic regimes which are willing to do business with it. Against this background, there are currents on the left which oppose Israel’s ‘right to exist’. Of course, the Marxist left opposes all oppressive regimes in the region and globally. But on this basis one could oppose the right to exist of the United States, Germany, Britain or France which, as major imperialist powers, have caused the greatest horrors in history.

There are those who claim that the right of existence of Israel should be opposed because it is a ‘made up’ nation state, established under the sponsorship of the capitalist powers to serve their interests in the Middle East – and through the expropriation of the Palestinian masses. However, the national borders in the Middle East were dictated to a large extent by the imperialist powers, through the Sykes-Picot agreement signed secretly in 1916 and subsequent agreements. Yet this could apply to other states: in the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, the Baltics, Pakistan or Taiwan, for example. A long list of nation states were created out of occupations, mass uprooting of populations, colonial expropriation and nationalist policies to change the demographic composition in favour of a ruling national-ethnic group.

The important question, however, is how to advance from a reality of oppression and robbery to a solution to the fundamental problems, and for the establishment of a new, democratic and equal society. It is not enough to point to the reactionary character of regimes and their bloody history. The Marxist left needs to show how capitalist and imperialist nations are based on contradictions, how they could split on class lines, and how that could make it possible to get over the calamities of the capitalist and imperialist era. The State of Israel is not only a settler/colonial state ruled by one nationality and expropriating another. It is also a capitalist state of class exploitation and oppression in a crisis-ridden class society.

Parts of the international left view the millions of Israeli Jews as one bloc of reaction, a society of settlers in which the fundamental contradiction is national, and where the masses have no real interest in ending the oppression of the Palestinians, in social liberation or in socialist change. This actually blurs the picture. It minimises the responsibility of generals, tycoons and nationalist parties for the horrors they help create. It masks the difference between ideological settlers, and nationalists who take an active part in the barbaric expropriation of Palestinian families within the Green Line (within Israel) and, on the other hand, the millions of exploited and relatively impoverished Israeli workers who suffer from Israeli capitalism and from the ongoing national conflict.

Although the national antagonism is usually most prominent, the class antagonism is the fundamental internal contradiction with the potential for getting beyond capitalism and building a new society. Regardless of the moods and reactionary perceptions which are widespread today, the Israeli working class has a key role to play in the struggle against capitalism and for the socialist change of society.

Who profits from the occupation?

The claim that the Israeli-Jewish working class profits from the national oppression of the Palestinians is similar to the claim that in any state responsible for imperialist exploitation, wars and occupations the working class ‘profits’. The working class in the developed capitalist countries succeeded through struggle against the ruling classes to gain improved living conditions in comparison to those of the masses in the neo-colonial world. However, it is a mistake to interpret the national gaps in living conditions or the spread of right-wing political perceptions across layers of workers as an expression of cross-class interests. On the contrary, the brutal austerity being carried out in Europe, the US, Israel and elsewhere shows that, within the framework of the capitalist system, those gains are limited and are not guaranteed. The global economic crisis in recent years has exposed more forcefully the clash of class interests, with the ruling classes attempting to burden the cost onto the backs of the masses.

Of course certain layers of the Israeli working class, for example in the large settlements, are ‘bribed’ to support politically the settlement programme, including with some economic benefits. But a wider analysis of the interests of the working class does not bear this out. Israeli capitalists do profit from the settlements’ industrial zones and from the super-exploitation of Palestinians as cheap labour, although this forms a limited part of the total profits of Israeli capitalism.

The main policy of Zionism and the Israeli capitalists in relation to the Palestinians is uprooting and expropriation, with the purpose of strengthening the social base of the regime. It is also worth noting that the capitalists are less exposed than workers to nationalist-based confrontation in the streets and workplaces, and to personal security risks from the conflict.

Clearly, the Israeli-Jewish working class does not suffer the same level of oppression and poverty as the Palestinian masses. Nonetheless, there is significant discrimination against workers from Mizrahi (Jews originating in the Middle East and Asia) and Ethiopian backgrounds, from the former Soviet Union, but also workers from an Ashkenazi background (those originating in Europe). Moreover, it suffers collectively from divide-and-rule on a national basis, competing in a race to the bottom against cheap labour.

Above all, the Israeli-Jewish working class suffers the political and security consequences of the perpetuated conflict. Some layers even tend to have a reserved attitude towards, and be alienated from, the settlement programme. It is the security-existential issue, more than any other, which Likud and the ultra-orthodox Shas parties in government cynically exploit. The Israeli-Jewish working class is being politically shackled to the ruling class on the false answer to its security fears. In addition, there are powerful ideological mechanisms allowing Zionist nationalism to mobilise support even from sections of the Arab-Palestinians in Israel, particularly Druze and Bedouin workers and poor. That does not mean that they are based on the fundamental interests of those groups.

In opposition to ideas promoting the ‘normalisation’ of the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians – including the economic and military relations between the Palestinian Authority and the Netanyahu government – the Marxist left should advance a campaign against national oppression, as well as dialogue and joint struggles, especially of workers, on both sides of the national divide. This would help clarify the broad interests in a struggle against Israeli capitalism and for a new society free of any national discrimination.

The basic political programme of the Socialist Struggle Movement is for a struggle to eradicate all forms of discrimination and oppression in society and for a socialist society internationally. However, it is not enough to speak only about the future socialist society, especially considering the centrality of the national struggle of the Palestinians and of the national conflict. A programme which recognises an equal right for existence and self-determination – in two socialist states with equal rights for minorities, working voluntarily in a joint framework and as part of a confederation of socialist states in the region – could potentially convince broad layers on both sides of the national divide. It could provide a basis for a joint struggle against Israeli capitalism and for social justice and peace. We do not presumptuously put forward a ready-made map with new borders. That question and others will eventually be decided as a result of democratic processes led by broad movements.

Taking into account the deep gaps in the political perceptions on both sides of the national divide and in the region – and internationally, given the lack of strong working-class socialist parties – and considering the suspicion towards the two states position, the starting point for promoting this programme cannot be identical in every situation and in relation to every audience. But that programme is, in our opinion, objectively necessary today. At the same time, we are open to fruitful discussions on this question with left and socialist movements on both sides of the Green Line and internationally.

Putting forward an alternative

The tendency of some on the left to describe trends of reaction in Israeli society arbitrarily as ‘fascism’ is dangerous politically. It could lead to wrong conclusions about the opportunities and the strategy and tactics required. The terrorism of the Kahanist-fascists (the ideological current identified with their assassinated far-right leader, former MK Meir Kahane) against Palestinians – and against asylum seekers and the left – is a real danger. But those cases that have been covered in the Israeli capitalist press have tended to awaken revulsion among the broad Israeli public. In fact, even the government and the ruling class have had to dissociate themselves from the Kahanists, seeing them as a destabilising factor. The Kahanists are not about to take state power in the near future and are weaker than their Golden Dawn counterparts in Greece, for example. There is more time before armed Kahanist gangs could win mass support, create frenzy on the streets, murder daily and physically crush working-class organisation.

Nevertheless, there is a need for community self-defence formations – democratic and, if necessary, armed – against attacks by settlers, the military and police in Palestinian towns in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and some towns within the Green Line. There is also a need for self-defence formations on certain left-wing demonstrations. At the same time, left and socialist political forces have to propose a way forward politically.

It is clear that organising such a struggle is more complex in the 1967 territories which are under intense and lethal repression – every protester risks imprisonment and death – by the Israeli regime, but also under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The popular mass strike organised by teachers in the West Bank in February/March 2016 was the largest workers’ struggle in recent years in the Authority territories. It succeeded in rocking the bureaucratic trade union, shook the Palestinian Authority – which serves as a subcontractor of the occupation – and brought back on the agenda the perspective for a movement of broader layers.

Developments of this kind may also create the basis for the growth of left and socialist forces able to propose an alternative to the dead-end of the right-wing leaderships of Fatah and Hamas. Advancing the idea of popular assemblies in towns and neighbourhoods could help develop a discussion on strategy, tactics and demands, involving broader layers. They could elect democratic action committees to help organise and lead the struggle, in the spirit of the revolutionary traditions of the first intifada of 1987-93. The history of the Palestinian liberation struggle has seen mass uprisings, and a new generation of activists will rediscover these vital events and the rich lessons they left behind.

The Netanyahu regime does not have sweeping support among the Israeli public. It is clearly weaker than the regime of Ariel Sharon at the height of the second intifada in the early 2000s. In 2011, Netanyahu faced the largest social protest movement in the history of Israel. In the elections in 2013 and 2015 he faced revulsion from relatively wide layers. Despite the clear use of nationalist-racist demagoguery to mobilise voters, Netanyahu has only been able to form a slim coalition majority in the Knesset, although he can rely on a compliant ‘opposition’.

ICL (chemical) workers erupted into action around the 2015 elections, coming into direct conflict with Likud. Later, a struggle of Jewish people from an Ethiopian background, which included Likud supporters, saw the radicalisation of a layer of activists with some drawing leftist conclusions. The protest movement throughout the second half of 2015 against a natural gas extraction plan drawn up by the government saw a series of demonstrations which reflected certain anger with the Netanyahu regime – despite the approach of the pro-capitalist leadership.

The Netanyahu regime receives political aid from reactionary forces in the region, from supposedly ‘opposition’ parties in the Knesset, and from an enlisted nationalist press. These enable it to exploit the security and existential fears of Jewish people. But the ongoing escalation in the conflict also raises some doubts and questions in sections of society. Developments which show potential and achievements for mass movements and for the left regionally and internationally have influenced – as during the so-called ‘Arab spring’ – and will influence the openness to leftist, class and socialist ideas among layers of the working class and middle class in both national groups.

The advancement of principled collaborations between left-wing groups could help to begin to get over the lack of a political force based on the working class, and help to put a socialist alternative on the agenda at the countrywide level. On both sides of the Green Line there is a need for political organisation on an independent class basis, for broad parties which express the plight and interests of the working class. They could offer a way out of the bloody conflict and national oppression of the Palestinians, and of Israeli capitalism. The Socialist Struggle Movement is fully committed to struggle on the basis of a class and internationalist approach for a socialist change – and to the potential of socialist ideas to win support on both sides of the national divide.

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