|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Israel/Palestine after Sharon
ARIEL SHARON’S massive stroke on 4 January brought widespread political instability to Israel, changing the nature of the general election due on 28 March. However, this is merely the latest in a series of rollercoaster developments in Israel and Palestine.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has witnessed growing political chaos as the planned end-of-January general elections loom. The PA, made up of leaders of the Fatah organisation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), is almost powerless, its politicians regarded as corrupt and weak. The World Bank representative in the West Bank gave a press interview in January where he said that the PA would be bankrupt by the end of February and unable to pay its 130,000 representatives.
By contrast, the Islamic Hamas made sweeping local electoral gains throughout the year. Frictions within Fatah and between it and split-away militias have led to serious armed clashes in the southern part of the Gaza strip in the last few weeks. Here a nascent civil war already exists. Society teeters on the edge of complete disintegration as a result of years of corrupt PA leadership and decades of occupation by the Israel Defence Force (IDF).
In recent years, pressure has built up on Israel’s ruling class from different quarters concerning its oppression of the Palestinians. It has come from US imperialism, the impossibility of crushing the Palestinians militarily, and from the social instability caused by the IDF occupation of Palestinian territory.
Also, the Palestinian population is growing faster than the Israeli Jewish one and will soon overtake it in the combined area covered by Israel and the PA. This led Sharon and most of the Israeli ruling class to change their historic position on the building of a Greater Israel (involving the annexation of the Gaza strip and West Bank).
US imperialism is desperate to make the region more stable to protect its own strategic interests. It has withdrawn its opposition to the building of the separation wall around the West Bank and accepted that the major Israeli Jewish settlements there will remain. However, the Bush administration has pressed for some appearance of concessions from above to attempt to prevent an explosion from below.
Yet, Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza in August has not alleviated the Palestinian masses’ poverty and oppression. Genuine national liberation for the Palestinian people has never been on offer from this so-called ‘peacemaker’.
Sharon has been portrayed as an Israeli De Gaulle, the military hard-liner and French president who withdrew from French-occupied Algeria, after a vicious attempt to crush the mass struggle for national liberation against French colonial occupation.
The Gaza withdrawal, however, has been used as camouflage for stepping up the oppression of the Palestinians in other areas. At the same time, the Sharon government speeded up the building of the 620 km long separation wall surrounding and dividing the West Bank. This wall has isolated 242,000 Palestinians, or 10% of the population, in the closed military zone between Israel’s border and the western side of the wall. Thousands more hectares of Palestinian land have been confiscated. In the month following the Gaza withdrawal, the IDF carried out 30 assassinations and 1,000 raids in the West Bank. While 8,500 settlers were moved out of Gaza, room was made for 30,000 more in the West Bank. It is no surprise, therefore, that one of Sharon’s advisers, Dov Weisglass, said the Gaza disengagement plan was to freeze or put in "formaldehyde" US president Bush’s "road map" plan for "peace".
Sharon’s position was strengthened by the withdrawal from Gaza. However, this was overshadowed by a political earthquake which rocked the country in November: Amir Peretz, leader of the Histadruth trade union federation, won the contest for Labour Party leader on the basis of promising radical reforms. Peretz is the first working-class Sephardic Jew ever to win this position.
These events, and the change in tactics by the ruling class, influenced Sharon’s decision to resign as leader of the right-wing Likud, create a new political party called Kadima (Forward), and to call new elections for late March. Opinion polls predicted that Sharon would win the elections comfortably.
Sharon had hinted that if he won the elections a further unilateral withdrawal from more isolated Israeli Jewish settlements in the West Bank could take place, leading to a final imposed settlement on the Palestinians.
But all this has changed. Sharon has suffered severe brain damage. Most commentators believe his political career is over and have praised his role as a ‘peacemaker’. However, Sharon comes from the most reactionary section of the Israeli ruling class, which has always proposed brutal military tactics as a response to all opposition by the Palestinian and Arab masses to their oppression.
Most notoriously, Sharon was defence minister during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon when the infamous massacre in Sabra and Chatila Palestinian refugee camps took place. Sharon was found "personally responsible" by an official Israeli government commission for the massacre. Evidence pointed to the fact that Sharon encouraged the reactionary Phalange militia to enter the camps in retaliation for the assassination of their leader, Bashir Gemayel.
Throughout his career, Sharon supported the views of the most reactionary sections of the Israeli ruling class: he voted against a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979; he opposed the Oslo agreement; while his highly controversial visit to the third most holy Muslim site in the world, the Al-Haram Ash-Sharif/Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was the catalyst for the second intifada.
Since then, the impossibility of crushing an entire people’s struggle for national liberation has been brought home to the Israeli ruling class. The withdrawal from Gaza was one result.
But now the ruling class’s plans are frozen as a vacuum opens up in Israel. The media adulation of Sharon is intended to whip up national unity and prevent damaging divisions during this precarious time for the ruling class. Sharon has been remade as a ‘grandfather of the nation’, someone who even overshadows Ben-Gurion, Israel’s famous first prime minister. It is clear that sections of the ruling class are in effect whipping up a sympathy vote for Kadima in advance of Sharon’s possible death.
This has had an effect on the standing of the party. Opinion polls have seen an increase in support for Kadima, giving it potentially 42 seats after the next general election.
Israeli capitalist politics is by nature one where individuals play a major role. In the case of Kadima, however, this is taken to extremes. Its regulations state that there would be no leadership elections before the general election and that all the candidates would be chosen by Sharon himself. Leading Kadima figures are concerned that, in Sharon’s absence, the party could tear itself to pieces while choosing its election list.
Other parties could gain from these difficulties. Likud’s new leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, may benefit. However, he is deeply unpopular because of his vicious neo-liberal policies as Likud finance minister.
The situation could open up for Peretz. However, he appears for the moment to have turned to the right since his election. His shadow finance minister in a recent press conference announced that if elected Peretz would not roll back the pension ‘reforms’, would only raise the minimum wage in consultation with the bosses, and even then by a small amount. Worst of all, he said that Peretz would continue with the same vicious neo-liberal policies practised by Netanyahu. This perhaps explains why the opinion polls give Peretz only 16 seats at present, down from 31 when he was first elected.
What is desperately needed on both sides of the national divide are movements with leaderships which represent the genuine interests of the working class, both Palestinian and Israeli. These would have to struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by democratic socialism.
Sharon’s record shows all that is on offer by capitalism in the Middle East today: bloodshed, brutality and war. A struggle for socialism would, by comparison, provide the conditions for peaceful co-existence and harmony.