Socialist Alliance Council debates Israel-Palestine

Submitted by martin on 13 May, 2002 - 10:28

The biggest debate at the Socialist Alliance National Council of 11 May 2002 was on Israel-Palestine. John Rees moved a resolution from the SWP to have the Alliance campaign on the slogans "Victory to the intifada! Freeedom for Palestine!"
His aim, he said, was "to put the Socialist Alliance in a position to be part of the biggest solidarity movement with the Palestinians we have yet seen in this country". Polls have shown public opinion to be very pro-Palestinian, and we must chime in.
Referring to the short resolution which I was to move from Workers' Liberty - for three slogans, Solidarity with the Palestinians, Israel out of the Occupied Territories, and Two Nations Two States - John said it was problematic because it included the "whole programme" of a particular faction in the Alliance. His was more limited. It did not include the SWP's position for Palestine to be reorganised as a (single) "democratic, secular state".
However, it was necessary, John argued, to establish some basic points. Israel, he claimed, is a creation of the imperialist states. It could not last a week without US aid. Israel's aim has consistently been to drive the Palestinians from their land. It is "a state based on systematic exploitation of the Palestinian people".
The conflict in the Middle East is hugely unequal, the highly-armed Israeli forces confronting people with scrappy munitions. "We must not give any ground to the idea of equality in this conflict". We should not condemn the Palestinian suicide bombings, but rather than the Israeli policies which put Palestinians in such a position that those are their only way to resist oppression.
Martin Wicks moved a motion from Swindon SA which called only for the Alliance to campaign for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and to boycott Israel goods. He did not dissent from John's basic picture of the issues. "It is extraordinary", said Martin, "to have comrades arguing for the right of the Israeli Jewish nation to exist. It is one of the most oppressive systems in the world". However, Martin argued that the Council should prefer his more concrete, practical resolution to John Rees's much longer one.
I moved the resolution for "Two Nations, Two States". The Alliance should focus on the immediate demands of the PLO and the Israeli refuseniks. Israel should get out of the occupied territories and thus allow the Palestinians form an independent state of their own. In other words, "two nations, two states".
We argue for a broader framework - a socialist federation of the Middle East - but those are the immediate steps. "Two nations, two states" is not a doctrinaire invocation of a blueprint for the distant future, but a compact expression of the most immediate practical demands.
The problem of doctrinairism comes from the comrades who reject "two nations, two states" because their overriding concern is to deny the right of Israel to exist.
A single democratic secular state in Palestine? Very desirable. But it can be democratic only if both nations freely agree to it, on the basis of both having self-determination.
The Israeli Jewish people have rights. They are a compact community. Most live in Israel because they were born there; most of their parents and grandparents came as refugees fleeing persecution. We want Israel, like every other state, to stop oppressing other peoples and to give equality to the minority in its borders. But socialists and democrats cannot subscribe to reactionary doctrines of "collective guilt", or desire to abolish nations by force. We are for equal rights for all nations - including the Israeli Jews.
For the Alliance to boycott Israeli goods would put us in tow to the Arab states' long boycott campaign and to anti-semites who target Jewish-linked businesses like Marks and Spencer.
From the floor, John Fisher said that supporting the right of Israel to exist was like supporting the creation of a special Muslim state in the Indian subcontinent (Pakistan, in 1947) or supporting apartheid in South Africa. Mark Hoskisson told me that I made no mistake in seeing John Rees's motion as implying the destruction of Israel: he, Mark, was forthright about wanting the "break-up of the Israeli state" which is an "apartheid state". (The paper of Mark's faction, Workers' Power, expresses this as a demand "that the USA and its vicious little colony is thrown out of the Middle East", though suggesting that anti-"Zionist" Jews - or at least "courageous" anti-Zionists - could remain as equal individual citizens). John Baxter argued that "Victory to the intifada" is already popular among British Asian youth, and so we should prioritise that slogan.
There were other voices. Marcus Strom said the Israeli Jews have rights just the same as other settler nations, in the Americas or Australasia. It is not true that the Israeli state was created by British and US imperialism. In fact, it was formed by the Jews fighting a war against British imperialism. This flat statement of historical fact drew much groaning and head-shaking from the meeting, but no-one ventured to contradict it. I suppose it is that many comrades' minds are so set in terms of the "imperialist camp" and the "anti-imperialist camp" that they think that to note that the Jewish forces were fighting British imperialism in the 1940s means endorsing everything they did. It doesn't.
Pat Yarker argued that our baseline should be working-class unity. Only a programme of equal rights can unite Jewish and Arab workers. The Israeli Jews are not a thin elite of exploiters and privileged layers, like the whites in apartheid South Africa. 86% of the labour in Israel is Jewish labour.
Andy Gibbons said that the Alliance should condemn the suicide bombers. A comrade from Brent argued that "suicide bombing" is a misnomer. "Targetting civilians" is the proper term. Blowing up cafes and snooker halls is neither the only, nor indeed any, way of combatting the Israeli military machine. Declan O'Neill said he was satisfied with none of the motions, and thought that the Alliance was trying to take a position on a complex question too fast. Margaret Manning said that we should try to connect with Israeli workers.
To oppose the policies of a state, I said in summing-up, is entirely different from denying the national rights of the people of that state. The Alliance rightly opposes the USA's plans for war against Iraq, on the grounds of the rights of the Iraqi people. Yet Iraq's regime is certainly more hideous than Israel's, its treatment of the Kurds certainly worse than Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. We should support equal rights in Israel-Palestine.
"Martin is very opposed to fundamentalism", said John Rees in his summing-up. Well, John too was opposed to fundamentalist states like Iran. But, he said, there is a fundamentalist state much better-armed, and much more dangerous, than Iran. That is Israel. We should oppose it.
Since that was the last speech in the debate, there was no chance to ask John what he meant by calling Israel a "fundamentalist" state. Despite many grievous concessions granted to the minority religious parties in Israel, it is actually the most secular and pluralist state in the Middle East. And if it weren't? We do not respond to the crimes of the Islamic Republic by demanding that Iran be wiped off the map, but by solidarising with "the other Iran" of workers, socialists, and democrats.
Some uncontentious amendments to the SWP motion were carried. Two separate attempts to install "Solidarity with the Palestinians/ Israel out of the Occupied Territories" as slogans of the Alliance, from Andy Gibbons and from Terry Conway, both fell, as did Martin Wicks' motion proposing "Israel out" as the Alliance's main campaign theme.
The addition of the demand for a (single) "democratic secular state" in Palestine, proposed in slightly different variants by Margaret Manning and Mark Hoskisson, also fell.
Most shockingly, to my mind, Andy Gibbons' amendment on the suicide bombings fell. It condemned, or rather criticised, the suicide bombings in the mildest possible terms - "suicide bombings are not the way forward for the Palestinian people" - but was heavily defeated. My motion for "Two Nations, Two States" was also defeated.
The Council decided to schedule four conferences, or day events, under the auspices of the Alliance for the coming months.
In September (probably) we will have a special conference on Europe. The prime reason for this is that sections of the Alliance, specifically the SWP, want to change the Alliance's policy decided in March 2001 - "neither advocate the euro, nor defend the pound" - so that the Alliance can campaign for a "no" vote in a referendum on the euro.
Many of us think we should stick with the March 2001 position, and advocate spoiled ballots or a boycott in a referendum. However, it will be good to have a thorough debate on the issue.
Also in September (probably) will be a trade-union "activists' day". Around November or December the Socialist Alliance will call a youth conference on "New Imperialism, New Internationalism". The proposal for this, from Mandy Baker, says that the conference should be organised in cooperation with Globalise Resistance and No Sweat.
Then, around February, the Alliance will have its Annual General Meeting.
Earlier in the day, the National Council had a long discussion on the local government elections. Jim Jepps from Colchester and Patrick Yarker both spoke strongly in favour of door-to-door canvassing as a way to build a base of support. Many speakers noted that candidates with roots as local campaigners in their wards had done much better. Several reported creditable votes won by candidates improvised at the last minute, and argued we could have done much better with better planning and a more positive approach from early on.
Ironically, in view of the Palestine debate later in the day, Rachel Cohen from Sheffield reported that the best result in the city had been achieved by Alison Brown, an AWL member, partly because the Yemeni community in her ward responded well to Alison's stance in support of the Palestinians. Rachel and other speakers noted that the Alliance had generally had poor results in run-down, less-cosmopolitan, heavily-white working-class areas. We need to start systematic work in those areas.
It was disappointing to have Rob Hoveman, SA secretary, say in his summing-up that *nothing* could be learned from the experience of the Independent Working Class Association, a small group which got one councillor elected and scored high votes in a few other areas. It is true that the IWCA veers towards a populist and parochialist stance of hostility to "anti-social elements" and "the middle class" rather than to capital, but can we not learn from their consistent attention to the concerns of working-class communities and the positive response they get to the core idea of working-class political representation?
The Council also adopted standing orders. Notice of Council meetings must be submitted four weeks in advance, motions 16 days in advance, and amendments seven days in advance. The next National Council is on 7 September, in Birmingham. In future the meeting place will alternate between Birmingham and London.

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