Unravelling the issues

Submitted by AWL on 24 February, 2004 - 2:26

Why a Palestinian Arab state?

The Palestinian Arabs are a defeated people, the main victims of the Jewish-Arab war of 1948.

The root problem of the Palestinian Arabs is their dispossession by the Israeli Jews. However, their condition today is not just Israel's responsibility, and it cannot be mended by seeking revenge on Israel.

The fact that many Palestinians continue today as refugees is also to be explained by intra-Arab politics, and by the desire of various Arab states to have them as a living indictment of Israel. The remnant of Palestine allotted to the Arabs by the UN in 1947 was not unilaterally taken over by Israel, but divided by agreement between Israel and Jordan, most of it going to Jordan. Palestinians have suffered discrimination in the Arab states where they live, and massacres at the hands of Jordan, Syria, and Christian Arabs in Lebanon.

The Palestinians desperately need to establish their own state. The PLO wants a fully independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, territories occupied by Israel.

Israel will not easily agree to this. The large number of Israeli settlements built in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 - in a deliberate political effort to establish claims to permanent Israeli control - stand as an obstacle. But while merging the Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish nations by decree in a "secular democratic state" is impossible, an independent Palestinian state can be won by struggle on the basis of justice for both Jews and Arabs. Those who want to help the Palestinians should argue for it.

Is a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza viable?

No small state is viable on its own in the modern world economy. In fact, not even large states are viable as sealed-off units, except on a much lower economic level than capitalism has so far achieved.

But small nations can and should have the right to political independence. If the Irish, why not the Palestinians?

An independent Palestinian state would be much weaker and poorer economically than Israel. Socialists and consistent democrats are in favour of reparations and aid to an independent Palestinian state from Israel, from the US, from Europe, and from the wealthy Arab states.

But there is no way, under capitalism, to equalise all nations economically. Even the best democratic settlement will not end inequality, exploitation and misery. Socialists argue for a democratic settlement, not as a self-sufficient "stage" which must be completed before any struggle for socialism starts, but as part of a programme for uniting Arab and Jewish workers to fight simultaneously for democracy and for socialism.

The Middle East's huge oil wealth should be used rationally, to enable a good life for all rather than to bloat some and to tantalise others. That can be done only through a socialist federation of the Middle East, with full rights to self-determination for all national minorities.

Support for the oppressed

Socialists must side with the oppressed against their oppressors.

For that reason, in general, we side with the Palestinian Arabs against Israeli oppression. However, to side with an oppressed people should not mean that we adopt all the views of their majority, which may well be one-sided or even chauvinist.

The Jews were oppressed in the 20th century more than any other people. Yet socialists could not subscribe to the chauvinist attitudes towards the Palestinian Arabs which the majority of Jews in Israel/Palestine developed in their search to escape from and build guarantees against oppression.

Nor can we support the views of Palestinian Arabs who argue for the destruction of Israel. As Lenin put it: "We fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation, and do not in any way condone strivings for privilege on the part of the oppressed nation".


Many good left-wing slogans and concepts are abused and turned back-to-front and inside-out when used in discussions about Israel.

"Self-determination" is one of those. For Marxists, it means that every nation, or fragment of a nation, should have the democratic right of determining what state it should adhere to - its own, or some other one. It is one practical application of the basic Marxist idea which Lenin called "consistent democracy".

"Self-determination" can be a way of demanding that the Palestinian Arabs have a right to their own state, side by side with Israel. But it has also been used (and still is) by those who deny the right of the Israeli Jews to have a state at all.

It thus becomes a way of advocating, not the democratic rights of all nations to self-determination, but that the Palestinian Arabs should have the sole right to determine what happens in all of pre-1948 Palestine - including what happens to the Jews. It is turned into its opposite - from a profoundly democratic demand, to a claim that one nation should determine what happens to another, and an assertion that one of the two nations in conflict has no rights at all.

A secular democratic state?

In 1969 the Palestine Liberation Organisation proposed the scheme of reuniting Palestine in a "secular democratic state" where the Arabs who were expelled or fled Israeli territory in the war of 1948 would exercise their collective "right of return", but Jews would have the rights of a religious minority.

In 1988 the PLO dropped that policy in favour of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. But some people on the left still continue to advocate the old PLO programme. What is wrong with it?

Socialists want every state to be secular and democratic. What is special about the "secular, democratic state" slogan for Israel-Palestine is the proposal to merge the two nations in one state, and the idea that religious-minority rights should be sufficient to satisfy the Israeli Jews' desire for collective guarantees.

We are for a free socialist federation of the Middle East. We are for the maximum unity between nations.

But the idea that you could integrate, say, France and Germany, on the territory occupied by one of them, just by promising that the united state would be "secular and democratic", is self-evidently ludicrous. In Palestine the proposal for a joint "secular democratic state" amounts to a scheme for immediately merging two nations who have related to each other through repeated bitter war for more than half a century. It is an utopian absurdity. National identities and conflicts will not be overcome or superseded by decree. A joint "secular democratic state" could be established only after - long after - the conflict between the two nations had been resolved and allowed to fade by some other settlement.

More than that. It is inconceivable that the Israeli Jews would agree to dismantle their state in return for a promise of equal citizenship within an Arab state, let alone mere "religious minority rights". So the road to a "secular democratic state" would have to lie through war and full-scale conquest of the Jews.

And then what? Then the victorious armies (of Iraq, Syria, Iran?) will gallantly establish and protect the rights of the Jews as individuals in an Arab state?

In reality such a conquest would be resisted to the death by the Jews. It could not happen without driving the Jews out or massacring them.

The "secular democratic state" slogan was much more attractive and internationally "saleable" than the programme of "driving the Jews into the sea" that Yasser Arafat's predecessor Ahmed Shukhairy used to advocate in the 1960s. For many people, the "secular democratic state" slogan seemed also to represent a different intention and aspiration.

But it cannot be taken at face value. Its only practical political meaning is as an ultimatum behind which is posed a fearsome "or else".

Immediately it is refused by Israel and "the Zionists", it translates into a moralistic-political denunciation of those who refuse. They are "exposed". That "exposure" then becomes a warrant for the military destruction of the Israeli state, the subjugation of the citizens of Israel, and the forcible removal from those who survive conquest of all national rights - and, most likely, in order to sustain that removal of national rights, the removal of civil liberties too.


Socialist internationalism means that the working class has no fatherland, and that workers in every country have more in common with each other than with their own capitalists and landlords. It is the opposite of chauvinism and national exclusiveness. Yet this idea, too, is misused.

Some people, rightly condemning Israeli Jewish chauvinism, wrongly draw the conclusion that the Israeli Jewish nation has no right to exist. Marxists should indeed condemn all chauvinism, Jewish and Arab alike. The problem here is that Arab chauvinism is dealt with on the left very differently. It is merely condemned as a bad set of ideas, not taken as a proof that no Arab state should exist.

Thus internationalism is used as a weapon in support of one of the competing nationalisms or chauvinisms against the other - for the Arabs, and against the Jewish nation.

The very idea of the Israeli Jews wanting their own nation-state is hypocritically condemned on the grounds that we should not be concerned with national identities. Yet the Palestinian Arabs' desire for a state is applauded on the grounds of the right of nations to self-determination.

Internationalism is turned into the servant of an Arab-nationalist or Islamicist programme of revenge and conquest. It is used to justify the project of destroying the existing Israeli Jewish state and subjugating the Israeli Jewish nation. Internationalism is turned upside down, into a justification for chauvinism.

The Arab workers

Some socialists say that they are for the destruction of Israel, but by the Arab workers, in the course of a socialist revolution, and not by the existing Arab states.

But how will the workers in the Arab states unite, without a democratic programme that recognises the rights of the minorities in their region? If they did unite, and seized ownership and control of the vast wealth in the Arab world, notably the oil industry, what reason other than Islamist or Arab chauvinism could they have to want to conquer the small part of the region, relatively poor in resources, which is occupied by the Israeli Jews? What reason do these socialists have for preaching hostility to Israel now (as they do) when there is no united, revolutionary, and socialist Arab working class confronting it?

Socialism is the answer?

Yes, socialism is the answer. But this phrase is sometimes used to evade the issues.

Socialism can only be made by the working class. And the working class can make socialism only if the workers of different nations can find a common answer to national conflicts. Socialism will not automatically dissolve national conflicts.

The Russian Marxists in 1917 did not suppose that once they had made a socialist revolution they no longer needed to say anything about national conflicts. They argued for workers of different nationalities to adopt a common formula to resolve the national conflicts that rent the old Russian Empire. A central part of that formula was the right of nations to self-determination.

Wherever a people, or a fragment of a people, was oppressed or feared oppression, the socialist policy was for the workers of all nations concerned to unite on the basis of the right of that community to join whatever neighbouring state they wished, or to have their own state.

Such a policy is needed, as well as the direct socialist programme, in the Middle East. We propose a free socialist federation of the Middle East with full rights for all national minorities, including the Jews.

The Israeli workers

Implicit in the argument that "the answer" in the Middle East is a socialist revolution made by the Arab workers is the idea that the Israeli workers can play no positive role.

A quarter of a million Israelis demonstrated - the comparable figure, proportional to population, in Britain would be six million - in 1982 to protest at the massacre carried out by Lebanese Christians in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila, in an area under Israeli army control. Within Israel, there is a peace movement pushing for compromise with the Arabs. It wins more support at some times and less at others. Some sections of it are more consistent than others. Right now it is marginalised by the failure of the peace negotiations in 2000. But nevertheless it is always vocal.

Not all the peace activists are workers, by any means, but some are. Israel has an independent trade union movement and Israeli workers have organised large strikes. The trade unions organise Israeli Arab workers too.

Despite all this, many on the left refuse to see any good in any Israeli Jew except perhaps the very exceptional one who will agree that Israel should dissolve itself - who, in other words, is prepared to become an honorary Arab, or to emigrate.

At the root of the inability to see any good in any Israeli is the refusal to recognise the right of the Israeli Jewish nation to exist. If you do not recognise the right of the nation to exist, then you can hardly see any role for its working class.

Click here for Part 2 of 'Unravelling the issues'.

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