Moshe Machover on Israel-Palestine. Two states - or no hope for either nation?

Submitted by martin on 19 November, 2008 - 10:02 Author: Sean Matgamna

In two previous articles, I have responded to Moshe Machover's polemic against my discussion piece from July, "What If Israel Bombs Iran?". There remains to consider Moshe Machover's proposed solution to the Arab-Jewish conflict, his programme.

I have in the articles noted such strange things in Moshe Machover's polemic as his description of the USA as "humanity's worst enemy" and his nod - to put it its weakest - towards the notion of a manipulative Zionist conspiracy operating in the background of 20th century history and controlling events. No less strange is his programme for solving the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

What Moshe Machover counterposes to the two-states programme is the destruction, in different ways, of both the Israeli Jewish and the Palestinian nations!

He expounds it in a text he recommended to his readers in his first polemic, the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust Lecture which he gave in 2006.

"What I propose to discuss here", he explains, "is resolution rather than palliatives... various steps that can be taken to ameliorate the present dire situation, in which great suffering is caused to millions of human beings – mostly to Palestinians, but also to many Israelis... pressure must be applied on Israel to end its military occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Syrian Golan Heights. But... so long as its causes are not eliminated, the conflict will persist; any amelioration is likely to be no more than a lull, followed by another violent eruption".

So he is not against "palliatives". But he holds that they will produce no more than "a lull". His main argument is that there is no hope for a real political settlement in the world as it exists now or is likely to exist in the "medium term". He is utterly defeatist for the Palestinians.

He tells us his preconditions for a settlement:

"First and foremost, equal rights. By this I mean not only equal individual rights for all... but also... equal collective rights, national rights, for the two national groups actually involved: the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Hebrews. [Otherwise] one of these groups will be underprivileged, subjugated and oppressed."

How will those equal rights be arranged? Two states?

"Two states"

No! Against that, Moshe Machover insists on "the right of return: recognition of the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland, to be rehabilitated and properly compensated for loss of property and livelihood... The only argument voiced against it is that it would jeopardize the ‘Jewish character’ of Israel, or, in plain language, its ethnocratic constitution as a settler state. But to accept this argument would amount to capitulation to Zionist ideology".

Here Machover uses definitions that are either spurious, or about things common to most states, to brand Israel an illegitimate nation and deny it the right to exist. He calls what is in other people national identity "ethnocratic constitution as a settler state". He elevates refusal to "capitulate to Zionist ideology" to a governing and shaping principle in the search for a solution!

The "right of return" - of organised collective resettlement and repossession - by up to five million people, almost as many as the existing population of Israel, has long been understood on both sides as another way of expressing opposition to Israel Jewish self-determination and to Israel's right to exist.

Moshe Machover makes the end of the self-determination of the Israeli Jewish nation a precondition for any "settlement" between Israel and the Palestinians. After that, he will suggest, may come some approved form of Hebrew self-determination; but only after.

Further: "The third and most fundamental element in a genuine resolution is removal of the fundamental cause of the conflict: the Zionist colonisation project must be superseded. This means not only de-Zionisation of Israel, but also repudiation of the Zionist claim that the Jews at large, constituting a ‘diasporic nation’, have a special right in – let alone over – the ‘Land of Israel’."

This is on a par for irrelevance with Moshe Machover's seriously archaic commitment to Arab unity, which I will discuss below! He makes the end of Jewish immigration a precondition for a settlement between the existing Jewish nation and the Palestinians.

Certainly some immigrants from the old Stalinist world have been used as settler-fodder by the colonising movement in the West Bank. That settler movement will be ended in an agreement to set up a fully independent Palestinian state. After that, the immigration policy of Israel is surely the business of its citizens.

Here too, Moshe Machover makes negating "Zionist ideology" his overriding consideration, rather than the possibilities for reconciliation and working-class unity.

"No genuine resolution is possible in the short or medium term", he continues. Why? "Because of the enormous disparity in the balance of power... Any settlement will inevitably impose harsh oppressive conditions on the weaker side. To expect anything else would be wildly unrealistic".

This doctrine would make the resolution of any situation of colonial oppression "impossible". Ireland was always weaker than Britain, for example.

So we should reject a weak Palestinian state? In the name of what? In the name of a solution in a different world, where all the conditions he lists are radically altered. That is the ideal answer. Now and "in the medium term" we are left with rejection in the name of... the terrible status quo!

In the categorisation of the Marxist movement, this is a species of "imperialist economism" - the rejection of the struggle for national rights on the grounds that such things are bound to be imperfect, and count for nothing, in a world dominated by imperialist giants.

"In these circumstances [today's and the medium-term future's] any 'two-state settlement' is bound to be a travesty: not two real sovereign states (let alone two equal ones) but one powerful Israeli state dominating a disjointed set of Palestinian enclaves similar to Indian Reservations, policed by corrupt elites acting as Israel’s proxies".

Why is it not possible to argue for a Palestinian state in contiguous territory? Like everything else, it is hopeless. "The virulent malignant metastasis of Israeli colonisation, and the weakening of the Palestinian Authority under Israeli pounding and international strangulation" is irresistible.

This is simply defeatism - accepting the probable destruction of the Palestinian nation. Moshe Machover, from his watch-tower in Britain, throws in the towel on behalf of the Palestinians!

In another world

But Moshe Machover does have a programme - one not for this, but for a very different world. "Given the actual imbalance of power, a single state embracing the whole of Palestine will be no better than an extension of direct Israeli military occupation and subjugation. A flaw common to both 'two-state' and 'one-state' formulas is that they are confined to the 'box' of Palestine – the territory of the British Mandate from 1923 to 1948... This box was purpose-made for Zionist colonization, the root cause of the conflict".

Moshe Machover makes pan-Arab unity and a change in the world balance of forces the precondition for anything seriously better than now for the Palestinians.

"Two interconnected and mutually reinforcing processes will be vital for changing the present balance of power. First, decline in American global dominance, and in particular in the ability of the US to go on backing Israeli regional hegemony without incurring unacceptable economic and political costs. Second, a radical-progressive social, economic and political transformation of the Arab East, leading to a degree of unification of the Arab nation – most likely in the form of regional federation".

Then everything will be different. "The task will then be to accommodate these two groups [the Palestinian Arabs and the Hebrews] in the regional union or federation. Borders will become internal demarcations within the federation, and will be drawn accordingly. We cannot foresee what they will be, but they need by no means conform to those that have existed so far".

This is a programme for an epoch, or possibly two epochs. And how does Moshe Machover knows that the new world balance of power after the hegemony of the US declines will be well-disposed to Jews, or Palestinians? The history is one of Arab states - Syria, Jordan, Lebanon - butchering Palestinians and denying them rights.

Meanwhile? No hope at all for the Palestinians - neither a two-states nor a one-state solution. The practical Palestinian conclusion might well be to migrate far away - if they can! Which is what the worst Israeli chauvinists advocate!

The vapid historical philosophising here, and the ultra-left rejection of anything that is - perhaps - possible, come down to despair and an implied advice to Palestinians who want to resist despair that they should give up and migrate.

It is a fact of history that most of the 1940s Israeli Trotskyists who denied the right of the Jewish state to exist and had no hope of anything better simply packed their bags and left. That was not an option for most of the Jewish people then.

It is not an option for the Palestinians now.

There is no hope in Moshe's recommended future history for the Israeli Jewish nation either. It is, he seems to say, a case of the "mutual ruination" of the contending peoples. The Palestinian Arab state cannot come into existence, and the Hebrew state does not deserve to continue existing (as Moshe put it in his first polemic) "in anything like its present form".

I have not come across anything like this policy apart from a 1947 piece by Ernest Mandel predicting, and passively accepting as inevitable, the imminent destruction of Jews throughout the world [2].

Workers' unity

Now, of course, the programme for the Middle East, and specifically for the Jewish-Arab conflict, which you support and advocate will naturally shape and inform your attitude to events. Socialists want a socialist Middle East. Marxist socialists believe that a socialist Middle East can be created only by the working class there, by the Arab workers and the workers of the minority peoples there, Jews, Kurds, Persians, etc.

The question of questions is, how do we get from where we are now, from where the workers of the region and of its different states are now, politically, to the point where the working class is actively fighting to create a socialist Middle East and thus to solve such seemingly intractable conflicts as that between the Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab peoples.

In terms of its size and weight in the economy and society, the working class of the region could easily create a socialist Middle East. If right now we could magic a revolution in the political consciousness of the working class, overnight so to speak, then the whole situation in the region would be transformed, if not overnight, then very quickly, by a socialist revolution.

In fact, of course, the possibilities are limited by the political consciousness of the workers in the region. Overwhelmingly the working class is in politics subordinate to bourgeois and petty-bourgeois and regressive theocratic political forces.

In the past there were strong Communist Parties in a number of countries - in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iran. At a number of points there were powerful working-class movements and mobilisations. In the late 1970s and into the early 1980s there were huge movements of the working class in Iran. There is a working-class movement there now.

We do not have magic, but we do have proposals, a programme, for transforming the consciousness of the working class. We advocate socialism, but not only socialism. We propose immediate and practical measures which fall short of socialism but which, focusing and developing the political consciousness of the workers, would bring socialism into the realm of possibilities. We propose democratic measures that can transform the consciousness of the working class.

That is what "two states" means for us. It is not primarily advice to governments - though in realistic calculations progress now depends heavily on governments, in the first place action by the US government to compel Israel to accept a Palestinian state - but a programme which socialist workers on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side could agree as a basis for their peaceful and friendly co-existence. It means Jewish workers championing the right of the Palestinians to a fully independent state of their own, and Palestinian and other Arab and Muslim workers agreeing to the existence of the Israeli Jewish state.

"Two states" is a necessary part of any socialist programme for the region, for a democratic socialist federation or whatever. Any Palestinian or Arab working-class movement that does not recognise the right of Israel to exist is a chauvinist movement. The Jewish working-class movement that does not champion the rights of the Arab minority in Israel, and fight for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories to get their own fully independent state, is a chauvinist movement.


Yet to draw a neat parallel sign between chauvinist Jews and chauvinist Arabs (or Iranians) is misleading here. The right to go on existing of the established Arab states, and Iran, is not in question and not threatened. That of the Jewish state is.

Israeli military might means that it is not in military fact threatened now; but without Israeli will and ability to resist, the right of Israel and the Hebrew nation to go on existing would be under military threat.

Even now, after sixty years, only three Arab states (Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania) recognise Israel. The mass movements of political Islam, including Hamas among the Palestinians, have it as their programme to put Israel out of existence.

In an earlier article I cited Frederick Engels's comment at the end of the 19th century that Poles and Irish had a duty to be nationalists before they were internationalists. It is a precondition of the existence of their nation that the Israeli Jewish working class are "nationalists" and support the defence of their own state.

Jewish working-class chauvinism begins much further out in the continuum from nationalism to chauvinism. It begins at the point where the nationalism of the Jewish workers leads them to indifference, opposition, or hostility to the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination.

In the last decade we have seen, again and again, how the Israeli and Palestinian chauvinists goad and promote each other. Nonetheless socialists - those "on the ground" - must advocate co-existence in two states.

A programme for a Middle East socialist federation must include this "two states" programme, build on it. A programme which accepts as one of its prerequisites the conquest and dismantling of Israel and the dispossession of the Hebrew nation is not a socialist programme at all, but an Arab-chauvinist or Islamic-chauvinist programme.

The idea that retributive and "redistributive" justice demands the dismantling of the Jewish state is a poisonous piece of Arab or Islamic chauvinism. It is built on the idea that the Hebrew nation is a "bad" nation, an illegitimate people, undeserving of rights.

The "two states" programme is based on the opposite propositions: that there is no such thing as an illegitimate nation or a bad people; that the Israeli Jewish nation as well the Palestinian has rights.

The idea that Israel was "seized" from the Arabs is one of the central pillars of the anti-Israeli ideologising that poisons the left. National rights are about human communities, not tracts of land. What exists in Israel is overwhelmingly the creation of the Israeli-Jewish people. Some of it is on land bought from Palestinian landlords. Much of it is on reclaimed formerly waste land.

Of course, some of it is on land conquered from the Palestinians in 1948. But there is no end, and no justice, to programmes based on rival groups claiming the land of their forefathers. Today there is no way to do as much justice as possible to both living populations, Jewish and Palestinian, other than "two states".


Moshe Machover's lecture also contains his account of the history of the Arab-Jewish conflict.

A lot of what he says would be acceptable to most Marxists. For instance, he uses the model of a nation employed by the Bolsheviks (that it is an entity with a common language, territory, culture, economy, etc.) illuminatingly to draw the distinction between what he calls the Hebrew nation and the Jewish diaspora. Yet even there, it seems to me, he goes wrong by using the bedrock Marxist categories in such a way as to lop off aspects of modern Jewry and modern Jewish history that do not fit.

He skews his view of Israel. He emphasises what, as a Zionist colonising enterprise, it has in common with other European colonising enterprises.

He states: "Saying that Zionism was and is a colonizing project and Israel is a settler state, a colonist state, is not a matter of value judgement but a plain statement of fact". But "statements of fact", in the way they are presented, imply pre-existing value judgements.

Moshe Machover emphasises particular features of Israel which accentuate the bad connotations of the "settler colonial state" description, and downplays the unique character of Israel as a refuge for people fleeing persecution, many of them fleeing for their lives. There is a "value judgement" attached to the statement of that unique character which cuts across the "value judgement" attached to the "settler colonial state".

In a limited space, I will focus on a few examples of what is wrong with Moshe Machover's account of the history.

One of the roots of the historical demonisation of Zionism and Israel on which the poisonous kitsch left account is mounted is the identification of Zionism with imperialism. Moshe Machover describes the Zionist settlement in Palestine as Europe's "rampart against Asia", or Britain's "little loyal Jewish Ulster".

To put it at its weakest, this grossly oversimplifies a series of complex questions. Yes, the Zionist project has depended on the relations of the Zionist movement, and then of the growing Jewish population in Palestine, with a series of imperialist powers in possession of or with interests in the region - first the Turkish Empire, then Britain, and now the USA. It is fact that in the 1930s the attitude of the Trotskyists to the Zionist enterprise was determined by their condemnation of the alliance of the Jewish colonists with British imperialism which the Zionist project entailed.

And yet the relations of the Zionists with Britain were anything but a straightforward alliance, with the Jews "subordinate" to and mere "agents" of British imperialism. Eleven years after Britain took control in Palestine, it imposed restrictions on the acquisition of land by Jews there and seriously (through its Labour government) discussed abandoning commitment to a "Jewish national home" there.

In the late 1930s, as war with Germany loomed, Britain found the Jewish colonists a major problem, pushing Arab nationalists towards alignment with Hitler's Germany. Britain imposed very severe limits to Jewish immigration, projecting an end to it after five years.

Thereafter, as the great slaughter was going on in Europe, they interned Jewish "illegal" immigrants.

The Jewish population rose in revolt against Britain in the mid 1940s and forced British withdrawal and a UN decision to create two states, one Jewish and one Arab, in pre-1948 Palestine. (The territory of the UN's proposed Arab Palestinian state was taken in 1948-9 by Jordan, Egypt, and, some of it, by Israel; in the 1967 war Israel took the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt).

In the 1950s and 60s the existence of Israel pushed Arab states like Egypt into alliance with the Stalinist bloc in the international polarisation of that time. The 1973 war, in which Israel was invaded, precipitated the Arab rationing of oil that plunged the advanced capitalist world into economic slump.

And yet the kitsch left - and Moshe Machover - go on as if Israel is primarily a tool of "imperialism". The incidents from history of Zionism collaborating with imperialism are passed on from each anti-Zionist propagandist to his comrades, and so on for generation after generation. Theodor Herzl talked to the anti-semitic Tsarist minister von Plehve, Ben Gurion to Turkish officials, and so on.

It is largely cod history. Take an example from Moshe Machover's exposition: "A little loyal Jewish Ulster". This is one of the quotes that has passed from hand to hand for many decades.

"Jewish Ulster"

Think about it, relate it to the real little loyal Protestant Ulster, and you see how stupid it is. Yes, Ronald Storrs, the British military governor of Jerusalem, did say in 1917 that the Jewish colony could form a "little loyal Jewish Ulster". That is how the Irish situation appeared to him then.

But what in real history did Ulster's "loyalty" mean to the British empire? Nothing but injury! In the 1880s, "little loyal Ulster" revolted against the British Liberal settlement with the Irish nationalists, for Home Rule powers to a Dublin government not much greater than those which would be given to the London County Council in the 1890s.

The Ulster revolt was backed by the Tories, and some Liberals, for a variety of reasons. Some didn't think the Irish would stop at Home Rule. They would want independence and use Home Rule as a stepping stone to it.

"Little loyal Ulster" revolted against the British Liberal government proposal for Irish Home Rule in the period immediately before World War One. Britain seemed on the brink of civil war; that affected German calculations about British capacity and helped bring on the World War. The success of "little loyal Ulster" in baulking Home Rule brought on the nationalist Irish rebellion of 1916, now not for Home Rule but for an independent republic. It brought on the powerful movement for a republic that developed thereafter.

It led to the secession of nationalist Ireland from the UK in 1919, and war in Ireland between republicans and British forces. It led to 26 counties of Ireland winning Dominion status - something vastly greater than Home Rule.

The embitterment in nationalist Ireland caused by the partitioning off of "little loyal Ulster" meant for Britain - leave aside what it meant for Ireland - that its access to the Irish naval bases which it desperately needed in World War Two were frustrated by Irish neutrality.

Major Storrs' "little loyal Ulster" would have served Britain better if it had been less "loyal" in the Home Rule conflict of the 1880s and before World War One.


Moshe Machover sees the question of Israel in a peculiarly anachronistic framework - that of a revolutionary pan-Arabist nationalism that will unite the "Arab nation", i.e. all the states of the Arabs.

Is there an "Arab nation"? There was at the height of Arab nationalism, in the 1960s, a mass cross-state Arab national sentiment. There may be some of that sentiment left.

Commitment to that pan-Arab nationalism was part of the ideology of several states, and led to abortive attempts to unite Egypt and Syria (1958-61). Nothing lasting came of it.

The Trotskyist movement of that time committed itself to the unity of the Arab nation as part of "the Arab revolution". Michel Pablo, Secretary of the Fourth International, wrote a pamphlet 50 years ago on the question entitled The Arab Revolution. The international network led by Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel had a programmatic formula based on that idea: a socialist federation of the Middle East, with "autonomy", "even self-determination", or "self-government" for national minorities such as the Jews and the Kurds. [1]

You will find echoes of those pan-Arabist concerns in AWL's coverage of the Kuwait war of 1991.

The experience of over half a century seems to me to have relegated the "unity of the Arab nation" to the realm of historical might-have-beens. The reality is that the Arab states, with their artificial boundaries drawn by Britain and France after World War One, have proved to be remarkably durable. Even Iraq, which may still break apart, in which often antagonistic elements (Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs) have been bound together, has shown remarkable durability, and in its Arab part at least has a strong specifically Iraqi nationalism.

The various projects by Arab nationalists to unite existing states have all come to nothing. Different sections of the pan-Arabist Ba'th party were in power in Syria and Iraq for four decades, but the Ba'thists split, Iraqi versus Syrian, rather than those Arab states which they ruled becoming united.

The point seems to be that, despite culture and previous history, no Arab nation knit together by a common economy exists. The different Arab states have evolved distinct histories over at least half a century, and some, like Egypt, have a vastly older distinct identity. They have distinct state bureaucracies and ruling classes.

It would have been nonsense to speak of a distinct Palestinian nationalism in the 1930s and 40s, as distinct from an Arab nationalism among Palestinians; but a Palestinian nation exists now, formed by a common history.

In a curious anomaly, Moshe Machover's assessment of Israel uses the old Marxist criteria of a nation sharply, narrowly, and rather too prescriptively. But he seems to have forgotten some of those same criteria when assessing the Arab "nation". He ignores the fundamental things lacking to bind that "nation", such as a common economy. He elevates culture and pan-Arabist sentiment above all else, in a way that has less in common in Lenin than with the concept of a nation of his opponents in the Marxist debate before 1914, the Austro-Marxists.

The aspiration to Arab unity was always in some serious degree only a secularised version of what is now expressed by some clerical fascists - the Muslim Brotherhood, for example - as the aspiration to restore the "caliphate", a new version of the centuries of Islamic empires in the region. In any case, much of "pan-Arabism" is now subsumed into pan-Islamism.

The 1960s Trotskyists with whom Moshe Machover is aligned by his programme saw the "Arab revolution" in their own semi-mystical framework of ever-advancing "world revolution".

The "Arab revolution" would end in the working class across the Arab world taking power. It could not win its objectives otherwise. This was "permanent revolution" - but the "permanent revolution" not of Trotsky but of Trotsky's epigones. The working class was invoked in the scheme, but it was not at all clear how the working class would come to the leadership of this movement.

That idea of the "Arab revolution" - the "colonial revolution" in the Arab world - shaped the attitude of Trotskyists in the 1950s and 60s to Israel. Although Israel figures only in a footnote in Pablo's 1958 Arab Revolution pamphlet (and the Palestinians not at all, except as "the refugees"), pan-Arabism had as one of its components a deep animosity to Israel. The Trotskyists felt that they had to get in line with the "Arab revolution".

It would be unfair to say of them that their talk of "self-government" for the Israeli Jewish nation was only lip-service; but in the circumstances it could not be a lot more. It did not prove durable, being swept away, for many of them, by events after 1967.


In Moshe Machover's programme there is a strange and irresponsible mix of ultra-leftism and despair. He refuses to consider ways forward in this world, and instead "orients" to a solution in a remote future world!

In his own roundabout way, he shows that the only way forward is "two states"; to strive, in that framework, to accumulate improvements in the Palestinians' situation; and on that basis to build Arab-Jewish working class unity.

[1] That was broadly the position "inherited" by Workers' Fight, the AWL's predecessor in the 1960s. Those interested in that will find our views then on the "Arab revolution" set out in an article by the present writer published in the Irish Workers' Group magazine Workers' Republic not long before the Six Day War of 1967. It was reprinted in Socialist Worker (then called Labour Worker) in June 1967, under the name Anthony Mahony.

[2] Mandel-Glotzer debate -

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