Ralph Miliband and Israel-Palestine

Submitted by Matthew on 16 October, 2013 - 12:52

Ed Miliband’s father Ralph Miliband, a Marxist writer denounced by the Daily Mail as “the man who hated Britain”, left behind him two well-known books, Parliamentary Socialism and The State In Capitalist Society.

Less-known, but also valuable today, is a thin volume of letters in 1967 about Israel-Palestine between Ralph Miliband and his friend Marcel Liebman, who was then a contributor to the semi-Trotskyist Belgian weekly La Gauche.

The letters were translated from French by Peter Drucker and published in 2006 with an introduction by the Lebanese-French Marxist writer Gilbert Achcar.

Partly the letters are valuable in the same way that a view on any issue from a divergent and unfamiliar angle can be. In 1967, many assumptions on Israel-Palestine which currently go almost unquestioned on the left (in Britain, at least) were not assumed at all. And partly the letters are valuable because in them Miliband is exceptionally lucid.

The correspondence spans a few weeks around the June 1967 war between Israel and the Arab states.

The temper of the left on the Israel-Palestine question then was different from now. No-one on the left advocated wiping Israel off the map. Arab governments, and the leaders at the time of the PLO (then an annexe of the Egyptian government, without the autonomy it gained after 1968-9), openly advocate wiping Israel off the map, and everyone on the left dissented.

Inside IS (forerunner of the SWP), a small but substantial minority opposed SWP leader Tony Cliff’s line in June 1967 of backing the Arab states. There was a debate inconceivable today in the SWP or the SWP diaspora. (For the record: the forerunners of AWL backed Cliff’s line in 1967. We have learned since).

At the beginning of the debate recorded in the volume, Liebman is about as anti-Israeli as any socialist got those days. He expresses disgust that “the whole French left is basically for Israel... from [Jean-Paul] Sartre to [Socialist Party leader] Guy Mollet”, and says he wants to move to England where anti-Israeli sentiment is stronger.

In the first letter he denounces Miliband as “pro-Israeli” and “reacting as a European and a Jew rather than as a socialist”.

Miliband actually has a slightly rose-tinted picture of Israeli policy. He considers it “nonsense” to suppose there are “serious Israeli plans to conquer and subjugate Arab people outside its territory”.

Miliband is remonstrating with an indignant Liebman who suggests that Israel is about to invade and conquer Syria. He is right to do so: but in fact Israel would “conquer and subjugate Arab people outside its territory” in the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.

Miliband is critical of Israel’s foreign policy, of its attitude to the Palestinians who fled or were driven out in 1948, and of its bad treatment of Arabs within Israel itself. The criticism needed calibration. According to Achcar’s afterword, Miliband’s hostility to Israeli policy did indeed become steadily sharper (and rightly so, in line with events) after 1967.

But on basics, through the debate, Liebman moves closer to the axis of Miliband’s position: two nations, two states.

In his afterword, Achcar cites Miliband from 1973: “the idea I’ve always subscribed to [is of] creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel... a state, an institutional foundation on the basis of which more could be built in time to come, hypothetically with federalism, etc....

“[The] secular democratic state [combining all pre-1948 Palestinian territory, Jewish and Arab, which the PLO had advocated from 1969]... never was a solution, at the present time and for a long time to come; whereas my solution is possible, puts the Palestinians back in the historical and geographical swing of things and opens up new vistas”.

Liebman eventually concurred. In 1983 he commented on the murder of a Palestinian diplomat by Palestinian “ultras”. “Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will find the way to compromise and reconciliation if the world continues to close its ears to the undeniable truths that [Issam] Sartawi never tired of repeating: peace is impossible unless the Palestinians... are granted the right to self-determination; it is just as indispensable for the Arabs to accept Israel’s right to exist”.

Even in 1967, Liebman emphatically affirms the right to exist of the Israeli-Jewish nation. But in 1967 he says it would be wrong to demand of the Arab states that they immediately recognise the right of the Israeli state to exist. That recognition can come only after time and after Israeli concessions.

Why? Because, so Liebman expounds at length, Israel is “in the imperialist camp”, is a serious enemy for Arab revolutions which are underway, and is founded on crimes against Arabs.

In his introduction to the volume, Achcar writes that “the paradox”, and “a rather common one”, was that Liebman’s anti-Israelism was rooted in him being more immersed in Jewishness, and having lost closer family members in the Holocaust, than Miliband.

That intense Jewish feeling generated in Liebman a revulsion against the Jewish state which turned out to be a commonplace bourgeois state, as mean-spirited, as chauvinistic, and as cynical in its alliances as any other. Miliband, who wore his Jewishness more lightly, was more detached.

Another influence on Liebman was his hope, common at the time, of “the Arab revolution”. Liebman concedes to Miliband that he had over-enthused about the claimed leftism of early 1960s Algeria, but claims that Syria’s “leftward shift” is “more convincing”. That was the Syrian regime of today in its early days, when the current dictator’s father was coming to the fore.

Miliband accepts Liebman’s term, “the imperialist camp”. Miliband was a “Deutscherite” on the USSR, seeing the USSR and its allies as more progressive and “imperialism” as meaning only the USA and its allies.

But, Miliband says, nothing else can be expected from a small bourgeois state like Israel surrounded by hostile neighbours than that it should seek allies where it can. Israel neither is, nor can be, a serious threat to what (little) “Arab revolution” is actually happening in 1967, or to future more serious Arab revolutions.

Miliband shows that all Liebman’s arguments evade a central point. “Although I would have preferred the creation of a Jewish-Arab or Arab-Jewish state at the time [of the formation of Israel, 1948], I’ve been forced to realise that everything — the history and evolution of the peoples in question, politics, sociology, etc. — made this solution entirely impossible and unacceptable for the forces on the ground.

“We can certainly discuss Israel’s borders, the refugees, anything you like, but... the existence of this state... can only be changed by force, that is by the liquidation of the nation (in one way or another, expulsion and/or liquidation) as the practical result of the liquidation of the state”.

“I posit the existence of the Israeli state, not out of Zionism etc. (all that is very much out of date now that the state of Israel exists, which makes what the great thinkers of the Second International said [about Zionism] of little relevance), but simply out of recognition of a reality whose disappearance would be a terrible catastrophe, given the only current conditions in which it could disappear”.

Miliband criticises the equivocation in “the unctuous statements in [the French Communist Party press] that a settlement ‘should not put in question [Israel’s existence]... How can anyone support the Arab leaders’ avowed positions without accepting their desire to liquidate Israel?” The Communist Parties backed the Arab states for reasons of Russian foreign policy, while still formally recognising Israel’s right to exist.

After 1969 the PLO came out with the formula of a “secular democratic state” (covering all pre-1948 Palestine) in place of the old line of “driving the Jews into the sea”. For a long while the forerunners of the AWL, like much of the left, accepted that formula. Miliband never accepted it, and Liebman only for a short time.

Achcar’s afterword quotes informatively from an article by Palestinian writer Elias Sanbar: the “secular democratic state” formula was concocted, on the PLO leaders’ request, by Palestinian professors at the American University of Beirut, and published in English and then in French... but not in Arabic!

It was a diplomatic formula, not a guide to action. From 1973 Palestinian leftists began to develop the “two states” idea, which Miliband and Liebman came to support, and which the AWL advocates today.

• The Israeli dilemma: letters between Ralph Miliband and Marcel Liebman, edited by Gilbert Achcar. Merlin Press 2006.

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