By now most readers will probably be wondering just what the argument between Mark Osborn and myself is actually about.
Mark began the first of his three letters about the editorial in Solidarity 31 on the Israel-Palestine "roadmap" in an altogether different voice from one in which he ends his third.
He began with a throw-in-everything rant against the editorial. But now he is reduced to complaint: "Sean [says] he represents Marxism and 'analysis', and I, apparently, champion SWP-style 'militancy' We're all Marxists and we've each got our own, somewhat different, analyses. Perhaps we could discuss these".
Let's start, then, by banning demagogy. I didn't define myself as Marxist, still less proclaim, "Marxism, c'est moi", in response to Mark stating an opinion different from mine. (Though if ever I do succumb to that occupational-hazard delusion, it is most likely to be during an argument of this sort with Mark).
I invoked Marxism against Mark's definition of "our role" in his second letter.
"The editorial and Sean's letter raise a more general issue: our role. Our role is not to paint up the democratic possibilities, and downplay the pitfalls (and real intentions of many of the players) in these diplomatic manoeuvres. Our job is not to give Bush the benefit of the doubt. Our job is not only to de-bunk the idiot SWP-type left, but also to warn those with illusions in this 'peace process'."
As a comment on the editorial, the idea that it gave "Bush the benefit of the doubt", "painted up the democratic possibilities" or "real intentions" of Bush or Sharon, "downplayed the pitfalls", or failed to "warn those with illusions in the process", is so preposterous that in my reply to Mark I advised him to re-read the editorial.
I took his talk of "our role", which he counterposed to what the editorial had done or tried to do, as an advocacy of "militant" postures. That is, of the predominant approach on the far left, which is best called "apparatus Marxism" (see Workers' Liberty 2/1).
I wrote that the "idea that you first decide that your 'role' is to debunk 'illusions', etc., and let that 'role' shape what you say, contains in embryo all the vices that have led to such things as the existence of an 'idiot SWP-style left'-the idea that you trim your analysis and your politics to what will 'build the party'; that in analysing a document you decide to 'paint it up' or 'paint it down' to ensure that the result will fit the needs of your 'role'.."
Mark is right that we can never have a civilised democracy on the left unless it is generally accepted that people do start from the same premisses and in good faith arrive at radically different conclusions. But demagogy too undermines any civilised democracy, as does the peculiar practice of going through the motions of discussion while making no effort to deal honestly with the issues raised and what people actually write.
The most astonishing thing in the discussion is the way in which Mark has dealt with such issues as his attribution to the editorial, in his first letter, of the idea that the USA could now be expected to "use a great deal of force" against Israel, substituting that for the editorial's assertion that there would be no progress with the roadmap unless the USA "forced" the Israelis into concessions. He has heedlessly repeated his claim in his second and third letters, the last time with an added twist.
The first time it arose, I suppose, unwittingly, out of an urge to make the editorial appear as silly as possible. I pointed it out. He repeated the claim in altered words. The second and third times cannot but be deliberate-attempts to "carry it off" by bluster and effrontery.
These procedures do not make real discussion difficult. They make it virtually impossible.
As far as I can see, apart from the things he ludicrously attributes to the editorial, my political differences here with Mark are not great.
The editorial made this summary judgment of the roadmap. "On paper, the proposals could, if implemented, lead to a Jewish-Palestinian and wider Jewish-Arab settlement". It then discussed the difficulties, the reasons for distrust, and so on. This was neither an eccentric nor a particularly "soft" judgment. The Palestinian leaders accepted the roadmap and demanded that Israel do so too.
Let us stand back a little and take a fresh look at the roadmap through the eyes of Israeli peace campaigner Uri Avnery, a leader of Gush Shalom, the Peace Bloc.
Avnery dismisses the roadmap as not likely to be implemented, yet makes this assessment of it.
Its "objectives are very positive. They are identical with the aims of the Israeli peace movement: an end to the occupation, the establishment of the independent state of Palestine side by side with the state of Israel, Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace, the integration of Israel in the region [It] goes further than the Oslo Agreement. In the Oslo 'Declaration of Principles' there was a giant hole: it did not spell out what was to come after the long interim stages. Without a clear final aim, the interim stages had no purpose. Therefore the Oslo process died with Yitzhak Rabin".
In substance Avnery says what the Solidarity editorial said; and the editorial said no more than that the Americans may be serious. I haven't read anything during this discussion to persuade me that this assessment of the roadmap is false.
What Mark thinks is far from clear. His first letter insisted that the roadmap would not be implemented ("Sharon's shaping the process, not the US"); his third, that it would be bad if the roadmap were implemented.
The editorial bears the marks of haste, and of conflicting feelings and impulses. It is written as a cold "stand back and look" assessment. It takes it for granted that the reader knows what has been going on between Israel and the Palestinians.
Its "solidarity" with the Palestinians is expressed in the viewpoint from which it assesses events and in the programme it advocates-that the Israeli army should get out of the Occupied Territories, and that the Palestinians have an immediate right to a state with the same rights as Israel.
Some of those characteristics may be journalistic faults, and may have helped generate the discussion.
The editorial did not predict what has actually happened, the roadmap initiative being marginalised because Iraq has proved more difficult than the American expected (which, among other things, enhances the pull of Israel as a strong and immediately available local military ally of the USA).
Other than that, however, politically, I can't see anything seriously wrong with the editorial. It expressed our programme and judged the roadmap in the light of it. It was right to take the roadmap seriously; right and proper that it should look coolly at what might be new.
Of the difficulties and shortcomings, it left out nothing essential that Mark has cited. His assertion that the editorial "ruled out the possibility of Bush lying, or bending the truth, in an official document", and that it told readers the roadmap might bring something approximating to what we want, was based on this sentence! "If they do something approximating to what we want, it will be done in their own way, not ours, and for their reasons, to serve their interests".
The sentence was there to strengthen and underline the advocacy of working-class independence in the lines before! If Mark's procedure here were to become our general approach, it would become impossible to discuss any question except in the most simplistic bad-and-good, yes-and-no terms.
What is the argument about? Is it something hidden, unsaid? I will speak for those of my own underlying attitudes that may have affected the editorial. There is no way to end the Jewish-Arab conflict other than with the aid of some form of outside intervention. Worse than that, the very possibility of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel may, as a result of Israeli policy, disappear from history if it is not realised soon.
The Palestinians, who call for UN forces, understand this. We can and must understand it too, without collapsing into the political role of pleading with the UN or the USA.
There is no "revolutionary nationalist" way forward for the Palestinians, let alone a "revolutionary Islamic" one. Partly it is a matter of the relation of forces, but it is also to do with the ambivalent political nature of the Palestinian movement. Those responsible for most of the suicide bombings, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, do not accept a two-states solution, or even the right of the Jewish population of Israel to live. Their tactics express their politics with terrible force and finality. They do not fight for a solution that consistent democrats can accept.
We support the PLO's 15-year-old formal two-states programme. We support the Palestinians' self-defensive action, including attacks on the military and paramilitary Israeli forces on their territory (or in Israel-as distinct from the "soft" civilian targets invariably chosen by the suicide bombers).
But there is still among Palestinians much that used to be expressed in the demand for a single Arab state of Palestine, in which Jews would have religious but not national rights, and before that in the undisguised commitment to "drive the Jews into the sea" of Yasser Arafat's predecessor, Ahmed Shukhairy.
When the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), at the beginning of the 1960s, was setting off bombs in Paris cafés, people of our political persuasion did not agitate for them to stop the bombing, as we do with the suicide bombers in Israel. We said that France could stop the killing at will by simply getting out of Algeria, as the FLN demanded.
We objected to many of the things the FLN did, like its campaign of assassination against non-FLN Algerian trade unionists in France. But against the French, it was clear and uncomplicated. We wanted the Algerians simply to defeat the French.
So too with Vietnam against the USA, and the Afghans against the Russian occupation.
Neither our attitude to the political demands of the Palestinians, nor to their military campaigns, is exactly that. (See Clive Bradley's article in WL 2/3).
We are opposed to the political programme of the most militant Palestinian fighters against Israel. For them to win the war and impose their solution on the Israeli Jews would, if it were practically conceivable, lead to worse than what Sharon is doing to the Palestinians now.
That we sympathise with the oppressed Palestinians, support them in self-defensive action against Israel, and demand that Israel reverts to the 1967 borders, qualifies but does not annul our political attitude to the Islamists and Arab chauvinists.
As far as I know Mark and I share all these opinions (possibly excepting the belief that the possibility of a Palestinian state may soon disappear from history).
The discussion is confused by Mark, on virtually every issue he touches, radically garbling what we are supposed to be discussing, so as to "discuss" what he finds it easier to deal with. Take "Bantustanisation".
The editorial discussed "Bantustanisation" explicitly in one sense-the segmentation of the Palestinian territory by military roads, pockets of Israeli sovereignty, and so on. Mark in his letters uses it in an entirely different sense. A "Bantustan" is any Palestinian state which falls short of having "the same status as Israel".
The first sense of "Bantustanisation" would make a real independent Palestinian state impossible, whatever it might be called. The roadmap by no means entirely disposes of this danger, but what it says on paper rules it out. On this level, non-segmentation of the Palestinian territory is, despite Mark, "sufficient" to dispose of the threat of Bantustanisation.
In the second sense, any Palestinian state will be inferior in size and economic and military weight to Israel and can therefore dismissed as a "Bantustan". That would be no less true of a Palestinian state on the strict 1967 border than of one with smaller territory (though, plainly, for a Palestinian state to be radically diminished in size from the 1967 borders would not be a small matter).
This argument is usually used against any two-state proposal, and in favour of the idea of a single "secular democratic state".
What would Mark consider "sufficient" for the Palestinian state not to be a "Bantustan"? Apparently he thinks it depends on how much territory it has. It does not. A Palestinian state in peace could surely make rapid progress. But no miracle will now or soon make it Israel's equal.
During World War 1, Lenin called the Bolsheviks Pyatakov, Bukharin and Bosch, who pronounced mere political independence for small nations worthless in a world where they would be overwhelmed by the imperialist giants, "imperialist-Economists". By analogy the rejection of political independence for the Palestinians, on the grounds of its inevitable weakness, might be called "Zionophobe-Economism".
The argument that political independence for the Palestinians, or even a trammelled though real political independence such as might result from negotiations in the foreseeable future, should be rejected as "Bantustanisation", is sheer political nihilism and despair.
It may well be as Mark writes, that "the 'best' solution that could be expected was a squalid little deal which pressed the Palestinians into a Bantustan", if we understand "Bantustan" to mean a state weak vis-à-vis Israel. In my first reply to Mark I wrote: "It is improbable that we would think the settlement they might achieve one we could uncritically endorse".
But, as the editorial said, "in the name of what would we oppose it?", as distinct from criticising, upholding our own programme, and maintaining our political independence?
The terrible status quo now? A socialist outcome possible only in an utterly different relation of forces? Arab-nationalist "rejectionism"?
Our programme is consistent democracy realised by working-class unity across the borders. Meanwhile?
It makes sense for those who look to the Arab or Islamic world to overwhelm Israel-like the most militant of the Palestinians, Hamas-to reject. It makes no sense for us.
Mark writes: "If a sympathiser of Solidarity was in the Knesset they ought to vote against [the roadmap] in the name of immediate Israeli withdrawal from the Territories and a fully independent Palestinian state alongside Israel "
This mixes things up. Yes, in the Knesset we would vote against the roadmap. There are very few bits of bourgeois diplomacy to which we would vote yes. We would in the Knesset, and do in Solidarity, favour immediate withdrawal from the Territories and an independent Palestinian state.
So far, agreement. But Mark goes on: "And we should certainly oppose the general set of diplomatic moves and processes of which the roadmap is a central part. Why? Because the 'best' possible result from all this is a Palestinian bantustan "
We do not endorse or take responsibility for the diplomacy. But flatly to "oppose" talks and negotiations because you expect not to like the outcome-in essence, because the Palestinians are weak-that means what? We advocate war? We advise the Palestinians to wage war until they are strong enough to impose their best demand? In that case, we would then oppose what the Palestinians would do to the Israelis! And they will never be so strong. Or are we hoping that the big Arab states will do it for them?
To use what is not in the roadmap, and what is left to negotiations in which (as the editorial noted) "the Palestinians will be the weaker side, confronted by Israeli 'facts' and US favouritism towards Israel", to condemn it outright, is really only to express emotional dissatisfaction with the realities we start from.
Mark's reasonings about such things as Arafat being "sidelined" do not to my mind prove any of the things he wants them to.
The idea that you can deduce that the USA never wanted to push the roadmap from its hostility to Arafat is a muddle. You could read it as having the opposite implication: the USA was clearing the way for a peace deal that might stick and would not, as the old peace process did, unravel (at least in part) because of Arafat's ambivalence and his erratic leadership. The significance of such a thing as Arafat's sidelining largely depended on what else was going on.
But that is where we came in. Sharon would indeed want a "rotten deal"; the issue was, might the Americans have an interest in a deal that would stick? Making a deal, accommodating the demands of both Israel and the Palestinians, implies some degree of "civil war" in both the camps, the decisive difference being that Israel has a far stronger state.
Mark complains, but with misplaced moralism. The "first step is the imposition of a US-Israeli promoted leader with no real support among Palestinians.. the end condition[s] the means". "If ending the Occupation is the real goal, why does the map's Phase III call for final status negotiations over borders, Jerusalem and the settlements?"
This is an emotional protest against the fact that what is happening, or might have been happening, is an attempt-by the USA, with all that implies-to evolve a working agreement, and against the fact that the oppressed Palestinians are not in a position to dictate from strength.
To make sense, Mark's attitude would have to be part of what it implies: an opposition to all fudging or negotiated settlements, in favour of either war to exhaustion or a notional immediate mass struggle which would sweep all that away.
This pseudo-ultra-left attitude would put us in the camp of the warriors for Islam, of the advocates of perpetual war until Israel is no more.
The truth is that Sharon's wall and all the other horrors of the last three years are a price that the Palestinians are paying, for Israeli chauvinism of course, but also for resort to a sort of war. That way lies no possibility of progress. That way lies only a continuation of the tacit alliance between Hamas and the Israeli chauvinists that has given the conflict its recent dynamic.