The Israeli-Arab war of 1948
In November 1947 the United Nations proposed that Palestine, where, under British rule, Jews and Arabs were engaged in simmering guerrilla warfare against each other, be partitioned into a Jewish and an Arab state. Previously, in 1937, the British Peel Commission had also proposed a partition: the Palestinian Jews accepted the idea, but Britain abandoned it because of Arab opposition.
The British formally relinquished control of Palestine in May 1948. The Jews proclaimed the independent state of Israel in the UN-allocated territory. The surrounding Arab states, Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan, which were under British influence or quasi-control, immediately invaded. Some of their officers were seconded British soldiers. They joined with the Palestinian Arab forces that had already been at war with Palestinian Jews. Against most expectations, the Haganah (the Jewish militia) defeated the Arab armies and drove them back. A lot of Palestinian Arabs followed the Arab armies or were driven out.
The UN-proposed Palestinian Arab state disappeared, with most of its territory taken by Jordan and Egypt and some by Israel. The Orthodox Trotskyists had not yet hammered out the ideas that would shape them politically in the decades ahead: of “the colonial revolution” as the leading sector of the world revolution and indeed, where Stalinists controlled the anti-imperialist movement, as one of the roads to workers’ states. Those would come after the Russian-Yugoslav split (June 1948); the Maoist victory in China (1949); the Orthodox Trotskyists’ conclusion that the East European Stalinist states were a variant of not-quite-adequate workers’ states, species of a new category, “deformed workers’ states”, which they had invented; and the start of the Korean war.
The Orthodox Trotskyists’ Second World Congress was held in April 1948, only weeks before the Israeli-Arab war started. With the possible exception of a handful of people in South Africa, no Orthodox Trotskyist, in Palestine or outside it, backed the Arabs. The Palestinian Trotskyists, in a document of January 1948 published by the official Fourth International magazine in June-July 1948, declared: “By its racial war against the Jews of Palestine, the Arab League wants to... prove to imperialism that it is a factor that can serve it even better than Zionism... It is interested in... using this chauvinist war... to crush the Arab working class and all the left groups... to heighten racial hatred against minorities”.
The June-July introduction to the document denounced the May 1948 invasion and demanded “full national minority rights for the Jewish community”.
Suez, 1956. Israel and the British-French invasion of Egypt
Egypt was in the vanguard of the Arab-nationalist politics of the Middle East. It had been under British hegemony, with varying legal formulas, for seven decades until an army officers’ republican coup d’état in 1952 deposed the King and began to untie the British fetters on the country. Britain withdraw its troops in October 1954. In July 1956 Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal, built and owned by British and French capital. In 1956 Britain still had a grip on both Jordan and Iraq.
To Arab nationalists, Israel was the great enemy. Britain and France invaded Egypt and seized Port Said in November 1956. Their pretext was to stop an Israeli-Egyptian war which, with the collusion of Britain and France, Israel had started a few days earlier. The Egyptian state could not withstand the invaders. But the USA could and did. President Dwight Eisenhower put an end to the British-French-Israeli adventure by withholding credit from Britain and France. Financial weapons were used against the military weapons of the British and French, and they were superior. It was a game-changing moment in the history of post-World-War-Two imperialism. After seven weeks in occupation of Port Said, the British and French, dollar-whipped, withdrew. The British prime minister, Anthony Eden, was forced out of office. Israel withdrew to its pre-war borders. A United Nations garrison was established at Sharm El Sheikh to keep the peace: it would remain in place until 1967, when Egypt forced it out in preparation for an attack on Israel (which Israel would pre-empt in the Six Day War).
The Trotskyists everywhere condemned the British, the French, and the Israelis. The Trotskyists were strongly on the side of the Arab nationalists, against both the European powers and the Arab kings. None of the Trotskyists drew sweeping condemnations of Israel from its role; certainly no-one yet questioned its right to continue in existence.
A small pamphlet, Stop the War! Hands off the Arab people! by Gerry Healy, published at the start of the British-French invasion, encapsulated the mindset, delusions, and historical perspectives of the Orthodox Trotskyists then. “The Arabs instinctively fear Israel because it is a Capitalist State which they feel is a threat to their desire for freedom... The Imperialists have, in Israel, succeeded in the creation of a state which can lead to a bloody holocaust that will make Hitler’s crimes seem a tea party... The Jewish working people everywhere must denounce Israel’s stab in the back to the Arab people. The future of Jewry lies through a socialist solution and not through a Capitalist Israel. A socialist solution demands a real solidarity with the Arab people. In Israel this means unity in action against the common Imperialist enemy between the Jewish and Arab poor peasant and working class. Any other road spells a terrible end for Jewry”.
Healy was cruder than others might have been, but the crudeness has its own value for understanding the processes by way of which Orthodox Trotskyist attitudes to Israel would evolve.
Israel, the left, and the 1967 Six Days War
On 5-10 June 1967, in six days, Israel defeated Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. The Egyptian government had been threatening war against Israel; on 19 May it had expelled UN forces from Sinai and Gaza (there since the war of 1956); and on 22-23 May it had closed the straits of Aqaba connecting Israel to the Red Sea. Israel struck first, and suddenly, destroying the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian air forces on the ground and quickly overrunning and occupying Jordan’s West Bank, Egypt’s Gaza, and Syria’s Golan Heights.
Militarily, it was a tremendous coup. The pre-1948 entity of Palestine was reunited, but under Israeli control and with the area designated for a Palestinian state in 1947 becoming effectively a colony of Israel. On 19 June Israel proposed a general peace agreement to the Arab states; Israel would evacuate the occupied territory except the Syrian Golan Heights and East Jerusalem in return for recognition by the Arab states and “normalisation” of their relations with Israel. None of the Arab states recognised Israel, or had diplomatic relations with it. In September a conference of Arab states resolved that there would be “no peace, no recognition and no negotiation with Israel”. Things again settled into a tense armistice that would last until October 1973.
On the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, October 1973, Egypt and Syria suddenly struck against Israel. Israel was taken by surprise. Egyptian forces advanced quickly, and for a while it looked as if Israel might be overwhelmed. Israel rallied, and the Egyptians and Syrians were driven back. Five years later Israel and Egypt would sign a peace agreement. Egypt recognised Israel, and Jordan would follow in 1994. Even today they are the only Arab states to have recognised Israel. 1967 was the start of, so far, 50 years of Israeli colonial rule over the Palestinians of the West Bank. In 1967, the international left was vehemently pro-Arab and consequently anti-Israel – “Israeli-defeatist”. Though the Orthodox Trotskyists did not necessarily understand that, this “defeatism” could not be what socialist “defeatism” had been in say, Britain, or France, or the USA in World War One. Defeat for those states did not mean destruction of the country and the society. Defeat for the tiny land of Israel would necessarily mean that, unless there was speedy outside intervention on Israel’s side.
The general attitude of the left before June 1967 was broadly summed up in the formula of the Pablo-Mandel Fourth International: for a socialist federation of the Middle East with full autonomy for national minorities such as the Kurds and the Israeli Jews. In fact defeatism for Israel in 1967 already contradicted that. Autonomy after Arab conquest begged the question: what would be left to be “autonomous”? And why would the victorious Arabs want to make terms with a defeated and conquered Israel?
The 1967 and post-1967 line emerged straight out of the left’s belief in the “Arab Revolution” as part of the “colonial revolution” – the colonial revolution that was also, for the Orthodox Trotskyists, a possible socialist revolution and certainly part of the struggle of the two great power blocs in the world, US “imperialism” against Russia and China, designated as non-imperialist. It was the time of the great demonstrations against the Vietnam war in cities across the world. The habit of intense and uncritical partisanship for Vietnam which had established itself, and of editing out such details as the NLF’s Stalinism, spread to other issues, and to Israel and the Arabs. Vietnam had made “anti-imperialism” the defining characteristic of the putative left.
The movement against the Vietnam war brought a new generation into left-wing politics, but it was also a great political school teaching support for revolutionary Stalinism. It made “anti-imperialism”, identified as anti-Americanism, an absolute value, the great measure of opposition to all the evils of the capitalist world. Much of the way the left related to Israel in 1967, at the time of the Six Day War and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, was on the same “anti-imperialist” pattern, with the Arab states in place of the Vietnamese and the Israelis as the imperialist embodiment of all that was bad.
No part of the blame for the plight of the Palestinians was allowed to lie with the Arab states who rejected Israel’s offer to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza in return for Arab recognition of Israel, and who had kept the Palestinians ghettoised in refugee camps as a political hard fact to use against Israel. Israel was seen as the antagonist of the Arab Revolution, of its “permanent-revolutionary” workers’ state reality or potential, and of the Russian bloc with which Egypt and Syria had friendly and collaborative relations.
The Egyptian Communist Party had dissolved into the Nasserist state-apparatus “party”. Israel was also seen as the ally of the reactionary forces in the Arab world – the sheikhs and Saudi Arabia – which were closer to the USA. It was in that context, as part of that world viewpoint, that “revolutionary perspective”, that a new attitude to Israel was worked out. In 1967 and immediately after the Trotskyists did not declare for the destruction of Israel. They called upon Israel to evacuate the Arab territories seized in the Six Day war. The Palestine Liberation Organisation in the build-up to the 1967 war had been under the effective control of Egypt and fronted by Ahmed Shukeiri, still shouting as in 1948 about “driving the Jews into the sea”.
The PLO became a far more independent and politically sophisticated body in the wake of the defeat of the Arab states. In 1969 the PLO raised a new programmatic slogan, for a secular democratic state in all pre-1948 Palestine, with religious rights for Jews. This could be seen, and was widely seen, as a reasonable proposal to Israel. In fact it was used as an answer, an alternative, to the Israelis’ offer of land for peace. But the new proposal could only “work” if Israel voluntarily agreed to dissolve its state into a common entity with its antagonists and enemies of the previous half-century.
There was never a possibility that Israel would do that. In practice, “secular democratic state” implied the conquest of Israel and the destruction of Hebrew self-determination. Many who started off favouring the “secular democratic state” for its seeming reasonableness, its desirability, its seeming allocation of something like equal rights (though not national rights) to Jews, easily evolved to favouring the conquest of an unreasonable Israel in order to win that “secular democratic state”.
Secular democratic state” was a variant, or close relative to, the old policy of the Arab states, finessed into a semblance of reasonableness and acceptability for those who did not start out hostile to Israel or Jews as such. That was the policy which for Orthodox Trotskyists replaced commitment to “autonomy” for the Israeli Jews. It was a policy unique, unprecedented: that the Israeli state should abolish itself, or, failing that, be abolished by force and conquest which should be backed, morally and politically, by the anti-imperialist left. You could, and many of us did, choose not to see that the “conquest of Israel” was implied by the “secular democratic state”.
Faced with Israel’s often brutal colonial rule in the West Bank and Gaza, and the stalemate between Israel and the Arab states, the “anti-imperialist” left turned into an advocate, in effect, of the conquest and wiping out of a nation which was deemed unworthy of existence because of its so-recent origins and its ill-treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Yet the situation in the West Bank and Gaza was shaped after the June 1967 war, as after 1948, at least as much by the intransigence of the Arab states — Arab states within some of which Palestinian refugees were kept in limbo as refugees by refusal to let them work or gain citizenship — as by any Israeli policy at that stage to annex the West Bank.
† After the Israeli victory in 1967, Israel formed close ties to the USA (for the first time), and the whole question became part of the general opposition to world “imperialism” whose traits and characteristics have been explored above. Thus by the time of the Yom Kippur war of 1973 the left was uninhibited and full-throttle for Egyptian victory and the defeat and destruction of Israel.
† We have seen that for Gerry Healy in 1956, the Arabs were already socialist and anti-capitalist. By 1967, in response to events, that idea had spread widely. The precise “class character” of the leading Arab nationalist states was in dispute among Orthodox Trotskyists. Ted Grant of the Militant (now the CWI, then the Revolutionary Socialist League and the British section of the Mandel Fourth International) had pronounced in mid 1965 that Syria was a deformed workers’ state, like the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe, China, etc., though Syria was ruled not by Stalinists but by the Ba’th party in symbiotic partnership with the military caste. Burma, so Grant thought, was also a deformed workers’ state.
There were others in the Fourth International who came very close to arguing that Nasser’s Egypt was a workers’ state. In 1965, the Mandelite Livio Maitan wrote that a workers’ state could “emerge” in Egypt “in a relatively cold way, without the active revolutionary intervention of the masses at the crucial moment of the qualitative leap” (Hansen, The Workers’ and Farmers’ Government, Education for Socialists bulletin 1974, p.6).
In Egypt the Nasserist state had expropriated the bourgeoisie, leaving them a stock exchange on which to trade the entitlements given them in compensation. The difference inside the Fourth International was between those who asserted that the Egyptian state, as it was, could become a deformed workers’ state without upheavals, and those who argued that for that to happen there would have to be a “mobilisation of the masses” of some sort.