Monday 19 January 2009

Branch Meeting: Israel, Palestine and Socialism

The guns have fallen silent for the time being, and many will be asking what the Israeli state has managed to achieve. Hamas may not be in rude health, but it is intact and will reap the prestige as the main agent of Palestinian resistance. Israel's actions have earned it the undying antipathy of millions in the Middle East and beyond and even a peace sponsored by all the big powers seems a long way off. The post below was a casualty of my electrical difficulties last week. Even though events have overtaken it, I thought it worthwhile publishing a report of what Stoke Socialist Party were thinking and saying as the bombs were falling.

700 dead. 6,000 injured. These were the casualty figures from Israel's butchery in Gaza as Stoke SP met last night to discuss the crisis. Presenting the talk, A was clear where the responsibility lay, and that was squarely on the shoulders of the Israeli state. For all of its claims about Hama rocket launches, it was they who've been blockading Gaza for 18 months, an economic stranglehold that has seen 95 per cent of industry close for want of materials, a rise in unemployment to 60 per cent, and created a situation where 80 per cent of Gaza's population rely on aid shipments. It was Israel that has staged raids and periodically shelled the Strip throughout the "peace time" - including the assassination of six Hamas leaders on 5th November. This is not to deny rocket attacks from Gaza haven't taken place, but these are the fruits of Israel's earlier stirring of tensions between Fatah and Hamas, which culminated in civil war in June 2007. Had they not interfered, it is unlikely Hamas would have taken over the Gaza Strip.

The reason why the Israeli state have launched their offensive in Gaza are well-known - a recouping of lost prestige after the 2006 debacle in southern Lebanon, electioneering, restoring legitimacy in the government after a series of corruption scandals, and diverting attention away from a worsening economic situation. But also, crucially, it's about stamping its will on Israel's near-abroad. They want regime change in Gaza. They want Hamas replaced with the more pliable Fatah, while maintaining their right to keep it under its "tutelage", and reserving the privilege to inflict "chastising" strikes should the Palestinians incur Israel's displeasure.

If anything, there's a good chance Hamas and its ideological brethren across the region could be
strengthened. They have proven a more vocal and consistent opposition to Israel than Fatah, and unlike them have not undermined their own support base by using power and position to coin it. Plus there is the network of educational, medical and welfarist institutions Hamas set up and sponsor. But for all that, they remain an example of right wing populist political Islamism, and are as pro-capital as any other Islamist movement has proven to be. They are authoritarian and reactionary, and their rocket launch responses to Israel's repeated punitive expeditions have ultimately done nothing but provide a pretext for the government to move against them. But this is entirely understandable and is why the barometer of sympathy outside media and Zionist circles has swung the way of the Palestinians since Israel's attack began.

While everyone would welcome a ceasefire there's no point in having illusions that in themselves they are laying the basis for a new Middle East peace. In the most likely scenario, after many more bombs and many more bodies, Israel's key objectives - significantly damaging Hamas and closing the tunnels from Egypt into Gaza - are unlikely to be fulfilled. As for Gaza, the bomb damage, the disgusting human cost, the bitterness and recrimination are hardly likely to lead to a stable situation. The seeds of future conflict are being sown by the present one. Yet, though there is a qualitative gulf between the devastated infrastructure of Gaza and the first world living standards of Israelis, the economy has been left to decay after two decades of neoliberal mismanagement. Numbers under the official bread line are increasing and class divisions are undergoing retrenchment. 15 per cent of Israelis are agency workers and 60 per cent earn less than $1,400/month. The top five per cent earn, on average, 7.5 times that of the bottom five per cent. If this is what capitalism means for relatively privileged Israeli workers, capitalist peace time would see Palestinians receive even thinner gruel.

What way out is there? The most likely scenario, a peace deal backed by the US, EU and UN, would in all likelihood go the way of its predecessors further down the road. A capitalist Israel, its borders flanked by an independent Palestine, could only ever be a relationship between an imperialist metropole and its semi-colonial vassals, albeit in miniature. This two state solution is one in name only. Also, in the
Socialist Party's opinion, neither is a lasting one state solution possible under capitalism. A 'democratic secular Palestine' is not viable for a number of reasons - the bitterness of the division, the qualitative difference in development, the land question, the size of Israeli capital compared with the nascent Palestinian bourgeoisie, all these and many others make South African or Northern Ireland-type solutions very unlikely. The only durable solution lies in the hands of the workers themselves - Israeli socialists have the very difficult task of breaking the working class from Zionist ideology and identification with the Jewish state. Socialists in the surrounding Arab states face the equally difficult task of building their forces in extremely testing circumstances while seeking to build strong links with oppositional movements in Israel. A socialist Israel and Palestine, in the context of a Middle Eastern socialist federation may appear as a utopian position, but holding out the hope capitalism can permanently solve the conflict is more fanciful still.

In the branch discussion, R said the demonstrations taking place across the Arab world and in Israel itself shows the objective possibility of building cross border cooperation. F suggested the key to the Middle East right now is not the traditional storm centre of Israel and Palestine, but can be found in the maelstrom of class struggle convulsing Egypt. This, he thought, offered the best circumstances for building secular, socialist politics across the region and would, in all likelihood, stimulate similar developments elsewhere, including inside Israel itself. N thought the hostility between Israelis and Palestinians was intractable, because of the religious dimension colouring the conflict. The Israeli state makes essentialist claims about Jewish identity and its relationship to the land it occupies. Its siege mentality, drawing heavily on the experience of the Holocaust and the alien otherness of the Muslim Arabs it has displaced makes it very difficult for class interests to assert themselves.

P pointed out this wasn't really an issue of ideological determinism - it was necessary to look at the material circumstances underpinning the hold Zionist ideology has. On the surface, Israel is an advanced capitalist state similar to small West European states. But it is a state sustained by the economic and military aid it receives from the USA and, to a lesser extent, the UK and others in the EU. For example, its assault on Lebanon in 2006 was dependent on this support. Truth is by itself it cannot fight anything other than extremely short, sharp wars. Economically, the aid funds a higher standard of living for Jewish workers than Arab Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab workers in surrounding states. The benefits may be relatively marginal, but the Jewish working class does have a material stake in the continuation of the present state of affairs - as was the case with white workers under apartheid and Protestant workers in Northern Ireland. Instead of seeing the Israeli bourgeoisie as its enemy, the Palestinians in general and Hamas in particular appear a more immediate threat to their welfare. This is why it is especially important (and heartening!) to see big mobilisations against Israel's war in Gaza in the US and UK. Political pressure could reverse their long standing policies - without the subsidies and aid, the Israeli ruling class would undergo a sudden and radical change of heart and take peace more seriously.

Replying to the discussion, A argued that the SP's forerunner opposed the setting up of the Israeli state because it would entrench divisions between Jew and Arab and put a brake on the development of class struggle politics in the Middle East - a prediction that, unfortunately, was borne out. But the film of history cannot be wound back. A substantial Jewish population possessing a national consciousness exist, and it requires skillful politics across borders to convince the working class to abandon its marginal interest in the Zionist state. But despite the system of privileges a class struggle exists - in 2003, 700,000 public sector workers went on strike, followed the year after by 300,000 government workers. When it comes to the blacking of scab cargo, Israeli dock workers have proved to be as militant as their counterparts elsewhere. Similarly, the same is true of the Palestinians themselves. In Gaza, 100,000 struck in 2006 (alongside solidarity actions in the West Bank), broke in solidarity with the Lebanese during the war, and resumed again afterwards. The fire is burning, but Zionism ensures it is the Palestinians, not the Israeli ruling class, who are the ones consumed by the flames.

Not being do-nothings, the branch planned its actions for the following week - a
demo at Keele and helping out at the party's intervention in the London and Birmingham demonstrations.


Dave Riley said...

Same ole. Same ole. This is the same "sectarian divide" line that the SP plonks ontop of the Irish national struggle. I think it's terribly wrong, workerist and schematic...etcetera.

However, I'm not keen to take it up here.

But you also write about Hamas, that they "are authoritarian and reactionary, and their rocket launch responses to Israel's repeated punitive expeditions have ultimately done nothing but provide a pretext for the government to move against them."

In the first instance Hamas isn't as "reactionary" as you suggest. Don't you follow Palestinian politics?

Aside from the fact that Hams has the support of the Palestinian people (despite Israel preference for Fatah), it is less being less stereotypically "Islamist," than your label suggests. "It has ended its deployment of suicide bombing (despite this never being reciprocated by Israel), its call for a long-term 'hudna' (ceasefire) with Israel if the latter agreed to internaitonal law and withdrew to its 1967 borders to allow a Palestinian state on 22% of Palestine (despite Hamas' correct belief that this can be no permanent solution), the fact that after being democratically elected, Hamas offered a coalition with Fatah (which Fatah rejected), did not launch into any furious "Islamist" legislation or repression, did not enforce chador, formed alliances with left-wing Palestinian factions, stood a Christian on its election slate, and made clear that Jews were not the enemy and that all three "people of the book" could share the land, and so on.." (ref).

The second thing you say is almost incredibly careless. You write that "their rocket launch responses to Israel's repeated punitive expeditions" have given Israel a pretext to invade.That's of course what Israel says, but the case is very very different. No Hamas rockets have been deployed against Israel during the ceasefire and to spin that lie only panders to the Zionist war machine. Even some main stream news services can get that one right, so why can't Stoke SP?

Ken said...

This account is evidence of how much baggage the SP still carries from Militant. How you can write post after post about History and Class Consciousness and then attribute Israeli-Jewish workers' identification with the Israeli state to their 'higher standard of living' is puzzling to say the least.

Democratic rights! The national question! Politics, politics, politics!

Phil said...

Hold on a moment, Dave, I thought the sectarian divide "line" - as it was taught to me when I was a callow youth around Workers' Power - basically amounted to a position that saw Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine as "tribal" conflicts. The answer was for workers to forget about all that and unite around the fight for jobs, services, etc - a stance at odds with the arguments made in this post.

I don't follow Palestinian politics in great depth as I do not have the time, but I am open to be convinced that Hamas is not a populist right-wing formation. As you will see from my previous post on the conflict, I argued with Mod that it would be wrong to regard Hamas as unchanging and frozen in time. He thinks differently, but I don't think the evidence supports his position at all.

Re: the rockets, I was simply reporting what was said. But seriously, are you suggesting Hamas or its allies did not launch rocket attacks prior to Israel's assault, regardless of whether they were justified or not?

Phil said...

Ken, in the History and Class Consciousness posts I criticised Lukacs for moments where he lapses into ideological determinism. The hold Zionism has on Israeli Jewish workers has material roots - remember the old adage, social being conditions consciousness?

ModernityBlog said...

not bad, Phil, a bit too reductionist with the comparison with the Six counties for my taste, however, seriously, I think you missed out about Hamas scabbing on the Gaza teachers strike, etc

I wouldn't even dream of mentioning the Hamas Charter, but to those who think that Hamas are in anyway "progressive" they should read the bit about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in it

Anonymous said...

This explains some of what is going on there as well as this.

Paul said...

Hi guys, I assume Dave you actually sympathise with violent Islamist groupings? As to 'It has ended its deployment of suicide bombing (despite this never being reciprocated by Israel),'

Well that ranks as amongst the dumbest things I've ever heard! Reciprocate? How could Israel reciprocate as they were not sending suicide bombers against Hamas? Well at least all they had to put up with was rocket attacks instead.

Boffy said...


As a counter to the "Let's all be Hamas" Nationalism of Dave above could I point you and your readers to my recent blog Palestine - Nationalism v Socialist Internationalism , which is in fact a reproduction of a document I wrote 25 years ago. It quotes extensively from Lenin to show that the idea of working class unity across national divides within states is deeply rooted in Marxist thought, and I would suggest that it is in fact the infection of the Labour Movement with the National Socialist ideology of Stalinism, and of Third Worldist petit-bouregeois nationalism.