frontline 7


Since the publication of an article in the first issue of Frontline 1, in spite of escalating repression by Sharon the Palestinian Intifada has extended and deepened. It is clear that the Palestinian struggle will not go away. It will be necessary to analyse the events of the last year in a future issue of Frontline. That is not the aim of the present article, in which Murray Smith deals with some of the fundamental aspects of the problem, which began with the Zionist colonisation of Palestine and has existed in its present form for thirty-five years.

There is wide agreement on the left in Britain and internationally on support for the Palestinian struggle, which means today support for the demands of the Intifada: for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem as its capital, the withdrawal of Israeli troops, the right of the refugees to return, the dismantlement of the settlements. There is equally a debate on what is the long-term solution: one state, two states, a federation? What is really at issue is how to arrive at a solution whereby Israelis and Palestinians can live together in peace in a relatively small area which both consider as their homeland.


To help clarify things, it is necessary to get rid of two red herrings. First of all, the idea that there can be 'no solution under capitalism'; and secondly, the advocacy of a solution which presupposes the existence of socialism. Why are these red herrings? On the first point, it depends what meaning you give to the word 'solution'. There can of course be no solution under capitalism to the exploitation of the working class, because it is intrinsic to capitalism, and therefore no fundamental solution to the poverty and inequality that comes with it, not in the Middle East, not anywhere. Nor can there be a solution to economic crisis, because that is also an intrinsic part of capitalism. Furthermore, it is true that under capitalism, racism, sexism and national oppression are endemic and can only be eliminated with the overthrow of capitalism, and even then not automatically. But it is not true that nothing can be done about racial, sexual or national oppression under capitalism. Scores of countries have won national independence under capitalism. Contrary to widespread expectations, apartheid was dismantled in order to save South African capitalism. American Blacks won legal equality under capitalism. Women have made advances under capitalism. East Timor has just won its independence after a 25-year long struggle. None of the above abolished the social oppression and exploitation that are part of capitalism, but they did remove or reduce specific forms of discrimination and political oppression and cleared the way for the struggle for socialism. Specifically concerning the Palestinian question, various solutions have been proposed which do not go beyond the framework of capitalism. The fact that none of them has so far been implemented does not mean none of them ever will be.

Secondly, simply to say that that under socialism Israelis and Palestinians could live together as part of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East is largely insufficient. No doubt they could, but that rather begs the question of where socialism will come from. The purpose of Lenin's approach to the national question was not to say, let's get socialism and all these national problems will be solved. It was to propose a policy of self-determination up to and including separation and the creation of an independent state. This would remove a particular form of national oppression and create more favourable conditions for the unity of the working class of the oppressed and oppressor nations. It would also create the conditions for the separation between the working class and the ruling class in each country. The problem in Israel-Palestine is therefore to propose a solution to the national question and therefore open the road to socialism, currently blocked on both sides. On the Israeli side because as long as the Israeli working class feels threatened it will always in the last resort make common cause with its own bourgeoisie. On the Palestinian side, because no discourse about socialism can have any serious impact unless it starts from the measures that are necessary to end the national oppression of the Palestinian people.


What is the relationship between the Israeli working class and the Palestinian working class? Sometimes comparisons and analogies are made between three cases, Northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine and South Africa. In each case there was/is a privileged layer: the Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Whites in South Africa, the Israeli Jews; and an oppressed layer, the Catholics, the non-Whites, the Palestinians. Let's leave aside Israel-Palestine for the moment and look at the other two cases. In Northern Ireland we advocate the unity of Catholic and Protestant workers. To my knowledge, no one ever seriously argued that the overthrow of apartheid would come about through the unity of Black and White workers, nor did it. In Northern Ireland the privileged position of Protestant workers (for example in access to jobs and housing) that existed to some extent in the past has disappeared or been severely reduced. Catholic and Protestant workers have a similar standard of living, often work together, are members of the same unions, go on strike together, have demonstrated together against sectarian atrocities. It is therefore possible to argue that because they face the same problems, the elements of unity that exist on an economic level should be strengthened and extended to the political level, and that objectively, Catholic and Protestant workers have more in common with each other than they have with the Protestant and Catholic upper classes. The obstacles to unity are considerable, in the form of the weight of the past, including the recent past, the increased physical separation of Protestant and Catholic communities, and the influence on the one hand of an ideology that continues to vaunt Protestant supremacy and on the other Republicanism which has never been able to, or indeed seriously sought to, address Protestant workers. But the obstacles to unity are not by definition insurmountable.

In South Africa the White working class formed part of a privileged bloc with the White bourgeoisie and middle classes. Its privileges flowed directly from the functioning of an economy whose mainspring was the super-exploitation of Black workers and this tied it to the White ruling class. Black and White workers didn't do the same jobs, weren't in the same union, didn't have anything remotely resembling the same conditions of life, didn't have the same political rights, or absence of them in the case of the non-Whites. The pre-condition for the ending of the oppression of the majority was the overthrow of the system from which White workers materially benefited. It was only possible for Whites to participate as individuals in the struggle against apartheid by breaking with their own community, as a certain number of them did.


Israel-Palestine is neither Northern Ireland nor South Africa. It is not credible to simply appeal to Israeli and Palestinian workers to unite, in the way we do in Northern Ireland. What is the reality of the two working classes? They live almost entirely separated from each other. Israeli workers work in the high-tech industry, in the public sector, in manufacturing and services. They are members of the Histradut, a Jewish-only union which is an integral part of the Zionist establishment. Before the Intifada (in normal conditions) the average Israeli worker earned ten times as much as the average Palestinian worker: today it is twenty times. Palestinians work (when they are able to find work) in small-scale industry and commerce, or on the land, or for the Palestinian Authority. Some still work in Israel, or did until the start of the Intifada, in particular in sectors like construction, usually going back to the Occupied Territories at night. Situations where Israelis and Palestinians work together are fairly rare. Ironically, the Jerusalem pizzeria which was the scene of a suicide bombing was one example.

Israel is in effect a First World country living cheek by jowl with Palestine, a Third World country, and not one of the richest. Israeli workers live in a country which began as a settler state, built on land expropriated by force or guile from the Palestinians. Therefore, until the resolution of the Palestinian national question, they will live in a permanent state of insecurity. But their standard of living does not depend on the exploitation of the Palestinian working class, which is marginal to the Israeli economy. The two societies are parallel. Israel politically oppresses the Palestinians and also has a colonial-type relationship with the Palestinian economy. But this relationship is not decisive for Israeli capitalism, which is thoroughly integrated into the global capitalist economy. Indeed the non-resolution of the Palestinian question cripples the ability of Israeli capitalism to export to and invest in other Middle Eastern countries.


What does this mean for working-class unity? It means that it cannot be posed as in Northern Ireland, building from economic to political unity. But nor does it mean that it is impossible, as in South Africa. There is in Israel a real class struggle between Israeli workers and Israeli bosses. It is accentuated by the fact that the majority of the working class is made up of Sephardic or Oriental Jews, whereas the ruling elite is essentially of Ashkenaze or European origin. Sometimes this struggle takes very sharp and indeed violent forms, and has particularly done so over recent years as Israeli capitalism has gone on the same kind of neo-liberal offensive as its counterparts elsewhere. But this class struggle remains on the economic level. It has virtually no political expression. The Israeli working class remains tied to the bourgeois Zionist parties and it will remain so as long as it feels that national unity is necessary to defend the state and the security of its own existence. In other words the political independence of the Israeli working class is blocked so long as it is not secure in its material existence and the only way it can be secure is by the resolution of the Palestinian national question. The basis of unity between Jewish and Arab workers can only be political, on the basis of the rights of the Palestinian people being accepted by the Israeli Jews and the right of the Israeli Jews to live in peace and security recognised by the Palestinians.


What are the rights of the Palestinian people? The right to self-determination and to an independent state. On what territory? Let us look at things from the Israeli side. The aim of Zionism, achieved in 1948, was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The vast majority of the Arab population fled or was driven out. The Palestinians were left with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, considerably less than the territory accorded to them by the UN partition plan in 1947. Furthermore, Gaza was administered by Egypt and the West Bank annexed by Jordan, so there was no Palestinian state anywhere. In 1967 Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank. Why did it not just simply annex them? Annexation would have left it faced with three choices. One, to accord the Palestinian Arab population Israeli citizenship. But then, demographically, in a relatively short period of time there would have been an Arab majority in the state, hence no Jewish state. As the then Prime Minister Golda Meir put it in 1970, in case of annexation, we would wake up every morning wondering how many Arab babies had been born during the night. Two, they could have expelled the Arab population, which was politically impossible. Three, they could have denied Arabs the vote, thereby creating a real system of apartheid. But that was not part of the Zionist project, which ideally would have preferred a 100 per cent Jewish state. When we speak of apartheid in relation to Israel, we should be careful. There are elements of apartheid. The Palestinian zones increasingly resemble Bantustans, dramatically so in recent months, and Israeli Arabs are treated as second-class citizens, without the same rights as the Jewish population. But Israeli Arabs vote and sit in Parliament, though they are excluded from any real influence on political life. That is a democratic luxury that Israel can afford so long as the Arabs make up a sixth of the population; it would be a different story if they made up half.

At the moment the demand of the Palestinians is for Israeli withdrawal and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in Jerusalem, for the right of the refugees to return, for dismantlement of the settlements. Is there any chance of this happening? If you look at it in terms of Ariel Sharon's policies, it would seem that there isn't. At the moment the logic of Sharon's policy is to cut the West Bank and Gaza into mini-Bantustans by developing settlements and Jews-only roads. Behind this a 'solution' is becoming more popular in Israel, that of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, behind a border made up of high walls and barbed wire. This may seem at first sight like some kind of a solution, but it would not resolve the problems of Jerusalem, the settlements or the refugees. However, an agreement is not entirely ruled out 2. A Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza is not impossible. Let us imagine that it comes into being. We would therefore have the State of Israel side by side with the State of Palestine. Would that solve the problem? It would certainly be a huge step forward. It would in the short term end or vastly reduce the armed conflict. Possibly certain Palestinian groups would continue to attack targets inside Israel, but they would lose their legitimacy and the public support they enjoy at present. Possibly certain extreme Zionist groups would resort to terrorism, but they would be isolated. The creation of a Palestinian state would make it possible to move the problem from the military to the political plane. Political life and class politics would be able to develop more freely in both states. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not be definitively resolved.


In the first place there is the demographic problem, or put more simply the problem of the relationship between population and territory. At present over 3 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza, that is on 22 per cent of the territory of historic Palestine (as constituted in 1918 under the British Mandate). About half of them are refugees from what is now the State of Israel. In the other 78 per cent, which makes up the State of Israel, there live 5.3 million Jews and over a million Arabs. Overall that gives a percentage of 55 per cent Jews and 45 per cent Arabs. The Jewish population is unlikely to grow dramatically by immigration: the last big influx was of Russian and East European Jews in the 90s. (Between 1989 and 1998, the net flow of immigration was 650,000). Today for the first time in its history, the Israeli Jewish population is growing through natural increase and not through immigration, therefore more slowly. It has been estimated that by between 2005 and 2010, the Jewish-Arab ratio will be 50-50, and that in 2050 out of a population of 36 million in Israel-Palestine, only 30 per cent will be Jewish 3. There would therefore be a constantly growing Arab population crammed into just over 20 per cent of historic Palestine, a Third World country with all the problems of underdevelopment, poverty and unemployment that that implies. The situation would rapidly become explosive. Meanwhile the other 80 per cent would constitute the State of Israel, with a growing Arab minority within it. It is simply unimaginable that the question of the borders, or of the ban on Arab immigration into Israel, or both, would not be posed.

Even if we take the national question out of the equation, Israel, like any other advanced capitalist country, needs immigrant workers to do the most menial and low-paid jobs. At present it solves this problem by importing them (currently around 200,000) from Asia and Eastern Europe. In normal circumstances, a country like Israel would find all the cheap labour it needed from Palestine and other neighbouring Arab countries. But that would undermine the Jewish character of the state. And the nub of the problem is precisely in this maintenance of a state defined as specifically Jewish. It is not simply the case that Israel was established in the past by expropriating Palestinian territory, but we have to move on and accept it as a fait accompli. It is that it can only continue to exist through an immigration policy that is frankly racist, which allows and indeed encourages the immigration of Jews from anywhere in the world and accords them citizenship, but forbids the return of the refugees and any immigration by Palestinians or other Arabs. The proclaimed Jewish nature of the state is reinforced by a panoply of laws ranging from a ban on mixed marriages to over 90 per cent of the land and property in Israel being reserved for Jews (i.e. no-one else can buy it). For socialists, or even for consistent democrats, the maintenance of these Zionist laws and controls is indefensible; and their abolition would fairly rapidly undermine the Jewish nature of the state.


The above demographic projections take no account of the refugee problem. There are at present 2.4 million refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, plus those in the Occupied Territories already mentioned. So far the best Israeli offer has been to admit 40,000 of them. Former minister Yossi Beilin has gone so far as to raise this figure to 100,000. Now it may be that not all of those refugees will want to return to Israel proper. It could certainly be negotiated that those who did want to return could do so progressively. But there are likely to be a lot more than 100,000 of them. And the main destination of those who were not accepted by Israel would be an already overcrowded Palestinian state.

If Israel continues to exist as a Jewish advanced capitalist country surrounded by Third World Arab countries it will have to face increasing demographic, social and finally political pressures which are likely in the end to overwhelm it, whatever its military might. It would also face pressure from the growing Palestinian minority inside Israel for equal rights. The only future for the Jewish population of Israel is to live alongside the Palestinian Arabs, not walled off from them by immigration controls, barbed wire and border police. That is why a two-state solution can only be a transitional step towards a single state. Such a state would have to be democratic and secular, neither Jewish, Christian nor Muslim, but with freedom of religion guaranteed. It would also have to be binational, that is it would have to recognise that the Israelis are not just Palestinians who happen to be of the Jewish religion (actually, many Israeli Jews are non-religious) but that they constitute a specific national entity whose rights would have to be respected, in ways that would have to be worked out. It is possible but not likely that such a state could be established under capitalism. It is any case the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is compatible with the perspective of a socialist Middle East.


1. The Second Intifada: no justice, no peace, Murray Smith, Frontline 1, February 2001.

2. One of Israel's biggest propaganda victories has been the idea that Yasser Arafat refused the offer of a just solution and a Palestinian state at Camp David in July 2000. A brief analysis of these negotiations and of the much less publicised discussions at Taba in January 2001 can be found here

3. The figures on the demographic evolution of Israel-Palestine are drawn from a study made by two demographers, one French and one Israeli, presented at a debate organised by the National Institute of Demographic Studies in Paris in November 2000. The Israeli government takes the demographic question very seriously. It has even appointed a minister, Dan Meridor, whose task is to study its implications for Israel.