The Struggle for Palestine

Barry Finger

[from New Politics, vol. 8, no. 2 (new series), whole no. 30, Winter 2001]

BARRY FINGER is a member of the New Politics editorial board.


THE BREAKDOWN OF THE OSLO ACCORD, announced in dramatic and unambiguous terms, by the al-Aksa intifada in the occupied territories and by the parallel awakening of the Palestinians within Israel, marks the triumph -- in the words of an Ha'aretz journalist -- of the "direct-democracy of the street" over the "peace process." Oslo, as many have emphasized, was a particularly unique peace process in its lopsided design. For it failed to respond to the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians for self-determination, for security, for meaningful sovereignty in Jerusalem and for the repatriation of its refugee millions. These issues were to be placed in abeyance while a period of confidence-building measures took effect. During this interregnum, Arafat and the Palestinian Authority were to prove their worthiness as peace partners by controlling their opposition, restraining terrorists within their midst and by supplanting Israel's occupation armies with a domestic police (CIA- and Mossad-trained) of comparable efficiency in terms of Israel's security needs. Israel, for its part, was not required to gain the trust of the Palestinians by defining its borders, dismantling its settlements, ending the policy of house demolitions, or relinquishing its control over land, water resources, roads, electricity, commerce -- or Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, for all its demonstrated advantages to Israel, Oslo was greeted with continuous suspicion and hostility by the Israeli rightwing. Their great fear remained this: by placing the resolution of all issues of major concern to the Palestinians beyond the time frame of the Accords, the Palestinians were all but invited to revisit these issues and raise new demands once the time limit on Oslo had elapsed and Israeli troops had been withdrawn. And this fear was not entirely unjustified. For by accepting a two-state solution -- of which Oslo was but one, provisional and incipiently flawed formulation -- the Palestinians abandoned the perspective, deeply inculcated for purposes of social cohesion and ideological regimentation on both sides of the national divide, that the destruction of Israel is the precondition for the satisfaction of Palestinian rights. The Palestinians had, thereby, knocked from under the Israeli establishment the central political prop supporting its proscriptive justification for every act of brutality, violation of international law, act of territorial expansion and abrogation of democratic norm by which it purportedly "secures" Israel's existence.

The Israeli Establishment, including its liberal wing -- for all its professed desire for peace -- also fears international reconciliation to be a potent corrosive to national unity, international Jewish solidarity and unconditional American backing. That is because the "risk" of peace opens the door to all the moral uncertainties that now cloud Israel's history, papers over inter-ethnic resentments, limits democracy and restrains class conflict -- concerns which remain so successfully suppressed and postponed by the perfervid atmosphere of war and pending war. And that is why true national reconciliation is far more discomfiting to the Israeli status quo than the threat of war.

It is also for that reason that the "democracy of the streets," with its call for a holy war now resonating throughout the Arab world -- however understandable, given the absolute frustration of the Palestinian masses with an all but sterile "peace" process -- is a tragedy of immense proportion. That responsibility for this tragedy lies squarely on the shoulders of Clinton and the Barak administrations is now patently clear. Ever since July, the Palestinians have been cajoled, prodded and pressured to sign a disgraceful peace treaty which would have left the Palestinians with nothing more than a string of discreet and isolated Bantustans. It became manifestly clear that Arafat was being asked to sign on to an agreement which would change the form of occupation, not remove it. This was the bitter, but not inevitable, harvest of Oslo.

What is also clear is that the program of Islamic Jihad and of Hamas, movements relatively quiescent for several years, is now the only alternative to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (PA) currently able to sport a mass following. And it is now Arafat who must run ahead of the mob in order to reassert his "authority." Yet he carefully makes sure to restrain the PA with its 30,000 firearms, while the youth of the nation throw stones and are massacred in the streets. Similarly, the echo in the streets of Arab capitals expresses their defiance of regimes prepared to offer wide-ranging compromises to Israel, but which are incapable of granting the most minimal of democratic concessions to their own peoples. These regimes are no more prepared for war, however, than is Arafat, confining themselves, despite their occasional rhetorical bombast, to freezing diplomatic relations with Israel. The intifada and the call for war are therefore likely to remain largely cries of protest against a seemingly impervious reality. Which is not to deny that such calls have also inspired more malevolent forms of random terrorism against innocent Jews and Israelis, nor the remote possibility that Arab leaders may find that they, too, have to appease the seething pro-war sentiment with something a tad more deadly than diplomatic maneuvering.

This mood will, undoubtedly, be exacerbated by a new election season in Israel. No government in Israel of the past decade has lasted more than two years, and Barak's has understandably proven to be no exception. But elections tend to bring out the sleaziest aspect of the liberal wing of the Establishment, as it invariably strives to out- do the Right in its contempt, chauvinism and bare-bones brutality toward the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. This is how Israeli liberalism reasserts its "tough" nationalist credentials, as hard-nosed equals to the Right, before offering some olive branch to the Palestinians to inch the peace process along. And, given the pogrom-like atmosphere which exists and is abetted by the government of Israel towards its own internal Arab subjects, it would be highly unlikely that the next election will find Palestinian Israelis endorsing Barak with anything like the conviction and unanimity that this community offered him in the previous election. All the more reason for the center of political gravity in Israel to shift perilously towards the right.

This has unfortunately, swayed a good deal of what remains of the sectarian Left abroad to demonstrate its solidarity with the "street" by becoming the most implacable proponents of an ultra-Arab nationalism. Exorcising the specter of Oslo, and more importantly -- a two-state solution which it misguidedly identifies as inextricably linked to Oslo, signifies a creeping return, at least rhetorically and ideologically, to a policy based on a mirror image of the Israeli chauvinsim: of the forceful unification of Palestine through the subjugation and imposed amalgamation -- or dispossession -- of one of its national constituents. It is just that the polarities of "good" and "bad" nation are now quite simply reversed. All the old, tired clichés of the "Arab Revolution" with which the Left deluded itself for decades have come bubbling back to the surface in the less-than-veiled hope that a nationalist war waged half-heartedly against Israel -- and by extension against American imperialism, for which Israel is taken as a pure and simple proxy --could be transformed by the outraged Arab masses into a revolutionary war against both Israel and the corrupt and incompetent Arab regimes. That the only consistent exponents of this perspective remaining in the Arab world lie in the camp of religious fanaticism seems to make little difference to this remedial class of radical Leftism.


ANOTHER APPROACH HAS BEEN SUGGESTED BY A GROUP OF PALESTINIAN academics and public figures from the occupied territories who recently appealed directly to the Israeli public for an egalitarian and just solution to the Palestinian question. They argued, as described by Danny Rabinowitz in Ha'aretz, for bringing the conflict to resolution by adhering to four principles: an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borders; the establishment of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine alongside West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; Israel's recognition of its responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1948 as a precondition for the formulation of a just solution to the plight of those refugees; and mutual recognition that each side has a connection to the holy sites under its jurisdiction.

This alternative offers a point of departure to Barak and the moderate wing of the Israeli peace movement, which vacillated in their vision of peace. With the oft-repeated slogan of "they there, and we here," a two-state solution was being sold to the Israeli public, not as a means for national reconciliation, but simply as a pragmatic agreement based on national interests. This new crystallization of Palestinian demands has created the common ground for a joint struggle with the militant internationalist wing of the Israeli peace movement, which has remained oriented to the need for a comprehensive accommodation with these aspirations. And it refocuses emphasis where it properly belongs -- not on pan-Arab solidarity with the Palestinians, a given and, in and of itself, insufficient basis for the attainment of Palestinian independence -- towards the Israeli masses. It advances a programmatic basis for a joint struggle for Palestinian sovereignty and one with which the international socialist left must engage and show solidarity. For it offers both nations the prospects of a real peace that will not force the Palestinians to concede fundamental national principles.

But recognition of the need for common struggle is the preface to a program, not a socialist program itself. Any such socialist program flows from the consistent application of democratic means but does not terminate with an opposition to national oppression. Socialists are not nationalists, and, unlike those on the pro-Arab left (the former proponents of the "Arab Revolution"), cannot harbor illusions that a Palestinian state is a major step forward in the liberation of the Palestinian masses. Far from it.

While the Palestinians have every right to select their own leadership and to fight for their national rights under that banner, socialists must warn that the attainment of a nation-state exchanges the shackles of national oppression for those of class oppression. This is not just a socialist platitude. Arafat's organization has its financial roots in the Palestinian bourgeoisie in the diaspora. It was these sources which sustained Fatah in its formative years and which enable Arafat to rule over a bloated Palestinian Authority staffed by appointees whose sole qualifications rest on their personal loyalties to Arafat. The PLO at one time enjoyed wide support as champion of the Palestinian struggle, but Arafat has always been careful to balance the interests of the Palestinians with that of his conservative financial base. As a practical matter, the subjugation of Palestine under a corrupt Arafat regime, not to mention a Hamas theocracy, is unlikely to surpass the pitiful democratic norms which characterize the rest of the Arab world and may -- in some ways -- be even less tolerant of political diversity than the occupying force it casts off. Arafat, it is worth recalling, is no civil libertarian and does not shy away from routinely imprisoning people without trial and torturing his opponents.

This sobering reality cannot make socialists neutralists towards the Palestinian national struggle, but it does distinguish us from those who believe that the solution to the national question gives rise or advances the conditions necessary for the class emancipation of the Palestinian workers and peasants. That is, the emerging bourgeois Palestinian state cannot be seen as the framework within which any historical breakthrough in class struggle will occur. On the contrary, there is every reason to anticipate that wide-scale repression will follow the consolidation of the Palestinian state and will mark a setback for Palestinian socialists struggling for both the extension of democratic rights and the improvement in the lot of the Palestinian masses.

Rather our solution must be internationalist. For there are specific and identifiable dynamics within the Israeli/Palestinian context which can be brought to bear in the struggle for Palestinian statehood and which may, under certain circumstances, cement a basis for international solidarity. The key to this perspective is the relaxation of national enmity as a means to Jewish-Arab working class unity. It is not the cold peace of Barak or the turn inward by the Palestinians toward the Arab world that can advance this process, but rather Palestinian independence based on open borders and the elimination of military tensions.


THE POINT IS THIS. THE POLITICAL BATTLE FOR AN INDEPENDENT Palestine must itself evolve into an implicit microcosm of international struggle whereby the elemental democratic aspirations of the Palestinian masses are buttressed on an indispensable second front by peace activist pressure within Israel. Such possibilities were first introduced into the region by the PLO's abandonment of the whole "armed struggle/Arab Revolution" claptrap in favor of a galvanizing appeal for redress of national injustice, over the heads of the Israeli ruling classes, to the hearts and minds of prospective Israeli counterparts. This bridge- building has already attained far-reaching implications, eroding and dissolving in a scant few years the entire ideological edifice of Zionist exclusivity and calling into question the fundamental inequity of the Israeli political structure composed of Jewish citizens and Arab subjects. It has, in its post-Zionist form, begun to undermine all the founding myths of Israel, foremost among which concerns the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem. Reflecting this ideological upheaval, the head of the Israeli Supreme Court has recently called for the integration of Palestinian Israelis into all strata of society, supporting affirmative action remedies to insure that the nation's resources are justly allocated to that end.

The final removal of Israeli military rule over the West Bank and Gaza with an agreement over shared sovereignty in Jerusalem and a resolution of the refugee problem would mark a stinging political rebuke for Israeli reaction, which, in conjunction with the demise of its ideological premises, would be a blow from which it could never fully recover. Bourgeois class interest would begin to displace chauvinist populism on the Israeli rightwing, and Israeli politics could then be expected to undergo a fundamental class-oriented realignment. Palestinian independence, under such circumstances, would be a victory both for the Palestinians and for the Israelis.

The overarching significance of an ensuing "two-state solution" is that it would prepare the framework through which the Palestinian and Israeli masses can extend and deepen their economic and social interdependence -- whose foundation was already paved in common struggle, while retaining, for as long as they desire, their respective national autonomies. The "two-state" solution is, then, a step forward only if it is based on an increasing access of the Palestinians as a whole to the Israeli economy. For it is completely illusory to maintain the proposition of Palestinian (and Arab) nationalism that the material, cultural and social welfare of the Palestinian masses will or could be increased without the active participation of the Israeli proletariat. The Israeli GNP is twenty times that of the occupied territories. It is only the possibilities unlocked by an integrated economic structure that further encourage the prospect of joint Israeli-Palestinian trade union struggle, open housing and anti-discrimination struggles, etc. These and the myriad other confidence-building measures arising both from the experience of international class solidarity and the awakening of Palestinian Israelis to the prospect of an American-like civil rights struggle are precisely those that can lead the Israeli and Palestinian masses to fundamentally break their nationalist ties with their own ruling classes and to replace these with cross-border class alliances.

This perspective crucially rests on a joint struggle for Palestine as the first great international confidence-building measure and opening salvo of a cascading struggle to free the region of its nationalist poisons and to ultimately reorganize the social and economic basis of the Mid-East society.

And it is this perspective, I think, which separates revolutionary socialism from those on the left who so enthusiastically applaud the passing of power from Arafat to the Hamas streets and their ultra-nationalist secular supporters. The frustrations of the Palestinian masses in the face of interminable Israeli foot dragging, of the brutal provocations of an occupation army, of the collective punishments, the house demolitions, the land thefts and the list can be extended indefinitely -- are entirely understandable, as the moral collapse of the Establishment wing of the Israeli peace movement is entirely reprehensible. But those on the left who blindly applaud and cheer on the intifada or who harbor visions of a Palestinian nationalism igniting a revolutionary Mid-East conflagration are cruelly deceiving themselves and the Palestinians they claim to be in such solidarity with. Should Israel withdraw from Palestinian land because the Palestinians have created a Lebanese-type quagmire, Israel will undoubtedly respond by placing a cordon sanitaire around Palestine. Palestine will become a Gulf state dependency, if not also an Islamic dictatorship, and the prospects of international class struggle would be placed on indefinite hold. Israel, too, will be subject to the ideological hegemony of the most loathsome elements in its political firmament, elements which might otherwise be facing extinction.

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