Crisis in the Middle East
(Originally published in Inqaba Ya Basebenzi No. 9, February-April 1983)
What lies at the root of the conflict between Israel and the Arab states, which led to the war in Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut?
The first part of this article described the historical development of the crisis in the Middle East—how the region and its peoples were fragmented by imperialism, and how Jewish immigration into Palestine laid the basis for the emergence of Israel as the main bastion of imperialist power in the region after World War II.
The struggle of the Palestinian people expelled from Israel remains the central issue in the Middle East. Scattered throughout the Arab world, with hundreds of thousands still trapped in refugee camps, the Palestinian workers and peasants cannot solve their problems except through the revolutionary overthrow of the reactionary Arab regimes as well as the Israeli regime.
But how can this be done? The policies of the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation have proved completely bankrupt. They have relied on the support of the rotten Arab regimes in waging war against Israel.
But the backward Arab states, wracked by national and class oppression, have not been able to match the military power of the modern state of Israel, based on the cohesion of the Jewish population in the face of external attack.
Palestinian guerilla attacks have been mere pinpricks, enraging the Israelis and leading to savage reprisals. This in turn, has sparked off terrorist counter-attacks by embittered Palestinian youth.
The result has been a horrifying spiral of violence, which has swung the Jewish workers even more solidly behind the Israeli regime.
The second part of the article examines the way forward for the Palestinian workers and peasants, and the working people of the whole Middle East, on the basis of Marxist policies.
Against the purely military challenge of the Arab states, the PLO leadership and the terrorist groups alike, the Israeli regime has proved invincible. But, under the pressure of 35 years of continuous crisis, all the factors that led to Israel’s military preponderance have increasingly turned into factors of social instability.
The policies of massive immigrations so vital to the military effort, threw together in Israel a Jewish population deeply divided within itself, united only in war against the Arab regimes.
The ‘Western’ Jews (from the USA, Europe etc.) have formed the upper, most privileged layer. The ‘Eastern’ Jews who fled from the Arab states found themselves second-class citizens in Israel, serving as cheap labour next to the Arab ‘third-class’ citizens.
Because of their experience at the hands of the Arab regimes, the Eastern Jews have backed the right-wing Zionist parties. The more liberal parties, including the Labour Party which ruled Israel from 1948 to 1977, have found their support mainly among the Westernised middle class and the upper layers of workers.
The 1977 election victory of the right-wing Likud coalition, led by the former terrorist Begin, reflected this split.
Thirty years of Labour-led governments had failed utterly to solve any of the problems facing Israel. With policies only marginally different from those or other Zionist parties, Labour had led the country into a state of permanent war.
The economy, hit by world recession and strained by its military burden, had sunk into a mire. Total growth for 1976-77 was a mere 2.6%, while inflation had been more than 30% for five consecutive years.
These conditions weighed most heavily on the workers. The number of work-days lost in strikes nearly doubled from 1975 to 1976. In 1976, three-quarters of the strikes officially recorded were due to wage demands.
Tainted with corruption and offering no perspective of improvement, Labour massively lost votes to Likud.
The most potent factor in rallying support behind Begin, however, were the activities of the Palestinian terrorist groups. Begin, in the eyes of the Jewish voters, stood for a hardline policy and seemed more capable of commanding the armed fortress Israel had become.
But Begin’s policies for shoring up the capitalist economy, no less hard-line than his foreign policy, have weighed most heavily on precisely the poorer, ‘Eastern’ workers who have given him their vote. The result has been deepening class tensions and a climate of chronic industrial unrest.
These problems, however, have been overshadowed and compounded by the inability of the ruling class to solve the national question. Their policies of armed repression, far from crushing the Palestinian struggle, have in fact laid the basis for new and greater revolutionary upheavals in the future.
Through military victories the Israeli regime has made considerable territorial gains. The 1967 war, ending in the occupation of the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, brought the whole of the former Palestine under Israeli control.
From the military point of view this expansion has been essential to the Israeli rulers. Their pre-1967 borders were difficult to secure. The West Bank, in particular, formed an Arab enclave thrust into the centre of Israel, placing Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem within range of Arab guns and rockets.
But having conquered the West Bank, the regime needed to hold it. The initial pretence that the occupation was only temporary has been dropped. Thousands of Jewish settlers are being moved onto the West Bank, forcing Arabs off the land. Begin has made it clear that his government will never allow the West Bank to be returned to Arab rule.
By driving the Arab forces off the Golan Heights and across the River Jordan, the work of the Israeli generals has been simplified. Socially, however, it has confronted the regime with new contradictions.
1,300,000 Palestinians inhabiting the West Bank and Gaza have been brought under Israel’s rule, greatly diluting the preponderance of the more than three million strong Jewish population on which the power of the ruling class depends. The people of the occupied territories have been denied democratic rights, first being placed under military rule and later under a no less repressive civilian administration.
These measures, far from breaking the spirit of the Arab population, could only harden their resentment. In effect, the regime has incorporated into Israel, for the first time since 1948, a basis for mass struggle against its rule.
On the West Bank and in Israel itself, the ‘Arab’ Communist Party, Rakah (a separate organisation from the ‘Jewish’ Communist Party’), became the focus of Arab opposition. Rakah mayors and town councils (subject to the arbitrary power of the Israeli administration) were elected in many West Bank towns. In Israel, Rakah’s share of the Arab vote rose from 11% in 1970 to 50% in 1977.
In the 1977 elections, Rakah formed an electoral alliance with a section of the radical ‘Black Panther’ movement among the Eastern Jews, and increased its members in parliament from four to five. This reflected the potential for uniting the struggles of the Palestinian masses with that of the oppressed Jews.
The Rakah leadership, however, instead of putting forward a socialist programme for the transformation of Israel and the liberation of the occupied territories, have declared their support for the bankrupt nationalism of the PLO leadership.
While offering no perspective for the Arab masses, this policy could only alienate the vast majority of Jewish workers and deepen national divisions.
On the West Bank, militancy among the Arab population has erupted again and again into strikes, demonstrations and riots. Inevitably, however, Rakah’s failure to lead this movement and develop its enormous revolutionary potential has doomed it to setbacks and stagnation.
In one town after another, the Israeli authorities have deposed the elected municipal leadership and installed puppet ‘Village Leagues’ in their place. Village League leaders have had to be armed to protect them against the anger of ‘their’ people.
Despite the heroism and personal martyrdom of many local leaders, despite massive support among the working population, Rakah has stood by helplessly and allowed the Israeli regime to clamp down.
The policies of the PLO itself far from giving a lead or defending the mass struggles, have taken fresh layers of youth into the dead-end of exile guerilla camps.
Yet the possibility remains on the West Bank for new, mass-based struggles taking on a revolutionary momentum, throwing up new leadership and carrying across to the Arab workers in Israel and the Arab states. This perspective, a nightmare to the Israeli rulers, far overshadows any military threat to their power.
Increasingly, Israel’s military blows against the PLO in exile have been aimed not only at the PLO itself but also at the morale of the West Bank population.
This was clearly the case with the invasion of Lebanon last June. “From the outset of the fighting”, reported the London Times (5 August 1982), “Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Defence Minister, has made no secret that the aims of the invasion extend not only to lsrael’s most northerly region but also to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
” ‘The bigger the blow and the more we damage the PLO infrastructure, the more the Arabs in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] will be ready to negotiate with us and establish coexistence’ Mr Sharon predicted…”
In the longer term, however, the shock created among the Palestinian masses by lsrael’s ruthless action will wear off. To the dispossessed workers and peasants there is no alternative but struggle; and each temporary setback will harden and educate them further.
While fanning the fires of national hatred, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon has at the same time sharpened the social contradictions in Israel itself.
At the beginning of the war there was overwhelming support in Israel for Begin’s stated aim of removing the PLO rockets and artillery from within range of the northern Israeli villages. Even when it became clear that Sharon intended to go all the way to Beirut to drive out the PLO forces altogether, there remained a groundswell of support.
But the destruction of Tyre and Sidon, and the ruthless bombing of Beirut, brought horrifying numbers of civilian casualties as well as a growing number of Israeli dead. Alarm and revulsion began to spread among the Israeli population, at first on the university campuses, later among sections of the working class.
Massive anti-war demonstrations took place. Even the Israeli military was affected, with reservists on active duty protesting against the war. Anti-war leaflets and newspapers circulated among the troops. The army’s best young commander resigned over his disagreement with the aims and conduct of the war.
An Israeli soldier describes the mood within the army: “You clean out one apartment block and before going on to the next one, while you are resting, an argument breaks out: yes PLO, no PLO; yes a just war, no a just war. During the actual fighting we were having these political discussions.”
Such opposition is unprecedented in Israel, especially in wartime. Then followed the Chatila and Sabra massacre, throwing the country into political turmoil never before experienced.
This was reflected, for instance, in the amazing vote of senior army officers overwhelmingly calling for Sharon’s resignation.
Even when the immediate tensions wear off, the war will have sown seeds for future struggles between the classes and layers of Israeli society.
What the Lebanese and Palestinians have paid in blood, the Israeli workers will have to pay in money, falling living standards and lengthened military service. The total financial cost of the war has been put at $1,600 million, or 5% of Israel’s Gross National Product. This is a crippling burden to an economy already in hopeless crisis, propped up by US aid.
Inflation is now running at a staggering 130%. Israel’s foreign debt totals $18,000 million, i.e. approaching that of Poland, but with a population and an economy only a fraction of the size. Interest and repayments came to $2,200 million in 1981—equivalent to total US aid.
To pay the war bill, the government is cutting $200 million from non-military spending. Value-added tax has been put up from 12% to 15% and there will be a compulsory ‘war loan’, equalling about 6% of take-home pay, deducted from workers’ wages.
But Israeli workers will not be prepared to make endless sacrifices. New struggles will blow up as the ruling class try to unload the burdens of the crisis onto their shoulders.
El Al strike
These tensions have been reflected in the struggles by workers of the national airline, El Al, towards the end of 1982 when, after a five-week strike, the government attempted to shut it down. In one incident, workers stormed the building where management was meeting and prevented them from taking the decision to close.
In another protest, workers closed down Lod airport, driving back the riot police and forcing the government to retreat—events remarkable even by the militant traditions of Israeli industrial struggles.
The airliner was later ‘saved’ when the trade union leadership agreed to wage cuts, job losses and loss of fringe benefits—a recipe for continuing bitterness and future struggles by the workers.
On a capitalist basis, being used to defend imperialist interests, Israeli workers have no better prospect before them than continuing wars and permanent armed siege. More and more among them will become receptive to socialist ideas, showing them a way to peace, security and democratic rights for the Palestinians as well as the Jews—if such an alternative were to be put.
But thus far the only programme advanced by any section or the Israeli labour leadership has been based on virulent nationalism while, on the other hand, Jewish workers have been confronted with the political dictatorship and economic backwardness represented by the Arab regimes and their clients in the PLO leadership.
It is the crisis of leadership among the Palestinian as well as the Israeli masses that has continued to trap the Israeli workers in the camp or the imperialist bourgeoisie. Only the ideas of Marxism can show them a way out.
A society ripe for revolution
In every Arab country conditions are ripening for revolution. Mass poverty, illiteracy, disease, starvation and homelessness, side by side with spectacular wealth in the hands of oil-rich rulers, sum up the hopeless incapacity of capitalism and landlordism to take the Arab countries forward.
Even in imperialism’s showcase, Israel, capitalism can provide no security for the relatively privileged Jewish workers, let alone the Arabs.
Because of the national, religious and communal divisions created in the Middle East by centuries of feudal and capitalist rule, the seething discontent among all sections of the masses will tend to find expression in struggles on national, religious or sectional lines. Every mass struggle, however, will reflect aspirations that cannot be realised on a capitalist basis, and will come into conflict with the capitalist order.
Nowhere is the revolutionary potential greater than among the Palestinian people, especially the Palestinian working class on the West Bank, in Israel and in the different Arab states.
A revolutionary movement of the Palestinian workers, drawing behind them the Palestinian masses as a whole, would usher in a period of decisive struggle for the socialist transformation of the Middle East. The greatest obstacle to such a development has been the existing PLO leadership and their policy of collaboration with the Arab regimes.
The Arab ruling classes have never been remotely concerned about the interests of the Palestinian people, any more than they have been concerned about the interests of the workers and peasants in their own countries. During 1949 to 1967, when they controlled the West Bank and Gaza, the rulers of Jordan and Egypt cynically confined the Palestinian refugees to camps, maintaining them as open sores to divert the anger of the masses onto the external enemy, Israel.
By building up the Sadats, King Husseins etc. as the ‘friends’ of the Palestinian people, the PLO leaders have for years disarmed and disoriented the movement.
In Jordan, in ‘Black September’ 1970 (dealt with in Part I), the Palestinian masses paid in blood for the refusal of their leaders to wage the struggle on a class basis.
Again in Lebanon in 1975, a revolutionary crisis opened up, placing the tasks of overthrowing capitalism and landlordism on the immediate agenda. The simmering class tensions erupted into civil war between the militias of the predominantly Christian right and the predominantly Moslem left.
Radical Palestinian guerilla forces were drawn in on the side of the left. The PLO leadership, however, tried not to be involved.
Only in January 1976, when right-wing militias attacked the Palestinian refugee camps, were the PLO leaders forced into the struggle.
The right-wing offensive was beaten back. The Lebanese army fell apart. Outright victory over the forces of the ruling class was within reach of the Palestinians and the Lebanese left.
This prospect alarmed the Israeli regime and the capitalist class internationally; but Israeli or Western intervention at this stage would have inflamed the struggle even further. It was left to the Syrian regime to deal with the situation.
Nominally supporting the Palestinian cause, the Syrian ruling elite is in reality committed even more to maintaining the uneasy status quo in the region. The overthrow of capitalism in Lebanon would have opened a volcano on its very borders, involving certain conflict with Israel and heightening revolutionary tensions throughout the region.
For these reasons the Syrian regime was concerned no less than the capitalists to halt the developing revolution in Lebanon. In January 1976, with the connivance of the US and Israel, Syrian-controlled Palestinian forces were sent into Lebanon to prevent victory by the left.
The revolution now entered its decisive phase. So powerful was the attraction of the revolutionary movement that the Syrian-controlled Palestinian forces disintegrated and crossed en masse to their brothers and sisters.
The PLO leaders, commanding the bulk of the left forces, carried the main responsibility for achieving victory. No other option remained now except to mobilise and arm the Lebanese workers and peasants for the expropriation of the ruling class and the crushing of the right-wing militias—and, at the same lime, to launch an all-out campaign for the support of the working masses in Syria and throughout the Arab world.
Such a policy, however, was alien to the PLO leadership. Not only had they failed to involve themselves with the day-to-day struggles of the Lebanese population; their militias were isolated from the local workers and regarded virtually as an army of occupation.
Thus, when the Syrian army invaded four months later, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. By September it had broken Palestinian and left resistance, and reinstated the bourgeois regime in office. The Arab heads of state—the ‘allies’ of the PLO leadership—gave their blessing to the Syrian invasion, renaming the Syrian army in Lebanon the “Arab Deterrent Force”.
An opportunity for the revolutionary seizure of power, once lost, cannot easily be regained. The ruling class, permitted to recover control, will want to stamp out the remaining opposition. The workers and peasants, disoriented and shaken, will be faced with worsening odds as the forces of reaction gather momentum.
The manner and form of counter-revolution, like that of revolution, will depend on the nature and the leadership of the class forces opposed to each other. In Lebanon, the bourgeois regime remained suspended in mid-air. Syrian forces occupied half the country. Israel watched the southern border. The rest was split between thy Christian militias and the remaining pockets of Palestinian control, mainly in the cities.
The forces of counter-revolution were therefore divided and in a precarious position. This was compensated for, however, by the even greater weakness of the PLO leadership, which had learned nothing from past defeats.
In the absence of a serious struggle to regroup the movement and prepare a new mass offensive, it could only be a question of time, before the forces of reaction would be able to finish their work.
Israel invaded the south of Lebanon in 1978 to attack Palestinian positions, creating a ‘buffer zone’ under the control of a right-wing Lebanese private army. A UN ‘peace-keeping’ force was deployed along the southern border. In June 1982 this force looked on passively as Israeli tanks rolled by.
Under the guns of the Israelis, the counter-revolution in Lebanon was carried to a bloody climax with the expulsion of the last Palestinian forces from Beirut, the disarming of Moslem militias, and the naked terror in Sabra and Chatila,
As in Lebanon, so in the other countries of the region, revolution – the overthrow of capitalism and landlordism – or counter-revolution are the stark alternatives facing the workers and peasants in the struggles that lie ahead.
The PLO leadership turn right
Events in Egypt in 1977-79 spelled out even more clearly the bankruptcy of the PLO leadership’s policies. Egypt, the most powerful of the Arab states, had always formed the key in any military alliance against Israel. Now, as a result of internal class struggle, the power or the Egyptian regime to threaten Israel’s southern border collapsed.
Nasser had weakened Egyptian capitalism without breaking its parasitical grip on the country. The economy, while more industrialised than that of other Arab states, remained completely inadequate to meet the basic needs of the people. In the big cities millions of slum-dwellers lived in horrifying want and squalor.
In foreign policy, Nasser had balanced between the Stalinist powers and imperialism, leaning mainly on the Soviet Union for support. In the late 1960s, however, the regime swung increasingly towards the West.
Following Nasser’s death in 1970, Sadat swept aside the last of Nasser’s reforms. Egypt was thrown wide open to imperialist plunder, the power of the capitalists and landlords was restored, and political opposition crushed.
But this zig-zag exposed Egypt all the more to the ravages of capitalist world recession. Foreign debt, and a crippling deficit on the balance trade, mounted up. Foreign investment created new wealth for only a small elite, while the mass of the people sank deeper into nightmarish poverty.
The cost of permanent military preparedness against Israel had always been the biggest drain on the economy. But repeated military defeats had dealt shattering blows to the authority of the regime.
Following, the debacle of 1973, Sadat clearly calculated that the social consequences of renewed fighting would be too dangerous. Just as the regime had previously needed hostilities with Israel to divert the masses from internal struggle, it now needed peace with Israel for much the same reason.
In January 1977 mass discontent broke to the surface with the biggest anti-government strikes and riots since the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952. The movement was sparked off by the removal of state subsidies on essential foods. Sadat quickly retreated. Even then it took days before the army was able to regain control.
At the same time the US, increasingly dependent on Arab oil, was concerned about the deepening revolutionary ferment in the region and anxious to prop up pro-capitalist Arab regimes. By signing a peace agreement with Begin, Sadat calculated that he could get increased American patronage and use this to squeeze concessions out of Israel.
On this basis, following the Camp David agreement of 1978, the Sinai peninsula was returned to Egypt.
These developments further undermined the policies of the PLO leadership. The Israeli regime was now free to concentrate on the west and the north. The invasion of Lebanon, and the further consolidation of Israel’s overwhelming military supremacy, demonstrated the complete futility of relying on either guerilla struggle, or on the Arab regimes, to carry the Palestinian struggle to victory,
The Arab leaders clearly have no intention of risking another confrontation with Israel. Even the ‘revolutionary’ Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, during the height of the battle for Beirut, could suggest no better solution to the PLO leaders than committing suicide rather than surrendering to Israel.
The imperialist powers hope to exploit the present situation and impose a Middle East ‘solution’ in their own interests. Their intentions are, firstly, to restore the stability of the Lebanese regime and arrange the withdrawal of the Syrian and Israeli forces. More importantly, they propose to ‘settle’ the Palestinian struggle by designating the West Bank and Gaza as a ‘homeland’ for the Palestinian people.
As Reagan has made clear, however, there is no question of such a ‘homeland’ becoming independent. It would only get powers of local self-government – less independence than a Bantustan—and remain under military control of Israel in association with Jordan.
These bankrupt plans have little chance of getting off the ground. The situation in Lebanon will remain volatile and the regime there will remain unstable. The workers and peasants will recover from their wounds, while the ruling class will be incapable in a period of world recession of rebuilding the economy and establishing its authority over society.
Reagan’s proposals for a Palestinian ‘homeland’, which are completely unacceptable to the Palestinian people, have also been flatly rejected by Begin.
Under cover of the war in Lebanon, the Israeli authorities have embarked on their biggest land-grab yet on the West Bank, precisely to prevent its return to Arab hands. 40% of the area, including five Arab towns, has been earmarked for Jewish settlement, and 50% for agriculture (with strict controls on Arab building). Only 10% will remain for Arab towns and villages.
Between Reagan’s offer and Begin’s refusal there is no way forward for the Palestinian people. The PLO leaders, however, have learned nothing from these events. Out of the disasters produced by their policies of class compromise, they have embarked on a policy of—more class compromise.
Arafat’s negotiations with King Hussein of Jordan (the butcher of the ‘Black September’ days) over a ‘federation’ or a ‘confederation’ of a Palestinian West Bank with Jordan can offer no solution. Hussein’s only concern is to save his own skin a little bit longer from the ever-present threat of revolution.
“I have never seen King Hussein of Jordan so despairing”, commented the West German foreign minister during the fighting in Lebanon. An alliance with Arafat, Hussein hopes, will buy him credibility in the eyes of his people.
But Hussein’s and Arafat’s plans are only the counsel of despair, and can lead to nothing but a worse fiasco. Far from basing themselves on the struggle of the Palestinian masses, they are looking to US imperialism to squeeze concessions out of Israel.
Even if US pressure forced Israel to retreat, the only ‘Palestinian state’ that would be tolerated by imperialism, Israel and the Arab rulers would be a puppet state. The talks between Arafat and Hussein hold out the prospect of some Jordanian involvement in running such a puppet state—nothing more.
Yet on the basis of class compromise with the Arab rulers, a rotten deal of this nature is the most that the PLO leadership can hope to achieve at present.
No solution to the Palestinian struggle is possible for as long as capitalism and landlordism, embodied by Israeli militarism and the corrupt deadweight of the Arab regimes, dominate the region. The Arab rulers, the Israeli regime and imperialism alike are terrified of the impetus which a Palestinian victory would give to the struggles of the masses in all the Arab countries and in Israel.
An independent Palestinian state would he caught up in revolutionary turmoil from the start. On a capitalist basis it could not satisfy the demands of the working people, nor is there a Palestinian bourgeoisie capable of ruling it on any stable basis.
Such a state could only exist as a focal point of struggle against both Zionism and Arab reaction, carrying the movements of 1970 and 1975 to their logical conclusion. For these reasons the Arab regimes pay mainly lip service to the idea of an independent Palestinian state.
Tasks of the revolution in the Middle East
Israel is the main bastion of capitalist reaction in the Middle East, the ultimate defender of imperialist interests and the most powerful obstacle to the national and social liberation of the Palestinian people. The defeat of the Israeli regime is the key to the victory of the Palestinian struggle; which in turn is the most burning issue in the Middle East.
Yet how can the Israeli regime be defeated?
Military victory by the weak Arab states is ruled out.
To the Arab rulers, the present balance of forces is the cornerstone of their political survival. The threat of Israeli attack is the mains factor that can justify their own existence to the masses and postpone revolutionary struggles (while ‘peace initiatives’ can be unfolded when the people become weary of war).
More importantly, neither of the great super-powers would support any major escalation of military struggle in the region.
US imperialism will use all its resources to cling to its oil and strategic interests in the Middle East, and continue to back Israel. At the same time it will try to curb the worst excesses of Israel’s militarist regime, which threaten to store up incalculable explosions for the future. (In much the same way Western governments, frightened of the approaching revolution in South Africa, try to ‘moderate’ the policies of the apartheid regime.)
The Soviet bureaucracy, while not dependent on Middle East oil, need to maintain some check on the expansion of US power along their southern borders, and prevent any serious weakening of their international position. This is the basic reason for the limited support which Russia has given to the PLO and the Arab regimes.
At the same time, the Russian leadership have no interest in a struggle for Arab victory against all-out imperialist resistance. Like the Arab rulers, they fear any shift in the present situation of armed truce in the Middle East.
With the war in Lebanon, their lack of commitment to Palestinian victory was glaringly exposed. Even the leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine – a pro-Soviet group in the PLO – declared in a public statement: “The Soviet Union cannot secure its solidarity with us and with the people of Lebanon by confining its support to political and diplomatic pressures.”
The defeat of the Israeli ruling class can only come about as a result of a class movement involving the Jewish majority of the Israeli working class. This fact is central to the struggle of the Palestinian workers and peasants. Only on the basis of a Marxist perspective and programme, however, is it possible to mobilise such a movement.
No fundamental shift in the social support for the ruling class by Israeli workers is possible, despite all the growing economic and political strains, as long as the Palestinian struggle is fought on a nationalist basis. Faced with the choice—as they see it—between the Zionist state and terrorist violence, the mass of Israeli workers will continue to support the capitalist class.
The policies of the PLO leadership, tying their struggle to the Arab regimes and confining it to nationalist perspectives, thus guarantee a bedrock of Jewish support for the Israeli ruling class, and render the Zionist state indestructible except at the cost of an unimaginable bloodbath.
Only a Marxist programme, linking the national struggle of the Palestinian people to the socialist transformation of the whole Middle East, could show a way out of this vicious circle.
Calling for the overthrow of the regimes of the capitalists and landlords, and for the establishment of democratic workers’ rule in every country of the region, a determined campaign for Marxist policies would open up entirely new perspectives to Israeli as well as Arab workers.
Under workers’ rule, all the problems created by capitalism and landlordism could begin to be eliminated. Poverty could be alleviated, and privilege abolished, by placing production on a planned basis under the control of the working people.
Land could be given to the peasantry. Together with the working class internationally, the struggle could be waged to break the grip of imperialism over the region.
This is the only basis on which the long and bitter struggles for self-determination by the oppressed nations of the Middle East can be resolved, and the interests of Arab and Israeli workers reconciled with each other.
In 1948, Marxists opposed the creation of a separate Israeli state because it was clear from the outset that this artificial state would be a source of conflict and division among workers. But does that mean that Marxists should now stand for the destruction of the state of Israel?
The majority of Israeli Jews today were either born in Israel or in Palestine before 1948; and under no circumstances can socialists be in favour of their ‘repatriation’ i.e. expulsion. Unlike the position in 1948, the more than three million Israelis now represent a sizeable and distinct nation in the Middle East.
Subject to certain conditions—e.g. guarantees of the rights of minorities and of returning Palestinians—the need for an Israeli state to exist within agreed borders must be accepted today. Indeed, that is virtually the position of the PLO now.
But restoring the rights of the Palestinian Arabs expelled in 1948, and those dispossessed on the West Bank since 1967, unavoidably raises the question of the socialist transformation of society. Capitalism cannot provide homes, jobs and secure living standards even for the Jewish population of Israel, let alone the Arab masses.
While the Israeli working class will play a decisive role in the unfolding revolution in the Middle East, the Palestinian workers, scattered across the region, are in a key position to spearhead the struggle and link together the workers and peasants in the different countries.
Organised as a class, the Palestinian workers can join forces with their brothers and sisters in the countries where they live and work, and explain to every section of the oppressed Arab masses the future that could be theirs under workers’ rule. With correct demands and tactics, a Marxist leadership of the Palestinian workers could stand at the head of a vast revolutionary movement spanning the whole Middle East.
The Arab rulers would fight desperately to crush the danger from below. The struggle against these regimes would be no less vital than the struggle to defeat Zionism. But with clear socialist policies, the workers and peasants would be in an immeasurably stronger position than in 1970 or 1975.
Offering land and freedom to the peasant soldiers, they would win the bulk of the Arab armies to the side of the revolution. The flimsy ties of tradition and fear, which are all that hold the Arab states together, would disintegrate under the first stirrings of mass revolution—as has already been foreshadowed in Lebanon and Jordon.
Under these conditions the Israeli regime would be paralysed. With the spectre of Arab reaction removed, it would be possible to win over Israeli workers, even in a revolutionary war against the Israeli capitalist state. The Israeli rulers would be left isolated and unable to resist the social revolution.
Revolutionary states of the working people would come under furious attack from imperialism as well as the Stalinist regimes, which would correctly see the rise of workers’ revolution as a deadly threat to their privileged existence. But with a bold internationalist policy, appealing to workers across national frontiers and organising common struggles, the fires lit in the Middle East could spread around the world.
Capitalism and landlordism would be destroyed throughout the region, and threatened in growing parts of Asia, Africa and Europe as workers are impelled into action by the impact of the Middle Eastern revolution. The bureaucratic regime in Syria would collapse and be replaced by democratic workers’ rule.
On the basis of workers’ democracy, the national divisions fragmenting the region could begin to be resolved. The Palestinians and other oppressed peoples—such as the Kurds—could exercise their full democratic rights as nations either in common states or, where the majority desire it, in states of their own.
The working class has no vested interest that would be threatened by the self-determination of nations. Revolutionary workers’ governments, with a common interest in peace and economic development, would be able to accommodate the demands of national minorities and agree to territorial divisions where necessary, in order to lay a foundation for economic and political cooperation.
Marxists would explain the need for the closest possible integration in developing the resources of the region on a planned basis, and argue for a socialist federation as a means of linking independent workers’ states together. This could pave the way to unity of all the peoples in the future.
Scattering seeds of revolution
In the aftermath of the Lebanon war, there is the danger of a renewed swing to terrorist violence among embittered sections of Palestinian youth. In January, for instance grenades were thrown into a bus in Tel Aviv, injuring eleven people. 86 Arabs were arrested in retaliation.
Also the PLO leadership, in an effort to repair their prestige, have uttered hollow threats of renewed guerilla war against Israel.
At the same time, however, with the horror and futility of the Lebanon war still fresh in their minds, many Palestinian and Israeli workers could be won to Marxist policies showing an alternative to the vicious cycle of suffering and bloodshed.
The sorry conduct of the Arab rulers has severely undermined the PLO leadership’s traditional position. Among the PLO fighters evacuated from Beirut there was no mood for continuing to put their faith in these regimes.
“Save your tears”, said one fighter to a group of women weeping to see them go. “Save your tears for the Arab leaders.”
Another said: “We are going to push Israel aside for five years, and clean up the Arab world. All our rulers are traitors.”
Even the Syrian regime was viewed with deep mistrust. “We might get a heroes’ welcome in Damascus although I doubt it”, commented a Palestinian journalist. “But then we shall be marched off to barracks as good as prison.”
Arafat’s renewed wheeling and dealing with King Hussein has therefore aroused deep anger among Palestinian activists. His second-in-command was even compelled to flee from Syria and seek political asylum in the reactionary kingdom of Jordan!
Crown Prince Hassam of Jordan (Hussein’s brother) put the fears of all the Arab rulers into words: “If the present PLO leadership are eliminated they will be succeeded by others, perhaps more extreme, more radical, more desperate, simply because the need will still be there.”
More and more Palestinian activists will be determined to change the PLO’s policies of class compromise, to remove the leaders committed to these policies, and put forward new leaders who are willing and able to lead the national struggle to its revolutionary conclusions.
Dispersing the PLO fighters across the Arab world—the only option available to imperialism, Israel and the Arab states—will at the same time have far-reaching consequences. It will scatter the seeds of revolution throughout the Middle East. Betrayed by the leaders and repressed by their ‘hosts’, PLO activists will seek ways of linking their struggle to that of the workers and peasants locally.
In Israel itself, class struggles will deepen. Armed with a clear Marxist perspective, working-class activists in Israel as well as the Arab countries can lay the basis for a revolutionary leadership that can mobilise the masses of the region, eliminate national oppression, capitalism and landlordism, and usher in a new period of peace and social progress under working-class rule.