Workers' Liberty #68


The roots of the crisis

Moshe Machover, who helped found the Israeli revolutionary socialist group Matzpen in 1962 and now lives in London, spoke to Clive Bradley about the current crisis in Israel and Palestine.

What has led to this breakdown of the 'peace process' is that much of the Zionist left, from the Peace Now movement right across to people like Peres and Rabin, have been for a deal with the Palestinians; but for them the rationale was that there would first be separation.

Arafat would get the paraphernalia of sovereignty, without any real sovereignty, in bits of land with large Palestinian concentrations but no resources. And Arafat would do the policing.

The intifada of 1987 was a fantastic popular uprising. It was not started by the bureaucratic Palestinian leadership of Arafat, which was then anyway in Tunisia, exiled after they were expelled from Lebanon. It started as a popular uprising with a lot of social conflict. One should never forget that most of the anger behind what is taking place is class war - the Palestinian workers and peasants protesting against their social conditions, which are terrible.

By the early 1990s, two things were beginning to happen. The Palestinians were getting exhausted. And policing the Palestinians was becoming costly for Israel in material and moral terms. Then Arafat got himself into an extremely weak position as a consequence of the stance he took during the Gulf War.

Arafat's hold on the Palestinian movement is based on money. An enormous part of the material means with which he was running the movement came from the Gulf, both in direct donations from the Gulf states and through the taxation that he was allowed to raise on the many Palestinians working in the Gulf, as engineers in the oil industry, in commerce and so on.

During the Gulf War of 1991 he took a mad stance in support of Saddam. I'm not saying he should have supported the American invasion, but the correct stance - tactically and also morally - would have been 'a plague on both your houses'. He came out in support of Saddam. As a result, his funds dried up. Many Palestinians were expelled from the Gulf. He was no longer getting money from the Gulf states and allowed to tax the Palestinians living there.

His hold over the Palestinian movement was under threat, and he was desperate for something.

All those factors came together. Israel was looking for a deal - but instead of dealing with a leadership that could cash in on the achievements of the intifada, they had an Arafat leadership who was desperate for any kind of deal. It was a very unequal deal. Israel was no longer prepared to police the Palestinians directly, but it wasn't prepared to grant anything more than a quasi-state, in fact a bantustan.

But Arafat was getting to be the boss, the president of the Palestinian quasi-state. Even while Israel was redefining the terms of the Oslo Agreement, it was still granting Arafat and his clique certain privileges. They were treated as VIPs - not humiliated as the Palestinian people are generally. They were allowed some business advantages. Arafat started to get money from the European Union, which he controls personally.

Then the Israeli leadership was so narrow-minded, and so constrained by pressure from the extreme right, that it could not be far-sighted enough not to exploit its advantage. And by pushing it to the limit they put the Palestinians in a desperate situation.

Economically, ordinary Palestinians are now worse off than they were under Israeli rule. There is great social discontent; but unfortunately a lot of it is channelled through Islamic extremists.

40% of the economy of the Occupied Territories is dependent on employment in Israel. But whenever there is any unpleasantness for Israel, the Israeli government shuts the borders. They imported hundreds of thousands of foreign workers. The deal that they had with the Chinese government, whereby Chinese workers are employed in conditions of half-slavery, is appalling. In construction it's Romanian workers, in agriculture it's Thai, in domestic labour it's Filipino... there are several hundreds of thousands of foreign workers. The rabbis are up in arms because there is a high imbalance of male workers and that threatens the purity of Jewish girls!

In order to control the Palestinians and keep wages down they have now imported huge numbers of migrant workers.

So the Palestinian workers are in desperate conditions. Some work in Israel - when the border is not closed - and go back home at night if possible, or for the weekend; and some in industrial parks set up by Israeli businesses in the Occupied Territories to employ cheap labour. The Palestinian peasants are squeezed by Israel too. In one minor policing operation in the Occupied Territories, for example, the Israeli military uprooted 200 olive trees, condemning a small village to starvation. The Israeli government takes all the water and uses it for watering the lawns of Israeli settlers. They confiscate land for building roads which Palestinians are not allowed to use.

In Israeli public opinion, there has been a shift, that is undeniable. I think that it has largely been a result of the intifada. I was in Israel during the period that covered Rabin's assassination. I was surprised how many people came to me who had remembered me from the late 1960s and said that they now thought what I had said then was correct.

But even then Jewish Israeli public opinion was split down the middle. It's not true that the right was isolated. 'Right' and 'left' don't mean the same in Israel as anywhere else in the world. They just mean more hawkish and more dovish. They have nothing to do with right and left in social terms. To say that the right is isolated is simply untrue. Just look at the election results.

Among the Palestinians, the left were very important in the intifada. They provided a lot of the grass-roots leadership. To a great extent they have now been marginalised. They are now trying to reassert their role in the present intifada, but I'm not too optimistic. The left in the Arab world and worldwide is not in a very 'up' position now.

There is a sort of echo of the Palestinian struggle in the Occupied Territories, through the growing revolt of the Palestinians in Israel, mainly working-class but much more established, much more confident and much more difficult to suppress because they have Israeli citizenship. For example, they have members in the Israeli Knesset.

I think in the long run that the class dimension will assert itself. Social discontent is now being expressed through the religious parties or through fundamentalism. To change that is the task of a good organised left. Even under these conditions, at the grass-roots level there are some people who are more or less in the tradition of the CP or of the Popular Front and the Popular Democratic Front, people who would certainly describe themselves as Marxists. Whether you or I would call them Marxists is a different matter. But they certainly are leftists and they express explicitly the class dimension to this national liberation.

In Israel, the revolutionary socialist group that I helped to found in 1962, Matzpen officially does not exist. It suffered a very damaging split in the mid-'70s, when about half of the members became affiliated to the Fourth International, then of Mandel.

The FI people are still active under different names, such as the Alternative Information Centre, but all they are interested in is the national dimension.

The part that I belonged to became less active on that score and became much more interested in the class struggle.

The old members and some new recruits meet informally, and are active in organising migrant workers, but they're not officially a group. It's a curious evolution since the group split into two. One part has become completely absorbed in the national liberation aspect and the other much less interested in that and much more interested in class issues.

There is still a lot of liaison between Israeli leftists and Palestinian activists. Even in the present circumstances you have people from the diffuse radical Israeli left going to the West Bank and staying there. They are accepted as friends, they stay in Palestinian villages. To some extent they even co-ordinate demonstrations, do some joint activity.

That's one of the more hopeful things. It is becoming a bit dangerous, because you can by chance get involved in a massacre, but it's going on all the time.

My honest opinion is that what should be and what eventually I hope is going to be the solution to this problem - a united socialist Middle East - is at the moment looking completely unreal, something that cannot be implemented in the foreseeable future. But then I do not think that there is going to be any stable settlement in the short term. We socialists should adhere to a vision for the long term without having any illusion that it is feasible in the current period.

Of course we are living in the present, and we have to have demands for the present. The demand should be that Israel should withdraw from the Occupied Territories. Just calling for the implementation of the Oslo agreement is a grave error. Some people are doing that now because they think it would have been better than the present bloodbath, but the bloodbath is essentially the consequence of this kind of agreement - and in the present balance of forces I don't think anything better is possible.

It may be after a while that this uprising, which is going to cost the Palestinians very dearly, that Israel is going to feel more pressure, but it will take some time.

The settlements should be dismantled. Who is going to do that? It's up to Israel. I'm not talking about some working-class housing estates in the periphery of Jerusalem. I'm talking about ideologically-motivated settlements whose whole purpose is to colonise the West Bank. Some of them are populated by a small number of individuals and many more soldiers. They provoke their neighbours. They go into Arab villages and stage mini-pogroms.

Eastern Jerusalem is an occupied territory. Israel should get out of it. Palestinian self-determination should be respected. These are all elementary demands, but I would not give a formula like Oslo because that is very problematic. Withdraw from the Occupied Territories, allow the Palestinian refugees to return, at least to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, remove the Israeli presence from there.

Some on the left in Britain say that the only possible solution is to destroy Israel. But by whom and what, and what would you set up? I always believed that the solution was to overthrow Israel in its present form. That is not to destroy it. 'Destroy Israel' is a slogan that is dangerously ambiguous. Some people mean by 'destroy Israel' to massacre its population.

The most benign interpretation of the slogan is to destroy the state structure of Israel - but how could that happen short of a socialist revolution? The slogan just gives vent to people's fantasies. If you want fantasies, why not get a good one?

The same applies to this slogan, which is much less objectionable, of a secular democratic Palestine. It seems more modest: why talk about the Middle East because you can have a secular democratic Palestine? It has something ideologically wrong with it, though, because it treats the issue as a religious problem. The actual problem is not Christian, Muslim and Jewish, but Israeli-Jewish as a national group and Palestinian-Arab as a national group.

And if you look at what it would take to create a really secular democratic Palestine, you can see that it is not more realistic than a socialist Middle East, and anyway short of social revolution in the whole area it would not be possible for there to be such a secular democratic Palestine, so I don't see any justification for it as a slogan. If it were the case that it would be more easy to achieve than a socialist Middle East, then put it as an intermediate solution. But I don't see that it is.

What may emerge from what is happening now is that the present Palestinian leadership of Arafat will be destroyed, the creation of a Palestinian state will be aborted, and the present intifada will be quenched. Then we would have a Greater Israel in which there would be a huge Palestinian minority kept under extreme discrimination - and, of course, the struggle would be for equal rights, a struggle for a democratic Israel/Palestine. But I don't think that equal rights can be achieved just within the context of Israel/Palestine. The problems of the area are so intermeshed that a real solution can only emerge in a regional context.

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