The anti-state option

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The massive street protests in Israel seem, for the moment at any rate, to have gone into retreat; the social question, which they raised so noisily around issues of housing, inflation, and unemployment, is once again being sidelined by the national question.

On the occupied West Bank, there have been clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians demonstrating in support of the Palestine Liberation Authority’s bid to be accepted as a member state at the UN.

At Qalandiya, a major Israeli checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem, Israeli troops fired tear gas to disperse Palestinian stone-throwers. The confrontations lasted several hours and around 70 Palestinians were injured by rubber-coated steel pellets or suffered tear gas inhalation. This scenario was played out in several places, sometimes linked to sharpening tensions between Palestinian villagers and Jewish settlers. Near the West Bank village of Qusra, Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian man during an incident between the villagers and Israeli settlers, according to witnesses and military accounts

Earlier on in September, in Egypt, a violent assault on the Israeli embassy followed Israeli air raids on Gaza which had left a number of Egyptian border guards dead.

At the height of the Tahrir Square demonstrations, government attempts to divert attention away from the economic and political demands of the protesters by brandishing the ‘Palestinian question’ and anti-Israel feeling had met with little success. According to an article by Nadim Shehadi in The New York Times (25/9/11), “even the recent attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo was seen by many as a diversion from the continuing protests in Tahrir Square”. There were hints of government and police collusion in the attack, which also coincided with a visit to Cairo from the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan who is keen to promote a new anti-Israel Middle East power axis between Turkey and Egypt. In any case, the sacking of the embassy certainly helped to draw attention away from a new wave of popular discontent with the regime, which has again involved a rash of workers’ strikes.

One state or two?

Among those who claim to be opposed to the present capitalist system, many argue that until the national question is sorted out in Israel/ Palestine, there can never be a ‘normal’ class struggle in the region, with workers and the oppressed fighting alongside each other, regardless of nationality and religion, against the capitalists of all countries.

There are different approaches to how the Israel/Palestine issue might be resolved: parts of the left have shown themselves to be more than willing to support military action against Israel (by Palestinian nationalist groups, secular and Islamic, and, logically, by the states which have provided them with weapons and resources, such as Iran, Syria, Gaddafi’s Libya or Saddam’s Iraq). The fact that such policies are combined with rhetoric about the ‘Arab revolution’ and a future ‘Socialist Federation in the Middle East’ does not alter their fundamentally militarist character. Views of this kind of have been put forward by the SWP, George Galloway, and others. Such approaches have often been linked to the idea of a ‘one-state solution’ - a democratic secular Palestine with rights for all. How such an idyllic regime could emerge out of a wholesale imperialist massacre is a question that could only be answered by those trained in Trotskyist sophistry.

Others on the left, and a whole host of liberals, favour the ‘two-state solution’, with the Israeli and Palestinian nations both ‘determining’ themselves and mutually respecting their respective national rights. Within this view there are many different nuances: officially the USA is in favour of a two-state solution, based on the negotiations it oversees as part of the Middle East Quartet along with the UN, the EU, and Russia. But Washington is currently vetoing the PLA’s bid at the UN because it says it is not based on mutually agreed terms. The fact that it is increasingly unable to bend Israel’s intransigent right-wing government to its proposals, particularly in its call for a freeze on settlements in the occupied territories, also plays a major role in America’s current stance.

Meanwhile PLA president Mohamed Abbas, pointing out that negotiations just aren’t happening, is going ahead with the proposal that the PLA becomes a state because this will provide it with a number of tactical advantages, such as being able to take Israel to the International Criminal Court. But opposition to this ploy comes from a number of supporters of Palestinian nationalism, both secular and Islamic, who point out, quite correctly, that a state based on a few scraps of land divided and dominated by the Israeli military and the ‘anti-terrorist’ Wall is no more than a token state. The Islamists, most of whom don’t even recognise the existence of Israel, want to continue with armed struggle for an Islamic state in the whole of historic Palestine (although in practise they are prepared to look at various interim stages). On this level, militarist Islam and militarist Trotskyism advocate the same methods for achieving their different one-state schemes[1].

Communists are against the nation state

In our view, these are all false solutions. The Israel/Palestine conflict, which has dragged on for all of 80 years, is a concrete example of why capitalism cannot solve the various ‘national questions’ which it partly inherited from previous social systems, but largely created itself.

Opposing the slogan of ‘the right of all peoples to national self-determination’ during the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg argued that in a world now carved up by imperialist powers, no nation could advance its interests without aligning itself with larger imperialist states, while at the same time seeking to satisfy its own imperialist appetites. Nationalism was not, as Lenin and others argued, potentially a force that could weaken imperialism, but was an integral part of it. This analysis has certainly been confirmed by the history of the Middle East conflict. It is well known that from its inception Zionism could not make any gains without the backing of British imperialism, and later only turned against Britain to put itself at the service of the more powerful USA. But the Palestinian national movement has been no less compelled to seek the backing of imperialist powers: fascist Germany and Italy before and during the Second World War, Stalinist Russia and its Arab subalterns during the cold war, Syria, Iraq, Iran and others since the collapse of the old bloc system. Alliances have shifted over the years, but the constant has been that both Jewish and Arab nationalism have acted as local agents of wider regional and global imperialist rivalries. Those who advocate the military defeat of Israel or more peaceful solutions presided over by the UN are still locked in this logic.

At the same time, support for national solutions, in a period of history where the working class and its exploiters have no common interests, not even the need to oppose previous reactionary ruling classes, runs directly counter to the struggle of the exploited class. In Israel, the workers’ struggle to defend living standards is constantly greeted with the argument that the country is at war, we must accept sacrifices, and that strikes can only undermine the needs of national defence. In Egypt and other Arab countries, workers resisting their exploitation have been told time and time again that their real enemy is Zionism and US imperialism. A very clear example of this was provided during the massive workers’ struggles of 1972: following the repression of strikes in Helwan by the Sadat government, “the leftists (Maoists, Palestinian activists, etc) succeeded in diverting the whole issue into nationalist ends. Thus demands to release imprisoned workers were combined with declarations of support for the Palestinian guerrilla movement, with demands for the setting up of a war economy (including a wage freeze) and for the formation of a ‘popular militia’ to defend the ‘homeland’ against Zionist aggression. Thus the main complaint was that the government was not being decisive enough in its war preparations; as for the workers, they were exhorted not to carry on the struggle against their exploiters but to form the rank and file of a ‘popular’ Egyptian imperialism against its Israeli rival” (‘Class struggle in the Middle East’, World Revolution no. 3, April 1975).

On the other hand, the recent protest movements show that when the social question is raised in open struggle, the arguments of the nationalists can be put into question. The refusal of Tahrir Square demonstrators to subordinate the fight against the Mubarak regime to the struggle against Zionism; the prescient warnings by Israeli demonstrators that the Netanyahu government would use military conflict to derail their movement; and above all their determination to continue protesting even when military clashes were taking place on the borders, show that the class struggle is not something that can be postponed until after some ideal solution to the national problem has been implemented. On the contrary, it is in the course of the class struggle itself that national divisions can be confronted and exposed. In Israel, the inspiration drawn from the movements in the Arab world, loudly recognised in slogans like “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu”, the calls for Arab-Jewish unity in the struggle, were positive and concrete examples of this possibility, even if the movement there remained hesitant about dealing directly with the question of the occupation.

It would be naive to expect the recent movements to have sprung to the surface free of nationalist ideas; for the majority of those who took part in them, internationalism means a kind of truce or love-fest between nations, rather than what it really implies: class war across national divisions, the struggle for a world without nation states. And that is not even to mention the terrible spiral of revenge, distrust and hatred that the Arab/Israeli conflict has created and daily reinforces. But at the same time, capitalism is providing ample proof not only of its economic bankruptcy, but also of its inability to reconcile conflicting national interests. Within the cage of the nation state, whether the one-state or the two-state ideal is preferred, there is simply no possibility of delivering millions of Palestinians from the misery of the refugee camps or enabling the mass of Israelis to live without constant fear of war and terrorist attack. The vision of a human community without borders, which is the only answer to capitalism’s global crisis, will also appear as the only realistic solution to the Arab/Israeli conflict. And this vision can only be made flesh in the course of massive social movements which evolve towards an authentic revolution of the exploited and the oppressed. All bourgeois states, whether extant or potential, will be the enemy of such a revolution: they are the first wall to be dismantled on the road to freedom.  

Amos 26/9/11

 


[1]. It’s worth pointing out that some right wing Zionists have also concluded that one state would be best, but this would of course be a Jewish state in which the Arab minority would either be expelled or remain forever as second class citizens