The killing and maiming in the Middle East is continuing and escalating. The construction of the huge Israeli wall to keep Palestinians out is destroying the water supply to many people, and will also further damage the economy. It is just one dramatic step in the escalating cycle of violence. After the Israeli offensive against the Palestinian areas, including the near destruction of Jenin, the riposte was bloody and determined. Time and again suicide bombers have entered the towns and cities of Israel, exploding their bombs at bus stops and in restaurants or driving a car filled with explosives into a bus. Men and women going to work, teenagers returning from a trip to the countryside and children going to school have all been slaughtered. And each time Israel has replied in kind, occupying more Palestinian areas, using tanks and planes to shell towns and villages and killing people out looking for food in the mistaken belief that a curfew had ended. All the time it is workers and their families who pay the price, who are considered legitimate targets by both sides, who live in fear, and who struggle every day just to survive. This situation, however, is not some aberration, but is typical of war in this period. Civilian casualties are neither avoided nor accidental but are the main focus of the war.
The responsibility of the great powers
This escalation of the fighting has been matched by an increasingly open antagonism between the US and most major European powers over Washington’s call for the Palestinian leadership to be replaced and its refusal to have any further dealings with Yasser Arafat. This has not stopped them all prattling on about ‘peace’ and ‘conflict resolution’. The Oslo Accords and the Saudi proposals are still bandied about, while the US and the EU have murmured about possible new talks. All of these soothing sounds are meant to convince us of their concern and their commitment to peace and ending the bloodshed. Above all it is meant to preserve the lie that the barbarism that haunts every shattered refugee camp and every mangled bus has nothing to do with them, that it flows from the obtuse, irrational hatreds of those who dress babies as suicide bombers and who shoot children. Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole history of the region has been determined by the great powers. America has long been Israel’s protector, without whom the country would have been destroyed years ago, while the Palestinian ‘liberation’ struggle was a pawn of Russia’s imperialist ambitions during the Cold War. After 1989, Washington seemed able to impose the Pax Americana across the whole region, making overtures to the Palestinians while asserting tighter control over Israel. The latter however, in common with many other countries freed from the grip of the blocs, began to assert its own interests.
In the period since September 11, the US has mounted a global offensive, declaring a state of permanent war and stating that all who are not with it are against it. It has shown a determination to act on its own, as and when it sees fit. Its aim has not really been the so-called “axis of evil” but the rival great powers, in particular Germany, France and Britain, who have repeatedly struggled to assert their own interests and undermine the US. The message was driven home by the war in Afghanistan, during which the US made no pretence of needing any kind of international alliance. This was underlined through its deliberate humiliation of Britain, which, after posturing about its vital role and the professionalism of its military, was left chasing rumours and blowing up empty caves. The will to impose its massive military force without any assistance has been underlined again by Washington’s drive to go to war with Iraq, a war that would have the removal of Saddam Hussein at its heart. America has seized the initiative and, to date, has retained it. It has less need to win countries over since it has been able simply to impose its will on them. Behind this lies its overwhelming military superiority, which gives it the means to wage war around the globe on several fronts at one time. Its contempt for the international bodies that its rivals try to use to contain it was shown again at the start of July when it refused to recognise the new International Criminal Court.
Washington’s change of policy
In the Middle East the US has remained dominant throughout this period. Its major rivals have been unable to mount any real challenge. Arafat may be photographed welcoming various envoys from Europe, but it is always America that he watches and whose words make him respond. Israel still remains dependent on the US. American policy may have become more supportive of Israel’s harsh responses, but it is not Israel that dictates to America, despite the strength of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. The parameters of the game continue to be defined by the US. On the one hand it continues to fund Israel and supply it with arms, on the other it still retains influence with the Palestinians, the CIA, for example, continuing to advise Arafat on possible ‘reforms’ to his police force.
However, the fact that America is the dominant force does not mean that it controls everything. The corrosive violence that has marred the area for so long continues to get worse and to spread. Arafat, who had been given some power on the basis of his ability to control the militants, has shown himself unable to contribute as America hoped when it gave him its backing.
These are the reasons why President Bush, in his policy speech on the Middle East on 24 June, called on the ‘Palestinian People’ “to elect new leaders, not compromised by terror” and why, a few days later, it was made clear that the US government would no longer have any official dealings with Arafat. By giving its backing to Israel the US is acting in continuity with its ‘anti-terrorist’ crusade - after all Al-Qaida and many similar gangs constantly refer to the situation of the Palestinians. It is also an admission that, whatever they say in their propaganda, there is no possibility of peace within capitalism, only a new stalemate, albeit at a higher level of violence.
However, Washington is no longer aiming for any appearance of a peace process. For all Bush may make pious calls for a Palestinian state in the future, the refusal to deal with Arafat is the refusal to deal with the Palestinians. Full stop. If not Arafat, which faction will they deal with? Hamas? The USA’s new aggressive policy is supporting the crushing, undermining and humiliation of the Palestinian forces that are the only potential clients of rival great powers wanting a foothold in the Middle East.
The American ruling class, like all ruling classes, is not concerned about the death or suffering of innocent people. Indeed, the terror that now hangs over the whole region serves its interests well.
America’s rivals try to fight back
The strength of the US in the Middle East has not prevented its main rivals from trying to undermine its efforts in the region. Leading politicians in France and Germany have openly criticised America’s apparent change of policy. The new French Foreign Minister said, “Only the Palestinians themselves can choose their leaders”, a view echoed by the German Foreign Minister. The Danish Prime Minister declared “We will not demand that Arafat or any other leader in the region is removed” (Guardian 26/6/02).
Britain has joined this criticism, Prime Minister Blair arguing “It is up to the Palestinians to choose their own leaders” (ibid). Cherie Blair said that the suicide bombers’ behviour was understandable because of their desperate situation. This was backed up by foreign secretary Straw a few days later saying much the same thing in more diplomatic language.
As the US has become more aggressive, more vocal in its criticism of Arafat and more tolerant of Israel’s retaliation, so a campaign has been built up on the theme of Bush’s ‘bad leadership’. The Guardian newspaper has been particularly prominent in this. In early June it took up the argument for a peace conference, calling on the US to support it since “unless the US becomes fully engaged, the process will never start” (Guardian, 6/6/02). It also declared that Bush’s speech “ends any remaining pretence of US impartiality” and concluded, “Mr Bush has ... set back the cause of peace. Forget Mr Arafat for a moment. Americans and Israelis also deserve better leaders” (Guardian 26/6/02).
This campaign shows the determination of the other great powers, Germany, Britain and France, to try and maintain a toehold on the region. But it also shows their present weakness. When the US and Israel are imposing their will with massive brute force, they bleat on about a ‘peace conference’ and ‘impartiality’; when Washington’s ally has massive military superiority, they are left trying to curry favour with a Palestinian leader who can only step outside his front door when given leave by his enemies.
The place of the working class
The working class has an interest in all of this. But it does not lie in the hypocritical ‘humanitarianism’ of the governments which have tears in their eyes and blood on their hands. Nor does it lie in the equally hypocritical calls on workers to take sides, to defend Palestinians against Israeli oppression or Israelis against Palestinian terrorism. In Britain it is mostly the former that is peddled by the left under the pretence that the Palestinian ‘liberation’ struggle is somehow progressive and ‘anti-imperialist’. This is nothing more than a trap set for workers who have begun to see through the lies about the good intentions of the ruling class. No. The interests of the working class are diametrically opposed to this. Where the ruling class calls on it to take sides its interests lie in uniting with fellow workers everywhere. Where the bourgeoisie want to obliterate the conflict between the classes, under the false unity of ‘humanity’, the interests of the working class lie in tearing this veil off, exposing the real class antagonism that dominates capitalist society and taking up the class struggle.