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Issue 54, March 2001

The warmonger returns

    'Peace process' shattered
    Prospects for a wider conflict

A new twist to Middle East instability has been given by Israel's prime ministerial elections. KEVIN SIMPSON, below, assesses the regional implications while, on page five, MANDY RABIN, of Maavak Sozialisti, reports from Israel.

THE ELECTION OF Arik Sharon as the new Israeli prime minister is widely perceived by the Palestinian masses as a vote for war. This perception will be shared by large sections of the working class and rural poor in the Arab and wider Muslim world.

Sharon's inflammatory visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque in September, the third most holy site in the Muslim world, sparked off the second Intifada. Immediately following his election he returned, and claimed that Jerusalem would remain the eternal undivided capital of Judaism.

The high vote for Sharon amongst Israeli Jewish workers was mainly a vote against Barak - against the social and economic attacks meted out by the Barak government, as well as the complete failure of his 'peace' negotiations and the outbreak of the Intifada. Amongst wide sections of the Israeli working class there has been a high level of class consciousness on social and economic issues, with a high rate of strikes continuing even since the start of the Intifada. Nevertheless, because of a lack of a clear understanding of the intractable nature of the national question under capitalism, and the absence of mass workers' organisations which can explain a socialist solution on this issue, even militant workers can move to support for oppressive measures in war or near-war situations. Deep fears embedded in the psychology of Israeli Jewish workers, with the experience of five wars since the founding of Israel in 1948, can come to the fore when their security is threatened, encouraged by the most reactionary elements in society. Moreover it is normally Israeli Jewish workers who are killed as frontline conscript soldiers, or in buses and market places when bombs are set off. Barak's failure to bring peace or social and economic security have led some to hope that a so-called 'strong man', Sharon, could protect them.


Both Sharon and his vanquished rival Barak, as different political representatives of Israeli capitalism, fundamentally have the same strategic aims. These are the military and economic dominance of Israeli capitalism in the region, under US protection; extracting the greatest possible concessions out of the Palestinian Authority, which only allow an impoverished, economically strangulated, cantonised Palestinian proto-state; and stepping up the exploitation of the Israeli Jewish working class - and Israeli Palestinians - to protect profit levels and the power of Israeli capitalism.

However, Sharon's personal record, and the extremely reactionary nature of the most right-wing groups who backed him, adds to the profoundly unstable and tension-filled situation in the Middle East.

top     'Peace process' shattered

THE AL-AQSA Intifada decisively opened this new phase in Middle East politics. The process that led to the September explosion flowed from of the failure of the Oslo peace accords. This was not at base the result of tactical mistakes by its main negotiators but another demonstration of the inability of capitalism solving the national question in Palestine and Israel. To do this requires fulfilling the aspirations of the Palestinian masses for national - but also social and economic - liberation, as well as answering the security fears of the Israeli Jewish working class.

Many Palestinians had illusions when the accords were first signed. They hoped these represented the first steps to ending IDF occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, a halt to settlement building, and the achievement of genuine national liberation. Yet it was not just that Oslo failed but the methods used by the Israeli ruling class during the 'peace' negotiations, that so enraged the Palestinians.


While negotiations proceeded, the Israeli ruling class continued the daily humiliation of Palestinians living under occupation. Land seizures and house demolitions increased, and hundreds of kilometres of roads under IDF control were built through Palestinian territory. The number of day labourers from the West Bank and Gaza strip was slashed, cutting off a vital economic lifeline for the wider Palestinian population. Millions of dollars of repatriated earnings of Palestinians working abroad were blocked from reaching their families by the Israeli government. Everything that represented the most hated conditions of decades of occupation continued, and worsened, in the name of peace.

In addition, social and economic conditions inside the Palestinian Authority also plummeted as a result of the corruption of the clique around Arafat. Democratic rights were denied as Arafat rapidly built a semi-police dictatorship. Using divide and rule methods amongst his subordinates to maintain control, he laid the basis for the development of regional fiefdoms within the Palestinian Authority, increasing instability. The worst nightmares of the Palestinian masses became a living reality.

This led to a fundamental change in the consciousness of the Palestinian working class and poor. Only a return to struggle, sacrificing their lives if necessary, could change the situation. The brutality of IDF attacks since September has simply increased their burning determination to continue the struggle until they achieve national liberation.


The influence of Arafat and his clique has fallen to an all-time low. Authority has passed to the leadership of the Tanzeem, the semi-autonomous youth militia of Arafat's Fatah organisation. One Tanzeem leader, Marwan Barghouthi, recently stated that there were two divergent trends in the PA, one supporting the armed struggle and another the failed peace process. These leaders have used radical rhetoric to maintain their hold over the masses and to position themselves for a post-Arafat Palestinian Authority.

The recent announcement by the speaker of the Palestinian National Council of the formation of a Commission of National Independence, backed by Yasser Arafat, represents an attempt by the besieged leader to win back some support. The platform of this Commission implies that the clauses of the PLO Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel still stand, while stating that the 'armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine'.

At present, the mass character of the second Intifada has tended to subside, with armed attacks of Tanzeem groups against IDF units coming to the fore. There has been a rise in individual bombings and killings of Israeli civilians - which only drives the Israeli Jewish working class into the arms of the most reactionary sections of the Israeli ruling class. This is a result of the lack of a mass revolutionary socialist alternative in the Palestinian Authority, as the most desperate and radicalised youth turn to extreme Islamic groups like Hamas. It is possible in the future that such attacks will be launched from within the Israeli Palestinian population against Israeli Jewish targets. This will vastly increase the tension inside Israel and could lead to calls for the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel.


top     Prospects for a wider conflict

DEVELOPMENTS IN THE next few months are difficult to foresee exactly. However, with heightened regional tensions, the present low scale intensity war between Israel and Palestine could spiral out of control into a wider Israeli-Arab conflict. As the US government think-tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has warned, even "regardless of the outcome of yesterday's vote, the prospect of regional conflict - and even war - has risen to a level unseen since the Gulf war. The US government needs to take urgent measures to make that less likely". World imperialist powers will exert huge pressures on the Israeli and Arab capitalist powers not to go to war but the region's regimes have extremely limited room for manoeuvre. The bombing of military installations in Baghdad by US and British jets, a show of strength to announce Bush's entrance onto the world stage, will only aggravate the situation for US imperialism.

Many Arab countries are in economic recession with widespread poverty amongst the masses and rampant corruption in their ruling elites. These countries have suffered years of IMF and World Bank imposed neo-liberal policies, which have generally been enthusiastically supported by the Arab regimes. Privatisation, asset stripping, increased corruption through kickbacks, the devastation of the public sector and what little welfare support that existed, have been the result. Increasing sections of the Arab masses have a generalised consciousness that sees US imperialism as responsible and their own rulers compliant in the implementation of these policies. At the same time, the Arab regimes are seen as having stood by while US imperialism's imposed Oslo accords have torn the national rights of the Palestinian masses to shreds.


The Arab regimes could be faced with the prospect of being overthrown by popular uprisings (or splits within the ruling elites resting on such movements) sparked by continued aggression sanctioned by the Israeli military chiefs of staff. Under these circumstances they may be dragged into a wider regional Arab-Israeli conflict rather than lose the reins of power. It is clear that US imperialism underestimates the anger that has built up amongst the Arab masses.

Sharon's present attempts to set up a national unity government involving sections of Barak's Labour Party and others, reflect the efforts of the Israeli ruling class to unite in the face of a threat to its continued rule. Such a government, however, would not ensure stability.

An attempt might be made to stop the Intifada through economic strangulation, by closing off Palestinian towns and villages. This, however, would be more likely to exacerbate the conflict. If negotiations with the Palestinian Authority were restarted, moreover, then the most that would be on offer would be the proposals made at Camp David last year. Arafat could not sign such an agreement however, without facing removal or assassination.

Another possibility that such a government could attempt, citing a 'national emergency' as a pretext, would be 'unilateral separation'. This would involve the closure of some settlements and a declaration by the Israeli state of what the borders between it and Palestine would be. This would have catastrophic consequences. Palestinians inside and outside Israel would probably respond with fierce resistance, including armed attacks. In retaliation more reactionary elements in Israeli Jewish society would call for and partially implement the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Israel. This could be one of the routes to a wider regional conflict.


The present intractable situation in the Middle East is a graphic illustration of the impossibility of capitalism solving the most basic problems of everyday life. A small minority of Israeli Jewish workers and youth will react against the descent into bloodshed. If a war did take place there would be a backlash amongst wider sections of Israeli Jews. Sections of Palestinian youth will also through their experience search for alternative ideas that go beyond the tactics of individual armed attacks and the dead-end that the ideas of Hamas represent. They will be open to an explanation that only the overthrow of capitalism in the region, and the creation of a socialist confederation of the Middle East which guarantees the national aspirations of all sections of the population, can provide an alternative to the unending cycle of war and bloodshed that capitalism and imperialism brings.

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