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Israel: social disintegration & insecurity

In April, MARTIN FREEMAN visited Maavak Sozilialisti, the CWI organisation in Israel. "It is the only non-Zionist socialist organisation capable of reaching both Jewish and Arab working-class communities", says Martin. Social polarisation and the break-up of the old Zionist state will lead to more pronounced class-struggle, though this will be complicated by the national question and the security issue.

FOR SOMEONE visiting Israel for the first time, what strikes most is the obsession with security. Security agents and scans are everywhere, from the airport to bus stations, at the entrance of supermarkets, restaurants and even pubs. The ruling establishment uses the issue as a way of diverting attention from social issues. Since the Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority (PA) was formed in March this year, the United Nations has reported that 17 Palestinians have been killed by the IDF (Israel Defence Force) in Gaza, amongst them two children. Another 64 Palestinians have been injured, including eleven children. The brutal attack by IDF on the prison in Jericho on 14 March was a further provocation. It looks as if the Israeli establishment wanted to provoke further suicide bombings as a way of diverting attention from its extreme neo-liberal policies.

In the past there was a large state sector, Histadruth (the union federation, which in the past was also a major employer) controlled the social-security network, with a high standard of health care and retirement benefits. The Zionist state had strong elements of economic interventionism, with state investment and subsidies and a systematic financial inflow from the Jewish community abroad, fuelling capitalist profits but also building a strong social base amongst the Jewish population, mostly at the expense of the Arab population. Since the early 1990s, most of the state sector including health care has been sold off. Neo-liberalism has led to increased exploitation, with a strong increase in the number of manpower agency contracts. Although the economy has grown by 4.4% in 2004 and 5.2% in 2005, the number of people officially below the poverty line increased to 24.1% compared to 21.5% in 2003 and 16% in 1991.

I visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Rishon. You could feel the frustration everywhere, especially in the outskirts. Security agents don’t escape flexibility and underpayment. Soldiers hang around with their weapons lurching on their side. Nearly half of the youth avoid their military service. Social security payments have been relentlessly whittled away — cut by 35% in a single decade. Health care and prescription drug coverage have been slashed, along with funds for pensioners’ housing and assisted living. Even 40% of the holocaust survivors, 170,000 pensioners, are living below the poverty line. This was what people meant when they said to me that ‘Zionism doesn’t exist anymore’, meaning the state and the establishment have abandoned buying a social base in society amongst Jewish workers. The racist, provocative policy toward the Arab population, however, has not halted, but increased through a policy based on the separation of both communities.

The destruction of welfare explains the enthusiasm brought about by the election of Amir Peretz as the head of the Labour Party. Since then the party has attracted 30,000 new members. However, internal life and rank-and-file activity are non-existent. The campaign for the elections on 28 March was run on the basis of professional advertising and Peretz abandoned his previous promises concerning pensions and the minimum wage. He also appointed a neo-liberal professor as his spokesperson on economics. Nevertheless, the Labour Party still won 19 seats. The potential for a more left-wing formation, however, was expressed in a distorted way through the sudden success of the pensioners’ party. It actually got more votes from youth than pensioners and obtained seven seats. This party, seen as being on the left, is headed by a formerly unknown ex-chief of Mossad (the secret service) who made his fortune in deals with Cuba, and some retired union leaders.

Likud, the party that dominated Israeli politics since 1977, suffered a massive setback. This partly reflected anger at the neo-liberal policies carried out by its leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, as former finance minister. It also expressed the urge to abandon the idea of a ‘Greater Israel’, which is seen as unrealistic and a threat to security by the overall majority of the population. The newly created Kadima (Forward) narrowly won the elections. Kadima was formed by Ariel Sharon after he broke from Likud last year, and is mainly composed of ex-Labour and ex-Likud careerists, led by Ehud Olmert since Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke. Kadima won mainly because of its commitment to continue the policy of unilateral withdrawal behind the separation wall. Many Israelis hope this will end the conflict. The other main victor, the hard-line nationalist, Avigdor Liebermann, expresses more openly the purpose of this policy: retain control of most of the settlements on the West Bank but redraw the border to effectively deport entire Israeli Arab city populations. Olmert already announced that eventually Israel will unilaterally decide the new borders by 2008.

The election result has forced the establishment to form an unstable four-party coalition. The government is headed by Olmert and Kadima. Peretz, who has actually helped to bring social issues into politics, got the poisoned cup, becoming defence minister. The pensioners’ party received the ministry of health, and Shas, which opposes shopping on the Sabbath, received the ministry of industry and commerce. Even though there is a budget surplus of about $1.7 billion accumulated over the previous months and minor concessions are not excluded, everything points to a continuation of neo-liberal policies. Wages are decreasing (-1.7% in February) while food prices are increasing (bread +7%). New battles along class lines will eventually burst out. This leads many in Israel to tell us they agree with us on the social issues. But because, at present, they see no alternative to the existing Israeli capitalist state as the defender of a Jewish state, and they are offered no positive alternative by the Palestinian political elite, they argue at the same time that we should not take up the security issue, nor the national question.

We understand why people prefer not to take up the security issue, but we can’t agree. It is there, as was proved by the suicide attack on the old bus station in Tel Aviv on 15 April, a terrible response to the many provocations by IDF in the previous weeks. The bomber took nine lives together with his own, mostly working-class immigrants. Tel Aviv’s old bus station is in a poor working-class neighbourhood, only 1-2 kilometres away from the financial heart of the country. Neither Olmert’s unilateral policy, nor the separation wall, nor the military raids, will be able to stop suicide bombers. The latent support for the suicide bombers among Palestinians has to be undermined by the building of decent housing, hospitals and schools and by delivering electricity and water, in order to reconstruct society. Such reconstruction requires material, social progress and the satisfaction of the Palestinians’ demand for self-determination and democratic rights. The means for such a policy exist, but they are piled up in the accounts and safes of a handful of capitalists profiteering from the wealth created by both Jewish and Arab workers.

The Palestinian population should have the right to defend their communities, including by armed struggle. However, this is completely different from the blind suicide bombings which are not weakening but strengthening the Israeli state. Rather than drawing the Israeli working class away from the state and their capitalist exploiters, suicide bombings push them behind it. Many Israeli workers are ready to fight their exploiters, but at the same time they aim for a secure and peaceful existence. Both communities should have the right to run their own state in a secure environment with respect for their respective minorities. This will only be possible if the massive productive forces are mobilised to create decent living and working conditions for all. Such a policy demands the removal of the capitalists and their states and the building of socialist societies. On that basis, negotiations on the borders, the status of Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees would become a public and democratic discussion between the working masses of both communities.


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