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Issue 35, February 1999

Five years of the Oslo 'peace process'

    A fiction of Palestinian autonomy
    Arafat's corrupt fiefdom
    A changing mood in Israel

May 4, 1999 sees the end of the five-year remit of the Oslo Peace Accords, by when final agreement should be reached on the future status of Palestine and all associated issues. Instead, argues KEVIN SIMPSON, the fraudulently named 'peace process' lies in tatters with none of the fundamental or even secondary issues being addressed. The lands of Israel and Palestine are even more unstable than they were five years ago.

THE OSLO PEACE Accord, brokered by US imperialism, was hailed by capitalist commentators internationally as the first step to solving one of the world's most intractable disputes. Following on from the negotiated settlement in South Africa which brought Nelson Mandela to power in 1994, it was used as an example of US imperialism's 'New World Order'.

The majority of Palestinians greeted the Accords with colossal enthusiasm - viewing it as part of an inexorable process which would lead to an independent Palestinian state and an end to nearly fifty years of Zionist oppression. Many Israeli Jews were quietly optimistic that this would mean an end to the ever present danger of war. Those illusions have been completely dashed. The Palestinians' conditions are worse than ever before and more Israeli Jews have been killed since Oslo than during the Intifada. The attempt by US imperialism to implement a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has actually accentuated all the region's national, political, and class contradictions.

The results of the Oslo Accord reflect the circumstances under which it was signed and the economic and political interests of its more powerful participants. Central to this was the collapse of Stalinism in 1989 and the balance of forces in the Middle East following the 1991 Gulf war. While this conflict was a victory for US imperialism, it emphasised the instability in the Middle East - thus the attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

US imperialism envisaged partial Palestinian autonomy undermining the potential for future explosions of struggle from the Palestinian masses. Despite US imperialism's public commitment to a negotiated settlement in the Middle East and the rights of the Palestinians, however, experience has repeatedly shown that in the last analysis they side with the Israeli ruling class to protect their political and economic interests.

  Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership were forced to the negotiating table because of their weakened position. The PLO leadership faced a crisis of confidence amongst the Palestinian masses as a result of their failure to bring any progress towards Palestinian self-determination. This was a result of historic PLO reliance on diplomatic pressure and support from reactionary Arab regimes to gain concessions from US imperialism and the Israeli state. More immediately, they faced a collapse in political and financial support from Arab states to fund PLO institutions in the Occupied Territories and the Palestinian diaspora. This was partially a result of the PLO's support for Saddam Hussein's regime during the Gulf war - when the majority of Arab states supported the US invasion. Another factor was that the collapse of Stalinism in 1989 forced many of the Soviet Union's client Arab states to look to the capitalist West for economic aid and political links.

The Israeli ruling class realised the weakened position of the PLO. However, they also understood that the Palestinian question could not be solved by military means. The continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly the Intifada, threatened to tear at the fabric of Israeli society as a feeling of war weariness mounted amongst Israeli Jews. There never was any intention of conceding genuine Palestinian statehood, but rather using the PLO leadership to police the Palestinian masses, whilst continuing the economic domination of the Occupied Territories and using it as a pool of cheap labour. The more optimistic Israeli bourgeois strategists hoped that a wider Middle East peace settlement would open up new markets in the Arab states of the region.

  top     A fiction of Palestinian autonomy

FACED WITH THIS balance of forces, it was inevitable that the Oslo Accords would result in a fiction of autonomy. Tension in Israel and Palestine, moreover, has been exacerbated by the actions of the right-wing coalition government of Benjamin Netanyahu. This was elected in 1996 on a platform of 'peace through security'. Netanyahu's refusal to implement signed agreements, and his continuing reactionary and provocative anti-Palestinian rhetoric, brought home to the Palestinians just what a sham the negotiations really were.

During the negotiations, Israeli mediators, under pressure from Netanyahu, have repeatedly demanded more concessions from the Palestinians. For the first 16 months of his tenure, Netanyahu refused to meet Yasser Arafat in face-to-face negotiations, a calculated snub.

Netanyahu's approach to the negotiations partially represented his own political position - a refusal to accept the existence of the Palestinians as a nation. However, his coalition government relied on the support of reactionary right-wing parties, such as the National Religious Party (which supports the idea of Eretz Israel - that no government has the right to surrender the God-given biblical land of Israel to non-Jews). Netanyahu is also open to pressure from even more right-wing parties, such as Moledet (not in the coalition, which calls for 'transfer', a euphemism for the removal of all Palestinians from Israel and the territories), which are supported by the settlers. This has reinforced his own reluctance to make any concessions, since the survival of his government has relied on appeasing these reactionary elements.

The Labour Party, the traditional party of the Israeli ruling class historically, has accused Netanyahu of destroying the chances for peace. However, there is no qualitative difference between the concessions made by Netanyahu and what Labour would have carried out, had it been in power. The difference is in the 'presentation' of those concessions. Nevertheless, in the highly-charged situation in Israel and Palestine, Netanyahu's ruthless 'presentation' has had a very important effect, in exposing the false nature of the Oslo Accords to the Palestinian masses much earlier than the Israeli ruling class or US imperialism would have liked.

  Part of the strategy of the Israeli ruling class was to create 'facts on the ground' - the expansion of Jewish settlements - during the period of negotiations, so that their position would be further strengthened by the time of the final status discussions. The settler population is planned to rise to 200,000 in the next four years. The main aim of this project is to prevent any claim by the PLO leadership in the final negotiations that Jerusalem, or any part of it, should be part of an eventual Palestinian state. It is also to provide the Israelis with an excuse to demand the construction of new roads to the settlements which bypass Palestinian areas, reducing the areas under full Palestinian control to a network of tiny cantonments.

This process, begun by the previous Labour government, was vastly speeded up under Likud especially over the last year. It has particularly concentrated on building settlements to encircle East Jerusalem, which previously had a Palestinian majority, along with a strict enforcement of legislation which deprives Palestinians in East Jerusalem of residency rights, forcing them out of the city. In July, Netanyahu unveiled a plan to enlarge the municipality of Jerusalem from 121.5 to 600 square kilometres, creating a buffer area of settlements all around the city. One of the issues of burning contention amongst Palestinians is that new settlement-building, together with land confiscation, have actually speeded up since the signing of the Oslo Accords, despite agreements to the contrary.

Palestinians are consumed by an ever mounting sentiment of betrayal and anger. The Wye Plantation agreement signed by Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu in October 1998 reinforced this feeling. The agreement meant that on paper the PA will have full control over 17% of the West Bank and partial control over 13% more (although 3% of this will be a 'nature reserve', on which the Palestinians will not be allowed to build!). The PA would be allowed use of the airport they built in Gaza as well as unrestricted travel between Gaza and the West Bank. All these Israeli 'concessions', however, were conditional on Palestinian implementation of a number of demands from the Israeli negotiators.

In return, the PA had to promise to arrest all Hamas 'terrorists', confiscate all unlicensed weapons, reduce the size of the PA security forces, and promulgate a new strict law against all 'subversion'. Arafat portrayed the involvement of the CIA in overseeing these security measures as a big step forward!

The difficulties of even this limited agreement were revealed soon after the signing ceremony. The following week there were armed clashes between the Palestinian police and Fatah supporters, when the former attempted to confiscate 'illegal' weapons. Within two weeks, Netanyahu declared that all measures agreed would be frozen because the Palestinians were not implementing their side of the bargain. In fact, the real reason was that Netanyahu was involved in a desperate attempt to save his coalition government. Now that elections have been called any further negotiations are delayed for at least five months.

  top     Arafat's corrupt fiefdom

IT IS NOT just the broken agreements of the Israeli government which have dashed Palestinian illusions in the Oslo agreement. Yasser Arafat has created a personal fiefdom in the new Palestinian Authority, where corruption is rife. The incongruity of gleaming new villas built for PA cabinet ministers, alongside hovels with no sanitation, lighting or running water for ordinary people, is not lost on the Palestinian masses.

His ministers are sycophantic contemporaries brought back with him from exile. Very few local leaders of Fatah (the political wing of the PLO) and the popular committees which sprung up during the Intifada have been incorporated into the structures of the PA, because of Arafat's fears of their 'independence'.

There are now at least fourteen different security services employing at least 40,000 Palestinians. These are used to crush all opposition - often on the request of the Israeli government - and to extract bribes under torture on behalf of individual PA ministers. The prisons used by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) during their occupation of the Territories are now used by the PA's security forces. Military regulations introduced under British occupation, modified by the IDF, are now used as 'legal' precedents for the PA security forces - the recipients of such 'justice' have always been the Palestinian masses.

The PA employs another 60,000, apart from those in the security services. Together with their dependants this amounts to approximately 25% of the population of the new Authority. Arafat has used this employment patronage to attempt to consolidate support.

Despite this, the level of corruption has threatened to completely undermine the PA. It was for this reason that members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) early last year forced Arafat to appoint an independent audit commission. This commission reported that out of the budget of $800m in 1996, an incredible $326m was unaccounted for through corruption and maladminsitration.

  The report called for the removal of Arafat's two closest allies, Jamil Tarifi and Nabil Sha'at, pointing to their responsiblity for this state of affairs. Arafat's response was not to remove the named ministers but to increase the cabinet by another ten ministers in an effort to buy off his opponents! One of the original negotiators in the talks with Israel that led to Oslo, Hanan Ashrawi, resigned her ministerial post, seeing the political necessity to distance herself from Arafat. An opinion poll soon after this showed that 77% of Palestinians believed the PA was corrupt.

Arafat's negotiating tactics have further undermined what little of his authority remains. Ringing condemnations and 'final ultimatums' to the Israeli government before negotiating sessions melt away during talks. The results, further betrayals of the Palestinians' aspirations, are dressed up as major victories.

The Oslo Accords have brought social and economic disaster for the Palestinians. During the Oslo Accords the PA has faced total closure by the IDF, and even closure of individual villages and towns - something which never happened prior to the agreement. Palestinians in the former Territories were extremely reliant on day work in Israel for their existence. Before the Intifada, 120,000 Palestinians used to work in Israel. That figure has fallen to one third. Unemployment is 29% officially. Between 1992-1996, real per capita gross national product (GNP) declined by 40%, from $2,400 to $1,500 per year.

Prior to the Wye agreement, the PA had full control of 66% of the Gaza and 3% of the West Bank. In Gaza, the PA area is surrounded on three sides by an electrified security fence, and on the fourth side by the sea - which is patrolled by the IDF. On the West Bank, exit and entry into the PA is controlled by the IDF. For the past year Palestinians have been denied the right to travel between the Gaza and West Bank. In Hebron, on the West Bank, the city centre has been kept under Israeli control to satisfy the 300 religious fanatics who live there, with scant regard for the wishes of the 120,000 Palestinians. As many commentators have argued, these conditions do not represent statehood but a Palestinian version of the former apartheid Bantustan.

  top     A changing mood in Israel

THE OSLO ACCORDS have not brought increased stability to Israel either. There have been important developments in Israeli working-class consciousness over the last four to five years which have gone unreported in the world's media. The adoption of neo-liberal economic policies and the failure of the Oslo Accords, to guarantee peace have had potentially far-reaching effects.

In order to survive, the Israeli ruling class had to develop a cohesive state which rested not only on middle class but also strong working-class support. This was the only way the defence of Israel could be guaranteed and the necessary sacrifices from the Jewish working class for this assured. This had an effect on how the Zionist capitalist state of Israel developed. It required a high level of state intervention into all sectors of Israeli life, and a highly protected economy. The majority of industry was owned and managed by the state and the Histadruth, one of the main foundations of Zionist rule. It also acted as a trade union for Israeli citizens as well as providing health insurance and welfare support.

The Histadruth leadership was, for a large part of its existence, controlled by the Labour Party - which was also the main bourgeois party (although with working-class support). While there was no guaranteed job for life, the economic development of Israel (underpinned by massive US aid), meant a high level of job security for large sections of workers. Illusions in state Zionism and fears for their security lowered class-consciousness among workers. The Histadruth leadership became a corrupt and extremely powerful elite, which put their own interests before that of the workers they were supposed to represent. Independent workers' struggles were rare, short-lived, and isolated.

The 1990s have brought many changes. The implementation of neo-liberal economic policies, together with the more recent world recession, has transformed the economic and social landscape of Israel.

All the industrial holdings of the Histadruth have been privatised, as well as health insurance. The bureaucratic elite who controlled the Histadruth have mostly left their posts, taking up jobs in the newly privatised industries. The Histadruth, now with purely trade union functions, has a new leadership headed by Amir Peretz, no longer under the direct control of the Labour Party. The Histadruth recently has called more strike action, partly as a result of increasing radicalisation of the Israeli Jewish working class, and partly because they are no longer restrained by the material interests of its former industrial holdings.

  Neo-liberal economic policies - privatisation, attacks on the welfare state, increased taxation on the working class, and lowering of trade and finance controls - has led to a huge polarisation in wealth. Social surveys in Israel claim that the difference between rich and poor is greater than anywhere in the so-called advanced capitalist economies, apart from the US. The early 1990s were a period of unprecedented economic growth (5.9% per annum on average during 1990-96) despite this polarisation in living standards. This growth was fuelled in its early part by the arrival of tens of thousand of highly qualified Russian Jewish immigrants. It was also because of the development of Israel's highly lucrative new technology sector, and the subsequent inflow of large sums of foreign direct investment (FDI). The advent of the Oslo Accords also increased FDI, as foreign investors saw the opportunities of the so-called 'peace dividend'.

The boom has turned into a recession, with exports falling by 19% in the third quarter of 1998 compared to the previous quarter. GDP fell by 1% and imports of goods and services by 3% in the same period. The pressures of the world recession have led to a devaluation of the Shekel, and a subsequent increase in interest rates has damaged workers' living standards further.

These social and economic developments have loosened many of the ties of loyalty that bound the Israeli Jewish working class to the state. Over the last two years there has been an increase in working-class militancy and the development of widespread moods of solidarity. There have been two general strikes and a public sector strike which were defensive but won small gains. There was a mass movement of the students to demand the lowering of tuition fees. This received the backing of the Histadruth.

This strike action reflects the deep mood of discontent amongst large sections of the Israeli population. There is disgust at the horse-trading and outright corruption that has become a feature of Israeli coalition politics. This has led to a collapse in support for both Likud and Labour. While the working class becomes increasingly impoverished, the bosses award themselves record pay increases. There is also a feeling that, despite all the propaganda, peace will not be achieved with the Palestinians.

  Even the bombings and killings by Palestinian armed groups such as Hamas, this has not led to the same anti-Palestinian sentiments as before. The burning economic problems the working class face, and the lack of solutions, is of much more importance to them. In the recent student protest one of the main slogans was for 'revolution'. Interviews with students showed that they were not clear what they actually meant by this slogan, but it was an expression of their feeling that Israeli society needs radical change.

An even more important development has been the growing demand amongst workers for a new workers' party. During the most recent elections to the Histadruth, leaders of works committees ran an independent workers' list called 'Oz' (Strength). Since the collapse of the Netanyahu government, the leader of the Histadruth has bowed to pressure to begin the process of developing a new workers' party.

Although Peretz' actions are more designed to further his own career, recent comments from workers' committee leaders are a reflection of the radicalisation that has developed amongst the working class. In an interview in the daily Ha'aretz (18 January, 1999), Richi Bachkar, chair of Israel Discount Bank's workers' committee, commented: "All the workers' committees have started to fear for their future and the future of the country. There is no one on the political landscape representing us. I am a member of the Labour Party, but unfortunately, this party long ago ceased to represent the workers".

The coming election in May will solve nothing. Both Likud and Labour are split. MP's from both are looking for alternative party lists to accommodate them. Up to five alternative candidates have put themselves forward to challenge Netanyahu as the prime ministerial candidate within Likud. A new 'centre' party has been set up by a former chief of army staff, General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, which poses itself as a new non-corrupt organisation. This has achieved some public support and is also backed by sections of the ruling class. It may be that Shahak's new party is seen by some bourgeois strategists as a force which can form the core of a government of National Unity. A national unity government is possible following the elections, particularly since the collapse in support for Labour and Likud has led to a proliferation of new lists and parties being set up. The PR method of elections makes it even more difficult for any one party to form a majority government in Israel.

  Whatever the outcome, a new government will not be able to solve any of the social or economic problems, especially with the onset of a world economic crisis. Neither will any government be able to ensure a solution to the Palestinian demand for independence. Such a move is incompatible with the social, political, or economic interests of the Israeli ruling class or its backers, US imperialism.

Israel and Palestine will enter a new stormy period. The possibility of a second Intifada is now greater because of the failure of the negotiations. Mass movements amongst the Palestinians have been delayed because of the demoralisation caused by the failure of Oslo and the lack of an alternative to Arafat and the PLO leadership. If such a movement develops, it will lead to a much more bitter and bloody conflict than before. It will probably develop as a civil war within the Palestinian Authority itself, with big sections of the Palestinian masses pitted against the Yasser Arafat government and its security forces. An extended conflict would lead to a split in the security forces and Fatah, with sections of the police going over to the side of the masses and taking their arms with them. Hamas would increase its support under such conditions.

It is difficult to see how Arafat could survive a second Intifada - if he survives that long. If such a conflict reaches mass proportions, it will inevitably draw in Israel. This could involve an attempt to reoccupy sections of the PA, posing the threat of a war in the Middle East, something imperialism would do its utmost to prevent.

It is therefore more likely that US imperialism will attempt to force the Israeli ruling class to grant more concessions in an attempt to prevent or delay such developments. US imperialism's room to manoeuvre, however, will be severely limited in the new period of world economic and political instability which is opening up. With the depth of anger that exists amongst the Palestinians, it is difficult to see how massive explosions of struggle can be avoided.

The bloody history of imperialist intervention in the Middle East has solved none of the problems that exist in the region. The only forces capable of bringing fundamental change are the working class and peasant masses of the region. Their target must be the overthrow of the reactionary Arab states and the Zionist capitalist Israeli regime, paving the way to the creation of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East.

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