In this article, written in September on the thirtieth anniversary of the first Oslo accord – and before the eruption of the recent war – JUDY BEISHON discusses what conditions would be necessary for achieving an independent Palestinian state.
The human geography of Israel-Palestine has been far from static. ‘Facts on the ground’ pushed ahead by successive Israeli governments have been changing the landscape of the West Bank and east Jerusalem since Israel’s victory in the 1967 war. Jewish settlements have been expanded in size and number, to now encompass around 500,000 settlers in the West Bank and 230,000 in east Jerusalem.
Palestinians meanwhile are more and more atomised into poverty-stricken enclaves, including the Gaza strip which remains largely blockaded by both Israel and Egypt. They suffer land expropriation, home demolitions, restrictions on movement and brutal repression. Since the year 2000, over 10,700 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, many of them during the four Israeli military onslaughts on Gaza since 2008.
This year, Palestinians in the West Bank have so far suffered the highest death toll – the most there since the UN began recording it in 2005. Not only have they suffered regular raids and killings by the Israeli military – including a bloody assault on Jenin in July – but also increasingly ferocious, communal violence from right-wing ultra-nationalist Jewish settlers.
Thirty years ago, when the first Oslo accord was signed in 1993, there were hopes on both sides of progress towards a Palestinian state alongside Israel. At that time, we in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) warned that those hopes would be dashed, writing: “This agreement, although it has provided minimum concessions to the Palestinians, will break down over the longer period. Capitalism is still incapable of answering the aspirations of the Palestinians”. For Israel’s ruling class, the accord was an attempt to draw a line under the first intifada (Palestinian uprising) and regain some temporary stability. It wasn’t willing to agree to the creation of a neighbouring Palestinian state that under capitalism could at any time try to retake land seized by the Israeli state in 1947-49 and 1967.
Since Oslo, nurtured by government funding, the number of Jewish settlers has increased over three-fold, partly with the aim of making a Palestinian state unattainable, and to the extent that today many commentators in the region and internationally have written off the idea of a state altogether. For example, in the New York Times in July, Tareq Baconi, president of a Palestinian policy network, looked back over the last 20 years and wrote: “Between 2002 and 2023, the illusion of partitioning the land into two states disintegrated. It exists now only in diplomatic talking points, hollowed out of all meaning, and replaced by a consensus among international and Israeli human rights organizations, including B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, that Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid against Palestinians”.
It isn’t surprising, therefore, that across the Palestinian territories – the Gaza strip, West Bank and east Jerusalem – Palestinians have largely lost hope in achieving their own state. A majority say their situation is worse now than before the Oslo accords (pcpsr.org). In Israel too, where the death toll in the conflict since 2000 stands at 1,346, the attitude of most people today is heavy scepticism towards a two-states solution.
Certainly, no wing of Israel’s ruling class proposes a solution that will give the Palestinians a genuine state. The present government is the most right-wing and ultra-nationalist in Israel’s history, inciting racial division and pursuing land grabs as part of an effective annexation of the West Bank. Its far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said in 2021 that all Palestinians should have been expelled from the state created by Israel in 1948. After a Palestinian shot dead two settlers in February in the Palestinian town Huwara, which was followed by a bloody rampage of settlers through the town, Smotrich called for ethnic cleansing by saying: “The village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it”.
Another far-right Zionist minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has past convictions for inciting violence and supporting right-wing Zionist terrorism, yet is the government’s minister for national security, responsible for policing and law enforcement. Less than two weeks before Israeli forces invaded the Palestinian West Bank town Jenin in July, Ben-Gvir had urged: “We have to settle the land of Israel and at the same time need to launch a military campaign, blow up buildings, assassinate terrorists. Not one, or two, but dozens, hundreds, or if needed, thousands”. Ben-Gvir’s ‘land of Israel’ includes all of the West Bank up to the Jordan river, viewed by him and many others on the Zionist right as given to Jews by God.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped up his own support for annexation in order to help draw far-right parties into his coalition. For instance, he said in December: “The Jewish people have an exclusive and indisputable right to all areas of the land of Israel”, and “the government will promote and develop settlement in all parts of the land of Israel”. Since the formation of his latest government in December 2022, it has approved the construction of 13,000 more settlement housing units, almost triple last year’s number. It is also legalising nine settlement outposts and allowing settlers to return to four settlements that were discontinued in 2005.
Ominously, it has also transferred governance of the settlers’ civilian life from Israel’s military to a new body under Smotrich, while West Bank Palestinians remain under military authority. This move has added to the accusations of ‘apartheid’, including by some establishment figures in Israel, such as Tamir Pardo, a former head of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad.
In reality, there are significant differences between the situation in Israel-Palestine and the system of apartheid – the Afrikaans word for ‘separation’ – which existed in South Africa for four decades from 1948. The white minority in South Africa, for example, based the economy on direct exploitation of the labour of the country’s black majority, whereas Israel was built with a deliberate policy of trying to rely on Jewish labour only, keeping Palestinian labour peripheral to the economy. Also, while Palestinian residents of Israel are discriminated against, they nominally have equal rights to Israeli Jews, with no formal policy of separation. However, there is undeniably a policy of separation being imposed in the occupied territories.
Unprecedented protest movement
The government’s plan to reduce the powers of the high court flowed from its desire to pursue unhindered its aggressive West Bank agenda, and to be able to carry out the changes inside Israel being demanded by the various coalition parties – including separating women from men at some public events. Also, Netanyahu had a well-known personal motive to curb the judiciary as he has been charged with corruption.
Israel’s high court judges are appointed, not elected, and in the final analysis they act in the interests of the capitalist class and not ordinary people. But faced with a government containing far-right, ultra-nationalist and religious Zionist parties, protesters turned out onto the streets in a movement of unprecedented scale – hundreds of thousands – to oppose the attack on the judiciary. They view the high court as a feature of democracy in its capacity as a check on the government, and as providing more balance and promotion of a ‘fairer’ society than the present government will do.
Alongside that, for a large number of the participants, the movement is also a mass rebellion against deteriorating living standards and public services, resulting from the neoliberal measures of successive governments – privatisation and cuts over many years – and, more recently, the effects of inflation and interest rate rises. Inequality is massive between a tiny super-rich layer at the top and the overwhelming majority of the population. A third of children in Israel are brought up in poverty, even lacking adequate nutrition. Many of them are in Palestinian households but a substantial layer of Israeli Jews also live in poverty, especially among the ultra-orthodox and those with a Middle Eastern or African heritage.
The movement’s protesters come from all backgrounds, but particularly from the secular middle-class layer who want to defend what they see as Israel’s traditional liberal democracy encompassing secularism as well as the different strands and degrees of religious Judaism. Most of the Jewish-based pro-capitalist political parties in Israel base themselves on one or other section of the multi-faceted population, made up of people from different and overlapping backgrounds: secular, moderately religious, ultra-orthodox, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, Russian, settlers, etc. Those political parties foster division by supporting the particular interests of one section of the population against others.
Urgently needed is the building of a democratic mass party based on the working class, with a fighting socialist programme, that could bring together workers from all backgrounds, including Palestinians in Israel. Such a party could also bring together the different generations. Protesters around retirement age and older can remember the earlier decades of the Israeli state led by governments that put state investment into infrastructure and the welfare state.
The younger generations focus particularly on defending women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, the climate crisis, the overall rottenness of capitalism and, for some, the horrors of the occupation. All these issues could be brought together by a new party representing the class interests of all workers, armed with a socialist programme to challenge capitalist ideology and interests.
That programme would also be very attractive to the sections of the working class presently supporting the right-wing government. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, has an electoral base among working-class Sephardic households, but largely on the basis of Likud’s leaders taking a right-populist approach, blaming wealthy tycoons for the ills of society, making sham promises, and exploiting Sephardic hostility to the early Israeli leadership’s suppression of their culture. A poll of Likud voters showed 47% were mainly concerned about the cost of living, which Netanyahu’s pro-big business government won’t significantly ease.
So the government’s support base isn’t secure; and as its coalition parties haggle over every policy it could break apart during events and clashes to come.
The previous ‘change’ coalition government, led by present opposition leaders Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, was also highly unstable, only lasting from June 2021 to December 2022. The parties which formed it had little in common except being against Netanyahu. It continued to expand the settlements and authorise military raids in the Palestinian territories. The volatility and instability within Israeli capitalism and its political parties has been apparent in there having been five general elections in just four years.
Support for the Israeli Labour Party collapsed due to its failure to deliver improved living standards and security when in power – both impossible under conditions of capitalist decline without challenging capitalism. That party was once the traditional party of Israeli capitalism, whose forerunner Mapai oversaw the violent creation of Israel and subsequent social-democratic style economic development, in which the state helped to foster capitalist expansion. Today, the landscape of parliamentary parties has become more fragmented as voters search for anything that might be better than what went before.
Very important is the existence of a trade union federation in Israel, the Histadrut, and also a small union ‘Power to the Workers’. The pro-capitalist Histadrut leaders operate bureaucratically and unaccountably, and prefer to work in partnership with employers than to organise workers’ struggles. Unsurprisingly, they haven’t involved the union in the mass protest movement, but it was significant that they called a general strike on 27 March. They were responding to pressure from capitalists opposed to the present government as well as from workers, but this showed the potential power of the working class as it halted much of the economy and led Netanyahu to – at that stage – postpone the judicial ‘reform’.
Disputes over pay and other issues break out regularly in Israel. This year there have been strikes by health workers, university lecturers and screen actors among others – in which workers have experienced their collective strength. Those struggles often involve Jewish workers taking action alongside Palestinians in the same workplace. Palestinian communities in Israel have also had their own struggles, including months of demonstrations to demand measures against poverty-related crime and gang violence.
They have largely stayed out of the movement against the Netanyahu government’s attack on the judiciary, differentiating less than the Jewish population between Israel’s high court and its government – viewing both as parts of a state that discriminates against them. And as the self-appointed leaders of the movement haven’t taken up the specific needs of Palestinians in Israel as part of the protests, or the occupation, Palestinians haven’t been encouraged to participate. The protest movement has had no democratic structure through which to debate and crystallise demands and decide on the next steps; the task of developing such a structure will be vital in movements to come.
Israeli ruling class
The mass movement against the judicial reform is a cross-class movement. It includes representatives of big business who don’t want repercussions on trade, due to criticism internationally of their government’s actions, or the heightened risk of a backlash in the Palestinian territories to the increased state military and settler aggression. They are concerned too about domestic instability if further polarisation develops within Israel’s Jewish population. However, their biggest domestic fear is the changes in consciousness the movement will have brought about, with, in all likelihood, some degree of questioning of the ‘social contract’ that has bound ordinary people to the executive arm of the state. Also, the movement has included over 11,000 army and air force reservists who have refused to serve in the military – a serious problem for the ruling class and its interests.
It is also an ominous development for the capitalists’ interests that the movement continued even during the major assault on Jenin in July. Previous upturns in the bloodshed have been successfully used to draw workers into support for the government, but this time, although a number of opposition figureheads argued for the protests to be postponed while the ‘security issues’ were taking place, the mood from below showed less inclination to hold back.
So, for most of Israel’s ruling class this latest brand of Netanyahu government is risking too much. Overall, Israel is going through its biggest crisis since the state was founded. Pardo, in addition to using the description ‘apartheid’, warned that turning the occupation into a “forever occupation” threatens Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. This is raised by other establishment figures too: fear that a Palestinian majority in all the land controlled by Israel will demand equal rights and jeopardise the nature of the Israeli state.
Much of Israel’s capitalist class therefore wants a softer approach: fewer provocations, a semblance of peace negotiations, and some concessions to try to prop up the Palestinian Authority in the territories. While no substantial section of that capitalist class wants to allow the existence of an independent, genuine Palestinian state, another structure short of a state, beyond the failed Palestinian Authority, could possibly be brought about while capitalism still exists. Like with the Oslo process, the Israeli regime could again in the future attempt to make concessions to try to prevent Palestinian mass struggle. Many Israeli capitalists realise that separation from the main Palestinian areas in the territories can’t be maintained by military force indefinitely, and therefore advocate that some form of Palestinian entity should be conceded.
International pressure can play a part in this, in particular from the US. While successive US governments have strongly backed the Israeli state – presently donating $3.9 billion a year – and are likely to continue to do so, that doesn’t mean that pressure for negotiations won’t be stepped up again. This can be partly due to US imperialism wanting to dampen down increased instability in Israel-Palestine, but also as a result of growing criticism of Israel’s military occupation within the US population. For now, US president Biden has just expressed a desire to curb the excesses of the present Israeli government. He described it as having some of the most “extreme” ministers he had seen; and the US state department called the shooting dead of a Palestinian youth by settlers a “terror attack”, language usually only used against attacks carried out by Palestinians.
However, full self-determination for the Palestinians won’t be conceded by the Israeli ruling class, nor could a capitalist Palestinian state provide decent living standards for the Palestinian masses. Many of the world’s capitalist powers wouldn’t want to harm their relations with Israel by investing in it, especially with the perpetual danger, under capitalism, of national conflict resurging. Capitalism today is too rotten and failing to be able to satisfy the national aspirations of oppressed people anywhere on the globe.
Like with Israel’s pro-capitalist parties, the ruling party in the West Bank Palestinian Authority, Fatah, has no way forward to offer. Its massively unpopular leaders in the corrupt Authority collaborate with Israel’s security forces in inflicting a regime of repression and in presiding over declining living standards.
They rule undemocratically, with no parliamentary elections held for 17 years, and have no intention of calling for the mass struggles that are needed to counter the occupation. They themselves would be targets for overthrow as well as Israeli state oppression. Instead they plead for aid from capitalist governments globally, the United Nations and NGOs, and appeal in vain for pressure to be placed on Israel to make concessions. Incidentally, international aid for the Authority has declined sharply over the last decade, while Israel’s international trade has increased, including with a number of Arab countries.
As the Palestinian Authority is at rock-bottom standing, in the last local elections it became the norm for Fatah members to stand as ‘independents’ to try to escape the anger being directed at their leadership. Even at the time of the last parliamentary election in 2006, Fatah was already too discredited to win, the victors instead being Hamas, a party of right-wing political Islam.
Hamas ended up only ruling in the Gaza strip, it too with just minority support, and offering no way forward towards Palestinian liberation. Like Fatah, it is pro-capitalist and opposes independent working-class struggle. Its main method of fighting the occupation is bouts of rocket fire into Israel, which although welcomed by a layer of Palestinians as presenting some resistance, is in reality futile against the hugely superior might of Israel’s military forces. Also, as the projectiles hit Israeli civilians – as the more devastating suicide bombs of Hamas and Islamic Jihad did during the second intifada – they have the effect of pushing Israeli Jews towards support for their government’s argument that only returning military bombardment will lay the basis for ceasefires.
In the West Bank, faced with the ongoing impasse, military groups linked with Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been reported as attracting new fighters, and new armed groups have arisen, such as Lions’ Den in Nablus. However, secretive armed groups acting outside of any democratic control won’t advance the struggle for liberation. Only mass action can do so, which was illustrated in 2011 when mass movements in Tunisia and Egypt overthrew longstanding dictators who had maintained power through large state police and military apparatuses.
In recent years there have been some localised mass actions, including along the fence in Gaza, against repression around the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and against evictions. Organising at grassroots level, democratically debating and deciding what types of action will be taken, and electing leaders who will then be held to account, are among the steps needed to build a successful challenge to the occupation. It is also important not to target Israeli civilians, not least in order to start to lay a basis for cooperation and links between workers on both sides of the divide.
Like in Israel, in the territories a political alternative to the pro-capitalist parties needs to be built, with a programme for breaking with capitalism. In Tunisia and Egypt the absence of such a programme, along with mass workers’ organisations to promote it, meant that capitalist politicians and military officers were able to keep the capitalist system in place and just make changes in personnel at the top.
The political alternative needed is socialism in the Palestinian territories and Israel, because it’s only through replacing private ownership of the main corporations with public ownership and democratic control by the working class and poor masses that the basis can be laid for ending capitalist exploitation, inequality, competition, conflict and environmental degradation.
A number of left organisations internationally wrongly regard Israeli Jewish workers as being too wedded to nationalism and too ‘privileged’ compared to the Palestinians to ever move against Israeli capitalism. This year’s massive movement in Israel has dealt a blow to that position. The movement’s leaders haven’t put forward socialist demands, but the experiences gained in it by participants, including the general strike, the blocking of major roads and the parliament building, and facing heavy police repression – mounted police, water cannon, skunk water, arrests and beatings – have undoubtedly led many to draw lessons which can take future struggles to a higher level.
The health of Israel’s economy is linked to growth in the world economy, which is slowing. Workers’ struggles in Israel in collision with capitalist interests are inevitable as their bosses move to try to squeeze workers’ living standards further, to maintain profits and the state’s military spending. Israel is a class-based society, as are all capitalist countries, but with a ruling class inflicting a heavy smokescreen of nationalist propaganda to give an impression that the interests of the Jewish working class and middle class are the same as the capitalists, as they are all Israeli Jews. The conflict with the Palestinians is used, along with hostile rhetoric from Iran’s theocracy and from within the Arab regimes, to stress insecurity and draw Israeli Jews behind the ruling class and state.
In that way the national question is raised above all others as the most crucial issue, making the class division less apparent and felt. However, the class battles to come will shatter that falsehood and reveal more clearly that the nationalism of the capitalists is based on opposing interests to that of the overwhelming majority. For the capitalists, it is part of the edifice of ‘divide and rule’ which underlies their social base, territory, domestic workforce, profit making, wealth accumulation and prestige. For ordinary people, it is primarily the desire to protect and express their own culture and religion (for the non-secular) in their own communities, with decent living standards, good public services, and in safety.
In this capitalist world, with high levels of poverty and inequality, many people hope that national borders can be a partial protection against a ‘race to the bottom’ in living standards, a feature of today’s rotting capitalism globally. Nation state borders were products of capitalism, necessary for its development. Although capitalism is now in decline it is unable to overcome its dependence on nation states – they are inherent in the system. Most of the giant corporations each lean on a nation state for protection, support, infrastructure, and all or part of their workforce and market. As a result, competition and conflict between states over territory, trade and natural resources are also inherent in the system.
In socialist societies on the other hand, public ownership of those corporations together with socialist economic planning would mean that governments consisting of workers’ representatives could protect and improve the living standards of all. They would also be able to guarantee cultural, language and other minority rights. These advances under socialism would lay the basis for borders becoming progressively less relevant.
Two socialist states
As the Israel-Palestine conflict won’t end under capitalism, neither a two-states solution nor a one-state solution is possible while capitalism exists. But what about on the basis of socialism? How relevant today is the call for two socialist states? Does the settlements expansion mean that socialists should call for one socialist state instead? Or alternatively leave the solution open to workers’ negotiation when the capitalist rulers have been removed?
Certainly, for socialists, when capitalist rule is removed it will be entirely up to workers’ representatives on both sides of today’s divide to discuss and decide whether to have a border, where to have it and for how long. Also, if mass workers’ organisations on both sides decide to adopt a one-state programme in advance of overthrowing capitalism, that should also be fully respected by socialists.
However, our present programme has to take into account today’s conditions and consciousness. Surveys among Palestinians in the territories show that support for ‘two states’ has fallen from a majority to a minority: 32% in a September 2023 survey (pcpsr.org). However, this is with the background of 71% thinking a Palestinian state can no longer be achieved, and therefore doesn’t mean it isn’t still desired.
After 75 years of oppression, most Palestinians want the right to self-determination. They don’t want to live under occupation, and they fear they would be discriminated against in ‘one state’ – even as a majority in it, not least because they are well aware of the discrimination faced by Palestinians inside Israel. In the same survey, 27% of Palestinians in the territories expressed support for ‘one-state’, but again a major factor in this is that many have given up on the idea of their own state and believe that only a struggle for equal rights in one state is now feasible.
Another aspect inevitably affecting attitudes is that while most Palestinians regard the actions of the Israeli regime as the main obstacle to achieving their aspirations, no doubt their grim experience of living under the West Bank Palestinian Authority or the Gaza Hamas government has led to scepticism on what a Palestinian state would be like. For socialists, this brings home all the more that not only is a transformation to socialism necessary to deliver a Palestinian state, but also to get rid of the moribund pro-capitalist Palestinian authorities and replace them with regularly elected, accountable committees of workers and the poor at every level of society.
So, in reality, to call today for a socialist Palestinian state still corresponds with the present national aspirations and security concerns of most Palestinians, together with their desperate need for decent living conditions.
In today’s situation, the consciousness of most people in Israel-Palestine doesn’t override the enormous level of insecurity and distrust that has arisen during 75 years of bloody conflict to the extent of being able to have confidence in a programme proposing equal rights in one state. For Israeli Jews, consciousness of bloodshed also goes back long before the creation of Israel, to times of terrible pogroms against Jews and of course the Holocaust.
Most Israeli Jews, whether secular or religious, have a strong sense of Jewish identity and want the right to self-determination as Jewish people. The forerunners of the CWI opposed the creation of Israel in Palestine, recognising, as Leon Trotsky warned, that it would be a “bloody trap” for Jewish people in what was already inhabited land. However, over the decades the Israeli state has become an established fact, with a national consciousness, and 70% of today’s Israeli Jews born there.
A ‘one state’ solution is quickly rejected by most of them because it triggers fear of ending up without their own state, and also of being discriminated against, as the Palestinian population is numerically outstripping the Jewish population. This is even the case when it’s raised as a socialist state, because an understanding of what genuine socialism would mean is at this stage low in Israel, as it is worldwide. A two-state solution, on the other hand, was for a long time supported by two-thirds of Israeli Jews, and that level has fallen to one-third today, mainly because of doubt over whether it can be achieved and a rise in distrust.
Despite this complex mood, the call for a socialist Israel alongside a socialist Palestine, with guaranteed rights for minorities, is still generally in keeping with the social and economic aspirations of Israeli Jewish workers, and also with their security concerns, which will never be resolved on the basis of oppressing the Palestinians militarily. It is a position that can become more popular as the class struggle develops in Israel and also in the Palestinian territories.
What about relations between the two states? In the period after the overthrow of capitalism, democratically planned economies would be able to start to deliver environmentally sustainable, decent living standards for all people on both sides of the divide, therefore providing the material basis for cooperation to replace conflict.
Democratically elected and accountable workers’ representatives from each side would need to discuss, negotiate and reach compromises, when necessary, on all relevant issues, including on land boundaries, how Jerusalem will be shared, how water and other resources will be distributed, and how Palestinian refugees can return or have a just settlement.
Socialists cannot call for two socialist states in isolation – an outcome that couldn’t last indefinitely. Rather we call for them as part of a socialist Middle East and world. The formulation used by the CWI in recent years is still valid: “For an independent, democratic socialist Palestinian state, alongside a democratic socialist Israel, with two capitals in Jerusalem and guaranteed democratic rights for all minorities, as part of the struggle for a socialist Middle East”.
As well as corresponding with present aspirations and needs, the call for two socialist states gives a suggestion that the most likely way workers’ struggles and organisations will develop will be through separate movements in the territories and Israel. This is due to both the geographical separation imposed by the Israeli state and the strength of national sentiment and distrust. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to have a fixed, rigid approach on this. At all times socialists must argue for the building of solidarity and links between workers on both sides and help an understanding to grow that they have a common enemy, the capitalist ruling classes, and that an end to the conflict lies in their own hands. Socialist transformations will make possible a rapid process of ending shortages and poverty, laying the basis for building societies free from oppression, national tensions and national conflict.