CWI International Secretariat member ROBERT BECHERT looks at the repercussions across North Africa and the Middle East of the latest Israeli assault.
There can be no doubt that May’s round of death and destruction in Israel-Palestine will have serious repercussions in the whole Middle East. All the questions relating to the conflict in Israel-Palestine have been thrust into the limelight again with the new element of the consequences of the most serious clashes inside Israel between Israelis and Palestinians since those of October 2000.
Alongside the many deaths and injuries, the demolition of thousands of homes and, in Gaza, basic infrastructure, it has also blown a hole in the nine months’ old ‘Abraham Accords’, the agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. Later similar agreements with Sudan and Morocco followed as the then US president Donald Trump offered each country ‘sweeteners’ to clinch their signatures. However these transactional deals pushed by the Trump administration did not even touch upon the roots of the divisions, clashes and wars between Israelis and Arabs.
Trump, despite the eccentricities of his presidency, stood in the tradition of capitalist leaders of having no fundamental concern for democratic rights when it came to considering the interests of both themselves and the ruling classes that they serve. Thus Trump, like all the imperialist powers, supported repressive, autocratic and dictatorial regimes if they were on ‘their side’ and not on the verge of collapse. But when facing states that are competitors or rivals they suddenly highlight their opponents’ human rights abuses in propaganda wars. Similarly pro-capitalist US trade union leaders have often highlighted attacks by the Iranian regime on the growing workers’ movement there while remaining virtually silent on other examples of trade unions being attacked by states with whom their own ruling class has friendly relations.
In the Middle East the new president Joe Biden is continuing US imperialism’s long time policy of backing the Saudi dictatorship. Yes, there has been a light slap on the wrist over the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018; but Mohammed bin Salman, the current de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia whose agents carried out the killing, is left untouched. While Syria’s May presidential election is denounced as fake, something which happens to be true, there is only extremely muted Western imperialist criticism of the authoritarian regime of the Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and no calls for elections in countries like Saudi Arabia.
End of the ‘Trump plan’ illusions
In one sense Trump’s crudity was more transparent in the sense ‘democratic rights’ were clearly viewed as small change when it came to the ‘America First’ policy, something that can be more accurately described as ‘US imperialism first’. This is what led one of the ‘Abraham Accords’ architects, Trump’s ‘senior advisor’, his multi-millionaire property speculator son-in-law Jared Kushner, to describe the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis “as nothing more than a real-estate dispute”, while writing in March that “we are witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict”.
It only took a matter of weeks for that claim to be discredited. Indeed, in this latest round of warfare a new significant front opened up, namely protests by Palestinians in Israel against their second-class status, the oppression they face, and also in solidarity with the Palestinians in the occupied territories and Gaza. This new development helped eventually to push Biden to begin an attempt to ameliorate the situation and lower tensions, although what this will achieve is doubtful.
Moreover those four states which had recently openly established diplomatic and trading ties with Israel were also obliged to verbally express their solidarity with the Palestinians out of fear of what could occur on ‘the streets’. Now the UAE is trying to present itself as a mediator to both sides, partly in an attempt to show to its population that its opening of diplomatic ties with Israel will bring concrete gains for Palestinians.
The low key reaction on the Arab streets to the latest round of clashes and bombardment should certainly not be taken as indifference. As one observer explained, “the absence of protests isn’t an absence of the desire to protest but an absence of permission to protest”. (Financial Times, 17 May 2021)
But, despite repression in some countries, this is not to say that the situation is stable and quiet. Over ten years after the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ North Africa and the Middle East are still a tinder box. Despite the failures to complete the revolutions that began at the end of 2010 and the repression that followed, graphically seen in Egypt, struggles keep taking place in different countries. Recent months have seen renewed protests and struggles in Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Tunisia and Sudan. Mounting popular anger in Jordan is behind the open conflict within the ruling elite there with King Abdullah acting against his opponents within the Hashemite royal family. In this volatile situation it is possible that anger over domestic issues will combine with criticism of the failure to help the Palestinians into opposition movements.
Fears of new revolutions
These fears of new revolutions are shared by the main imperialist powers. Earlier this year the IMF’s director for the Middle East said that while governments needed to deal with debt burdens and cut wasteful spending he added, “when we say fiscal consolidation, it doesn’t have to mean austerity. It can be done by revising the tax system and sharing the burden differently”. He went on to say that social spending needs “to increase… in the right ways by spending on education and health and by giving it to those who need it”. (Financial Times, 2 February 2021) Fine words, but that doesn’t happen automatically in capitalist countries facing crises; reforms and democratic rights are only won by struggle or rulers’ fear of revolution and then in times of crisis are subject to attempts by the ruling class to take them back.
As is to be expected, alongside their drive for profit and their strategic interests, the ruling classes’ fear of revolution, and questioning at home, is determining their response to this latest crisis. Since the nineteenth century the Middle East and North Africa have suffered from the intrigues of rival imperialist interests which generally disregard the local populations, as recently shown brutally in the outside military interventions in Libya’s civil war.
Thus the Biden administration, initially caught by surprise, had no obvious policy apart from refusing to criticize Netanyahu, simply repeating slogans about ‘Israel’s right to self-defence’ but making no comment on the effects of the bombing of Gaza. This was despite the fact that many pro-capitalist commentators argued that the spark for this latest explosion lay in Netanyahu’s attempt to remain prime minister and the provocations by the Israeli police and far-right Israeli nationalists. In this move Netanyahu was following in the footsteps of the then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s 2000 police-backed visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque, seen by him as a step towards becoming prime minister, which provoked the Palestinian protests that developed into the second Intifada.
However the Biden administration could not maintain this position indefinitely. The scale of the Israeli bombing was weakening the US position in the Middle East and new complications were developing as Netanyahu’s policies had opened up a new Pandora’s Box of conflict within Israel’s 1967 border. Furthermore Biden was facing increasing criticism at home, a reflection of a shift in US opinion with a growth from 16% in 2001 to 25% now of those Americans sympathising more with the Palestinians than the Israelis and 53% of Democrats now thinking that the US should pressure the Israelis to make compromises rather than the Palestinians.
In this situation it appears that the Biden administration may attempt to push for some limited reforms to be introduced in Israel. US imperialism has some leverage over Israel; it receives the second highest amount of US aid – only Afghanistan got more in 2019 – and military expenditure is included in these figures.
Biden could push for limited changes to be made to the 2018 ‘nation-state law’, but whether the Israeli parliament would do so is an open question. This law clearly formalised that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people”, meaning not to non-Jewish Israeli citizens. It also established Hebrew as Israel’s sole official language, downgrading Arabic which is widely spoken by Arab Israelis, to a “special status”. At the same time the US could try to get some restrictions to be imposed on evictions of Palestinians from their homes and land and also on the expansion of settlements.
But even if such reforms were introduced they would not change the fundamental basis of the conflict, namely the oppression of the Palestinians. As long as this continues the conflict will go on. Even if references were once again made to a ‘two state solution’ this would be window dressing. On a capitalist basis a viable Palestinian state is not going to develop.
Ending the cycle
This bombing is not the first. It is the fourth prolonged engagement between the Israeli military and Hamas since 2008. Shortly after that we wrote: “To some, this latest war may seem as yet one more in an apparently endless series of conflicts that has swept the region for over 60 years. Faced with the seemingly intractable conflict between Jews and Palestinians some may draw the conclusion that there is no way out and that the peoples in the Middle East are doomed to suffer one calamity after another”.
“This is not the view of socialists. The mass of the Middle Eastern population want to live in peace and security. The CWI believes that genuine peace is achievable. However, this is only possible if working people – Palestinian and Israeli Jewish – negotiate a deal on the basis of recognising their common interests, and building a socialist alternative as a way to achieve them”.
“This can only be achieved by the development of independent action and organisation by the working class and poor in the Palestinian territories, Israel and the region. Such movements would have to stand against capitalism and the corrupt regional elites, and in defence of the national rights of all working people if they are to succeed. They should defend the idea that all working people should benefit from the wealth of the Middle East. In this way, trust and cooperation could be built between the two sides, opening the way to genuine peace. Without such socialist movements the ruling elites will maintain their rule by exploiting the fears of the masses, and the region will face a continued cycle of bloody conflict”.
“Against the interests of their local rulers and imperialism such organisations could fight for a socialist solution – a genuinely independent socialist Palestine that can satisfy the national aspirations of the Palestinian people and which could exist alongside a socialist Israel. Only within a socialist framework can the plight of the Palestinians be resolved, with open borders redrawn in accordance with the wishes of local people, a shared capital in Jerusalem, and with guaranteed democratic rights for all national minorities. Only with the national rights of the Palestinians and Israelis resolved would the question of the right to return, of those who wish to, not be seen as a threat. A socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel could, in turn, be part of a free and voluntary socialist confederation of the region”.
“The terrible suffering of Gaza over the past weeks, coming on top of years of oppression, struggles and failure to secure fundamental change, is sure to provoke discussion and debate among Palestinians over what to do next. The rottenness of the Fatah leadership and the limitations of Hamas will result in a new search for a way forward in which the ideas of mass struggle and a socialist alternative will be able to find an echo”. (Socialism Today, No.125, February 2009)
Tragically the intervening years have witnessed more terrible suffering amongst Palestinians. Capitalism has not been able to improve the lives of the majority. While these last years have not yet seen a growth in support for socialist ideas the experience of the ‘Arab Spring’, along with other mass struggles and revolutionary movements around the world, have had an impact especially on young people.
Organising the struggle
As already mentioned this year has seen both the continuation of struggles and new ones develop in a series of North African and Middle Eastern countries, plus now the protests of Palestinians within Israel’s 1967 borders. New experiences will be learnt from these movements but at the same time lessons need to be drawn from the past, in particular how the ruling classes have been able after revolutions to reassert their power.
An important lesson of such experiences is that activists need to have a clear vision of what type of movement needs to be built and what programme is needed to be able to achieve real change.
Socialists argue that a key issue is, how will an independent workers’ movement be built or re-built? What is required is a force that can both lead struggles on immediate issues and pose an alternative to oppression and capitalism. It may not be immediately possible to simply build public organisations in all countries because of repression. A combination of different types of organisation, open, semi-legal or underground, may be required because of repression. But whenever struggles begin to develop the involvement of the masses, of having open discussion and democratic decision making over the next steps, is absolutely vital. This is needed both to strengthen struggles and the idea that building organisations is necessary. Iran provides an example where recent years have witnessed the rebirth of an independent workers’ movement alongside a growing opposition to the regime.
However this has to be linked to the question of programme. Socialists argue that without clear socialist objectives and democratic functioning even strong workers’ organisations can eventually decay and collapse. A clear programme is necessary to build support, particularly to have proposals that can unite workers and the oppressed in struggle. But also the need for a clear programme is particularly critical for when struggles succeed in leaving governments hanging in mid-air or being overthrown and the question is then sharply posed of what the workers’ movement should do?
Again and again we have seen ruling classes regain their power, or at least initially control, revolutions by involving opposition leaders in governments that fundamentally do not dismantle the old repressive apparatus and base themselves on the capitalist economy. This is what happened in Egypt in 2011 and more recently in Sudan. In Lebanon the old system hangs on because the working masses do not have a programme, a socialist one, and organisations that can get rid of the system they hate and which has failed them. The goal for the workers’ movement needs to be the establishment of a workers’ government that can begin the transformation of society by taking over the commanding heights of the economy and implementing a democratically run socialist plan of production to meet peoples’ needs instead of private profit.
Such a programme would also be internationalist, opposing all forms of national oppression and ‘divide and rule’. But this has to be a genuine internationalism, of solidarity between working people, the oppressed and poor with the idea of coming together, supporting each other’s struggles and, as socialists argue, aiming for a socialist world.
There is no doubt of both anger at the continuing crisis and often brutal repression in the Middle East alongside a willingness to fight. The challenge is to win support for the idea and programme of socialist change.