This article was written in September 1988, in anticipation of the Palestinian declaration of independence, which was in fact promulgated by the Palestinian National Council a few weeks later (15 November 1988). Quite a long time before that declaration, it had become clear that the majority of the PLO, led by Yasir ‘Arafat, is resolved to propose the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories, alongside Israel. This gave rise to a debate among socialists, both in the Middle East and elsewhere, as to the attitude that should be taken towards this demand. The debate will no doubt go on.
However, it seemed to me that both those socialists who supported the demand for a Palestinian state alongside Israel and those who opposed it were doing so for the wrong reasons.
Most supporters of the new moderate PLO demand, including the official Communist Parties, argue in effect that a re-partition of Palestine into two independent states (Israel in something like the pre-1967 borders, and a new Palestinian Arab state in the remainder) would solve the “Palestine problem”.
On the other hand, most socialists (mainly of the extreme left) who condemn the new PLO line do so because they adhere to the older PLO position, formulated a year or two after the 1967 war, according to which the only solution to the “Palestine problem” is the creation of a unitary “secular-democratic” state in the whole of Palestine.
I have long believed that both positions are based on a common error: both approach the Palestinian problem within an essentially petty bourgeois ideological framework, instead of trying to rethink the whole problem in socialist terms.
The present article is an attempt to amplify and elaborate this critique. The main ideas on which it is based are far from new: they can be found in an article written about twenty years ago by A Sa‘id and me. I believe that that old article, which is no longer in print, has more than purely archival interest, and I have therefore included it in this issue as an appendix.
I hope that the publication of the new article, and the re-publication of the old, will help to advance a serious discussion among socialists on the problems of the Middle East.
I. Socialism or nationalism?
It is an unfortunate fact of political life that fundamental principles, however self-evident, need to be reiterated over and over again; they must continually be shored up against erosion by the prevailing currents of opportunism, the tides of forgetfulness, and the decay of mental laziness.
One such principle of socialism is internationalism: Die Arbeiter haben kein Vaterland. Marx and Engles affirm that the first thing that distinguishes their own brand of proletarian revolutionism from other working-class parties is that the former always “point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality”.
Internationalism is incompatible with nationalism. Consequently, socialists are put under great ideological pressure. Throughout the world, nationalism is part of the dominant ideology; the temptation of succumbing to it is great, and the peril of falling inadvertently into its many traps is greater still. The danger is particularly grave because many, perhaps most, present-day liberation struggles are not, in any direct sense, class struggles, but are fought for patriotic aims, under nationalist banners, led by bourgeois or petty-bourgeois nationalists and informed by nationalist ideology. Clearly, socialists have a duty to support these national liberation struggles; equally clearly, they must beware of adopting the nationalist ideology of the patriotic protagonists. At the level of political action there is all the difference in the world between the aggressive nationalism of an oppressing nation and the defensive nationalism of the oppressed. But at the doctrinal level both are equally inconsistent with a socialist world-view.
It seems that many socialists often find it difficult to maintain this absolutely vital distinction between supporting a national liberation struggle and accepting the ideological point of view of those who lead it. In their zeal for aiding a just cause, they swallow the nationalist ideas and phraseology of its protagonists. Worse still, some socialists try to outdo the bourgeois patriots in nationalist extremism.
It is easy to see how they fall into this grave error. These socialists know that socialism is supposed to be more radical than liberation nationalism; they do not like to be seen to tail behind common-or-garden petty bourgeois nationalists; they wish to prove that they are far more radical than the latter. For this purpose they adopt a more fundamentalist patriotism.
What they fail to understand is that the sense in which socialists ought to be “more radical” than liberation nationalists is not in vying with the latter’s nationalism, but in putting forward revolutionary social aims. Liberation nationalists do not propose to overthrow the existing social order; what they want is just to put an end to the oppression of their own nation. (In order to attract the working classes, these nationalists often masquerade as “socialists” and swear that they are also against class exploitation; but invariably they claim that the class struggle and social liberation must be shelved until the achievement of national liberation, which requires national unity irrespective of class.) Socialists, on the contrary, must seek to promote in every national liberation struggle the aim of overthrowing the existing order of class exploitation.
II. Fatherland fetishism
An important ingredient of bourgeois nationalism is its fetishist attitude to the national soil, the Homeland, the Motherland, the Fatherland. This attitude has some interesting parallels with the way bourgeois ideology mystifies private property.
Just as, to the bourgeois mind, private property is sacred, so the Homeland is the Sacrosanct Real-Estate of the Nation; it is absolute, eternal and inalienable.
The Nation’s ownership over its Homeland is regarded as part of a Divine or Natural Order of things, established in the dawn of the mythical past. (Almost every nation invents a distant mythical past that long antedates its actual historical beginning as a nation.) Members of any other nationality or ethnic group who also happen to be living in that territory, no matter how many they are or how long-established, are seen as intruders, interlopers, who may at best be tolerated but never accorded national rights there.
Just as, to the mind afflicted by commodity fetishism, human beings become appendages of things, so to the nationalist the Homeland is not merely the place where the nation happens to be living but a Divine Mistress that must be served.
This fetishism is characteristic of all bourgeois nationalism, including that of oppressed nations. Thus, to bourgeois and petty-bourgeois liberation nationalism, it is not so much the people that have to be freed, but the Homeland. The point of departure of such nationalist liberation programmes is the Homeland and the goal of “liberating” it; what to do about the peoples living in and around that territory is considered only in the second place.
Socialists should beware of sliding into this mode of thinking and even of using such language. Of course, there is no great harm in talking of “liberating” a country or a territory, if it is clearly understood that this is merely a figure of speech, and that the concept of liberty is human and can only apply to human beings, not to stretches of land. However, unthinking and habitual use of such figures of speech is dangerous, because the mind often follows the tongue.
III. The land and the peoples
I have so far spoken in general terms, because those characteristics of bourgeois nationalism, as well as the mistaken attitudes of many socialists, are indeed ubiquitous. But I should now like to confine myself to the specific issue of the Palestinian problem and the Israeli-Arab conflict.
I must insist right at the outset that what socialists should be addressing is indeed the Palestinian, rather than a Palestine, problem. This may seem a mere pedantic quibble, but it is in fact quite important to realize that the entity whose present oppression and future well-being should concern us is not a territory, a country called Palestine, but the Palestinian people.
Talk of a Palestine problem tends to give the discussion a false point of departure and to reinforce the presupposition – an implicit presupposition, but all the more dangerous for that – that the issue should be addressed by considering Palestine as a given (perhaps God-given) entity and by trying to think of the best way in which it ought to be disposed and governed.
This is precisely the way the issue is approached both by Palestinian nationalists and by Zionists, except that the latter call the country Eretz Yisra’el (the Land of Israel) rather than Palestine (many Zionists would in principle include the East Bank of the Jordan in the Land of Israel, and some would go much further. But in practice the great majority of Zionists think of the Land of Israel as the territory that at present comprises Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – which is precisely what most people, including Palestinians, refer to as “Palestine”).
At this point it may be of interest to observe in passing that since the end of Antiquity there was only one, historically brief, period of some twenty-five years (1923–48) when Palestine was in reality a single unitary and separate political entity, rather than an ideological Judeo-Christian construct (the “Holy Land”). During the long centuries of Muslim rule, it was never a single coherent administrative province, let alone a separate political entity; and indeed classical Arab geographical texts – such as al-Idrîsi’s Nuzhat al-mushtâq (written for Roger II of Sicily in the mid-12th century) and the geographical survey in Ibn Khaldûn’s masterpiece, the Muqaddimah (late 14th century) – do not even regard Palestine as a geographic unit but refer to the area in question as part of Syria. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that Palestine should not be a unitary or separate political entity in the future; but it suggests that that cannot, at any rate, be taken for granted without argument.
It is far better to start by considering not the land but the peoples involved in the conflict. Let us do so briefly.
The two central national protagonists are the Palestinian Arabs and the Hebrews (or Israeli Jews; the name ‘Hebrews’ is particularly appropriate, as it refers to the most obvious attribute of this national group: use of Hebrew as an everyday language), both of whom are newly created national entities, whose process of national formation is in fact still ongoing.
Like almost all statements about the Middle East, the statements made in the last paragraph are far from being non-controversial. Mainstream Zionist ideology denies the very existence of the Palestinians as a national entity but regards them merely as “the Arabs of the Land of Israel”. Zionist propaganda can be paraphrased somewhat as follows.
“First, the country in which we Zionists settled was virtually empty. Second, we did not dispossess or displace anyone; the people, who were not really there in the first place, simply ran away. Third, we dispossessed and displaced merely a relatively small part of a large nation (the Arab nation), rather than an entire small nation (the Palestinian nation), which does not exist anyway.”
At the same time, Zionist ideology also denies the existence of a separate Israeli Jewish nation; for this ideology adheres to the myth that all the Jews around the world constitute, and have always constituted, one nation whose homeland is and always has been the Land of Israel. The Israeli Jews are considered to be merely one part of that nation, the part that has “returned” to the homeland. The Israeli Jewish community is therefore subject to a peculiar state of collective schizophrenia: it knows very well, it feels in its very bones, that it is a separate nation with its own language and other national characteristics (even its own style of pop music); but its official ideology denies this fact.
Zionism finds it very hard to accept the historical irony that, as a quite unintended result of its own activity – Zionist colonization – two new national entities have come into existence. Both these nations have been formed through the experience of the colonization process and by it; as two dialectical opposites, inseparable and at the same time mutually antagonistic, like prey and predator. The Palestinian nation has come into being through the shared formative reality of being individually and collectively the victim of a peculiar colonization project, as well as by the experience of struggle against it (for example, one of the most important results of the Palestinian uprising that broke out at the end of 1987, subsequently known as the “first intifada”, was its contribution to the crystallization of Palestinian nationhood. Even the smallest and most isolated rural communities in the West Bank, whose consciousness had previously been almost purely localist, became imbued with nationalism). And the Hebrew nation has been formed at the same time and through the very same process but as its opposite pole, as a colonizing settler-nation.
Nevertheless, these facts, particularly the existence of the Palestinians as a national entity, have lately been recognized by some Zionist fringe groups.
Palestinian nationalist ideology, on the other hand, insists that the Palestinian nation is long-established; after all, the Palestinians have been there for centuries and centuries, unlike the Johnnies-come-lately Jewish settlers. It does not like to remember that, before they had been subjected to the unique realities of Zionist colonization, there was virtually nothing to distinguish the Palestinian Arab population from that of the rest Greater Syria. Many Palestinian nationalists may even be somewhat offended by the suggestion that their nation owes its very existence to an external factor that has, moreover, been the author of its terrible calamity.
At the same time, many (perhaps most) Palestinian nationalists – and, more generally, Arab nationalists – deny the existence of the Hebrew nation. They point out that the Israeli Jewish community is a recent creation, put together artificially (that is, by conscious design) out of many heterogeneous groups of immigrants. How can such a recent, artificially created hotchpotch be described as a “nation”? Implicit in this argument is the widespread nationalist myth that “true” nations are somehow “natural” creations, formed over long centuries. Marxists know, of course, that nations, in the modern sense of the term, are creations of the development of capitalism; and, as the example of other immigrant societies shows, under appropriate material conditions immigrants from various different backgrounds can rather quickly forge themselves into a nation, particularly if a suitable ideological cement is produced to bind them together.
One reason why Arab nationalists find it difficult to regard the Israeli Jews as a nation is historical. For centuries, Jewish communities have existed throughout the Arab world. They were always regarded as a millah, an ethno-religious community, alongside a host of other such minority communities. They were not in any sense a national minority, and were certainly never regarded as such. It is difficult to accept that these people, or their children, have “suddenly”, by the mere act of immigration, become part of a separate nation.
But undoubtedly the main reason for refusing to accept the existence of the Hebrew nation is ideological convenience. All bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalism – including that of oppressed nations – tends to exclusivism; it wishes to demand exclusive national rights over what it regards as its historical homeland. And it cannot be denied that the existence of another, Hebrew, nation makes the Palestinian problem vastly more complicated. The majority of Palestinian nationalists have by now come to accept that the Israeli Jews, or at least most of them, are there to stay (until not so very long ago, even some of the most conciliatory ideologists of the PLO were toying with various schemes of encouraging Israelis, particularly those whose origin is in Arab countries, to re-emigrate. See, for example, Nabil Sha‘th, “Towards the Democratic Palestine” in Fateh, English publication, Lebanon, 19 January 1970), and must be accorded equality of individual rights in the future liberated Palestine. But to recognize them as a national entity would imply that they should be accorded some collective national rights. This is much harder to accept, especially for the more radical Palestinian nationalists.
Nevertheless, quite a few Palestinian nationalists have, to their credit, overcome these serious psychological and ideological barriers and have accepted the fact that an Israeli Jewish nation does exist.
I do not propose to spend paper and the reader’s time on proving here that the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews do indeed constitute two national entities, brought into being by the dynamic of Zionist colonization and the struggle against it. These facts are very clear to anyone prepared to examine the reality of the matter rationally with unbiased eyes. And long experience has shown me that virtually all who deny these facts do so because of ideological preconceptions, to which they cling even at the cost of flying in the face of reality. Argument with such people is as futile as debating with flat-earthers.
IV. The Arab context
The Palestinian national problem has a special aspect, of which few outsiders are sufficiently aware. This arises from the unique formation of he Arab world, in which there are two tiers of nationhood.
Because of historical, linguistic and cultural factors, the Arab world is in many ways a single national domain, divided into two large regions: the Maghreb, or Arab West, consisting of North Africa to the west of Libya; and the Mashreq, or Arab East, consisting of all the remaining Arab countries to the east of Libya. (Libya itself straddles this division, and is the connecting link between the Maghreb and the Mashreq.) With the exception of Egypt, all Arab states are recent creations, whose borders were for the most part drawn by foreign imperialist powers to suit their own convenience.
Internal political division is of course nothing new in the Arab world. After a relatively brief period of political unity, the original Arab empire, set up in the seventh century, disintegrated into a number of units. But these Arab states kept changing, dissolving and re-forming, and the borders between them were continually shifting. In the 16th century, the Arab world was incorporated in the Ottoman Turkish empire, within which the various Arab regions became so many provinces. Although some of these provinces – notably Egypt – gradually acquired a large measure of de-facto independence, the lines dividing one Arab province from another were in principle, and often also in practice, no more than administrative boundaries.
The Arab world has always shared one literary language – the classical Arabic of the Qur’an – and one “high” culture, which however coexisted with a great diversity of regional spoken Arabic dialects and local popular cultures. But in modern times the linguistic and cultural unity of the Arab world has been greatly enhanced by the cinema, radio and television. The language of these media – usually a modernized and somewhat vulgarized version of classical Arabic – is heard and understood throughout the Arab world, so that today a Moroccan and an Iraqi who have little formal education can nevertheless converse with each other, something that would have been quite difficult for their counterparts two or three generations ago. Popular culture too has largely broken out of its parochial confines.
In view of all this, virtually all Arabs regard the present boundaries between the Arab states not so much as international borders in the proper sense, but more as internal division lines within one homeland. This attitude may perhaps be compared to the attitude of the Italians or Germans in the first half of the 19th century towards the fragmentation of their countries.
Objectively, it can be said that the Arabs are a nation in the process of formation. This is reflected in Arab consciousness as a widespread popular aspiration to political unification of the Arab world.
Of course, the road to the actual implementation of Arab unification is neither short nor easy. (Note that while the unification of Italy was wholly successful, that of Germany has proved to be much more problematic, so that today [September 1988] there are three German states: two Germanies and Austria.)
Moreover, due to the sheer size of the Arab world, to the important material and historical differences between its various parts, and to the diversity of the spoken Arabic dialects, the people of each Arab region constitutes a distinct national entity. This is evidently true of Egypt, which has always been a distinct geo-political unit. The Palestinians too have been formed into a quite distinct national entity, due to their unique recent history. Similarly one can talk, for example, of a Syrian, an Iraqi or an Algerian national entity, which have achieved varying degrees of national crystallization.
Thus every Arab has a dual, or two-tier, national identity: as member of the great Arab nation, and at the same time also a member of a component sub-nationality – Egyptian, Palestinian, Iraqi, Algerian, and so forth. To most Arabs these two levels of national affiliation seem quite “natural” and mutually compatible, even complementary. This is greatly aided by the fact that in Arabic each of the two levels of nationhood, as well as the patriotic sentiments and nationalist ideology associated with them, are denoted by quite different terms (we can approximate this usage by referring to the Arabs as a whole as a “nation”, and to each of the sub-groups as a “people”. But there is no convenient way of distinguishing in English between the two levels of nationalism). In practice there is of course a dialectical tension between the two kinds of nationalism: the centripetal force of all-Arab nationalism and the centrifugal forces of local patriotism. The relative emphasis given to one or the other level of nationalism varies in place and in time, as well as according to class affiliation and individual convictions.
It can hardly be doubted that an ardent aspiration to Arab political unification is deeply implanted in the masses throughout the Arab world. On the other hand, the rulers of the Arab countries have been unwilling or unable to implement this task. The more traditional conservative Arab regimes are happy to mouth slogans about Arab unity, but in practice prefer to hold on to their local power and privilege, which they do not wish to risk by unification adventures. The petty bourgeois populist movements, Nasserism and Ba‘thism, which rose to prominence and achieved power in several Arab countries during the 1950s and 1960s, seemed at first to be more genuine about unification; but the few actual attempts in this direction proved to be dismal abortive failures. The 1958 Nasserist union of Egypt and Syria soon collapsed because the new Egyptian ruling class tried to use it to its own narrow advantage, at the expense of its Syrian counterpart. Ba’thism, which was if anything even more fanatically committed to Arab unity, ended up by splitting into two hostile factions, presiding over extremely repressive regimes in Syria and Iraq respectively, and are too much at each other’s throats to bother about unity. There is every reason to believe that the existing ruling classes in the Arab world will not be able to do any better in the future.
The question of Arab national unification therefore remains very much an open one. It follows that the Palestinian issue is by no means the only unsolved national problem in which the Palestinian Arab people is directly involved. Clearly, then, it is a grave theoretical and political error for socialists to formulate their position on the Palestinian problem without placing it in the larger context of a socialist attitude to the issues of the Arab world as a whole, and in particular to the question of Arab national unification.
V. Should socialists support Arab unification?
What has been the attitude of Middle-Eastern revolutionary socialists towards the demand for Arab national unification? On the whole, they – and this includes the Arab Communist Parties prior to their total corruption by Stalinism – have concurred in supporting and upholding it. In this they were motivated not by a romantic inclination to pan-Arabist nostalgia, but by two quite different reasons.
First, there is the general socialist principle that, other things being equal, bigger states are preferable to smaller ones, because big states afford indisputable advantages, both from the standpoint of economic progress and from that of the interests of the masses and, furthermore, these advantages increase with the growth of capitalism. Therefore socialists must, wherever possible, encourage the unification of smaller national sub-groups into larger national entities, and discourage the centrifugal tendencies of local particularism and separatism. All this is of course subject to the vital condition that unification must proceed in a consistently democratic way, without any national coercion, and must ensure equality to all national sub-groups, without any special privileges. Separation is to be encouraged when, and only when, there is no other way to guarantee equality and prevent national oppression.
Since the demand for Arab unification is in any case supported by the masses throughout the Arab world, and it is the existing regimes and ruling classes who either oppose this demand outright or are congenitally unable to implement it, socialists would be acting very foolishly indeed if they failed to uphold this cause.
Second, the specific geographic, economic and demographic configuration of the Arab world is such that its unification is a necessary condition for progress and development. The present political fragmentation – largely imposed by Western imperialism – constitutes an enormous obstacle to economic development under capitalism, and would be totally absurd under a future socialist social order. At present, the main socio-economic resources are divided extremely unevenly between the various Arab states.
One Arab country has an enormous density of population, but no spare land and few other natural resources; another has large reserves of good arable land, but a sparse population and virtually no energy resources; and a third has a miniscule population and almost no fresh water or arable land, but vast quantities of the most precious subterranean treasure – oil.
Clearly, unification is demanded by the most elementary logic of social and economic progress.
For these reasons, revolutionary Marxists have long recognized that the programme of a socialist transformation of that part of the world must uphold the aim of setting up a United Socialist Arab World.
In order to accommodate the great internal diversity of the Arab World, and in particular the existence of distinct sub-nationalities within the Arab nation, it is vital that the proposed Socialist Union should have a federal structure, allowing the greatest possible degree of autonomy to each of its constituent parts (it is reasonable to assume that this federal structure will have to be rather complex, with the Mashreq and the Maghreb constituting two distinct parts of the federation, and each of these two parts sub-divided into autonomous regions.
Because a socialist programme for the Arab world must obviously form a coherent whole, it is quite absurd to formulate a programmatic position on the Palestinian problem, proposing a long-term solution to it, without relating the proposed solution to the broader socialist aim of creating a United Socialist Arab World. Yet, this is precisely what many socialists (not to mention would-be socialists), both in the Middle East and outside it, have been doing.
VI. A false dichotomy
In the public discourse among those who support the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, an almost universally accepted tacit assumption is that there are two and only two formulas for solving the “Palestine problem”.
First, there is the programme proposing the creation of a unitary “Secular Democratic Palestine”, which the PLO adopted a few years after the June war of 1967, and which is still upheld by some diminishing radical sections of the PLO and by their non-Palestinian supporters.
Second, there is the “Two-States Solution”, which proposes the partition of Palestine in two, by creating a Palestinian national state alongside Israel, on a territory consisting more or less of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This is the solution proposed by the Israeli Communist Party, as well as by various Zionist peace groups (but not by any major Zionist party). It is also supported in fact by the mainstream sections of the PLO, although most of them continue in theory to uphold the idea of a Secular Democratic Palestine as an aim for the remote future.
Internationally, this plan has the support of many governments, including the Soviet Union and its allies as well as of most third-world and some developed capitalist countries.
Among those who seem to have accepted without question the tacit assumption that these two are the only conceivable solutions, there are quite a few revolutionary socialists. Faced with a choice between the two formulas, which they suppose to be the only possible ones, most of these socialists opt for the Secular Democratic formula, which is more radical inasmuch as it implies the overthrow of Zionism, and is indeed upheld by the more radical Palestinian nationalists.
However, in the light of what has been said before, it is quite clear that neither formula can possibly serve as a socialist programme for solving the Palestinian problem. In both formulas, the Palestinian people is treated as a totally separate national entity, in isolation from the Arab nation. And Palestine is treated as a separate entity, which is to form a unitary state or partitioned in two, but in either case seen in isolation from the context of the Arab world.
Associated with this is another feature shared by both formulas: they are bourgeois in the sense that they envisage a solution of the Palestinian problem within the present capitalist order, rather than in the context of a socialist transformation. Now, I do not wish to claim in general that every national problem requires, for its solution, a socialist revolution. But, for particular reasons that will be explained later on, I do argue that an ultimate, entirely satisfactory solution to the Palestinian problem is very unlikely to be achieved within the present social order. If this be granted, then it is an error for socialists to advocate a formula for solving the Palestinian problem that does not explicitly connect it with a programme for a socialist revolution.
Such errors are inevitable when socialists accept the terms of the discourse as defined by nationalists, instead of re-thinking the whole issue ab initio in socialist terms. A revolutionary socialist position on the Palestinian question should start from the programmatic aim of creating a United Socialist Arab World, or at least a United Socialist Arab East, and proceed to provide within this framework a solution to the particular national problem of the Palestinian people.
In addition to the fundamental defects already mentioned, which are common to both bourgeois formulas, each one of the two has additional grave defects of its own.
When one reads the small-print explanations of the Secular Democratic scheme (an excellent English-language source is the beforementioned article by Nabil Sha‘th, on which the following exposition is based), it transpires that one of the basic aims of this old PLO formula was to evade the difficulty posed for Palestinian nationalism by the existence of the Hebrew nation. This difficulty is “solved” by the fiction that the Jews of Palestine constitute not a national entity but a religious denomination. The phrase “Secular Democratic Palestine” is in fact an abbreviation of the full formula, which reads: “a democratic, non-sectarian Palestine where Christians, Jews and Muslims can live, work and worship without discrimination”. Here the Israeli Jews are clearly regarded as a religious community, on a par with Christians and Muslims, rather than a national entity on a par with Palestinian Arabs. This is indeed the meaning which the authors of the formula encoded in the word “secular”.
But what national entities are there in Palestine? The authors of this formula claim that “the majority of Jews in Palestine today are Arab Jews – euphemistically called Oriental Jews by the Zionists. Therefore, Palestine combines Jewish, Christian and Muslim Arabs as well as non-Arab Jews (Western Jews).”
This piece of ideology ignores several facts. First, not all Oriental Israeli Jews originate in Arab countries; for example, Israelis of Iranian and Turkish origin are also classed as “Oriental”. Second, while the Jewish communities that existed in some Arab countries, such as Iraq, may perhaps be described as “Arab Jews” [See however detailed discussion of this question in “Zionism and Oriental Jews: Dialectic of exploitation and co-optation” by Ehud Ein-Gil and Moshé Machover], this is certainly not the case for most of the Jews in some other Arab countries, such as Egypt and Algeria, who did not speak Arabic and did not share in Arab culture. Third, by now the great majority of Oriental Israeli Jews are not the original immigrants that were brought there in the 1950s, but their children and grandchildren, whose first language is Hebrew and who for the most part do not speak or even understand the languages of the original immigrants. The Israeli descendant of Iraqi immigrants can no more be described as an Arab Jew than an American descendant of Italian immigrants can be said to belong to the Italian nation. All these are objective facts, to which must be added the subjective, but no less important, fact that the people in question, almost without exception, regard themselves as part of the Israeli Jewish nation and not as Arab Jews.
The true meaning of the Secular Democratic formula now becomes quite clear. In the future liberated Palestine, the Jews will be granted equal individual rights, including religious freedom, but they will not be recognized as a nationality and will therefore have no national rights. The only national entity in Palestine, according to this nationalist Palestinian ideology, is Arab – comprising Christians, Muslims and most of the Jews. The remaining Jews, those of European origin, apparently do not belong to any nationality. The future Secular Democratic Palestine will therefore be an Arab country, in which no other national group shall be recognized.
While this position is quite typical of bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalism, which is exclusivist and only cares about its own nation, it is totally unacceptable to socialists, who must insist on equality of rights for all nations.
Some people who consider themselves Marxists protest at this point that socialists should only demand national rights for oppressed nations, while the Israeli Jews, if they are a nation at all, are clearly an oppressing one. This argument is sheer sophism. It is certainly true that the Hebrew nation is now an oppressing one and therefore it would be wrong to demand any national rights for it at present. At this moment it is not the Hebrew nation that is deprived of national rights; on the contrary, it has usurped national privileges at the expense of the Palestinian people. But in the future state proposed by the authors of the Secular Democratic formula, the Israeli Jews would become an oppressed nation, whose very existence is denied. Some Palestinian nationalists may well think that this would be a just retribution to be meted to the Israelis for their past and present crimes. But it would be absurd for socialist internationalists to support such a programme that proposes to “solve” a national problem by reversing the roles of oppressor and oppressed.
The defects of the Two-States formula, as a solution to the Palestinian problem, are even more glaring. The root cause of the whole problem is Zionist colonization, and therefore the problem cannot be solved completely without the overthrow of Zionism.
Israel is, and has been since its foundation, a Zionist state, and as such it is a structurally racist settlers’ state. This was the case even before 1967, and will continue to be the case if Israel were to withdraw back to its pre-1967 borders.
Since the foundation of Israel, its Palestinian Arab minority (within the pre-1967 Green Line) have been severely oppressed, denied many individual civil rights as well as all rights pertaining to a national minority. Most of their lands have been expropriated by various forms of legalized robbery, and they have been subjected to economic discrimination, social persecution and individual humiliation. All this is unlikely to change, so long as Israel remains a Zionist state, even if a Palestinian state is set up in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On the contrary, the Palestinian minority inside Israel may be put at greater risk: the pressure for their “transfer” – that is, deportation – which is quite strong already, is likely to grow, as every complaint by them will be met with the reply, “You have your own state now, so if you don’t like it here you can go there”.
In addition, the Two-State formula fails to address the rights of the Palestinian refugees expelled from the pre-1967 Israeli territory.
Finally, given the disparity in area, resources, economic development and military power between a Zionist racist Israel (even reduced back to the [pre-1967] Green Line) and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the relations between the two states is likely to be somewhat similar to those between the Republic of South Africa and Lesotho or Swaziland.
For these reasons, it is quite out of the question for socialists to advocate the Two-State formula as a solution to the Palestinian problem.
VII. Long-term programme and interim demands
For the reasons just explained, a genuine solution to the Palestinian national problem requires not merely the withdrawal of Israel from its 1967 conquests, but the overthrow of Zionism in Israel itself. (This much is indeed presupposed also by the Secular Democratic Palestine formula, which is however unacceptable for other reasons, as I have argued.)
But the numerical, political and technical relations of forces are such that the Palestinian people on its own, even if fully mobilized, is highly unlikely to be able to achieve the total overthrow of Zionism. Nor are the Arab states, under their present regimes, able to do so.
The overthrow of Zionism will become possible only through a deep social and political transformation of the Arab world, or at the very least the Mashreq, which will not only unite it but also infuse it with new revolutionary social energies.
Moreover, because of the partnership between Zionism and Western, particularly American, imperialism, and because of the political, financial and military protection that the former receives from the latter, the overthrow of Zionism is inseparable from the uprooting of imperialist domination over the Arab world.
All this points to the conclusion that an ultimate thorough solution of the Palestinian problem can be achieved only as part of a socialist revolution throughout the entire region, leading in particular to the overthrow of Zionism. Socialists who fail to make this conclusion clear, and who support various bourgeois nationalist formulas that obscure it, are guilty of gross dereliction of duty and are indeed acting in a self-defeating way.
A socialist programme must therefore be along the following lines. A United Socialist Arab World – or at least, in the first instance, Arab East – with a federal structure, reflecting the two-tier structure of the Arab nation. The Palestinian problem would be solved within this Union by incorporating in it a part of Palestine as one or more autonomous Palestinian Arab canton(s). The remaining part of Palestine will also be incorporated in the Union, as one or more autonomous Hebrew national canton(s). Thus the whole of Palestine’s territory is to be included in the Union, but as two or more cantons rather than as one country. The boundaries between the Palestinian Arab and Hebrew cantons are to be determined not on the basis of the present or past borders of Israel, but according to economic, geographical and demographic criteria, a principal criterion being which national group – Palestinian Arab or Hebrew – is the majority of the population in a given district.
Naturally, the Socialist Union is to be formed in a democratic way, by voluntary accession rather than by coercion. In particular, the Hebrew nation (as well as the other non-Arab nationalities in the Arab world) will be invited to join freely; that is, on the basis of the right to self-determination. This is absolutely vital for two reasons. First, it is in any case unthinkable for socialist relations between nations to be established on any other basis. Second, the task of a socialist revolution in the whole area will become immeasurably easier if at least part of the Israeli masses, of the working class in particular, would be attracted away from Zionism into the camp of the revolution. This cannot possibly be achieved without guaranteeing to respect their Hebrew national identity.
Obviously, the programme just outlined is very much a long-term one. It would be foolish to pretend that it is capable of being realized in the near future, and it is vain to speculate how many decades will elapse before it can become a reality. But only a crass pragmatist can think that for this reason there is no point in putting forward such a programme and trying to mobilize support for it. Without the light, albeit distant, of a long-term programme to guide it, political activity is blind, and ends up by falling into the trap of opportunism.
It is equally obvious, however, that a long-term programme alone is insufficient. If all that we had to tell the Palestinian masses was that their national problem would be, and can only be, fully solved by a socialist revolution in the entire Arab East, then they would rightly dismiss us as irrelevant loonies. We must put forward not only a long-term programme but also immediate and interim demands for the short and middle term. At the same time, socialists must also formulate an attitude to the various plans, demands and proposals put forward by other parties, inside and outside the region.
One immediate demand that is indisputably vital is the demand to put an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This has been the demand of all true socialists – indeed of all true democrats – ever since 1967, but it has acquired added impetus with the Palestinian uprising that started in December 1987 and is still going strong at the time of writing (September 1988).
In this connection, we must also formulate an attitude towards an interim demand that has received wide support among the Palestinians in the occupied territories, namely the demand to set up a Palestinian national state in these territories.
I have argued in detail that the creation of a Palestinian mini-state alongside Israel can in no way be considered a complete solution to the Palestinian problem, and is even fraught with some dangers. But this does not mean that socialists should oppose the demand for such a state. On the contrary, it seems to me that, subject to certain provisos, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip may well represent a definite step forwards, a definite improvement compared to the present situation.
I therefore believe that the right position is to support this demand with due reservation, while explaining very carefully and patiently that its implementation would fall far short of solving the Palestinian problem. In other words, what should be opposed in the Two-States formula is not the demand itself, which in the present conditions is actually correct, but the pretension that this is The Solution to the Palestinian problem.
On the other hand, a situation may arise in future in which some variant of the Secular Democratic formula may become appropriate, not as a long-term solution of the problem, but as an interim demand.
Imagine, for example, a rather pessimistic scenario which unfortunately cannot be ruled out entirely, in which the Palestinian uprising is eventually suppressed and the creeping de facto annexation of the occupied territories to Israel is resumed and proceeds to such an extent that the creation of a Palestinian state in these territories comes to be regarded, by the Palestinian masses themselves, as altogether impracticable. In such a hypothetical situation (hypothetical but not entirely imaginary. In fact, just before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising there was a widespread feeling that a situation of this kind was approaching. The uprising itself was perhaps, at least in part, a heroic reaction to the onset of this mood), it may be correct to demand that the state of occupation be ended by according equal rights – both individual civil rights and collective rights as a national group – to the Palestinians under Israeli rule. The implementation of such a demand would tend to produce an approximation to a democratic bi-national state.
Yet other, hitherto unforeseen, situations may arise, in which entirely new immediate and interim demands would have to be raised.
The point is not to speculate what these situations and demands might be. What is important is to stress that socialists must be prepared to be flexible and responsive to the changing situation and to the mood of the masses in formulating immediate and interim demands, while at all times upholding the long-term socialist solution to the problems of the peoples of the region as a whole.