Dividing Jerusalem: Can it solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Israeli vice-premier Haim Ramon has suggested ceding Arab neighbourhoods to a future Palestinian state. This has divided the Israeli political establishment… obviously. But what it reflects is the pressure on the Zionist ruling elite to make at least some verbal concessions in an attempt to stabilise the situation.

Earlier this month, Israeli vice-premier Haim Ramon, one of several high-profile Labour MKs to defect to the newly-formed Kadima party, outlined plans to "cede control of the Arab neighbourhoods in Jerusalem to the Palestinians and establish joint sovereignty over the city's holy sites" ("Ramon: Give parts of Jerusalem to Palestinians", YNet news, 18/09/2007). Predictably, this met with immediate hostility from members of Israel's right-wing governing coalition:

"The government does not have a majority (to support) Haim Ramon's opinions on anything to do with Jerusalem," Pensioners Party Chairman Rafi Eitan said.

"I strongly oppose Minister Ramon's initiative. Jerusalem is the city that has been bringing together the Jewish people for thousands of years, and is not a bargaining chip or piece of real estate. Jerusalem is the Jewish people's right of existence and there is no one who is able to give up that right," complained Deputy Prime Minister and (Sephardi ultra-orthodox party) Shas Chairman Eli Yishai.

"His (Ramon's) plan is completely identical to Meretz's platform which is based on the Geneva plan. I did hear of any decision of Kadima to join Meretz," said MK Otniel Schneller, also of Kadima.

This isn't the first time the division of Jerusalem has been discussed by the Israeli political elite. The Israeli foreign ministry's website carries an academic paper entitled Jerusalem and the Peace Process (1994), which contains the following interesting paragraphs:

"[T]he parties [Israel and the Palestinian Authority] should try to avoid discussions about sovereignty. Sovereignty is an abstract notion with a strong emotional appeal. People get carried away by this concept and are reluctant to compromise about it. Therefore it may be advisable to leave this notion aside, perhaps to agree on suspending sovereignty for a considerable period, or to replace unqualified sovereignty by a more subtle concept, such as functional, differential or associate sovereignty. One could also envisage different kinds of sovereignty for particular locations, including shared sovereignty. It may be helpful if in the negotiations, instead of bickering about sovereignty, the parties would emphasize the division or sharing of powers among the various neighbourhoods or boroughs.

"Let us remember that the concept of sovereignty has undergone great changes in the last century. The interdependence of States in the economic sphere, the free movement of people across borders, the availability of world-wide systems of communications and the development of the international protection of human rights have drastically reduced the importance of sovereignty and changed its character. In the sphere of the law of the sea the notion of functional sovereignty, i.e., sovereign rights for a specific function only, has developed. Renouncing negotiations on sovereignty would therefore seem to be in line with new trends in the international political arena."


So it seems that at least sections of the Israeli bourgeoisie recognise that some compromise on Jerusalem (at least in terms of rhetoric) will be necessary in future. Why might this be? Well, it can be argued that some territorial concessions (dishonestly termed ‘peace plans' by the imperialists) will serve the interests of the Israeli ruling class and US imperialists. The more far-sighted strategists of imperialism realise that even their loyal puppet, Abu Mazen (Mahmood Abbas) will be unable to sell any deal to the Palestinian people which doesn't include some concessions regarding Jerusalem.

The US has organised a ‘Middle-East peace summit' for November. So why would the Israeli and US ruling classes be looking for a settlement? The following reasons stand out:

1.     For Israel, the occupation carries significant economic costs; the high level of military spending, whilst benefiting the politically powerful military elite (one of the major reasons for the continuation of Israel's aggressive foreign policy) costs the ruling class as a whole; in addition, the high political cost of suicide bombings means Israel is forced to bar Palestinians from working in Israel, denying Israeli capitalism a reliable source of slave-labour (Israeli manpower agencies, whose mostly Palestinian workers were denied trade union rights, played an important role in the undermining of the Israeli labour movement).

2.     Of major concern to Israel is the so-called ‘demographic bomb': already, the total Arab population of Israel and Palestine is almost equal to the Jewish population, and with the Arab birth-rate more than twice the Jewish birth-rate, without serious territorial concessions, Jews will become a minority, rendering the concept of a ‘Jewish state' completely meaningless.

3.     For the United States, Israel's barbaric behaviour is considerably undermining imperialism's friendly governments throughout the region (the most obvious example of this is in Lebanon, but the effects are felt also in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan); the appearance of a solution to the Palestinian question may take pressure off these regimes (temporarily at least).

So will the Palestinian question be solved by the imperialists?

The November ‘peace summit' will produce no meaningful offer to the Palestinians. Left to themselves, the US and Israel will never grant meaningful concessions to the Palestinians, on Jerusalem or anything else. This is obvious: why would Israel give up natural resources (including the oil deposits off the Gaza coast), land and above all water voluntarily? As outlined above, Israel does have an interest in disengaging from the Palestinian population, but this can be achieved by the creation of a Palestinian ‘state' consisting of isolated Bantustans with no economic autonomy (these would also be an ideal source of cheap Labour for Israeli capitalism, which would not have to bear the social costs of employing these Palestinians).

Israel's rapid building in the ‘E-1 area', between West-Bank settlement Ma'aleh Adumim and East Jerusalem, which will effectively cut the West-Bank in two, should make their plans obvious to anyone. According to a report in Haaretz ("Israel takes land to ease way to build in E-1 area", 10/10/2007), Israel's ‘answer' is to build roads to connect up these Palestinian areas! (Obviously, the Israeli military would still have de facto control over whether these roads would be open or closed.)

Israel may be prepared to hand over certain Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem (as proposed by Ehud Barak in 2000), but the chance of a united Palestinian East Jerusalem is gone, destroyed by forty years of rampant settlement-building. Any sensible concessions on the Old City are also unlikely - Israel will never agree to place Jewish holy sites under any joint sovereignty, and the prospect of physically dividing the Old City should be repulsive to anyone who's actually been there.

Boycotting Israel?

Faced with this reality, many progressives and trade-unionists around the world (including in Britain) have rallied to the call of certain otherwise-insignificant left-wing sects to boycott all things Israeli, from chocolate bars to academics. For example, a number of British trade unions, including my own (the University and Colleges Union) have passed motions calling for various boycotts of Israel. (Note that, although the UCU boycott has been effectively shelved due to legal advice given to the union's executive that it would contravene anti-discrimination laws, the same left-wing sects will doubtless present it again next year in a slightly modified form.)

But can such boycotts work? The answer is plainly no. To begin with, no sort of international pressure, either economic or political, will have the slightest moderating impact on Israel's behaviour whilst it has the backing of US imperialism (the Israeli state will not magically ‘collapse inwards', as some of these sects claim). International big business continued to co-operate with South African Apartheid despite an international boycott campaign, and the Apartheid regime survived 34 years of boycotts.

On the contrary, all these boycotts have achieved has been to push ordinary Israelis into the arms of their reactionary leaders. Because the boycott singles out Israel and targets all Israelis regardless of class or political belief, Israel's leaders and apologists can wield the charge of ant-semitism, painting a picture of a hostile world determined to undermine Israel, and a need for a ‘national consensus' to combat this.

Worse still, boycotts of Israeli workers (of the kind passed in the UCU) undermine the work of the Palestinian Trade Union Federation to forge links with the Histadrut (Israeli trade-union federation). These inks are admittedly bureaucratic (and the Histadrut leadership has a long istory of treacherously opposing genuine class unity between Jewish and alestinian workers), but they nonetheless represent a step forward, in the same way that a bureaucratic trade union is better than no union at all. A public debate in Palestine about whether Israeli workers should be boycotted is not helpful to Palestinian trade unionists, who don't want to appear pro-Israeli, but want to promote links with their Israeli counterparts.

A democratic, secular state?

Some left-wing sects call for the replacement of Israel and Palestine with a single (presumably Arab) ‘democratic, secular state'. The slogan ‘one-state solution' is counter-posed to the imperialists' slogan, ‘two-state solution'. But several immediate problems are raised:

1.     How will such a state come about? Israel isn't going to simply disappear. Does this mean socialists should call for an Arab invasion and subjugation of Israel?

2.     What's the guarantee that such a state would indeed be democratic and secular? By law, Israeli-Palestinians have the same rights as Israeli-Jews, but everyone knows of the discrimination that actually goes on.

3.     What about the national question? Israel has existed for sixty years, a fact which cannot be ignored. Despite the horrific circumstance under which it was set up (including the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians), Israelis still have a right to a national identity, which would be violated by simply removing their state from the outside.

The myriad of arguments in the blogosphere, university campuses and trade union fringe meetings about ‘one state vs. two states' are asking completely the wrong question. The number of states is a political detail - what's important is the economic basis of that state/those states. What we should be asking is whether a solution is possible under imperialism/capitalism at all, or whether the sheer human misery on both sides can only be alleviated by a socialist transformation of society.

Can capitalism solve the problem?

Unless otherwise specified, it is safe to assume that proponents of either ‘one state' or ‘two states' are proposing bourgeois, capitalist states. But under capitalism, there can be no lasting solution. Whether in one state or two, the poorer Palestinians and (somewhat) wealthier Jews will always be played off against each other in an eternal quest to drive down wages and conditions, and increase profits. Capitalism doesn't wipe out wealth inequality, it accentuates it. The examples of Israel using Palestinian agency-labourers to weaken the trade unions should make this obvious. And believe it or not, racism, repression and terrorism also exist outside of Israel and Palestine, encouraged by the need of capitalism to divide people.

What can be done?

The only solution to the misery of the region is socialism. But how can this be achieved? What is needed is the building of a revolutionary organisation that will attract the most advanced sections of the Israeli and Palestinian workers. Such an organisation, armed with clear perspectives, could intervene in the Israeli mass workers' organisations (the Histadrut and at some point ossibly the Labour Party), and more progressive sections of the Palestinian resistance (the Tanzim, the group supporting jailed leader Marwan Barghouti, may attract Palestinians who are open to progressive ideas). Such interventions would influence the mass of workers and poor in both nations, and encourage them to take ever more militant action in their labour disputes. Despite the reactionary nature of its leadership, the Israeli working class does have a history of class struggle; and despite its reactionary, nationalistic bent (including calls to destroy Israel) and the supine nature of its current leadership, socialist traditions still exist within sections of the PLO and its supporters. The struggles of the Israeli and Palestinian workers for workers' rights and the struggle for peace cannot be separated. We understand how difficult this is - sixty years of hatred and bitterness are not easily swept away. But there really is no other option. All bourgeois forces, whether imperialist, Zionist, or Islamist, will inevitably betray those who trust in them.

Political concessions in the form of a peace settlement are not impossible along the way, but will only come about (beyond the ‘Bantustans' I described earlier) as a result of the mass movement of the Israeli and Palestinian masses, lead by the working class. This was what happened in South Africa - the movement of the (black and white) workers frightened the regime into granting concessions. What concessions there have been (e.g. Oslo) came about on the back of the first Intifada, which had some success in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. But we must be careful: such settlements are not inevitable (Israel has shown in the past that it is quite capable of launching a war to distract the masses from the class question), and are not a necessary stage before we can fight for socialism. Also, the question remains: what should be done if a settlement is reached? In South Africa, the leadership of the ANC completely sold out to South Africa's ruling class, accepting the rotten compromise that left most of South Africa's wealth in the hands of its white capitalists. The fight doesn't end if some deal is reached, but goes on until the entire region has been ridden of imperialism and capitalism forever.

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