Yesterday the Histadrut trade union federation in Israel formally announced a labour dispute in Israel's public sector. At the end of a 15-day "cooling off" period, some 700,000 workers will be legally entitled to take strike action.
In addition, some 3,600 workers in the Israel Military Industries are threatening to carry out mass protests against the government's intentions to fire dozens of workers. The public sector labour dispute concerns workers in government ministries, regional councils and religious councils, state-run companies (including the telephone company) and health facilities, the Ben-Gurion International Airport and the national post office.
The labour dispute in the public sector has been sparked off by the government's 2004 budget plan. The 2004 budget calls for the dismissal of some 2000 additional state workers. "Last May we reached an agreement with the government for the dismissal of 650 workers in government ministries, and for 50 from the National Insurance Institute," said Shlomo Shani, a senior leader in the Histadrut, to the Haaretz daily. "And now the Finance Ministry is initiating another round of dismissals, conferring neither with the Histadrut, nor with workers’ committees from each [government] ministry," he added.
In the meantime, Israel's Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has decided to travel to Dubai this week in order to attend the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The IMF-World Bank meetings this year may bring added drama to the Gulf at a time of heightened anti-Israeli sentiment in the Arab world. Currently Israel has no diplomatic relations with Dubai and other Gulf states, and the visit will bring additional security concerns.
Netanyahu last week revealed his petty reactionary prejudices, and what he thinks of the poor of Israel, in an interview to Israel’s IDF Radio, when he said that poor people should not raise large families. "The child allowances have brought entire Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities [to a situation in which] the father's work, what the father produces, is in fact children. He makes children, then raises children whose job is to make children, because the more children he has, the more allowance he gets, so there is an incentive which will lead us to ruin, both economic and demographic." Netanyahu, who initiated the interview, said the reason for the ongoing poverty cycle is the child allowance policy that has taken entire generations out of the labour system. This is his excuse for attacking one of the basic reforms that allow the poorer layers of society to survive.
Asked if the ultra-Orthodox community, which is generally considered poor, should therefore stop raising large families, Netanyahu said, "No, a man can and should have a family with as many children as he likes, but he must understand he is primarily responsible for providing for them, educating them, feeding them."
Netanyahu said he does not think that "someone without means should have 12 kids, 14 kids, without giving it thought, sometimes even 40 children". He added that, "When the family says let's make a third or fourth child, then the husband turns to his wife and says, Shifra, or Hava, what do you say? Can we manage this? Then she says we'll work a little harder, save more, and they do it, and they groan under the burden. They take on another job and they raise their children with dignity, sometimes also with great effort." Netanyahu conveniently ignores the fact that unemployment is now well over the 10% mark in Israel, and that many fathers, and mothers, cannot find work.
Behind Netanyahu and Sharon are of course the Israeli capitalists, who while they are waging war on the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, are also waging another war on the home front against workers in Israel, both Jewish and Palestinian. Oded Tira, the president of the Israeli Manufacturers' Association, has appealed to the workers not to go on strike and to ignore the union’s call to strike action. He has also called on the government to immediately replace any striking worker. This is nothing less than the class war emerging inside Israel with a clear line of demarcation between on the one side the bosses and their hangers-on and on the other ordinary working people.
The role of the Communist Party of Israel and the trade unions
What is lacking in this situation is a mass party with sufficient forces to galvanise the energies of the working class in Israel and pose a clear workers’ alternative to the present government. The old Labour Party clearly does not play this role. There is however a party, the Communist Party of Israel (CPI) and its political front, Hadash (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, or DFPE-Hadash), which could play this role if it adopted a clear socialist programme and used its authority to take this to the workers in the factories, the working class neighbourhoods and the trade unions.
That is why the In Defense of Marxism circle in Israel/Palestine gives its fullest support to the CPI and Hadash. It is the only mass workers' party in Israel. Thus we have called on the Israeli working class to support Hadash in the recent elections to the Israeli Knesset, and we gave our support to the Hadash list in the elections to the Histadrut's Executive Committee and the regional committees.
Interview with Binyamin Gonen
To shed light on what is happening in the CPI and Hadash we interviewed comrade Binyamin Gonen, a member of the Political Committee of the CPI and the DFPE-Hadash. Gonen was for many years a member of the leadership of the party's faction in the Histadrut, chairman of the faction and also a member of the leadership of the Histadrut itself.
Look, I have a serious problem with the Histadrut itself. Between the previous economic plan of Binyamin Netanyahu [Israel's finance minister] and the new one, the Histadrut did not raise its voice against it and as a result it did not achieve any significant gains in the struggle over the pensions. Unfortunately, Netanyahu gained an overwhelming majority in the Knesset and the voice of the Histadrut was lacking. In these conditions, when there is no genuine opposition to the government but Hadash, no one speaks about the main issue: the connection between the political situation and the economic situation. The economic situation cannot be solved unless the political situation is changed dramatically.
Although this government is not fundamentally different from the governments that have existed since the state of Israel was born, there is no doubt that this is the most anti-working class and pro-capitalist government ever. Do you agree?
This is the government of capital and the capitalists. Public money is being invested in the occupation, the settlements and the oppression of the Palestinian people. Furthermore, this is the first government which serves the capitalists directly. This government has a clearly defined and calculated capitalist ideology. Moreover, ministers are saying openly that they are in favour of Thatcherism. This was never seen before in the past. It is a war against the workers!
In every corner of the world we see workers' struggles and mass mobilization of the labouring masses against austerity measures. It means that the crisis of Israeli capitalism is part of the crisis of world capitalism.
We live in the epoch of capitalist globalisation. It determines the standards of living, the social conditions, the wages and the level of social services everywhere. I would like to remind you that when Netanyahu introduced the new austerity plan he said, "I phoned Condoleeza Rice today and she expressed her satisfaction with the new economic plan." This shows that Israel, more than in any other period of the past, is not an independent state. The Americans do not give billions of dollars to Israel without a reason. They want something in return: a lowering of wages, of the standard of living and a worsening of the social conditions. Israel is being transformed from a Welfare State into a Profits State.
Can you see any genuine alternative to Sharon's regime in the political arena?
Unfortunately, the Labour party which was an alternative, although not a perfect one, has now vanished. True, it committed serious errors during the period when Rabin, Peres and Barak (among others) ruled, but they certainly were not like Sharon and Co. We are now facing an all-out attack on the most crucial issues. The weak layers are being terribly hurt. A wide layer of capitalists and businessmen are enjoying serious benefits from the government. We will end up living in a “Third World” country and the workers will have to take to the streets and struggle for their future. A struggle mad of mere declarations is not sufficient.
Can you tell us about the movement of social organizations in which you are involved?
Well, there are many social organizations but every organization works alone. I am striving to unite them. We were trying to build a common organization but we have not succeeded to do it yet. We want to organize the workers and unite them but there is a lack of trust and apathy among the population.
Tell us about the activity which is being carried out on the streets.
I will tell you about the activity in Haifa, my city. Every Friday a group of young students organizes a small protest in Haifa City in which they raise placards and slogans against the government and the economic situation. But the unique character of their protest is the fact that they provide food, for free, to poor people. When I saw them I was amazed. In the past, people were ashamed to ask for food in the streets and get it without paying. Now you can see many people, young and old ones, gathering around those students and asking for food. There is hunger, starvation, and they cannot allow themselves the privilege to be ashamed. True, you won't see starving people on the streets and we are not at the level of India yet. But ordinary people are indeed starving and you can see them digging in the garbage, looking for fresh food.
What is the bottom line? What is the message of your party?
As long as there will be no connection between bread, labour and peace, the situation will get worse. If this government is eventually overthrown, it will be because of the economic situation. The role of the Communist Party is to be within the fighting layers, to organize struggles and guide them. Unfortunately, we are not strong enough but we need to continue to organize and unite workers and strengthen the social organization. No one will do it but us.
Comment of the In Defense of Marxism circle in Israel
Comrade Gonen has struggled for genuine socialist principles, as he has understood and interpreted them, during the years in which he was an active leader of Hadash in the Histadrut. Nonetheless, we always expressed our opposition to the decision taken by Hadash to join forces with the trade union bureaucracy and be part of the coalition. We stand for a determined and strong opposition led by Hadash - an opposition which will offer a genuine socialist alternative to the present rotten leadership of the labour movement. Furthermore, the current situation - when we see Labour party member standing against the bureaucracy while the Communist Party/Hadash is tailing after the bureaucratic leadership - does not serve the tasks of building a mass opposition of workers and youth to Sharon's government. In each struggle against the government, the Histadrut leaders have let down the workers. A joint coalition mad up of social-democrats, right wing liberals, semi-fascists and religious demagogues, will always betray the workers and serve the inter-class-collaborationist project of Zionism. Genuine internationalists, communists, are always against this kind of popular front and for a fighting militant leadership.
In order to organize and unite the working class and all the victims of capitalism, as comrade Gonen justly proposed, Hadash must take the lead and adopt a revolutionary Marxist perspective. In practice, it means leaving immediately the coalition with the Zionists. The despair among the Arab and Jewish labouring masses in Israel flows directly from the lack of any genuine class politics that can unite and organize all those who are committed to fighting the capitalist exploitation on an internationalist basis. It is the role of the Israeli Communists to build this alternative. No one will do so but the communists.
The perspective proposed by Hadash is, unfortunately, reformist in its character. While we recognize that it is the only workers' party in Israel which unites Arab and Jewish workers, we - as supporters and defenders of Hadash - are striving to carry forward an ideological transition of the party. The party's mistakes of the past - the support that was provided to the Kremlin bureaucracy, the unconditional support given to the bourgeois-nationalist PLO, the illusions in the ability of the Oslo Accords to bring genuine peace, the revisionist theories of a two-stage revolution and Socialism in One Country - represent a barrier, a barrier which prevents militant Jews and Arabs from joining the party and transforming it into a powerful political force.
The CPI must return to the period in which it was guided by the Leninist methodology and ideas, during the early years of the 1920s. A study of the past's mistakes doesn't mean, however, an attack on the leaders or veteran comrades. It means that we should all gather around the ideas of Marxism the entire membership of the party, and rebuild it as a genuine revolutionary workers' party. A Leninist party will carry forward the struggle for socialism in this country and regionally, and together with other Communist Parties will bring back the class politics to the consciousness of the labouring masses. The Israeli Jewish and the Palestinian Arab Marxists can play a crucial role in shortening the days of Sharon's government, in organizing and uniting all those who are suffering from the current social order, and in advancing the process towards workers' revolution that will build a federated socialist workers' state, in which the Israeli Jewish community and the Palestinian Arab community will get national-territorial autonomy, alongside other national minorities if they wish. This Marxist perspective is the only way out of the crisis and the only genuine way forward for the comrades in the CPI and Hadash.