The Middle East, Annapolis and the Palestine problem: More talks about talks

The mountain has laboured and borne a mouse. That would be a fitting epitaph for the Annapolis conference on Palestine. After four months of endless talks about talks Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, failed to obtain what Washington and Abbas desperately need: an agreement on at least the main points of a deal that would ultimately create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The mountain has laboured and borne a mouse. That would be a fitting epitaph for the Annapolis conference on Palestine. After four months of endless talks about talks Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, failed to obtain what Washington and Abbas desperately need: an agreement on at least the main points of a deal that would ultimately create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The Annapolis conference was attended by 40 leaders, many from Islamic states without diplomatic ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia sent its foreign minister, an action that surprised many observers. This unusual interest in a conference that was clearly not going to decide anything substantial reflects something, and that something is the growing fears of the ruling cliques throughout the Middle East.

The question arises why so many governments decided to attend a conference that was doomed to failure before it began. The actions of US imperialism have had results that were not intended. They have provoked a general instability that threatens all the existing Arab regimes. This explains Mr. Bush's desire to create a united Sunni front against the Shia forces led by Iran.

The Saudis had no choice but to attend. The reactionary Saudi monarchy is now hanging by a thread. This corrupt gang is increasingly unpopular and are trying to cling to power, on the one hand by giving a free hand to the fanatical Wahhabi clergy, which has links to Bin Laden. On the other hand, they are trying to take initiatives in relation to Palestine in order to cut across the influence of Shiite Iran and Hizbollah. They heavily depend on the USA, although this leaves them open to the (true) accusation that they are stooges of US imperialism. They could not afford to defy the Americans, who might blame them for Annapolis's failure. 

Bush's policy in Iraq has further undermined the Saudi ruling clique. By removing the Iraqi army - the only force that could act as a counterweight to Iran, Washington altered the strategic balance of forces in the whole region. This has benefited Iran, which has extended its influence in the Shia population of Iraq and throughout the region. This directly threatens the interests of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, where reactionary pro-US monarchies are sitting on huge reserves of oil. The balance of forces in the region has been upset and the whole area destabilized. The Saudis and the other Gulf states fear the growing power of Iran and the Shias. As a result the Americans are secretly supporting the formation of an anti-Shia front in the region.

The Saudi monarchy, one of the main allies of US imperialism in the area, could be overthrown at any time and whatever regime replaces it would not be a friend of Washington. Therefore the House of Saud has been pleading with Washington to help it on two fronts: by stepping up diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Teheran and by brokering some kind of peace agreement that would, they hope, solve the Palestinian question and relieve some of the pressure on Saudi Arabia.

The Palestine question

The Palestinian question is at the centre of the crisis in the Middle East. The Americans know that it is a major factor in the turbulence in the Middle East. The latter is a key area for US foreign policy both for economic and strategic reasons. For decades the Palestinian question has been like a festering sore that is poisoning relations between states and creating the risk of new conflicts, terrorism, instability and wars. But they are incapable of resolving it. The peace summit in Annapolis solved nothing. In fact, on a capitalist basis this problem cannot be solved.

Washington would be only too pleased to solve the Palestinian problem, but there are a number of problems of a most intractable nature. The main problem is Israel, which is now the only reliable ally that Washington has in the whole region. US imperialism does not have much leverage with the Israeli government in the present situation. Under the present conditions Washington proposes but the Israeli ruling class disposes.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US imperialists wished to increase their influence with the Arab countries. They therefore put pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. This led to the Camp David talks and the Madrid and Oslo agreements that established a truncated Palestinian territory. This was a pathetic caricature that in no way satisfied the national aspirations of the Palestinians.

This satisfied nobody. The result was further violence, terrorism, conflict and bitterness. The government of the PLO was corrupt and repressive. This led to the growth of Hamas, which, despite its reactionary bourgeois leadership, presented itself as less corrupt than the PLO. Although the imperialists claim to stand for democracy, when Hamas won the elections, they refused to recognize it and cut off all aid, causing enormous suffering and misery.

This situation led to an open split in the ranks of the Palestinians, with Hamas seizing control in Gaza, growing chaos and instability and the elements of civil war. What happened in Gaza was a civil war between Hamas and the PLO under Abbas. Israel's withdrawal from Gaza was a tactical move intended to strengthen its stranglehold on the West Bank. We see the cynicism of the imperialists (not only the Americans but also the EU) when they immediately suspended funds for the Hamas government, which, say what you will, was democratically elected.

The Israeli government looks on with quiet satisfaction as Palestinians fight each other, and occasionally sends in the tanks or tightens the economic screws just to show who is boss. As soon as the clash between Abbas and Hamas occurred, they restored funds to W. Bank and the stooge Abu Mazen. They want to use one side to split the Palestinians and thus ensure that the Palestinians will be kept under control.

"What we have we hold"

The slogan of the Israeli government is: what we have we hold. The Zionists have no intention of giving any important concessions. Hamas boasted that they had expelled the Israeli army from Gaza. That is a joke. The Israelis withdrew from Gaza as a tactical move to silence international criticism and create the impression that they were giving up something important, when in reality they have no interest in Gaza. This was intended to strengthen their stranglehold on the West Bank, which is the decisive question.

The Israelis have relentlessly continued building the monstrous wall that slices through Palestinian territory on the West Bank, robbing large chunks of land under the pretext of "defence". The settlers have become increasingly bold and insolent. After the incidents in Gaza no Israeli government will want to confront the settlers in the West Bank.

Then there is the little matter of Jerusalem, which both Jews and Arabs claim as their natural God-given capital. As for the right of return of Palestinians expelled from their homes since 1948, there is no question of Israel accepting them back, since that would completely upset the demographic balance of the "Jewish state".

For these reasons the "discussions" at Annapolis ended inconclusively. Ms. Rice had to settle for less than she had hoped for. The Palestinians and Israelis only agreed on two things: new talks. These will begin on December 12th. But the question is: what is there to talk about? The Israeli government is not prepared to make concessions on any of the fundamental questions and Washington is not prepared to put serious pressure on the Israeli government.

Such meetings serve no useful purpose except to provide President Bush and Condeleeza Rice with photo opportunities and to show the whole world that "something is being done" to solve the Palestinian question. In the meantime the United States is supposed to monitor both sides' compliance with the "road map" peace plan of 2003, under which Israel is meant to freeze settlement building in the West Bank while the Palestinian Authority (PA) takes action against militants who attack Israel.

This means that the USA has been given the role of arbiter in the conflict by mutual consent of both the contending parties. The United States has agreed to supervise both sides' compliance with the road map; this has been presented as a win for the Palestinians since in the past Israel has been the de facto arbiter of performance. But what this can achieve in the given situation is strictly limited. The referee in a football match is supposed to be neutral and therein lays his authority to decide the issue. But since this referee is clearly inclined to one side, this "arbitration" cannot be worth much.

A "convenient misperception"

The first test is clear: what will Olmert do about the 100-plus "unauthorized" outposts established by hard-line settlers? The road map requires him to dismantle around 60. But previous attempts to take even one down have led to violent clashes between the police and settlers, who are regrouping for a showdown after losing their fight to stay in the Gaza Strip in 2005.

It is possible that he might put some pressure on the settlers (these are only pawns in the game of chess and pawns can always be sacrificed in order to win more important objectives). But a wholesale liquidation of Jewish settlements on the West Bank is unthinkable. The settlers are fanatics who are quite capable of provoking serious disturbances both on the West Bank and in Israel proper and no Israeli government would want to risk such destabilization. The problem of the settlers will therefore remain, acting as a permanent provocation to the Palestinians. It is hard to see what role the "arbiter" has to play on this issue.

America has appointed a general, James Jones, as a security envoy to the Palestinian Authority. This does not mean much. And it is clear that Israel will not make his job easy. An Israeli official says that any impression that Mr Olmert plans a total construction freeze, as the road map stipulates, is a "convenient misperception". This little detail is highly significant. It exposes the hollowness of US diplomacy. In fact, the whole thing is just that: a convenient misperception.

Where the "arbiter" will be implacable is on the point of cracking down on the militants. The large amounts of money the Americans are sending to the Palestinian Authority are not free of charge. They expect something in return. They expect Abbas to crush the Palestinian militants in order to prepare the way for a deal that will fall far short of Palestinian aspirations. That is why for many months Washington has been arming the Palestinian Authority and training its security forces. This is a preparation for the civil war they know will come.

The Israeli reading of the road map is that the PA must entirely dismantle terrorist groups before any final-status deal that the two sides reach can go into effect and they will demand complete compliance before any further steps are considered. But this is beyond the real possibilities of Abbas, who fears that a serious conflict with Hamas could lead to the complete collapse of his armed forces. Therefore the Palestinians are insisting that they need only begin the task of "restoring order".

Nevertheless, both Israel and the USA have an interest in arriving at some kind of a deal over the Palestinian question. To that extent they can talk and talk again. But whatever deal they arrive at will be against the interests of the Palestinians.

They have been cultivating the Palestinian "leader" Mahmoud Abbas as a compliant stooge to put his stamp on whatever they agree among themselves. But this is not so easy! Abbas, like most people, would like to live to a ripe old age, and is also fearful of losing even more support among the Palestinian masses than he has already lost. He cannot afford to be seen to openly capitulate to the demands of Washington and the Israeli government. But in the end he will have no choice in the matter.

After the open split with Hamas, Abbas has received generous support from the USA. Washington is his banker and paymaster and he depends on it totally. All he can do is to drag his feet and complain as loudly as possible in order to silence his critics who (correctly) characterize him as an American puppet. There have already been angry protests from Tehran, Hizbullah and Hamas. But the most serious threat to Abbas is among the Palestinians themselves.

Annapolis solved nothing

Thus, the present talks have solved nothing, nor could they solve anything. This conflict is too deep and bitter to be solved by talks. And even when the talks resume in December, how can they solve the important questions: the borders of the Palestinian state, the division of Jerusalem, the fate of 4.5m Palestinian refugees abroad, the sharing of water resources, and other burning issues?

The declared aim is to conclude the "final-status deal" within a year. But it is not possible to conclude any deal that would be acceptable to the Palestinians and Israel. Olmert is secure in the knowledge that the Israeli government has all the cards in its hand. He is therefore quite happy to carry on with this diplomatic farce. Annapolis has instructed him to maintain private conversations with Abbas. But what these two men can have to talk about is unclear.

Abbas is desperate for the Israelis to make concessions. Olmert will concede just enough to keep the peace process going, so as not to annoy the Americans. But he will not concede so much that it provokes the right-wing parties to leave his coalition. The latter have made it plain that they are not prepared to make concessions on the key questions. For instance, they have moved a parliamentary bill that would make it much harder for Israel to give up any of Jerusalem to the PA.

For his part, Abbas got much less out of Annapolis than he hoped. He is more and more dependent on Washington's good graces (and dollars) to prop him up. This uncomfortable relationship lends weight to the accusations of capitulation that are gathering strength by the day. The Palestine Authority's security forces have been cracking down viciously on anti-Annapolis demonstrations in the West Bank.

This is a warning of things to come. Far from bringing a genuine peace agreement for the creation of a Palestinian state, Annapolis will bring only more conflict, chaos and bloodshed. The imperialists are preparing for this and are sending Abbas arms and money and training his armed forces. They want him to act as a policeman who will crack down on the militant Palestinians - not just Hamas but workers, students and left wing militants.

The situation is a nightmare for the Palestinian masses, who see no way out. The tactics of Hamas solve nothing but only reinforce the position of the Israeli imperialists, providing them with the excuse for further acts of aggression and repression without even causing a dent in their armour. Every Hamas rocket that lands on Israeli soil is another argument for the Zionists that "the Palestinians are determined to kill us all."

These rockets are a very blunt instrument. They are not accurate and can land anywhere. Sooner or later one of them will hit an Israeli school or hospital or a crowded market place. Then the Israeli army will strike with devastating force. It is not even excluded that they can reoccupy Gaza, although they would probably remain only long enough to cause as much damage and havoc as possible.

The fact that the imperialists have chosen Tony Blair as Middle East emissary is itself an eloquent proof that they have not the slightest idea how to solve the Palestinian problem. But neither the PLO nor Hamas can show a way out of the impasse, which is clearly tending to slide into a civil war between Palestinians, leaving a legacy of bitterness that will last a long time. As Palestinians fight Palestinians the only winner will be the Israeli imperialists, who will be rubbing their hands with glee.

Whole region destabilized

Like an elephant in a china shop, US imperialism has rampaged through the region, utterly destroying what elements of stability that existed there before. Now, surrounded by bits of broken crockery and fearing that other valuable plates may be broken, President George Bush calls a conference in the hope of sticking the broken pieces back together again.

George W Bush and Condoleezza Rice sincerely desire peace in the Middle East - peace under American control. The problem is that the two goals are mutually exclusively: you can have peace or you can have US domination, but you cannot have both.

US imperialism seeks to strengthen its stranglehold on the region as a key part of its general policy for world domination. The criminal invasion of Iraq was intended, among other things, to establish a firm and reliable American beachhead in the Middle East. It has not achieved this goal but has only succeeded in provoking a wave of instability throughout the region.

George Bush's "diplomacy"

The failure of Annapolis is yet another manifestation of the complete failure of US policy in the Middle East. They have stumbled from one disaster to another, and from diplomatic and military blunder to another. This is having a profound effect in the USA, not only in the mass of the population but in the ruling class itself. George Bush has not only lost the support of the population but the US ruling class is itself showing signs of impatience.

One year ago, the US establishment attempted to exert some control over George Bush's foreign policy, which they now see as a disaster. They set up the Iraq Study Group under veteran politician and diplomat James Baker. Within the limitations imposed by the general mess they made a reasonably sensible proposal. First, admit that the USA has lost the war in Iraq and disengage as soon as possible. Second, do a deal with Syria and Iran to cover the US's withdrawal in exchange for concessions that would serve their interests in Iraq.

George Bush ignored this sensible advice. Instead of withdrawing from Iraq he launched the "surge", sending 21,000 troops to Baghdad. This was like the generals in the First World War who were always planning "one last push" to break out of the stalemate. In every case this led to a massacre. Instead of opening lines of communication with Damascus and Teheran, he intensified his bellicose attacks on both.

Now Bush had another possibility to mend fences with the Syrians at least. The Syrians have no wish to antagonize Washington. They do not want to be bombed and invaded! Syria's decision to send its deputy foreign minister-less than a full negotiator, but more than just a token presence-in return for a merely token discussion at Annapolis about Syrian-Israeli peace seemed to indicate that Syria wishes to reach a compromise with Washington.

If the present tenant of the White House had even the smallest glimmering of intelligence he would have seized the opportunity to draw Syria to his side, making concessions or at least refraining from new attacks. What did George W do? He attacked Syria in public. Instead of inviting the Syrians in, he slammed the door in their faces.

The Americans thought they were clever when they engineered the overthrow of the pro-Syrian regime in Lebanon. But all they succeeded in doing was to plunge the country into chaos and war, and creating conditions for a revival of civil conflict. Now Lebanon is deadlocked over the election of its president. Belatedly, some people in Washington have realized that Syria's role is crucial. It is possible that the decision to invite Damascus to send a representative to Annapolis is recognition of this fact.

The Americans need Syria to prevent Lebanon from exploding into open civil war. But George Bush is too stupid and narrow minded to comprehend the realities of world diplomacy. He has offered Syria no concessions to secure its support, but instead gave Damascus a rap on the knuckles in his speech. He made a pointed and unnecessary reference to Lebanon's need for an election "free from outside interference and intimidation". This is how the White House understands the "gentle art of making friends and influencing people."

Revolution - the only solution

In the middle of all this, startling revelations appeared in the press relating to Iran, the President's other favourite "rogue state". Unknown sources revealed that US Intelligence had established some time ago that Iran had no immediate possibility of acquiring a nuclear military potential. This was the exact opposite of what Bush has been saying in recent months. He has, in fact, been saying that it was necessary to take immediate action against Iran because at any moment it would have had acquired nuclear weapons.

Who was behind these revelations? Whoever it was, it was somebody in a high position with privileged access to highly sensitive intelligence information. It seems very probable that a section of the establishment has decided to prevent a new military adventure in the Middle East by releasing information that exposes all the Administration's propaganda on this issue to be as accurate as the old lies about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction."

How did Bush react to this? Did he correct the misleading propaganda about Teheran's imaginary nuclear arsenal? Did he immediately announce the abandonment of any plans for a military strike against Iran? No, he did not. He repeated all the same old nonsense and redoubled his threats against Iran. And the Israeli government joined in, asserting that its own Intelligence contradicted the reports from Washington. Evidently, the hawks in Israel are enthusiastic about the prospect of giving Iran a bloody nose and do not want their fun to be spoilt by anybody.

However, it would appear that the prospects of an air strike against Iran have receded - at least for the present. This does not suit Ahmadinejad at all. His support is rapidly eroding inside Iran, and his only hope was to keep beating the drum about the danger of US aggression in order to divert the masses' attention away from their most pressing problems and thus save his regime. He has made a public statement to the effect that the new revelations expose Bush as a liar (which they do) and completely justify the policies of his regime (which they do not).

This will make it easier for the development of a widespread movement of opposition by the Iranian workers and students, which has already begun and is destined to transform the whole political life of the region in the coming period. The Iranian Revolution will cut across the stagnant and unbreathable atmosphere of reaction that hangs over the region. It will cast off the yoke of religious fundamentalism and resolutely take the road of socialism and workers' power.

In many countries the working class, after years of despondency and exhaustion, is taking the road of struggle. We see this in the impressive strike wave in Egypt, but also in Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and in Israel itself. It is necessary to place on the agenda the fight for working class policies, for proletarian international solidarity and the struggle for socialism as the only lasting solution for the problems of the masses.

It is essential that the revolutionary youth in Palestine understand this. If we accept the argument that Israeli society is just one reactionary mass, then the cause of the Palestinian people would be lost forever. But it is not true! In Israel there are rich and poor, exploiters and exploited, just as in any other country. It is necessary to work to forge links between the revolutionaries in Palestine and the masses in Israel - Jews as well as Arabs. That is the only way to drive a wedge between the reactionary Zionist ruling class and the masses.

We are told that this is impossible. That is not true! On more than one occasion in the past, there have been clear indications that the message from the occupied territories was getting through to the masses in Israel. At the time of the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon there was a huge demonstration of protest in Israel and in the first Intifada there were clear indications of discontent in Israel, including in the armed forces.

Tactics like suicide bombings and rocket attacks on civilian targets are wrong because they are counterproductive. For every Israeli citizen that is killed they will kill many more Palestinians. This does not do any damage to the Israeli military machine but it is of extraordinary help to the Israeli ruling class and state. By pushing the masses towards the Zionist state, these tactics strengthen the very thing they intended to destroy.

We fight for socialist revolution throughout the Middle East and in Iran, the Gulf and North Africa. We fight against imperialism - the main enemy of all the peoples. But we also fight against landlordism and capitalism - the main agents of imperialism. We are opposed to religious fundamentalism, which attempts to divert the healthy anti-imperialist instincts of the masses into the blind alley of religious fanaticism and reactionary obscurantism. We stand for workers' power and socialism and a new social order that expresses the interests of the masses. We are for the creation of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East, where Jews and Arabs can be guaranteed a homeland in Autonomous Socialist Republics. That is the only real way forward! 

No solution to the Palestinian question is possible on the basis of wheeling and dealing with imperialism. The only possible solution is to divide Israel along class lines: to break the stranglehold of reactionary Zionism. But this demands a class position.  It is difficult to put forward this position in the given circumstances, but events will provide the Marxists with openings as the masses come to realize the futility of the old methods. In the meanwhile it is necessary to patiently explain our ideas to the most advanced elements. In future our ideas will find a mass echo.

London, 6th December 2007.