What was the real role of British imperialism in the formation of the state of Israel? What position did the Soviet Union and US imperialism take at the time? And how did the PLO leaders pose the question of the struggle against Israel in the past? What solution can Marxists offer both the Palestinian and Jewish workers In this brief article we try to answer these questions and develop a perspective.
Did British imperialism support the formation of Israel?
The state of Israel was created artificially at the end of the Second World War. Because today Israel is the main ally of western imperialism in the Middle East some people seem to think that Israel was created with the full backing of imperialism. In fact the creation of the state of Israel was a little more complicated than this. The British imperialists were actually opposed to the setting up of Israel, as we will show.
Britain and France carved out new colonies for themselves from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In 1914 with the outbreak of World War I, Britain promised the independence of Arab lands under Ottoman rule, including Palestine, in return for Arab support against Turkey which had entered the war on the side of Germany.
This was endorsed in 1916 when Britain and France signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided the Arab region into zones of influence. Lebanon and Syria were assigned to France, Jordan and Iraq to Britain and Palestine was to be internationalised. So in 1916 Britain had in fact promised these lands to the Arabs.
However, in 1917 Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary sent a letter to the Zionist leader Lord Rothschild that later became known as "The Balfour declaration". He stated that Britain would use its best endeavours to facilitate the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. At that time the population of Palestine was about 700,000 of which 575,000 were Muslims, 75,000 were Christian, and only 55,000 were Jews.
Thus the British promised Palestine both to the Jews and the Palestinians. Britain was not interested in the creation of Israel, but was pursuing its own interests in the region. It was trying to strengthen its position in the Middle East, and would continue to play off Arabs against Jews with this purpose in mind.
After the First World War, in 1920 Britain was granted a mandate over Palestine and two years later Palestine came effectively under British administration. In 1922 the Council of the League of Nations issued a Mandate for Palestine. The Mandate was in favour of the establishment for the Jewish people of a homeland in Palestine. This was in contradiction to the plans of British imperialism, which were to balance between the Jews and the Arabs (the old and tested method of Divide and Rule) in order to control the situation from above.
By 1939 the British imperialists had decisively rejected any idea of an independent Jewish state. In the same year the British government published a new White Paper restricting Jewish immigration and offering independence for Palestine within ten years. After the introduction of 75,000 more Jews into Palestine during the ensuing five years, the gates would be closed. The way would thus be open for a semi-dependent Arab state that would be a puppet of British imperialism. A divided population, as was the case in Northern Ireland, would have allowed the British to continue to play off one section against the other and thus to maintain overall control. The British required a buffer state which could guarantee them strategic control of the region between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, and at the same time provide protection for the Suez canal.
The 1939 White Paper was rejected as inconsistent with the Mandate by the supervising body of the League of Nations, the Permanent Mandates Commission. But the League of Nations was becoming irrelevant, as the major powers were preparing to sort out their differences through war and Britain treated it with appropriate contempt. Four months later, the Second World War broke out; and the British government executed the White Paper policy as if Palestine had been a British possession. British imperialism restricted the number of Jews entering Palestine, at times brutally.
The most famous example of this was the treatment of the Romanian Jews trying to sail to Israel on the 'Struma'. This vessel arrived in Istanbul on December 20, 1941, carrying 750 Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi persecution. The Turkish authorities refused permission for these refugees to land in Turkey and enquired with the British whether they could go on to Palestine. The British refused them entry. Their ambassador in Turkey said that his government "did not want these people in Palestine." And he added, "…if they reached Palestine, they might, despite their illegality, receive humane treatment." The logic was that if they were humanely treated then there was the risk of a flood of Jewish refugees wanting to enter Palestine. In the end the ship was towed out to sea and on February 24 sank as the result of an explosion. Only two people survived. Thus huge numbers of desperate Jews were trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe with nowhere to go.
In spite of this brutal attempt to stop the flow of Jews into Palestine, the carefully prepared plans of British imperialism were rejected by the Zionists, who organised terrorist groups and launched a bloody campaign against both the British and the Palestinians. The aim was to drive them both out of Palestine and to pave the way for the establishment of the Zionist state.
Organisations like the Irgun (Irgun Zwai Leumi, literally the National Military Organisation) did not limit their actions to fighting the Arabs. Although they co-operated at times in putting down Arab guerrillas together with the British troops, when it became clear that British imperialism was playing a double game and had no intention of granting the Jews their desired homeland, the Irgun turned against the British. Under Begin it was responsible for the famous bombing of the King David Hotel on July 22, 1946, where the British high command was stationed.
After the Second World War the member states of the Arab League, which was formed in 1945, were led by the British to believe that the prospect of a Jewish state in Palestine had been finally erased by the White Paper of 1939. Accordingly, they announced their acceptance of the White Paper and looked forward to seeing the end of the Jewish attempt to create Israel in Palestine.
It was the Holocaust under the Nazis in Europe that had created a completely new scenario. The Zionist idea of creating a homeland for the Jews in Palestine gained strength. More and more Jews were coming into Palestine. And these Jews had no intention of compromising over the question of the creation of Israel.
The Jews refused to submit to the British dictates, and their underground struggle resulted in the relinquishment of British Power in Palestine and also ruled out the transfer of sovereignty to the Arabs. The British were losing control of the situation. The position of the Jews was strengthened and they could no longer control the process. They thus referred the problem to the United Nations in early 1947.
The UN recommendation was for partition of Palestine with Jerusalem as an internationally administered city. The Palestinian Arabs, who accounted for 70% of the population and owned 92% of the land, were allocated 47% of the country! (UN resolution 181). A terrible crime was thus committed against the Palestinian people.
When the UN Special Committee on Palestine voted on this partition there were 33 votes in favour and 13 against, with 10 abstentions. Among those who abstained was Britain! Thus Israel was created in opposition to the plans of British imperialism.
However, the Arabs rejected the partition compromise of 1947 and encouraged, and armed, by the British, they prepared for war in an attempt to eliminate the Zionists and to prevent the birth of the Jewish state.
In May 1948, the surrounding Arab regimes launched the war against the embryonic Jewish state. The British before evacuating their forces had opened the land frontiers so that men and arms could pour in from the neighbouring Arab countries. At the same time they had refused to open a port for the Jews as recommended by the United Nations; and they maintained their blockade in the Mediterranean to prevent any reinforcements from reaching Israel.
In spite of this the Arab states suffered a humiliating defeat. Thus not only was the 1947 UN decision implemented, but Israel managed to take even more through a war of conquest.
What was the position of US imperialism?
The United States had also announced an embargo against the nascent Israeli state and enforced it strictly. Thus in the early stages of the conflict even the US backed British policy. But the US ruling class were divided on this question. In the end the pro-Israel wing won the day and Truman backed the formation of a state for the Jews. The reasons for doing this were that they had plans to weaken British imperialism and strengthen their own position in the Middle East.
So as we can see, British imperialism did not back the formation of the state of Israel. In later years the situation changed. Egypt began moving in the direction of proletarian bonapartism (although the process was never completed and was later reversed) and moved closer to the Soviet Union. In Syria a proletarian bonapartist regime came to power. All the other Arab regimes were unstable and despotic. Revolution threatened the whole region. Under these conditions British imperialism changed its view on Israel. Now no longer the force it was in the past, British imperialism realised its interests in the region were better defended by siding with US imperialism and thus backed Israel as the only really stable base of imperialism in the region.
…and the Soviet Union?
For years there was the myth that the Soviet Union backed the cause of the Palestinians, but that was not how things stood at the end of the Second World war. The manoeuvre on the part of the United States in support of the creation of the Zionist state of Israel had the support of the Kremlin Stalinists who voted for it at the UN! As we have explained above, US imperialism had changed its position and supported the formation of Israel as a means of weakening the position of Britain. This was part of a process whereby the US were becoming the main imperialist power replacing the previous role of British imperialism.
At the end of the Second World War the Stalinist bureaucracy found itself in conflict with its former Western "allies" and was looking for points of support. The Middle East at the end of the Second World War was still dominated by British and French imperialism. Because Britain was opposed to the setting up of Israel the Soviet bureaucracy saw the formation of the new state as a blow against the British in this area of the world. They went so far as to supply arms to the Jews in Palestine via Czechoslovakia. Thus the Stalinist bureaucracy (under Stalin himself!), proved once more that its international policy was determined by its own narrow interests and not by those of the workers of the world. Thus they were prepared to trample on the rights of the Palestinians, if this meant, as they saw it then, weakening British imperialism.
What was the position of the PLO in the past?
It is a fact that in the 1970s the position of Arafat was that of driving the Jews into the sea! Formally speaking, the PLO leadership was for a lay state where Palestinians and Israelis could live together. The PLO called for a unified Palestine with rights for all. Some quote this in an attempt to disprove the fact that the PLO did call for the expulsion of the Jews in later years.
If we look closer at what they said we see that this demand for a "lay state" was posed in such a way that it in fact amounted to expelling the majority of the Jews.
In 1969 their Palestinian Covenant was drawn up. Article 5 says 'The Palestinians are those Arab nationals who, until 1947, normally resided in Palestine regardless of whether they were evicted from it or have stayed there. Anyone born, after that date, of a Palestinian father - whether inside Palestine or outside it - is also a Palestinian.' While Article 6 says 'The Jews who had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion will be considered Palestinians.'
That means all those who came after would not be recognised as Palestinian citizens. In fact article 20 says, 'Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.' Although this is true of the Jews in the rest of the world, in Israel the Jews have now become a nation. These articles of the Palestinian Covenant clearly show that the intention was to expel the overwhelming majority of the Jews then living in Israel.
For decades the leaders of the Palestinians made it quite clear that their aim was to expel the Jews. This only served to strengthen reaction in Israel and pushed the Jewish workers into supporting the efforts of the state of Israel to crush the Palestinians.
When did the PLO leaders accept a two-state solution?
For decades the political documents of the PLO never defended the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel. They demanded one unified Palestine. But by 1988-89 the Palestinian leadership had accepted the idea of two states, thus reneging on the Palestinian Covenant of 1969. In 1988 the Palestinian National Council (PNC) in its meeting of November 15 declared the State of Palestine (unsuccessfully of course). On August 3, 1989 Al Fatah, the mainstream PLO organisation, at their 5th Conference endorsed the PLO strategy adopted at the PNC. That means that they accepted partition! This retreat was in exchange for America's agreement to recognise the PLO and open a dialogue with it. With the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, the PLO leaders developed more and more illusions that western imperialism could come to their aid.
This change of policy also involved an adjustment of aims. From now on the PLO would limit its demands to establishing a state in the West Bank and Gaza. This was the beginning of the process that was eventually to lead to the formation of the Palestinian Authority.
The idea of removing the Jews had always been a utopia, and was later admitted de facto by the Palestinian leadership when it entered into dialogue with US imperialism and recognised the state of Israel. In September 1993 the PLO and Israel finally declared that they officially recognised each other through the Palestinian-Israeli Declaration of Principle.
Fourteen years have passed now since the Palestinian leadership started the negotiation process, and it is now clear that this approach has not bred a viable, independent Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority was dependent on the interests of American imperialism and Israel. Under capitalism, a viable independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is impossible. Israel will not allow a real Palestinian state - that is, a state that is genuinely independent and economically strong such that it could challenge Israel in the region. The two-state solution on a capitalist basis is unviable - although the Palestinian people do not reject the idea of two states as such [Editors note: Since this article was written, opinions have changed, with the overwhelming majority of Palestinians now favouring a one-state solution].The best the Palestinians could hope for on a capitalist basis is some form of puppet regime totally dominated by Israel. However, a weak Palestinian pseudo-state could not possibly develop in peaceful co-existence next to a strong imperialist power such as Israel. A capitalist Israel does not leave room for an independent Palestine. On this basis none of the social and economic problems suffered by the Palestinian people would be solved, and thus the situation would go on festering without a real solution.
A single unitary state or a federal state?
Oslo laid the basis for the building of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and the West Bank, with the idea that this should become a state for the Palestinians. Some maintain that this acceptance of the idea of two states was only due to the low ebb of the movement and the weakness of the Palestinians at the time and that in the future they would return to demand a unified state, and furthermore we should support this demand for one state.
We have to pose the question: would an upturn in the movement of the Palestinians lead them once more to demand a single unitary state in all of ancient Palestine, i.e. go back to the 1969 Palestinian Covenant? The fact is that the Palestinians have not been calling for one state for some time, as we have shown above. But should we support the demand for one state? On a capitalist basis obviously not. The latest Intifada has achieved nothing. The Palestinians have been smashed by the Israeli army. Militarily the Palestinians cannot defeat the state of Israel. It is a powerful imperialist force, with one of the most modern and efficient military machines. In the face of this giant the Palestinian people are certainly not calling for a unified state. Furthermore if they did pose this demand, how would they achieve it? How would they impose it on the Jews in Israel?
As things stand now the Jews in Israel would not consent to the establishment of one unified state on a capitalist basis. They would feel threatened by the Palestinians. There is too much animosity and ill feeling for this to happen now. And on a capitalist basis it would be a complete utopia to think that this would be possible. On the other hand the ordinary Palestinian people are tired and war weary. They want to get on with their lives, have a home and job. The present situation is depriving them of even the most elementary requirements for a civilised existence. Eighty per cent of the economy on the West Bank and Gaza depends on Israel. Now the Palestinians cannot travel into Israel where many of them worked. Many are owed months and years of wages from their former Israeli employers. They are looking for a solution to these problems and no one is offering them a way out.
There remains the problem of the refugees, who have the right to return to a homeland. However, it could not be posed as simply a return to exactly the same lands and houses they owned before 1948. A whole nation now inhabits Israel and has been there for several generations. Within the limits of a capitalist Israel and a capitalist Palestine there would not be enough houses, jobs, social services for all. Inevitably some would lose out. In this context if 4 million Palestinian refugees were to return to their former lands the Jewish population would feel swamped. The Israeli ruling class would use this to foment hostility between the two peoples and that explains why the Jews in Israel would never accept this, on a capitalist basis.
Posed before the perspective of becoming a discriminated minority within a unified capitalist state, the Jews would fight. Even on a socialist basis we would have to take into consideration past experiences, i.e. the fact that animosity and mistrust dominate. We also have to take into account that there are two nations here, the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians, with different histories, languages, cultures and outlook. We have to take into account and understand that even on a socialist basis there would have to be autonomy both for the Jews of Israel and the Palestinians. They would have to feel that they had a safe territory in which to live peacefully. A socialist federation would thus have to give guarantees to all the peoples of the Middle East, especially the minorities.
We can learn from the experience of Russia after 1917. Prior to the revolution there had been terrible conflicts between the Armenians and the Azeris, with pogroms in Baku, etc. On the basis of the workers coming to power two socialist republics were set up within the overall federation of the USSR. Each nation had its own territory, but once the threat of national oppression was removed it was no longer an issue. The same happened in Yugoslavia (even without a genuine socialist regime). After the coming to power of Tito, a federal republic was set up with recognised territories for the Serbs, the Croats, etc. Of course a perfect separation of the peoples is never possible [nor is it desirable from a socialist point of view]. There will always be minorities. These minorities have to have the same rights as all the other people living in the same territory. However, in the ex-Yugoslavia the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, etc., had a territory they could regard as their own. On the basis of economic development of about 10% per year over a period the national antagonisms were broken down and for decades the different peoples could live together with a free movement of peoples across the whole of the ex-Yugoslavia. The borders between the different republics were open. Unfortunately, on the basis of the economic crisis, which flowed from the stranglehold of the bureaucracy, all the old problems re-emerged. With unemployment rising, high inflation and a general worsening of the economic conditions all the old ethnic conflicts were resurrected and used by the local elite within each nationality. However, the previous period (in spite of the bureaucratic deformations of the old regime) gives us a glimpse of how a solution to ethnic conflicts can be found through economic development and rights for all the peoples.
Therefore, basing ourselves on these historical examples, we would call for a federal structure in present day Israel/Palestine with autonomy for the Jews and the Palestinians, with Jerusalem as the capital of both areas, within a wider Socialist Federation of the whole of the Middle East. This would inevitably involve closing most of the settlements and redrawing the territories that would be allotted to both nations (parts of present day Israel are predominantly Palestinian). Two autonomous territories would have to be worked out. Again, it would not be possible to have two totally homogeneous territories. There would be minorities on both sides, and these would be granted the same rights as everyone else, with no discrimination. A viable territory for the Palestinians could be built out of the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan (where 60% of the population is Palestinian!), together with any parts of present-day Israel that could be feasibly integrated into such a territory.
All this could only be achieved on the basis of a socialist revolution with the workers coming to power in the whole region. On the basis of such a revolution the workers could amicably and fraternally solve these problems. A federal state would imply autonomy for each people in the running of their own affairs, the right to use their own language, respect for all religious beliefs, etc. There would be economic co-operation between the different autonomous groups who would take part in the development of one overall plan for the whole region. And of course there would be the free movement of peoples across the boundaries between the different autonomous regions.
The idea of establishing two states on a capitalist basis is a reactionary utopia, just as one capitalist state would be. Two totally independent states based on capitalism will never come about. The Israeli ruling class will not permit this. The solution to the problem can only come about through the overthrow of Israeli capitalism and the overthrow of the surrounding despotic Arab regimes: that is, through a revolutionary policy that is capable of uniting the Jewish and Arab working class against their common enemy.
For this to happen the workers on both sides need an internationalist perspective. They need to understand that their problems cannot be solved within the narrow confines of their own nation state. They must direct their struggle against the common enemy, the capitalists and landlords who dominate all these countries. The Jewish workers are not the enemies of the Palestinian workers, and vice versa. Sharon attacks the Palestinians at the same time as preparing draconian social and economic measures that will hit the Jewish workers. While the Palestinian Authority was allowed to exist for a period we saw quite clearly how an elite among the Palestinians was beginning to enrich itself at the expense of the Palestinian workers.
On the basis of this perspective it would be possible to build a Socialist Federation of the Middle East, within which each nation would have both the fullest autonomy and the right to self-determination. Thus a homeland could be guaranteed both to Jews and Palestinians. A socialist federation over a period of years would allow for rapid economic development to take place. With jobs, decent housing, clean water, health care, pensions for all, it would be possible to work towards the solving of the national question and the harmonious collaboration and co-operation between all the peoples of the Middle East. As Lenin explained long ago, at bottom the National Question is about bread. Once the economic problems are removed the national conflict would gradually wither away over a period of years.