The al-Aqsa intifada erupted because Palestinians, despairing of negotiations as a path to their national aims, chose to confront Israel on the streets. Within Fatah (the main organization in the PLO) grass-roots leaders have proclaimed that the fight will go on until Israel withdraws from all territories conquered in 1967, including those in Jerusalem. This recourse to arms raises an obvious question. If negotiations cannot achieve Palestinian goals, how can violence do so - when Israel is so much stronger?
It was the PLO, in the person of Yasser Arafat, that laid arms aside twelve years ago by abjuring the Palestinian Covenant. This happened in Geneva a few days after the (premature) declaration of statehood on November 15, 1988. The retreat served as downpayment in return for America's agreement to recognize the PLO and open a dialogue with it. The voiding of the covenant signified an adjustment of aims: the goal, from now on, would be to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza, a mere fifth of Mandatory Palestine.
Twelve years have passed since the turnabout at Geneva, and it is now clear that this approach has not bred a viable, independent Palestinian state, but rather an entity dependent on the interests of America and Israel. Arafat and the PLO today have neither program nor direction. Shall we say then that they were cheated?
Not at all. When they opted for negotiations from a position of obvious weakness, they did so in full awareness of the implications. The main current in the PLO, a.k.a. the Tunisian branch, wanted an agreement that would save it from political exile and financial ruin. The Oslo Accord was designed to enable Arafat and his colleagues to set up the kind of regime that could feather their nests. From the beginning, the PA established itself as a corrupt dictatorship, mouthing nationalist jargon in order to calm the angry masses while, from the other side of its mouth, spouting White House jargon to keep the donations coming. Today, when the armed struggle proceeds without strategy or plan, and the "way of negotiations" has brought the PA to the end of its tether, the leadership finds itself having to choose between, on the one hand, its people and their national rights, and on the other, strategic and economic relations with the Occupier. At this critical moment, the regime has suddenly remembered that it is part of the Arab world, and it reaches out toward the latter as to a lifeline. Seven years ago the situation was quite different. Then the same leadership jumped on the Oslo wagon, in disregard of its Arab neighbors. Although Syria and Lebanon both had territorial disputes with Israel, it sought a quick, separate fix for itself. It will not save itself now, however, by embracing Brother Arab. The situation of other Arab regimes is not so different from its own. All are in danger.
Just how unstable the Arab world is can be seen from the behavior of Saudi Arabia during the new intifada. This kingdom, which since its birth has been an agent of Western imperialism, has today become the most extreme critic of Israel. Yet despite the Saudi proclamations at the recent summit in Cairo on October 21, the Saudis offered no alternative that would free the Arab world from the yoke-like American aegis.
Saddam Hussein's survival in the face of US power, together with Hizbullah's success in expelling Israel from South Lebanon, have led the Arab peoples to believe anew in alternatives other than surrender. Their regimes must take the new mood into account. Till now, however, they have aimed no higher than to persuade Washington to recognize their internal difficulties, if it wants to preserve its own interests.
The national project in the era of globalization
When Arafat declared the Palestinian covenant void ("C'est caduc," said he), he expressed a mood that then suffused the Palestinian national movement. The same ideological exhaustion permeated other national liberation movements, all of which retreated as the Soviet Union fell apart. This pro-Soviet bloc was left without influence or ideology to counter the imperialist camp. The liberation movements could see no way of achieving national independence without political and financial backing from a great power.
When the Palestinian leadership decided to abandon the progressive principles it had adopted in the late sixties, joining the American camp instead, a number of explanations were offered, the gist of which was as follows: The US rules the world today. We haven't the power to change this fact. The Arab regimes did not come to our aid during the siege of Beirut, and although we held out for two months, we couldn't do so indefinitely. The withdrawal from Lebanon put an end to our armed struggle, because we lost our territorial base. Instead, the struggle passed to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where it took the form of the intifada. After two years or so, however, given their isolation and economic hardship, the forces of the interior wearied. No one was left with sufficient armed force to achieve the independence we long for. The truth is somewhat different. Through the entire period of the first intifada, the Palestinian leadership in Tunis was busy taking the very same course that Egypt had under Sadat: to achieve national goals by wedding itself to American interests, instead of combating them.
The turn to the opposing camp was coated in honeyed words: We must learn to think in modern concepts and adopt new methods. We cannot ignore the dramatic accomplishments of capitalism in Southeast Asia, compared to the failures of the Eastern European countries that depended on the Soviet Union.
In this light, the Palestinian leaders no longer presented the conflict with Israel as a life-and-death struggle against the theft of land and resources, but rather as a psychological problem: changing the image one has of the other, building trust and cooperation, creating a culture of peace and friendship. The Palestinians leaders now appeared as cooperative pupils, seeking instruction in development from modern, industrial Israel. Mere politics was understood to inhibit economic progress: political discourse gave way to the language of hi-tech. It is no accident that Muhammad Rashid, economic advisor to Arafat, took the number-two position in the leadership. Virtually unknown among his own people, but a household figure to Israeli moguls, Rashid has been the person most responsible for the economic debacle in which the Palestinians are presently caught. (On Rashid and his partners, see Challenge # 60.)
It soon became apparent, however, that the Information Revolution has in no way cancelled the harsh rules of capitalism. Instead of serving humanity as a whole by closing economic gaps, the new technology has tended to marginalize the have-nots. This process is evident too in the relations between Israel and the Occupied Territories. The Israeli economy has become part of the global system; thanks to international investment, its hi-tech component has grown, until recently, by leaps and bounds. On the Palestinian side, in contrast, the standard of living has declined by 30% from its miserable state in the last years of direct Occupation. This economy today depends on two factors (both nullified by the new intifada): the export of day-labor and donations from abroad.
Palestine is not the only land that has suffered from economic decline after exalting the "private sector". Although political climates vary widely, the same trend is visible in many countries. Consider, for example, South Africa. It fulfilled the commandments of the World Bank, privatized its economy and hamstrung the unions. Fearing to shake the foundations of the earlier, apartheid economy, South Africa chose to collaborate with white capital. The result is a national economy that fails to benefit the blacks. Poverty and crime have risen. The spread of AIDS is an indicator: the disease afflicts a fifth of the nation's black children.
In general, liberation falters where capitalism co-opts the nationalists. If we look back to the countries that sought liberation in the period after World War II, we see that the nationalist bourgeoisie, while leading the fight against colonialism, shaped its program to suit the interests of the poverty-stricken farmers. The struggles of that time took on a progressive hue, which appeared in the economic goals. National leaders such as Nehru, Nasser and Nyrere saw the re-distribution of land and the nationalization of industry as essential foundations for an egalitarian economy.
Today's global capitalist order, however, has no place for progressive nationalism. What remains is reactionary. The bourgeoisie sells the interests of the majority in order to increase its monopolies. The national project turns into that of a single class. Where convenient, this project also dons religious garb. The Americans or the Saudis fund such movements in order to weaken any remaining allies of the erstwhile Soviet camp. So it is for example, with the Bosnians, the Albanians, or the peoples around the Caspian Sea, whom the US is now employing in order to diminish Russian influence.
A Palestinian state beside Israel?
Under present circumstances, the idea of a viable independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is an impossibility. It is not just international capitalism that has made it so, but also the Zionist attitude toward the Palestinians. Despite almost a decade of agreements and military cooperation between Israel and the PA, the Israelis have not managed to change their basic view of the Palestinians. They still see them as an inferior species, lacking the rights that they, the Israelis, have.
This attitude received full expression in the Oslo Accord, an agreement that Israel made not with the Palestinian people, rather with its co-opted bourgeoisie. At Oslo, the principle determining what the Palestinians would get was not based on their rights as defined by the UN resolutions. It was based, instead, on two considerations: first, what Israel could dispense with in any case, and second, the minimum Arafat needed in order to stay in power. Israel gave him so little, however, that the Territories finally exploded. Strangely, despite the al-Aqsa intifada, the Israelis have not ceased to view the PA as an ally in combating Islamic fundamentalism. Nor have they ceased to view the Palestinian areas as a protectorate both for selling their goods and buying cheap labor. As long as the PA clings to America as its principal patron, Israel can go on holding the Palestinian leadership hostage.
Although it remains Arab-blind, Israel has understood that it lacks a military solution to the intifada. It has also seen that there is no hope of persuading the Palestinian people to accept subjection. Nevertheless, we have a situation where Israel, by settling 150,000 of its citizens in the Territories, has practically annexed the latter. The settlements, together with the network of roads joining them to Israel and to each other, have fragmented the West Bank. Israel does not want to re-occupy the Palestinian areas, even if anarchy arises there. On the other hand, she doesn't want to see a real Palestinian state - that is, a state so independent and economically strong that it could depart from her orbit. Israel finds herself, therefore, without a real solution for the Territories.
The two-state solution is no longer realistic - not because the Palestinian people rejects it, but because there are no serious forces inside Israel supporting such a state next door. Nor is it reasonable to think that a weak Palestinian pseudo-state can possibly thrive in peaceful co-existence beside a nation more highly developed than all others in the region put together. In other words: capitalist Israel does not leave room for an independent Palestine.
The reader will ask: If there is no way to live in peace with Israel, what remains? To destroy her? For the same reason that it is impossible to co-exist with her, it is impossible to destroy her: There is an enormous imbalance of force. It was recognition of this fact, indeed, that led Egypt and certain other Arab states to set out on the path of peacemaking. So today in the Arab world, there are popular outcries for war, but the regimes meet them with clear and firm refusal. Conditions, they explain, are not ripe.
If the solution is neither peace nor war, where then shall we find it? The key is to understand the political and economic processes that are underway in our region. We need to step back for a moment from the kind of narrow national thinking that distinguishes between the fate of the homeland and that of humanity as a whole. Capitalist globalization has created rules that enable the wealthy few to prey on the destitute many.
The same process, however, may well serve to unite the victims! The collapse of the Soviet Union gave rise to a delusion, among the captains of the new global order, that the world would be their oyster, open for the raw exploitation of the international working class. At first it did seem that this program was succeeding, but since the end of the nineties, the aggressive brand of capitalism has suffered setbacks. Its united front has vanished. Conflicts of interest between Japan and the US, between the latter and Russia, as well as difficulties in stabilizing the Middle East, all show that capitalists cannot avoid competing with each other. The first victims of such competition are indeed the poor. As the market shrinks, however, and as smaller countries like Saudi Arabia increase their demands, the conflicts among the larger capitalist nations will gain in intensity.
Already we can find innumerable examples of dissatisfaction with America's manner of managing the world. The frictions come to expression in regional or ethnic wars. In the Balkans we have witnessed an alliance of the US and Europe against Russia. On the other hand, where the siege on Iraq is concerned, we see an understanding between France and Russia, quite in opposition to the US line.
It was difficult to foresee this situation seven years ago, when the Oslo Accord emerged amid a New World Order that appeared invincible. Today we can understand how deeply mistaken the Palestinian leadership was, if it ever really thought it could gain admittance to the club of leading nations in which Israel belongs. Let it be clear at last - for without this recognition there can be no progress: The Palestinians belong to the group of poverty-stricken peoples in Latin America, Asia and Africa. They must seek solutions in the same arenas that will supply them to those peoples as well. The Palestinian people has great power of endurance. After all the suffering it has undergone, it will not accept an agreement that cheats it of its rights. It has awakened from the delusion of a possible co-existence. In the light of the new intifada, we can see how hard it is for America to impose a pro-Israeli order on the region. The influence of Washington has weakened, as have the corrupt regimes on which that influence depends. These regimes have weakened because they have failed to supply their peoples with the minimal necessities of life.
To the Palestinians in revolt, it may appear that the Arab regimes at last are taking them seriously. Not so. They are merely weaker - more vulnerable, therefore, to domestic criticism. Scared stiff, they have suddenly re-discovered their pan-Arab patriotism. This is just hot air. The ability to defeat Israel does not depend on the will of the Arab peoples or their readiness to fight, but rather on a change in the total balance of forces. The PA and the Arab regimes, which accept the US as the undisputed ruler of the world, are in no position to effect such a change. Israel will not be defeated until its allies, especially America, lose their ability to dictate the rules of the game to the greater part of humanity.
Revolutionary movements should not slacken just because the solution is distant. The search for a quick fix leads nowhere. In the Palestinian case, neither surrender to Israel nor war will change the imbalance. The latter will change - but only on two conditions: first, when the conflicts within the capitalist system reach major proportions, and second, when the victims of that system can present an alternative that will answer the needs of humanity as a whole. The need of the hour, therefore, is to bring the Palestinian people, together with the rest of the Arab world, back into the anti-imperialist camp - and not let their leaders deceive them. This includes combating the corruption and duplicity of the Arab regimes, PA included. It is time to replace them with democratic leaderships that will take the defeat of the Israeli Occupation as a long-term strategic goal.
Article republished from Challenge no. 65.
Read also letters from Israeli Marxists and Palestinian socialist students on our Solidarity Appeals page.
For a more general analysis of the situation read Middle East on the Brink of the Abyss.