The election of Ehud Barak as Israel's new prime minister was heralded as a new breakthrough aimed at ending "the 100 year conflict" in the Middle East. Barak promised to withdraw from Lebanon in 15 months and honour the Wye river agreement by October. However, regardless of any concessions made by Barak, the situation simply marks a new stage in the conflict between Zionism and imperialism and the Arab masses.
Ever since the Begin-Sadat agreement in 1978, there have been a number of deals involving Israel, the Arab states and the PLO, all of which were paraded as the breakthrough for peace in the Middle East. The Oslo Accord of September 1993, which was supposed to resolve the Palestinian problem, was followed by Paris, Cairo and Wye. Their failure was put down to the intransigence of Netanyahu who froze relations with the Palestinians. But the Oslo Accord was no more than a manoevure by the Israelis to ensnare Arafat and the PLO leadership and effectively sell-out the struggle of the Palestinian masses. Barak, an astute representative of the Israeli ruling class, will not act fundamentally differently from his predecessors. While he talks "peace", he continues to expel Arabs from East Jerusalem.
The primary reason for the conflict in the Middle East has been the domination and criminal role of imperialism. The region has always been vitally important strategically, providing the gateway to Asia and Africa. To maintain its grip on the area, imperialism, especially British and French, sought to play off Arab against Arab, and then Jew against Arab. During the First World War, the British cynically promised Palestine firstly to the Arabs and then to the Jews. Such actions were to plant the seeds of future wars and conflict.
In 1917, the Balfour government came out publicly for a Jewish homeland in Palestine as a means of keeping the Arab nation divided. From 1921 onwards, Britain created a whole series of artificial Arab states governed by reactionary feudal monarchies. In 1923, the British government carved out land east of the River Jordan, called it Transjordan and gave it to King Abdulla, the grandfather of the present royal stooge. Between 1921 and 1971, Britain actively participated in forming the autocratic kingdoms of not only Jordan, but Saudi Arabia and Oman, and the reactionary Emirates of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. This served to cut across the living body of the Arab people, and create pliant tools for imperialism.
Before the war, the attempt to form a Zionist state in Palestine was clearly a reactionary step. It would mean war and the expulsion of 800,000 Arabs from their homeland. It would prepare the way for more wars and instability throughout the whole Middle East. The Zionist idea of the Biblical Land of Israel being a safe haven for Jewish people was a falsehood. As Leon Trotsky explained it would be a "bloody trap" for the Jews. History has confirmed this prognosis. During the 50 years since the founding of Israel, the country has experienced five wars: 1947/48, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982. Rather than peace, Israel has been turned into an armed camp, surrounded by hostile states.
After the second world war, the importance of the Middle East for imperialism was enhanced by its oil reserves. Three-quarters of the world's known oil reserves are concentrated in the region. Increasingly, the USA, the dominant imperialism, gave economic and political support to the Israeli regime as a bulwark against the Arab revolution. They became the biggest recipients of aid of any country in the world. The annual $5 billion aid from America alone, and the subsidies from rich Jews abroad, turned Israel into the dominant power economically and militarily in the region.
In 1967, the Israeli victory in the Six-Day war resulted in the occupation of new Arab territories: the entire West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Sinai, Gaza strip and East Jerusalem. This gave rise to a new wave of refugees, forced to flee into Jordan and elsewhere, which filled out the overcrowded refugee camps established in 1948. The occupied territories meant that some 1.4 million Arabs now lived under Israeli rule.
A year later under the Likud government, a programme of Zionist colonisation of the occupied lands was begun in earnest. This was done in the name of returning all the so-called Biblical lands to the Land of Israel. The settlers were made up in the main of fanatical orthodox Jews, who, with arms and the full backing of the Israeli state, drove out the local Arab population.
The Arab regimes created the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964. However, the leadership of the PLO under Arafat was incapable of waging a revolutionary struggle that could appeal not only to the oppressed in the Arab states but also the Israeli working class. Based on narrow nationalism, and beholden to the patronage of the reactionary Arab regimes, the PLO's aim was reduced to "driving the Jews into the sea". They then embarked on a futile campaign of individual terrorism and hijackings. In 1972, they succeeded in murdering 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. Every bomb attack on civilians inside Israel simply produced the opposite effect, pushing the Israeli population behind the Zionists. It simply served to strengthen the Israeli ruling class, allowing them to build up the state apparatus and the laws against "subversion".
Arafat and the PLO leaders proved incapable of offering a way forward. In Jordan, where the Palestinians made up a majority of the population, they refused to use their support to overthrow the rotten monarchy of King Hussein. "Our policy is not to interfere in the affairs of Jordan", said Al Fata leader Abu Omar. But Hussein - the 'friend' of the Palestinians - could not tolerate a 'state within a state', and in September bombarded the PLO camps, butchering thousands and forcing the rest to flee into Lebanon.
Again in Lebanon they made the same mistake. As "guests" they maintained they could not get involved in politics. In the 1975-6 civil war, reflecting a social conflict between the downtrodden masses and the Lebanese capitalists, the PLO stood on the sidelines. Only because they were attacked by the right-wing militias did they eventually resist. However, the failure to offer a revolutionary lead, allowed the conflict to degenerate on sectarian lines of Christian Maronites versus Moslems, Druze and Palestinians. Lebanon was eventually Balkanised, with the Syrian army occupying key areas, and the Israeli army occupying a strip in the south.
In 1982, after a series of attacks on northern Israel by PLO and Amal units, Israel launched a full scale invasion of Lebanon to crush the PLO. While the PLO was eventually forced to leave Lebanon, the invasion become a debacle for Israel. With unprecedented anti-war movements within Israel itself, the Israeli army was forced to withdraw. Only in the far south of Lebanon did they hold on in alliance with their allies in the Southern Lebanese Army. Despite repeated air strikes on refugee camps in Lebanon, they have been bogged down here for 21 years, harassed by Hizbollah. Faced with demoralised troops and open mutiny in the SLA, Barak has now promised to get out in fifteen months.
The brutal policy of repression in the occupied territories for more than twenty years led to a spontaneous uprising in late 1987. The Intifada, which was originally opposed by the PLO leaders, shook the Zionist state and created internal crisis within Israel. This mass movement of resistance, which saw young children with sticks and stones take on the might of the Israeli army, had more effect in a single day than the 25 years of bombings and assassinations. The Intifada polarised the situation and showed what mass action could achieve. Inside Israel, the opposition to the occupation grew rapidly. Opinion polls showed that the overwhelming majority of Israelis sympathised with the plight of the Palestinians and their desire for a state of their own.
Had the PLO leaders been Marxists they would have provided the mass movement with a class lead. Such an appeal would have had a profound echo within the Israeli working class and the Arab masses, and prepared the ground in the long run for the overthrow of Zionism and the reactionary Arab regimes. But this was anathema to the PLO leadership, who treasured their alliance with the most repressive and autocratic regimes of the Middle East. Arafat and the PLO leaders were in their pockets.
The Israeli ruling class wanted to put an end to the Intifada as swiftly as possible. The Arab regimes also saw the Intifada as a dangerous example to their own oppressed. With the collapse of Stalinism, the PLO leadership looked to the American imperialists to broker a deal with their client state of Israel. It was like the lamb appealing to the lion to become vegetarian. But the imperialists knew Arafat was a man they could "do business with". The Israelis were persuaded by the US to play ball, after being reassured that they would get what they wanted.
The secret negotiations led to the Madrid Peace conference in 1991, followed by the Oslo Agreement two years later. This was heralded as the historic breakthrough. Within five years, the Palestinians would get their state, and Israel would get its security. In the fanfare, Peres, Rabin and Arafat received the Nobel Peace Prize. Arafat declared that "Gaza will become a Singapore!" There was rejoicing amongst the masses in the occupied territories, believing this deal was the road to a Palestinian state. Those who opposed the agreement were portrayed as an unrepresentative minority.
In reality, the 1993 agreement was a sell-out of the Palestinians. All the sugary coating was soon to melt away. The agreement established a Palestinian Authority, made up of a part of the Gaza strip and the town of Jericho, which comprised a tiny percentage of the West Bank occupied in 1967. The treaty envisaged a phased withdrawal in return for security guarantees. However, all roads and checkpoints would be under Israeli control, as would foreign policy. Israel would still control 80% of the water. The PA can make laws and carry out appointments, but these all have to be ratified by the Israeli government. For instance Arafat wanted his head on the postage stamps and to be addressed as "President". The Israelis refused both, but later acceded to the title of president. Other issues, such as the Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem, the border of a Palestinian state, etc., would be decided in the 'Final-Status' negotiations.
As part of the agreement, Arafat would be responsible for internal security within the PA, especially the suppression of the dissidents of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Arafat employs 19,000 police and has the cooperation of no less than nine security services, including the CIA and Shin Bet. The PA has become extremely repressive, with demonstrations being banned, closure of newspapers, arrests of opponents and torture. After Wye, Arafat ordered the arrest of 200 Hamas activists, held without charge or trial.
Nevertheless, the security question (Arafat's failure to fight "terrorism") has become the pretext for the repeated breaking off of negotiations. Eventually, a new agreement was signed at Wye river in the USA, which would place 13.1% of the West Bank under PA control. But again the Israelis after only granting 2% froze things.
The lack of any real progress has led to bitter disillusionment amongst the Palestinians. Day by day, the situation of the masses is getting progressively worse. In the West Bank unemployment is between 16-33%, depending on access to Israel. In Gaza it is 60%. Poverty is widespread. The Gaza Strip is becoming pauperised, with little sanitation, health care or education. Around 80% of the economy of the West Bank and Gaza depends on Israel. The repeated closure of the border creates colossal difficulties. In 1987, 80,000 were allowed to cross into Israel; now only 8,000 are permitted access.
There is no freedom of movement for the two million Palestinians in the occupied areas. All need security passes from the Israelis before they can travel, a major problem if you are stateless or a refugee. They can't even move between Gaza and Jericho, a distance of ninety kilometres, despite being part of the PA. All roads have restricted access, patrolled by the Israeli army, so there has been talk of building a 'highway on stilts' between the two areas, but this has been rejected as costing too much! As Barak said when the troops were being redeployed from PA areas: "Everything continues as usual."
At the same time, Israel which annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, is forcing Arabs out and expanding the city's Jewish population. Since the Oslo Agreement, Israel's interior ministry has revoked the ID cards of 1,600 Arabs living in East Jerusalem. There have been 20,000 more acres of Palestinian land expropriated or designated 'security' areas since September 1993. They have expanded over 200 illegal settlements. There are now around 300,000 armed Israeli settlers in the occupied areas. The Oslo agreement leaves the settlements intact. The whole area between Israel and the settlements has become a network of interconnecting roads.
Under these conditions, self determination for the Palestinians is a sick joke. Despite all the talk of "state" and "entity", the PA is still-born, and totally dependent upon Israel. According to Barak: "I intend to do everything to strengthen Israel and bring about a physical separation from the Palestinians. A Palestinian state... is already de facto in existence (sic)." He then went on: "The question is how to ensure that this entity is not a threat to Israel in the future." The Israeli ruling class will never permit genuine self determination for the Palestinians. They are determined not to allow the return of refugees and/or give up Jerusalem. They also want to hold on to the bulk of the occupied territories. That is the reason why they are ethnically cleansing East Jerusalem and have established a series of Cantons on the West Bank.
However, there is a growing backlash against Arafat and his corrupt and undemocratic regime. From a hero, he has now become a Judas for the Palestinians. Opportunistically, Syria's defence minister called him the "son of 60,000 whores." Now Barak has tightened the screws, proposing changes to the Wye agreement so that the second phase be deferred until the Final-Status negotiations. Even Arafat was forced to protest, but he is discredited.
However, more dangerous for the Zionists and the reactionary Arab cliques, is that the impasse will create a new Intifada. The collapse in the price of oil has pushed the whole region into recession. The price recovery in oil in the recent period has only come about by restricting output. Revenues are still tight, and austerity is still being pursued. This in turn has created enormous instability throughout the Arab world. In the Gulf States, the splits within the monarchies are an indication of the crisis. Already riots have taken place in Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain. On the edge of the Middle East are the opening shots of the Iranian revolution. These events are a harbinger of what is to come.
In Israel itself, the situation is becoming increasingly polarised. The economy is in crisis. The GNP fell by 4.5% in 1996 and 1.9% in 1998, with stagnant growth predicted this year. A few months ago the Shekel was devalued by 10% against the dollar. Unemployment, which is virtually unknown, is set to rise substantially. Already riots have taken place in Ofkim in the Negev, where unemployment stands at 14.3%. That explains the desires of the Israeli ruling class to reach an accommodation and expand its trade with the Arab states. The Arab regimes are also keen to trade with Israel, and are eager for a deal over Palestine.
The attacks by the Netanyahu government on the Israeli working class created big labour unrest and mass protests. Earlier this year, the working class moved into action with a strike by civil servants and a work to rule by teachers. This was followed by the end of March with a public sector general strike involving 400,000 workers. In face of rising inflation, the Histradut (trade union federation) rejected the government's offer of 3.1% and demanded a 14% wage increase. This was followed by a student strike against education costs. At present, 2,000 water workers are on strike against privatisation.
The conflicts in the Middle East can only be resolved on a revolutionary basis. The Zionist state will never permit genuine Palestinian self determination. On the other hand, neither the reactionary Arab states nor the programme of the PLO can offer any attraction to the working class of Israel. Only a revolutionary programme can forge class unity between the Israeli workers and the oppressed throughout the Middle East. That potential exists. The Palestinian problem can only be solved by the overthrow of the Zionist state and the reactionary Arab cliques. An essential component of this, is the establishment of a Marxist tendency within the working class of Israel and the Arab states. On the basis of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East, the working class can decide the borders of a Palestinian state, allow the return of refugees, and grant autonomy to the oppressed national minorities of the region.