I. Why did the Arabs in Israel revolt?
The intifada of the Arabs within Israel, having cost thirteen lives so far, ought to provoke much soul-searching across the political spectrum. The various Arab political currents, however, have been quick to color it to their liking: Citing Israel's threat against the al-Aksa mosque, the Islamic movement interprets this intifada as part of the new Islamic awakening. The national movement sees it as part of a pan-Arab awakening, bringing the Palestinians in Israel back into the fold of the Arab world. The communists link the uprising to Arab disappointment at the fact that the peace process has not brought true co-existence.
Each of these interpretations contains a grain of truth, yet sadly, each views the recent bloody events through its own narrow aperture, failing to go to the root of the causes that sent the Palestinian working class into the streets. Despite different emphases, the Islamists, nationalists and communists all support the PA (Palestinian Authority) and the Oslo Accord. They remain sympathetic to the ruling Labor Party, even though its police force has fired on Arab citizens. Thus their areas of agreement outweigh the differences. Behind all the rhetoric, the sad truth remains: in preferring to keep their seats the members of these three currents continue to demonstrate utter disdain for the day-to-day problems of the Arab masses in Israel. If Arab citizens had not lost hope in the system, they would not have risked their lives in confrontations with armed police.
Often in the past - as after the massacre at al-Aksa in 1990 or that at the Hebron mosque in 1994 - the Arabs in Israel launched protest demonstrations. None reached the level of this one, however. In the past, the Israeli government, working with the Arab leaders, managed to draw a clear distinction between the lot of the Palestinians within Israel and that of those in the Occupied Territories. So too, during the years of the first intifada, the Arabs in Israel made do with contributions, losing not a soul to the cause - despite the shootings of women and children a few miles away.
The past decade has been a golden one for a certain narrow stratum within the Arab sector in Israel. This group benefited from the fruits of Israeli economic growth. There was a sprouting of commercial newspapers and marketing campaigns in Arabic. Arabs invaded the shopping malls. Their leaders discovered niches for themselves in the apparatus of the government and the national trade union. Two Arab MK's entered Knesset committees that had earlier been restricted to Jews: Hashem Mahamid went to "Foreign Affairs and Security" and Muhammad Barakeh to Finance. Islamic MK Abed al-Malek Dahamsheh became Deputy Chairperson of the Knesset. Ahmed Tibi now heads the Committee on Environment.
By such means the state has managed to co-opt the new stratum of the Arab bourgeoisie. The prosperity of this small group has exacted a price from the rest of Arab society. A gap has grown between the majority - poor, unemployed and miserable - and the upper stratum, composed of contractors, businessmen, local officials, professionals and merchants, whose fortunes vary directly with those of Israel's economy. It is an Arab contractor from Nazareth, for example, who is laying in the sewage system for the notorious Har Homa. Until the Aksa intifada, this stratum set the tone. It didn't want disturbances that would harm the economic ties between Jews and Arabs. That is why, since the eighties, it kept the masses from joining their people's struggle for freedom in the Occupied Territories. That is also why it supported the Labor Party, despite the latter's aggressive policies toward the Palestinians and Lebanese. This upper stratum managed the reins of power by means of the traditional Arab parties, all allied to Labor.
The honeymoon is now over. The wider Arab public has broken its silence. One cannot understand the upheaval, however, without including the structural changes in Israel's economy. This has ceased to be labor-intensive. It is now replete with new technologies that do not require a large labor force. Such few workers as it does need must be well-educated. Yet Arabs - 20% of the population - make up only 5% of the university students. They have long been excluded from sophisticated industries on the pretext of security. The doors of the new economy are therefore closed to most. This exclusion is a permanent and integral part of the new Israeli capitalism. Accordingly, the gap between rich and poor (a traditional blight in Arab society) is growing at an ever increasing pace, leaving most people - especially the young! - futureless. Nowhere in Israel has unemployment grown as much as in the Arab sector. Its working class has been marginalized, while the future of the privileged class grows rosier.
The Arab parties, meanwhile, have lost touch with the masses. On the practical level, an aggressive culture of power and position has developed. On the strategic level, they aspire to partnership with Labor and Meretz. Such an agenda has no place for the working class, which groans beneath problems of land, housing, education and employment. An example is the case of the Sawafs, long followed in these pages: an Arab family in Jaffa - deprived of its home because of "Judaization" - has lived on the street for the past two years, although the local Arab leadership is part of the municipal coalition. (See Challenge # 53.) The members of the new Arab middle class have been content to solve their problems through special connections to state institutions. The masses no longer trust them. Having lost their futures, thousands of young Arabs are willing to clash with police. They know they have nothing to lose.
II. The Occupied Territories: Oslo Collapses
Ariel Sharon's tour of the Aksa compound (approved in advance by Barak) was the spark that ignited the new intifada. The deeper cause, however, was the failure of the Oslo Accord to achieve what Arafat had promised his people: independence, the return of the refugees and the liberation of Jerusalem.
The Oslo Accord was intended to mollify (and nullify) the demand for a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories. The last thing Israel wanted was to let such a state come about as a result of armed struggle. Not only would that call Israel's strength into question, but it might infect the region with revolutionary fervor. Israel did agree, however, to a state that would arise from a position of weakness and defeat, deriving its authority from Israel itself. That was the Oslo concept. Two things made the agreement possible: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the American victory in the Gulf War. The Palestinians were to get a patchwork state, cut up by settlements, economically dependent on its patron, and ruled by a dictator with just enough armed force to put down opponents.
Oslo disappointed the Palestinian people in two ways: On the strategic level, it proved to be a neocolonialist arrangement, changing the form of the Occupation instead of removing it. On the level of day-to-day living, it benefited only those Arafat loyalists who had come with him from Tunis, plus a coterie of rich cronies from within. For the sake of their private interests, these privileged groups preferred to make do with what Israel was willing to give, while cooperating with the Occupation both economically and security-wise. As in Israel, so also in the Territories, the economic situation of the common people deteriorated. The standard of living dropped by 30%. Unemployment reached heights unattained in the years of direct Occupation. Corruption and favoritism spread.
As a result of Oslo, then, a gap developed between the PA and the people. While the former continued its cooperation with Israel, the majority lived in misery. This went counter to the promises the leaders had made at Oslo's birth. They had promised economic improvement as a compensation for the lack of complete independence. Such, they had intimated, are the rules of the game in the New Middle East. Yet practice proved otherwise. The huge sums pouring into the PA did not create real jobs, and the dependence on Israel continued. Without reliable sources of income, without a social safety net (medical insurance, unemployment compensation, pensions), without drinking water, without repair of infrastructure, split into cantons by the growing Israeli settlements, harassed at the roadblocks, the Palestinian people shook off the delusion of a new Singapore.
While failing to fulfil its promises to the people, the PA lived up to those it had made Israel. Accordingly, it jailed the opponents of Oslo. Its security organizations worked unashamedly with the CIA. When independent TV stations got too critical, it closed them. The PA trampled on the rule of law, disregarding the decisions of its courts. The henchmen of Jibril Rajoub became the enforcing authority. As rival gangs fought, the feeling of anarchy spread. Thus the Oslo Accord became the byword for a new catastrophe afflicting the Palestinian people. Nor are they its only opponents. Throughout the Arab world, Oslo has become a symbol of Israeli and American disdain for Arab interests. In the years after the Gulf War, the US attempted to link all aid for the Arab states to two things: economic reforms and normalization of relations with Israel. Syria knows, for example, that it doesn't have a chance to modernize unless it meets both conditions. Egypt is an interesting case in this regard. It agreed at first to accept the dictates of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but they produced such deep gaps within the society that it was forced to pull back, even at the expense of aid cuts.
In recent years, indeed, fierce criticism from the streets has forced the Arab regimes to slow the gallop toward the US and Israel. These regimes rule by force alone. Their leaders fear to end their days like Anwar Sadat. They receive support from the West only because of its interest in reliable oil production. Given such shaky foundations, they dare not pull the noose too tightly around the necks of their peoples, especially where Israel is concerned. At the recent Arab summit in Cairo, held in the shadow of the Aksa intifada, one could see how careful they were. Hoping to preserve a bridge to America while yet appeasing their streets, they went heavy on rhetoric and light on action. The roots of the Aksa intifada are not just Palestinian. The Arab world opposes the way its regimes have chosen: the American way.
III. The decline in America's regional role
The last decade belonged to the US. It conducted a tough economic line, creating huge social gaps not only within nations, but also between them and itself. In 1997-98 we witnessed a chain reaction of collapsing economies, even while the US continued to prosper. In those lands that had adopted the American rules, such as Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Russia and Latin America, the disillusion was enormous. This created a global mood - not merely an Arab one - in opposition to Washington. There is today a basic lack of confidence in America's ability to lead the world in a way that will guarantee security and prosperity for all. In Seattle, Washington and Prague the "new outsiders" - not only people from the third world, but also trade unions and farmers' organizations from Europe - declared war on global economic institutions, giving voice to a different set of priorities.
The wave of demonstrations against Israel and the US in the Arab world, the limited war now going on between the PA and Israel, and America's near loss of control over oil prices - all indicate an increasingly negative attitude toward Washington. Its will no longer gains automatic Arab obedience. This intifada, then, is not an isolated event, rather an integral part of a new consciousness spreading through the world. This consciousness objects to a capitalist regime that serves but a privileged few, while keeping 80% of humanity outside the magic circle. It makes little sense, therefore - and it may do harm - to interpret the uproar merely in religious terms or narrowly nationalistic ones. So too with the demonstrations in the Arab states. The revolt forms part of a growing opposition among the working classes and the underprivileged peoples worldwide.
IV. The basis for an alternative socialist program
Within our region there is general agreement that co-existence between Arabs and Jews in Israel is finished. The Arab masses have rejected it in a manner that leaves no doubt. In the Territories, the burning of Israeli and American flags signifies a refusal to submit any longer to policies that dictate and exploit. In Israel, the scam of co-existence has brought the Palestinians to underdevelopment and despair; they are no longer fooled. In order to survive politically, Barak will have to form an emergency government with the Right. The "lesser evil" (the term by which the Arab parties have justified their support for him) is not at all far, it seems, from the "greater".
Israel is reconsidering its relation to its Arab citizens. More significantly, however, it is the task of the Arab working class in Israel, the only class whose interests no party has served, to reconsider its relations. Either it will choose to remain under the wings of the Arab parties, which represent the middle class, or it will choose to build new proletarian political alternative, not bounded by national or religious ideologies. The creation of such an alternative demands the sketching of a political program adapted to the new situation. Both in Israel and the Territories, the Aksa intifada has said No to the Oslo solution. Yet one cannot move the clock back. Proposals from the eighties are no longer relevant either. Those who call for a return to the 1967 borders under the UN resolutions have missed the significance of what has happened in the last ten years. The source of international authority has shifted to the White House and NATO, its liege. This shift has made possible the ten-year-old siege on Iraq. It lay behind the recent war in the Balkans. American interests have been calling the shots.
One can no longer separate the Palestinian question or that of the Arabs in Israel from the suffering of the other Arab peoples. One cannot solve one or another of these problems in isolation from the rest. True, the other Arab peoples do not live under Occupation, but in the case of most, America holds the strings. The Arab world is today beginning to resist, but the way is long. A change in the global regime is no merely national task. In order to succeed, it will have to be managed by the working classes of many lands. The upheavals we see today evince the weakness of the global capitalist regime to which Israel belongs. If the struggle against American-Israeli domination is restricted to the religious or nationalistic aspects, it will not have scope to develop. When capitalism dominates the world, nationalistic solutions take a chauvinistic or an ethnic turn. As for religious struggles, they remain within the capitalistic order: witness Iran and Afghanistan. If this frame is to be broken, the working class must become conscious of itself across national and religious boundaries.
The avant-garde of the Arab workers in Israel must escape the political straitjacket into which party leaders have tied it. It needs to undergo a conceptual and organizational development, such that it can link itself to the struggles now taking place all over. It needs to open new horizons for the poor and the marginalized. It needs to break through ethnic boundaries and find local allies among progressive Jewish workers, workers from Arab countries and the foreign laborers in Israel. All share a common interest: to secure their rights and to struggle against Israeli capitalism.
In this time of popular mobilization and readiness for sacrifice, every current must propose its solutions. Over against religious, ethnic and nationalistic ideologies that keep within the confines of capitalism, there is another way: socialism. It alone has the tools to build a society on the basis of equal opportunity and prosperity for all.