Israel in isolation
Israel’s attack on Gaza has rightly caused outrage. But Israel’s murder of Palestinians isn’t the result of a failed peace process or a few bad Israeli leaders – it springs from the very nature of the Israeli state. Estelle Cooch explains how the recent attack fits into the history of apartheid in Palestine
There’s a well known adage, often attributed to Albert Einstein, that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results”. With that in mind, why did Israel launch yet another attack on Gaza last month – one that seems to have ended with a strengthened Hamas and a more isolated Israel? Did they expect a different result?
The war was the third launched by Israel in six years. Their attack on Lebanon in 2006 was followed by brutal assaults on Gaza in 2008-09 and again in 2012. All three crises have ended with diminishing international support for Israel. Following the most recent ceasefire on 22 November Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal declared in Cairo, “Free people are not deterred. What has happened is a lesson that the people’s choice is the resistance.” The silence of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has been deafening. In his televised speech to the Israeli public, Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t mention the word victory once.
But Israel’s approach doesn’t stem from insanity; Israel doesn’t in fact expect different results, but longs for the same ones. The dilemma they are confronted with is that while their goal remains the same – the creation of an ever larger Israel – the political terrain has been totally transformed.
In 1997, when Israel was last under the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Oslo accords had tempered the Palestinian leadership, the First Intifada had long dissipated and Israel had secure borders with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Fifteen years later and all that is up in the air.
The reaction of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi bears witness to these shifting sands. Morsi was at the forefront of pushing for a ceasefire and the Egyptian foreign minister was deployed to Gaza in the midst of Israel’s aerial blitzkrieg. It almost doesn’t merit saying that Mahmoud Abbas did not visit Gaza and played little role in the ceasefire.
Indeed the glaringly obvious success of Hamas will further accelerate the likely collapse of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and expose the limitations of Abbas’s feeble UN statehood plan.
A victory for Hamas?
One fascinating report by the International Crisis Group argues that Hamas has used their position in the recent conflict to test out their relations with Egypt, Qatar, Turkey and Tunisia. If developing these relations seems more worthwhile in the long term the growing rift between Hamas and the Syrian regime will become irreparable. One other indication of the pressure that reverberated around the Arab world to support the Palestinians was that Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nassrallah was forced into giving a statement in support of Hamas. This comes after months of in-fighting and angry exchanges between the two organisations as a result of their differences on the Syrian revolution. Clearly one motivation behind Israel’s attack, lay in testing the response of a post-Mubarak Egypt. Morsi’s balancing act seems to have worked for now, but the tension between ordinary Egyptians, who want tougher action on Israel, and supporters of the old regime, who wish to reaffirm the Camp David agreement, will prove increasingly difficult to manage in the long term.
Morsi may well be attempting to carve out a role similar to that of Turkey – a strategic ally of the US, but one with a more independent foreign policy. And while Turkey’s reaction has been contradictory – on the one hand they recently condemned Israel as a “terrorist state”, on the other hand trade between Israel and Turkey has increased in recent years – their motivations should be seen through the prism of a changing region. In other words, Turkey desires relevance in the Middle East far more than it desires relations with Israel.
Nonetheless Egypt’s status as the second biggest recipient of US foreign aid means that carving out this different role will not be straightforward.
If one of Israel’s motivations was to test post-election Egypt, another was to test post-election America.
It is interesting that while the US would not condemn the massacre in Gaza (no change there) Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that behind the scenes Hilary Clinton urged the Israelis to accept the ceasefire – a ceasefire that has rehabilitated Hamas as a legitimate partner in negotiations. The International Crisis Group reported the growing divisions within the Israeli government, notably between defence minister Ehud Barak, who wanted to avoid a ground invasion at all costs, and foreign minister and rabid racist Avigdor Lieberman, were laid bare in the debate over the truce. Netanyahu vacillated between their two positions throughout the conflict, but eventually sided with Barak.
The isolation that the Israeli state now faces along every border, and globally with the rise of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, has fed into a third motivation for the attacks on Gaza – racism. Unable to lash out at Iran or even Lebanon after their defeat in 2006, the caged Palestinians of Gaza provide a convenient target for a brutal show of Israeli power. Attempts to demonise Hamas also help to counter the effect of the Arab Spring in humanising Arabs in the eyes of Westerners.
This racism is in some senses the most crucial strand in understanding Israeli policy as its status as a global pariah is thrown into sharper relief.
This racism is not complicated, nuanced, or just the result of a protracted conflict as Western media outlets would have us believe. The massacres in Gaza, the occupation and the apartheid wall are not anomalies of Israeli policy. They are at the heart of everything Israel is and has always been. As Egyptian revolutionary Gigi Ibrahim put it, “For Israel to exist Palestinians must die.”
In short, Israel wants the maximum amount of Palestinian land with the fewest number of Palestinians as possible.
The nature of Israel
This lies at the heart of the very nature of the Israeli state, from when it was founded in 1948. As Moshe Machover and others put it in their seminal work in 1969, The Class Character of Israeli Society, “Israel is neither a classic capitalist country, nor is it a classic colony”.
It is not a classic capitalist country because internal class conflicts bear very little influence on its external conflict with the Arab world. But nor is it a classic colony. It does not wish to exploit the native labour force (the Palestinians). Furthermore Israel is funded by imperialism, to the tune of $3 billion per year, but is not economically exploited by it.
Many people rightly make the comparison between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa. The United Nations legal definition of “apartheid” supports this comparison; the array of discriminatory laws facing Palestinian Arabs within Israel lends further credence.
But there is one important difference. In the Zionist movement throughout the 1920s there was an ideological battle over whether a Jewish state should exploit Arab workers or restrict itself to using Jewish labour. The Zionists who argued the new state should only exploit Jewish labour won, and consequently the creation of Israel in 1948 was achieved through the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Since then the expansion of Israel and the expulsion of Palestinians has been relentless. Israeli leaders have been unequivocal about this. In April 2012, Netanyahu himself said “I don’t want to govern the Palestinians. I don’t want them as subjects of Israel or as citizens of Israel”.
Unlike in apartheid South Africa, where the labour of the black working class was needed by its white rulers, Israel does not wish to exploit Arab labour. This means that Palestinians cannot rely on mass strikes to bring down the regime, as black workers in South Africa did. Even during the Oslo negotiations, Israel withdrew thousands of jobs from Palestinian workers. The number of Palestinians going to Israel dropped from a peak of 115,600 in 1992 to less than 40,100 in May 2001.
Some have argued, rather naively, that Israel is a society of immigrants that could be won over to opposing Zionism. With patient organising and careful propaganda, the Israeli working class could one day come to play a revolutionary role. But this misses the point.
Israel is not just a society of immigrants – it is a society of settlers. Its working class was forged through colonisation. The Zionist general Moshe Dayan acknowledged in 1956 “we are a settler generation, and without the steel helmet and the cannon we cannot plant a tree or build a house.” Even today 35 percent of Israelis still hold dual nationality with another country, while four million Palestinian refugees remain stateless.
When Karl Marx wrote in 1867 that “a nation that oppresses another cannot itself be free” he was not making a moral judgement. He meant that in a society where one exploited group does not challenge the oppression of another, it comes to believe the illusion that it shares a common interest with its own rulers.
The experience of 70 years of occupation has shown that every aspect of life for the Israeli working class is tied up with the maintenance of the Zionist regime. The main Israeli trade union, the Histadrut, has consistently played a crucial role in propping it up. Formed in 1920, the Histadrut does not allow Palestinian Arabs to join, but actively recruits Israeli settlers into its ranks. In the years before 1948, the Histadrut led “conquest of labour” campaigns that forced Arabs out of work, to be replaced by Jewish settlers.
During the ethnic cleansing of Palestine the Histadrut helped to set up the “kibbutzim” – which have been wrongly portrayed as socialist utopias. In fact they were military camps based on land which Palestinian peasants had been driven from. The Histadrut also oversaw the Haganah, a Jewish terrorist organisation and precursor to the Israeli army.
In the January 2009 massacre of Gaza, the Histadrut praised the “great restraint” of the Israeli army. Even the July 2011 “tent protests” in Israel which railed against economic inequality were remarkably silent about the millions of Palestinians who do not protest in tents, but live in them, in every refugee camp on Israel’s borders. Any “socialist” rhetoric that comes out of the mouths of so called “left-Zionists” is, in the words of Samuel Beckett, a bow tie covering a throat cancer.
As long as Zionism is the only accepted framework in Israeli society, those interested in Palestinian liberation cannot afford to waste their time looking to the Israeli working class for change.
One recent survey asked Israeli workers if the West Bank were to be annexed by Israel, should Palestinians be given the right to vote. A resounding 69 percent voted no. It is hard to find a greater endorsement of apartheid.
If, therefore, Israel is compelled by its very nature to wipe out the Palestinians, why hasn’t it so far? According to the Global Militarisation Index it is the most militarised country in the world. Its air force is considered second only to that of the US. A desire to test its new Iron Dome missile defence system has been suggested as one of the reasons for the recent conflict.
Militarily there is no doubting Israel’s ability to storm across the West Bank and Gaza if it so desired – as it did during the Six Day War in 1967.
And yet if it were to do that its role as the US’s watchdog in the Middle East would be seriously jeopardised. Such action could provoke the Arab working class into revolution – not only in rebellion against their own rulers and those rulers’ complicity with Palestinian oppression, but against the very existence of the Israeli state.
So, since the onset of the Arab revolutions there now seem to be two cycles in the Middle East rapidly hurtling towards each other. The first is a long term one. US economic support reinforces the Israeli occupation which in turn bolsters Israeli militarisation and breeds ever higher levels of racism within Israel.
The forthcoming Israeli elections set for 22 January do not look likely to break this cycle. Ehud Barak has announced plans to retire, robbing Netanyahu of his more moderate ally that limited the influence of far right Avigdor Lieberman. The most recent crisis also brought to the fore the genocidal rhetoric that pervades the Israeli mainstream media. Ariel Sharon’s son called for Gaza to be “flattened”. Interior minister Eli Yeshai declared the goal of the operation as “sending Gaza back to the Middle Ages”. The irony – that the Middle Ages was a period where Jews sought refuge from European anti-Semitism in Arab lands – was no doubt lost on Yeshai.
The second cycle has emerged out of the Arab Spring. Leaders like president Morsi and Jordanian king Abdullah support the Palestinians in rhetoric, but not fully in practice. Israeli aggression will breed more resistance from the Arab working class and Morsi and others will be forced to either suppress their own populations, potentially sparking unknown consequences, or to better support the Palestinians. Even the Qatari government, an erstwhile ally of the US, has pledged to invest $400 million in the rebuilding of Gaza.
These two cycles can continue for some time without coming into contact with each other, but not forever. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring an almighty crash between the two is now inevitable.