The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down in late 2000 and had ended by February 2001. The Palestinian intifada erupted in late September 2001. A right wing, chauvinist government was installed early in 2001 by an Israeli electorate bitterly disappointed that what they saw as major concessions to the Palestinians in the peace talks had not brought settlement, and alarmed by the intensifying conflict.
The Palestinian suicide-bomb offensive against Jewish civilians pushed large numbers of Israelis, seeking safety, to back or tolerate Prime Minister Sharon's militarism against the Palestinians; the Sharon Government's brutally out-of-proportion responses to the suicide bombings and its drive to destroy the Palestinian Authority, pushed many Palestinians into support or tolerance of the suicide bombers.
George Bush's international "war on terrorism", since September 11, 2001, has given the Israeli government a free hand in their dealings with the Palestinians.
Sharon and Hamas have acted as if in tacit collusion to escalate the slaughter and make a just settlement impossible. Many of the structures of a Palestinian state that were erected in the 1990s have been destroyed.
Israel pursues tactics typical of a modern, rich, democratic "First World" state, able to use its military power to minimise politically costly casualties on its own side, while inflicting massive carnage on its qualitatively less well-equipped adversary.
Palestinian suicide-bombers, young men and occasionally women, who blow themselves up in places and at times calculated to take with them as many Jews as possible, believing that the explosion will instantly transport themselves to Paradise and "the Zionists" straight to Hell, mercilessly slaughter civilians on Israel's streets.
These are the elements of the worst phase of Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East for twenty years.
The situation is grim. It may become a great deal worse as a result of a new American-British war against Iraq.
What in this situation should consistent democrats and socialists do?
l Back Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation where Palestinians are the majority.
l Demand Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. Essentially, perhaps with minor modifications, that means to the pre-1967 borders.
*Support those in Israel who oppose the occupation, and those who refuse to serve in the Israeli army in the Occupied Territories.
*Demand justice for the Palestinian nation - their immediate right to set up an independent Palestinian state, side by side with Israel, and the provision of sufficient aid and compensation to allow the Palestinians, who now live in Third World conditions side by side with First World Israel, a chance to develop their society. Those border areas of pre-1967 Israel where Palestinians are the more numerous should have the right to secede to the Palestinian state if the people there wish it.
*Argue for an overall settlement, a "historic compromise", between the surrounding Arab world and Israel, in which Israel's right to exist within secure borders is recognised by the Arab states, and its relationship with the surrounding Arab states is "normalised" - something like the proposals of the Arab Summit of March 2002.
*Champion Jewish and Arab working-class unity in the area, on the only possible basis, namely, mutual recognition of both nations' rights.
*Reject and oppose both Jewish and Arab chauvinist approaches to the conflict.
*Counter with fact, argument and historical perspective the vicarious Arab chauvinism dominant on the British pseudo-left (people who talk left but mimic the politics of non-socialist and non-working class political and religious formations), and beyond the left.
*Combat the demonisation of Israel as a uniquely bad and vicious state which expresses that Arab chauvinism and the traditional European hostility to Jews.
*Expose and fight the anti-semitism which finds "respectable" expression under cover of Israelophobia and is its inescapable subliminal message.
*Argue in the labour movement and in the left for historical understanding and an international socialist, consistently democratic approach to the question.
*Seek to establish British trade union contact and exchanges of opinion with labour movement bodies in Israel and Palestine.
*Build a mass movement in solidarity with the Palestinians around the demand that Israel must withdraw from the Occupied Territories and allow the Palestinians to set up an independent state.
*Help the left put its house in order. Insist that those who claim to speak in the name of socialism and Marxism and nonetheless preach national hatred justify themselves in the light of the real history of the conflict, the real alternatives now and the socialist principles in relation to national conflicts established by Marx and Lenin.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine has come to be seen by much of the world, and especially by the left and the pseudo-left, as a concentrated, dramatic, superabundantly violent rendition of the relationship between, on one side, the rich and oppressive "First World", and, on the other, the whole of the poorer, oppressed "Third World". Israel is "imperialism", the unmasked face of imperialist brutality and of racist disregard for human rights.
Israel is the USA writ small. The struggle against Israel is the struggle against imperialism.
If, in the 19th and 20th centuries, before Israel came into existence, Jews - and, preposterously, even poor and working-class Jews, the overwhelming majority - came to be widely seen as the personification of money-power, today, many millions see Israel - even those Israeli Jews who oppose their state's treatment of the Palestinians and fight for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories - as the quintessence of "First World" imperialism.
Young people who become active against the exploitation in sweatshops of Third World child workers, and who are anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-war, naturally side with the Palestinian "David", representing the poor and oppressed "Third World", against the Jewish "Goliath", representing the "First".
The tragedy is that, in the current political climate, they will tend to absorb, casually and uncritically, the attitude to Israel - and, subliminally, to Jews - that predominates on the avowedly-Marxist left.
It is right to side with the Palestinians. The instinct to side with the weak against the strong, with the oppressed against the oppressors, is the beginning of wisdom for all decent people.
That is why the first duty of socialists in this situation is to support the demand that Israel should withdraw from the Palestinian majority territories and allow the Palestinians to set up their own state side-by-side with Israel.
It is the only solution that takes account of the rights of both sides in the conflict, and therefore it is the only rational, just and progressive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: - Two states for the two peoples, combined with fully equal citizenship for Palestinians in Israel, and for Jews in a Palestinian state.
Rejecting the chauvinism of both sides, and the demonisation of either side by its opponents and their sympathisers, this is the only programme around which Jewish and Arab workers could ever unite.
Yet the main forces on the British left, while presenting themselves as intensely concerned for the well-being of the Palestinians, reject this "two states" solution, the policy since 1988 of the Palestine Liberation Organisation itself.
Nowadays they do not often spell out their conclusions forthrightly and clearly, but in essence they hold that Israel does not have a right to exist; that the 20th century history of Palestine should be rolled back and undone; and that the territory that is now Israel, inhabited overwhelmingly by Jews, should be combined with the West Bank and Gaza in one Arab state in which Jews would have religious but not national rights.
Fourteen years after the Palestine Liberation Organisation formally adopted it, they continue to reject the policy of "two states".
How this dogmatic "anti-Zionism" undermines the work of building a rational, just and democratic movement of solidarity with the Palestinians came out clearly at the Executive Committee of the Socialist Alliance, when the Socialist Workers' Party-led majority there voted down a proposal from supporters of Workers' Liberty to focus the Alliance's campaign on the Middle East conflict around the demands for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian majority territory and for the right of the Palestinians immediately to set up their own independent state alongside Israel.
The Socialist Alliance majority preferred vaguer slogans: "Victory to the intifada", and, "Free Palestine" Why? Why do they prefer the vague to the concrete and precise slogans? What do they think they mean?
For the majority of the Socialist Alliance, as for Hamas and similar Islamic-Arab chauvinists, these slogans mean not only Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian majority territory back to the 1967 borders, but Arab-Islamic conquest of the whole of pre-1948 Palestine. This "liberation of Palestine" is understood to mean the destruction of Israel and the subjugation of its people.
Though not explicitly, or courageously or candidly, these vaguer slogans of the Socialist Alliance majority express the "smash Israel" obsession of the SWP.
There is more here than a proper siding with the weak against the oppressor.
When other states - Britain, France, Germany, the USA, Italy, for example - have been oppressors, it has been considered sufficient for socialists and democrats to champion the self-determination and independence of their victims.
Uniquely in the case of Israel, opposition to its oppression of the Palestinians and support for Palestinian rights, is linked with a denial of the right of the Israeli state and of the Jewish nation to exist.
Not only do Jews have no right to rule Palestinian-majority territory by military occupation, as they surely do not; they have no right to be in the region at all.
Jews in the Middle East have no rights, other than the right - voluntarily or under compulsion - to dismantle their state and, for those who survive and remain in what is now Israel, the right to continue practising their religion. (If they are religious; many are not).
The relationship between Jews and Arabs which now exists in the West Bank and Gaza, say these "anti-Zionists", should simply be reversed in the whole territory of pre-1948 Palestine.
Israelis, they insist, do not even have the moral right to defend themselves. And since they refuse to dismantle their state, it is the duty of "anti-imperialists" to side with those who make war to destroy Israel - with a bin Laden or a Saddam Hussein. For example, in 1991, the SWP supported Iraq's rocket attacks on Israel and praised Saddam's fervent "anti-Zionism".
Thus, instead of rational working-class socialist politics, instead of democratic proposals for Arab-Jewish accommodation and co-existence that might in time allow Arab and Jewish workers to unite, the pseudo left offers all-out demonisation of Israel and endorsement of the politics of the worst and most irreconcilable of the Arab and Islamic chauvinists. From a safe distance, they are more Arab-chauvinist than the PLO!
There is nothing socialist, Marxist or "anti-imperialist" in such an approach to this tragic conflict, where there is right on both sides. Humanitarian outrage for the Palestinians in the mouths of those who advocate such politics is the sheerest hypocrisy: they want not peace and the coexistence of Jew and Arab, and the equality and unity of Arab and Jewish workers, but that the terrible cycle should continue, with the Israelis, including the Israeli working class, as victims.
In the days of rampant and unabashed anti-Jewish outcry in late 19th century Europe, there were socialists who thought that anti-Jewish agitation focused on the Jews' alleged identity with money-power, agitation against millionaires like "the Rothschilds", could advance the working class cause. The German socialist August Bebel memorably said of them that they subscribed to a "socialism of the fools". The truth is that those on the left who today preach opposition to Israel's right to exist as serious anti-imperialism, stand in the direct line of descent from those whom Bebel denounced. They subscribe to an anti-imperialism of the fools!
If by "imperialism" here we mean advanced capitalism in the USA and Europe - and that is effectively what it has come to mean to the pseudo-left - then the Arab ruling classes have as much connection with "imperialism" as Israel has. They are as much its creatures as the Israeli ruling class is (indeed, often more so). Destroying Israel would not eliminate foreign capitalist involvement in the area.
US subsidies do not give the USA control over Israel. There is no sense in which Israel functions to secure US or European Union influence or power over the Arab states. On the contrary, Israel has habitually strained and sometimes disrupted US/EU-Arab relations. The disappearance of Israel would probably make it easier for the big powers to strengthen their links with the Arab bourgeoisies.
The point is that much more is involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict than can be understood from a raw "side with the oppressed" reaction to the TV and newspaper images of the Palestinian David fighting the Jewish Goliath in the second intifada. The Arab-Jewish conflict has a long and complicated history.
A major reason why the festering conflict that is now being bloodily fought out on the West Bank of the Jordan, in the Gaza Strip, and on the streets of Israel's cities, has gone on for so long has been the refusal of the Arab states to arrive at a modus vivendi with the Israeli Jewish nation.
Israel was set up on 14 May 1948, on a United Nations mandate, in areas where Jews were the majority. Immediately after the Jewish state was proclaimed, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq (led by
British officers) and Syria and Lebanon, invaded Israel, with the intention, as an Egyptian proclamation put it, to "drive the Jews into the sea".
In the course of the war that followed, 750,000 Arab refugees fled or were driven out. (In the following years, 600,000 Jews fled or were driven out of the Arab countries and went to Israel.) Defeated, the Arab states thereafter refused to make peace with Israel or recognise its right to exist.
The Palestinian state which the UN had intended to exist side by side with Israel had most of its territory taken by Jordan and Egypt and disappeared from history.
The prolonged Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza - from 1967 until today - is itself in part a by-product of the Arab states' refusal to recognise Israel. Egypt eventually did recognise Israel, in 1977. Immediately after the 1967 war, when Israel offered to withdraw from the Occupied Territories in return for recognition and peace, the Arab states refused, collectively, at a meeting in September 1967, to negotiate with, recognise, or make peace with Israel. They continued to proclaim their goal to be the destruction of Israel.
Refusal to accept Israel's right to exist, and policies based on that refusal - a refusal which the pseudo-left wants to continue even after the PLO has abandoned it and the March 2002 Arab Summit have offered to abandon it - have played a deadly role down through the decades of this tragic conflict. Again and again, they have brought avoidable catastrophe on the Palestinian people. The story is told in detail in the body of this pamphlet.
Thus, though it is indeed the beginning of wisdom to side with the weak and the oppressed Palestinians facing the Israeli army, to support the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and demand the immediate setting up of an independent Palestinian state, more than that is necessary.
If we are to understand the present stage of the conflict, and avoid falling into "the anti-imperialism of the fools", then an understanding of the history is essential.
The account most widely accepted on the left of the Arab-Jewish conflict and of how and why Israel came into existence, and of why the conflict has dragged on for decades, is, in fact, not history, but envenomed scapegoat-making mythology. On this, much of the British left has for decades followed the line of argument laid down by the Stalinist USSR fifty years ago when it fell out with Israel, purveying not only pseudo anti-imperialism, but a real and malignant anti-Semitism too.
It is not racist anti-semitism, of course - there are many strands of anti-semitism in history - but it is a comprehensive hostility to most Jews alive, branded as "racists" if they refuse to support the destruction of Israel.
The vicarious Arab chauvinism of the pseudo-left on this issue can not but repel fair-minded, thinking people who side with the Palestinians, in the sense that this pamphlet does. Thereby, it works against the creation of the mass solidarity movement which the Palestinians need.
This pamphlet, an expanded edition of the one published under the same name a year ago, consists of pieces that have appeared in Socialist Organiser, Workers' Liberty and Solidarity. It offers an account of the history of the Jewish-Arab conflict, and a critical examination of the politics of the left on this question
Sean Matgamna, 21 August 2002