In response to a tweet from Labour MP Kate Osamor supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn clarified his own position on Israel/Palestine.
He made clear, again, that he supports an end to Israeli occupation and a genuine two-states settlement; an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. He also reiterated that while he supports targeted boycotts of settlement produce, he does not support a blanket boycott of Israel.
There is much to criticise in Corbyn’s international politics, particularly in his politics on the Middle East, but on this issue, Corbyn is right, and Osamor is wrong.
Workers’ Liberty has long been in a minority on the socialist left in our support for a two-states settlement and our promotion of practical links between workers’ organisations as an alternative to blanket boycotts of Israel. For advocating a policy almost identical to Corbyn’s, we have been denounced as “Zionists”. It is an indication of a culture in which sectarian slander substitutes for political debate that no such opprobrium (rightly) attaches to Corbyn for expressing similar ideas. We hope his comments can catalyse a serious debate about what politics and tactics should inform socialist solidarity with the Palestinian people.
The groundswell of support for BDS amongst left and liberal-minded people has noble motivations: a desire to do something - anything - to stand up to the Israeli state and its oppression of the Palestinians. Support for BDS is more understandable still amongst Palestinians themselves. It appears as a non-violent, civil-society-based way for Palestinians to mobilise international support to apply pressure to the Israeli state, in an increasingly desperate moment when all other strategies seem to have failed.
All socialists - who, if they are any kind of genuine socialist at all, oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and support Palestinian independence - share the desire to see international pressure brought to bear on Israel that underpins much support for BDS.
No socialist should oppose campaigns, for example, for divestment of public institutions from companies involved in the arms trade, or that profit from settlement expansion. No socialist should oppose the demand for an arms embargo, undoubtedly a form of “sanction”, on Israel.
But the BDS movement has become more than a set of tactics that might be deployed in pursuit of a variety of different policy aims; it has ossified into a kind of political religion for Palestine solidarity, which increasingly dismisses the policy advocated by Corbyn as neither possible nor desirable.
The conscious comparison made by the BDS movement is with the boycott campaign against apartheid South Africa. But the comparison is limited and problematic in two key ways. Firstly, on a practical level, it was not decades of cultural and economic boycott that toppled apartheid, but the self-organisation and activity of black workers. The lesson for Israel/Palestine is that social upheaval within both the occupied territories and Israel itself will be necessary to shake the Israeli government, which can easily weather an international consumer boycott of goods on which it is not even heavily economically reliant.
There is a second, and more fundamental, sense in which the comparison is flawed. South African apartheid was predicated on the exploitation of black labour by a narrow and largely class-undifferentiated settler caste. The aim of the movement against apartheid was to isolate and ultimately smash the state belonging to that caste.
But the Israeli-Jewish nation is not a settler caste. All classes in Israel benefit from colonial privilege over the Palestinians, but the Israeli economy relies for its functioning largely on the exploitation of Jewish, not Arab, labour. The Palestinians in the occupied territories are Israel’s colonial subjects, and the Arab population within Israel an oppressed minority whose civil rights are denied. Those are injustices that need redress, but a policy aimed at isolating and ultimately dismantling the Israeli state, as South African apartheid was isolated and dismantled, only makes sense if one denies that the Hebrew-speaking Israeli-Jewish population constitutes a national group.
Corbyn is right to acknowledge that it does.
The balance of forces is stacked against progress towards a real two-states settlement. The current Israeli administration opposes it, effectively operating a chauvinist “Greater Israel” policy of colonial expansion. Israel’s most powerful international ally, the US, now has a president who also opposes it.
But it remains a fact that two distinct national groups exist in historic Palestine, the national state of one group standing as the colonial oppressor of the other, whose self-determination is denied. The necessary first step on the road to justice is for that denial of self-determination to end. Short of the voluntary dissolution by the Israeli-Jews of their state into a post-national federation (surely a more fantastical and far-off prospect than two states), that can only be realised by the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
A radical, socialist, internationalist Labour Party could play a meaningful role in building international working-class solidarity with the Palestinians, and for two states. Labour should say, categorically, that a Labour government would support the establishment of a Palestinian state, end arms sales to Israel, and work with left-wing and labour-movement organisations on the ground to build links between Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian-Arab workers.
Corbyn’s comments are a welcome antidote to the fatalism of much of the discourse around Israel/Palestine, which forecloses on the possibility of ever changing the balance of forces except by decades-long campaigns of boycotts chipping away at Israel’s might (while the meantime, the Palestinians remain subjugated and oppressed). It is to be hoped that such comments can help reestablish a politics of solidarity based on consistent democracy and workers’ unity, that a reinvigorated Labour Party won to socialist ideas could help make a reality.