In an interesting article in the Guardian (14 August) Nathan Thrall sets out the way in which many Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists now view the Israel-Palestinian conflict and how they pose a solution.
“BDS has challenged the two-state consensus … by undermining [the] central premise: that the conflict can be resolved simply by ending Israel’s occupation of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank…
“… transforming the Israel-Palestine debate from a negotiation over the end of the occupation and the division of territory into an argument about the conflict’s older and deeper roots: the original displacement of most of the Palestinians, and, on the ruins of their conquered villages, the establishment of a Jewish state…
“The concept of apartheid became central to the BDS movement’s framing of the conflict. Whereas the Palestinian Authority sought to accentuate its autonomy and state-like characteristics, the BDS movement underlined the PA’s subservience to Israel. For proponents of the two-state model, the PA was a nationalist project working toward eventual independence, while in the apartheid framework it was merely an Israeli satrap. BDS leaders emphasised the de facto “one-state reality” of Israel-Palestine…
“[T]he idea of a single state was not a plan for the future — to be sought or averted — but an accurate description of the reality on the ground… Legally, commercially and administratively, the Jewish and Palestinian populations were interlaced.
“A battle against occupation could be concluded with a simple military withdrawal, but a struggle against apartheid could be won only with the end of state policies that discriminated against non-Jews. In the case of Israel, these could be found not just in the occupied territories, but everywhere Palestinians came into contact with the state. In the West Bank, Palestinians were denied the right to vote for the government controlling their lives ... In Gaza, they could not exit, enter, import, export or even approach their borders without the permission of Israel or its ally, Egypt. In Jerusalem, they were segregated from one another and encircled by checkpoints and walls. In Israel, they were evicted from their lands, prevented from reclaiming their expropriated homes, and blocked from residing in communities inhabited exclusively by Jews.”
The case against this version of the single state solution, rooted in BDS, and allegedly offering a peaceful solution to the conflict, is simply stated:
• The idea that Israel and Gaza and the West Bank, plus the decedents of Palestinian refugees from 1948, form a single state — a single political entity — is ridiculous;
• There is no similarity between the political and economic structure of apartheid South Africa and Israel and Gaza/West Bank/the Palestinian diaspora;
• The Israeli Jews will never willingly give up their state in order to dissolve, unarmed and unprotected, into an Arab-majority state along with a majority population with who they have been in bitter conflict with for many decades.
This is a policy which has started with its hoped-for endpoint — a single (Arab) state — and been worked backwards to produce a justification. Our policy starts with the reality for Palestinian and Israeli workers, on the ground, and worked forward to find the most democratic, feasible arrangement that can begin to mend the antagonism between the two peoples.
Of course it is understandable why such a set of ideas might be attractive to a British activist willing to ignore the obvious problems with this version of a single state “solution”. Firstly, it avoids the need to advocate the “smashing” — the bloody destruction — of Israel by some outside force (as the SWP have said: “The road to Jerusalem lies through [an aggressive government in] Cairo”). In this version of the single state “solution” the Israeli Jews will voluntarily see the error of their ways, disarm, dismantle their state — their armed protection — and dissolve into an Arab majority state. Whoever thinks this is a possible is a fantasist — or a cynic, who has a second agenda in the background, and is using this policy to dupe the unquestioning British middle-class liberals who sincerely advocate the policy.
In contrast, the two states solution is possible because it asks less of the Israeli Jews, stopping short of attacking their democratic rights to self-determination (meaning, the right to a state). Any policy which denies the Israeli Jews the right to self-determination is unreasonable — and right now, given the balance of power, utterly unfeasible.
The 1960 South African census showed that three million of the population were white (19%), a little less than one-in-five of the population. The white South Africans were a caste and even white workers benefited from the exploitation of black labour.
By 1960 black South Africans had been stripped of almost all forms of political representation. Pass books and Bantustans were part of an intricate system which regulated the use of black labour on behalf of racist South African capitalism. The solution was to abolish distinctions of race and deliver political equality.
The reason that calling Israel an apartheid state is so important for the single state activists is what they want to take from the South African experience is the political programme — one person, one vote in a single state (with the abolition of Bantustans etc).
The problem is that the structure of Israel is nothing like that of apartheid era South Africa. In Israel — inside the 1967 borders — Israeli Jews are the big majority, with Arab Israelis a little more than one-in-five of the population. Israeli capitalism relies — mainly — on the exploitation of Jewish Israeli workers.
Arab Israelis are a discriminated-against minority. However Arab Israelis have not had their rights crushed. They are able to vote, to build their own parties, to protest. Arab parties have MKs in the Knesset.
The answer to the discrimination is to end the discrimination, not to attempt to destroy Israel!
And Gaza and the West Bank are not Bantustans containing cheap labour for the Israeli economy. The time when many thousands of Palestinians crossed the Green Line each day to work in Israel — before the first intifada — has long gone. The Arabs that work in Israel are Israeli citizens. Gaza is currently sealed off and strangled by the Israeli (and Egyptian) state(s), not integrated into the Israeli economy as a subordinate part.
The plight of working-class Palestinians is very much our concern. But before we know what to say, we must actually understand the full reality of the situation.
Still more ridiculous is to describe the Palestinian diaspora living in other Arab states as existing under Israeli apartheid. The descendants of those Palestinians that fled in 1948 living in camps in, say, Lebanon or Syria, have been denied the right to integrate into their host societies and denied political rights by the Arab governments of those states.
For example, the Lebanese government has denied Palestinians civil rights and they have no automatic right to work, join a union, or get social security. Palestinians are banned from 25 areas of work, including medicine, law and engineering. Troops guard Palestinian camps in order — for example — to stop Palestinians building and improving their housing. They are deliberately kept in squalor.
This is not the Israeli state’s action, it is the action of an Arab state. If Palestinians in Lebanon are living under apartheid it is Lebanese apartheid.
The attempt to claim that a single state already exists — across Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and the scattered Palestinians in a dozen Arab countries — is a piece of not very clever political cheating available only to those who are determined that a single (Arab) state should be advocated and are not troubled by the facts of the real world.
Take Gaza. Are we supposed to believe that the Hamas-run Islamic police state, is really a part of Israel? Despite the withdrawal of the Israeli state, and the dismantling of all Israeli settlements in Gaza, in 2005?
How does this make any sense? The precise purpose of Israeli withdrawal was that Israel wanted nothing more to do with Gaza.
Any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must not only focus on the reality of Palestinian suffering (the realities of checkpoints in the West Bank, the discrimination, the unfair detentions of children etc), but also — honestly — note the reality of the social structures in these societies.
Many Israelis already accept the idea of a two states solution; almost no Israelis will ever accept the voluntary abolition of Israel in favour of dissolving themselves, unprotected, into an Arab state. The experience of the Holocaust and the extreme tension in the region for decades, the wars and hostility to Israel, guarantee this. The only honest way to advocate a single state is to advocate extreme violence against Israel —that way leads to a war against the Israeli Jews, not peace and reconciliation.
The left would not expect peoples who have been at peace for decades to dissolve themselves into a unitary state. The left does not expect Argentina and Chile to merge, nor Poland and Germany, so why expect it in a much more fraught, difficult situation in Israel-Palestine?
Any solution we advocate should be consistent with other, similar disputes. No one on the left advocates that Turkey, which is as brutal an occupying power towards the Kurds as Israel is to the Palestinians, be replaced with a unitary Kurdish state. None of the left advocates a comprehensive campaign of boycotting Turkish produce or culture.
This singling out of Israel, and treating Israel as an illegitimate and essentially, inevitably and eternally racist state gets to the heart of much of the left’s agitation on the question. It begs the question: why has the left one rule for Turkey and one for Israel? To avoid this type of antisemitism the left must be willing to grant equal rights to the Jewish Israeli nation.
Workers’ unity through mutual recognition of national rights is the only democratic policy for socialists to adopt. We are for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with the same rights as Israel.