The discussion of socialist strategy in Palestine recorded in Towards a Socialist Republic of Palestine has lost none of its pertinence despite the fact that it was recorded some time ago, in 1976. Sadat’s initiatives have not yet revised the basic terms in which the problem has been set since 1948. The refugees remain in the camps, and new bands of Jewish settlers are entrenching themselves on the West Bank.

The tragedies of politics are not the products of some ineluctable unseen forces. They are the result of conscious human agency which can be countered. And if they are not, then they can continue indefinitely with each new generation augmenting the wounds inherited from the past. The Palestinian question is the product of intelligible historical forces and it can with sufficient determination be resolved.

It is important to register two aspects of this dialogue that are welcome and refreshing. It is an internationalist discussion — not just in the sense that it is between one Israeli Jew and two Palestinians, but also because it subjects to critical survey the accepted views of both Jews and Arabs. It does not make the all too common mistake of equating the oppressed with the oppressor. In criticizing Arab chauvinism and in rejecting the Muslim legal system or extreme interpretations of the Palestinian right to return, as well as in countering Zionist positions such as the unconditional right of Jewish immigration, it practices what is essential to a mature internationalism: It does not just reject one national position in favor of the other, but offers an independent and critical assessment of both.

Secondly, it is ambitiously forward-looking, at times positively utopian. In situations as pressing as Palestine it requires a more than usual effort of imagination to break away from the news of the last day or last hour and to envisage an alternative political and human order.

However, in the way they are presented even these two positive aspects of the discussion encase substantive difficulties. For the strength of an international position lies in trying to rise above the limits of a purely national stance, not in abstractly denying the efficacy and force of national differences and feeling. Similarly, a utopian vision that simply bypasses major, and in reality unavoidable, difficulties is not in the end a contribution to political emancipation. It can even, by its non-applicability, serve as a cover for the imposition of very different and more repressive models of organization. Some of the detailed discussions in this dialogue about such matters as language policy, land distribution, or the militia are certainly relevant: but the treatment of what are in the end secondary matters, however scrupulously done, can serve as a diversion when matters of much more underlying significance and difficulty are treated cursorily, if at all. The very precision and length of some of the sections is in a way illusory since it is based on avoiding prior political questions divorced from which these details lose their meaning.

Two Kinds of Realism

At the beginning of the epilogue, Zvi makes the observation: “I do not know what would be the sufficient conditions that will guarantee the success of the project of a secular democratic and socialist Palestine, but I do know what are the necessary conditions.” He then goes on to argue for the necessity of a joint Arab and Jewish resistance.

In politics, as opposed to formal logic or metaphysical speculation, it is not always enough to know the necessary conditions for a project that is being advocated. If people are to be mobilized for such a venture, if they are to risk their lives, they must know or be given some plausible idea of what is involved, what the cost may be, and above all what the preconditions for success are. And yet this unavoidable and necessary realism is manifestly absent from this discussion. Realism seen as a complacent or defeatist acceptance of a fait accompli is not something that socialists should advocate: We all know what is meant in Palestine by “established facts.” But knowing what is needed to bring a different order into existence, knowing whether a cause for which people will die has a chance of success, is an essential and responsible component of socialist practice.

Reading this book, one is not sure which Middle East the participants are talking about. They do not make clear whether they want to reform the PLO or reject it completely. They reject the Arab states. Who is going to organize this movement they talk about? There are no arguments in the book either about how far their new movement could reform or develop against the PLO, or grow independent of the Arab states. The struggle made by the PLO itself to defend its independence since 1964 has been a long and inevitably difficult one — the problems in founding a new organization or transforming the existing one are huge indeed. This postulate of a new movement has a political aspect: how would the Palestinian population, in exile and under Israeli occupation, make such an organizational break? The left, the PFLP and even more so the DPFLP, enjoys far less independent room for maneuver than it did a decade ago and has increasingly had to act as outrider to the PLO center around Arafat and in coordination with Arab states. It is idealist to imagine that some pure new political force can or should spring into existence, especially at a time when the PLO under its present leadership has won wider international recognition as the legitimate and sole representative of the Palestinians.

There is also a military aspect to this problem. While the Palestinian movement may try to maximize its political independence of the Arab states, it is simply a fantasy, flying in the face of all political and geographical reality, to imagine any Palestinian resistance that acts militarily without the involvement of an Arab state. A military victory merely by forces drawn from inside Palestine alone, with whatever ethnic composition, is not on available evidence a remotely feasible alternative. Nor will it ever be.

Of course, no liberation movement succeeds by military victory alone. Its strategy should be commanded by politics and its success lies in a combination of military and political tactics, the latter including appeals to the population of the enemy country. But this aspect of the campaign against Zionism, one made all the more necessary by the need to offset the Palestinians’ military disadvantage and by the political resources which the Zionist state can mobilize at home and abroad, is not confronted. In addition to its past advantages, Israel now has the atom bomb. We know that on several occasions fractions of the Palestinian resistance have used military actions not to reinforce a political campaign aimed at the Israeli population, but to reinforce its political following within the Palestinian people itself even when this has, by attacks on Israeli civilians, weakened its political campaign against Zionism. It would signify that they were breaking new ground, if the participants faced up to this important issue. But although the discussants talk about “a combination of political and armed struggle,” the dominant impression is of a “big bang” military strategy, of an outright military destruction of Zionism. As Qasim puts it: “We have supposed that a military force, either from outside or from within, will have to defeat the Zionist regime and establish the democratic regime.” This apocalyptic perspective is, however, left at a level of abstraction that renders it, to say the least, implausible.

Other essential components of their strategy are also neglected. If the movement is to be socialist, where will this socialism come from? Neither Israel nor the Arab world is moving in a socialist direction. And what classes will ally to form the movement?

In such a long discussion of a socialist perspective it is striking that the world “class” hardly ever appears at all, as if it does not matter who the bearers of this new liberation will be. Yet there are classes among Israelis and Palestinians and some of them, or some parts of them, will surely have to bring the movement to victory. The working class, the classical bearers of socialism, gets even less attention than the peasantry — in the section on political rights and professional bodies no mention is made of the central issue for trades unions under any political regime, namely the right to strike. Added to this is a reluctance to confront the question of international forces. The US will certainly try to prevent a forceful overthrow of the Zionist state. The USSR may have an interest in what kind of socialist state is established, but I doubt if it coincides with what Zvi, Qasim and Yasin would like to see themselves. The existing Arab states will not welcome granting democratic rights to working-class organizations. It is simply naive to discuss political perspectives, before or after liberation, without taking such factors into account. The Palestinian question does not exist on the moon, but in a very specific and constraining Middle East.

This lack of responsible realism is striking in another context, namely the oft-repeated view that once they have been militarily defeated the Zionists will abandon interest in a state of their own. Zvi, who being an Israeli ought especially to know better, tells us that there is an analogy with Germany. He says: “It took more than five minutes, five days or five years after the defeat of Nazism for people to change from being committed Nazis to being committed anti-Nazis. The same will apply to Jews and their commitment to Zionism.”

The emergence of post-war attitudes in both Germanies was encouraged by specific factors that will not necessarily reappear in Palestine relating to the post-war political climate. It was not a simple product of defeat as such. In the West, the acceptance of bourgeois democracy was a result both of anti-communisim and of the post-war German boom. In the GDR itself anti-Nazism grew on hostility to the revival of militarism in the West.

These considerations aside, the German analogy is for two much more important reasons a misplaced one. Although the Germans were militarily defeated they still retained their own German national state — indeed two states. This is quite different from what is here envisaged for Palestine — that the Israeli Jews should, after a defeat, now have no separate state at all. The idea that they would accept it, as the Germans did the defeat of Nazism, is quite unconvincing. It is a frequent illusion of those fighting other ethnic groups to believe that the other side will, sooner or later, just give up. One need hardly point out that this has for many years been the Israeli attitude to the Palestinians. But defeated nationalities do not give up, just because one generation is crushed. They go on, and new generations arise. I am not talking here about the legitimacy of an Israeli claim to a separate state, but merely about the plausibility of Zvi’s scenario.

This brings us to his implication that Jewish emigration was dominated by economic factors, another convenient simplification. True, many Israelis have left Israel and many Jews, including emigrants from the USSR, decline to go there, for economic reasons. But, contrary to all the vulgar economistic literature that sees Zionist migration as merely part of world imperialist expansion, the Zionist colonization of Palestine was at most only partly an economic venture and differed in this respect from other more strictly economistic colonial ventures. Jews migrated to Israel primarily to escape persecution, real or feared, and to find a country where they could achieve a sense of Jewish nationhood. This does not legitimize Zionism but it does explain it, and these considerations have not disappeared and with time they will make it unlikely that the Zionist movement will die if the Zionist state is destroyed by military conquest.

The Difficulty of Socialism

The aim of a “secular democratic Palestine” has been posited by the PLO since the Fifth Palestinian National Council in February 1969. The three discussants evidently wanted to improve this by their new goal of a “secular, democratic and socialist republic.” Many readers will welcome the idea that the Palestinian state will be “socialist”; but the discussion of this major modification is on its own too simple to be convincing. It leaves out the central fact that in the last quarter of this century the very idea of socialism is itself problematical. In the section on the nature of the political regime to be established, Zvi suggests that he and Qasim might disagree on the nature of the socialist economy. To which Yasin replies: “If it is indeed a diametrical and very deep disagreement, that means that one of you is not truly socialist.” Although Zvi in some measure contests this, the whole discussion reflects such an assumption, that there is one real essential socialism, which contains political answers against which other claimants can be judged.

Whose socialism are we talking about? Callaghan’s or Brezhnev’s? Saddam Hussein’s or the Israeli Labor Party’s? That of Pol Pot, Mengistu Haile Marriam or Hua Kuo-Feng? Leaving the fissures that have arisen since the collapse of the Second International in 1914 aside, we cannot assume that any self-proclaimed socialist regime or party is by definition correct, as Yasin implies. Too many crimes have been, and are still being committed, in the name of socialism for this issue to be left open. The history of so many “socialisms” has shown what a multitude of issues remains unresolved. The mere confident addition of socialism to the orthodox aim of a secular democratic Palestine does not solve the many political problems a new Palestine will face. This confident vagueness is all the more striking since, on certain occasions the discussants do agree on specific proposals irreconcilable with any interpretation of socialism or of democracy. Indeed they could in all probability be used to crush those political forces that defend socialism.

Components of a socialist program such as land tenure and confiscation of private wealth are haphazardly invoked and they do not appear to have been thought through. Nowhere are the omissions of the account of socialism more evident, and more symptomatic, than in the discussion on the armed forces. Most of this section is taken up with the questions of the militia and the right to conscientious objection. These are issues of some importance; the latter has, through considerable personal courage, been raised in Israel. But the discussants have omitted a much larger and more difficult question posed sharply by the recent history of socialism and the Arab world alike. For the key question about an army under democratic and socialist regimes is a professional officer corps and who controls it. These officers are the people who can pose a major threat to a socialist regime and yet who are necessary to defending it. In the Arab world it is indeed military regimes that have overthrown progressive governments or have, all too often, usurped the name of socialism to legitimate their dictatorships. This is the key question about the armed forces, one the discussants do not address at all.

This omission is strikingly visible in the allusion, twice made, to events in Chile. Yasin, in his argument for a one-party state, invokes the case of Chile to demonstrate the futility of allowing a multi-party system. “In Chile there was freedom of multi-party organization and the Communist Party there won through elections. When it came to power it continued to allow freedom of multi-party organization and what happened? Foreign intervention. The overthrow of Allende and the return of a Fascist regime.” Zvi/Qasim: “Correct.”

On closer examination, this is not correct at all. First, a fascist regime did not “return.” This was the first time a regime of this kind had existed in Chile, which had a long history of democracy. It was the achievement of Pinochet and his associates that they destroyed that system, a fact that points to the difficulty involved and the reaction unleashed in any transition to socialism. Secondly, the Communist Party did not simply “win through elections.” Allende was the head of the Socialist Party, which was part of the broader Popular Unity coalition within which the CP played a part. Moreover, the UP won a minority of votes in the elections (both the presidential ones of September 1970 — 36.2 percent — and the congressional ones of March 1973 — 43.3 percent) but was able to establish an administration because it had more votes than any other party. These are more than questions of fact; they indicate political limitations. It is quite arbitrary to imply that the CP or the UP as a whole could or should have suppressed other parties at that time. They had neither control of congress or the army and to do so would have undermined their legitimation.

This raises the central issue of why the UP was overthrown. Certainly there was CIA intervention in Chile. But there is a tendency to ascribe all problems to the CIA or “imperialism” and in so doing to avoid discussion of the necessary internal forces and mediation that make such intervention possible. On their own and without such domestic allies the CIA and imperialism can do very little from the outside, as the overthrows of such US clients as the Shah and before him Haile Selassie well illustrated. In the Chilean case there were such mediations, internal factors that augmented the influence of the CIA and for their own reasons undermined and then overthrew the democratically elected government. These were the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie hostile to the UP, plus, and this brings us back to Palestine, the professional officer corps who remained insulated, in ideology and command structure, from the UP government. The reasons why Allende fell are certainly debatable, but few would deny that among the major contributing factors was the inability of Allende to subordinate the repressive apparatus of the state to the socialist government. The overall style of argument here tends to leap over difficult problems and also facts that are discomforting. For the very violence of the breach made by Pinochet in the September 1973 coup shows the ferocity of the resistance, the counter-revolutionary forces provoked by any socialist experiment. Yasin’s seemingly innocent phrase about the “return” of fascism simply shuts out a factor that is central to any attempt to construct socialism and which will be very central in Palestine, namely the deep resistance which socialist projects arouse among the possessing classes and the need while crushing genuine counter-revolution, to maximize the coalition of class forces supporting it. The underlying problem about this project for a socialist republic in Palestine is indeed its underestimation of the problems involved in constructing such a state.

The National Question

Few would deny that the national question lies at the heart of the Palestine question, and it is a problem on which the revolutionary socialist tradition has, at first sight, a contribution to make. There are two, contrasting, temptations when faced with such a situation. One is what can be called an abstract and schematic approach: As the history of the communist movement has too often shown, those discussing particular situations from the outside have a tendency to impose general judgments that are, in whole or part, inapplicable to the local situation. The other, especially common in nationalist movements, is a stubborn assertion of the specificity of the local condition, one that lays a disproportionate stress on the uniqueness of this case, so that general socialist principles are denied any relevance. It may be that the particular conditions of Palestine are such that the standard socialist solution is not, in this case, applicable, but this non-applicability should be argued for. It cannot simply be assumed. The fact that nearly all those involved, whether Palestinians or Israelis, insist on this non-applicability should make us pause for just a minute.

In Palestine the national oppression of Palestinians by Israelis is not as unique as most commentators would have us believe. In the twentieth century we have seen the comparable problems of South Asia, leading to the emergence of Pakistan from India in 1947, and Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. After World War I, a number of cases of national oppression were ended by the creation of new nation-states in Europe, and in the aftermath of the Greek-Turkish war of 1921-1923 oppression of the respective Greek and Turkish minorities was ended by population transfers. For such problems there exists a conventional remedy: national exploitation should be ended by allowing each national group to have its own state. If there is a disputed territory or mixed populations — as in India/Pakistan and Greece/Turkey — then population transfers can occur. If competing ethnic groups want to form one state they can do so — provided both agree to such a unification. Yet despite their adherence to “socialism” the discussants in this book hardly mention this standard socialist policy. Why not? Why is partition in fact inapplicable to Palestine?

The answer to this question can be seen by the terms in which the national question in Palestine has conventionally been posed. The Zionists have argued that the Jews of the world form a single national entity with a right to colonize all of Palestine. They deny the rights of the Palestinians to that land and indeed deny that a Palestinian nation with rights exists at all. This is the view of the oppressor, colonizing, people. The conventional position on the Arab and in particular Palestinian side, that of the oppressed, has been that the Palestinians have the right to self-determination, i.e., statehood, in the whole of Palestine. The Israelis do not have the right to a separate state, and to concede such is an acceptance of Zionism. In their desire to reject the chauvinist perspectives of which they have in the past been accused, the Palestinians have since 1969 called for a “secular democratic Palestine” in which Jews would be allowed equal rights as citizens. But the right of the Israelis to their own state is not conceded, and demands for an emendation of the Charter have been rejected. The present proposals for a socialist Palestine constitute a variation on the standard Palestinian position. Instead of arguing an asymmetry in national entitlement, between Palestinians and Israelis, the discussion asserts something that is conventionally denied, namely it equates the rights of Palestinians and Israelis. Without placing the political status of the two nationalisms, one oppressor the other oppressed, on the same level, they do assert that Palestinians and Israelis share the same basic characteristics. This is an important modification. Yet the status accorded to the Palestinians and Israelis is not that of being nationalities, but rather that of being “cultural entities.” These “entities” have certain rights, but not the right of self-determination, where this is given its normal interpretation of allowing for a separate state. The conclusion is therefore the same as the conventional Arab one: there will be no separate states, only a fusion of Jews and Arabs within a single, variously titled, Palestine.

The peculiar way in which the problem of national self-determination is handled in this discussion is itself indicative of substantial problems. Faced with the reality of Palestine today and their own independent frame of mind the discussants are compelled to accept the existence of an Israeli national community, i.e., something that is more than a cluster of colons. Yet the logical conclusion of this acceptance is one which they still find politically unacceptable, namely a two-state solution that would end Zionism’s denial of the Palestinian right to statehood but would, provided the Israelis renounced their claims to supremacy, also grant them the right to statehood. This conclusion is avoided by the argument that, far from either or both ethnic groups having the right to statehood, neither do. The conventional Arab nationalist stand is thereby restated, albeit in a novel and roundabout way.

This resolution points to what is a central aspect of any socialist position on Palestine, namely the national entitlements of the two ethnic groups. The Zionist position of denying the Palestinians nationhood, earlier held on the European and US lefts, has since 1967 been increasingly and definitely denounced for the racist and chauvinist position it is. Few socialists now deny the right of the Palestinians, an oppressed people, to self-determination and there is therefore no need to repeat the arguments justifying this position. On the other hand, the Israelis are conventionally accorded no such right and much of the left in Europe and the US has joined those in the Arab world who regard such an acceptance as an unwarranted concession to Zionism. At the risk of being myself accused of giving ground to Zionist propaganda, I would argue that a socialist position on Palestine must include the acceptance of an Israeli, as well as a Palestinian, right to self-determination. While the nationalism of the oppressed cannot be equated with that of the oppressor, the political position of the oppressed may still be inconsistent with a principled socialist position. Despite the weight of established position on the left I would argue that the denial of Israeli national rights is a case of such an inconsistency.

Let me deal first with the claim made by Qasim that we should not accept the basic right of nations to their own state. “In reality,” he says, “every separatist attempt based on the pretext of political self-determination is as a rule prompted by imperialists and reactionary foreign powers which are manipulating the destiny of the peoples involved.” Given Yasin’s earlier assertion that “despite all that was said by socialist thinkers” there exists only a right of cultural self-determination in Palestine, we are given a very strong case, one argued in sterling clarity, for denying a two-state solution. The least one can say is that this argument is inconsistent with the mainstream of socialist thought on the issue. Although Lenin’s writings on the right of nations to self-determination have been shown to be inconsistent, the right of nations to their own state unless strong contrary reasons exist has generally been accepted by socialists. Nothing advanced in this discussion leads one to think any differently. Yasin does not offer any arguments as to why he so easily dismisses this tradition of socialist thought, and the conclusions drawn by Yasin are in theory and fact quite inconsistent with any socialist position. On this central feature of socialist perspective on Palestine, the discussion takes up a simple and unsustained anti-socialist stand. Does Yasin think the Palestinians are agents of imperialism? Are the Saharans, Kurds and Eritreans included in this? Were the Algerians who wanted to secede from France or the Irish who fought to win independence from Britain manipulated? Imperialists do certainly try to manipulate such issues, but this is a long way from saying that all such movements are therefore illegitimate.

The tone of Qasim’s remarks is all too familiar; it is precisely the way the Zionists have talked for decades about the Palestinians, making them out to be the tools of Arab reaction. It is a dangerous argument for it usually hands leadership of such movements over to the most chauvinist forces who step in where “socialists” disdain to stand. It is an unacceptable argument. The principle of self-determination cannot be so easily swept aside; given their premises the discussants must accept the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to separate states, unification in one state being by majority consent of both. The case for denying the Israelis self-determination has to be made by denying that they are a nation. This is the standard argument for so doing. It is a more serious one than a careless and unprincipled rejection of the theory of self-determination as such.

The claim that the Israelis do not have the right to nationhood is a basic premise of much anti-Zionist analysis. It is so fundamental that it is rarely argued for; it is simply assumed. It is all too rarely even stated, as if even to do so would be itself a contamination. It appears to rest on three suppositions. The first is very basic indeed: that the Israelis are not a separate nation, for the simple reason that they are Jews. This is a thesis sustained both by anti-Semites of European and Islamic orientation, and by the Zionists themselves, who claim that Israel is the land of all Jews in the world. Yet it is not, despite its considerable backing, a very tenable argument. The Jews of the world are not a nation, but Israelis are not just Jews. Israelis born in Israel or citizens of that country have a culture, language and history distinct from that of Jews in gentile countries. The Afrikaaners are not Dutch, the Australians are not English, the Argentinians are not Spaniards or Italians, because they retain common characteristics and links with people elsewhere or continue to receive migrants from these countries. It does not take Jews migrating to Israel long to realize that they are in a different country from that which they came from with a specific and increasingly indigenous culture of its own. While Jews do not form a nation, Israelis do.

The second argument is that the Israelis are not a nation because they are a recently formed colonizing community. Now the fact of recent formation is no argument at all against a nation. While the Chinese, Egyptians and Persians have existed for millennia, the majority of the world’s nations are of comparatively recent origin and are indeed still being formed, within established state boundaries. Contrary to the claims of nationalists the world over who claim their nations have existed from time immemorial, all nations are in fact historically formed. There is therefore nothing in itself inconsistent about stating that the Israeli nation has been formed over the past half-century. There did not exist a distinct Palestinian nation one hundred years ago, or a distinct Iraqi or Libyan one, yet only the most blind would deny that such nations have been or are being formed today. The fact of immigration is also not a serious counter-argument: Most of the nations in the new world were formed through migration, as were Australia and New Zealand, and in a longer time perspective the whole of the world’s population distribution pattern is a result of migrations at one time or the other. If the Israelis cannot be formed in this way, then neither can the Americans, or Cubans.

Another part of the argument is the analogy often made with South Africa, according to which the Israelis are like the whites in that country. Yet the two types of colonialism are rather different. The Israeli project consisted in expelling the indigenous population and creating a complete new social system, with fully elaborated Israeli class structure and ethnic homogeneity. The southern African cases involved the opposite: the maintenance of the indigenous population for exploitation by a white minority without the existence of an elaborated class structure among the colonizers. What exists in South Africa is distinct from what exists in Israel: the former involves a colonial upper sector of the social system, while the Israelis have acquired through colonization a new but complete social system. It is a nation in its own right, a fact not overridden by its recent formation.

The most substantial argument is that the Israelis are a nation, but one constituted and maintained by the denial of another’s right to exist. This is, so far, a true statement. But it does not entail that the Israelis have no right to their own state, only that they cannot exercise this right to the point where it precludes another existing nation’s self-determination. Some nations have been constituted by virtually wiping out the local population (e.g., Argentina, Haiti) but they are none the less nations. In Palestine national oppression continues, but, despite the peculiarities of the Israeli case, the fact of such oppression is by no means unique. There exists a standard solution to it, namely partition, as the examples from South Asia show. That the Indians oppressed the Pakistanis in 1947 or the Pakistanis the Bengalis in 1971, did not mean that the Indians or later Pakistanis had no national rights, only that they had to concede to those they were oppressing. And the same applies in Palestine. The Israelis must concede the right of the Palestinians to self-determination but this does not mean that they, at the moment an oppressor nation, have no such right themselves. This merely leads to the converse error.

The practical problems of a two-state solution are certainly enormous, but however great they may be they are a lot less so than those raised by the program presented for discussion in this volume. First, the boundaries of such a state cannot in any justice be limited to the West Bank and Gaza: while the Palestinians should take the opportunity to establish a state even in these small territories, they must have the right to retain a claim to further Israeli territory up to half of the total area to be partitioned, to be worked out on the basis of some combination of land area and natural resources. To recognize a state is not the same as to accept the legitimacy of its frontiers. The Bolivians have since the last century had a major claim against Chile, the Chinese have one against Russia, as do the Japanese, and the Irish have one against the British. Yet in these cases such a border dispute does not amount to a refusal to recognize the other state. A second problem is that the mobilization of resources needed to make a partitioned state viable: great human dedication and economic support will be needed, but the Arab world is rich in both of these, and there is no absolute impossibility here. Palestinian feasibility surveys have demonstrated how such a project could be executed. Thirdly, there is the problem of the right of return, the right of every Palestinian to return to where he or she came from. No Palestinian can be denied the right to go back to their place of origin, but some population transfers of both Israelis and Palestinians may be preferable; those who remain in the area of the other nationality will have to face life as a national minority.

Apart from Arab acceptance of Israeli rights, the really major problem is whether and how the Israelis — stubborn, short-sighted, arrogant, messianic and backed from abroad — can be made to accept such a solution. If anything, the enormous material strains placed upon Israeli society in recent years by its defense burden have only increased the unrealistic and ultimately suicidal obstinacy of the Zionist movement. No one can be optimistic about such a change in Israeli attitudes, but there can be little doubt that the Israelis are more likely to concede a separate Palestinian state in return for Arab recognition than they are to accept the loss of all Israeli statehood after a military defeat. Indeed it must be argued that the failure of the Palestinians over the years to reaffirm the right of the Israelis to their own state and to demand partition has deprived the Arabs of a powerful moral and political weapon, both in the regional and in the international contexts, and that this refusal has greatly strengthened the Zionists both at home and internationally. There is no evidence to suggest that Palestinian retention of this card has strengthened their hand for an ultimate bargaining session. A national liberation struggle that combines military and political actions subordinated to the goal of partition is the only just and the only practical way forward for the Palestinians. They will continue to pay a terrible price, verging on national annihilation, if they prefer to adopt easier but in fact less realizable substitutes, and if their allies and supposed friends continue to urge such a course upon them.

And what of the vision of unifying the two peoples in a unitary democratic state? This is a positive aim but it cannot be produced by force. If both peoples want to unify this is a good solution, but a respect between peoples, indeed true internationalist co-operation, can only be achieved once in the national rights of each nation have been recognized. An imposed fusion will only generate more bitterness. The basis of any socialist solution in Palestine must take this reality into account, and a denial of it in the name of abstract internationalism will only make the day of socialism or unification, let alone both, all the further away.

Socialism and Democracy

If the position of socialists on the national question is open to considerable debate that on democracy is less so. In this regard the three participants advocate something which is a truly frightening departure from anything that can be defended in principle, or used to mobilize support in practice. The logic of their positions require what is in effect a political dictatorship.

The central thesis on democracy is outlined in the section entitled “The Nature of the Political Regime.” Qasim discusses the prospect of “liberalism” in Palestine, and he is alarmed: “If we have a multi-party regime, that means that we would have to institute universal elections…definitely not a socialist regime in the sense that we intend.” To which Zvi replies in elaboration: “On the political level there would therefore be only one party, only one political organization, the same organization which brought about the victory. There will be freedom of organization on the cultural level and the religion level, on the trade union level.”

There are at least three reasons why this is an unacceptable solution — in Palestine or anywhere else. First, the one-party state model has proved itself not to be an instrument of socialist democracy, but an instrument by which a self-appointed leadership maintains control over the apparatuses of state and party. The “dictatorship of the politbureauracy,” as Rudolf Bahro has so aptly described it, is a curse that has to be identified, criticized and denounced for what it is: a travesty of socialism. The position presented in this book is one that is, in my view, irreconcilable with any claim that it is part of a socialist program. Socialism’s claim to be democratic, in particular to represent an advance on bourgeois democracy, can only be upheld if it allows substantive freedoms, including the right to separate organizations.

Secondly, the plan to allow other lesser freedoms within such a state is quite unconvincing. It would be nice to say it was naive. At times it seems rather cynical. The discussants allege that trades organizations will be allowed but they do not say whether they can implement their key instrument of power, the strike. At another point Zvi suggests that political activities opposed to the regime can operate but must be denied access to power. Full democracy, he suggests, can only exist for those who are within the party. Too much has gone wrong for us to trust this kind of proposal today. People excluded from power try to achieve it by whatever means: If they are denied constitutional access to power then they turn to unconstitutional means. Zvi’s proposal is a recipe for civil war. One-party states do not allow democracy within the party either, precisely because there is no check on the outside to make sure the rules are kept. Freedom of publication without full political freedom is also a fantasy. Once again, we must remember how problematic the history of socialism has been.

The third reason for rejecting this proposed socialist political system is more practical. Why should anyone be attracted to such a system in the first place? The Israelis have a system of bourgeois democracy which works for them, so there is little reason why they should ever abandon it, or abjure the memory of it, to accept a one-party system. The Palestinians know enough about one-party socialism in such places as Iraq and Syria to be forgiven for some skepticism about how democratic it is. One cannot escape the conclusion that such a system is always unworkable and that in the Palestinian case it would only be maintained by force against the wishes of the mass of Jews and Arabs alike. There seems to be little realization in the discussion of the degree to which their proposals are at variance with reality. The strikingly imprecise passages on political rights reflect this, the tension that the discussants cannot resolve, between the desire to bring forward a prospect of socialism and democracy, and the sense that a regime imposed by force and in defiance of the desire of both nationalities for their own states can only be maintained by a coercive system.

The additional vagueness about whence the socialist ideology and movement to create such a state should come also creates difficulties that in theory if not reality can only be overcome by postulating what is in effect a new dictatorship, clothed in a deceptive socialist garb. To say the least, the Palestinians deserve better than this. Any proposals for socialism must start from the Palestine context as we know it today.


The Palestinian cause is in some ways in a stronger position today than it has been at any time since 1948. Among Palestinians the PLO has been generally accepted as the representative of the national cause, and it is acknowledged as such throughout the Arab world and much of the world beyond. A substantial minority inside Israeli society now recognizes the need to negotiate with the Palestinians and even the position of the US has shown itself liable to some adjustment. In the past, imperialist countries have supported national self-determination for their own reasons. The Versailles Conference of 1919 was one such instance. Under certain (admittedly improbable) conditions, the US could be ready to support the establishment of a Palestinian state in a manner that was also of benefit to the Palestinian people. Among Palestinians, especially those under Israeli occupation, there has been a growing realism and acceptance of the permanence of the Israeli presence in the Middle East. At the same time there are many negative factors in the present situation. The Palestinians and the Arab world generally remain sorely divided on many issues, not least the question of whether to accept the legitimacy of Israeli nationhood. Sadat’s squandering of his potentially positive opening to Israel and the resonances of the Iranian revolution have contributed to a hardening of an obstructive rejectionism in the Arab world, fostered by the vested interests of demogogic regimes. Within Israel itself a new chauvinism is growing at the mass level, compounded as much as it is offset by the country’s economic difficulties.

A genuinely socialist and revolutionary strategy on Palestine cannot be based on a purely military struggle, or on a rhetorical “steadfastness.” Rather it consists in mobilizing the maximum available forces, in the Arab world, Israel and the world as a whole, for the goal of achieving Palestinian statehood.

Such a struggle certainly requires the deployment of the widest and most unified front of Arab forces, but it also necessitates appealing to dissenting forces inside Israel and to those inside the imperialist countries who for a variety of reasons, favor recognition of Palestinian rights. The Vietnamese and Zimbabweans, for example, did not reject diplomatic activity and compromises as inherently unworthy of their national liberations. A facile refusal to engage in such political and diplomatic work is not, despite its apparently militant character, either revolutionary or socialist. The chances of success, of ending the torment of the Palestinians, are not very great in the present circumstances. But if the Palestinian cause continues to be obstructed then it is only chauvinists and the enemies of socialism on both sides of the Arab-Israeli national boundary who will benefit.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Revolutionary Realism and the Struggle for Palestine," Middle East Report 96 (May/June 1981).

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