Middle East a road map to where?

By Katia Hancke, Socialist View, no. 11, Summer 2003

The road map for peace drawn up by the US, the EU, Russia and the UN has been put forward by Bush as the plan that can finally end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people.

A stumbling block to talks on the road map was Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's refusal to negotiate with Yasser Arafat. Mahmoud Abbas was appointed as the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in March under pressure from the US as an attempt to overcome this stumbling block. A further stumbling block to talks may have been removed by Ariel Sharon's decision that he may be willing to evacuate 17 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and he also indicated that he may be prepared to recognise a form of a Palestinian state. War weariness amongst Palestinians and Israeli Jews is being sited as a reason why a majority now support the idea of negotiations on the road map for peace. After 32 months of conflict in which 2,274 Palestinians and 762 Israelis have died three way talks are to be held which include the Americans in Jordan. In an opinion poll in the Israeli daily paper Ma'ariv 62% of Israelis support ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 55% support the road map, 59% support a freeze on new settlements and 56% support the removal of the settlements established since Sharon took power in March 2001.

Amongst the Palestinians 51.5% support a cease-fire by Palestinian groups if Israel refrains from attacking the Occupied Territories, two thirds support negotiations with Israel. Yet there is not the same "euphoria" that initially greeted the Oslo accord. There is undoubtedly willingness amongst people to give the road map a chance but also there is cynicism about what it can achieve. 70% of Palestinians doubt whether Israel will implement the road map and only 22% of Israelis trust the Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas to deliver on his commitments.

'Phase 1' of the road map stipulates an end to Palestinian violence, Israeli withdrawal from areas it has occupied since September 2000 (when the second intifada started), the dismantling of military outposts, and a freeze on settlement growth. Both sides would recognise the other's right to exist. 'Phase 2' is a negotiated peace between Israel and Syria and Lebanon, and agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state. 'Phase 3' would see a 'final status' deal on settlements, the division of Jerusalem, the four million Palestinian refugees, and the end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In 2005, there would be an independent Palestinian state.

There are enormous difficulties to be overcome. Sharon has demanded before moves towards talks take place that the Palestinians renounce the right of refugees to return to areas they fled in 1948. For the first time since Israel seized control of Jerusalem in 1967, a settlement has been built in a Palestinian area of the city; this complicates any future deal in Jerusalem. The Israeli government has been annexing Jewish settlements into Israel and incorporating whole swathes of Palestinian territory. Gaza borders are closed, and there have been major incursions into the PA by the IDF and a new wave of suicide bomb attacks into Israel.

"Alas, Sharon is following one of the iron rules of Middle East politics: When I am weak, how can I compromise? When I am strong, why should I compromise?" Thomas Friedman, International Herald Tribune 12 May 2003.

The PA is losing its credibility amongst many Palestinians, as it has not been able to defend them or move self-determination forward. Mahmoud Abbas, Bush's "new hope" is mistrusted by 80% of the Palestinians, 20-25% of whom support the more "militant" Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Israeli state is pursuing a brutal policy of oppression and occupation. Set against this backdrop, it will not be possible for Sharon, Abbas and Bush to reach the end goal of their road map, an independent Palestinian state. The "best" that they can hope to achieve would be a revamped PA but this will not satisfy the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. Nor will it be capable of dealing with the major economic crisis, which dominates their lives and condemns them to an existence steeped in poverty. Nevertheless, this latest peace process may continue for a whole period because of the support amongst the majority of Palestinians and Israelis for the talks.

Israel's economic disaster

At the same time, the Israeli economy is going through a major crisis. The collapse of the IT industry and the effects of the Intifada (on the tourist economy etc.) have resulted in the most serious economic crisis of the last 25 years. The country's five top capitalists are in effect bankrupt. One major and two minor banks have collapsed. In the first quarter of 2003 alone, living standards have dropped by 4%, with real wages falling 5% in 2002. A further contraction of the economy is expected for 2003. When a free psychological support centre opened in Jerusalem to assist people to deal with bombings-related trauma, the majority of the 200 calls it received on opening day were by people suffering from distress caused by economic difficulties.

The government has responded to this economic crisis with an austerity programme that will make the working class and the hard-hit self-employed pay for the crisis. This has lead to strong opposition to the economic policies of this government, with Histadrut, the trade union federation, being pushed to organise a general strike at the start of May. After a few days the leadership of Histadrut was able to defuse the situation, but the underlying conditions have not been altered and inevitably will push the working class into action again.

A massive part of the Israeli government's budget is going to the army. It is becoming increasingly clear that there can be no "military solution" to resolving the issues of Palestinian national rights and the guaranteeing of security of Israelis. Yet, the Sharon government will continue to pursue their military agenda. Partly because of the brutal nature of this government, but it also reflects the extremely limited room for manoeuvre that the Israeli capitalist class has. Significant sections of the Israeli ruling class, part of which Sharon has to base himself on, are not prepared to accept an independent Palestinian state next door, which they see as a permanent threat to the very existence of Israel.

The inability of the Sharon government to deliver security to Israeli people despite the huge financial cost, linked to the economic crisis and the cuts that are being pushed through, will lead to a questioning of his government. Not just on the economic front but also on the military front by working class Israelis.

No capitalist solution

The suicide attacks on Israel by are a reflection of the desperate plight faced by the Palestinians. Suicide attacks and other such acts of individual terror cannot militarily defeat the IDF. This tactic drives the Israeli Jews behind reactionary leaders such as Sharon and allows his government to launch with impunity attacks into the Occupied Territories. This is graphically illustrated by the fact that the Israeli government without the "external threat" of suicide bombers and terrorist attacks would not be able to maintain itself in power for any length of time.

Anything that the Palestinians have achieved has been through the pressure of the mass uprisings of the youth, not through individual terrorism. The way forward is to develop the intifada as a mass movement. Rather than a struggle headed by unaccountable militias, it should be democratically controlled with an elected leadership. But military means alone will not bring a Palestinian state.

To defeat the Israeli ruling class the Palestinians would need to divide the Jewish population and win the working class Israelis to support the withdrawal of the IDF from the Occupied Territories. This cannot be done through attacks on Jewish civilians. Nor can it be done if the struggle is for an undemocratic capitalist state like the surrounding Arab regimes.

Were the intifada to develop into a struggle against the corrupt rulers of the PA as well as against the IDF and for a socialist Palestine, it would have a huge effect inside Israel. An appeal to the Jewish working class and to the conscript ranks of the IDF, not to oppose this struggle but to stand alongside the Palestinian masses to bring about a socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel would change everything.

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