Our fundraiser just ended, but you can still get a copy of Moshe Machover’s exciting and challenging new book, Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution, by donating $60 by the end of July. Published by Haymarket, the book is a collection of essays from the last 40 years by a socialist intellectual who was born in Israel and moved to London to pursue a career in academic mathematics.
What follows is an exchange with the author. My headline comes from a question halfway through, about the opportunity Israel sees in regional turmoil to deal with the “ethnic peril” of a large Palestinian population in the West Bank.
You live in London. How much of the book reflects that removal from Israel?
Not very much because the bones of it, the kernel was formed before I ever moved to London, and also because as I keep stressing, the ideas were collectively produced with comrades, most of whom were living in Israel most of the time…. In my head as it were I’m living a lot of my time in Israel. I think as an Israeli, of course as a dissident Israeli. I follow what is happening. I am an Israeli exile. Part of the time I am living in an Israel that no longer exists.
Your book is about conflict and resolution. Where’s the resolution?
Moshe Machover (Photo: Haymarket Books)
We believed right from the 1960s, before the June war, and I continue to believe, that the only hope for resolving the conflict between Zionism and the indigenous people and the surrounding Arab world, is the integration of Israel and the Hebrew nation into a regional union. The model for this is not a binational state, not a quota arrangement in which the legislature has so many seats for each nationality. This is looking at the real problem and its solution in a regional context, and for providing for the national rights of non-Arab national groups, of which the Hebrew nation is one: to accord it appropriate national rights within a regional federal union. This is a view we have always had in Matzpen (a longtime socialist organization in Israel). Whether this will actually come about, this solution, is really a matter of a race against time. Because what may happen if the conflict goes on long enough is that the Zionist side will manage to ethnically cleanse the remaining Palestinian population. That may eventually lead to a catastrophic result.
So I’ve never been completely confident that a benign resolution of the conflict will actually happen, but what we said is that the only chance for it is provided by integration of the Hebrew nation in a progressive socialist regional federal union.
Does your solution require a dissolution of the nation state paradigm? Isn’t the nation-state the governing idea in the world today?
I think this paradigm is in any case on its way out. Look at Europe. And of course the European Union is now in deep trouble, but it is in deep trouble because of the effects of the global capitalist crisis. I think that despite this, the idea that Europe is going to revert to self contained nation states, this is cloud cuckoo land. The trend of history, moreover in the region of the Near East, and especially in the Arab east– the whole notion of the nation state as opposed to an all-Arab union is laughable. The only stable national state in the region is Egypt, which is paradoxically, by far, far, far the oldest state in the world. When the first emperor of China unified China and made it into an all Chinese state, the Egyptian state was already 1000s of years old. It is as old as time itself. All the other so called nation states in the Arab world are Mickey Mouse states.…
All the problems in this region stem from the way that the imperial powers France and Britain divided the region after the First World War, to serve their purposes. Iraq was put together to serve British interests. Syria, Lebanon, and a country called Palestine were created or refashioned. This new country, Palestine, was an invention of British imperialism following the First World War; and it was designed explicitly as a domain for Zionist colonization. A whole complex of problems, including the Israeli–Palestinian conflict are a sort of fallout from the fragmentation and parcelization of the Ottoman Empire in its eastern flank.
Does the new Middle East give you optimism about such a change?
Very much so in terms of acceptance of these ideas, especially on the left, but what is sadly missing not only in the region but globally is an organized socialist force that could actually make use of the crisis. When the great economic crisis happened in the late 20s, early 30s, there were massive working class parties. There were enormous weaknesses because of Stalinism; nevertheless, there was a massive organized working class in many countries. Even in the US, the situation was much better than it is now…
You can see the consequences of this, for example, in the outcome so far of the revolution in Egypt. What transpired in Egypt recently– there was no organized working class force. There used to be in parts of the Arab world, especially Iraq, massive working class organizations. Unfortunately they were Stalinist, and that led to the tragedy after the 1958 revolution in Iraq. But nothing like that exists in our region and in the world in general, with some exceptions of course. Though you can see it in parts of Greece and some parts of Latin America.
Your essays seem to anticipate the Arab Spring.
If credit is due it’s not by any means to me personally. It’s not I, it’s we. Look at the second chapter of the book, the homage to my late comrade, Jabra Nicola (1912-1974) a Palestinian Arab Marxist. He would not stress Palestinian; he would call himself an Arab Marxist. And he actually implanted this perspective in Matzpen, this idea that the problems of the region and in particular the Israeli Arab conflict, can only benignly be resolved in an Arab union following an Arab revolution. This was largely due to his influence. I adopted the idea in the mid 1960s because it made a lot of sense to me.
If you go back to the early 1970s, the late 1960s, this idea was not confined to Matzpen, but the radical left of the Palestinian movement also thought on the same basis. The PFLP– this actually was a transformation of a leftist all Arab nationalist party led by a Palestinian, George Habash; and a more radical leftist movement that split from it, the Democratic Front (DPFLP), led by Naif Hawatmeh, who was technically a Jordanian, born on the other side of the river, in Jordan. It was not a movement confined to Palestinians, and its message was not confined to Palestinians…. It was supported by leftist groups and individuals throughout the Arab world. Their perspective was one of Arab revolution. The idea that even the Palestinian Israeli conflict can only be resolved within a revolutionary regional context was not confined to us, or to Palestinians in the Democratic Front, but to Arab leftists generally. These ideas dissipated with the onset of reaction in the Arab East. The 1970s became a period of deep reaction, and a right turn throughout the world. We are beginning to recover now.
Are you optimistic?
I’m not expecting things to change tomorrow. I am cautiously optimistic. I don’t hold my breath, but on the other hand I think it’s a mistake to lose hope and become pessimistic because of counterrevolutionary turns in Egypt and other places. There is an ebb and flow in these events. The story is not ended yet. I think we should keep our optimism but don’t expect anything in a hurry.
Let’s talk about what is happening in Palestine.
You see there is a Zionist version of what in America was called “manifest destiny”. The Zionist leadership regards the various accords, for example their agreement to the Partition of Palestine in 1947– they regard it in the exactly the same spirit as the US regarded the Indian treaties. They have just made it explicit with the Levy commission. The Levy Commission actually submitted a report that is going to be problematic, because you see the Zionists want Palestinian land but they don’t want Palestinians. The reason why they have not annexed the bulk of the West Bank with the exception of Jerusalem, where there is a Jewish majority– the reason why they have not annexed, is they want to get rid of the population first.
People forget, they annexed not only East Jerusalem but the Syrian Golan Heights, but first they did a massive ethnic cleansing there. People who are focused on the Palestinian aspect forget about the Golan Heights because it is not Palestine. The occupied territories include also the Golan Heights. What happened in 1967, when the guns were still smoking, Israel executed a massive ethnic cleansing of most of the population of the Golan Heights, more than 100,000 people, with the exception of part of the Druze community whom the Zionists don’t consider Arabs. So some Druze were allowed to remain, and Israel annexed it.
If this Levy commission says that the West Bank is not occupied, then what is it? If it’s not occupied territory, then Israel is free to annex it, and that would in the short term pose a problem to any Zionist government because they would have to annex an area populated by non-Jews. That is the horrible “ethnic peril”. They have to solve this. They are opposed to a Palestinian state, but they are even more terrified of being ethnically swamped by the Palestinians. So for them the way out of the dilemma is ethnic cleansing.
For this they need a prolonged regional crisis, and a war with Iran may come in handy. I’ve warned against this before. I have an article in the book about Sharon’s plan [in 2002] to “transfer” Palestinians from the West Bank. Shortly after I wrote this article, a rightwing British paper, the Sunday Telegraph, ran a piece by an eminent Israeli stratetgic expert, Martin van Creveld, and he said, Look, Sharon has a plan for ethnically cleansing a big part of the population of the West Bank, and the opportunity for this will be an American invasion of Iraq. At that time many knew there was going to be an invasion of Iraq, and Israel anticipated disquiet and ferment through the Arab world. And particularly in the West Bank, this could be exploited for evacuating maybe more than 1 million Palestinians into Jordan.
Unfortunately for Sharon, the American victory came too soon. You remember George W. Bush standing on the ship with the V sign saying, we won. That came after only a few days. So there wasn’t enough time for a lot of ferment to develop in the region. It ended too quickly.
This is part of the reason that Netanyahu is so adamant about resolving the Iranian issue by war, rather than diplomacy or siege; he wants a full out war, because whatever the actual consequences of the war regarding Iran, whether it will end Iran’s nuclear program—and by the way there is no proof that Iran is committed to production of nuclear weapons– the opportunity will present itself for ethnic cleansing in the West Bank that will be a far more important result for him and far more desirable, than anything he can achieve with Iran itself.
What likelihood do you assign such a scenario?
I’m not a betting man. But I do read the Israeli press. I don’t think they have made the final decision themselves. Of course there is a flipside. It’s not guaranteed to succeed. Secondly, Israel may suffer casualties in such a war. It’s a costly thing. Of course, if the casualties are not too high, then an achievement of ethnic cleansing from a Zionist point of view will justify Israeli casualties, because that will guarantee the survival of the Jewish Zionist state for the foreseeable future, by ending the ethnic peril. But it’s a gamble.
As you probably know, a big part of the Israeli military and intelligence establishment are advising against. But this is revealing. Netanyahu makes a calculation as a politician, and has the future of Zionism in mind. Intelligence and military officials make a calculation focusing on the military aspects of the war.
I don’t think it’s decided. But the most dangerous window would be from August to September, approaching the American election. In the period leading to the American election, then we have guaranteed support from the crazy American right. Obama would be very hard put to resist it. The risk for him is to be denounced as a sissy, and pusillanimous. Knowing Obama’s character, I don’t put too highly the prospect of his actually standing firm on many things.
But if Obama gets reelected, and Israel attacks Iran, he can hang Israel out to dry. Without any kind of American approval, Israel can’t go against Iran. There is a fantasy in some circles that the Israel tail is wagging the American dog. I agree that there is a special relationship, but Israel is the junior partner, and Israel cannot go it alone. The last time Israel went against the US in a major way was the Suez adventure, in 1956, with Britain and France. They were soon told what to do by Eisenhower.
Doesn’t the idea that Obama could allow a disastrous war to take place undermine your view that he is acting in the US’s material interests first?
No, this is not opposed to a materialist view. Christian Zionists, they have a special name for what will happen to the good Christians in Jerusalem– the rapture. Well this is really an ideological dress. They dress their material interest in ideological garb.
And there have always been differences within the US establishment about what real American interests are. And there have always been interests. The American right has always been more aggressive. They want to counteract the idea of decline of the American empire by going more aggressive. Material interests are one thing, but people have minds, and they interpret their material interests according to their understanding.
What about neocon pressure inside the establishment? Irving Kristol left the Democratic Party because he thought that Democrats would favor a small military, and that was not in Jewish interests because of Israel. Don’t many American Jews put Israel’s interests first?
I’m not so sure of it. The evidence is not completely clear on this. Lenny Brenner has written a lot about this. Actually I think despite what Kristol said, the majority of American Jews vote Democrat. So when asked what is the main consideration, in voting one way or the other, Israel is not that important.
American Jews are Zionists at this moment, but it hasn’t always been like that. If you go further back, then a very big part of American Jewish opinion was non Zionist. But this is not the case now because Zionism does not seem to conflict with their American patriotism. Israel is the blue eyed boy of the United States, there is no perceived conflict between the countries’ interests. Many Jews are unhappy with what Israel is doing, but it’s quite patriotic to be Zionist. If this changes, you will see surfacing in the Jewish community, discontent, anxiety about Israel and so on.
And don’t let us kid ourselves that the self-appointed officials of American Jewry actually express the view of their community. I believe the feeling on the ground is better expressed by some writers, for example Philip Roth. He has not written as a Zionist. Even very remarkably in the book The Plot Against America, about the presumed threat to American Jews, there’s no Zionist aspect whatsoever. And in Portnoy’s Complaint, the episode with this Israeli woman soldier, he makes fun of Zionism. He has never actually come out explicitly against Zionism. He simply isn’t interested in it.
And when I come in contact with American Jews, I don’t find that uniformity that you would expect if you would just follow the media.
Were you ever disappointed with Matzpen associates for turning out to be religious nationalists?
I don’t know if I would go so far as to describe them as religious nationalists. Though it applies to some people who have been in Matzpen. Matzpen began to split, as you can see from the potted history on the website, after 1970. The biggest split was in 1972. Virtually all the leftist Marxist groups that existed and exist in Israel derive from Matzpen with the exception of those that came out of the debris of the Israeli communist party. And Matzpen itself was created by dissenters from the communist party.
If you read my review of the book by Michel Warschawski [On the Border], you will see that one thing that I criticize him for is reversion to Jewish identity politics. Not Hebrew identity politics, but ethnic Jewish patriotism. If you look at this review, you will see, he used to be very orthodox Leninist, as he understood Leninism, circa 1972, then he reverted to a sort of Jewish identity nostalgia, while remaining a very staunch and courageous fighter against occupation. And yes, some of the people who came out of Matzpen may have actually reverted to this identity politics.
Generally my position and that of those who remained the core of Matzpen was that identity and ideology politics have very important things to tell us, but it depends on how you eat that particular vegetable. Take the feminist variety of identity politics. Is the main contradiction one between men and women, or the class contradiction? All the conflict and grievances and problems of women—how do they articulate with class? It is a gross mistake to ignore the problems that feminists bring up. But when it becomes the dominant thing, rather than looking at class, then it is a negative factor.
My difficulty with class analysis in this context is that I look at a great materialist analyst like Noam Chomsky and I believe that his own religious identity has played a very large role in his thinking on these questions, and I think that is reflective of all of us.
First of all, you can’t apply materialist analysis to individual people. Individual people can have ideas that are not typical of the class from which they come. Engels ran a factory. Secondly, Chomsky did not come from a religious Jewish background, but a secular Jewish background. He has always been a Zionist of the most benign type, relatively. But he is still a Zionist, he’s never denied it… He did not object and would not object on principle to a Jewish colonization of Palestine so long as it would somehow happen with the consent and the collaboration of the indigenous people. There were a lot of people like that, who genuinely believed that. At one time it was a significant minority trend within Zionism, the belief that such a thing was possible. These people were rightly told by Jabotinsky, Don’t make me laugh– natives don’t ever accept, not only a new master, but even a new partner to their homeland. So Zionism that calls for binationalism—this whole trend was self deluding.
Tell us a lesson from the essays in this book.
I think what is important and significant is the view of the conflict, first of all as a colonial one. It is not colonial like South Africa, but the most pertinent parallel is with the United States; Palestinians are “our Indians”. The US did not use indigenous labor, and the South imported slaves from far away, imported slave labor from Africa. Zionists imported Oriental Jews. Of course the situation was quite different. They were not slaves, of course, they were “our brethren”. They were culturally despised, but they were integrated in the dominant nation. There was a big difference in that respect.
But the pattern of colonization was similar to New Zealand, Australia, North America, where the local labor was not used. This created a huge difference. This is lost on those people like the followers of Edward Said who think that colonialism is an expression of contempt toward the culture of the east, rather than the other way around– that this racist contempt is a superstructure of colonization.
For a Marxist, there is a huge difference between the type of colonialism that exploits the local labor, where it is needed as a resource, and the US or Israel model, where natives are to be excluded and ethnically cleansed.
That doesn’t exhaust the nature of the problem. There is a further unique attribute to the nature of Zionist colonization. In all places where the pattern of colonialism did not exploit the local labor, a new nation of settlers was formed. The same applied to Israel. A Hebrew nation was formed, as a settler nation. But in no other place did the indigenous people form into a unitary single nation with its own identity. In the US you had many nations of so called Indians. In Australia, there were hundreds of languages, and there was no unified national movement of the indigenous people. The Palestinian case is the sole exception. Here you have a colonial conflict, at the core of it, which has taken the form of a clash between a settler nation and an indigenous nation. That is unique in colonial history.
This is why on the face of it, it looks like a symmetric conflict, with two nations fighting over a piece of land, and all you need is to make peace, while in a typical colonial conflict, either the settlers win out, as happened in the U.S., or there is decolonization, as in South Africa or Algeria.
Unfortunately as you see there is no historical case in which decolonization took place after colonization followed the expulsive pattern. Because the settlers then formed the majority and they managed to marginalize the natives. But ours is an exceptional situation. You have a single Palestinian nation which moreover is part of a large national entity, Palestinians are a sort of second tier nationality of the Arab nation, which is one of the major world civilizations. Nothing like that happened in North America or Australia. In terms of world history, those indigenous people were a backwater. From a human perspective, no one is a backwater, but in global terms, the indigenous people in North America and Australia were marginal.
But what Zionism is confronted by is a single national group, Palestinians, which are part of a major major world civilization. So this is why the problem is so tough and is not going to be resolved very easily.
Will Zionism disappear?
Ultimately yes. If you compare their position to that of the American settlers, the Americans had a manifest destiny, and that manifest destiny was realized when they reached “from sea to shining sea”. That was it; at the far side of the continent, manifest destiny was fulfilled. But Israel, however far it expands, it will be confronted by more Arabs, realistically speaking, unless they expand as far as Iran. [laughing]
So this is why I think ultimately– ultimately, I think– Zionism will be superseded. But ultimately takes a long time.