A sign at the mass rally in Tel Aviv on August 6. The Arabic text reads “irhal!” (Go!) and the Hebrew underneath reads “Egypt is here.” Image from activestills.org
Try for a moment to imagine a scenario leading up to a revolutionary situation in your country. This sort of exercise was once a popular pastime on the left, before decades of repression and regression atrophied our optimism and imagination.
But while most leftists may no longer play this sort of game, I am willing to bet that our opponents do.
The ruling class has an amazing capacity to use crisis situations to further profits and consolidate power: recessions trigger merger-and-acquisition waves, wars are a means and an opportunity to expand into new markets, natural disasters enable the looting of public property. But the phoenix-like ability of capital to rise from its own ashes has a limit, which can be defined precisely as the revolutionary situation. But since we cannot know in advance or even in real time where this limit lies exactly, the positive identification of a revolutionary situation is always a posteriori. The proof of the revolutionary pudding is in the eating, or rather in the non-eating of the former ruling class: for without romanticizing the achievements of 20th century revolutions such as the Russian, the Chinese and the Cuban, it is fair to say that each of these was an unmitigated disaster for local capital and its servants.
Given that the establishment has both the resources and the inclination to plan strategically – in both public and covert fora – it is no fanciful stretch to assume that it invests some resources in fending off revolutionary eventualities. No doubt at most times and places chances for revolution are small, but it is difficult to know exactly how small, and given the devastating price, investment in revolution-readiness is an eminently rational choice.
Thus, even if we are not inclined to strategic thought ourselves, it may be interesting to imagine radical eventualities in order to better understand the actions of the repressive apparatuses. I will attempt to demonstrate this point on the case of my country, Israel/Palestine. What could constitute a revolutionary situation between the Jordan River and the sea?
Given the history of this territory, the most obvious answer would be a Palestinian uprising – a Third Intifada. But ever since the early 1990’s the Israeli state has been implementing a succession of strategies designed to make such an uprising extremely unlikely to succeed. The first step was the weaning of the Israeli labor market off its reliance on cheap Palestinian labor. As Palestinian workers were replaced with migrants, they lost their most effective weapon – the strike. The second step was the creation of the Palestinian Authority and its attendant humanitarian-aid economy, tightly, though not seamlessly, integrated into the Israeli security state. Aid and its attendant NGO-ization have severely compromised the integrity of parties, unions and other formerly independent Palestinian political organizations. The third step was the use of the security apparatus, the Separation Wall and the settlement project to divide the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza into a series of walled-off, heavily policed cantons, a process intensified after the 2005 Hamas victory in Palestinian elections and subsequent takeover of the Gaza Strip.
This strategy has crippled the resistance capability of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Since the disintegration of the Oslo Process in October 2000 Palestinians have been surgically expunged not only from the Israeli economy but from its civil society and media. This, together with the Oslo-induced association of non-violence with the submissive and quietist NGO industry and the extreme imbalance in military power, has encouraged Palestinian organizations interested in wresting concessions from Israel to target civilians, severely impacting their ability to draw sympathy from the international community, not to mention Israeli society, and legitimizing crackdowns on terrorism by the Israeli security state and its junior PA partners.
Despite these heavy setbacks, the Occupied Territories are not completely quiescent. Villages impacted by the Separation Wall have mounted a patient, intelligent and ethically disciplined struggle and have drawn sustained solidarity activity from Israeli and international activist groups. Over the last year, sporadic demonstrations have been held against the PA in the West Bank, protesting corruption and President Abbas’ collusion with the occupation. Most recently, Palestinian activists founded the “outpost” of Bab Al-Shams in a creative response to Netanyahu’s declared intention to build in the E1 area to the east of Jerusalem. The winds of liberation are still blowing across the Middle East, veterans of the First Intifada are still alive and active, and the establishment would be wise not to rule out the possibility of a large-scale popular uprising.
Nevertheless, a third Intifada would not in itself pose an existential threat to the order of things, since the entire Israeli state apparatus – in the widest sense – is primed to head off such a threat. Israel’s five million Jewish citizens enjoy a great variety of privileges with regard to the Palestinian population: political and civil freedoms, access to a job market, and the support of a rapidly shrinking, but not negligible, welfare state. However, for most Israeli Jews, political and economic survival is tightly bound up with participation in the repression of the Palestinians through military service and enlistment in the colonization process as settlers.
This is especially true for the Jews of Middle Eastern origin – Mizrahis – who make up the bulk of Israel’s working class. Their “Oriental background” is treated as suspect by hegemonic Ashkenazi standards, and Mizrahim who go over to the enemy, like Mordecai Vanunu and Tali Fahima, are punished brutally. All this adds up to make the possibility of a Palestinian uprising, on its own, a challenge to the Israeli state – but not an insurmountable one. Rather, an uprising could be used to consolidate social control and build up profits in the form of arms sales and renewed military aid from the US.
What, then, of the Israelis? If the above picture were complete, it would be impossible to understand how this supposedly rigidly controlled society was rocked during the summer of 2011 by what was, in relative terms, the largest protest movement of that year of global protest. The Israeli “social protest movement,”, known in Twitterese as J14, was centered in tent cities around the country and mobilized people to rally over a series of Saturday evenings which culminated on September 3rd in the largest demonstration in Israeli history, when half a million people gathered in State Square in Tel Aviv to protest the government’s economic policies.
Justified criticism has been leveled at the protest movement for being focused, like its counterparts around the world, on the declining fortunes of middle-class youth. However, rates of support for the movement – as opposed to participation rates – were extremely high across ethno-class sectors, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, the religious community and “traditional” (mostly Mizrahi) Jews, with the sole exception of the ex-Soviet community. Perhaps more importantly, the middle-class leadership appointed to the movement by the media was not the only game in town: across the country the protest movement galvanized organizing within the most oppressed sections of the population, mainly around the issue of social housing – organizing which has proved more resilient than the evanescent leadership of the summer.
At its best and most dangerous, the protest movement offers an opportunity for the consolidation of a cross-class coalition including both a contingent of young, middle-class people facing the possibility of impoverishment and those who are already staring poverty and homelessness in the face. Without the second group, the movement lacks bulk, mass relevance and the energy of those who have nowhere to go. Without the first, it is extremely vulnerable to the marginalization and criminalization practiced on the Israeli Black Panthers in the 1970’s. United, it has the potential power to challenge the Israeli state.
But this challenge, much like a Palestinian revolt, probably would not have the power to overthrow the state and local capital even if it could unite its forces within Israel. Decades of neoliberal restructuring may have cut away most positive bases for identification with the Israeli state, but Israelis are still wired to close ranks whenever a “security threat” looms. The protest movement would probably never have arisen if it were not preceded by six years of unprecedented quiet – as far as Israelis were concerned – and it reeled heavily following a minor incident on the Egyptian border, which the government may or may not have permitted to happen.
As the situation stands, the Israeli state has the ability to provoke its neighbors and thereby manufacture “security threats” ranging from mostly non-lethal rocket attacks to full-blown war. Though these options have their drawbacks, these would pale in comparison to the danger of a true challenge to hegemony within the country.
Given the way the state holds both Israelis and Palestinians by the proverbial gonads, there is only one scenario that for a revolutionary situation, namely a simultaneous uprising in the Palestinian Territories and Israel. In order not to provoke the defensive consolidation of Israeli society – or at least to mitigate that consolidation by simultaneously evoking sympathy, solidarity and perhaps mass refusal – such an uprising would have to be predominantly unarmed, based on the model of the 1st Intifada and the civil struggle against the Wall rather than the military option embodied by groups like Hamas’ Qassam Brigades, itself an essentially reactive hold-the-line approach. The Israeli movement, for its part, would have to actively resist its demobilization through the cynical use of “security threats”.
This does not mean that the uprising would have to be unified. Segregation has become so entrenched that today Israeli Jews and Palestinians from the Occupied Territories have little opportunity to meet each other without the barrel of a gun intermediating, and this segregation makes it almost impossible to build a unified, or even a coordinated, mass politics across the Green Line, despite valiant efforts made by the Israeli and Palestinian Lefts.
A significant bridge across the divide exists in the shape of the 1.2-million strong Palestinian community within Israel. Though to a certain extent exempted from apartheid – for example with regard to travel restrictions – the links between Palestinian Israelis and their brethren in the Occupied Territories are also subject to severe restriction and surveillance. Nevertheless Israeli Palestinians continue to maintain these links and a generally high level of identification with the Palestinian nation as a whole. Perhaps more surprisingly, a majority in this community insists – in the face of bitter reality – in demanding full equality within the Israeli civil sphere. J14 has provided an opening in this sense, with high-profile Palestinian participation and the inclusion of some demands of ’48 Palestinians in the protest discourse. Thus there is reason to believe that Palestinian Israelis would play an important part in a simultaneous rebellion, belonging at the same time to both insurgent collectives. This would be consistent with the strong left-wing tradition in this community: long under the hegemony of the Communist Party of Israel, Palestinian Israelis continue to vote for left-wing parties in far greater numbers than either Palestinians or Israelis more generally.
But strict coordination is not a necessary condition for simultaneity, for several reasons.
First, as Göran Therborn has recently argued convincingly, the cross-national class disparity and conflict that characterized the 20th century is now giving way to an international convergence and growing disparities within countries. While this certainly does not mean that borders have become insignificant, it points up an increasingly complex class geography in which the still-prevalent divisions of North and South, First and Third Worlds, are obsolescent and global patterns emerge. Thus, the structural position of young people of middle-class origin facing impoverishment is comparable across a staggeringly wide range of countries, including Greece, Israel, Egypt, the US and Mexico. The high level of participation of people from these groups in protest movements can form the ground for solidarity, inspiration and contagion, as it probably did in 2011.
Much has also been made of the importance of new organizational forms based on the Internet in the rebellions of 2011. It is undeniable that the newly decentralized world of communications played an important part in the spread of news and revolutionary inspiration around the world in 2011, especially among people belonging to the aforementioned demographic. People of this sort in Israel might be inspired to action and revolt by a “Palestinian spring” – and maybe even vice versa.
Finally, the integration of the regional and world economy, and especially US hegemony in Israel and Palestine, means that economic pressures may act in similar ways on both sides of the Green Line. Austerity politics, perhaps sharpened by a renewed dip into depression on a global level, will tend to act in the same direction in both Israel and the Territories, provoking a rise in unemployment and poverty. Under these circumstances it is not inconceivable that insurgencies in Israel and Palestine could form a positive feedback loop, maintaining a policy of non-aggression and even sharing inspiration and solidarity. The plausibility of such a strategy would be enhanced by a concomitant resurgence of protest across the world, including the Arab world – again, not a very unlikely eventuality.
It would be difficult for the Israeli state to fight a war on two fronts and maintain its hegemony within the Jewish collective in Israel. The direct means of military repression are now heavily mechanized, so that Israel no longer needs masses of infantry-police to repress Palestinian rebellion. Nevertheless, tear gas and arbitrary arrests on the streets of Hebron and Haifa at the same time would be a powerful image, suggesting that Palestinians and Israelis share not only a destiny but an enemy – a suggestion the state would definitely do better to avoid.
Hysterical overreaction on the part of nervous, over-stretched security organs might serve to exacerbate the situation rather than placate it, leading to escalation, and yes – perhaps – to a revolutionary situation.
Are the chances slim? Very. Would the Israeli state know how to defuse such a situation if it were to come about? Quite probably. If I can think of a trick like planting a bomb in a “social protest” rally and blaming it on Palestinians, so can they. But is the possibility of such an eventuality, beyond the wildest dreams of the Israeli left, already playing a role in today’s politics?
Could be. It would explain some things about the extremely defensive political game Prime Minister Netanyahu appears to be playing.
Though his governing coalition has not been in serious peril since he came to power in 2009, Netanyahu has performed an astonishing number of apparently desperate political gambits coming into this election season, from wooing and then jettisoning Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima party, to merging his ruling Likud with extreme-right coalition partner Israel Beitenu, to grooming Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, another extreme-right party, as the horse to beat. The cumulative effect of these moves has been to take away projected votes from Netanyahu’s Likud to the benefit of his extreme-right coalition partners, dragging the center of political gravity ever rightwards and diminishing his ability to maneuver.
Netanyahu’s failure to “govern from the center” is comprehensible not as a tactical move, but a strategic one. J14 may have gone away for the time being, but it may rise again; its hard core is still hanging on, and its most visible leader, Daphni Leef, has courageously rejected cooptation into mainstream party politics. The 3rd Intifada is almost obsessively on the lips of Israeli security mavens. Netanyahu’s economic plan entails deepening austerity, and his geopolitical strategy constitutes an ongoing provocation and insult to the Palestinians. In case it all blows up in his face, Netanyahu needs not a fragile centrist coalition but a disciplined ruling bloc willing to use its electoral legitimacy to enforce draconian, even dictatorial measures.
In a brilliant radical appropriation of game theory, Joshua Epstein has shown that using “rational choice” assumptions about human actors, one can arrive at a model of insurgent behavior that alternates between short, intense flare-ups and long periods of quiescence. So long as the sources of grievance are not removed – and God knows that in Israel and Palestine they have not been – previous spikes of rebellious activity can be seen as indicating a latent potential for future conflagration. Here, as well as elsewhere around the world, the ruling right may be taking that potential much more seriously than the left.
A version of this article was originally published by Jacobin magazine.
I owe the idea of a simultaneous uprising as a revolutionary scenario to Matan Boord.