The Palestinian masses perceive the election of the new Israeli Prime Minister, Arik Sharon, as a vote for war. This perception is shared by large sections of the working class and rural poor in the Arab and wider Muslim world. This feeling will resonate amongst workers and youth in the West and the populations of the neo-colonial countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Sharon is viewed by many as a war criminal and butcher, his hands personally stained with the blood of thousands of oppressed Palestinians. As leader of the infamous Unit 101, he was responsible for the attack on the West Bank village of Qibya in 1953, which caused the deaths of 69 Palestinian civilians (two-thirds of them women and children). In August 1971, Sharon led IDF soldiers into Gaza city and destroyed 2000 homes and displaced 16 000 Palestinians. Most notoriously of all he was held responsible for the murder of at least 2000 Palestinians by Christian Phalange death squads in Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps during the Lebanon war in 1982. Sharon’s highly inflammatory visit under massive army protection to the Al-Aqsa mosque (the third most holy site in the Muslim world) in Jerusalem sparked off the second Intifada last September. Immediately following his election, he returned and claimed that Jerusalem would remain the eternal undivided capital of Judaism.

The high vote for Sharon amongst the Israeli Jewish working class was mainly a vote against Barak. The social and economic attacks meted out by the Barak government as well as the complete failure of his "peace" negotiations and the outbreak of the Intifada account for this protest vote.

It is the case that class-consciousness amongst Israeli Jewish workers has retreated since the start of the Intifada. Amongst wide sections of the Israeli working class there has been a high level of class consciousness on social and economic issues. However, because of a lack of a clear understanding of the intractable nature of the national question under capitalism and the absence of mass workers organisations, which can explain a socialist solution on this issue, even amongst these sections of the population there is a tendency to empirically support oppressive measures in near-war and war situations. There are deep fears embedded in the psychology of sections of Israeli Jewish workers that are encouraged by the most reactionary elements in society and come to the fore when their security is threatened. This is because of the experience of five wars since the founding of Israel in 1948. It is also because it is normally Israeli Jewish workers who are killed as conscript soldiers on the front lines and also in the buses and market places when bombs are set off.

The failure of Barak to bring peace and social and economic security did lead some sections of the Israeli Jewish working class to believe that a so-called "strong man" in the form of Sharon could protect them.

Both Sharon and his vanquished rival Barak as different political representatives of Israeli capitalism have the same strategic aims fundamentally. These are the military and economic dominance of Israeli capitalism in the region under US imperialist protection; extracting the greatest possible concessions out of the Palestinian Authority which only allow an impoverished, economically strangulated, cantonised Palestinian proto-state; and stepping up the exploitation of the Israeli Jewish working class - and Israeli Palestinians - to protect profit levels and the power of Israeli capitalism.

However, the personal record of Sharon and the extremely reactionary nature of some of the most right-wing groups who advocated a vote for him, adds to the profoundly unstable and tension-filled situation in the Middle East.

The explosion of the second Intifada in September 2000 signified the decisive opening of this new phase in the Middle East politics. The process that led to the Al-Aqsa Intifada had matured over a number of years and flowed from of the failure of the Oslo peace accords. This was not the result of tactical mistakes by its main negotiators but demonstrates the inability of capitalism solving the national question in Palestine and Israel. To do this requires fulfilling the aspirations of the Palestinian masses for particularly their national - but also their social and economic - liberation as well as answering the security fears of the Israeli Jewish working class on the other.

Many Palestinians did have illusions when the Oslo Accords were first signed. They hoped it represented the first step on a road that would lead to the end of the detested IDF occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, a halt to settlement building and the achievement of genuine national liberation. It was not just a question that the Oslo Accord failed but the methods used by the Israeli ruling class during the "peace" negotiations that enraged so many Palestinians.

While the "peace" negotiations continued, the Israeli ruling class promoted policies that led to the continuation of the daily humiliation of Palestinians passing through IDF checkpoints and living under occupation. They increased Palestinian land seizures and house demolition. They built hundreds of kilometres of roads under IDF control through Palestinian territory. The number of Palestinians employed as day labourers from the West Bank and Gaza strip was slashed thus cutting off a vital economic lifeline for the wider Palestinian population. Millions of dollars of wages earned by Palestinians working abroad were blocked from reaching their families by the Israeli government. As far as the Palestinian masses were concerned everything that represented the most hated conditions of decades of occupation continued, and worsened, in the name of peace. In addition, the social and economic conditions inside the Palestinian Authority also plummeted as a result of the corruption of the clique around Arafat. Democratic rights were denied as Arafat rapidly built a semi-police dictatorship. He used the methods of divide and rule amongst his subordinates to maintain control. This has laid the basis for the development of regional fiefdoms within the Palestinian Authority which increases instability. It was if the worst nightmares of the Palestinian masses became a living reality.

This led to a fundamental change in the consciousness of the Palestinian working class and poor. They realised that only a return to struggle – with the sacrifice of their lives if necessary – could change the situation.

The uprising in the Palestinian Authority area was matched by an explosion of anger amongst Israeli Palestinians that marked a fundamental turning point in their consciousness, which will have a serious and long-term effect of undermining the stability of Israeli capitalism. This was reflected during the Prime Ministerial elections when the voter turnout amongst Israeli Palestinians fell from 76% at the last general election to 25%. Of those who voted 25% cast a blank ballot in a conscious protest vote.

The brutality of the attacks by the IDF since last September has simply increased the burning determination of the most radicalised Palestinian workers and youth to continue their struggle until they achieve national liberation.

The influence of Arafat and his clique has fallen to an all-time low. Authority has passed into the leadership of the Tanzeem (the semi-autonomous youth militia of Arafat’s Fatah organisation). One of the Tanzeem leaders, Marwan Barghouthi, recently stated that there were two divergent trends in the PA: one supporting the armed struggle; and another the failed peace process. These leaders have used radical rhetoric to maintain their hold over the masses and to position themselves for a post-Arafat Palestinian Authority. The recent announcement by the speaker of the Palestinian National Council of the formation of a Commission of National Independence, backed by Yasser Arafat and the leaders of the Tanzeem represents an attempt by the besieged leader to win back some support. The platform of this Commission has implied that the clauses of the PLO Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel still stand and explaining that the "armed struggle as the only way to liberate Palestine". There is growing rivalry between different local leaders which in the future could be utilised by Israeli undercover units to encourage internecine conflict. This will be interspersed with movements of a mass character which unite the Palestinian population in the face of outrages ordered by the Israeli generals.

The mass character of the second Intifada has tended to subside with armed attacks of groups of the Tanzeem against IDF units coming to the fore. There has been a rise in individual bombings and killings of Israeli civilians – a completely counter productive tactic which drives the Israeli Jewish working class into the arms of the most reactionary sections of the Israeli ruling class. This is a result of the lack of a mass revolutionary socialist alternative in the Palestinian authority as the most desperate and radicalised youth turn to extreme Islamic groups like Hamas. It is possible in the future that such attacks will be launched from within the Israeli Palestinian population against Israeli Jewish targets. This will vastly increase the tension inside Israel and could lead to calls for the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel.

Developments in the next few months are difficult to foresee exactly. However because of the huge tension in the region the present low scale intensity war between Israel and Palestine could spiral out of control into a wider regional Israeli-Arab conflict. If this eventuality occurs it will be because of the inability of US imperialism and the capitalist powers in the region to sufficiently defuse the situation. As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (which plays the role of a US government think tank) said following the Israeli elections: "Regardless of the outcome of yesterday’s vote, the prospect of regional conflict – and even war – has risen to a level unseen since the Gulf War. The United States government needs to take urgent measures to make that less likely". World imperialist powers will exert huge pressures on the Israeli and Arab capitalist powers not to go to war but this may not be enough to force the hands of the regimes in the region which have extremely limited room for manoeuvre.

The recent bombing of military installations in Baghdad by US and British jets is not the way to achieve this. The shortsighted stupidity of Bush’s demands that such a raid should take place in effect to announce his entrance on to the stage of world politics will blow up in the face of US imperialism if such tactics are continued.

Many Arab countries are in economic recession with widespread poverty amongst the masses and rampant corruption in their ruling elites. These countries have suffered years of IMF and World Bank imposed neo-liberal policies, which have generally been enthusiastically supported by the Arab regimes. Privatisation, asset stripping, increased corruption through kickbacks, the devastation of the public sector and what little welfare support that existed have been the result. Increasing sections of the Arab masses have a generalised consciousness that sees US imperialism as responsible and their own rulers compliant in the implementation of these policies.

In addition their support for US imperialism’s intervention in the Gulf war has soiled the image of most ruling Arab elites, especially since the UN imposed sanctions have led to the deaths of over xx Iraqis. The Arab regimes are seen by increasing sections of the Arab masses as having stood by while US imperialism’s imposed Oslo Accord has torn the national rights of the Palestinian masses to shreds.

The effect of this is demonstrated by a statement by the Egyptian Al-Ahram research centre which commented: "Because of Egypt’s specific problems, the Intifada might create much worse complications than in any other Arab country. We are now in the midst of a recession, with a cash shortage and huge domestic and foreign debt". However, these problems are not just specific to Egypt – they can be found in most Arab countries in the Middle East.

The Arab regimes could be faced with the prospect of being overthrown by popular uprisings (or splits within the ruling elites resting on such movements) sparked by continued aggression sanctioned by the Israeli military chiefs of staff. Under these circumstances they may be dragged into a wider regional Arab-Israeli conflict rather than losing the reins of power. It is clear that US imperialism underestimates the level of anger that has built up amongst the Arab masses.

Sharon is in the process of attempting to set up a national unity government involving sections of Barak’s Labour Party, and other parties – some from the right of the Israeli political spectrum. This is an attempt by the ruling class to unite in the face of a threat to its continued rule. Such a government will not last long because of the pressures it would face from opposing directions.

The new government will in probably use the closure of all Palestinian towns and villages in an attempt to stop the Intifada through economic strangulation. This is very unlikely to work and will probably encourage more conflict. If the national unity government did attempt to restart negotiations with the Palestinian Authority then the most that would be on offer would be the proposals made at Camp David last year. Arafat could not sign such an agreement. If he did he would face removal or assassination. Such an agreement would hold no authority amongst the Palestinian masses.

One possibility that such a government could attempt, citing a national emergency as a pretext, would be the option of unilateral separation. This would involve the closure of some settlements and a declaration by the Israeli state of what the borders between it and Palestine would be. This would have catastrophic consequences. Palestinians inside and outside Israel would probably respond with fierce resistance, including armed attacks. In retaliation more reactionary elements in Israeli Jewish society would call for and partially implement the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Israel. This could be one of the routes to a wider regional conflict.

The present situation in the Middle East is a graphic illustration of the impossibility of capitalism solving the most basic problems of everyday life. A small minority of Israeli Jewish workers and youth will react against the decent into bloodshed. If a war did take place there would be a backlash amongst wider sections of Israeli Jews. Sections of Palestinian youth will also through their experience search for alternative ideas (perhaps inspired by mass movements elsewhere in the world) that go beyond the tactics of individual armed attacks and the dead-end that the ideas of Hamas represent. It is amongst these layers that Marxists must orientate to, explaining that only the overthrow of capitalism in the region and the creation of a socialist confederation of the Middle East which guarantees the national aspirations of all sections of the population can provide an alternative unending cycle of war and bloodshed that capitalism and imperialism brings.

Committee for a workers' International publications

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