Red Flag & AWL debate Israel-Palestine: one state or two?

03 June 2021

On 16 May, Red Flag debated The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) on the situation in Israel and Palestine. This was the opening statement given by Marcel Rajecky from Red Flag. The full debate recording can be found here.

I would like to begin by quoting the AWL’s article about the latest attacks on Gaza. This is how they set the scene:

“Hamas, the political-Islamist group ruling the Gaza Strip, and allies, fired some 480 rockets at civilian targets in Israel on 9-11 May. The Israeli government responded by bombing hundreds of targets in Gaza. Escalation looks likely to continue.”

The article continues by demanding that the surrounding states “recognise Israel’s right to exist”, and then argues that Israel has the “right to defend itself”, characterising the unspecified events in East Jerusalem as “heavy handed”, and condemning Hamas’ attacks as “unjustified”.

In fact, the word Hamas appears seven times in the article, including in the title. The words Sheikh Jarrah, or occupation, do not appear once.

This article is, of course, entirely consistent with how the AWL has characterised the Palestinian struggle in recent years, and what it shows is that our differences go far deeper than the question of one state or two, which is the title of the debate.

Let’s look a little closer at the AWL’s analysis.

The AWL demands recognition for Israel’s right to exist. We do not argue that any state has an abstract right to existence, that is, one independent of or unconnected to its relations to other peoples. An oppressed people within another state do have a right to determine whether they separate from that state or not. A settler state built on the colonisation of land inhabited by another people, making itself a majority by driving them out or keeping them deprived of citizenship cannot be regarded as having or exercising this democratic right.

We call for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist states and their replacement with socialist, secular states with democratic planned economies.

The AWL believes that Israel’s bombing campaign against Gaza constitutes self-defence. Having locked up 1.5 million people in Gaza and subjected them to a state of siege, having shot 9,000 unarmed protestors three years ago during the Great March of Return, anyone should realise this isn’t a case of self defence. And it is no different now when Israel targets apartment blocks, schools, journalists’ offices with their bombs. The only thing that Israel is defending is its own occupation of Palestine by inflicting a collective punishment and campaign of terror against the Palestinians for daring to resist.

And on the topic of resistance, which the AWL’s latest article states is not “justified” on this occasion – it is actually justified. Not only in the minds of activists and socialists, but under international law. People under occupation have a right to resist the occupying power.

Of course speaking dispassionately about Palestine at a time like this is not easy. But we shouldn’t forget that the latest Israeli aggression did not start with “rockets” from Hamas – rockets which, by the way, are mostly improvised projectiles made up of irrigation pipes. This started with the evictions of Palestinians from the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, itself part of a long term programme of what the Israeli government calls the ‘Judaisation’ of Jerusalem. And this is Israel’s own words. Israel wants to kick Palestinian families out of the city, and manufacture a Jewish majority with the aim of eventually annexing the area to create a united Jerusalem within Israel.

East Jerusalem is not only occupied illegally by the Israeli military, but it is the city that Israel has tricked the world into believing it hopes will one day be the capital of a Palestinian state. This shows, as will be a theme of this introduction, that the question of one states or two is tied up with the question of colonialism, and we will come to this later.

It is also necessary to mention how Israel has responded to the Palestinian protests against the evictions, shooting worshipers around the Al-Aqsa mosque with rubber-coated – not rubber – steel bullets, stun grenades and beatings several times during Ramadan and before long bombing indiscriminately in Gaza. Over a hundred Palestinians have been killed at the hands of the Israeli military, whilst several more have been killed during the Israeli pogroms that have taken place in cities within Israel’s recognised borders.

But the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and Israel’s punitive response to the protestors tells us more about the Israeli state. In the first instance, it is yet further proof that the expulsions of 800,000 Palestinians in what became known as the Nakba was not an isolated incident after which Israel would behave as a “normal” state, but rather the beginning of a process of constant expulsion, constant dispossession and constant ethnic cleansing that would continue until the present day and will continue beyond. It also shows that attempts to come to an agreement with Israel on the basis of partitioning the land will always be futile, insofar as Israel is dependent on yet further expansion, be it through the ‘Judaisation’ of Jerusalem, the upcoming annexation of the Jordan Valley, or the continued and, indeed, intensified settlement construction programme across the West Bank. More specifically, it shows how little respect it has for the very “two state solution” and that despite their stated support for a Palestinian state in principle, when in reality they are doing all they can to stop this from ever being a possibility.

So this is the situation we find ourselves in in this debate. And the question is should socialists try to “hold” Israel to its promise of a two-state solution? Or rather should we demand something else? To suggest “solutions” in isolation is quite utopian, instead our answer to this question should be a result of an analysis of the Israeli state and of Zionism as an ideology, and of what the Palestinians need to achieve their own liberation.

So the AWL’s support for two states, we argue, is a consequence of serious misanalyses of the Israeli state. Its programme for the region is one that is saturated with reformism, fails to solve the Palestinian national question, and makes too many concessions to Zionism. Its support for two-states is just one element of this.

Our differences on the question of one state or two is derived from our analysis of the Israeli state. To us, Israel is a colonial project, not the expression of Jewish self-determination. Similarly, we reject Zionist ideology as the official ideology of this project. We therefore have no sympathy for the Zionist claim that maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel is a right that can be claimed in the name of national self-determination. No nation can make such a claim. Therefore, we call for the right of Palestinian refugees under international law to return to the land from which they were ethnically cleansed to be upheld, we unapologetically support the right of return.

We acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that Israel is a colonial project, that it is a centrifugal point in the imperialist world order, that Zionism is a reactionary ideology, and that Palestinian right of return must be upheld. Only as a consequence of this analysis, can we show that the two-state solution is not only utopian but fundamentally unjust, and a “solution” which will neither resolve the struggle for Palestinian rights or offer anything to the working classes of either Palestine or Israel.

A colonial state

Let’s start from the beginning. Is Israel a colonial state, or the national state of Israeli Jews? And I know we heard earlier that the AWL thinks it is simultaneously both of these things, but I think this formulation confuses more than it explains.

In the first instance, it is necessary to point out that the early Israeli leaders actually saw themselves as colonisers. David Ben Gurion, for example described Israel’s role as “bringing European civilisation to the region”, continuing to say that his model would be based on Britain, which at the time was the main sponsor of the Zionist project. Earlier figures such as Herzl similarly talked about transporting “German values to the Mediterranean”.

Similarly, they saw the Palestinians not as an equal people with whom they could share the land, but as an inconvenient obstacle to their settlement. Everyone is familiar with the Zionist slogan that Palestine had been a “land without a people”. But beyond this classic colonial trope, the writings of the time contained huge amounts of colonial attitudes towards the Palestinians, saying they were incapable of self-government, or that they were nomads with no attachment to the land. To this day, Israeli politicians regularly reproduce these attitudes, which find their most extreme forms in the wider population with Israeli gangs shouting “death to Arabs” and grotesque “viewing parties” for the airstrikes against Gaza.

More specifically, Israel is a settler colonial state in the same mould as the United States, Canada, etc. With both Israel and other historical cases of settler colonialism, the metropole does not simply seek to win the resources of the country, but goes further by attempting to eliminate the native population, either through displacement, marginalisation, or integration. They then build a state for the colonisers and put their efforts into normalising the new regime.

Many, including the AWL, have confused the question of Israel’s colonialism by pointing to the fact the settlers were very often refugees fleeing the anti-Semitic persecution in Europe. The implication is that the very fact that they were not consciously colonialists demonstrates that this was a national movement, rather than a colonial one. But Israel is far from unique in this regard, with settlers in North America, or the Boers in South Africa, all also sharing a similar history of persecution and fleeing. In fact, this is an essential ingredient for colonialist endeavours, as the colonial power has to offer its settlers a better standard of life to what they enjoyed in their home countries.

Zionism serves imperialism

Indeed, the foundation of Israel was not a gift to Europe’s Jews, nor was it even the result of a national struggle. Rather, it was a deliberate decision by Britain, the United States, and, originally, the Soviet Union who calculated that an outpost in the Middle East generally supportive of their hegemonic role in the region would benefit their imperialist interests.

Britain had supported Jewish organisations’ development in the mandate of Palestine, as well as assisting them in bringing capital to the country, giving them preferential wages and conditions over Palestinians. Knowing that their mandates in the Middle East would soon expire, they wanted to create a local ruling class who could keep markets open for them, and who could provide a base for their future military activities in the region.

And with Britain’s decline it is now U.S. imperialism which is exploiting the Israeli outpost for its own ends. It grants Israel billions in military aid, and in return collaborates in its cold war against Iran, has preferential access to Israel’s high-tech weapons industry, and can use Israeli airspace and military bases for its imperialist wars in the region.

Any capitalist endeavour as ambitious as the colonisation of Palestine requires an ideology to legitimate itself. This is precisely what Zionism is.

It is essential to remember that Zionism had long been a minority belief amongst European Jews, and it was, indeed, the right-wing response to anti-Semitism in Europe originally. Socialists more often than not fought for Jewish liberation within the European states. It was only really with the growing support for nationalism generally, and then the horrors of the holocaust, which created widespread support for Zionism amongst Europe’s Jews.

At its most fundamental level Zionism is the belief that there should be Jewish state, or more specifically, a state with a majority Jewish population and institutionalised privileges for the Jewish population.

On one level, this is practically what all national ideologies call for, and indeed, the AWL call for Israeli self-determination on the basis that they constitute a majority within their 1948 borders.

But any comparison between Israel and countries that are products of a genuine national struggle ends with even the most cursory glance at the history behind this Israeli majority. The fact that Israel has a Jewish majority is only the product of ethnic cleansing, first through the Nakba, and since then through a series of other expulsions and the continued denial of the refugees to return.

Naturally, Israel does not allow the refugees to return precisely because it would destroy the basis of the Zionist state. In such a case, it would find itself governing over a majority indigenous Palestinian population who would refuse to be treated as second class citizens.

The AWL by and large accept the Zionist imperative of Palestinian exclusion. Most shockingly, they oppose the right of return, which they call “collective repossession of the territory”, which “privileges people on the basis of ethnicity”. This could not be more wrong. What return delivers is equal rights for expelled Palestinians. It gives them precisely the same rights as is given to American, Russian, or British Jews who have never set foot in Palestine before.

The AWL also mischaracterise and minimise this demand by claiming it will only be exercised by the “grandchildren” of the refugees. First of all, the grandchildren of refugees are refugees. They are not only considered such by international law, but by the basic fact that the majority of them live in squalid conditions in refugee camps in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt on the outskirts of what are already very poor cities in very poor countries.

Furthermore, we are not simply dealing with the grandchildren of expelled Palestinians. The ethnic cleansing of 1948 took place within the lifetimes of many people still living today.

That the AWL accept the Zionist claim that basic Palestinian rights must be suspended in the name of Israeli national rights shows a misunderstanding of the Marxist approach to the national question. Clearly, the right to self-determination is not absolute. In other words, Marxists cannot support a claim to self-determination where it demonstrably denies the possibility of another nation’s right to self-determination.

Two-state solution?

But could it be argued that the creation of a Palestinian state, “alongside Israel”, could resolve the contradictions the Israel faces as a settler-colonial state? Absolutely not.

In the first instance, the proposed two-state solution is now an effective impossibility. Since the start of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel has settled almost a million of its own citizens, illegally, into the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem.

The cost of removing these settlers would be astronomical, and a fundamentally reactionary endeavour compared to the possibility of allowing Jews and Palestinians to settle anywhere within historic Palestine.

Of course we cannot leave the question at its impossibility, but we also need to point out the inherent injustices involved in the two state solution. In any case, we are dealing with a deeply unfair partition of historic Palestine. The Palestinians will receive no more than 22% of their historic homeland, despite being greater in number than the Israeli Jews that will receive 78%, and that is not including the millions more external refugees.

The two major territories of the would-be Palestinian state would be separated by Israeli territory, who would have the power to restrict travel between the West Bank and Gaza.

To speak in any greater depth about the injustices of the two-state solution, we have to look at its concrete proposals. The clearest and most recent indication of precisely how a two-state solution will be implemented is contained in Trump’s “Deal of the Century”. This proposal not only represents the official position of the United States government, but also the basis of Israel’s policy in the coming years. Indeed much of what was proposed in the so-called “Deal” is currently being carried out by Israel – with a degree of support from the surrounding Arab states.

Anyone who has read the plan will recognise immediately that the “state” promised to the Palestinians is little more than an Israeli protectorate. Israel will be able to veto Palestinian membership of any international organisation, such as Interpol or the Arab League; Israel will be able to put significant restrictions on how developed the Palestinian military can become; Israel would retain control over Palestinian borders, airspace, fisheries, and would have the right to invade Palestinian territory at its pleasing.

The plan also promises Israel more land. Most of the settlements would be annexed as well as the entirety of the Jordan Valley and the border with Jordan.

As Israel prepares to carry out these annexations in plain sight of the entire world, one might reasonably argue: “this is not a serious proposal for two states but a smokescreen behind which Israel can further destroy any hopes of a Palestinian state”.

But to say this would simply be to remark on the entire history of the proposed two-state solution, this is precisely the outcome of the Oslo Accords. That the Palestinian leadership agreed to this in principle – and indeed, to some of the treaties in the past – is more evidence of the weakness of their leadership and the desperateness of the Palestinian’s situation than it is of the feasibility of such a proposal.

Furthermore, the proposal for two states does not resolve the crises inside the state of Israel. The almost two million Palestinians living inside the 1948 borders will continue to face the same discrimination and oppression that they do at the moment. Israeli neighbourhoods hold the right to refuse residency to Palestinian citizens of Israel, who also face huge restrictions on their right to political organisation, including a ban on anti-zionist parties from running in elections; harassment and imprisonment of Palestinian political activists; and most recently as we have seen, violence from Israeli extremists in the streets. This is the reality of being a minority in a non-secular state.

With two states, the question of right of return is still not settled. With the two-state solution, the Palestinian refugee crises in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan etc. are simply replaced by a new refugee crisis in the West Bank. It is simply neither reasonable nor fair – let alone socialist – to resettle the world’s largest refugee population on a tiny, and incredibly impoverished fragment of land when the country that expelled them – and to which they want to return – has far more resources to host them.


On several occasions the AWL have accused much of the left of holding Israel to a “different standard” to other states.

By way of conclusion, I would like to turn this accusation around, and say we actually have a consistent approach to repressive and chauvinistic capitalist states. By contrast, it is the AWL who afford Israel a series of privileges that no socialist would accept for other countries: A right to maintain a Jewish majority at the expense of the largest refugee population in the world, a right to veto the most basic rights of the Palestinians in the abused name of “self-determination”, and a right to launch vicious bombing campaigns which leave hundreds of civilians dead in the name of “self-defence”.

The reality is that the Zionist project is not only a humanitarian catastrophe in its own right, but a fundamental barrier to socialism both in Palestine and in all the countries of the region where its military and political interventions are focused. We cannot overcome this by simply putting a fragmentary Palestinian state alongside this. Instead, we call for the overthrow of the Israeli state, solidarity with the Palestinian resistance, right of return for the millions of expelled Palestinian refugees, and a single, secular, socialist Palestine where Jews and Palestinians live equally.

Image credit: Montecruz Foto

Tags:  • 

Class struggle bulletin

Stay up to date with our weekly newsletter