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Israel & the illusion of national unity

12 January 2024

By Alex Rutherford

Since the breakout by Hamas and its allies from the besieged Gaza Strip on 7 October, which led to an unprecedented 1,139 death toll for Israelis, the country has presented an impression of near total unity. After three months of bombing that has killed 22,000 in Gaza, two-thirds of them women and children, Israel declares its war could go on for the rest of this year.

The official opposition completely supports this enormous war crime. Former opposition leader Benny Gantz quickly joined the war cabinet and, together with the entire political establishment, supports the rejection of any sort of ceasefire. Yet, until 7 October, Israeli society itself was being shaken by unprecedented mass protests against the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and his far right and religious fundamentalist coalition.

The contradictions that fuelled that social discontent may now be hidden, but they have not been resolved. In time, they will again drive developments within Israeli policy, possibly even setting limits to its war aims. Understanding these contradictions is essential, the better to exploit them and advance the international working class demand for a free Palestine.

Zionism’s wings 
Although they all justify the systematic dispossession required for the creation of a European Jewish settler-colonial state in Palestine, there have always been different currents within Zionism. These go back to the historic division between the Labour Zionism of David Ben-Gurion and the Revisionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. For a long time, religious Zionism (Misrachi) was a minor trend, but it has become more significant since the Six Day War in 1967 as the bigger parties looked for coalition partners in order to govern. 

Jabotinsky’s Revisionism is the direct ancestor of today’s Likud party, committed to the maximalist objective of seizing and settling the whole of Eretz Israel, which includes parts of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Historically, this led it to wage a terroristic war against Britain, the imperialist occupying power, which sought to limit Jewish immigration and the expansion of a Zionist state. 

Revisionists opposed the 1949 agreement, which ended the war with the Arab states and limited the Nakba to seizing 78 per cent of Mandate Palestine but, until the 1980s, Labour Zionism dominated the government. Although it generally pursued a more pragmatic and piecemeal consolidation of the state, it was Labour figures like Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, who led the Six Day War of 1967, bringing the West Bank, the Golan Heights and Gaza under Israel’s control. This prompted settlement building, which was illegal under international law and UN Security Council resolutions – but that never stopped the US and its European allies arming and funding Israel.

Likud, under Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, opposed the Oslo Agreements of 1992 and 1995. Both in opposition and in government they did all they could to sabotage any form of Palestinian state, no matter how hemmed in and fragmented. After the Second Intifada, deliberately incited by Sharon’s visit to the Al Aqsa compound (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem, Likud formed electoral alliances and governments with the parties of the religious right.

Religious Zionism, a grouping of the Otzma Yehudit and Noam parties, has become the third largest bloc in the Knesset. Its most notorious figure, and biggest vote winner, is Itamar Ben-Gvir, now Minister of National Security. The Leader of Otzmar Yehudit (Jewish Power), he was a follower of the deceased fascist, Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose terrorist wing, Kach, was banned.

The Religious Zionism Alliance programme includes annexation of West Bank settlements, government control over the judicial system, including the Supreme Court, strengthening Israel’s Jewish identity by imposing religious law and emphasising the second-class status of Israel’s Arab citizens. Leaders of the far right now openly advocate the extermination of the Palestinians. Agricultural Minister Avi Dichter for example, recently said ‘we are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba’; and prominent cabinet member Amihia Eliyahu even suggested that dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza was ‘one of the options’.

Liberal and Labour Zionists have generally taken a different approach, preferring to maintain the apartheid system behind the facade of a western democratic state. Although the policies carried out by the different wings of Zionism are often similar and always disastrous for the Palestinian people, these divisions have led to deep internal contradictions in Israeli politics, which had been developing towards a constitutional crisis prior to Hamas’ attack on 7 October 2023.

These different strains of Zionism essentially represent differences within the Israeli bourgeoisie, petit bourgeoisie and the more privileged layers of the working class. They also reflect the different waves of immigration: post war Holocaust survivors from Europe, Jews from the Arab countries, then Russian Jews and political migrants from the USA. Recent studies show considerable levels of inequality within the Israeli Jewish population as well as the major gap between them all and the ‘Arab’ citizens.

Israel’s ‘democracy’
The liberal bourgeoisie places a high value on its alliance with the United States and its goal of reaching a modus vivendi with the surrounding regimes. These, the Egyptian military dictatorship, the Saudi, Emirati and Jordanian monarchies, are themselves eager for economic relations with Israel. Hence the liberal Zionists’ continued support for the Two State Solution, providing of course this arrangement guarantees the security of Israel. In practice, this would mean surrounding it with an Iron Wall of IDF control, thus, in reality, not an independent Palestinian state and no right of return for the 7 million refugees.

Relying on Israel’s claim to be ‘Western’ in values and democratic institutions, this wing courts ‘friends of Israel’ in Europe and North America, encouraging them to stigmatise all who expose the oppression of the Palestinians as antisemites. In this they resemble other settler colonies (the USA, Australia, South Africa, etc.) that became independent states and also excluded their indigenous populations from their ‘democracy’, when they did not attempt genocide to get rid of them altogether.

Israel’s claims to be democratic are valid mainly for its settler-origin population, with highly restrictive rules for its parliament, the Knesset. While there are still some ‘Arab’ parties in the Knesset, it is illegal for any party to stand on an anti-Zionist platform, that is any platform calling for equal democratic rights for all who live in territory controlled by the Israeli state or for the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

The Knesset also has other racially discriminatory features, for example, while illegal Jewish settlers living in the occupied West Bank have the right to vote, Palestinians living within Jerusalem itself do not, as they are not considered ‘Israeli Citizens’. There is a complex web of legal and political restrictions applied to different sectors of the Palestinian population, also a classical feature of settler-colonialism.

The allocation of rights between Palestinians, based on whether they live within the 1949 borders or in the post-1967 Occupied Territories, aims to divide the Palestinian nation, while the second-class status of Arabs within Israeli society as a whole acts as a racist bribe to the ‘white’ or ‘European’ Israeli working class. It provides significant privileges in terms of income and working conditions relative to other workers in the region, much as in other settler-colonial states throughout history.

Labour in Israel and Palestine 
As a settler-colony, the Israeli state is based on the dispossession and exploitation of the indigenous population. The exploitation of indigenous labour, however, has always played a smaller role in Israel than in other settler-colonial states, such as apartheid South Africa and the Spanish American colonies.

Nevertheless, Palestinian labour still plays a significant role within the Israeli economy, and is likely to continue to do so. This contradiction is an essential feature of modern Israel’s economic structure which has intensified throughout its history. While the so-called ‘Labour Zionists’ had hoped to replace all Palestinian labour with Israeli workers, since the occupations of 1967 the Israeli economy has become increasingly dependent on Palestinian labour, from the West Bank in particular.

Palestinian workers are controlled through a mixture of military rule and a pass system. Following the first Intifada and the creation of the supposedly independent ‘Palestinian Authority’, which acts as Israel’s outsourced enforcer within the West Bank, the nominally self-ruled Palestinian Territories have been further fragmented into various ‘zones’, creating a cluster of economically unsustainable enclaves. This is similar to the ‘Bantustans’ of South Africa, but with an important distinction; Israel has not created this system primarily for the purpose of exploiting cheap Palestinian labour. It is rather a secondary consequence of Israel’s policy of further land grabbing and settlement. 

Despite the enormous discrimination and racism within Israeli society, Palestinian labour remains a significant proportion of the Israeli economy, particularly in the construction sector where it represents over 65% of the total workforce. This was shown dramatically during the Palestinian general strike of 2021, which brought the industry to a halt. 150,000 out of an Israeli workforce of just over 4,000,000 are Palestinians, many of whom work on illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank for low wages, driven to seek work there by a lack of jobs in their supposedly ‘sovereign’ territories.

Israel’s deadly contradictions 
Israel is a central prop of Western (and particularly US) imperialist policy in the Middle East and is therefore supported by the mainstream media of these states, which have often labelled Israel ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’, while attacking support for Palestinian liberation as antisemitic. The ‘liberal’ Zionists know that deception of the public of Western imperialist states is made far more difficult by the political dominance of the populist right wing of Zionism, who openly advocate the annexation of Gaza and the West Bank, and call for open and legalised apartheid throughout the entire state. Predictably, that faction has a strong base of support within the settler population in the West Bank.

It was the contradictions between the different wings of Zionism, which led to the mass protests and emerging constitutional crisis prior to the 7 October attack. The Netanyahu government, dependent on the extreme right wing, has been attempting to change the Israeli constitution in the direction of an overtly illiberal autocracy. This included attacks on LGBT+ rights and declaring all Arab parties ineligible to stand for the Knesset, effectively making the rule of the right wing permanent. They have also been trying to neuter the power of the Supreme Court, attempting to prevent the courts from declaring laws unconstitutional. Such changes threaten the ability of the liberal wing of the Israeli bourgeoisie to present Israel as a democratic state, an important strategic asset for the US and its propaganda machine. 

The protest movement against these reforms, therefore, included various class elements and was not based on a grassroots movement of the Israeli working class. Although Israeli workers supported the demonstrations in huge numbers (there was even an anti-Zionist ‘fringe’ at some demonstrations, although the waving of Palestinian flags was forbidden), the movement itself represented a struggle between the two wings of the Israeli capitalist class. The protests also had a highly militaristic character. In fact, IDF specialist reservists, on whom the state relies, were leading forces within the movement, giving it a greater degree of organisation than more spontaneous popular movements against anti-democratic reforms elsewhere.

Despite the current temporary truce between these two factions, Israeli society will not be able to delay the explosion of these contradictions indefinitely, particularly given the huge protest movement against the atrocities in Gaza. Indeed, the Supreme Court has just struck down the law limiting its own powers (which bears the Orwellian title of the ‘Reasonableness Bill’) effectively creating a constitutional crisis.

In addition to the already mounting public anger against Netanyahu’s government due to the attempted constitutional reforms, he now also has to deal with the fallout from the Hamas attack, for which, along with top IDF and intelligence commanders, he will almost certainly be blamed by many Israelis. From the perspective of Likud, the religious right and political and military leaders, fearful of any public inquiry, there is a strong incentive to prolong the war as long as possible. However, the tensions between the factions make delaying the ‘day of reckoning’ a dangerous game, especially if it proves impossible to root out Hamas without igniting a regional war.

For now the particular goals of individuals and factions within the state apparatus coincide with the political goals of the Israeli state as a whole. However, they contain contradictory tendencies which could undermine the war strategy and even cause it to fail. Geopolitical factors could play the decisive role in the outcome of the current situation; US imperialism needs ‘normalisation’ of relations between Israel and its other Middle Eastern client states in its competition with imperialist China.

Publicly the Zionists’ goal is to ‘destroy Hamas’. However, their real aim is the total ethnic cleansing of Gaza. They intend to create conditions so dire that the citizens of Gaza are forced to flee or die. While this would rank as one of the most brutal atrocities ever committed, it could be a mere prelude to further assaults on the Palestinian nation as a whole, with an attempt to annex the West Bank.

However, the mass solidarity movements of the working class throughout the world have shaken Israeli confidence, as well as its Western backers. Normalising relations between Israel and its neighbours is off the agenda, further frustrating US ambitions in the region after its debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite its military force and Western support, the Zionist state is internally divided and fragile behind its appearance of national unity.

The pressure of the international working class can also have an impact on the advanced layers of the Israeli working class, convincing them to oppose this genocide and to break decisively from Zionist ideology. Here, in Britain, our task is to bring committed activists together in local meetings of the whole movement, with the goal of building a United Front for a Free Palestine.

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