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International Socialism, March 1975


Phil Marfleet

Crisis in the Middle East


From International Socialism, No.76, March 1975, pp.25-28.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


MIDDLE EAST oil reserves constitute more than three-quarters of the known stocks outside the Russian bloc and China. In 1968 the Middle East supplied 90 per cent of oil consumption in Japan, 70 per cent in Britain, 80 per cent in France, 95 per cent in West Germany, almost 95 per cent in Italy. [1] At present, US reliance is less dramatic, but the production of American wells is falling, and becoming increasingly expensive. Saudi Arabia alone will by 1980 be capable of supplying 80 per cent of US needs. And Libya, with smaller reserves than the oil giant Arabia has as much oil ‘in stock’ underground as in the whole of North America including Alaska. [2]

One third of total US investment abroad and more than 70 per cent of US investment in the Third World is in oil. The export trade with US-dominated oil-producing countries has for years balanced the growing American trade deficit.

The West’s dependence on the Arab oil-producing states was brought home dramatically during and after the Israel-Arab war of October 1973.

The Arab states attempted a cut-back in production, which was not very effective. But they also enforced (along with their non-Arab partners in OPEC, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela etc) a price increase that was devastatingly effective. Oil prices now stand at 430 per cent above the level in early 1973.

The political stability of the region, a vital interest to the ruling classes of Western capitalism, has been undermined, partly as a result of the very policies they pursued to maintain it. Today the Middle East stands on the brink of a new war.

Israel and Imperialism

THE ISRAELI state, created by war in 1948 with the support of both the USSR and the USA and the reluctant acquiescence of Britain (then still the dominant, though declining, power in the area), fell almost at once into the position of a US client state.

In the territory that constituted Israel from 1948 to 1956, there had been immediately before the outbreak of war, 650,000 Jews and 740,000 Arabs. All but 160,000 of the Arabs were driven out in the course of the war. At the same time an energetic policy of Jewish immigration was sponsored by the Zionist government. By the time of the 1956 war there were 1,667,500 Jews in Israel and 200,000 Arabs.

These policies had two important consequences. On the one hand a large population of expelled Palestinians in refugee camps in the states surrounding Israel (and an internal population of Palestinians reduced to second class citizenship) ensured sharp and continuing Arab hostility. On the other hand the economic costs of Jewish immigration were enormous and required massive outside assistance.

Very large sums could be and were raised from US Zionists but only a major imperialist state, in practice the USA, could keep Israel afloat. For not only was a vast inflow of capital required. So too was tremendous military expenditure. As early as 1950 the Zionist state was spending 44 per cent of all government outlays on arms. Since that time it has become, in proportion to its population, probably the most highly armed and militaristic society in the world, possessing sophisticated weapon systems which otherwise only the super-powers own.

The USA was willing to supply ‘aid’ on this huge scale (in 1968 Israel got ten per cent of all US ‘aid’ expenditure) because it needed a policeman to protect the rapidly growing US investments in the Middle East and a strong but dependent ally to help it to dominate the area in its competition with the USSR.

’Therefore strengthening Israel helps the Western powers to maintain equilibrium and stability in the Middle East. Israel is to become the watchdog,’ wrote the editor of Har’aretz, a leading Israeli paper in 1951. [3] The aggressive, expansionist policies of the Zionist state strengthened this ‘special relationship.’ In 1956, and again in 1967, Israel attacked its Arab neighbours and seized territory greater than its original area, creating new refugees, a vastly greater ‘internal’ Arab population, intensified fear and hostility from the Arab states and so a still greater dependence on the USA.

The Arab States

THE ARAB states are of two kinds. There is a diminishing group of archaic, almost medieval autocracies with traditional ruling classes (Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Sheikdom etc) and relatively small populations. Until quite recently these states have been docile supporters of US (or British) foreign policy, apart from purely verbal opposition to Israel. On the other hand, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, have all undergone ‘revolutionary’ changes in the last 20 years. However, they are without exception ruled by nationalist governments whose closest ties are with their national bourgeoisies and especially with the growing military bureaucracies of the ‘Arab revolution’.

The principal actors on the Palestine scene also fall into two sets. First – Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Jordan is pathetically weak, and only survives on the huge subsidies provided by the oil-rich Gulf sheikhdoms and by the Saudis. Like Hussein, King Feisal of Saudi Arabia wants no more than to maintain and strengthen the status quo. But Feisal’s chances are much better. He commands the oil wealth of a nation with the greatest proportion of the world’s known reserves. Oil revenues for 1980 are projected at up to 50,550 million dollars (at pre-1974 prices). The Saudi rulers are closely linked with die USA, as Arab co-imperialists in the Middle East. However, they need to maintain friendships with the other Arab states of the region. They fear the power of nearby Iran, the possibility of an Israeli breakthrough on the border to the North and the liberation movements to the South – in Oman and Yemen. Feisal is a vicious reactionary, well-armed by the US, with a record of cruel repression against the small Saudi working class.

Egypt and Syria form the other set of directly involved Arab states. The former’s ‘Arab socialism’, as established by Nasser and the latter’s ‘Ba’ath nationalism’ are little different in practice. Nasser set the tone early in Egypt. The revolutionary regime established in 1952 ruthlessly crushed a workers’ occupation in Alexandria, hanging the leading militants. The precedent has been zealously followed, with years of repression, purges and anti-working class violence, with special attention being paid to the attempt at elimination of the Communist Party. In Syria, claims of a socialist intention are a charade. A whole decade of land reform has still left 50 per cent of the pathetically poor rural population wholly landless. Both regimes have been well armed by Russia, though in Egypt’s case the Russians have been kept at arm’s length.

Egypt and Syria have taken the brunt of Israeli aggression, and subsequently (1973) carried the fight back to Israel. They have received support and aid from the whole Arab world. But, as recent events have shown, the Egyptian and Syrian ruling classes have more in common with the imperialist ruling classes than with their own oppressed populations.

It is precisely through Egypt and Syria that the US has tried to open up a new relationship with all the Arab states. The present situation represents the conclusion of a development towards a more and more open collaboration between the rulers of the Arab Middle East and those of the West. (This despite the continued military support of Russia.) The US has now set up a bargain with Egypt and Syria. Egypt will receive aid and the promise of investment worth 2000 million dollars. Also the plant and skills to provide a nuclear capacity. Syria is to receive cash aid of 100 million dollars. The two economies will be opened up to Western capitalist exploitation on a new and vast scale. Cheap labour will be freely available. The Egyptian bourgeoisie especially, will cash in and strengthen its position. The US will get the guarantee of a friendly Arab government in the heart of the Middle East and close to the strategically invaluable Gulf and Libyan oilfields.

The US will not be able to control Egypt as closely as the Israeli working class has been controlled in the past. Anti-imperialist struggles have given Egyptian workers and peasants too strong an independent identity for that. However, in the long term the US seems to be moving toward a situation in which the principal Arab regimes (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Syria) may give the same regional guarantees of security once provided by Israel.

Palestine and the PLO

UNTIL RECENTLY the question of Palestine had been seen as simply that of ‘the refugees’; the problem of coping with the growing populations in the camps surrounding Israel. The problem was taken care of by organisations like UNRWA, the UN charity, which distributed rice and tents. Internationally the ‘problem’ is now seen on a differenrscale. Ironically, it was the Arab nations’ crushing defeat in 1967 which led to this transformation.

The Palestinians threw up a new organisation, new leaders, and a willingness to continue the fight against Israel on a new basis.

The PLO, which had been simply a diplomatic front, was itself constituted on a new basis, being formed of a number of organisations which sprang up in the two years after the 1967 war. The largest and leading organisation was Fatah, led by Arafat. (Others – the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, leading member Habash; the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, leading member Hawatmeh; Saiqa, backed by Syria; the Arab Liberation Front, backed by Iraq. Small groups, like the Black September, were short lived.) These groups took Up the fight themselves. They argued that the liberation struggle had to be led by the Palestinians themselves. They organised popular support amongst the masses in the refugee camps. They armed themselves and began to wage a daily war against Israel.

For the years from 1968 to 1970 the Palestinian guerrillas or fedayeen regularly attacked Israeli border patrols and made forays into Israel. By 1970 the regularity and ferocity of their attacks were such as to wholly preoccupy the Israeli forces and cause the Israeli government acute international embarrassment. The PLO proved its ability to fight, it proved that an active struggle could show success, and as a result, it was soon able to draw on genuinely mass support within the refugee camps, from the Palestinians scattered all over the region, and from the mass of the Arab population all over the Middle East.

But military success was short-lived. The initial effectiveness of the armed struggle built a number of bases, the strongest of which was in Jordan; from here the most successful armed raids were carried out. By 1970 the PLO had such support that, with between 10,000 and 20,000 guerrillas under arms, they were deTacto running daily affairs in almost the whole of the north and west of Jordan. The movement became a great threat to the reactionary King Hussein’s power. His largely non-Palestinian army was brought in to ruthlessly crush the PLO. They were driven out of their bases.

The PLO paid the price for being a strictly nationalist organisation. Despite its widespread popularity the movement had involved neither Jordanian workers or peasants. (Many of whom were in fact Palestinian). The PLO had organised among the declassed elements in the camps, eager to support a movement that was serious and active. It was not, and is not, a socialist organisation.

It did not attempt to recruit among those in whom the call to action could be rooted in a class experience and mobilise the power which a class movement can exert against the ruling class and against the state. The PLO was eliminated in Jordan while Jordanian workers stood by – not unsympathetic, but uninvolved by the movement, unorganised and unarmed.

After this defeat the movement moved into another, much lower key period of struggle. Despite the clear lessons of Jordan the PLO sank further, back into its nationalist position. In Lebanon, the largest remaining base, there was no attempt to fight with or for the Lebanese workers or peasantry. The PLO activists remained isolated within the camps. The struggle continued as a series of dramatic raids and hijackings. Activity was directed more and more toward the Arab governments who wanted to stand by, licking their own wounds, while the Palestinians were forgotten. Between 1970 and October 1973 the PLO was a shadow of the movement of the pre 1970 period. But then, and perhaps to the PLO’s surprise, the Arab states went to war, and the whole situation was changed again.

The 1973 War

THE ARAB states had been coming more and more under American influence. Yet in 1973 they went to war against Israel.

From the mid-1960s the failures of Nasser’s ‘revolution’ were becoming obvious. A growing workers’ and students’ opposition threatened the stability of the Egyptian regime. The war of 1967 gave strength to their movement. It exposed the weakness and corruption of the Egyptian military machine, the administration, and Nasser’s political strategy. It left Egypt without Sinai, the only source of oil, with massive military losses and a huge war debt to recover, and with the threat of Israeli forces just a few hours from Cairo.

The Egyptian system moved rapidly toward crisis. It came to a head under Sadat (who had replaced Nasser on the latter’s death in 1970).

’The distintegration within Egyptian society was far more profound than simply Sadat’s failings or the conflict for office of rival factions might explain. It was a disintegration within Egypt but also throughout much of the Arab world where petit-bourgeois nationalism had proved its disastrous limits.’ [4]

The signs were clear enough for the leading sections of the Egyptian ruling class. Opposition had to be diverted – Sadat mobilised for war.

’... it was widely evident that "national unity" for the battle against Israel was being used as a form of political blackmail against the masses; that regimes were corrupt and paralysed, while peoples were dispirited and alienated ...’ [5]

But the diversionary effect of the mobilisations soon wore thin. The students were the first to mobilise their own opposition. They formed Councils for the Defence of Democracy and the Homeland, with militant socialist programmes, and unconditional support for the PLO. They received popular support. Faced with the dangerous alternative of ruthless mass repression, Sadat went to war.

The war was fought for limited objectives and these were won. It was fought to induce Nixon and Kissinger to impose a more stable situation in the Middle East. Most important it was fought to contain and divert the threat of growing internal anger against the Arab regimes. In the short term this too succeeded. But the Arab regimes had only deflected attention from their internal problems by their advocacy of the Palestinian cause. The phrases of support for Palestine hid the real intent. The Arab victories of 1973 were victories for the most reactionary elements in the Middle East. But in the long run they have actually placed the continued existence of Israel in question.

Since the October War

SINCE THE war of 1973 there have been two main developments. One has been the organisation and effectiveness of the oil front. The other has been the change in PLO strategy.

The Israeli victory in 1967 was rapid and comprehensive. The Arab states’ confusion was so great that even a proposed oil embargo, designed to produce pressure on the Western states for a quick Israeli withdrawal, was quickly dropped. But by 1973 the oil producers were capable of initiating and enforcing a united oil front which has changed the balance of forces in the Middle East.

Their measures were a real success. They were seriously damaging to the Western economies. In the long term the oil front has acted as a catalyst to speed up the West’s reassessment of its needs, and its whole strategy in the Middle East. Since the war the US has practically reversed its public diplomatic position in relation to the ‘progressive’ Arab states. There have been a whole series of visits to Arab leaders, culminating in the much-publicised Nixon trip to Cairo and Damascus, sealing the massive aid programme and political deal between the US and the Arab states.

The second development concerned the PLO.

Even if only formally ‘in the name of Palestine’ the Arab states showed that they could challenge Israel successfully. The PLO had a power lever for the first time. In order to capitalise on the new position. Arafat (leading the most petit-bourgeois and nationalist majority section) needed full recognition on two fronts. First, within the Arab world, as formal leader of the Palestinian nation: second, on an international level, in order to influence Russian and American strategies. The Arab summit at Rabat not only recognised this first claim but offered massive funding to the PLO. After trips to the most important world capitals, the second claim was also recognised in a highly successful appearance at the UN.

The PLO’s success was based on the substitution of the idea of armed struggle until total victory for that of negotiation for a Palestinian state in the West Bank (of the Jordan) area – an independent ‘ministate’. This modification of the former more aggressive policy allowed the Arab states, a united bloc of Third World countries, and the USSR, to press Israel and the US for concessions. This was, it seemed, a ‘moderate’ and reasonable demand. But despite Kissinger’s trips between Tel-Aviv and Cairo, New York and Damascus, Israel refused to give an inch.

Israel – The Domestic Crisis

THE RISE in the cost of living over the 12 months of 1974 was around 50 per cent. The Israeli trade deficit climbed to 3,500 million dollars. Currency reserves have halved since 1973 and the national debt now exceeds 6,000 million dollars.

The Israeli ruling class are fully aware of the severity of the problem. On 10 November 1974 the government took drastic measures to try and reverse the slide into crisis. Overnight the currency was devalued by 40 per cent. The price of bread was doubled, that of sugar tripled. A list of rises and restrictions (including a limit on the import of 30 selected items) covered all areas of consumption. On that one day the cost of living rose by 17 per cent. Yet such is Israel’s terrible dilemma, that they were carried out against the background of the news that the great crippling burden on the economy was to be made more crippling – the defence sector was to account for a full 35 per cent of the total domestic product.

The government’s recent measures are intended to drastically reduce the amount that Israelis spend, and to divert millions into the government’s budget. The immediate aim is to improve Israel’s balance of payments by 700 million dollars a year, by a sharp cut in private consumption of 1,000 million dollars. But, as usual when such measures are taken ‘in the national interest’, it is workers who are hardest hit. Israel is no exception. It is the wage-earner and the housewife who is to be hardest hit.

For the first time since 1971 there have been significant demonstrations against the government. The poorest sections of workers took to the streets. The open battles against police were a protest almost unprecedented in Israel’s history.

What is most important about these demonstrations directed against government measures is that they were conducted by those poor Jewish workers who have been among the most conservative supporters of the government or the right wing parties. Although a movement has grown to protest against the racism of the Israeli system – where Oriental (Sephardic) Jews receive gross political and economic ill-treatment at the hands of the East European (Ashkenazi) Jews – Jewish workers have usually considered their privileged position, dominant over the Arab population, as more important than the struggle against the Israeli ruling class. Now class interest is just beginning to break through the racist and sectarian ideology of Zionism.

Israel is isolated economically. World Jewry can no longer afford to fund Israel in the old way. But much more serious is the US recognition that Israel has become less and less strategically important. Without the imperialist lifeline Israel cannot survive. Economic pressure weakens Zionist society along class lines.

The Coming Conflicts

FOR MOST Israelis and Arabs the question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’. The probability is sooner rather than later and that the Israelis will strike first, that they will move into Syria or Lebanon and that although Israel will enjoy some success at first, if the superpowers cannot find a diplomatic solution (and it will be difficult), that the Arabs can enforce a more prolonged war which could throw the whole future of Israel into question.

Time is on the Arabs’ side. Unless some quite unforeseen factor draws power away from Arafat, the PLO will continue to gather strength. The PLQ, Egypt and Syria will be more comprehensively armed by Russia, financed by Feisal, Gadafi and others. Since the 1973 war Egypt alone has received 7500 million dollars from these sources. [6]

Sadat and Assad will be not unwilling to go to war. The class struggle in Egypt is now more intense than at any time since mid-1973. This year inflation has been running at 25 per cent. Wage rises have seldom topped 10 per cent. There have been a whole series of demonstrations culminating in those of 1 January 1975. These were begun by over a thousand of Egypt’s most important workers – from the Helwan steel plant south of Cairo. They involved other workers and students in a mass march through Cairo which ended in a street battle with police. Their protests were directed against the government, rising prices and low wages. Slogans varied from shouts of ‘Nasser, Nasser’ to the anti-nationalist ‘Sadat, Sadat, Hero of Crossing (of the Suez Canal), where is our breakfast?’ The calls for national unity, and Sadat’s appeals on the basis of the victories of 1973 have clearly lost their appeal for Egyptian workers. Prime Minister Hegazy, who pushed through the deal with Kissinger, has refused claims for wage increases. The regime’s tactics are becoming more repressive and hysterical. Recently police arrested a group in Port Said for distributing anti-regime leaflets. They will be tried for inciting feeling against the government. Pressure on Sadat is mounting. When calls for unity fail, and as workers’ protests intensify, he may be tempted to employ the tactics of 1973. But these bought him only 12 months’ respite.

The fact also remains that Arab leaders are under tremendous pressure from the popular support for Palestine, especially since international recognition has placed the PLO back in the centre of events. Egypt especially, now has a huge standing army. Large sections are militantly pro-Palestinian and anti-imperialist. As Sadat knows very well the army has been a seedbed of Arab ‘revolution’. (Nasser, Assad in Syria, Bakr in Iraq, Numeiri in Sudan, Gadafi in Libya etc.)

Israel has few choices. Its only real chance of long term survival is by proving to the US that it retains real military superiority in the region. It must show the imperialist powers that it is not dispensable. This can only be achieved by a rapid and conclusive military victory. A prolonged battle would favour the Arab states. Hence the temptations to a surprise attack on Syria or Lebanon, a threat to Damascus, which would be so rapid as to prevent Egypt opening up a southern front. Israel could then test its relationship with the US. Any war in the Middle East is against American ruling class interests, but it would be very difficult for them to refuse Israel support. This is the contradiction the Israelis have to test out. The US needs Arab oil. However, the US is unwilling to see its military technology eliminated by the rival Soviet one. (After all there are few opportunities for really testing whether ‘ours’ are better than ‘theirs’.) And it will be difficult given the power of the ‘Jewish caucus’ both in big business and as an electoral bloc, and as a clear reversal of strategy, to publicly cut aid. The US has really tied itself in a knot around Israel. In the last instance it will almost certainly have to supply some aid. But it is unlikely to be on the scale of previous efforts, and it will use the threat of a complete cut-off to bring Israel to some sort of negotiated peace.

Any Israeli bargaining over her future security will have to be made against the demand for a West Bank state. This is the minimum bargaining position the Arabs are likely to accept. But even if in theory it was to be under Israeli/US/Saudi domination as a buffer state against Syria and Jordan, it would still represent a danger to Israel. For, here, in an area large enough to be an effective base for the assembling of an attack to free Palestine, no client government could be certain that it could contain the rising tide of Palestinian militancy. The idea of the concession of a Palestinian state creates both fear and fury inside Israel. The lands occupied in 1967 have already been settled. Israel regards them as an essential part of her future plans. This is a fertile productive and important agricultural region. Only as a very last and desperate measure will Israel concede a West Bank state.

In this situation the growing and aggressive working class forces are playing a fuller and fuller part on the general political scene. In Egypt in 1973 and again this year: in Israel in 1971 and in 1974 – workers’ protests are forcing the hand of their ruling classes. And the coming conflict will reflect in part workers’ own refusal to allow the imperialist ruling classes to make them pay for capitalism’s crisis. This time as the steelworkers shouted in Cairo, they want to be able to pay for their breakfast.

The actions of Egyptian and Israeli workers will play an important part in determining the course of events in the coming conflict. But in the Gulf too, workers have not been passive. Adeni workers, united with the rural resistance movement, combined to throw the British out of Yemen. In Kuwait, brief but damaging strikes have hit at the oil companies, and in Bahrein, workers have three times organised general strikes against the companies and the government. In Iran, where the working class is growing most rapidly, the Shah’s forces have so far had the upper hand. But here, where industrialisation is most rapid, the working class will be potentially the largest and the Shah’s power the most brittle. Iran has the fastest rate of growth in the world, the Gross National Product is planned to rise by 50 per cent this year. We can expect the Iranian workers’ struggle to gain momentum in the coming period.

Revolutionaries in the PLO and on the Israeli left have called for a socialist state to replace the Zionist class structure. They have called for a state in which Jews and Arabs will be able to live together, unoppressed by the common class enemy. The realisation of this aim is not an immediate project. But the first step toward such a state, the dismantling of the Zionist system, by way perhaps of a Palestinian state, may well result from developments over the coming period. It is now, then, that both Arab and Jewish revolutionaries have the greatest task before them – that of directing the rising tide of class consciousness towards creating a workers’ Palestine.


1. Tanzer, The Political Economy of International Oil and the Underdeveloped Countries, p.380.

2. Roberts, Middle East Oil and US Imperialism, p.3.

3. Bober, The Other Israel, p.17.

4. First, Libya, p.236.

5. Op. cit., p.236.

6. Middle East Economic Digest, 23.8.74, p.961.

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