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International Socialism, March/April 1976


Terry Povey

The Middle East:
An Overview


From International Socialism (1st series), No.87, March 1976, pp.20-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Traditionally the British left has been divided in two ways over the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. There are those who see the struggle as one between the competing nationalisms of the two groups. These have looked to ‘progressive forces’ within both camps to play a role in the dismantling of the sectarian aspects of the Israeli state.

Such a view abounds on the Labour left, in the Communist Party and even in some revolutionary organisations. What it ignores is the fact that Israel’s existence as a separate state is only possible because of its organic link with imperialism in general and with the US in particular. The sectarian ‘aspects’ of the state are not accidental or peripheral; they lie at the basis of a country who’s life began with the massive expropriation of Arab peasants’ lands.

The future for such a view must be somewhat bleak, hence possibly the explanation of their silence of late despite the considerable international debate currently taking place. This bleakness exists because the last eight years, since the June war, has seen every minor move towards detente in the area produce a consolidation of Israeli Jewish opinion by a move to the right. Jewish workers have, by and large, accepted the savage economic measures introduced to maintain fortress Israel. Their organisations line up behind the state machine i.e., behind Zionism and Imperialism. [1]

We have always argued against this position because we have seen the destruction of the Zionist state as an essential prerequisite for the freeing of Jewish workers from the chains of Zionism. At present, although classes in the strict sense exist within the country, they are all bound up in its defence (that is in the exclusion of the Palestinians from their homeland) in such a way as to deny them any significant role in the liberation of the Middle East. [2]

There are, again, those that have taken the Fatah line which briefly is one of the use of limited armed struggle as a means of putting pressure on the Arab states to unify against Israel. This position has combined together the romanticisation of the guerrilla along with the most cynical manoeuvring between the ruling classes of the Arab world.

This line also now stands rather exposed, for instead of Arab unity bringing about the progressive (that is reformist) alignment predicted, it has, so far as it exists, become an increasingly rightward moving bloc.

Any policy of manoeuvring between these States is now severely limited in scope, precisely because one of its precepts is that of non-interference within the Arab states themselves. That is, even as they move away from any fight against Zionism, you have to accept this and try and patch up a new front with them by moving the same way yourself – at a respectable distance of course!

The position of the International Socialists has always been quite clear on the central question for revolutionaries, namely what force will finally liberate the Arab East – the Arab working class. We would of course continue to argue that in so far as the Arab ruling classes fight Zionism we should support them in this. What this article will argue is that as a force that will fight they are now largely spent. This thrusts onto the stage the workers of Cairo, Alexandria and Beirut, of the Arab East as a whole, against both their own ruling classes and the duality that is Zionism/Imperialism and it does this, not out of our choice or theirs, but out of necessity.

Running through this article is the theme of the relationship between the struggle of the Palestinians and that of the workers of the area. For it is clear that the current position of Israel, Imperialism and the rulers of the Arab states makes reformist solutions impossible in the sense that a temporary reconciliation of the demands and needs of the Palestinian and Arab masses with the needs and demands of Zionism and Imperialism is impossible – without the defeat of the Palestinians.

The present round of talks about talks are aimed at searching out some deal that will stabilise inter-state conflicts and neutralise the Palestinians. The most fertile area for such a proposed deal has been that of the proposed West Bank state. It is because we see that this, or any other similar proposal, can only have a chance if the armed struggle of the fedayeen is ended and the movement in the Lebanon is crushed that it assumes such importance.

For us it is not a question of whether or not one supports Arafat [3] or Habash [4], just as in Zimbabwe it is not one of whether we support Nkomo or Muzorewa, but of the realisation that the objective of détente in both cases is the smashing of the movement throughout the region and an accommodation between the forces of rightward moving nationalisms and the prime agents of imperialism in the areas.

This article is also intended to be part of a debate with those Arab comrades who, whilst sharing many of our views on the Arab states and on Imperialism, still continue to feel that a West Bank state would be better than nothing. We invite them and others to contribute their views.

The Arab States

As a preliminary it is necessary to distinguish between the oil producers and the rest. For not only is oil the single resource exploited on any scale in the middle east but it is also one of the few raw materials that has more or less maintained its buying power internationally in the last couple of years.

The major exporters are Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the minor states of the Gulf together with the non-Arab state of Iran. Those without oil in any significant quantities are Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, ie, every Arab state holding a common border with Israel.

Again one should divide the oil rich states into two further groups, the first consisting of the monarchies and sheikhdoms of Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf with over 50 per cent of the world’s known oil reserves between them and with a notorious subservience to the US and commitment to the anti-communist struggle also in common. The second group has more modest oil resources, 15 per cent of the world’s known, between them and consists of Algeria, Iraq, and Libya. It is not surprising that it is the members of this latter group in alliance with some of the ‘have riots’ that have been the main driving force behind the anti-Israeli struggle to date.

Yet of these three, one at least has already almost dropped out of the progressive stakes. For state capitalist Algeria has been having to face up to the prospect of the exhaustion of its oil reserves by the end of this decade. So it has been busy making friends with the EEC and Kuwait, thinking no doubt that investment from the latter might provide the basis for an export drive to the former. This implies not only that Algeria will not want to shake the détente but also that the relative poverty of its own workers and peasants must be maintained.

This then leaves Iraq – which has just finished slaughtering its Kurdish minority – and the extremely erratic Libya. Both are notorious for putting their mouths where their money should be. Despite this, Iraq in particular still has dreams to oust Egypt and Syria as the leader of the Arab world. Neither is likely to play a determining role in forthcoming events for even in military terms both need their existing armed forces to control their own internal oppositions. [5]

On the side of the non-producers the crucial states are Egypt and Syria. Both are vying for leadership in the area, neither is prepared for the sort of struggle that could bring Israel to her knees. Syria’s main significance is as the single toehold the Soviet Union has left and as the main sponsor of the West Bank state scheme. Its policies are increasingly just a left variant of Sadat’s. The crucial factors at play in the area, then, are Egypt, the Palestinians and the situation in the Lebanon.

Egypt: The Death of Nasserism

In International Socialism 84 Phil Marfleet made a fairly exhaustive analysis of the economic situation of this, the most populous of all the Middle Eastern states. Hence this article will concern itself only with the broad outlines and with the role of Sadat’s regime in the area.

Egypt has existed in a state of acute economic difficulties for several years now, and its various attempts to reverse the decline have led it in the last 18 months into the détente camp and under its present leadership well away from any real fight against Israel.

The current annual deficit has doubled (from 1973) to $1.3 billion (1974). Imports also doubled in value and exports slumped. Food imports alone last year cost nearly $1.5 billion. By June 1975 Egypt had borrowed another $2 billion, and debt repayment for the rest of the year was to run at $175 million a month. The Egyptian government has been screaming; for foreign capital but next to nothing has arrived.

Egypt’s desperate and unsuccessful efforts to increase the size of the industrial sector illustrate the hard fact of the current situation – Egypt is firmly caught in the dilemma of a developing state capitalism. It has two conflicting priorities – military defence and rapid economic development. The conflict with Israel has meant that defence spending, which before 1967 took 9 per cent of the domestic product, now accounts for more than 30 per cent. And total production, in both the industrial and agricultural sectors, still cannot keep pace with the massive annual population increases – running at 1 million per year, up to 37 million last year.

And where, in its crisis, has Sadat looked for aid? Not to Russia to whom Egypt already owes over $6 billion but to the OPEC states and the US. It was almost certainly Nixon and Kissinger’s promise of $2.5 billion plus a ‘nuclear potential’ which paved the way for the deal with Israel on the Sinai front.

The price paid for this by Egypt was the recognition of Israel by an Arab state – the first ever – and 30 miles of desert. Needless to say getting the cash has proved more difficult and little of either the $7.5 billion promised by OPEC or the US money has found its way to Cairo.

Parallel with holding out the begging bowl to US imperialism and its allies has gone increased repression of its own workers, students and other ‘oppositionists’. In fact the ‘socialist construction’ appears to have come to a sharp halt signalled by 40 per cent inflation, wage rises for only the state bureaucracy, i.e., civil servants, army and police, the abandonment of almost all controls on foreign investment, the quashing of the five year plan and last but not least the amendment of the labour laws to make sackings easier. Well might the Economist of 28 June have cried out on its cover ‘Carry on Sadat’ for it’s not so often that a so-called anti-imperialist regime puts its whole economy up for grabs.

Yet the failure of any of the promises to be turned into hard cash presents the Cairo regime with the need for even more drastic capitulations to the western capitalist concerns that continue to hesitate about accepting the invitation to invest in them.

The basis for this reluctance to reap the benefits of the guaranteed cheap labour of Egypt by the multinationals is their fear that the regime cannot maintain itself when it is clearly seen by its workers and peasants to be abandoning all pretence of a fight against Zionism. For many years now successive regimes in Cairo have justified the overwhelming poverty of the vast majority of its people by grand rhetoric on the need to fight Israel, to build up its armed forces for the final clash etc. This was severely dented in 1967 but the willingness of the Palestinian fedayeen to fight on gave, ironically, new life to the lie.

So the threat of war was maintained but now it is this very threat which keeps the petro-dollars at a distance, tantilisingly close but not ever likely to be delivered until a permanent peace is established.

Therefore the regime of Sadat is forced by its own logic either to wage war not just on Israel but on imperialism as well or to turn on its own people and become ever more repressive. Workers, particularly in the industrial areas around Cairo, have shown a willingness to organise and fight for trade union rights, wage increases and improvements in conditions. These struggles herald the birth of independent organising by workers and open out the possibilities for a revolutionary party that will tackle the battle that the regime shirks.

One chance exists for Sadat to buy time and that is if the Palestinians can somehow be silenced. Then his regime’s failure to fight alongside them would not be out in the open. Hence the possibility for the workers of Egypt to take up the struggle for socialism and against imperialism in the near future is directly tied to the continuation of the movement for the smashing of the Israeli state. Reciprocally, the ending of the armed struggle of the Palestinians and its transformation into debates at the UN and around varying shaped tables in Geneva, is vital to the stability of the regime.

Lebanon: Precarious Peace

This state of around two and a half millions is unique in the middle east, a sort of mini-Switzerland with Beirut as an Arab Zurich. It produces almost nothing, with industrial production accounting for less than one eighth of its Gross Domestic Product, whereas services account for over 60 per cent.

The comparative prosperity, particularly in relation to other non-oil producing states of the area, of Lebanon as well as the size of its petit-bourgeoisie is due to this role as the banker, the middle man, and therefore the leading parasite of the institutions of international capitalism in the region.

In a survey published in the Financial Times last March the pre-eminence of the country in the banking field was noted, as was the equally significant fact that only 20 per cent of the assets were held by banks that had a ‘predominantly Lebanese ownership’. This same piece also made the point that the attractiveness of Lebanon to the world’s major finance houses was ‘certainly not the opportunity to participate in the economic growth of Lebanon but to secure a foothold in the Middle East and a slice of the enormous revenues emanating from the oil-producing states.’

Yet as the oil-producers begin to develop their own financial institutions so Beirut’s position has been steadily eroded. It is only in this context that the pressures from the Moslems and Maronites (an Arab Christian group affiliated to the Roman Catholic Church) can be understood.

From the Moslems have come growing demands for the basic democratic rights such as one man one vote and an end to gerrymandering – these rights have been denied them on the basis of a dubious census conducted in the Thirties by the allies of the Maronites, the French. This found that 51 per cent of the population was Maronite and has ever since been the justification for their complete control over the state apparatus – naturally all demands for a fresh census have been turned down. It is now generally accepted that the Moslems are in the majority.

For their part the leaders of the Maronites have demanded even closer links with imperialism and the reactionary but oil rich states in an attempt to maintain their positions vis-à-vis the Moslems. This has spawned an armed neo-fascist movement among the employees of the various banks, those that service them and their co-religionists in the rural areas who live on the cash crops they sell in Beirut (population 900,000). The Phalange, named after Franco’s party in Spain, is the largest of these.

The neo-fascists acted in the wake of the Israeli-Egypt agreement by massacring a busload of Palestinians just over ten months ago and this, in turn, launched the vicious civil war which has only recently been suspended. The war has left over 10,000 dead and lower level hostilities continue despite the policing of the Syrian-run PLA.

Yet this savage and bitter struggle has not proved to be the unmitigated disaster that Jordan was in 1970-1. [6] From the start the Palestinians fought alongside the Lebanese left – even the local Communist Party was armed according to some accounts! This left has grown and changed considerably in the course of the fighting, with many of the reformist leaders being left behind by events.

Acting together, this combined force of Palestinians and leftists were by and large successful in combating the right and those sections of the armed forces sent against them. The Maronites now only control a smallish area of the country and of its pre-civil war strength of 20,000 the Lebanese army now has under its discipline about 3,000 men – the rest having deserted to their respective sides. Hence just before the Syrian intervention the state apparatus was tottering on the brink of collapse, following over 20 abortive ceasefires.

To a large extent the success of the left forces was due to the linking of the struggle of the Palestinians to regain their homeland with the objective needs of the Moslems of the Lebanon. These can only be satisfied by the destruction of the power and privilege of the Maronite ruling groups, which, as the maintenance of them is the raison d’être of the state, means the smashing of that state itself.

The continuous calls of Sadat and other Arab leaders for an end to the armed clashes showed the fear they had that the situation in Lebanon might lead to a new war in the middle east and an end to their plans for détente. The difference between Cairo and Damascus is not essentially over whether or not there should be a détente but over what sort of détente it should be. Syria was no more prepared to see an outright victory for the left in Lebanon than anyone else, yet it needs the Palestinian threat, for the time being, as it has been left isolated by the Sinai deal.

Syria therefore did not want the left to win and could not afford for it to be defeated. So ultimately it was forced to send in its own ‘Palestinian forces’, Saiqa guerrillas and the PLA regular troops and to promote a ceasefire which these troops are now policing. The terms of this ceasefire reveal Assad’s intentions. They are equal representation for Moslems and Christians and otherwise no change except that the president will be a Maronite as a result of a verbal agreement rather than a constitutional requirement.

As a Moslem inhabitant of the Chiah slum area of Beirut said ‘all this fighting – for what? A few more Moslem deputies who will be as corrupt as everyone else.’ For like most Moslems he knows that unless the state apparatus that is instrumental in upholding the Maronite positions of privilege is broken up then things will not change. So the policing role of the Syrians may all too soon be transformed into one of defending the state they have for so many years denounced.

Worst of all this might be done and justified because it was said to be helping the Palestinians i.e., sensitive international negotiations over the Golan Heights and the West Bank require a period of ‘responsibility’ from Syria.

Today the Palestinians in the south of the Lebanon are free to train themselves and to make raids over the border deep into Israel – and one must not forget this is the only Arab border they can cross without being shot at by both ‘sides’. In the country as a whole there now exists the largest armed revolutionary group anywhere in the middle east and what is just as important it has not yet experienced defeat.

In the uneasy peace that exists it is already clear that Fatah and the other pro-West Bank Palestinians are all too willing to return to their days of ‘non-intervention’ that is to aid the Syrians to patch up the state apparatus. Already armed clashes have taken place between these groups and supporters of the ‘rejection front’ – who oppose any compromise with Israel and favour intervention in order to build up the revolutionary forces.

As with Egypt, the ruling class of the Lebanon desperately need some means of pulling all or most of the Palestinians out of the alliance with the left and into passivity. Then it will be able to turn what is left of its armed forces and the neo-fascist militia of the Maronites onto the rejection front and the left. No one should be in any doubt that the Maronites would not only win such a clash but that it would take the form of a pogrom.

So once again the continuance of the struggle for the smashing of the Israeli state by the fedayeen is central to the protection of the developing revolutionary movement in the Lebanon. Any serious weakening of this will have dire consequences for the whole of the Arab East.

The Palestinians and the West Bank

The West Bank is literally the portion of the Jordanian state on the western side of the river Jordan, which has since the 1967 war been occupied by Israel. It is seen by Palestinians however as a part of the Palestine state that they have been fighting for. Its inhabitants feel their identity as Palestinians (not Jordanians as King Hussein would have it) more strongly than those Arabs who have had to live under Israeli rule since 1948. This means that not only is Arab society still more or less intact on the West Bank but that resistance to the repression of the military occupation forces is still unbroken.

Up until the 1967 war the PLO had generally accepted the aim of the destruction of the Zionist state as the immediate demand. The defeat, however, was not only a military one. It was also a political one for the existing Palestinian leadership. Its perspective had been to rely on the combined armed strength of the Arab states under their existing ruling classes to do the job of smashing Zionism.

Hence in the wake of the war a considerable debate took place as to the alternatives. The immediate result of this was the removal of the old leadership and its replacement by members and supporters of Fatah – a nationalist guerrilla movement with a policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of the Arab states. Fatah placed the armed struggle to pressurise both the Arab ruling classes in particular and the world in general at the centre of the fight.

It was the emergence of this armed struggle under the semi-autonomous leadership (autonomous of the Arab states that is) that has kept the issue of Palestine at the forefront of Arab politics. Hence the proliferation of groups sponsored by the various Arab states which are, in almost every case, the mouthpieces of their sponsors within the PLO.

Simultaneously with this development has gone an even sharper debate over the quest for a short to medium term strategy ie, for some’ reformist demands to make on the world. It was in this context that the leftist PDFLP were able to win majority support for the raising of the demand for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza strip.

This proposal, from what is looked upon by many as the main leftist Palestinian group, is now put forward by Fatah, Sa’iqa and the other groups sponsored by Egypt and Syria.

Opposition to it comes in the main from the PFLP plus those groups sponsored by Iraq and Libya; they are organised into the ‘rejection front’.

The most sophisticated defence of this proposal still comes from the PDFLP which argues that the demand must be seen by revolutionaries as a ‘transitional destabilising factor, planned from the start as an anti-Zionist and anti-Hashemite entity by necessity’, i.e., a state at war with both of its neighbours. [7]

Unfortunately much of their argument concerns itself about the possibilities of such a statelet should it come into existence. This avoids the crucial issue of the how and why it can be achieved. For if this demand is the one being canvassed behind locked doors at the UN, revolutionaries must ask what does it mean for the struggle as a whole? What precisely is the relationship between this ‘short term’ aim and the ultimate objective of smashing Israel?

The only answers given to these questions and the myriad of others raised are a sort of blind faith that even if the state falls under Israeli and/or Jordanian hegemony ‘it may start a new process in which the Palestinian movement will be in a strengthened position to confront its opponents’. Furthermore, whilst it is argued that such a state must be fought for and liberated, how can this be done in practice in isolation from the smashing of the Jordanian or the Zionist regimes which between them physically surround the West Bank?

Given that Arafat and Fatah have no intention of taking on Hussein, let alone Israel, one can only conclude that they have an alternative strategy to achieve this objective. What this is can be clearly seen from the jet-set diplomatic whirl that currently engulfs the PLO leaders.

The consequences of this approach are inevitable. Firstly the role of armed struggle is minimised. As any particularly critical stage in the talks about talks is reached, it is likely that every effort will be made to curtail guerrilla activities. Equally the need for the help of not only the Arab states immediately involved, but also the highly reactionary OPEC states in the diplomatic manoeuvring, will drag the PLO even further away from its aim of smashing Zionism – for that certainly isn’t the aim of the Shah or the sheikhs of the Gulf.

The only basis for such a state to emerge is as a result of concessions wrung from Israel by the US with a view to destroying the independent armed struggle of the Palestinians in the whole region. Even the raising of the demand is damaging the movement and endangering it by diverting it from the only real objective it can hold – that of an unremitting war against Zionism and imperialism.

We would never argue that the Palestinians should not set up a ‘Palestinian national authority’ on any part of their lands that they succeed in liberating but we do argue that concessions from imperialism are only going to be made so as to harm them.


The existing relationships between imperialism and the Arab ruling classes, and also with Israel, makes it urgent for it to find some means of stabilising the middle east. For Kissinger and the US this has to mean the silencing of the Palestinians and the increased repression of the working class of the whole area.

If, in the interests of international negotiations, the PLO leadership abandons the left in the Lebanon, a pogrom could all too easily result. If they halt armed struggle then the germinal revolutionary movement in Egypt will have its prime weapon against Sadat removed.

The key struggle in the immediate future is not that of the direct confrontation with Israel but of that against the ruling classes of the Arab world. Revolutionaries must turn away from the sterile debates on the role of the petit-bourgeoisie and the peasantry etc in the middle east, as well as the endless speculation as to what Israel will do, and direct themselves towards the workers of the Arab East, the only force that can defeat imperialism, and with it its client state Israel.


1. Fortress Israel is no mere figure of speech. ‘In 1973 Israel spent $1.2 billion on defence, Including the October War. In 1974 re-equipment cost $2.8 billion and In 1975 the figure went to $3.2 billion. These figures mean that Israel Is spending a bigger proportion of gross national product on defence than any other country In the world; about a quarter of the whole working population of 1.2 million Is engaged on defence-related activities.’ Yves Robins, Israel Two Years After, in Armies and Weapons 21.

2. See International Socialism 64 for a full statement of this position.

3. Y. Arafat – chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and top man In Fatah, the largest of the guerrilla groups.

4. G. Habash – top man In the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the second or third largest of the guerrilla groups.

5. This is not meant in anyway to exclude the important role that might be played by the workers of Iraq in the coming struggle – in fact given their history their role is likely to be a significant one.

6. See Palestine by Ibrahim Ali in International Socialism 47.

7. See, for example, Merip Reports, number 33, the article by Fuad Faris, a supporter of the PDFLP.

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