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International Socialism, October 1977


Notes of the Month

Middle East

Towards Another War?


From International Socialism (1st series), No.102, October 1977, p.5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The decision by Israeli Army to set up three border posts inside the south of Lebanon highlights the fact that war is nearer in the Middle East than at any time in the past four years. For Israel's rulers, and even more for the shaky Arab regimes, a new war could work wonders in diverting working-class frustrations away from domestic issues towards an external enemy. The Palestinians are caught in a vice forged out of the conflicting interests of various ruling classes.

The last two years have been attempts to “de-radicalise” the whole region – a process which necessarily means the smashing of the Palestinian resistance movement. At the height of the Civil War in the Lebanon two years ago Syrian troops intervened, ostensibly to help the Palestinian and Muslim left against the semi-fascist Christian right. It very quickly became clear that the real object of the exercise was to police the Palestinians, in particular the groups of the “Rejection Front” who refuse a negotiated settlement with Israel and call for a continuation of the armed struggle. The Syrian Army confined the guerillas to Beirut and limited areas of the south and disarmed whole sections. The movement was more seriously weakened than at any time since the war of 1967.


This move was supported by most of the Arab regimes, in particular by the richest – Saudi Arabia, and by the traditional leader of “confrontation” with Israel – Egypt. The contradiction in the plan was that it gave Syria the opportunity to dominate the Northern and Eastern borders with Israel and to begin to set up a new “Greater Syria”. This is planned to consist of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and a West Bank Palestinian ministate. President Asad, ruler of Syria, began to strengthen economic links with Jordan and to rehabilitate King Hussein of Jordan (who had ordered the massacre of Palestinians in 1970) in the eyes of the PLO leaders. If this plan succeeded it would give Syria a dominant position in the region.

Neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia are prepared to see this happen. Sadat, the former hero of the 1973 war, has now developed into a fawning puppet of the USA, which has a virtual option on large chunks of the Egyptian economy. The Saudis, of course, are long-time friends of American Imperialism and their oil wealth gives them massive influence in the area. They are more concerned with the stability of the world economy and their continued accumulation of wealth than with any “fraternal” feelings for the Palestinians.


Thus their support for the initial Syrian invasion has been reversed and Asad has been isolated. The flow of Saudi cash into the Syrian economy has been cut off and the Saudis now arm and aid the Lebanese Christian Phalange. They and the Egyptians continue to press the PLO to accept United Nations Resolution 242, which recognises the Israeli state.

The Israeli elections, which brought to power the Likud coalition of right-wing parties under Menachem Begin, has speeded up the split. The new Israeli government reject all talk of compromise with the Palestinians over the occupied territories and have adopted an aggressive expansionist policy.

The paymaster of the Israelis is, as it has always been, the USA and, despite Carter's speeches calling for a Palestinian homeland, the American ruling class have no intention of dropping their support for Zionism. They have recently supplied new sophisticated weaponry to Israel, whose forces are now stronger and more confident than at any time since the 1973 war. Continued American backing and the splits in the Arab camp have given the Begin government the confidence to intensify their attacks on the Palestinians in the South of Lebanon with frequent shelling of refugee camps in support of the Christian forces.

This has placed Asad in a new dilemma. On the one hand, his isolation from the rest of the Arab states has forced him to reverse his attitude to the PLO. The intransigence of the Begin government has strengthened the 'rejectionist' forces inside the PLO which, despite the pliability of its leader Yassar , Arafat, has now formally rejected Resolution 242. Asad has drawn closer to them. He has avoided full implementation of the Cairo Agreement for limiting guerilla movements. He has strengthened the Palestinian forces on the Israeli border, moving units of the Syria-controlled Al-Saiqa into the area. He has resumed contact with the Russians and is using the movement he tried to smash to give his regime a new air of radicalism and defiance.

On the other hand, any such moves bring him into sharper conflict with the Christian right and their backers in Saudi Arabia and Israel. They are demanding that Asad control the Palestinians or face the consequences of renewed war. Any such conflict would certainly see the Israeli army invading Southern Lebanon, at least as far as the Litani river and butchering or uprooting hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. The Syrians are in no position to fight a new war against Israel on their own. All of their best troops are tied down in the Lebanon and any major conflict would result in a crushing Israeli victory.

A new war, then, is on the agenda, but it is likely to be a 'limited' war, probably fought out by proxy in the Lebanon with the various contending factions using the Palestinians and Christians to do the fighting for them. There is always the possibility that such a conflict escalating rapidly, with various local ruling classes seeing it as a heaven-sent opportunity to divert internal revolt.

The Palestinians are likely to be the losers in any conflict. They can count no friends among the 'frontline' Arab states and their chief concern must be over Syria's intentions. The possibility of their surviving as an organised movement in the Lebanon after another attack as vicious as the last must be slim. The pressing problem for the Palestinians is to learn how to fight reactionary Arab states as effectively as they fight Israelis and Christians.

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