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International Socialist Review, September-October 1969


Peter Buch

Palestinian Liberation and Israel


From International Socialist Review, Vol.30, No.5, September-October 1969, pp.56-64.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Israel and the Arabs
by Maxime Rodinson
(Translated from the French by Michael Perl)
Pantheon, 1968. 239pp. $5.95.

The Arab-Israeli Dilemma
by Fred J. Khouri
Syracuse University Press, 1968. 436 pp. $10.00.

The two years since the six-day blitzkrieg in June 1967 of Israel against Arab states have seen a significant shift, particularly among young revolutionaries around the world, in favor of the Palestinian Arab struggle for self-determination. “The picture of an embattled state threatened by hostile neighbors,” New York Times Jerusalem correspondent James Feron wrote last July 14, “has been blurred ... with a picture of a victorious nation astride conquered lands and threatening disorganized neighbors. A new hero in the Middle East, the Arab guerrilla, has emerged since the war. The plight of the Arab refugees, largely forgotten by many after their first flight two decades ago, has become a live issue again.”

Feron could have added that this support for the Arab revolution has not been divorced from reexamination of the origins, history and social forces behind the Middle East crisis. Discussion has touched on the role of imperialism, the history and program of Zionism, the nature of the Israeli state and society, the causes of anti-Semitism, the course of the Arab revolution and the Palestine liberation struggle – along with other questions, such as revolutionary strategy and political organization.

The two books under review are useful contributions to this discussion. Each serves in a different way toward clearing away the mythology and official obfuscation which has long clouded the whole subject. [1]

Professor Rodinson is a distinguished French Jewish sociologist, a recognized scholar in Middle East politics and culture who has taught at the Sorbonne for fifteen years. His book dispenses with heavy footnotes, charts and maps in an attempt to present a coherent thesis on the many complicated aspects of the problem. Based on wide scholarship, it is the best book-length treatment in English this reviewer has seen on the genesis and dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Rodinson singles out the chief issue:

“The origin of the conflict lies in the settlement of a new population on a territory already occupied by a people unwilling to accept that settlement ... The conflict therefore appears essentially as the struggle of an indigenous population against the occupation of part of its national territory by foreigners.”

Rodinson does not hesitate to criticize sharply the terrible weaknesses of the Arab states that are saddled with bourgeois nationalist and reactionary feudal leaderships, which restrict and ultimately derail a just struggle. But the major axis of the book is a devastating refutation of Zionist arguments.

Rodinson differentiates between the anti-Semitism of Europe and the anti-Zionism of the Arabs. He deals with the hoary religious claims, the myth of “socialism” in Israel, the dogmas of Western chauvinism posing as democratic enlightenment and desert fructification. He challenges the unfulfilled – and unfulfillable – Zionist goal of “solving the Jewish problem.” The tone throughout is calm, intellectually engaging, often eloquent and mildly ironic.

One of the cruder arguments cited by Zionist spokesmen in defense of establishing an exclusively Jewish state on Arab territory is the argument that since an independent state of Palestine never existed, no violation of Arab sovereignty was involved. Rodinson shows that this argument rests on the tacit acceptance of the legitimacy of Turkish and British overlordship which brutally suppressed Arab struggles for independence for over a century.

Rodinson details the sorry history of the period immediately following the first world war. In July 1919, the Syrian National Congress, meeting in Damascus, asserted the right to independence of a united Syrian state covering what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, and on March 8, 1920, it proclaimed the independence of Syria-Palestine. But on May 5, 1920, the allied powers who had fought to “make the world safe for democracy” met at San Remo, Italy, and announced their own plans. Rodinson writes:

“Without waiting for the meeting of the League of Nations, which was in theory supposed to ‘bestow’ the mandate (a new and hypocritical formula for colonization disguised as benevolent aid), the powers shared the mandates out amongst themselves.”

To deal with the Arab demands for independence, the French general Gouraud issued an ultimatum, marched into Damascus, occupied it and expelled the Arab leaders. Afterwards, Britain and France established their arbitrary frontiers, cultivated Arab rivalries and bought off different sectors of the privileged classes to fortify their rule.

The Zionist movement eagerly cooperated in these policies until after the second world war and objected only when Britain periodically betrayed it by concessions to the Arabs. The Zionists opposed Palestinian independence, land reform, representative institutions and any other measures leading to Palestinian self-determination before the Jewish minority could become a majority.

Only the Arabs of Palestine were prevented from taking the road to independent nationhood traveled by other Arab peoples. If Palestine had ever become an established Arab nation, all talk of founding a Jewish state there would have been condemned out of hand – no matter what the Bible said – for the colossal aggression it would necessitate. The Lord of Hosts delivered the Holy Land to the Jews when a host of lords, led off by one named Balfour, sent an imperialist army with a new covenant properly sanctified by the League of Nations.

Rodinson recognizes the imperatives dictating an intransigent struggle by the Palestinians but he can’t help wishing there were other ways besides “bloody revolution” to accomplish Arab liberation. He suggests that one solution might be for the Arabs to accept the “fait accompli” of Israel and let the passage of time heal the wounds as it has so often done in the past. Nevertheless, Rodinson resolutely opposes any moral condemnation of the Arabs for their probable rejection of such a course after the enormous injustice they have suffered.

Since Israel is not a major partner in the system of Third World exploitation, Rodinson reasons, and is mainly concerned with “survival,” she is not irretrievably wedded to her Western alliance. Israel’s ties to imperialism are “more a matter of political choice than economic structure.” If the outside threat disappeared, Israel’s policies might undergo a change. She could become a normal “Levantine state,” no longer driven to maintain a Zionist, clerical, fortress state. The Left-Zionist parties, according to this perspective, would be freer to contend for their more enlightened policies without risking the charge of treason under fire; many Palestinians could be allowed back without being feared as “fifth-columnists”; the decline in western anti-Semitism and in the need for Jewish reinforcement by immigration would enable a binational Israel to integrate more readily with the other countries in the region and move toward a neutralist foreign policy.

But Rodinson’s own presentation makes it clear that something other than physical “survival” is at stake for the Zionists, especially the Left Zionists. On the crucial questions of expanded frontiers and the return of the refugees, he affirms: “The Israeli Left is just as intransigent ... as the Right.” In fact there are indications that right-wingers like Dayan, with their schemes for “creating facts,” i.e., annexations of Arab territories and putting the Arabs to work on the lower rungs of the Israeli economy, are prepared to abandon the Zionist goal of “ingathering” of all the Jewish “exiles” – especially since new Arab labor helps keep Israeli wages down. The right-wingers apparently want to concentrate on building a “normal” bourgeois state where the Zionist-bureaucratic establishment merges with the entrepreneurs to become an ordinary ruling class, perhaps including store-front Arab “Uncle Abdullahs” in the administration.

But it is precisely the Left Zionists who are tigers for a special kind of Israeli “survival,” not as human beings only or as Jews, but as Jews within an exclusively Jewish state: one that finds a place for their collective farm directors, their party officials, their trade-union bureaucrats, within the ruling Zionist establishment; one that guarantees their title to the land and properties they grabbed from the Palestinians. It is the “survival” of these special material interests, tied up with the Zionist structure, that is at stake and which has driven the Left Zionists further and further to the right as one of the most dependable allies of US imperialism. This is true even if Israel is not yet motivated by the needs of far-flung capital investment and commercial empire.

History teaches that revolutionary struggle is obligatory when entrenched material interests are bound up with an oppressive social structure, and it does no good to lament this fact and long for miracles like the voluntary surrender of power by a ruling group, especially a new one that’s just learning how to swagger.

Twentieth century origins of the conflict

Professor Khouri’s book is a comprehensive blow-by-blow and resolution-by-resolution account that leans heavily on the vast number of relevant UN documents as well as many years of on-the-spot research and high-level interviews. The judicious, methodical use of this material, much of it pro-Israeli, by an author who sees great justice on the Arab side, clearly establishes the work’s scholarship and usefulness. Many key documents are reprinted along with a map and several important statistical tables.

Khouri meticulously outlines the principal arguments advanced by Arab, Israeli, Western, Soviet and UN-Secretariat spokesmen at each stage of the conflict, describes the resolutions, actions and political psychology of each party and offers his critical comments at appropriate points. His chapters cover the main issues and events from the days before World War I through the June 1967 war, including the Palestine Mandate, the Arab refugees (in one of his best chapters), Jerusalem and the 1956 Sinai war, with the major disputes over borders, navigation and water rights, “infiltrators” and development projects.

Khouri is a highly respected, American-born professor of political science at Villanova University who specializes in Middle East affairs. He advocates “staunch support” to the United Nations, whose “authority and effectiveness” must be strengthened as man’s best hope for peace. He does not deal with the social structures of Israel and the Arab countries, nor with the aims and struggle of the Palestinian guerrillas, except to condemn their activity as hopeless and provocative “extremism.” The book is consequently more limited than Rodinson’s and suffers from shallowness. But one cannot easily accuse Khouri of “left-wing doctrinairism” or “Jewish self-hatred,” a charge which Rodinson hazards as a radical Jewish opponent of imperialism and Zionism!

Khouri traces the conflict to the conditions of the twentieth century and not to alleged “age-old” antagonism between Arab and Jew. (The origin of Zionism – and anti-Semitism! – in Europe and not the Middle East already indicates where the antagonism actually flourished.) He believes that this modern conflict arose from British “indecision” and “conflicting promises” to the Arabs, the French and the Zionists; Zionist “impatience” to achieve their goals in disregard of Arab rights; and the political immaturity, rivalry and provincialism of the Arabs.

“Israeli Jews could then maintain political control of their state,” Khouri writes of the consequences of annexation, “either by disenfranchising the Arabs and treating them practically as a colonial people or by trying to expel as many of them as possible from their homes ... Israel could ... find herself facing a problem similar to that which had confronted Britain in the post-World War II period in Palestine – except that this time the Israelis would be playing the role once assumed by the British, and the Arabs, like the Palestine Jews, would seek through terrorism and civil disobedience to drive out their hated rulers. In short, if the Israelis annexed all the captured lands and they were to grant the Arab community equality of opportunity and status, as would be required under a democratic government, they could in time lose control of their state. On the other hand, if they sought to maintain Jewish domination, they could do so only by denying the Arabs political rights and treating them as a subject people – in which case, real democracy would cease to exist in Israel, and nineteenth-century imperialism would again rear its head to the embarrassment not only of the Israelis themselves but also of their friends and supporters.”

Apparently twentieth-century imperialism is not nearly so embarrassing!

What Khouri is pointing to is actually Israel’s “dilemma” right at the beginning of its existence. The original partition resolution gave the Zionists territory containing about as many Arabs as Jews – around half a million of each – with the Arabs owning three-fourths of the arable land. Under such circumstances, could Israel, dedicated as a Jewish state, ever have abided by the terms of the UN Charter and resolutions, or its own blithe promises of equality and fair play?

It is clear that the so-called Arab refugee problem must be recognized for what it is: the condition of a people that was first made alien in its own homeland by Zionist exclusionary colonization as a prelude to its expulsion, and then condemned either to exist as second-class citizens inside the country or refugees outside it. Palestinians today exist in both capacities.

“Little Israel,” allegedly surrounded by “forty million Arabs bent on driving them into the sea,” has actually always had more troops and better commanders in the field against Arab forces and, almost from the beginning, had better and larger arms supplies. On May 15, 1948, when Israeli statehood was declared and the Arab armies invaded, it had 35,000 to 80,000 troops against 20,000 to 25,000 Arab troops assembled from the five states involved. By October, it was 75,000 to 120,000 Israeli soldiers versus 50,000 to 55,000 Arab soldiers. (Only rough estimates are available.)

Right up to and beyond the June war in 1967, Israel maintained an equal or larger armed force actually in the field than the combined Arab forces and was not hampered by the deep rivalries, the low morale, the inept commanders, the long supply routes or the backward social structure of the Arab states. In addition it had the promise of U. S. intervention if it should start to lose a military confrontation.

Far from being required to ensure Jewish survival, Khouri shows, the actual purposes of the repeated armed clashes initiated or deliberately provoked by Israel have been to stake its claims to the “natural” and “historic,” i.e., Biblical, borders of Israel; to compel the Arab states to recognize and accept Israel; to force them to suppress the Palestinians’ resistance. Only overwhelming military superiority could support such a policy and only repeated “lessons” and “sevenfold” blows could establish its credibility.

“For example,” writes Khouri, “while secret negotiations were taking place between Jordanian and Israeli officials in September 1950, Israel, according to an Israeli scholar and writer, ‘encouraged acts of provocation’ to enable her to assault the town of Nakaraim on September 7 ‘in the hope of forcing the [Jordanian] government to come to terms.’” (He is quoting Rony Gabbay, A Political Study of the Arab-Jewish Conflict, 1959.)

Israelis thus demand “direct negotiations” where they can bargain from a position of strength for “peace” – on their terms. The Arab states have usually held out for third-party (UN) mediation, because “recognizing” Israel meant recognizing their defeat and consequently their weakness.

According to Khouri,

“Israel was the first state to develop a deliberate and official policy of retaliation. From 1951 on, the larger reprisal raids were made by military personnel using advanced weapons and military tactics. Thus it was obvious that the Israeli government had ordered these attacks, even though for a few years Israeli officials generally, though not invariably, denied any responsibility for them. By early 1955, however, Israeli authorities began to accept full responsibility for the retaliatory assaults made from Israeli territory.”

When the 1956 Suez nationalization enraged the French and British imperialists against Egypt, Israel saw a rare opportunity – fearsome UN resolutions notwithstanding – to join what appeared to be a winning team to apply its policy of massive military “lessons.” Ben-Gurion spoke of “Israel’s ancient right” to Gaza and the Sinai peninsula. Again, “Israel’s survival was at stake,” with 250,000 highly trained soldiers ranged against a total of 205,000 troops of all the Arab states combined, only half of which could be mobilized against Israel, and reduced still further by Nasser’s deployment of troops to meet the Anglo-French invasion at Suez!

A similar set of escalating clashes, designed by Israel to “teach hard lessons” and “accomplish” new “facts,” succeeded only in forcing Nasser to tighten his anti-Israel restrictions in the Canal and the Straits of Tiran, where he had quietly relaxed them over the years, and set the stage for the Six Day War, again fought for “Israel’s survival.”

Yet Khouri hopes that eventually the “more responsible” Arab leaders will avoid “provocative” policies and actions and successfully “quiet popular feelings.” But this has been – and remains – the policy of the Arab regimes – to “quiet popular feelings,” to “handle things” for the people and to maneuver in their name at the United Nations. When this doesn’t show results, except for black eyes, they bluster, fulminate, conclude reactionary alliances, blur over the issues and further demoralize the frustrated masses.

The role of the United Nations

Khouri hopes to use the United Nations to minimize further explosive incidents and to promote an atmosphere of abated tensions for peaceful negotiations. For him, the history of the Middle East in the last twenty years is a history of promising UN attempts to negotiate such tranquility, broken off intermittently on both sides by extremists, border clashes, reprisal actions, inflammatory propaganda, inflexible diplomacy – all arousing regrettable popular emotions – often under the misguided encouragement of the various big powers in shortsighted pursuit of their own immediate interests.

Nevertheless, nothing emerges more clearly from Khouri’s own work than the facts that the United Nations is unable to bring peace or justice to the Middle East and that it has been an active promoter of crisis, conflict and injustice. The UN partition of November 1947 gave half of Palestine to the Zionists and left the other half to be carved up by the contending Arab and Zionist armies, all at the expense and over the unanimous, steadfast opposition of the helpless Palestinian Arab people.

The opportunist Soviet support for this resolution must be mentioned. It helped give the resolution a semblance of the “consensus of the world community” that only incorrigible disturbers of “peaceful coexistence” could oppose. In fact, Soviet arms, supplied through Czechoslovakia when Israel could get arms nowhere else, enabled the Israelis to hold out and eventually ensured their military victory. (This did not prevent the new state from siding with the U. S. in the Korean War a little while later, but it did provide another example of the fruits of Stalinist foreign policy – the substitution of deals with bourgeois regimes for reliance on mass struggle against the imperialist army. The Kremlin hoped to “use” Israel against Britain.)

In reality, the United Nations was originally and remains today essentially an instrument of the imperialist powers, which enlisted Moscow’s aid to stem the postwar revolutionary tide. In dozens of resolutions, most of them nearly unanimous, the United Nations has:

  1. reiterated demands for the repatriation of the Palestinian refugees in Israel, or compensation and resettlement if they desired;
  2. opposed the Israeli annexations of 1948, 1956 and 1967;
  3. condemned the Israeli seizure of Old Jerusalem, the massive retaliations, the repressive occupation policies.

But as Israel had at least the tacit support of the United States, it did not fear implementation of these resolutions.

It is not surprising that a certain wistfulness inevitably creeps into the concluding pages of both Dr. Rodinson, the left-wing scholar, and Dr. Khouri, the liberal scholar, when they measure their hopes for the timely emergence of reason and human concern against the unbelievable impasse of blood, passion, and sordid interests which they have just described. Both of these eminent savants confront history as individuals standing outside any organized political tendencies, and their separate perspectives for a solution to the dilemma reflect their rather isolated positions.

Not even Rodinson, let alone Khouri, points to the fundamental reason for the rise of the Zionist form of Jewish nationalism, namely the advent at the end of the nineteenth century of the decline of capitalism as a world system. The development of capitalism had originally liberated the Jews and ojher nations from their feudal bondage but had not yet achieved their complete assimilation when, first in Eastern Europe, under the competitive lash of advanced Western technology, and then in Western Europe itself in the throes of recurring industrial crises, the ruling classes turned on them as handy scapegoats for the people’s fury, using anti-Semitism as a weapon against socialism.

The epoch of imperialism, which dawned with the struggles of the large capitalist powers over the redivision of the world market and colonial holdings, by the same token gave a mighty impulse to the nationalism of oppressed peoples, including the Arabs and the Jews, while at the same time absolutely ruling out a mere repetition of progressive bourgeois revolution and “nation-building” along classical bourgeois lines.

That means that the solution of the “Jewish problem” in this age of permanent revolution is inextricably tied up with the revolutionary struggle against imperialism, of which the Arab liberation movement has become a vital component. Recognition of this is especially important for the Jews, most of whom live all over the world and not in Israel. Zionism, imperialist mandates, the United Nations and small-nation building under capitalist auspices must be ruled out as the road to Jewish liberation.

The struggle to establish reason, human concern and justice as the social norm is a class struggle, requiring a certain class mechanism, i.e., a revolutionary socialist vanguard party of the Leninist type, to intervene in the historical process and to mobilize the workers, peasants, women, students and others, to break through the impasse. The creation of such a leadership party is the crucial task facing the advanced cadres of the Palestinian liberation movement as they carry on their struggle to regain their homeland and to win over the exploited majority of Israelis themselves for the overthrow of bourgeois-Zionist exclusivism and privilege. This is the real significance of the present stage of the Palestinian liberation movement, where revolutionary fighters at various stages of nationalist and socialist consciousness are being gathered who will forge in the course of their united struggle the program and leadership necessary for victory.


1. However Nathan Weinstock’s Le Sionisme Contre Israel, Maspero, Paris, 1969, remains the most comprehensive treatment to date.

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