Fifteen Theses on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


All too frequently the mainstream media in the United States treats the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a timeless confrontation between eternal enemies – Arabs and Jews. But the crisis in Israel/Palestine is not an ahistorical one. It grew out of material social conditions, economic processes and the political decisions of governments and peoples. And the parties to the conflict are not abstract entities, but complex communities, each with its own array of ideologies, politics, and internal conflicts. The following fifteen theses attempt to succinctly summarize the history of this conflict to better illuminate the contemporary situation and the factors inhibiting a just and peaceful settlement.

Historical Overview

Ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely, their configurations of power, also being studied.– Edward Said

First Thesis: The history of the Middle East, including the history of Israel/Palestine, has been decisively shaped by the region’s strategic geopolitical, commercial and theological importance in the world and for the world economy.

From earliest times, the Middle East has been strategically important as a vital crossroads and commercial link between Europe, Asia and Africa. In modern times, its economic and commercial importance has been greatly enhanced by its extensive oil reserves. The fact that the Middle East is the source of three of the world’s major world religions likewise has been a critical factor in its history, not only in terms of the motivation of its inhabitants, but also in terms of the way it has been viewed by religious-minded outsiders. These factors have subjected the Middle East to repeated interference on the part of outside powers.

Second Thesis: The history of the Middle East has been decisively shaped by the impact on it of successive imperialisms. For centuries, the peoples of the Middle East have been dominated by a succession of imperialist powers that have oppressed them and exploited their resources. From the 16th century to the end of World War I, the Middle East was a part of Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rule retarded economic development and blocked the development of modern nation states. After World War I, Britain and France dominated the region, fostering the consolidation of corrupt ruling elites and playing off various national and ethnic groups against one another. In Palestine, which was under British rule, Jewish immigration was fostered and Jews were pitted against Arabs in a bid to maintain English control by “divide and rule” tactics. After World War II, the United States became the dominant power in the region, balancing support for corrupt ruling elites in the Arab countries and the state of Israel based on Cold War considerations and the desire to guarantee continuing access to oil reserves.

Third Thesis: The history of the Middle East has been decisively shaped by the combined effects of national and class struggles.

Every country and people in Middle East has struggled to overcome the domination of imperialism, to forge their own national identity, and to fight for independence and statehood. These efforts have been characterized by a complex combination of national and class struggles. National struggles have been fought over whether countries should be democratic or authoritarian, secular or theocratic, and ethnically inclusive or exclusive. At the same time, various classes in each country and in each national movement have fought over how the resources and wealth of these states should be allocated (to the benefit of oligarchies or the people), and whether economies should be organized along capitalist or socialist lines. The histories of both the Israeli and Palestinian communities have been characterized by this same combination of national and class struggles.

Fourth Thesis: A central tragedy of recent Middle Eastern history and a critical contributing factor in the current crisis is the extent to which democratic and left forces within the region have suffered major defeats over the last 20 years.

Internationally, the last twenty years have witnessed the triumph of global capitalism, and with it, victories of dependency over independent development, selfish oligarchies over popular social movements, religious fundamentalism over secularism, and reaction against the left. Developments in the Middle East have also been marked by this same dynamic. In the Middle East, the results of this process have been a dramatic weakening in the power and influence of precisely those democratic, progressive and secular forces in the region that have been most committed to a just and peaceful solution to the Israel/Palestine crisis.

Zionism and the State of Israel

The responsibility for the tragedy Of the European Jews, for Auschwitz, Majdanek, and the slaughters in the ghetto, rests entirely on our Western bourgeois “civilization,” of which Nazism was the legitimate, even though degenerate offspring. Yet it was the Arabs that were made to pay the price for the crimes the West committed towards the Jews.

Isaac Deutscher

Fifth Thesis: Zionism can only be understood in its full complexity as (1) a political expression of the mass movement of the Jewish people and (2) as the national myth of the state of Israel.

Zionism — the desire of Jews for a country of their own — arose in the 1890s as a response to a real crisis in the life of European Jewry: the growth of modern anti-Semitism and the increasing inability of many European societies to accept Jews as citizens with equal rights. Zionism’s historical strength as political movement derived from its ability to attract elements from across the class and political spectrum of Jewish communities and from the concrete results of its pioneering efforts in Palestine. The Zionist movement was inclusive enough to encompass activists from the far right to the extreme left and many positions in between. As a result, any attempt to reduce the movement as a whole to one of its components (“Zionism = racism”) is simplistic and misleading. Today Zionism endures largely as a result of its continuing status as the national myth of Israel: the realization of the dream of Jewish self-determination and statehood.

Sixth Thesis: Zionism’s greatest failure and one of its enduring legacies has been its refusal to acknowledge and accept the legitimacy of the national and social aspirations of the Palestinian people.

Zionism was predicated on the right of the Jewish people to realize their collective and individual aspirations in a nation-state of their own in Palestine. The majority of the Zionist movement, however, never adequately addressed and acknowledged the fact that another people living in Palestine had the same aspirations and the same right. This failure has had profound consequences not only for the Palestinian people whose rights have been denied, but also for the Israelis whose myopia on this critical issue has contributed to keeping them at war with their neighbors for the past sixty years.

Seventh Thesis: The current Israel/Palestine conflict had its origins in the 1948 war that followed the UN’s decision to create two states in Palestine, and the failure of the post-war settlement to adequately address the needs of either people.

At the end of World War II the issue of the future of Palestine was placed before the United Nations. Two options were debated: creating a single, bi-national state of Arabs and Jews, or the partition of the area into two separate states. In the end, the decision was made to create two states according to a plan acceptable to neither side. The result was a war between the newly created Israel and the surrounding Arab states and a catastrophe for the Palestinian people. From it, Israel emerged triumphant over the poorly trained and coordinated Arab armies, while the Palestinian state-to-be was stillborn, dismembered and divided between Israel and Jordan.

The outcome of the war was an historic failure with long term consequences for the region. In forcing Palestinians to leave their ancestral homes for squalid refugee camps in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, Israel sowed the seeds of future violence and dreams of revenge. By thwarting the creation of their own state, it dashed Palestinian aspirations for self-determination. By giving rise to a permanent state of war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, it failed to create a secure homeland for Israeli Jews.

Eighth Thesis: Israel — a small country in a state of war with the hostile Arab world surrounding it — has only been able to survive by opting to serve as a client state of western imperialism.

From its origins, Israel’s existence has required continuous massive economic and military support from abroad, principally from the United States. This aid has never come without a price. In exchange, Israel has allowed itself to become a surrogate for Western interests in their struggle against revolution in the developing world in general and in the Arab world in particular. The consequences of this decision on Israel’s internal life have been momentous. It has profoundly distorted its economic development and resulted in constant war, social insecurity, distorted economic development, and an increase in racism, national chauvinism, and religious fundamentalism.

Ninth Thesis: Since its conquest of the occupied territories in the 1967 war, Israel has become a powerful colonialist-settler state in its own right.

The 1967 war and the Israeli conquest and retention of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem dramatically altered the political dynamics of the region. While the 1948 war created the Palestinian refugee situation, the 1967 war brought the Palestinian masses under Israeli domination. Israel is now a bi-national state, but without equality between the two national communities. Palestinians citizens of Israel (inside the pre-1967 borders) face systematic discrimination while their communities are overlooked in the allocation of investments and government assistance. In the occupied territories, military rule and pervasive violence brutalizes Palestinians while their lands and other resources are being systematically plundered through the creation of new Israeli settlements.

The Palestinian National Liberation Movement

The Palestinian people now assert their right to no more that what the Jewish people of Israel claim for themselves: a sovereign state at peace with its neighbors.

Joel Beinin

Tenth thesis: The Palestinian national movement, like the Zionist movement before it, can only be understood in its full complexity as a multi-class, multi-political popular movement.

From its origins in Pan Arabism in the 1890s, the development of the Palestinian liberation movement has been characterized by efforts to forge its own national identity to create viable institutions, and to develop a stable base of popular support. Devastated by the 1948 war, it was revitalized by the emergence of armed guerilla groups in the late 1950s, and the subsequent creation of the PLO. The movement’s influence expanded dramatically after the 1967 war, and beginning with the first intifada in 1987, the Palestinian struggle has became nothing less than a mass uprising of the entire population of the occupied territories.

Like the Zionist movement before it, the Palestinian national liberation movement encompasses a wide range of political positions, and reflects a variety of strategies and tactics. Just as the effort to characterize “Zionism as racism” reduces a complex phenomenon to a one-sided caricature, the perception that the Palestinian movement is primarily a military or “terrorist” phenomenon fails to grasp its breath and complexity. Eleventh Thesis: The Palestinian national movement has been decisively shaped by its historical dependence on neighboring Arab states and the failure of the “Arab revolution.”

Since 1948, the Palestinian national movement has been dependent on support from the rest of the Arab world, financially, and as a base from which to operate against Israel. Just as Israel’s dependence on the United States strongly shaped and distorted its economic and social development, the fact that the Palestinian movement had to stay in the good graces of authoritarian Arab regimes profoundly shaped its nature and development. This influence has been reflected in a relative absence of democracy and transparency in the structures and institutions of the Palestinian movement and Administration, a culture of corruption and bureaucracy, and the systematic marginalization and isolation of revolutionary and other secular left wing tendencies.

With the decline of radical national and socialist trends within the Arab world itself since the 1960s and the spectacular growth of Islamic fundamentalism, these anti-democratic and non-secular influences in the Palestinian movement have become even more pronounced. The popularity of the Hamas movement and the increased use of violence against Israeli civilians within its pre-1967 borders are reflections of the extent to which the decline of the Palestinian left and popular dissatisfaction with Arafat’s leadership has been exploited by reactionary political and religious forces.

The Current Situation and the Factors Inhibiting a Just and Peaceful Solution.

Human beings make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

Karl Marx

Twelfth Thesis: The Israel/Palestine conflict is a conflict of competing nationalist movements seeking their own homeland in the same territory. It can only be resolved by recognizing each community’s right to self-determination and negotiating a sharing of the land between the two peoples.

The Palestinian community is not religiously homogeneous. It contains Muslims, Catholics, and a variety of Orthodox Christians. Most Israelis, while Jews by birth, are not religious, and among the religious there are a wide range of views on the occupation and Palestinian rights. For these reasons, it is a mistake to see this conflict as a religious one. It is not a religious, but a national conflict.

Over the last 60 years, two nations have emerged and consolidated themselves in this disputed area: and Israeli Jewish one and a Palestinian Arab one. Any solution to the current conflict that would deny the rights of either community to self-determination and a homeland of its own is fundamentally anti-democratic and cannot lead to a peaceful resolution. At the present time, the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem prevents such a resolution. Israel must withdraw from the territories, dismantle the settlements, and recognize the right of the Palestinian people to full statehood and independence there.

Thirteenth Thesis: The US, as the sole remaining world superpower, is now more than ever a decisive factor in the region, yet its policies are a major impediment to a just and peaceful solution to the current crisis.

The United States, by its policies and its influence on Israel and the Arab states alike could play a positive role in the region in favor of peace. Unfortunately, by its wholehearted support for the most reactionary sections of the Israeli political and military establishment on the one hand, and reactionary and fundamentalist Arab oil regimes on the other, it is promoting those forces in the region least interested in a peaceful and just solution to the crisis. US claims that Palestinian “terrorism” is preventing a negotiated settlement are cynical in the extreme. By refusing to apply pressure on Israel to enter into sincere negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, the US is helping to deny Arafat precisely the diplomatic victory he need to enable him to reassert his authority over Palestinian extremists and proponents of violence against civilians.

Fourteenth Thesis: The weaknesses of Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority and the political strategy it has pursued have complicated the development of the Palestinian national struggle.

The Palestinian administration of Arafat is the de facto government of the Palestinian nation-state in formation. There is no viable alternative to it, yet it is profoundly weak — supported by most Palestinians as a symbol of their struggle, not for its positive program or its practices. Arafat continues to be supported by conservative Arab regimes, and middle class Palestinians outside of the occupied territories, but the failures and abuses of the Palestinian Authority have become increasingly obvious to all in the West Bank and Gaza.

Perhaps most problematic has been the two-fold political strategy that Arafat has pursued. On the one hand, enormous time and energy has gone into diplomatic efforts in the international community to initiate peace negotiations. At the same time, however, there has been a continued pursuit of the military struggle against the Israelis in order that Arafat not be outflanked by more radical Palestinian elements. This strategy is nonetheless fundamentally flawed and contradictory as each pole of the strategy acts to restrain and undermine the other. There is an urgent need for a democratic, secular and progressive political alternative to both Hamas and the Arafat regime in the Palestinian community.

Fifteenth Thesis: The continuing political domination of the most reactionary and militarist sections of Israeli society is a principal source of violence and instability in the region and the greatest obstacle to a just and peaceful solution to the crisis.

Since the 1970s, a political bloc of extreme right-wing secular parties, religious fundamentalists and new immigrants have been able to dominate Israeli society, pushing it in an increasingly more reactionary, militarist and anti-democratic direction. The brutal policies of this bloc in relation to the Palestinian national movement are morally indefensible and fundamentally bankrupt. Military force will never be able to keep an entire people in bondage, prevent the continuing cycle of violence, or keep the absence of a just and peaceful settlement from profoundly disrupting of the life of both communities. Nor will Israel be able to find a Palestinian negotiating partner willing to surrender or bargain away the demands for an end to the occupation and for the creation a Palestinian state.

Unfortunately however, at the present time, the Israeli left lacks the popular support and the political clout to constitute a viable alternative to the current governing coalition. Its strength is expressed most clearly in civil society, in efforts to build bridges to the Palestinian community, and in organizing against the occupation within and without the army.

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