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Israel: a choice of Zionist reaction at the polls

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Squeezed by a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and a collapsed "peace process" on one side and a resurgent Zionist far right on the other, Israel’s prime minister Ehud Barak's gambled that new elections on 6 February would allow him to renew his mandate.

Now it looks as though his gamble will backfire as Areil Shron sweeps all before him. But whoever wins, the deep divisions inside Israel will not go away.

Zionism does not speak with one voice, rest on a common social base or pursue a single set of political objectives. As dramatic events like the assassination of prime minister Yitzak Rabin by a far-right Israeli in 1996 showed, Zionism can be at war with itself while murdering Palestinians.

Israel is a society divided not just by class, but also shot through with ethnic and religious tensions. These have their origins in the racist ideology which justified the state's creation in 1948, and it is the ways in which these class and other divisions overlap and collide which explain the conflict between Israel's political parties.

The Labour party, often wrongly presented abroad as the party of peace, is the party most closely tied up with the state bureaucracy and its political elite. Its supporters regard it as the founder of the Israeli state and the natural party of government.

Its origins lie in the Mandate period between 1918 and 1947, when British imperialism oversaw Jewish emigration to Palestine and the de facto establishment of a "Jewish national home" there. The Jewish Agency, set up by the British as an autonomous colonial administration, was dominated by Zionist immigrant politicians of Eastern European origin who brought with them the socialist-influenced ideologies of their home countries. Along with the Jewish trade union federation, the Histadrut, it acted as the organiser of Jewish social and economic existence under British rule.

This "Labour Zionist" tradition - having its origins in the socialist influenced European workers’ movement - knew that a Jewish colony in Palestine was doomed to overthrow if it existed as a minority privileged caste exploiting a native (Arab) majority, in the style of the European colonies in Africa.

But instead of seeing in this contradiction the incompatibility of socialism with the Zionist project, it drew the reactionary conclusion that Israel had to be built as a state and society of all classes of Jews. This is what has given the Israeli Labour party and its predecessors their particular character - as the party of the privileged European sections of the Jewish working class in alliance with the Israeli bourgeoisie against the Palestinians and other Jews.

In order to create and maintain a Jewish working class in Palestine, it was Labour Zionist trade unions that drove Arabs out of the workplaces and organised boycotts of Arab produce during the 1930s, and which instituted the apartheid-style exclusion of, and discrimination against, Arabs which culminated in ethnic cleansing in 1947-9.

This policy required a racist ideology of cultural and moral superiority over non-European peoples to give it justification, particularly given the otherwise progressive and democratic impulses of Labour Zionism's working-class social base. It is hardly surprising that this racist attitude later extended to those Jews of Middle Eastern origin who began to emigrate to Israel after 1948.

These Jews, the Orientals, came from a different, non-European culture, and belonged to different religious backgrounds to the largely secular European Zionists, whose religious affiliation, if they had any, was to Ashkenazi Judaism.

Like their European Ashkenazi counterparts, these Oriental Jewish immigrants often arrived in their new country dispossessed and socially isolated. Unlike them, however, they would continue to possess second-class status a generation later - a status that was enforced by discrimination in employment, education and housing, as well as by the stranglehold of the Labour establishment over key political and social institutions.

Their culture was denigrated, their loyalties questioned, and - in the case of many immigrants from Yemen and Morocco - their children taken away on arrival to be raised by Ashkenazi families.

The secular Zionist right-wing tradition in Israel, like the Labour tradition, had its origins in the overwhelmingly European colonists during the British Mandate.

However, it was in the minority amongst them, and did not become a serious electoral force until the 1960s, when it utilised the resentment of the growing numbers of Oriental Jews to create a constituency for itself. This is the historic social base of the Likud party.

Concerned that resentment against their second-class status might lead the Oriental Jews to destabilise the state or even to sympathise with the Palestinians - with whom they had more in common socially and culturally than with the labour aristocratic Ashkenazi - the right-wing tradition turned this resentment outwards, against the Arabs.

Thus it was that after the 1967 war, in which Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both Likud and Labour encouraged Jewish settlement in the newly occupied territories, while allowing a whole raft of concessions to religious interference in public life within Israeli Jewish society.

Examples include the establishment of religious schools in a secular state which previously frowned on religious education, state financial support for bread-winning male Torah students who don't have jobs as a matter of principle, exemption for religious Jews from army service, the growing de-secularisation of Israeli civil society and creeping attacks on democratic rights and free press. All this has created resentment among the Ashkenazi, who see their Western-style culture and personal freedoms threatened.

Another effect of the occupation was to allow sections of the Oriental Jews to move out of the position of a despised underclass and into the middle classes by becoming employers of cheap Arab labour from across the Green Line. It is this dependence on the spoils of occupation which has provided the material base for the hard anti-Arab line taken by the right-wing parties.

The post-1992 Oslo peace process in particular has accentuated these divisions. By recognising that a rapprochement and collaboration with the PLO would involve unpopular concessions on land, autonomy and security, Rabin and the Labour architects of the Oslo process inflamed the settlers and other groups, who saw their social position threatened by the Ashkenazi establishment.

The backlash against Oslo which claimed Rabin’s life and brought Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to power in 1996 saw a Likud-led government imprisoned by the extreme right settler parties over land and "social" issues.

Shas, the largest religious party, has emerged as a competitor with Likud for the votes of the Oriental Jews within Israel's pre-1967 borders. While pragmatic enough on settlements, land and the peace process to serve in Barak's Labour-led coalition (as well as Netanyahu's previously), it has proved a thorn in the side of the government's attempts to conclude a deal with the Palestinians, resigning from it after the Camp David talks last year.

Its political objectives involve a strengthening of the Orientals’ position within Israeli civil society, largely through state-funded attempts to alleviate poverty and encourage Oriental religious institutions.

Israel B'Aliyah is a recent phenomenon based upon the "Russians" - the recent Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Highly secular and right-wing, it takes a much tougher line in favour of retaining the settlements and West bank lands than Shas. It has found co-operation with other right-wing parties difficult, especially as the religious parties regard many of its supporters as not being genuinely Jewish.

Then there is the settler movement - religious but largely Ashkenazi Jews, often from North America, Russia and Western Europe, wealthy in comparison to the Orientals and motivated by extremely violent racism towards the Arab Palestinians in whose midst they live. They are regarded by the outside world - with justification - as the main obstacle to a peace deal.

While Labour has always been the party of pragmatic territorial expansionism, this movement regards the occupied territories as a sacred part of "Greater Israel", and fantasises about Jewish settlement "from the Euphrates to the Nile" - or at least in as much land as Israel can steal and hold.

The (Ashkenazi) religious parties from this tradition have always had a difficult relationship with the Zionist project. Their ideological predecessors in 19th century Eastern Europe regarded the worldwide Jewish Diaspora as a holy punishment for the sins of the Jewish people, and they viewed the Zionist project of a Jewish state as a blasphemous usurpation of the role of the coming Messiah.
These groups virulently hate each other, even if in the West they are presented simply as "the right" or as "opponents of the peace process".

Finally, there is the largest and most oppressed minority within Israel - its Arab citizens. These form some 18 per cent of the population. The descendants of the Palestinian Arabs trapped inside Israel after 1948 were mainly peasants or tenant farmers, already under pressure from Zionist settlers with designs on their lands.

After 1948, they found themselves non-Jewish citizens of a country which defined itself as the state of the Jewish people, wherever in the world they might be, rather than as the state of its own citizens.

They were subject to military rule until 1966, restricted in their political expression and excluded from the economic life and institutions of the new state. In particular, they were excluded from the universities by a deliberately under-funded education system separate from Israel's Jewish citizens.

Finding themselves gradually expropriated from the land, many emigrated from their villages in the Galilee to the large Jewish cities, finding work in the most menial and badly-paid occupations, and in the process competing with the Oriental immigrants for jobs and housing.

During the 1990s the economic and social position of Israel’s Arabs has deteriorated as they have been pushed down further in society by the rapacious claims of one or other section of Israeli Jewish society.

The Arabs voted for Barak in their overwhelming majority in 1999, helping him gain a majority. But the fact that Barak’s record has been in some respects worse than Likud has led to great disenchantment. Also, during the recent clashes in the Occupied Territories, 13 Israeli Arabs were killed during rioting within Israel. It is likely that the Arabs will abstain from voting this time, or even vote for an Arab candidate, thus depriving Labour of a large source of votes.

Israel is a country wracked by mutually conflicting projects, within Israeli Jewish society as well as with the Arabs. This is the result of the racist nature of Zionism and its oppression of the Arab Palestinians.

In the elections next month socialists cannot vote for Barak. He is clearly as far from being a socialist as it is possible to be. He is not "the candidate of the peace process". He will not inevitably be "a lesser evil" to Likud’s Ariel Sharon, as Barak’s record on settlements shows.

For socialists, the only answer is the revolutionary destruction of the Zionist state which rests on continued oppression and denial of democratic rights; a Zionist state simply cannot live harmoniously alongside a democratic Palestinian state without ceasing to be Zionist. We do not advocate that Israel be overrun from the outside by its bourgeois Arab neighbours, states that have no more care for the national rights of the Palestinians than Israel.

The Israeli state – an edifice of privilege and patronage – must be torn down by an insurgent movement of Palestinians under Zionist occupation, its Arabs "citizens" and by those progressive Jewish Israelis who can see through Zionism. These forces must be supported by mass actions of Arab workers in the region.

Israel must be replaced with one secular, bi-national workers' state in the whole of historic Palestine. Only in such a state can all the ethnic components of Israeli and Palestinian society find legitimate expression of their cultural, social and national rights. And only in such a state will there ever be a just and permanent peace between Arabs and Jews.