Regarding the United Democratic Palestine and Freedom of Religion

Report by Moshe’ Machover
Published: 15/05/02

This is a slightly edited version of a recent contribution to an Arab and Israeli e-mail discussion

In 1962 I was one of the founders of Matzpen, (the Socialist Organization in Israel), which upheld a consistent internationalist (and therefore anti-Zionist) position, and organized both Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian-Arab members for common struggle.

I have not changed my basic views and political commitments since that time.

I fully agree that the 2-state scenario which underlies the Oslo accords (and is now re-hashed as the Saudi-US plan) is, in effect, a plan for a Palestinian Bantustan.

No progressive person can welcome such a prospect. And the fact that the PLO leadership headed by Yasir `Arafat has accepted this “solution” is a measure of its bankruptcy.

However, the formula of “United Democratic Palestine” raises several questions and issues.

First, it must be obvious that a Democratic Palestine – and in fact any democratic arrangement in that part of the world, presupposes and requires the overthrow of Zionism. The State of Israel, in its present Zionist form, must be superseded.

Second, it seems clear to me that the overthrow of Zionism cannot be achieved by the Palestinian Arab people alone, no matter how much they mobilize, and how many sacrifices they are prepared to make.

This is because the numerical and material balance of forces is very unevenly tilted against them. The Algerian and South-African people were in a very different situation, due to their great numerical advantage compared with their oppressors. The Palestinians are, alas, not so lucky.

So, any kind of democratic solution requires additional forces to mobilize for the overthrow of Zionism and replacing the present Zionist State of Israel by something acceptable.

This raises the question of allies: the Palestinian Arab people has vital and indispensable need for allies.

Who can these allies be?

The first and most important ally are the Arab masses, primarily in the Arab East (the Mashreq), but preferably also in the more remote Maghreb.

These masses have in fact shown great sympathy with the Palestinian Arab masses and their struggle. But the Arab masses in the whole region face a great obstacle in the way of translating their sympathy to an effective force: the Arab regimes. These regimes are, for the most part, subservient to the US and are objectively allies of Zionism. (The Iraqi regime seems to be an exception; but anyone who relies on Saddam Hussain, the butcher of the Iraqi and Kurdish peoples, for help will be bitterly disappointed. This tyrant is only interested in exploiting the Palestinian cause for his own purposes: continuing to rule over and oppress the Iraqi and Kurdish people.)

It follows that any kind of progressive democratic solution to the Palestinian problem requires a great upheaval and transformation in the whole region.

It follows that a progressive democratic scenario for the Palestinian Arab people – and of course also for the Israeli Jews – must be part of a larger scenario for the entire region.

Palestinians, like the other Arab peoples, are constituent parts of the Arab nation. In the heyday of leftist Arab nationalism (following the Egyptian revolution led by Gamal `Abd al-Naser, and other left-nationalist revolutions) it was made very clear that the Arab nation faces the historic task of national unification – a task that the nations of Europe have fulfilled by now, but which remains as yet unresolved in our part of the world.

Besides, a unification of the Arab East (say in a federal form) is absolutely vital for solving the economic problems of the region, because of the very uneven distribution of population and natural resources between the various Arab countries, whose borders were for the most part created by western imperialist powers, for their own purposes.

It seems to me quite unsatisfactory to speak about a solution confined to Palestine – whether as one or two or seventeen states – without answering the question as to the relation between the Palestinian Arabs and the rest of the Arab nation.

What expression do we envisage for the Arab nationality of the Palestinian Arab people? This question cannot and must not be evaded.

But the issue of potential allies of the Palestinian Arab struggle has also another dimension. A second important potential ally, which must be won over, is at least a section of the Israeli-Jewish people, primarily the Israeli workers. Without winning such support, it is very unlikely that Zionism can be overthrown; and certainly it would be infinitely more difficult.

But this cannot possibly be achieved without ensuring the Israeli Jewish people a future free from oppression. They will surely not wish to give up their role as oppressors simply in order to exchange it for the role of oppressed people.

The PLO tried to address this problem in the early 1970s by the formula of “Secular-democratic state, in which Christians, Jews and Muslims can worship in freedom”. But the adjective “secular” does not add anything to “democratic”. Of course, a progressive democratic state must necessarily be secular. In the modern world, inaugurated by the French Revolution, religion is considered to be not the affair of the state, but a private matter for each individual – who must of course be allowed to follow any religion s/he likes, or no religion at all.

Moreover, the “secular democratic” formula evaded the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not basically a religious one. Religious fanaticism (on the Israeli Jewish side) certainly adds another twist to Zionist oppression; and Islamic fanaticism complicates matters on the Palestinian side (especially in view of the fact that many Palestinians are not Muslims). But the conflict is basically not religious but national.

Like the Palestinian Arabs, the Israeli Jews are a national rather than a religious entity. It is of course true that this national entity has been created by an artificial and unjust process. But it exists now. A hill created artificially by bulldozers is just as real as a hill created by nature. It cannot be ignored.

While religion can be left to the individual, nationality by its nature is a collective matter, that must be addressed, in some form or another, by the state.

The formula of a “United Democratic Palestine” fails to address not only the question of Palestinian Arab nationality; it also leaves unanswered the question as to what national rights would be accorded to the Israeli Jewish national entity in the future democratic set-up. It is an illusion to think that any significant part of the Israeli masses could be won away from Zionism and attracted to an alliance with the Palestinian people, unless a clear and reasonable answer is given to this question.

Of course, within the confines of a *separate* “United Democratic Palestine”, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to secure national rights to both of the national entities living there – the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews. Remember that the size of the territory in question is only 27,000 square km. Moreover, even if as many Palestinians as one can realistically expect to exercise the right of return (which must surely be part of any kind of democratic solution!) will choose to do so, the Israeli Jews are very likely to outnumber the Palestinian Arabs within that territory. Given the history of Zionist oppression, it would be difficult to ensure the national rights of the Israeli Jews within such a state, without giving rise to a feeling of threat among the Palestinian Arabs. Moreover, such a small state can hardly be economically viable and prosperous as a separate entity.

But these problem can surely be successfully addressed within a larger regional context. Since in any case a democratic solution to the Palestinian problem cannot be achieved without a progressive transformation of the entire region, and since in any case the Palestinian Arab people would surely want to take part in the prospective unification of the Arab nation, a united (federal) Arab East would provide a context for the solution of all the inter-connected national problems. Within such a larger context, the Israeli Jews (along with other minority nations of the region, the Kurds and the South Sudnanese) can be granted generous national rights, without this constituting a threat to the Palestinian Arabs or to anyone else.

This leads us to the conclusion that a democratic progressive solution to the Palestinian problem – along with the other interlinked economic and political problems of the region – can be achieved not within the confines of a separate Palestine, but in the context of a federal union of the whole region, in which the non-Arab minority nations of this region can and should be accorded full democratic national rights.

It may be said that such a scenario cannot realistically be achieved in the near future. It is perhaps a matter for the very long term. I must admit that this is true. But my point is that the scenario of “United Democratic Palestine” is not more realistic in the short term, as in any case it also would require a profound transformation of the whole region.

Let us therefore think in true internationalist progressive and truly visionary terms.

Moshe’ Machover