U.S. and World Politics

Democratic, Secular Palestine for All Its Peoples

By Barry Sheppard

As Israeli troops violently suppress Palestinian protests, what road forward for the Palestinian struggle is again being seriously discussed.

An article in the December 8 New York Times with a headline “Two State Option, a Mideast Keystone, Is Sent Askew,” begins:

“President Trump, in formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Wednesday, declared that the United States still supported a two-state solution to settle the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, provided it was ‘agreed to by both sides.’

“For the first time in his 26 years as a peacemaker, the chief negotiator for the Palestinians did not agree.

“Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and a steadfast advocate for a Palestinian state, said in an interview on Thursday, December 7, 2017, that Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel ‘have managed to destroy that hope.’ He embraced a radical shift in the PLO’s goals—to a single state, but with Palestinians enjoying the same civil rights as Israelis, including the vote.

“‘They’ve left us with no option,’ he said. ‘This is the reality. We live here. Our struggle should focus on one thing: equal rights.’”

To understand how we got here, it is useful to review the historical development, beginning with the different approaches to the fight against the physical and cultural oppression of Jews in Europe, especially Eastern Europe. Zionism was always a generally rightist force within the European Jewish movement in the first half of the twentieth century, explicitly counter-posed to the socialist movement, including to Jewish socialists who outnumbered the Zionists. At times, the most reactionary Zionists even sought alliances with anti-Semites, since both sought the removal of Jews from Europe, although with opposing arguments. (There is an echo of this today, as the right wing of the Christian Evangelicals, who think all Jews, including in Israel, should go to Hell unless they convert to the Evangelical version of Christianity, yet they support Israel. Anti-Semites in the Alt-Right also support Israel.)  

After WWII, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Zionist movement gained strength. The British, French and U.S. imperialists threw their support behind the creation of a Zionist state in British-controlled Palestine. Without this imperialist backing, Israel would not and could not have been created. (Stalin backed the West in this endeavor but that’s another story.)

The creation of Israel meant the dispossession of an estimated 500,000—700,000 Arab peoples, mainly Muslims and a large Christian minority, that had lived for over a millennium in what became Palestine. This created the Palestinian diaspora, in what the Palestinians refer to as the Nakba (catastrophe,) an historical crime.

Ever since, it has been imperialist political and material support with money, arms and imperialist threats against resisting groups and Arab states that has kept Israel alive. One example: without the massive emergency airlift of heavy weapons by the U.S. to Israel in the 1973 Israeli-Arab war, Israel would have been defeated. (Then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, later admitted that Israel, when it looked like it was losing the war, was ready to use nuclear weapons, which would likely have triggered Soviet intervention and World War III.)

The objective of the Arab states involved in the 1973 war was to take back the areas Israel conquered in 1967, not to attempt to destroy Israel. That the Israeli leaders were ready to use atomic weapons to keep its conquered territories is relevant to this discussion about the Israeli reality today.

The present situation

What is the present situation? Israel occupied all of Palestine in the 1967 war, as well as the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. Later, the Sinai was returned to Egypt when Egyptian President Sadat capitulated to Israel, but the West Bank remained under Israeli control to the present day. Gaza, a heavily populated urban strip of land, is brutally suppressed, its borders on land and sea patrolled by Israeli forces.  

The actual borders of Israel have been, for 50 years, not the pre-1967 “Green Line,” but the borders the Israeli armed forces defend, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, from Egypt to Syria. Within these, its real borders, there is one currency, the shekel. There is one foreign policy, one army and navy and one government. (The Palestinian Authority is not the governmental power in the West Bank—it’s allowed to police the area, is responsible for some services, etc., but the real state power is the Israeli government.) The same is basically true in Gaza. Every few years Israel carries out a military assault on Gaza (they call it “mowing the lawn”) to show who’s the boss.

In short, there is one state already, between Egypt and Syria in one direction, and the Mediterranean and the Jordan in the other. The “occupation” is not temporary or subject to negotiation—i.e., the West Bank and Gaza are not occupied territory but conquered zones incorporated into Israel.

Within this single state there are Arabs, Druse and others who are citizens of Israel within the “Green Line.” These are severely oppressed as second-class citizens—more accurately as oppressed nationalities—like Blacks in the U.S.

But Arabs and others in the West Bank and Gaza, who are under Israeli state control, are not citizens of Israel and have no rights. This is what makes Israel an apartheid state.

Israel’s policy is to not only preserve the present apartheid state, but to reinforce it by continuing to build new settlements that are legally part of Israel and defended by the permanent presence of Israeli forces in the West Bank. The settlements are connected by roads to Green Line Israel—roads, which Palestinians are not allowed to use. “No two-state solution” while he is Prime Minister, Netanyahu boasted.

(We should note that there never was a real “two state” solution. Both Israel and the U.S. have always insisted that any Palestinian “state” could not have its own armed forces, could not control its own borders, nor have its own foreign policy—these would be under Israeli jurisdiction. That is not a state.)

The “really existing” Israel is already a single state. The only question now is what kind of state—the present semi-theocratic Jewish supremacist, apartheid state, or a democratic and secular one with equal rights for all of its people?

The latter position recognizes that Israeli Jews have become part of Palestine, and have been so for many generations. As opposed to all conceptions of driving the Jewish people out, a democratic state would encompass them as equal citizens. As opposed to a Jewish, Muslim or Christian state, a secular state would guarantee religious freedom for all and strict separation of religious institutions and the state.

This is not a new discussion for me. In 1968, as a young leader of the Socialist Workers Party, I accompanied the SWP presidential candidate, Fred Halstead, in a trip around the world. Fred was a leader of the antiwar movement, and our main objective was to go to (south) Vietnam to talk to U.S. Soldiers about the war. Among other objectives of our trip, one was to go to Cairo to interview people from a new Palestinian fighting organization, named Fatah. I did succeed in sitting down in my Cairo hotel room with two young leaders of the group who spoke English. It was from them that I first heard of the proposal for a democratic, secular Palestine. They explained that the leaders of Arab nations had sought to “drive the Jews into the sea,” and that this was wrong. The Jews were here to stay. Their solution was equal rights for all, in a democratic, secular Palestine. They were against Zionism, not Jews, they said. A photo of a Fatah slogan painted on a wall read, “We fight Israel because it oppresses our people.”

This was discussed in the SWP. In the preparation of our 1971 convention, I, and Gus Horowitz (who knew a lot about Jewish and Israeli history, much more than I, a non-Jew) drafted a resolution on Israel that included support for a democratic, secular Palestine. This resolution was adopted by the SWP at the convention.1

How the situation on the ground has evolved not only since 1971, but for 50 years after the1967 war, with Israel becoming a full-fledged apartheid state, has not only made the arguments for a democratic single state more glaringly obvious, but a burning necessity. The only realistic solution, as Erekat said, is a single state with equal rights for all. This position is gaining ground among Palestinians, as the two-state option fades into oblivion.

Marxism, December 15, 2017

1 The text of Socialist Workers Party resolution mentioned above is available on line at: