THE MARXIST REVIEW OF BOOKS
As the Middle East peace talks get under way again in
Rome, Eve Anderson and Mark Al-Safar reveal how even radical critics of
Western policy are looking to the West for a solution
Whose peace in the Middle East?
Books discussed in this article include:
After months of deadlock, the Middle East peace process seems to have been
given a new lease of life. The election of Yitzhak Rabin's Labour Party
to government office in Israel has changed the political landscape
and led to renewed optimism about the prospects for peace. Before the election,
Rabin promised an immediate end to the building of Jewish settlements in
the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as autonomy
for the Palestinians within nine months.
- Peace in the Middle East? The Oxford International
Review, Vol III, No2, Spring 1992, £2.50
- The Palestinian Uprising: A War by Other Means, F
Robert Hunter, I.B. Tauris, £24.50 hbk
- Living the Intifada, Andrew Rigby, Zed Books, £32.95
hbk, £10.95 pbk
- No Trumpets, No Drums: A Two State Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian
Conflict, Sari Nusseibeh and Mark A Heller, IB Tauris, £14.95
- Beyond the Gulf War: The Middle East and the New World Order,
John Gittings (ed), Catholic Institute for International Relations in association
with the Gulf Conference Committee, £5.99 pbk
- The Gulf War and the New World Order, Haim Bresheeth
and Nira Yuval-Davis (eds), Zed Books, £32.95 hbk, £11.95 pbk
- Syria Unmasked: The Suppression of Human Rights by the Assad
Regime, James A Paul, Middle East Watch, Yale University Press,
In response, the frosty relations between the USA and Israel have thawed.
After the election, US secretary of state James Baker immediately flew
to Israel for talks with both sides, hinting that the $10 billion aid package
formerly withheld as punishment for Israeli truculence over the peace talks
might soon be released.
Neither the election of a Labour government, whose anti-Palestinian credentials
are at least the equal of Likud's, nor the resumption of American diplomacy,
which has started more wars in the region than ceasefires, can advance
the cause of the Palestinians or bring peace to the Middle East. Yet in
the post-Cold War world, even radicals who are critical of Israeli and Western
policy in the Middle East are now looking to the Israelis or the Americans
to solve the problems of the region.
The contributions to the Oxford International Review typify this
new faith in a benign imperialism bringing peace to the Middle East. The
keynote introduction by Sir Anthony Parsons expresses the fear that the
momentum of the peace talks might be lost, adding that 'much, if not all,
depends on Washington'. This confidence in the role of the USA is echoed
in all the articles except that by the Israeli peace negotiating team, who
express irritation at the way they have been treated by the Americans.
Israel's shock at being rebuffed by the Americans is understandable. After
years of doting patronage from Washington, it is hard for the Israelis to
accept that the Americans no longer require their services as policemen
for imperialism in the region. In his essay 'When Bush comes to shove',
Avi Shlaim observes that with 'the twin threats of communism and pan-Arab
nationalism' over, 'what could Israel offer that could not be provided by
their Arab friends....the USS Fahd offered a bigger flight deck than
the USS Shamir' (p2).
Yet the Israelis have no choice but to accept that times have changed and
renegotiate their relations with the Americans. The election of a Labour
government signals a greater willingness to play ball with the USA. America
too is keen to keep its options open and has softened its stance. But there
is no going back to the old days. As we anticipated in Living Marxism
at the time of the Gulf War, the special relationship is over. The end
of the Cold War has put an end to Soviet influence in the region, removed
the threat of Arab nationalism, and given the USA a free hand in the Middle
East. Israel is no longer indispensable.
However, the end of the special relationship between the USA and Israel
does not mean that the Palestinians now stand to gain what they want. It
simply means that the Americans are exploring new ways to enforce their
domination of the region. That domination depends upon the continued subordination
of the Palestinian people to the dictates of Western imperialism. The Western
powers would never contemplate any settlement for the Palestinians which
destabilised the region or threatened their interests there.
Unfortunately this is not the way things are seen by Palestinian leaders,
most of whom go along with the view that America can play a progressive
role in resolving the conflict with Israel. The idea that there is
now a force within Israel that is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause has
also taken hold since the election of Rabin's Labour Party. Most Palestinians
see Labour as preferable to Likud, and privately rooted for it in the general
The fact that these illusions can have such a wide purchase is a grotesque
testament to the defeats the Palestinians have suffered and to their political
isolation within the Middle East. With no independent allies to back their
cause, they are desperately seeking salvation from forces which have no
interest in making any meaningful concessions to them.
Not all the Palestinians' leaders are so sanguine about the diplomatic games
being played. The peace process has led to divisions in the Palestinian
camp, divisions which are now being compounded by Rabin's overtures. There
has been heavy fighting between Fatah, the moderate majority in the
Palestine Liberation Organisation, and Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalists,
in Khan Yunis and Rafah refugee camps. The roots of these divisions are
examined in F Robert Hunter's The Palestinian Uprising, which is
also an excellent introduction to the intifada.
The intifada revolt which began in 1987 is examined in the context of the
oppression of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis and their Western
backers. It becomes possible to understand the intifada, not as one big
riot, as it has often been presented in the Western media, but as a response
to the Israeli strategy of restructuring and containing Palestinian society
in the occupied territories. Hunter takes the reader through the different
stages of the intifada, as it gathered momentum and drew in more layers
of the population, until it became a mass movement.
The Palestinian Uprising also deals with the political problems facing
the intifada: the divisions between the secular and religious wings, the
moderates and the radicals, the old and the young, the insiders and the
'diaspora' Palestinians. It is in the context of cumulative setbacks that
the dynamic towards compromise in Fatah, the main block of the PLO controlled
by Yasser Arafat, has come to the fore. In turn, Fatah's failure to win
substantial concessions after decades of sacrifice, and its inability
to push the intifada forward, has encouraged a cynical response among a
new generation of militants. This has allowed Hamas, a Muslim grouping,
to come into its own.
Fatah's enthusiasm for the US-led diplomatic process has added fresh grist
to the fundamentalist mill. Hamas has condemned the talks as a trap to contain
Palestinian anger, and insists that nothing positive can be gained by sitting
round a table with the oppressors. The organisation points out that Rabin
is already backtracking on his promise to stop the construction of new Jewish
settlements in the occupied territories.
Yet the fundamentalists are in a minority. For most Palestinians, as for
most of the authors writing on the subject here, George Bush and Yitzhak
Rabin offer the only hope of a way out of their desperate plight. Thus while
F Robert Hunter salutes the Palestinians for their tenacity in the face
of overwhelming odds, he suggests that a resolution of the Palestinian problem
depends on the intervention of the USA, the very same power that helped
to create and sustain the state of Israel by denying the Palestinians their
Andrew Rigby, author of Living the Intifada, which covers much the
same ground as Hunter's book but from a far less sympathetic standpoint,
takes the same position as Hunter on the question of a US-imposed solution.
The starting point for such a solution is of course an acceptance of the
right of Israel to exist. Once this crucial point is conceded, some sort
of two state solution is usually proposed: one for the Palestinians, one
for the Israelis.
Unfortunately, life is not as simple as it appears to the advocates of a
two state solution. Since Israel is an artificial state, built on Palestinian
land through the denial of Palestine's national rights, there can be no
question of self-determination for the Palestinians as long as Israel exists.
Israel cannot give up any territory without calling into question the legitimacy
of the state as a whole. Indeed, as history has shown, the dynamic is in
the opposite direction, towards an expansion rather than a contraction of
the boundaries of the Israeli state.
The reality of what the two state idea would mean in practice is revealed
in No Trumpets, No Drums, a blueprint for a two state solution co-authored
by an Israeli and a Palestinian. The book is aptly titled, since there is
nothing to celebrate about its proposals. While there is a lot of talk about
encouraging respect between the two communities, what is outlined is Israeli
military, economic and political domination of a cowed, subordinate Palestinian
The chapter on security arrangements, casually notes that there would of
course be 'a prohibition on any weapons enabling a Palestinian army to participate
in combined offensive operations - ie, tanks, artillery, and surface-to-surface
missiles. But it would also imply a ban on equipment often classified
as "defensive"--such as anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles,
and fortifications of any kind' (p67).
It is clear from this that the celebrated two state solution is not what
its name suggests. A two state solution does not mean the coexistence of
two states: the state of Israel and the state of Palestine. Indeed the coexistence
of two such states is an impossibility given that the very existence of
the Israeli state depends on the denial of the right to statehood of the
Instead of a state for the Palestinians, what is being offered here is a
limited degree of autonomy on a shabby strip of land. Those who support
the idea of a two state solution are asking the Palestinians to abandon
their aspiration for self-determination and reconcile themselves to their
oppression in return for a slightly bigger say over what happens in the
You might have thought that the image of a benign imperialism bringing peace
to the Middle East would have been slightly tarnished by the Gulf War last
year. Yet the response to the recent US sabre-rattling against Iraq suggests
that the West's good name has not been sullied in the eyes of the liberal
Just over a year after the Gulf War, it looked for a while like George Bush
was about to launch another military strike against Saddam Hussein. Incredibly,
given the demolition job they did last time round, US officials began
to speculate that Iraq's military strength was again approaching its pre-war
level. They put about the rumour that Saddam was hiding evidence pertaining
to weapons of mass destruction in the Iraqi agriculture ministry building
of all places, the crafty devil. A stand-off ensued in the ministry car
park between UN inspectors and Iraqi officials, with the world press
camped close by.
The press were to be bitterly disappointed. While Bush promised a new military
offensive, starting on 2 August, to frighten Saddam into submission, the
only thing that happened in the car park was some pushing and shoving. It
then turned out that there had been a 'misunderstanding'. The UN had no
evidence of any secret military documents in the building. Indeed, it had
not even realised the building was the agriculture ministry in the first
Yet even this rather embarrassing exposure of US warmongering against Iraq
has not led anybody to question the trend towards Western intervention.
Indeed, Martin Woollacott, a liberal Guardian journalist, summed
up the prevailing consensus:
'The issue of whether or not Baghdad still has, hidden away somewhere, a
serious nuclear, chemical, bacteriological, or ballistic capacity, on which
it can now begin to build again, important though it is, is less important
than the fact that Saddam has successfully defied Washington and New
York. The weapons question is a red herring.' (Guardian, 29 July
So the weapons question was a red herring, but not to worry, there's always
a good reason for having a go at Saddam. The assumption that the West has
the moral authority to interfere in the affairs of Middle Eastern states
is never questioned these days.
Indeed, it informs even the most radical books written about the Gulf War.
Beyond the Gulf War, a collection of essays by radical writers and
journalists, is a damning account of the barbarism visited upon the Middle
East by the West. At times it is very critical of the Western powers and
their role in the region. Yet the essayists accept the terms of debate put
forward by Western warmongers. All agree that the West stands for democracy
and civilisation and has a positive role to play in the Middle East.
The Gulf War and the New World Order suffers from the same surfeit
of good faith in the beneficent intentions of the West. The collection
contains some very well researched articles which accurately portray the
political impact of the Gulf War in the Middle East. Some writers even suggest
that the war was less to do with events in the Middle East and more to do
with the changing balance of power in the West. Alan Freeman and Noam Chomsky
argue that the war was a way for the USA to stave of its economic and political
decline, by using its military force to rally the disintegrating Western
Alliance behind its leadership.
On the other hand, there is complete confusion about what attitude to take
to Saddam Hussein. Many contributors denounce Saddam as a fascist. All agree
that he is the person responsible for starting the war. Having accepted
that Iraq is the problem, it follows that Western intervention of one sort
or another is the solution. Most contributors favoured sanctions rather
than military action to force Saddam to submit to Western dictates.
One time radical Fred Halliday accuses opponents of Western intervention
of ignoring Iraq's crimes: 'The unique reliance on anti-imperialism as a
criterion for political action...allots all the responsibility for oppression
and domination...to the US and its allies.' (p275) Apparently this view
is itself 'inverted imperialism'. What Halliday conveniently forgets is
that Iraq, Kuwait, Saddam, the Emirs and all the other states and dictators
of the Middle East are the products of intervention in the region by 'the
US and its allies'. To claim that the Western powers which created the Middle
East as a cockpit of international conflict could now provide a peaceful
solution for the peoples of the region is truly a case of inverting the
truth about imperialism.
Dilip Hiro's Desert Shield to Desert Storm clearly recounts every
incident in the approach to war, from the 'supergun' affair to the execution
of Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft. Yet in his conclusions, Hiro
goes against the evidence of his own research and echoes the Western myths
about the war.
He talks about the 'unprecedented armed might of Iraq in the late 1980s',
an absurdity which he graphically refutes elsewhere in his description of
the allied massacres of Iraqi soldiers on the Basra Highway (p428). Similarly,
Hiro blames the war on Saddam, despite revealing how the Americans scuppered
every peace proposal and every negotiated settlement.
As an antidote to the universal acceptance of the demonic character of Saddam
Hussein, Syria Unmasked is a welcome if belated addition to the literature
on the subject. The book's publication was delayed in September 1990, as
the Western powers got into gear for war against Iraq. It is not hard to
see why the book was suppressed, since the material it unmasks would have
caused some red faces in Washington.
We should recall that president Hafez Assad of Syria was the key Arab partner
in the US-led coalition against Iraq. At the time, Arab allies were needed
to legitimise Western interference in the region. It would have been embarrassing
if the world had been reminded that the members of the US coalition, far
from being champions of freedom and democracy, were just as repressive and
brutal as Saddam. Reading Syria Unmasked it is impossible to discern
any qualitative difference between Saddam and Assad.
Also striking are the similarities in the evolution of Syria and Iraq under
the domination of different Western powers. Syria Unmasked is a classic
case study of how imperialism has screwed up a country. But having explained
the role of the West in creating a nightmare regime, the book ends with
a plea for Washington to use its influence to persuade Assad to clean
up his act. Another case of the illusions Western radicals have in the healing
powers of imperialism. These illusions have already allowed the West to
get away with one war against Iraq, and are now leading the Palestinians
to the negotiating table to be shafted.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 47, September 1992