The Third Choice

By Roni Ben Efrat

The blood still boils at the sights that came out of Gaza when Israel invaded in March. At least 107 Palestinians were killed, mostly civilians. Houses collapsed on their inhabitants. Hamas went underground, so that the "strongest army in the Middle East" again found itself in a dirty war against unarmed people.

Israel has no solution to its Gaza problem. It cannot afford to re-occupy the Strip, exposing its soldiers to guerrilla attacks. Short of that, it cannot stop the rockets. Now we can comprehend the function of Annapolis in November: the conference established a framework enabling PM Ehud Olmert to pepper his incursions with protestations of peace. In America he is Dr. Jekyll, in Gaza Mr. Hyde. Or to vary the tale, his tailors meet daily with the tailors of PA President Mahmoud Abbas to patch a suit they can hang in the closet till Hamas magically dissolves. The emperor meanwhile remains unclothed: Israel remains unwilling to withdraw from the lands conquered 40 years ago—the minimum the Palestinians require.

Responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rests squarely on the side of the former. In every political process undertaken since the conquests of 1967, Israel has tried to break the legitimate Palestinian will for statehood. The acme was the Oslo Agreement, in which it co-opted the PLO leadership. This co-optation paved the way—through many vicissitudes—to the Hamas electoral victory in January 2006. It was US President George W. Bush, we recall, who promoted those fateful elections. The result was not to his liking. He responded by preparing a coup against Hamas, giving Fatah’s Muhammad Dahlan $25 million to build an armed force in Gaza. In June 2007, Hamas pre-empted, the Fatah militia folded, and its remnants fled to the West Bank.

This brief civil war further divided the Arab world. The "Iran axis," including Syria, Qatar and Hezbollah, stands on the side of Hamas, while the "American-Israeli" axis, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, stands with Fatah. The split is reflected among the Arab political parties in Israel. Balad, the party of self-exiled Azmi Bishara, along with the northern wing of the Islamic movement, together support Hamas, while Hadash is with Fatah. Given this lineup, leftist circles tend to see the Hamas-Hezbollah combination as an anti-imperialist bloc.

That is an error. The US and Israel are indeed responsible for the present cul-de-sac, but the enemy of your enemy is not automatically your friend. We need to exercise caution before joining in the chorus of Al Jazeera, which levels public discourse to a choice between America and Iran.

Since the early 90’s, the Middle East question has gained in complexity. National struggles that were anti-imperialist have changed their stripes. Yasser Arafat’s move to the American camp, at Oslo in 1993, demonstrated that a national struggle is not per se progressive. His shift harmed his people and bolstered Hamas. What strengthened the fundamentalists even more, however, was George W. Bush’s war on Iraq.

It is hard to exaggerate the war’s importance. Once upon a time, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the open wound in the heart of the Middle East. Although that conflict remains as dangerous as ever, it is dwarfed by the turmoil in Iraq. The foolhardy American invasion has not only strengthened the Islamist bloc; it has boomeranged against US allies. Saudi Arabia, for instance, like Jordan and Egypt, take no joy in one major result: the strengthening of Iran. The latter’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently visited Iraq—he could do so because the US has tacitly accepted Iran’s growing influence there.

The new Islamist bloc is not anti-imperialist. The reason for this mistaken impression is the lack of a third force, secular and anti-capitalist. If that force existed, the Islamists would quickly join hands with America, as they did in the 1970’s and 80’s. That is, if Hamas and Hezbollah were forced to choose between the American and Communist devils, they would opt for the American. To former US President Ronald Reagan, we recall, the Mujahidin were "freedom fighters."

Islamist regimes, though poorer than America, are no less capitalist. They perpetuate class division. They cultivate hatred of the outsider.

We recall a time when the Palestinian people was the Arab avant-garde. It had an enlightened, secular program. It launched an exemplary popular struggle, the first Intifada. Now, tragically, it is divided by civil war. Bereft of revolutionary leadership and lacking ideological guidelines, it is caught amid the general decline of the Arab world, which is divided between corrupt dictators and extremist Islam. Given these alternatives, Israel easily finds excuses for refusing to reach an agreement. We should not forget that if it were to offer terms the Palestinians could accept, it would pull the rug from under Hamas.

But the two sides cannot get out of the maze. For the maze operates on the old rules, out of which grows no alternative to capitalism. A large bloc in the third world, united behind militant Islam, creates a mirage of struggle against Israel and America. Yet it does not seek to break the foundations of the existing order. How could it? It rests on these.

The situation impresses on us the need to build a different alternative. The choice must not be the fake one between capitalism and Islam, but rather between the capitalist order and something new, a regime that will offer a decent portion of bread and roses to all.

-The views expressed in this article don’t necessarily reflect those of This article was first published by Challenge Magazine, issue 108, and is republished with permission –

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