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close this bookMaldevelopment - Anatomy of a Global Failure (United Nations University)
close this folder4. complexities of international relations: Africa's vulnerability and external intervention
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View the documentAfrican economies' vulnerability vis-à-vis the challenge of capitalism's new worldwide expansion
View the documentSome specific aspects of Africa's economic integration in the world system, ACP-EEC association and Euro-American mercantile conflict1
View the documentSpecial links with France: the Franc zone2
View the documentEvolution in Euro-Arab relations: interwoven economics and politics
View the documentConflict and national and regional security in Africa
View the documentThe Middle East conflict in a world perspective
View the documentAfrica and the Arab world in the world system
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The Middle East conflict in a world perspective

The Middle East conflict, unbroken for more than 30 years, appears to set the Arab states - and behind them the Palestinian people - against the State of Israel. The Arab states appear motivated above all by the desire to acquire sufficient political and economic autonomy to become worthy partners in the world capital system from which they cannot envisage a divorce. In their pursuit of this objective, they constitute, according to Zionist fears, a 'deadly' peril to Israel.9

But behind these immediate protagonists stand other forces whose interests and strategies have a secondary effect on the actors in the forefront. These forces are the Arab peoples. Western imperialism and the Soviet Union. Raising the issue in these terms also raises a series of underlying issues, namely: (i) the extent to which the Arab states are really masters of the game, and the extent to which the conflict between them and their popular forces is without solution: (ii) the extent to which Zionism and the State of Israel are an autonomous force, with their own strategy and aims; (iii) the extent to which imperialism implements a common strategy towards the region and conversely the extent to which US and European interests, for example, may diverge; and finally (iv) to what extent the Soviet Union is capable of intervening in the region and the objectives it would pursue and the means it would have.

The conflict between the Arab peoples and the expanding capitalist West clearly does not date from 1947. It dates back to the very origin of the world capitalist system. The long history of this conflict is riddled with defeats of the A rate world, from the 1 6th century to 1950. From the Capitulations granted by the Ottoman Empire, inaugurating the era of unequal treaties, to the defeat of the Egyptian Pasha Mohamed Ali in 1840, from the conquest of Algeria from 1830, to the occupation of Egypt and Tunisia in 1982 then of Morocco in I 911, to the division of the Middle East between the British and the French in 1919, it is a long list of defeats. For the Arab peoples, partition of Palestine in 1947 and Israel's first expansion from 1948 are obviously in line with colonial European expansion, and just a more modern example.

Colonial European expansion here as elsewhere in Asia and Africa, encountered resistance that would eventually be insurmountable with the development of the national liberation movements. While in the decades after the Second World War all the Arab countries regained their political independence and effaced the marks of colonization, in these same decades, however, from 1950 to 1980. Zionist colonization came to the fore and expelled the Palestinian people from their ancestral home. This paradox of victorious colonization in the very period when colonization was being ousted from the Afro-Asiatic whole demands an explanation.

Any attempt at an answer requires an examination of the Arab national liberation movement. In Egypt and the countries of the fertile crescent (Syria, Palestine. Iraq) the British - imperialism then dominant governed the region through the channel of local authorities drawn mainly from the large landowners, who had benefited from integration in the world economic system carried out from the 19th century. The national liberation movement had first to manifest itself as an internal anti-latifundist (anti-'feudal', anti-imperialist) movement bringing together various peasant, popular and bourgeois social forces. Through various twists and turns this movement succeeded during the 1950s in overthrowing the reactionary defenders of the status quo first in Egypt then in Syria and Iraq. Nasserism, the dominant concept in the region in the 1950s and 1960s, was the climax of this story, carrying all Arab countries in its wake. The rise of the Ba'ath in Syria and Iraq and the Algerian war (1954-62) were concomitant. The 'progressive' nationalist regimes emerging from this phase shared common essential characteristics: for example, anti-latifundist land reform, nationalizations and industrialization, the establishment of a modernist state. This current was so strong that it forced the old British and French imperialism into a general retreat - and even into acceptance of independence for the countries and regions less forward in the struggle, from Morocco to the Gulf. It was also so persuasive that the 'moderate' states emerging from the withdrawal were obliged to align themselves, nominally at least, under Nasserist leadership.

The rise of Nasserism was, however, not without violent struggles against the new dominant imperialism, of the United States, which, taking over from Britain in Palestine after 1948, chose to turn its protege - Israel - into the spearhead of its intervention. Nasserism, in order to assert itself and a new political and economic standard, was obliged to lean on the United States' sole adversary, the USSR, as Europe had withdrawn and lined up with the United States.

This rise of Nasserism succeeded in transforming social reality throughout the Arab world. In varying degrees the new national authorities established bourgeois hegemonic alliances, crystallizing around a bourgeoisie of the industrial state, peasant (kulak) allies and petit bourgeoisie, sometimes with a popular element and, conversely, sometimes drawn from the former dominant classes (large landowners and traditional chieftains). Two distinct currents can be found in this broad spectrum: a radical bourgeois tendency aiming at the construction of a modernized, industrialized and autonomous national state as an 'equal' partner in the world system of states' and a moderate bourgeois tendency willing to play a subordinate role in the international division of labour that the radical wing rejected.

The entire strategy of the United States was aimed at smashing the radical tendency. It is not by chance that for this purpose the United States used the means of Israeli military intervention - the lightning war of 1967. The Egyptian and Arab defeat was part of the very historical limitations of this radical bourgeois tendency. The latter never really accepted a popular alliance endowed with an autonomy that might threaten its own class prospects. By this token it could not unhesitatingly play the card of Arab popular unity. For the rise of the anti-imperialist struggles of the Arab peoples had put the issue of Arab unity on the agenda.

The bourgeois radical wing of the Arab liberation movement could not play the card of Arab popular unity so long as within each of the existing states it refused to allow room for a popular political hegemony. The ambiguous attitudes of this radical wing in regard to the Palestinian movement itself, confined in some kind of 'protectorate', reveal the same limitations. But similar hesitations were shown in regard to relations with the Soviet Union. An alliance with the latter was sought only as a means of pressure to win acceptance by the true spokesman - the United States. The Arab bourgeoisie, even the radical wing, hoped to persuade the United States to cease relying on Zionism as the only card in the regional game and recognize the bourgeoisie as a major partner.

The United States did not see it in this way. The United States was determined to take advantage of the weaknesses of the radical Arab camp to smash it and to subject the region to its own perceptions. This process of subordination, and of recompradorization, clearly under way since 1967, has gone through three stages marking its indisputable triumph.

The first stage was the lightning war in 1967. This war marked the end of Nasserism, that is, a turning back of the Arab unitary current and a shift 'to the right' at internal level. Infitah, or open door policy, as a series of concessions to the local neo-comprador bourgeoisie and dominant world finance capital, began at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s in Egypt, but also in Syria. Iraq and Algeria.

Nevertheless, the radical wing of Arab nationalism tried to re-establish a less unfavourable balance. After long and costly preparations for war, with Soviet support, the successful crossing of the Suez Canal and the destruction of the Bar Lev line between 6 and 15 October 1973, were they going to allow this bourgeoisie to take its place at last an equal and respected partner? Arab solidarity was manifest on this occasion, the coincidence with the OPEC victory in securing the increase in oil prices, the intention attributed to Kissinger of ditching the Zionist alliance for one with the Arab bourgeoisie mobilized behind the new financial wealth of the Gulf made it credible.

But it came to nothing. On the contrary, 1973 paved the way for a new state of recompradorization. Undoubtedly the outcome of the October 1973 war was ambiguous. But above all the Arab bourgeoisie would line up with its 'moderates' win and play the American card without hesitation as was shown in Anwar Sadat's break with the USSR and the introduction of infiath. At the same time the new financial wealth of the Gulf, far from strengthening Arab hands, was to integrate the region further in the world capitalist system, by 'recycling' funds that further reduced the scope for Arab bourgeois autonomy. Saudi Arabia refused to provide an alternative financial solution for Egypt and rather made its financial aid conditional on Egypt's acceptance of the IMF plan, thus becoming an active agent of this recompradorization. What followed - with the Camp David agreements - was a new stage of implementation of the plan to subordinate the Arab world. Menachem Begin must have understood it in this way: by restoring the Sinai - perhaps temporarily - he secured the dismantling of the Egyptian army and left his hands free to embark upon definitive annexation of the West Bank of the Jordan. Gaza and the Golan Heights.

Israel, encouraged by its luck, went further and in July 1982 grabbed Lebanon to the gates of Beirut and secured the PLO's departure from that country. The Arab reaction to this new state of Zionist colonial expansion was, as we know, nil. The bourgeois radical wing was decisively beaten and dismantled, the Arab bourgeoisie as a whole accepted the fate dictated by imperialism as a subordinate comprador partner. Hence its only reaction was to place its hopes in the pleas it made - through the Fes plan for example - to the masters of the world system to which it belonged.

For 30 years the political life of the Arab world has been rendered more complex by the intervention of this peculiar protagonist: the Zionism of the State of Israel. Is this an autonomous force with its own objectives and means?

Zionism is a reactive response of Jewish communities to the oppression they suffered through centuries of European history, especially in modern day Eastern and Central Europe. In this sense the story is a chapter in the sad history of Europe and has nothing to do with the Orient. The interaction between European and Oriental history is born of the choice of Palestine as the 'land of return'. It was a murderous choice as it implied the expulsion or extermination of a people whose home Palestine had been for 14 if not 20 centuries! But the choice was very convenient for Europe of the 19th and 20th centuries: it would be rid of the embarrassing 'Jews' and use them to settle Arab lands. The leaders of Zionism seized their chance and included their plan within the broader one of European colonial expansion. Without Britain's mandate over Palestine the State of Israel would have been quite impossible. The occupying power not only accepted into Palestine massive immigration taking the Jewish population from 60,000 in 1920 to 600,000 in 1948, and tolerated their organization into a military power in the state, but also actively fought the Palestinian national liberation movement and terrorized its organization, particularly between 1936 and 1939, and thereby created the conditions for the Arab defeat of 1948.

The State of Israel, determined by the UN partition of 1947, never recognized the frontiers allocated to it and never accepted the very existence of the Palestinian people, Zionism saw its future in no other terms than indefinite expansion of its colonization. It never pinched at the means to attain its objectives: from the massacre at Deir Yassin in 1948 to those at Sabra and Chatila in 1982 (massacres for which Israel is to blame, whatever is said), by way of the violent settlement on the West Bank and the Golan Heights, the story is no different from that of other colonizations. It became clear that Israel intended not only to annex the whole of Palestine, the Golan Heights and probably South Lebanon, but also that it had not given up hope of Sinai and the West Bank. The 'greater Israel' map - stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates - and the staggering declarations of its leaders about its 'sphere of intervention' - from Zaire to Pakistan! - (however exaggerated such pretensions might seem) are not the fruit of Arab imagination, but declared intentions whose seriousness is confirmed in three decades of history.

The ideology and strategy underpinning such a plan are of necessity extremely simple. It is an ideology founded on a basic racism that was never absent from the 19th century European perception of the Arabs. The Zionists not only fail to see the Arab nation, or Arab nations, but also deny the Palestinian or Lebanese people the right of nationhood. They see them as merely a motley conglomeration whose identity is no more than that of religious or pare-ethnic communities (Sunni Muslims, Shi'ites, Christians, Maronites, Druzes, and so on). Old colonial rubbish of the kind with which the French were besotted in North Africa until the day when they were proved worog by the factor of a previously denied national unity. This ideology, unbelievable in our day and shared only by the South African authorities (who in the same way are blind to any African reality except that of 'tribes') and for whom Zionism holds the greater esteem and friendship, is not exclusive to a few extremists. It is shared by Likud and the Labour Party, that is, by the main body of Israeli political forces.

The strategy adopted for the achievement of this colonial plan is itself, in the nature of things, extremely simple. Zionist expansion is not possible unless Israel's strategy sticks close to the strategy of more substantial external forces. The option of making Israel an instrument of US imperialism is a fundamental option that has never for an instant been challenged since 1948 by any Israeli political force (Labour and Likud). Israel is thus in a position to 'prove' to the United States that imperialism's utmost plan-compradorization of the Arab states - is within the bounds of possibility. If the Arab states are weak to the point of being negligible it is all the better for the interests of the West. The West takes as genuine partners only such as cannot be denied. Israel and Western imperialism share the same strategic aim: to prevent the Arab world from becoming powerful economically, socially and politically. The alliance between Israel and the West is not conjunctural. Contrary to what some imagine, it is not based on manipulation by a few 'lobbyists' motivated for one reason or another by concern for the Israeli electoral client. Israel has a key place in the United States' global strategy, it is not a formal member of the Atlantic military alliance but is de facto its most ardent member. It also provides for the Pentagon's strategists a test bed against Soviet weapons. When, as is currently the case, detente between the two superpowers is at a low ebb, the American-lsraeli military alliance takes on a new significance. Zionism counts on this confrontation as one of its major trump cards.

The United States will never, in the foreseeable future at least, abandon its unconditional support for Israel. That is why it continues to ensure Israel's absolute military superiority, as it has always done, again despite what some ingenuous or manipulated propagandists would have us believe. Israel, systematically equipped with offensive weapons, while the Arab armies have never had more than defensive capacity, has always had overwhelming air superiority (even in October 1973, which was the moment of closest military balance. Egypt could not control the air space further than 15 kilometres east of the Suez Canal). Israel's strength is that of the West as a whole. That is why talk of Israel's 'autonomy', following its own objectives and with the means to do so and compelling the West to go along with it, must be discounted, to say the least. The truth is rather the opposite: it is a bluff skilfully used by Zionist propaganda; a bluff that the Arab bourgeoisies believe - or pretend to believe-since they hope to 'persuade' Washington...

The ideological component of the confrontation must not be underestimated. Israel knows how to exploit anti-semitism when it exists and even how to incite and arrange the necessary provocations to this effect, so that by posing as the victim it can stir up a current of favourable opinion, especially in the usually anti-colonialist leftist circles. Israel also knows how to make the most of the very strong feeling of solidarity of 'European' peoples against the 'barbaric threat 'from Asia and Africa. Colonial and imperialist ventures have always benefited from this ambivalence in the popular classes and milieu of the European left. Obviously this pro-imperialist solidarity has objective foundations and the alignment of the European working-class parties with the imperialist policies of their bourgeoisies is neither new nor peculiar to the Israeli case. It has, on the contrary, been visible in a general way since the end of the 19th century and was denounced by Lenin as a betrayal. It should be noted that Israel's Labour Party remains a member of the Socialist International without embarrassment to that body's European members. It should also be noted that while the threats to the freedom of the Polish people disturb the European conscience, the threat of extermination of the Palestinian people disturbs it much less.

Israel is well aware that the themes of 'proletarian internationalism' and 'solidarity of the peoples against imperialism' are mere rhetoric of the left, whereas the appeal to pan-European solidarity against the peoples of Asia and Africa is a reality that still means something. Hence Zionism has succeeded in drawing on Western support from the right (and even sometimes the anti-semitic extreme right!) to the great majority of the left.

The Arab ruling classes and political readerships, unable to rely on themselves alone -or their peoples - must perforce seek the active intervention 'on their behalf, of the Soviet Union or even of the imperialist forces.

The radical wing of the Arab bourgeoisie relied for a while on Soviet support. And the results this gave - the least unpromising in modern Arab history-might encourage false hopes. The Soviet presence in the region was genuine from 1955 - date of the first arms shipments to Egypt - to the aftermath of 1973 - when Sadat made a definitive and unfettered commitment to the US camp. Despite the fears of the Arab bourgeoisie, and even of Nasser, the USSR had no desire to set up satellite regimes in the region, and gave pledges to this effect. It simply wanted to make the American camp understand that any attempt at encirclement and military pressure aimed at isolating it or even forcing it to 'roll back' was bound to fail. In this the USSR found a natural ally in the traditional Arab willingness to resist the imperialists. Undoubtedly the possibility of Soviet expansionism cannot be ruled out, although traditionally this was reserved for contiguous areas (Turkey, Iran and at a later date Afghanistan). In the future the Soviet Union may well to make Europe understand that in case of need it could block petrol supply routes. Intervention in the Horn of Africa, the presence in South Yemen and the Indian Ocean is part of this possible line of development. But it has not happened. In the Middle East the USSR has always been concerned to reconcile its support for Arab nationalism with the demands of co-existence and detente. It would have liked to solve the local conflict through peaceful negotiated means in agreement with the United States, and has made several attempts at this but in vain.

The October 1973 war made it look fore while es if Europe would intervene in a similar way, for a peaceful settlement with definitive frontiers being imposed on Israel, Israel ceasing to be a constant threat, and a Palestinian state being established. Hitherto Europe had in effect been absent from the state and had here as elsewhere entrusted responsibility for defence of the West's collective interest to the United States. But the oil shock of 1973 reminded Europe how vulnerable it was and how selfish the United States; with this crisis, the prospect of greater European autonomy became attractive. As Europe saw Camp David operating in the opposite direction of compradorizing the Arab world mainly to the benefit of the United States and encouraging Israeli expansionism, Europe between 1973 and 1980 was moving in a new direction, distancing itself from the United States and Israel. It must be noted that this new policy of European autonomy was always wavering, and has been on the retreat since 1980. Europe's alignment with the US strategy is shown by overt or concealed support to Israel in the Lebanese war, manoeuvres to hold back recognition of the PLO, and objective complicity with Israel, with Europe securing for Israel what it probably could not have secured alone - the evacuation of Beirut by PLO forces that left Palestinian civilians at the mercy of their murderers. In 1973 a great opportunity was lost of making Israel accept Arab and Palestinian co-existence. This would have meant Europe using all its influence to support the Soviet proposal fore peace conference. Europe did not do so. Did it succumb to anti-Soviet blackmail? Or was it merely the victim of its incapability of doing more than waver, as usual? The Atlantic pact's accommodation with Reaganite blackmail, making North-South relations (the problematic where the Middle East issue belongs) dependent on East-West conflict is not a positive omen for the foreseeable future.

All the Arab bourgeoisies could do then was surrender to US dictates and beg for mercy. Undoubtedly in the confusion of 1973 Nixon and Kissinger threw out a hint that they might revise their unconditional support for Israel and opt for a better regional balance, making room for the new financial bourgeoisie of the Gulf, their long-time faithful friend, which with the decline of Nasserism had become the spokesman of the Arab ruling classes as a whole. The sequel has shown that the United States reverted to its fundamental option: unconditional support for Israel's colonial plan and the no less unconditional subjection of the recompradorized Arab bourgeoisies.