On Palestine and Arab Unity
by Hisham Bustani
The situation of the Arab Left is similar to "the phenomenon of the
transformation of the Left" on the global scale and a reflection of
it. The reason is simple: the Arab Left, as a general rule though
with some exceptions, was never a "Left" in the dialectical
materialist sense. It has always been a reserved, conservative
entity, "reactionary" rather than proactive, "importing" theory
rather than producing it, adhering to the "letter of the text"
(mainly the text of the Soviet policy!) rather than being an
innovative critical thinker.
Below I attempt to dissect the main weaknesses of the Arab Left, as
well as the obstacles it faced, and discuss whether there really was
an Arab Left at all. This is of special importance since, coming
from a Marxist position itself, criticism will help in evolving a
revolutionary Left again in the Arab region and the world.
Under the British and French occupation, the division of al-Mashreq
al-Arabi (the Arab East, divided by colonialists into the states we
know today as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq) took
place for many objective reasons:
(a) "Divide and Rule", a doctrine that is a well-known mechanism for
depriving people of the power to change and diverting their
political energy into internal channels (channels within the
manufactured benign system), thus facilitating the job of the
occupier and tremendously impeding any effort towards unifying the
Arab masses -- the only mechanism that can lead to the defeat of
imperialism. Also through this doctrine, colonialist occupation
will have a "new function" to undertake as it transforms its image
and presumable function from an oppressor to a buffer between
internal divisions, a trick that makes the occupation a "necessity."
(b) Pave the way for the implantation of an imperialist base, a
functional entity that can serve imperialism and comprise a material
barrier between the Eastern and Western wings of the Arab space.
Let us not forget that the greatest attempts for an Arab liberation
project started by uniting the Eastern and Western sides of the Arab
homeland -- Syria and Egypt. That was the case with Saladin, who
united Damascus and Egypt in 1174, paving the way for ending the
Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187. It was also the case with
Mohammed Ali Pasha (1769-1848), known for his industrialization and
modernization plan to establish a strong state in the Arab region.
He united Egypt and Syria and was forced to eliminate his project by
the British and Austrian naval attacks. And then Nasser (1918-
1970), in his attempt to set up a truly independent sovereign Arab
state, also succeeded in unifying Egypt and Syria as a backbone for
an Arab unity, but for many reasons, the unity lasted only for less
than three years, from 1958 to1961.
(c) Keep these manufactured "states" under continuous subordination
to imperialism, since it is impossible to achieve liberation on the
level of the manufactured state (lack of resources to establish
independent development and lack of political and popular depth to
support a liberation project are among other objective reasons for
The climax of the colonialist drive for division and maintenance of
the state of subordination was the establishment and legitimization
of the Zionist entity (Israel): a racist colonial-settler entity
organically and functionally attached to the imperialist powers.
There is no objective reason whatsoever that might convince a
leftist to acknowledge and accept the establishment of such an
entity; on the contrary, the logic of Marxist theory and its
developments concretely leads to conclusions against such an
acknowledgement. There is an exception, of course, and that is the
case of a Left that is completely mechanical and under the influence
of a center that acts more like a superpower than a revolutionary
The Soviet Union accepted the U.N.-sponsored Partition Plan of 1947,
thus accepting the material manifestation of the Zionist/imperialist
project in the Arab region. Subsequently, almost all Arab Communist
Parties accepted what the Soviets agreed to without any critical
objection! Moreover, there are reports that the Syrian Communist
Party, (the most mature of the Arab Communist Parties at the time),
having printed its paper with headlines in objection to the proposed
Partition Plan, had to throw all that batch in the garbage and print
another edition with a reverse position after the Soviet agreement
to the plan!
From that point on, Arab Communist Parties had to become a sort
of "devil's advocate," defending the existence of "Israel," and
fabricating/promoting all sorts of theories about a "unity of the
Arab and Jewish working class" in Palestine. That was and remains a
theoretical joke that demanded the unity of the oppressed and
occupied with their colonial-settler occupiers and oppressors under
the banner of "working-class unity" against imperialism!!
Palestinian Communists formed "united" parties composed of Arabs and
colonialist-settler Zionists, self-proclaimed Communists, while
other Arab Communists maintained a close relationship and sought to
coordinate with this Zionist "Left" and still do today.
On March 2006, the Jordanian Communist Party held a coordination
meeting with the Israeli Communist Party in Amman, an example of
many that may have taken place unbeknownst to others over the
years. Yet that meeting, not so strangely, was even a subject of
boast in the JCP's official newspaper! While it is strange enough
to be a "Communist" and an "Israeli" at the same time, the two
parties obviously had no political conflict, since both of them
promote the notion that the occupation of Arab land (1948-occupied
land) and the establishing of a functional racist colonial-settler
entity on that land is just and acceptable, provided the Zionists
give back part of the land (occupied later in 1967) for the
Palestinians to establish a fragmented totally subordinate "state,"
the so-called "two-state solution," an unjust proposal for ending
the Arab-Zionist struggle that is used for maintaining the status
quo through a never-ending "peace process" and pushing the entire
world to accept injustice (Israel) as a normal legitimate state of
affairs. Both the JCP and the ICP agree on this solution as their
strategy, a coincidence that links them up with the mainstream
political agenda globally. Even the U.S. and "Israeli" governments
seem to be hooked on the "two-state solution," a strange agreement
with "Communist" strategy!
It is ironic that, although Arab Communists were keen on
coordinating and forming unified fronts with "Israeli Communists," a
similar effort was not undertaken towards Iranian and Turkish
Communists, despite the fact that, unlike "Israelis," the people of
Iran and Turkey are the historic neighbors of Arabs, and they are an
integral ally, and an integral part of an anti-imperialist anti-
Some of the Arab Communists were pioneers in crafting terms
like "political sensibility" and "understanding the balance of
powers." Such terms have become part of the theoretical arsenal for
parties and regimes alike who no longer wanted to "liberate
Palestine" but rather to follow whatever the Israel/USA couple would
put forward, an endeavor that has led us to the pathetic result we
see today in Palestine.
The Communists, under the influence of the Soviets, were also the
first to accept U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 that further
establishes "Israel" as a legitimate state, ordering Arabs to forget
about their land occupied before 1967 and terming only Arab land
occupied after 1967 as "occupied territories" (under the UN banner,
there was no occupation before 1967 -- history does not exist before
The Soviet Union tried to push everybody to accept resolution 242.
Mjalli Nasrawin, head of the International Relations Department of
the Ba'ath Party and member of its National Leadership Board during
the 1960s, reports that, in November 1969, the Soviet ambassador in
Syria, Nuradin Mukhitdinov, demanded that the party (ruling Syria at
that time) accept Resolution 242. Nasrawin recalls that weeks later
the party received a letter signed by the Soviet leadership troika
Brezhnev, Podgorny, and Kosygin, stating that the Soviets consider
the decision not to accept Resolution 242 on Palestine a threat to
global peace and that, if the current Ba'th party leadership did not
accept this resolution, the Soviets would cease all support for them.
The Ba'th Party leadership did not have to wait long to experience
the Soviet cessation of support. In of the 10th Extraordinary
National Party Conference in late 1970, Hafez el-Asssad (then the
Minister of Defense and leading a pro-242 faction in the Ba'th
Party) was voted out of office. Nasrawin recalls that al-Assad
immediately left the conference and staged a military coup. Within
hours, the Soviet Ambassador met with party leader Salah Jdeid and
informed him that, if he accepted Resolution 242, the Soviets would
back the leadership of the party; otherwise the Soviets would not
intervene. Jdeid refused, and within hours Hafez al-Assad
declared "the corrective movement," his epithet for his military
coup against the leadership of his own Ba'th party. Party leaders
were all arrested and ended up serving 20-years-plus in jail.
Mjalli Nasrawin was released after serving 23 years in prison.
Other leaders were not so lucky. Salah Jdeid and Noor ed-Din Atasi
left prison for their graves.
It is worth mentioning that the ousted Ba'th Party leadership in
1970 was the democratic progressive leftist element, refusing to
eliminate al-Asad and his faction militarily, despite previous
knowledge of his intentions, and promoting the necessity of a
Marxist theory and practice to become the strategy of the party, as
opposed to romantic socialism/nationalism promoted by other factions.
If these were the Soviet demands and pressures on the Ba'th Party,
one can imagine their demands and pressures on the Arab Communist
Parties regarding the issue of Palestine, the central issue of Arab
The Arab Communist Parties are not the only ones to blame for their
lack of vision and analysis. Self-proclaimed Marxist organizations
had also moved away in their strategy from liberation to "two
states." Those are the Democratic Front for the Liberation of
Palestine (DFLP) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine (PFLP). The DFLP was a pioneer in proposing "stages" in
the struggle for liberation. This paved the way for strategic
concessions being portrayed as "necessary stages" in the struggle.
The PFLP, having a much more progressive position, and being at the
forefront of military resistance at one time in the history of
struggle, took some time before it also withdrew into the rhetoric
of "stages" and "two states," now their official political line.
It is clearly seen now (with some exceptions) that the organized
Arab Left -- Communist Parties, the PFLP, and the DFLP -- have all
succumbed to "political rationality" and detached themselves from an
uncompromising objective theory and struggle, paving the way for the
rise of Islamist organizations that still insist on "liberation"
and "refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Zionist entity"
and practice armed resistance at the same time.
Another major mistake of the Arab Communists was their lack of
clarity on the issue of Arab unity. Being a peculiar case in
history, Arabs moved directly from the stage of a 600-year-long
Ottoman oppression before WWI to the stage of colonialist occupation
and division following WWI. It is elementary that fragmentation is
a tool of subordination: this is true of the working class (thus the
call for unity of the workers), and it is also true of fragmented
people who have yet to acquire their national existence, for whom a
classical capitalist social structure with its relevant class
structure is far from being an objective reality. It is only simple
sense that a call for the divided Arab toilers to unite in the
struggle against Zionism and imperialism, and against the
subordinate client Arab regimes that safeguard this division,
breaking the colonialist-drawn division lines, should have been a
priority for the Arab Left.
While Arab Communists, driven by a metaphysical Arab-
Zionist "workers' unity" plan, were far away from the main struggle,
making no actual effort on the issue of Arab unity as a main
propeller for a successful confrontation, pan-Arabist organizations
started to evolve into Marxism, proving objectively that Arab unity
must have a class nature, must adopt Socialism to accomplish
liberation, and must be an anti-chauvinist, all- encompassing
secular effort for all the oppressed people in the Arab region. In
this sense, the influential Arab Nationalists Movement of the 1950s
gave life to the Marxist PFLP, and the Ba'th Party evolved a
progressive leftist leadership in Syria ousted by the 1970 right-
wing military coup.
The Arab Communists' position on Palestine and Arab unity, a product
of mechanical subordination to the Soviet center and lack of
critical theory and analysis, is solid proof that a "Left" was never
born in the classical Communist Parties. In fact, those parties
hindered and sometimes fought against critical thinkers who came
from within the establishment.
This long history has prepared the road to NGO transition for many
Communists and Communist Parties in the Arab region, following
the "liberal wave" on the global Left after the fall of the Berlin
Wall and the elimination of the Soviet Union, the political
godfather of the Arab Communist Parties. (Of course, exceptions,
like the Lebanese Communist Party, still exist, but the argument
concerns general phenomena.) Furthermore, following this line of
history will also temper the sense of astonishment that might arise
from seeing the collaboration of the Iraqi Communist Party with the
U.S. occupiers, and their integration within the occupation-
dominated political process, while being backed by other Arab
Communist Parties like the Jordanian CP.
It is only logical that the Arab Left is a very weak entity at the
moment, divided between two main camps:
1. A classical Communist camp that continues along the political
line of its predecessor, with "liberal" additions: promoting a "two-
state" solution in Palestine, having a deep faith in imperialist-
imposed "democratic processes" such as the one in post-occupation
Iraq, joining the agendas of NGOs and accepting their funding, and
fighting for its own political existence rather than a political
program and ideology. This line is deeply rooted in historical
organization (of Communist Parties and similar structures);
2. A critical neo-Marxist camp that, although present and active, is
unorganized and divided, mainly because it is comprised of
individuals who left the classical official structures without
finding an alternative or building one.
Although I don't like the term personally, and prefer the
term "Unity Left," the critical neo-Marxist camp is often referred
to as "Nationalist Left," opposed to the liberal "Democratic Left"
(a malformed equivalent of Europe's Social Democrats) or the
classical "Communist Left."
This new critical Left has clear views on
(a) Palestine -- the core of the Arab liberation struggle and not a
mere Palestinian-Israeli conflict, an uncompromised struggle for
existence between the Arab liberation project and the
Zionist/imperialist project, cannot be resolved by "political
processes" and cannot be resolved by maintaining a Zionist entity on
any part of Arab land;
(b) Iraq -- not recognizing U.S. occupation and any political
process that follows from it);
(c) Resistance -- unconditional support to all forms of resistance,
including armed resistance;
(d) Unity of the Arab struggle -- the impossibility of liberation on
the level of the weak, subordinate colonially-manufactured current
(e) Necessity of forming anti-Imperialist fronts based on clear
political strategies with forces that share this approach though not
particularly leftist (like Islamists, nationalists, etc.).
Through a polarization between those two camps -- an effort that
should extend globally on the basis of political clarity -- a new
radical, militant, clear and revolutionary Left can be born, and
again become a key player in the liberation process, in the Arab
region, and the world.
Hisham Bustani is the Secretary of the Socialist Thought Forum in
Jordan, and a member of the Coordination Committee of the Resistant
Arab People's Alliance. This article first appeared in Italian in
the progressive magazine Senza Censura, No. 24, November 2007.