Israel/Palestine: The crisis of leadership is only part of the problem

Over 80 years ago, Trotsky wrote that “the world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” I always thought that this was a rather audacious claim to make. After all, surely there were other things at play in the world, certainly back in 1938.

But I thought of those words again today as I read the Observer editorial on the renewal of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Benjamin Netanyahu is not fit to be Israel’s prime minister,” stated the editorial, correctly describing him as someone who has undermined any possibility of a two-state solution. But the Palestinian leadership fared no better. The newspaper described Mahmoud Abbas as “a discredited figure” not fit to lead the Palestinian people, “especially without new elections.” And a third player, Hamas, was accurately described as “ an oppressive, aggressive organisation that … rejects Israel’s right to exist and evidently has no qualms about using its own people as human shields to advance its claim to Palestine’s leadership.”

In other words, writes the Observer, “issues of religion, ethnicity, race and even land are not the main problem. The problem is that, politically speaking, both Israelis and Palestinians are shockingly badly led.”

Their solution is a simple one: “Both sides need fresh leaders, infused with a vision for peace, not war.”

The authors of that editorial are not wrong — but they don’t go far enough.

As with Trotsky’s formulation in 1938, the crisis of leadership is part of the problem. But it is not the whole problem.

After all, at least on the Israeli side there have been many different leaders over the last few decades. The Netanyahu years have been particularly terrible ones, with the possibility of a two-state solution seeming ever more remote. But the previous Israeli prime ministers — including those from the Labour Party — also did not reach an agreement to end the conflict.

The Palestinians have been even less fortunate than the Israelis in this sense. Abbas is part of of a gerontocracy founded by Yasser Arafat, old men utterly lacking in vision, ruling over a corrupt dictatorship that does not even bother to hold elections. The recent plan to hold such elections was cancelled well in advance of the eruption of the current fighting.

The Observer is right to say that both sides need new leaders. They do. But how do you get them?

In Israel, the parties with “a vision for peace” are now very small and getting smaller. Labour and Meretz, which three decades ago could form a government that was able to reach an agreement with the PLO, are now marginal.

On the Palestinian side, things are far worse — especially in Gaza, where a murderous and corrupt dictatorship has existed for more than a decade.

In both nations, we need more than a simple change in leadership, welcome though that would be. Both Israel and Palestine need political revolutions.

Without the emergence in both countries of a politics based on social class rather than tribal loyalties, the bloodshed will not stop. When workers see each other as workers, rather than as Jews or Arabs, racism does not thrive. The creation of powerful trade unions and robust social democratic parties linked to them would help create an entirely new discourse — and new hope for both peoples.

At the moment, there is little evidence that this is going to happen. But that does not mean that it will never happen.

Without such far-reaching changes in the way Israelis and Palestinians do politics, without a fundamental transition to politics based on class, new “bad leaders” will simply replace the old ones.

This article was published today in Solidarity.