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The answer to Palestine’s liberation lies in Cairo

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Israel’s grip over the Palestinian people is being weakened as Arab regimes wobble and the US talks of change. John Rose considers what this means for the liberation of Palestine
Issue 2238

What an extraordinary coincidence that the leaked Palestine Papers came out at the moment when Egyptians took to the streets against Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship.

It dramatised the desertion of Palestine by its leadership and its potential substitution by something far more profound—the Egyptian revolution.

Mohammed Rabah Suliman is a student in Gaza. He wrote on the The Electronic Intifada, website, “As if physically taking part in Egypt’s revolution, Gaza youth like myself feel themselves at the heart of it and follow it as if it were our own…

“One friend told me, ‘This intifada is the old Arab dream. I watched the unfolding events and felt that the Egyptians’ freedom is my freedom as a Palestinian. I was overwhelmed with happiness. I wish I were in Egypt’.”

The Palestine Papers—thousands of Palestinian Authority internal documents leaked to Al Jazeera and the Guardian—exposed the surrender of Palestinian leaders to the demands of the Israeli state.

This reflects a fundamental flaw in the leaders’ strategy. They mistakenly believed that Palestinian liberation was possible without involving the rest of the Arab world.

The Palestinians were too weak to challenge Israel by themselves. This is because they have not just been fighting Israel, but Western imperialism as a whole.

This weakness, structured into Palestinian politics, inevitably produced spectacularly weak political leaders.


Fatah has dominated Palestinian resistance since the 1960s. It controls the Palestinian Authority.

Fatah was on its knees after the publication of the Palestine Papers. The revolt in Egypt is only piling on the pressure.

To predict is impossible. We cannot say what the political weight of the Islamists will be. Arab nationalism has been suppressed for a whole period, and it is now bursting through. In a sense, it’s a new force.

The outcome of the Egyptian revolution will shape the Palestinian leadership, both nationalist and secular.

Hamas, the more radical organised political force in Palestine, has discouraged demonstrations in solidarity with the Egyptian struggle. It is waiting to see what happens rather than making any move that might be perceived as provocation.

Hamas developed out of the Muslim Brotherhood. They maintain close relations and this will partly shape Hamas policies now.

In the early days of the Palestinians’ struggle, in the late 1960s, Fatah threatened the Arab regimes. They built a “state within a state” in Jordan. But when the Jordanian monarchy smashed them in what became known as Black September, in 1970, Fatah began to vacillate and worked to preserve the unity and integrity of the Arab states. This has proved a disaster.

Tony Cliff, founder of the Socialist Workers Party, was born in Palestine in 1917. His politics were shaped by life under the British Empire, with its ruthless oppression of Arab political freedom and its cynical enthusiasm for Zionist colonisation.

The empire’s only consideration was to get the oil out of the desert at the cheapest possible price.

Cliff drew two conclusions that serve us well today as we anticipate the possibility of a new dawn in the Arab world.

First, that Arab liberation was impossible without Palestinian liberation and vice versa.

Second, that the road to both liberations was routed through Cairo, Egypt’s capital city, and not Jerusalem.

Egypt was historically the leader of the Arab world. It is the Arab country with the largest population and it is the most industrialised. Hence it has a potentially politically powerful working class movement that could lead the rest of the Arab world.

Egypt is the leader for all classes throughout the region—the ruling class, the peasantry and the working class. That’s why this wave of revolutions, uprisings and protests is playing out across the Middle East.

The British controlled Egypt from the late 19th century until the pliant puppet monarchy was overthrown by nationalist army officers in 1952.

When Gamal Abdul Nasser emerged from this group as a leader determined to assert Egypt’s independence and restore pride and dignity to the Arab world, the West took fright.

The newly-founded Israeli state almost immediately played a game so dirty that it exposed its ruthless capacity to exploit its Jewish origins even against fellow Jews.

Directed by the then Israeli leader Ben Gurion, its military intelligence persuaded a tiny number of Egyptian Jews to plant bombs in Cairo and Alexandria.

Although the bombers were caught, the damage was immense.

It polarised Arab Jewish relations and wrecked Egypt’s Jewish community, a tragedy especially given the new Egyptian leaders’ earlier efforts at reconciliation.

It also wrecked Nasser’s own willingness to negotiate with Israel—Ben Gurion’s deliberate intention, according to some historians. It paved the way for the Suez crisis.

Nasser’s seizure of the British-controlled Suez Canal in 1956 would consolidate his position as the Arab world’s most important nationalist leader of the 20th century. It also cemented Israel’s self-proclaimed role as the West’s watchdog.

Britain, France and Israel joined forces in a concerted military effort to destroy Nasser. They failed. But Israel would wait. It bided its time for another opportunity.


That opportunity came in 1967, in the so-called Six Day War. Israel delivered a blow so severe and humiliating both to Nasser and the rest of the Arab world, that Arab politics never recovered. Hopefully it is reviving now.

Cliff predicted Nasser would lose. He recognised Nasser’s strengths as an anti-imperialist leader, but he also identified fatal weaknesses. As a military leader, Nasser was prone to putting leaders above the masses.

He was unwilling to appeal to the Arab masses, workers and peasants, for mobilisation in the other Arab states. He was also trapped by his alliance with the Soviet Union.

Together these factors were a recipe for disaster.

Egypt did launch a surprise attack on Israel in 1973 but here we saw the huge importance of the deepening US-Israel alliance.

Following the 1967 war, US economic and military support for Israel increased massively. The US was particularly impressed with Israel’s military victory. It contrasted sharply with the US’s own defeats in Vietnam.

The US began to develop the concept of Israel as a “strategic asset” to police US interests in the Middle East.

For this to work, Egypt had to be neutralised once and for all.

Hence the US piled in the arms for Israel to guarantee its victory in 1973. US secretary of state at the time Henry Kissinger said that the US “sought to break up the Arab united front”.

And this is precisely what happened in 1978 when the US brokered the Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt, severing Egypt from the pan-Arab refusal to recognise the Israeli state.

The US then poured economic and military aid into Egypt with the twin track strategy of using both the Jewish state and the most important Arab state to throttle resistance across the region. Arab nationalism was on its knees.

No wonder Islamic movements erupted into the vacuum. And then of course Egypt became the hammer of anti-Western Islamic movements, with a terrifying global reputation for torturing its militants.


But US and Israeli rulers forgot one thing. There is a limit to just how much the rich and powerful can manipulate and oppress the history, culture, politics and economics of others. Now the pressure cooker has exploded.

The rulers know it and there has been increasing tension between the US and Israel.

General Petraeus, US army chief in Afghanistan, said that Israel’s actions are putting American lives at risk. The US wanted Israel to make tiny concessions to the Palestinian leadership to stabilise the region but Israel refused.

The US is tilting towards “democratic forces” in Egypt to put pressure on Israel to make a settlement with the Palestinian Authority quickly.

Otherwise if the regime is toppled in Egypt Hamas may open the Rafah border and arms will flow in.

In any case, any kind of progressive outcome in Egypt will significantly weaken Israel’s historic position. What made Israel particularly strong as a US strategic asset in the last 30 years is its peace treaty with Egypt.

That is beginning to unravel.

Thomas L Friedman is the veteran New York Times correspondent for the Middle East. A mainstream American Zionist, his nervous jitters are palpable.

Last week he reported a meeting with a retired Israeli general who told him. “Well, everything we thought for the last 30 years is no longer relevant.”

Israel should “disentangle itself from the Arabs’ story as much as possible. There is a huge storm coming, Israel. Get out of the way.”

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