The Israel-Palestine ‘peace process’ as a capitalist metaphor


MEMO published an article recently by Egyptian scholar and diplomat Abdullah Al-Ashaal about what he calls the disastrous “bartering policy” framework of the ongoing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. In theory, the way this framework is supposed to work is that both parties have their sets of demands and both are expected to make certain concessions.

However, Al-Ashaal makes the important argument that, during these negotiations, “established Arab rights are being bartered, such as security in exchange for freedom, even though the people need both.” After all, human rights are inalienable, so how can they be bartered?

Of course, bartering is a system of exchange that predates the money system. Traditionally, it involves trading services or goods between individuals or groups. Al-Ashaal, though, suggests that the Palestinians are “providing one thing in exchange for another” kind of thing altogether, an unequal exchange quite different to bartering in the traditional sense of the term.

For example, he argues that: “The bartering policy started when UN Security Council Resolution 242 was issued in 1967. This resolution linked Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories to the recognition of Israel and normalisation with it.”

Here the Palestinians are expected to exchange some rights in order to secure others, even though all are enshrined as rights guaranteed to all humans.

On the other hand, Israel is merely “conceding” to abandon one aspect of its criminal aggression: seizing all of Palestine in 1967. What is a concession for Israel is only the undoing of one illegal and unjust act, without ever addressing the crime of expelling 750,000 Palestinians from their lands during the Nakba in 1948. To put it another way, a burglar cannot enter a house, steal everything inside, and then instead of being held accountable in some way, expect negotiations with the homeowner that result in the burglar returning only some of the items, in what is described as a “concession”, while the homeowner is forced to make another kind of “concession” altogether by agreeing to allow the burglar to keep some of the stolen goods. The homeowner ends up surrendering some rightful claims to win others, whereas the burglar concedes only what he or she acquired unjustly.

This is an excellent point that Al-Ashaal is making about the Western sponsored “peace process”. Israeli settlements are illegal, so why are the Palestinians expected to give up anything in return for their dismantlement? And why is their ongoing existence even a possibility? This is not a framework for peace, but a framework that sanctions and legitimises Israel’s criminal actions.

This is where I would like to diverge slightly from Al-Ashaal’s analysis, and suggest that the reason for why this is not the traditional system of exchange is because it is not really bartering at all, but instead something more akin to capitalism.

This may require a creative, and perhaps even unscholarly, leap in manipulating Marxist theory, and so I apologise to those Marxists who will take offence. It is not a perfect comparison; however, trying to make it does help us to understand how both systems are exploitative.

To understand how the “peace process” could be seen as a metaphor for capitalism, we must first start by recognising that Israel has capital and the Palestinians do not.

In capitalism, those with capital, or money, trade in commodities for no other reason than to generate more money. In other words, capitalists are not actually interested in the commodities they trade, but only in selling them to accumulate capital. Furthermore, the accumulation of capital is limitless, which results in cycles of destruction in order to create new markets.

In the capitalist system, the labour that goes into producing these commodities is also a commodity to be bought and sold via wages. Because the accumulation of capital is limitless, capitalists force workers to work longer and harder to produce more commodities in order to generate what is known as surplus value, or profits, resulting in an exploitative system.

Now, Israel is not really interested in Palestinians or their lands. Its concern is expanding the Zionist project. That is why so many Palestinian villages under Israeli control have been completely destroyed and yet the land is now vacant. Palestinian researcher Salman Abu Sitta has meticulously mapped out the villages of every refugee forced to leave Palestine during the Nakba. His findings illustrate how not only has nearly every trace of the native presence been erased from the landscape, which is why this qualifies as ethnic cleansing, but also how most of these lands continue to be uninhabited today and remain under state control. The land is not really the issue, but rather control of the land and the removal of the people. Capital here is sovereignty over Palestine.

|And while Palestinian lands and resources may be finite, Palestinians see Zionism as limitless, especially when during each new round of negotiations Israel changes the parameters for what it will take to establish an independent and autonomous Palestinian state, negating past agreements, all the while expanding settlements and further entrenching the occupation. This is why Israel’s demand to the PA has escalated in recent years from asking for recognition as a state, which is a legal definition the Palestinians have already accepted, to recognition as a Jewish state, a religious/racial/political definition the Palestinians refuse to accept, because if they do recognise Israel as a Jewish state, then they would be sanctioning the occupation to be, in fact, endless.

So, in a way, Israel is using the “peace process” to perpetuate a system of creative destruction. By constantly changing the parameters that form the basis of any agreement, the negotiations become endless and the occupation continues indefinitely; all the while Israel maintains its international image as a potential broker of peace, not the perpetual warrior that it is.

Ever since the “peace process” established the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Palestinians have also been providing the labour that sustains the expansion of Zionism. Israel outsources its policing and security to the PA, which prevents the growth of a resistance movement in the West Bank. International aid to the PA also tries to buy popular support for the negotiations. Meanwhile, the PA’s commitment to the negotiations buys additional time for the construction of more illegal settlements, which tragically are sometimes even built by Palestinians themselves. Whenever the PA deviates from this framework, its wages are withheld, as happened when President Mahmoud Abbas lobbied successfully for state recognition at the UN General Assembly.

Furthermore, the Palestinian negotiators are expected to help consolidate the Zionist project by sacrificing Palestinian rights. Indeed, when you think about it, the “peace process” has also rendered Palestinian rights into commodities. Palestinian rights are no longer considered fundamental moral and ethical entitlements that are guaranteed to all humans, but instead commodities to be exchanged, whose usefulness is determined solely by the Zionists in respect to the survival of Zionism. And because certain Palestinian rights are more threatening to Zionism than others, like the right of return, they are given more value and thus become more expensive to acquire at the negotiating table. At the same time, Israel and its Zionist allies force these highly valued “Palestinian commodities” simultaneously into an equal exchange relation with “Israeli commodities”, which only undo selected crimes that the Zionist project can persist without.

During this negotiating process, rights that hold qualitative value are disfigured into quantities and things. For example, the right of return is transformed into a negotiable number, say a handful of refugees, and exchanged for maybe dismantling some settlements. Or the significance of Jerusalem is reduced to granting the Palestinians bragging rights to a name, even though the capital of Palestine is pushed into the eastern suburbs, or what US Secretary of State John Kerry calls “greater Jerusalem”.

In this way, the right of return, where all humans have the inalienable right to return to, and re-enter, his or her country of origin, which for Palestinians is also enshrined in UN resolution 194, and the rights of equality, citizenship and sovereignty, are no longer non-negotiable human rights, but instead Palestinian commodities to be exchanged for Israeli commodities that undo small parts of, but do not challenge, the oppressive conditions of the Zionist occupation.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, Marx’s critique of capitalism includes the key observation that the social dimension of commodities becomes obscured. In capitalism, a commodity’s value is represented solely by its monetary worth or exchange value, even though it also has significant qualitative value that derives from its use, as well as the social labour that went into making it and the social relations of production in which that labour was performed. As a result, commodities (including labour) are de-historicised, or severed from their history. Fetishising commodities in this way, or only valuing the price tag and the pleasure derived, conceals the exploitative system of wage labour that is required to produce these commodities.

For example, today we do not buy clothing thinking about the unsafe conditions of the factory workers making them, let alone the meagre wages of those who tend the cotton and silk farms, or the sickness of those mixing the industrial dyes. Nor do we consider how many hours without break somebody has to drive in order to deliver the clothing to our local shop. We only look at the price tag and whether or not we like the item; if it will give us pleasure.

In the case of Israel and Palestine, what is being concealed by the “peace process” is the history of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 and 1967, resulting in the forced exile of millions of Palestinians today, and Israel’s continued occupation of Palestine ever since. The social relations of occupation are obscured. However, this history is why the right of return is so important for Palestinians. Yes, we all have this right, but it means something very different to refugees than it does to expatriates or people who live where they were born. When the right of return is made into a commodity, the social relations and this history are hidden. What it boils down to is that the historical conditions of Palestinians, who have suffered and continue to suffer from displacement, exile, occupation and oppression, are outside the framework of the “peace process”.

And when the dismantlement of settlements is made into a commodity as well, this conceals the racism and violence that have inspired and continued to inspire the Zionist project. The colonial impulse that leads one people to settle on another people’s land is left unquestioned, and thus uncontested. Dismantling some of the settlements merely becomes a price that the occupier pays.

While this metaphor is imperfect and has its limitations, thinking about the “peace process” in terms of the capitalist system does help to show us why pursuing peace without equality and justice will never work, just as pursuing political rights means nothing when we are so economically and socially unequal. Thus, in the same way that Marxism calls for a revolutionary movement to dismantle the capitalist system and create a new set of relations based on equality and justice politically, economically and socially, so too must a revolutionary movement undo the framework of the current Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” and replace it with a historicised understanding of what needs to be done to realise equality and justice. Only then will peace ever be achievable.