Israel Lulled by the good life

Palestinian and Israeli leaders are engaging in peace talks. Yet, while people on either side of the

It is Friday night in Tel Aviv. I am sitting at a seaside bar, drinking a cocktail and eating seafood. Young men and women are playing beach volleyball nearby; others are rollerblading, cycling or just sauntering around. Israel, at least the secular part of Israel, is enjoying life. A few hours earlier I had been in another world: Jenin, the most northerly town on the West Bank, a place I had been before during the second intifada. Things are different now. There is almost no resistance, though that does not stop night-time Israeli military raids in which people are taken from their homes, into interrogation and most likely to jail.

The journey back from Jenin to Jerusalem - now the only viable crossing into Israel - took more than three hours, even though it is barely 50 miles away. Many roads have been closed off by the army. We went through five checkpoints and were questioned at three. It could have been more; Palestinian cars are stopped at random along the way. All movement between Palestinian towns and villages, and often within them, is controlled. Israeli settlements dominate the landscape. The word settlement is a misnomer, suggesting something temporary; rather, these are collections of suburban gated communities. They have been located in such a way as to separate Palestinian communities from one another. Road signs are first in Hebrew, then in Arabic.

In Ramallah, the notional capital, the people do their best to display nationhood. At the Muqataa compound, where the government resides, a mausoleum to Yasser Arafat has just opened. Two soldiers in Palestinian uniform try to stand to attention, but theirs is more of a slouch.

Everyone, it seems, wants to talk to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. On Thursday he was visited by his Ukrainian counterpart. Two days later it was the turn of David Miliband. Israelis like to point out that Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, has spent more time in the Middle East in recent months than the man supposed to be putting it to rights, Tony Blair. On his occasional visits to his reinforced suite at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, he has been putting together an economic "rescue package" for the Palestinians.

Uniquely ill-suited

All roads, it seems, lead to Annapolis, a quaint naval town just outside the US capital, where, on 26 November, George W Bush is expected to invite Israelis and Palestinians to sign a declaration. Ahead of that meeting, I was part of a group invited to Jerusalem to talk to some of the most influential players in Israeli politics and security - from cabinet moderates such as the deputy prime minister Haim Ramon to the arch-neocon, the man who will become leader again if it all falls apart - Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu.

Their attitudes to the Palestinians may differ, but the prognoses of doves and hawks alike are strikingly similar. Ehud Olmert's grand coalition is weak (as all Israeli governments are nowadays, thanks to the constitution, which allows minor parties a pivotal role); Abbas's Palestinian Authority is even weaker. Both sides are, one Israeli figure told us, "uniquely ill-suited" to conduct meaningful negotiations.

Still, they are trying. Olmert and Abbas have met regularly over the past few months. The Israelis talk of the Palestinian leader as a "good partner". Old taboos appear to have been broken. The future status of Jerusalem is openly discussed (though it is as far away from resolution as it has ever been). The Israelis talk of international troops overseeing the Palestinian territories. A few years ago they would have seen that as an insult. The choreography of this latest initiative is intricate. At Annapolis they will be asked to pledge "immediate and continuous" negotiations, leading to a final status agreement.

Yet ask Israeli ministers whether any of this will work, and they smile and say "no". So what is the point of going? Various answers are given, ranging from "There's no reason not to" and "We don't want to insult Bush" to "We must prop up Abbas". The Israelis, together with the Americans and governments of other countries, have convinced themselves that if they don't help the Fatah-led government on the West Bank, Hamas will take over by force, just as it did in Gaza. One security figure told us that only the Israeli army stood in the way of a Palestinian implosion. "The Palestinians have to choose whether they want to live in Mogadishu or Dubai," he said.

This argument is used to justify the economic blockade of Gaza, which, according to official figures, has left more than 80 per cent of inhabitants below the poverty line. Some senior Israelis, though not all, have convinced themselves that Palestinians in Gaza will blame Hamas, rather than Israel, for the way their strip of land is being choked and will turn back to Fatah.

Olmert has more invested in a deal with Abbas than his more sceptical cabinet colleagues. He knows that, for it to work, he has to give something meaningful to bolster the Palestinian president. As one Israeli involved in the negotiations remarked: "We're having to write Abbas's victory speech in Annapolis." Yet Olmert's power base is too weak for him to make any concessions beyond the most cursory - a few hundred prisoners let out or a few roadblocks dismantled (there are 500 in total, according to the UN), or a freeze in the 2008 budget on settlement construction.

The real problem lies in the absence of any strong self-interest on the part of Israelis themselves. Israel is going through one of its rare periods of relative calm. The mood is quite different from that of my last trip, a year ago. Then it was reeling from its botched war in Lebanon, several political corruption scandals and financial mal aise. Now the economy is booming; liberalisation of a number of industries has helped boost growth rates. Once a state that prided itself on collectivism, Israel is now one of the most unequal. Money is being spent with alacrity. Israelis have flocked back to outdoor cafes and restaurants, no longer so fearful of suicide bombers.

The most important reason for the new mood is the "success" of the barrier that has been constructed to separate Israel from the West Bank. In highly populated areas such as Jerusalem, it is reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. One of the main access roads taking Israelis between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv could just as well have been one of the transit routes for West Germans travelling to West Berlin. Apart from the Qassam rockets fired from Gaza into the southern Israeli town of Sderot, attacks on Israelis have all but ceased.

Ignorance is bliss

An entire generation of Israelis has reached adulthood without any physical contact with Palestinians or first-hand knowledge of life inside the West Bank or Gaza. Before the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, some in the older generation would go over for a spot of shopping or to wander around. Now, apart from settlers, who are driven to and fro in armed convoys, almost no Israelis venture over the border.

According to Dr Mina Tzemach, a veteran opinion pollster, most Israelis want their leaders to go to Annapolis. Intriguingly, an almost identical number assume that the talks will fail. The younger generation, she says, is increasingly hostile to cutting a deal with the Palestinians. The public has convinced itself that the withdrawal of the small number of Israeli settlers from Gaza - Ariel Sharon's last major act as prime minister - has been a disaster. The Hamas coup has reinforced a stereotype that as soon as Israeli backs are turned, Palestinians descend into extremism and violence. Tzemach's polling points to another paradox. Israelis want, in the long term, the same kind of "normal life" as enjoyed by Americans and Europeans. They accept that peace and security, the two watchwords of their politics, remain fragile as long as Palestinians are oppressed and angry. But in the short term they are content with their lot.

In any event, by far the biggest concern in political circles is now Iran, or "the state from which all evil stems", as one minister put it. Security officials and politicians say Tehran will have acquired the technology to produce a nuclear weapon by the end of 2009 at the latest. They work from the assumption that either the US or Israel will launch a military attack before then in order to stop the nuclear programme.

In a few days' time, Olmert and Abbas will meet, shake hands, applaud an exhortatory speech from Bush, and return home to begin what will be described as a crucial phase in the peace process. Then what? As things stand, not much - which won't unduly trouble the rollerbladers on Tel Aviv's promenade.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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