It happened eight years ago, before Yitzhak Rabin was murdered and
only a few months before Israel signed the Oslo Accords with the
Palestinians in 1993. In those days a meeting took place in the
building of the newspaper Davar, a daily then owned by the
Histadrut (Labor movement).(1)
In the editor's room, then-foreign minister Shimon Peres was
talking off the record to top Israeli journalists. Peres had two
important matters, neither of which was for publication, to tell
the journalists. The first of these two tidings was that "the
establishment of a Palestinian state is inevitable." The second was
that the essence of the peace to be established with the
Palestinians would be "a peace of markets" as against "a peace of
flags." In Peres's words, "We are not seeking a peace of flags; we
are interested in a peace of markets."
Capitalist Economic Models
Peres knew then, as many people know today, that two things are
important in the new millennium: the first is that the era of
direct colonial rule is over (see how colonies like East Timor have
won their independence, and how Macao and Hong Kong have been
restored to China). The second is that, in this new situation, one
can make efficient use of several economic models that the central
capitalistic powers devised as methods of control or rule, or as
ways of competing with other great powers.
A practical expression of Peres's view is to be found in his book A
New Middle East.(2) In this book, Peres stresses the central role
of the economy in political processes - including the peace process
with the Palestinians. He describes the global economic structure
as two-tiered: in the top one are the free-trade areas and in the
second are multinational companies that lead the global economy.
Peres relays a simple and clear message: the capitalist Israeli
economy, striving to find its place in the global capitalist
economy, must achieve the longed-for peace with the neighboring
countries (and above all with the Palestinians), must aspire to win
a leading place in local trade areas, and must link its fate with
the multinational companies that set the tone in world
Peres is not alone in his opinion. As far back as the 1980s, the
masters of the industrialists' associations - headed by Dov
Lautman, owner of the biggest textile complex in Israel, Delta
Textiles - started to express "heretical" opinions about the
industrialists' readiness to consider supporting the idea of the
establishment of a Palestinian state, as long as the
colonial-economic ties between the parties would remain intact.
Lautman, as head of the industrialists, has also since the early
1990s started supporting the signing of a NAFTA-type agreement
between Israel and the Palestinians. The reference is to the
agreement between Mexico and the USA - and it is clear who is who
in the Middle East, i.e., who is to play the role of Mexico and who
the role of the USA.(3)
Globalization for the Poor
The same development that characterized Mexican-American relations
in the course of the 1980s and 1990s is now manifested in the
trilateral Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian relations. From the point
of view of Israel itself, the state is in the midst of a rapid
process of integrating manpower and means of production into the
business environment of those multinational companies that are
active in the most profitable branches in the world - the Internet,
telephones and computer programs. Parallel to this, we are
witnessing the transfer of labor-intensive industries to places
outside the borders of Israel, including the Palestinian
territories and Jordan.
The aim is to exploit Palestinian and Jordanian cheap labor. The
transfer abroad of these plants leads to the closing down of
factories in Israel and to unemployment, especially in development
towns and the Arab sector. No wonder that the head of the
industrialists, who as far back as the early 1990s preached the
signing of Middle Eastern NAFTA agreement, is now among the owners
of the leading complex in the whole textile industry, and that half
of his production has now gone over to Jordan and Egypt, soon also
to spread over into the areas of the Palestinian Authority.
The transfer of labor-intensive industries leaves behind tens of
thousands of unemployed, but it is also a means of putting moral
pressure on Israeli workers and squeezing them more effectively.
The workers are stuck between the hammer of transferring factories
and the anvil of bringing masses of foreign workers into the labor
market, all part of deliberate government policy in support of
capital. These foreign workers are ruthlessly exploited. The system
works even in sectors where there is no direct threat of
transferring the plant or of introducing foreign workers. We can
take the ports as an example.
The Ports As an Example
The port workers in Israel have, in recent years, been engaged in a
struggle against privatization and for the protection of those
rights they had won, which were set down in collective agreements,
and to which they and their employers are signatories. This
struggle did not end with the establishment of the Barak
government, which is trying to implement what the Netanyahu
government attempted unsuccessfully to accomplish: the
privatization of the ports.
A previous serious effort in this direction by the rightist Likud
government ended in a ten-day strike by the port workers and a
handwritten letter by the then-prime minister promising the leaders
of the port works committees that "the workers won't be harmed and
the ports won't be privatized." As we have noted, where its
predecessors failed, the Barak government is trying to flex its
muscles, resulting, meanwhile, in a large dose of sanctions by the
workers, lasting for days on end. These were only discontinued with
the intervention of the labor court. However, the struggle has not
How to End a Strike
Mainly conservative governments all over the world, including the
Middle East,(4) tried in recent years to privatize the ports.
Sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they failed in the face of
struggles by the port workers. There is nothing new in the Israeli
experience: the government attempts to transform the assets of the
state into the property of a small number of wealthy people, either
local or foreign. However, this time there was an innovation - the
employers' organizations, led by the strong bourgeois
Industrialists' Association, tried to grapple with the question of
how to put an end to the strike, even though they don't own a
single private port capable of breaking the workers' strike in the
three state-owned ports.
The leaders of the employers' organizations put their heads
together and found a solution: to direct cargo ships to ports in
neighboring countries like Egypt or Cyprus. However, another
obstacle then arose. After unloading the cargo in, say, the
Egyptian port of Ismailia, arrangements must be made to bring it to
Israel, incurring high transportation costs.
The Israeli industrialists thought again and came up with a better
solution. Gaza port is "nearer" and would be "cheaper."
Accordingly, they approached the Palestinian Authority, whose
minister of transport quickly replied in the affirmative. But now
another serious problem arose: there is no port in Gaza! Many plans
exist for establishing a port in Gaza, but, as of today, there is
no port. Why? Because, for generations, the Israeli government had
objected to the establishment of a Palestinian port. The reasons?
"Security," of course.
From this short account of the port workers, one can draw at least
three conclusions. First, those who are rich and powerful,
including their respective organizations, are more creative than
their governments. Second, if it is necessary to put pressure on
the workers, here one can also rely upon the enemies of yesterday.
Third, there are those who are trying to build on the enmity
between the Israeli workers and their Palestinian counterparts - in
this case, the port workers from Ashdod, Haifa and Eilat against
the workers of the Gaza port (which has yet to become a
We have noted that almost a decade has passed since the heads of
the Industrialists' Association started to speak of the
establishment of a Palestinian state as an option both realistic
and desirable - along with the preservation, of course, of their
economic and social interests. The guaranteeing of these interests
was expressed in the Paris Accords, the economic agreements signed
between the Israeli government and the PLO in 1994. (Incidentally,
one of the signatories was Avraham Shohat, who was, and is, today
Israel's minister of finance.)
A colleague of Shohat in the Barak government, Professor Shlomo
Ben-Ami, wrote as follows: "The social-political elite in Israel
lost faith in an approach founded on confrontation and force. It
understood that the price of the occupation [of the West Bank and
the Gaza Strip] was higher than the 'fruits' which it bestowed."(5)
And Ben-Ami went on to write that:
"In practice, the Oslo agreements were founded on a neo-colonialist
basis, on a life of dependence of one on the other for ever. The
Paris agreement, the economic protocol written after Oslo, was one
of the expressions of the above. Instead of directing the
Palestinian economy to look eastward, to Jordan and to the Arab
world, it imposed almost total dependence on Israel. The agreement
created an extended colonial situation. It assumed on a permanent
basis that, when there will finally be peace between us and the
Palestinians, there will still be a situation of dependence, of a
structured lack of equality between the two entities."(6)
These lines were published at the end of 1998. A few months later,
as a result of the elections,7 Ben-Ami was appointed minister of
internal security. Among other tasks, the minister is responsible
for implementing these "neo-colonialist" agreements. For this there
is a police force and a Border Police force under his authority.
And where is Shimon Peres today? He is a possible candidate for the
presidency. Meanwhile in the framework of his role as minister for
regional cooperation, he is attempting - not always successfully -
to implement what he preached years ago.
(1) Nowadays, agile Palestinian building workers are pulling
down this building in the center of Tel Aviv to make way for new
high-rise luxury apartments.
(2) Peres wrote as follows in his book: "The whole world is
organizing in a two-tiered structure: at the bottom regional
communities and above them, groups of multinational companies. The
political power of the groups of multinational companies and the
development of the supra-national economy expedite this process,
which sooner or later will lead to diplomatic and judicial
recognition of the international political status of these giant
companies. This recognition will express the change which has
already occurred in the term 'sovereignty.'" From Shimon Peres, A
New Middle East: Framework and Processes for the Era of Peace (Tel
Aviv: Steimatzky, 1993), p. 91 of the Hebrew version.
(3) On the discussions that took place in the framework of
capitalist organizations concerning the implications of peace with
the Palestinians, see Efraim Davidi's article "Israel's Economic
Strategy for Palestinian Independence," The Middle East Report, No.
184 (September-October 1993).
(4) On the processes of globalization, privatization and the
workers in the Middle East, see Prof. Joel Beinin's excellent
article which is about to appear in a book on the subject: "The
Working Class and Peasantry in the Middle East: From Economic
Nationalism to Neoliberalism," The Middle East Report, No. 210
(5) Shlomo Ben-Ami, A Place for All (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad,
1998), p. 106 of the Hebrew version.
(6) Ibid., p. 113.
(7) Before entering politics, as a lecturer in history at Tel Aviv
University, Ben-Ami wrote an article called "Koor Ready to
Cooperate," Palestine-Israel Journal, No. 1, Winter 1994.