Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pro-Israel unionists seek to undermine Palestinian solidarity

Lisbeth Latham

In recent weeks, there have been a number of articles in the corporate media globally, including the Rupert Murdoch-owned Australian, on the creation of a new international union organisation — Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine.

TULIP’s stated goal is promoting Middle Eastern peace by bringing Israeli and Palestinian unions together. To this end, it has gone on the offensive against “apologists” for Hamas and Hezbollah in the international labour movement and seeks to end union support for the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign directed at Israel.

TULIP has been founded by Australian Workers Union National Secretary Paul Howes; Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (USA), and Michael J. Leahy , General Secretary of Community (United Kingdom).


TULIP’s website provides a number of links to labor organisations in both Israel and Palestine. In addition the site provides links to organisations in Canada, the US and Britain. These organisations which include Union Members for Israel (Canada); Trade Union Friends of Israel (Britain); Engage (a British organisation established to oppose the BDS campaign in the Association of University Teachers); US Jewish Labor Committee (Appelbaum is the President of JLC).

Both Union Members for Israel and Engage were established by unionists opposed to their unions supporting the BDS campaign. Both the JLC and TUFI actively seek to build support for not only the Israeli Labour movement in their respective labour movement, they have also attempted to build support for the Israeli state and its occupation of Palestine. JLC is also a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – which refers to itself as America’s Pro-Israel Lobby. Both TUFI and the JLC issued statements in response to Israel’s most recent war on Gaza that both portrayed Israel as an innocent victim and said little or nothing of the extent of the Israeli Defence Force’s slaughter of more than 1300 civilians in Gaza strip.

In its founding statement TULIP states that “solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is clear – and has been accepted in principle by both sides. Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side, within secure and recognised borders, is the only workable solution to a conflict that has dragged on for decades”. It continues “Israel has already taken a number of steps towards this goal, most notably by agreeing to the Oslo Accords in 1993 and later by the unilateral withdrawal of all Israeli forces from Lebanon and Gaza. Palestinian moderates lead by Mahmoud Abbas support this process”.

In fact, since Oslo, Israel’s illegal settlement program has been massively expanded - an expansion which continues today. Moreover when Israel withdrew from Gaza, it continued to build and expand settlement in the West Bank. Also in withdrawing Gaza, Israel moved to turn the territory into a giant prison, closing the borders and has blockaded Gaza restricting the flow of supplies.

What is the basis for collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian unions?
TULIP founding expresses the desire to improve links between Israeli and Palestinian unions as a central goal. To be serious in doing so surely it is necessary to understand what the previous relationship was. The dominant Israeli trade union organisation is Histadrut (General Federation of Laborers in the Land of Israel) , which is affiliated to the International Confederation of Trade Unions and it is primarily this organisation that TULIP relates to but there is also Kav LaOved (a NGO that works with disadvantaged Israeli and Palestinian workers) and the Workers Advice Centre which aims to build support for the formation of an independent labour association bringing together Israeli and Palestinian workers.

While Histadrut has existed since 1920, it is only since 1994 that it has taken on the characteristic what would normally be considered a trade union in much of the world. Prior to this Histadrut was a corporatist organisation, it not only organised workers but was also one of Israel’s largest employers owning 25% of the economy. In 1995, the leadership of Histadrut sol d off the organisations assets as part of the neo-liberal drive which that begun within Israel and renamed the organisation New Histadrut. Histadrut’s ownership of a substantial section of the economy reflected the role it played in capital formation within Israel and within the Zionist settler community in Palestine prior to the creation of the Israeli state. At this time individual capitalists did not sufficient capital to construct much of the new infrastructure and enterprises. Histadrut was created to both furnish the money for future development but also to ensure that Jewish workers would be provided to work.

This role as a central actor in the creation of the Israeli state also stamped Histadrut with one of its defining features since its foundation – racism. British anti-Zionist Tony Greenstein in an article on the Electronic Intifada describes the Histadrut as a racist organisation. During intial process colonisation in Palestine – Zionist organisations sort to promote and encourage through promoting buy Jewish campaign. These Jewish companies were to only employ Jewish workers and so Histadrut actively participated in excluding Palestinian from employment in these companies. Palestinians, including Arab Israelis were barred from becoming full members of Histadrut until 1959. In 1979, all Palestinians from the occupied territories who worked in Israel were forced to join Histadrut, with 1% of their wages being paid in dues to the union however these workers were not entitled to receive any support from Histadrut.

Histadrut and Palestinian Workers In the wake of the Oslo accords Histadrut looked for greater links with Palestinian trade unions, according to Dani Ben Simhon, this was to enable it to take over the Palestinian unions and use them to legitimate its entry into the Arab world. In March 1995, Histadrut made an agreement with the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PFGTU) to allow it to continue to collect 1% from all Palestinian workers working inside Israel as before, but to give half of this money to the PGFTU. As part of these negotiations began over the division of funds from Palestinian workers Histadrut offered to give the PGFTU 8 million shekels to compensate for funds previously collected. The PFGTU contested amount that would paid as it was a tiny fraction of the estimated 1.5 billion shekels collected from Palestinian workers.

Following the outbreak of the second intifada Histadrut cut off all ties with the PFGTU, it stopped acting behalf of Palestinian workers inside Israel and it has refused to speak out against the IDF’s assault on Palestinians or their unions, instead acting as the part of Israel’s PR machine within the labour movement globally. This includes when the Nablus offices of the PGFTU were bombed by the IDF in February 2002.

More broadly Histadrut has a poor record of supporting the rights of non-Jewish workers within Israel. According to Greenstein Histadrut has never supported Arab workers' fight against racial discrimination. Examples of this include its failure to oppose mass layoffs of Arabs that occurred after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000; a labor dispute of Arab and Jewish employees with the Dead Sea Hotel Nirvana in 2003, when an Arab manager was fired because he refused to forbid his co-workers to speak Arabic in front of tourists, although nominally Arabic is an official language of Israel. Likewise it has done nothing about McDonald's Israel's policy decision in 2004 not to allow Arabic to be spoken in the restaurants or the situation at a building site in the Knesset grounds in 2004 when Arab workers' helmets were marked with a red X, to facilitate assassination by marksmen in case of emergency. In 2005, Histadrut was found by a Labour Court to have failed in duties and allowed illegal discrimination against foreign workers by the Israeli Hotel Association. 0n August 6 2008 a new agreement was signed between the PGFTU and Histadrut to renew relations between the new organisations and including the continued division of fees, with the amount owed by Histadrut having to be calculated.

Following the announcement of the agreement Histadrut Chairperson Ofer Ein said, “The outcome of our dialogue with the PGFTU can only help achieve this, and help lay the foundations for future cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian trade unions and progress in our shared quest for justice, peace and prosperity for all in the region”.

Unfortunately this cooperation did not extend to defending Palestinian workers and their unions when they were next attacked by the IDF. During the IDF’s assault on Gaza between November 2008 and January 2009, Histadrut issued a number of statements supporting and defending the IDF assault on Gaza, as a "defence on Israel’s sovereignty". While the statements do indicate regret at the death of innocent civilians, Histadrut's statements give no indication that more than 1300 Palestinians were killed in the terror unleashed on Gaza. The main focus of Histadrut's statements is the threat to life caused by the Hamas’s launching of missiles into Israel.

Signifcantly Histadrut statement does not incude any condemnation of the impact of the IDF's offensive on Palestinian unions. An example of this destruction of the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees' office on December 29.

Boycott
TULIP has expressed considerable concern at the spreading support for the BDS campaign against. Unions in a number of countries have decided to support the BDS campaign, these include: Australia, Canada, Ireland, Norway, Scotland and South Africa. It is this move, which threatens to isolate Israel and is already causing damage to the Israeli economy that has motivated the formation of TULIP, as the supporters of Israel within the labour movement realise that the growing support for the BDS campaign reflects the extent of revulvsion felt by ordinary people towards the actions of the IDF. TULIP attempts to overcome this by arguing that a boycott will undermine collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian unions and impact most on the weakest sections of society.

While its possible that a BDS will undermine collaboration, the campaign is supported by Palestinian unions. Equally importantly for collaboration to be anything more than co-option of Palestinian unions, it needs to be based on support for their struggle for justice. Finally while TULIP is totally opposed to the propose BDS campaign, it has no problem with the very real sanctions and blockade that has been applied to the Palestinian people for electing Hamas into government.

Hamas an Obstacle to Peace?
TULIP has made a number of statements arguing that Hamas is an obstacle to peace as it does not support the two state solution that was agreed to as part of the Oslo Accords. Contrary to TULIP’s claims, Hamas’s leadership have repeatedly stated that are they willing to accept a pause based on the formation of two sovereign states.

This was most recently reflected on May 9, when Hamas leader Khaled Meeshal, said the formation of a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders as the basis of a long-term truce. Such a state which would include East Jerusalem as its capital, Israel’s settlements dismantled, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and full sovereignty over land, air and water. These are all issues that Israeli government, whether they have been led by Labor, Likud or Kadima have repeatedly refused.

In laying the blame for the lack of progress at the feat of Hamas, TULIP’s founders label Hamas as an extremist organisation which needs to be isolated. In labelling Hamas an extremist organisation they ignore Hamas’s continued willingness to explore negotiations with both other Palestinian organisations and with the Israeli government. Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza followed a 17 month cease, during which, according to the Israeli Intelligence & Terrorism Information Centre, Hamas did not launch a single rocket or mortar shell into Israel, this was despite the Israel failing to uphold its commitment to lift the blockade on Gaza.

While TULIP is highly critical of Hamas as block to peace, it has nothing to say with regard to Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Bieteinu Party, only the Engage website has articles referring to Lieberman. Lieberman is now the foreign minister and deputy Prime Minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud lead government. Lieberman is on record for making a range of racist statements against Palestinians and Arabs in general, these include:

  • In 1998, Lieberman called for the flooding of Egypt by bombing the Aswan Dam in retaliation for Egyptian support for Yasser Arafat;
  • In 2001, as Minister of National Infrastructure, Lieberman proposed that the West Bank be divided into four cantons, with no central Palestinian government and no possibility for Palestinians to travel between the cantons;
  • In 2003, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Lieberman called for thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel to be drowned in the Dead Sea and offered to provide the buses to take them there;
  • Also in May 2004, he said that 90 percent of Israel's 1.2 million Palestinian citizens would "have to find a new Arab entity" in which to live beyond Israel's borders. "They have no place here. They can take their bundles and get lost';
  • In May 2006, Lieberman called for the killing of Arab members of Knesset who meet with members of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
TULIP’s claims of support for peace covers an attempt to mobilise support for Israeli oppression and undermine international solidarity with Palestine.

The only basis for a lasting peace in the region is justice for the Palestinians. To help achieve this, internal labour movement should give active solidarity with the Palestinian people — including by supporting the BDS campaign.


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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