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Antiwar movement debate over Palestine:
Unity on what basis?

August 5, 2005 | Page 11

LANCE SELFA is a columnist for Socialist Worker and editor of The Struggle for Palestine, a collection of essays published by Haymarket Books. Here, he looks at an important debate in the antiwar movement.

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AS GEORGE W. Bush left Washington for his annual month-long vacation in Texas, public approval for his administration hit the lowest level ever. The Gallup survey taken in late July put his job approval rating at 44 percent--a new low. A Quinnipiac University poll had Bush at 41 percent.

It's clear that the main issue sapping Bush's support is the war in Iraq. Having once provided him with the aura of "commander in chief," which he brandished to silence all critics, the war is now proving to be a weight around his neck. The same Gallup survey showed that only 36 percent--most of that the Republican Party's "base"--supported Bush's Iraq policy.

The reasons for the decline in Bush's support are simple. First, he sold the war on a number of pretences that have been proven to be lies. Second, he has proclaimed several "turning points"--from the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 to the Iraqi elections held in January 2005--which, he said, augured better days ahead. Instead, an increase in Iraqi resistance activity has wiped out each of these false dawns.

Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn described the real situation in Iraq today: "For future historians, Iraq will probably replace Vietnam as the stock example of the truth of Wellington's dictum about small wars escalating into big ones. Ironically, the U.S. and Britain pretended in 2003 that Saddam ruled a powerful state capable of menacing his neighbors. Secretly, they believed this was untrue and expected an easy victory. Now, in 2005, they find to their horror that there are people in Iraq more truly dangerous than Saddam, and they are mired in an unwinnable conflict."

These factors have produced a crisis of credibility for Bush, which finds its echoes in many arenas: from declining military recruitment to the investigation of White House aides for blowing the cover of a CIA operative.

Things have gone so badly for Bush that his spin masters are actually trying to re-brand his signature foreign policy rhetoric. Out is the "the war on terrorism" and in is "the war against extremism." Perhaps in the wake of the bombings in London, Madrid and elsewhere, the "war on terrorism" appears to be another war that Bush is losing.

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THIS DENTING of Bush's armor has helped breathe new life into opposition to the war. One historic marker of this was the nearly unanimous approval of an AFL-CIO resolution calling for Bush to remove U.S. troops from Iraq "rapidly." This was the first time in the 50-year history of the labor federation that it had ever passed a resolution opposing a U.S. war during wartime.

Another indication of the growing opposition is the willingness of some Democrats--and even some Republicans--in Congress to put forward resolutions calling for various plans for troop withdrawals.

But the most hopeful sign of spreading antiwar sentiment are the planned national demonstrations against the war called for the weekend of September 24-25 in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and other cities. The September 24 protests represent a real opportunity to regain antiwar momentum after more than a year in which the public presence of the antiwar movement was sidelined into electioneering for the pro-war Democrat John Kerry.

However, as activists prepare for this show of opposition, a problem has arisen in the ranks of the antiwar movement. The specter of two separate demonstrations in Washington--rather than one, united show of force--hangs over the weekend. Already, much energy has been spent on debates, discussions and "unity" meetings attempting to head this off.

Unfortunately, this isn't a new problem. As far back as the 1991 national demonstrations against Bush Sr.'s war on Iraq, two national coalitions, unable to agree on a common platform, held national antiwar demonstrations in Washington on successive weekends in January.

Echoes of the 1991 split can be found today in the fact that many of the same leaders and political issues have resurfaced in the current division between the liberal United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and the more radical International ANSWER-led National Coalition.

It's tempting to write off the squabbling between the two national coalitions as a case of sectarian turf battles and personality conflicts. For many antiwar activists, the chief goal is to forge unity between the two marches and leave the disputes between them to another time.

However, another element--the crystalization of political differences on the crucial question of Palestine--has been added into the debate. This makes it imperative to confront this question--and to make attempts at forging genuine unity on the basis of incorporating demands about Palestine in one united march.

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PALESTINE IS not an abstract question peripheral to the war in Iraq. In fact, as this newspaper has demonstrated in numerous articles, U.S. support for Israel's occupation of Palestine can't be separated from the Iraq occupation. Not only do they flow from the same plan of U.S.-Israeli domination of the Middle East, but Israel has actually advised the U.S. on every aspect of the occupation of Iraq, from training Kurdish militias to the torturers in Abu Ghraib.

What's more, leading Arab and Muslim activists have demanded that the antiwar movement take up the issue of Palestine, including endorsing the demand for the United Nations-recognized right of Palestinians to return to their homes in what is now Israel.

In a July 22 statement, titled "Where the Arab and Muslim Community Will Stand on September 24," eight Arab and Muslim organizations and a representative of another wrote: "In its behavior, the leadership of UFPJ is fanning the flames of separation and is unnecessarily pitting trusting movement activists against our community and people. Last year, hundreds of organizations and thousands upon thousands of activists took a clear stand against the marginalization of the Arab and Muslim community, and in favor of a principled political position. Yet here we are again, facing the same attempts of separation by the same leadership of UFPJ."

For its part, UFPJ argued, in a May 23 letter to its supporters, that it limited march demands to make it "possible for the largest and widest array of people to come together in opposition to the war, including military families, Iraq war veterans and other veterans, and the labor movement."

But opinion polls show consistent support among Americans for Palestinian rights, which makes it very likely that military families, veterans and rank-and-file members of the labor movement either already support Palestinian rights in some form, or could be convinced to do so if the antiwar movement gave a lead on the question.

What UFPJ doesn't say is that the people it is more worried about alienating are Zionists in their ranks and Democratic Party politicians, whose support for Israel is a given. UFPJ's leaders would rather sideline thousands of Arabs and Muslims who have been the targets of state repression than a handful of Democrats and their liberal supporters. For a movement that chides itself about the need to attract more people of color into its ranks, this is a curious position to hold.

A "unity" that leaves Arabs and Muslims on the sidelines is no unity at all. It is reminiscent of 1964 Democratic Party convention, when leading liberals sold out the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party--in order to maintain party unity with the Mississippi segregationists who ran the state party. Or of the Northern politicians who told Black civil rights activists that they had to "wait" until there was more popular support for them. The letter from the nine Arab and Muslim organizations makes this connection, quoting Martin Luther King's Why We Can't Wait in support of their position.

The only unity worth fighting for is one that incorporates the legitimate demands of Arabs and Muslims fully into the protest.

A July statement from the Campus Antiwar Network, one of the organizations spearheading the growing movement to get military recruiters out of universities and high schools, gets this right: "As a new counter-recruitment movement is exploding across the country, it is vital for students, teachers, parents, and others who wish to reclaim our schools from recruitment for a war most Americans oppose to be able to march alongside one another. This unity is threatened by the specter of two separate protests in D.C. Therefore, in the interests of building the strongest movement possible to end occupation, we call on United for Peace and Justice to drop its opposition to demands in support of Palestine and civil liberties, so that all of us--including broad segments of the populations most affected by the war at home--can come together as one united protest in Washington."

Socialist Worker stands in solidarity with Arab and Muslim activists in calling on the antiwar movement to take up the issue of Palestine and oppose Israel's occupation.

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