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Why the Israeli Communist Party defends Assad’s regime

The following article was originally written in Arabic as a response to Muhammad Nafa'a, the General Secretary of the Communist Party in Israel (MAKI). We offer it in English because it gives an important insight into the political and ideological discussions regarding the Arab Spring. Nafa'a has been publicly supporting the Assad regime against the popular uprising in Syria. So have 50 other communist parties. This article proposes an alternative socialist position.


ohammed Nafa’a, secretary-general of the Communist Party of Israel (Maki), recently published a series of articles in which he adopts the position of Bashar Assad and views the uprisings in Syria as an imperialist-Zionist plot. The articles were published in Al-Ittihad, Maki’s journal, and on the Modern Discussion website (in Arabic).

The secretary-general’s position is dangerous because it not only represents the Israeli party’s position, but also that of no less than 50 communist parties that were present at the congress in Brussels on May 13-15, 2011. According to the congress decision (Paragraph 5), “It is clear that Syria is the victim of destructive and provocative manipulation by American imperialism and its ally Israel, and by other reactionary forces in the region. Washington has long aimed to bring down the Syrian regime, which it categorizes as part of the ‘axis of evil’, and to replace it with a puppet regime loyal to America and its allies. We strongly oppose all intervention in or threats of aggression towards Syria by imperialist forces and Israel. We support all the national democratic forces in Syria which are acting to obtain the legitimate demands of the people.”

Nafa’a adds, “We oppose firing on the demonstrators in Syria! But what about the shots of the ‘resistance’ against the Syrian army!! And why were negotiations rejected, and why the ‘revolutionary’ change of heart of some of the resistance, which at first demanded regime reforms and not its downfall, and then hurried to call for its downfall? If this is their aim, they are just following the will of their master America.” (Modern Discussion, June 19, 2011)

What is the significance of this declaration, which sounds like a quote from a speech by Syrian President Bashar Assad? At best, it ignores the role played by the people in the uprising and belittles the victims without expressing any solidarity or regret for the deaths. At worst, it accuses the people, who demand the downfall of the regime, of cooperating with the US and Israel.

Revolution of workers and farmers

From the congress’ decision, it is clear that the communist parties are failing to read the new political map, and do not understand the nature of the uprisings in the Arab world. Their defense of Assad’s regime, while the Syrian president is slaughtering his own nation, makes one wonder what kind of relationship they had with the regime. It seems that these parties are defending themselves more than Assad, because for many years they tied their fate to the Syrian regime and other similar regimes, which they saw as the militant wing of the global anti-imperialist bloc. In the congress’ decision, and in the articles by Nafa’a, a distinction is made between the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and that of Syria. While the former receive full support as uprisings against pro-western regimes, the latter is condemned because the Syrian regime was considered anti-imperialist.

If we consider this approach objectively, we see a number of worrying weaknesses. Firstly, do the Syrian people not suffer from the same conditions which led the Egyptian people to rise up? Do Syrian citizens live outside the Arab hell in which Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans live, with its lack of democracy, its corrupt and violent government, its unemployment and poverty, its dynastic leadership, and an economy privatized for the benefit of the ruling family and friends?

It is no coincidence that the ‘Arab Spring’ broke out in a number of places simultaneously, without distinguishing between regimes from the moderate camp and regimes from the rejectionist camp, and without granting immunity to any regime. The Arab people have learned from personal experience, in the bitter reality of their existence, that there is no connection between a regime’s words, whether moderate or otherwise, and its concern for its citizens. From Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia to Hosni and Gamal Mubarak in Egypt and to Assad and his capitalist cousin Rami Makhlouf in Syria, they each hold a different passport but they all belong to the same bourgeois class, they all plunder the resources of their nations, they all corrupt their surroundings and suppress basic civil freedoms, and they have all caused unemployment and poverty.

While the profits of those close to the regime continue to grow, the regular citizen earns starvation wages. This is what led Muhammad Bouazizi to set himself alight in Tunisia. This is what led Egyptian workers, paid just 200 Egyptian pounds a month ($34), to rise up against the regime, and this is what keeps them demonstrating and striking even now. This corruption is what led the Syrian people, who earn poverty wages of just $3,000 per year, to rise up against Assad.

The uprisings in the Arab world demand social justice and fair employment terms, just as they demand democracy. Thus they are linked to the events in Spain of May 15, and to current events in Greece – popular rage against neo-liberal economic policies and against the powerlessness of their own politicians.

The question arises: what happened to the class perspective of Nafa’a, secretary-general of the Communist Party of Israel? What happened to his working class solidarity, and all the values upon which the communist movement is based? Is he unable to see the difference between the workers and the poor, struggling on the streets, and the corrupt and satiated bourgeois classes of Damascus and Halab?

What rejectionism?

Nafa’a says, “We are against the killing of civilians and dynastic regimes, we are against the emergency laws, detentions and more…” However, in the same breath he adds, “Is the US plotting against the Syrian regime for these reasons?... Syria supported the courageous resistance of Lebanon, and stood strongly against all US plans, just like the Iranian regime which together with Syria, according to the US, is part of the ‘axis of evil’.” (Ibid)

Nafa’a distorts history and counts on his readers’ short memory when he praises the Syrian regime and describes it as anti-imperialist. Perhaps he himself has forgotten or forgiven the regime for the things that don’t quite match the heroic image he paints. We have not forgotten. We have not forgotten how in 1990-91, Assad’s regime participated in the US strike against Iraq or how, in 2003, he ignored Bush Junior’s attack against Iraq, just because he was happy to see the weakening of his old enemy the Iraqi Baath Party and the strengthening of his ally, Iran. This is the same Iran which cooperated with the US in order to win control of Iraq via the Shi’ite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and also offered the US extensive assistance in Afghanistan.

We have not forgotten that in 1976, Hafez Assad, Bashar's father, invaded the refugee camps in Lebanon with full Israeli coordination, to suppress Palestinian resistance. We have not forgotten how Bashar himself, “hero” of the resistance, did not respond to the Israeli aircraft flying over his palace or to the bombing of the nuclear plant, just as he accepted the occupation of the Golan Heights. Bashar’s declarations that he is willing to negotiate with Israel should not surprise anyone. He will not hesitate to throw himself into America’s arms to enable his middle class to flourish and become ever wealthier. This is exactly what happened in Egypt after it adopted the policy of “infitah” – openness to the West.

What is behind the claim that Washington and its allies want to bring down Bashar Assad? All the US and Israel want is to strengthen the bear hug around the Syrian regime in order to steer it away from Iran. The last thing the US and Israel need is democratic Arab uprisings. These uprisings strengthen the Arab people politically, socially and economically, free them from corrupt and despotic regimes, and enable them to contend with imperialism and occupation. Furthermore, the deep changes taking place in the Arab world rob Israel of the claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East, with all the implications this has for its strategic position in the region.

Regarding democracy

Nafa’a doesn’t merely defend Assad, he also aspires to teach us something about revolutionism: “A real revolution knows how to recognize its main enemy, the enemy of humanity, of the people, of the workers: the US and imperialism. This is the compass, and we must guard it well. The dictatorship of the workers of Lenin and the dictatorship of Stalin are immeasurably preferable to the democracy of thieves, imperialists and traitors. This is the compass, and this is the test.” (Ibid.)

In the same article, Nafa’a adds, “Some are in a hurry, some are captivated by the democratic slogans!! I claim that the dictatorial regime in democratic Korea is immeasurably preferable to the democracy in the US, Europe and Israel. Furthermore, some people refer to the concept ‘Stalinism’ in a negative way, in the sense of jails, torture, cult of personality etc… The alternative to all this was Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Yakovlev the democrats, and we’ve already seen the results – complete betrayal of the Party, the motherland and the nation.”

Thus it is clear that the Communist Party of Israel learned nothing from the fall of the Soviet Union, made no personal reckoning and did not reexamine its history and the reasons that led to the painful failure of the first communist state. The political regime in the USSR was based on one party in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which was the Achilles’ heel of the soviet socialist system. The fact that the USSR succeeded in building a strong economic regime did not prevent its fall.

Socialism, in the Marxist sense, is based on democracy and favors a multi-party system. Historical circumstances led the Soviet Communist Party to adopt a dictatorial regime, especially the isolation and numerical weakness of the working class vis-à-vis the peasants after the revolution. Is this enough to justify the dictatorial regime of a single party once it has proved its failure? After all, a one-party dictatorship is exactly what brought the Arab people out onto the streets to protest. These revolutionary uprisings could have been a golden opportunity for Israel's Communist Party, Maki, to reexamine its antiquated position on dictatorship. However, under Nafa’a, we see no signs of new thinking.

The alternative

“If the Syrian regime falls,” Nafa’a warns, “what will be the alternative?! It will be forces chosen by the US, those who currently demand western intervention, just as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan… Is this real democracy? The partition and dissolution of the state?” (Ibid.)

According to Nafa’a, opposing imperialism necessarily means supporting the Arab regime, regardless of the regime’s character. In Syria’s case, this is a regime that has no connection at all to socialism. A regime that works to privatize the economy to the benefit of the ruling family and its friends, a regime that maintains a monopoly on the economy and security services to ensure it enjoys more rights than the rest of the nation – is this the kind of regime we should be defending? On what basis does Nafa’a claim that the fall of Assad’s regime will mean the rise of an American puppet?

There is a fundamental flaw in Maki’s thinking. We are all familiar with the animosity between the US and the rejectionist camp, but it would be a disgraceful oversimplification to limit these events to the schematic division between “those who are not with me are necessarily with my enemy.” For the first time in 40 years of oppression, a new “camp” is growing in Syria – the people – which does not like the regime but does not like the US either. Why should we take a stand against the will of the people and scorn its objectives?

In recent years, Maki’s flawed thinking has led it to participate in and justify groundless coalitions. With one hand, it supported the Iranian president against domestic opposition, on the grounds that he was opposing the US, and it supported the Islamic nationalist resistance led by Iran and Syria. With the other hand, it supports Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), a moderate leader on the other side of the fence.

It seems that the Party has not yet understood that the Cold War ended with the fall of the USSR, and that the bipolar world of a reactionary US and progressive USSR no longer exists. They seem to think there is no need to adapt to a new reality – all that is needed is to tinker with the old. In their eyes, the USSR’s place in the confrontation between the two blocs has been taken over by Iran and its allies as the flag-bearers of anti-imperialism.

What the Communist Party of Israel refuses to comprehend is that the Arab nations themselves do not believe in this bipolar equation, and are not willing to accept Iran as opposed to the US, or vice versa. At last we are witnessing the end of the era of frustration and despair which drove the Arab nations to support anyone who opposed US imperialism and the Israeli occupation, including bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda, without thinking of creating an alternative. A new player is on the stage, the workers’ movement, allied with the youth and those who support social change, with movements and parties, civil society organizations, intellectuals and artists – all are building a third alternative, a positive alternative, compelling all other forces to contend with its existence.

The Arab uprisings face a harsh reality. They seek ways of building a new society, but not according to the American model. The American example does not speak to the revolutionary youth, especially when American capitalism has been in crisis for a number of years. The Arab nations want to create a regime which will ensure the welfare of society and the workers. Although Arab socialism is still a long way from being implemented, there is no doubt that the socialist ideal is on the horizon for the democratic movements in the Arab states.

And in Israel?

The Israeli Communist Party’s biggest problem is its policies within Israel. The legitimacy of the secretary-general’s position is being undermined, while his party supports the moderate camp in Israel which is beholden to the US. Maki supports the Palestinian Authority chairman, Mahmoud Abbas. Party leaders are regular guests at PA and Fatah events. In 1993, Maki supported the Oslo Accords, and a year earlier it joined Yitzhak Rabin’s bloc as the “lesser evil.” In keeping with this approach, in 1996 Maki called for people to vote for Shimon Peres, the Labor candidate for prime minister, and in 1999 it called on Arab citizens to support Labor candidate Ehud Barak. The justification was the “uniqueness” of conditions in Israel. There is no need to elaborate on the coalitions Maki (along with the various forms of Hadash) has made in local authorities and the Histadrut, as well as with Labor, Kadima and other establishment parties.

In the demonstration marking 44 years of occupation, held in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2011, Maki and Hadash leaders including Nafa’a marched with Labor and Kadima leaders under Israeli flags. Nafa’a and his colleagues forgot their loyalty to the anti-imperialist camp when they joined the coalition at the head of the demonstration which adopted Obama’s speech calling on the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

Members and supporters of Daam, the Workers’ Party (in which I am active), also took part in the demonstration. Daam did not join this coalition. Daam marched independently shouting slogans calling for the downfall of both Netanyahu and Assad. In the flyers we distributed, we expressed our opposition to the Occupation and our support for the Syrian people’s struggle for democracy and the downfall of the regime. This stance raised the ire of some of the Communist Party leaders who didn’t hesitate to tell us so. They claimed that the demonstration was not about Syria, that we were “mixing messages,” and that such slogans would bring back colonialism to Syria. They made these claims just one day after 62 protestors were killed in Hama.

A historic opportunity

The new Arab uprisings need devoted and experienced leaders who have the knowledge and education to lead the people to achieve their objectives. Without such leadership, the revolutionary energy is liable to evaporate while reactionary forces rush in to fill the vacuum and claim the regime. This kind of struggle is taking place in Egypt today.

The Syrian uprising is the most difficult test. It requires that the Arab Left rethink its path and abandon the option of Iranian and Islamic resistance, which has dominated Arab political discourse, including the Left's, during the last twenty years. The Left must roll up its sleeves and rebuild its forces, and shake off the dust of cynicism and despair.

Unfortunately, positions such as those adopted by the Communist Party of Israel undermine the crucial process of forming an Arab revolutionary Left. These positions damage the socialist option as we understand the concept: a regime that enables human freedoms, based on democracy and genuine social justice. And a final word: Syria is not just a political test but, first and foremost, a test for the human conscience. Whatever the political differences of opinion, there is nothing that can justify support for a regime that kills its own citizens. The history of nations will not forgive those who stand shoulder to shoulder with torturers and murderers. "end"

  • Translated from the Hebrew version by Yonatan Preminger.
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