A state without delusions
History has taught us that Palestine must remain limited in its turf and in its weapons — because, like its Arab neighbors, it cannot be trusted to let well enough alone
A few weeks ago, a caboodle of Harvard student groups, with the shameful half-endorsement and full tactical (and some financial) support from the J.F.K. School of Government and its Carr Center for Human Rights, sponsored a conference on the one-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Harvard doesn’t generally sponsor such one-sided partisan events. It would not promote in even the slightest manner — and I’m not asking it to do so! — a conference about the other one-state solution, the one that would have Israel annex the territories and make life even more difficult for the Palestinian population. How about a conference about widening the hole in the ozone layer?
There were about 300 people in the audience, and they more or less filled the room. The Crimson, the Harvard student newspaper, reported that someone had actually travelled from Kenyon College in far-away Ohio. It was mostly a middle-aged crowd with a healthy smattering of senior citizens, a few old peaceniks whom I recognized, and some retired Jewish academics who’d been swearing for decades to the pacific inclinations of the Arab parties to this interminable conflict. There were also some students in the hall, but not many.
Anyway, this event had a basis in reality: there is now among those who are especially concerned about the Palestinians a new (well, not exactly new) solution being proffered. It is the “one-state solution,” from the sea to the river (and soon after across the Jordan, too) with a majority of Arabs and a democratic state. This would be, of course, the first state in history that would be Arab and democratic, the Arab Spring notwithstanding. Do we have any evidence at all that this is a political-cultural possibility?
I am afraid I belong to the minoritarian school, which believes that democracy and Palestinianism are not naturally symbiotic, and one of the reasons I believe this so is that Arab nationalism in general, and in its specific manifestations over a century and a half, has been hostile to democracy.
Remember that even the sainted King Hussein of Jordan murdered 10,000 Palestinians in 1970, in what they call Black September.
I hasten to add that there is nothing “essentialist” about this. The reasons are historical and ideological. Arab nationalism has generally preferred a union of the military and the mob. Go back to Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian fantast colonel, who persuaded half the Third World that he was its leader and then persuaded John Foster Dulles that he was a reliable American ally. The patronage of the secretary of state, a certified reactionary, did not deflect the roused masses from their adulation of Nasser: after all, he was fighting the Jews.
But anarchy and its Hobbesian counter-force in the Arab world do not ultimately depend on the Jews. They depend on the Arabs. You see it now in extremis in Syria. Sometimes there is a lull in the murderous character of the confrontation. But that depends on a crafty but temporary division of the spoils on sectarian lines, as the peace that hates does in Lebanon now. It will last six months, maybe a year, and then revert to its natural currency of blood. Remember that even the sainted King Hussein of Jordan murdered 10,000 Palestinians in 1970, in what they call Black September. But if he and his Hashemite soldiers had not killed them, they would have killed him and 10,000 other Jordanians.
The real conflict
Now, the Palestinians are actually lucky in their demography. They are virtually all Sunnis. The Christian Arabs of Palestine have mostly left (while the Christian Arabs in Israel have grown in number, a phenomenon that makes a hash of the clichés about the xenophobia of the Jewish state). Still, extended family and clan and class do matter a lot among the Palestinians. American reporters in Israel and the West Bank haven’t told this story, and I am afraid that this is so because their Palestinian informants do not have it on their list of hot topics to peddle to Western reporters, who are often there only to find a “bad Jews” story. Every so often, though, you can read between the lines that the real narrative, the real conflict, is among the Arabs themselves. (And if you don’t want only to read between the lines, read four exquisitely written and historically intriguing novels by Matthew Rees, a crime writer who really knows Palestine: The Collaborator of Bethlehem, A Grave in Gaza, The Samaritan’s Secret and The Fourth Assassin.)
One structural impediment to the coherence of Palestinian nationalism is that in the history of Arab Palestine, the Palestinians were not the ones to do battle against Zionism and its successful state, except in the periodic episodes of high terror. In the War of Independence in 1948, Israel’s armed struggle was not against the Arab locals of Palestine; it fought instead against Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and (far-away) Iraq. In the Six Day War, it was ditto minus Iraq. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, only Egypt and Syria fought in what they construed as war for the territory they lost in 1948. This is actually the most pathetic aspect of the Palestinian half-struggle against the Jews. Their war was fought by the armies of others who wanted Arab Palestine for themselves. Had Israel lost in 1967 or 1973, it would not have been Palestine in its place; the land would have been divvied up by the countries which had entered the fight to add turf to their own national cartographies.
The fight for Palestine by the Palestinians began late. It has been a pitiful fight, winning all kinds of battles in international arenas where the reward was only ecstatic verbiage. And so, nothing has changed for the Palestinians, not least because Palestine’s Arab allies are allies only in talk, a bit of intelligence subterfuge, and a lesser bit of cash. Some of these allies also host inhospitably tens of thousands of “refugees” who are now refugees into the fifth generation. Is there anywhere else a refugee into the fifth or fourth or even third generation? Some of the most militant Arab nationalist governments do not allow any Palestinians to reside among them. Phenomenally wealthy as they are, the Saudis are short of teachers and doctors, and so the only Palestinians they admit — you guessed it — are teachers and doctors.
Palestine, even though everybody talks about it as if it already exists, is much further away from being Palestine than at any time since the partition plan of 1947.
Almost all of the Palestinians victories have occurred in diplomacy, but not in diplomacy with the one state that has the power and the reason to give the Palestinians what they seek — I mean Israel — because the Palestinians prefer not to come to the one table that really matters. I know, I know: sometimes Israelis have not exactly rushed to the table either. But the Palestinians are the ones without a state, and it boggles the mind that they would always rather explain the inadequacies of Israel’s position than correct the inadequacies of their own position.
And so, Palestine, even though everybody talks about it as if it already exists, is much further away from being Palestine than at any time since the partition plan of 1947 that was to have created it. And it is a caricature of Israel’s recent decades of history with the Palestinians to describe its stance as entirely “rejectionist.” Quite the contrary. Over the years the Israelis have made so many conciliatory proposals to the Palestinians — two at the urgent behest of Washington — that they literally cannot grasp why Arafat and his successors turned them down. OK, we now know that the last thing that Arafat wanted was peace. Still, the poor people of Palestine continue under his spell. His successor and the Palestinian Authority were supposed no longer to be in the grip of figments and fabrication. They were supposed to have grasped that 60 years is not yesterday and the Palestine that the Zionists were ready to accept in 1947 — most of them eager to accept — is not the plausible Palestine of today.
Only an interval between wars
The more the Arabs of Palestine demand, the less they will get, until what Israel may be willing to forfeit in the increasingly precarious regional circumstances will seem so parsimonious that they will deem it an insult to take. Actually, there has been no negotiating occasion when the Arabs weren’t over-reachers. This is why a settlement made with them or among them is also and always a hudna, a truce. A truce is not a settlement. It is only an interval between wars. Under these conditions, of course, the Jewish state and, for that matter, all nation-states, are forbidden by the obvious laws of caution to make grand gestures.
Shortly after his inauguration, President Obama entered eagerly onto the peace highway. And he immediately burdened it with so much heavy cargo that the road itself collapsed. The fact is that he seems to have known little of the historical conflict but much of the cliched left-wing account of Jewish injustice to the Palestinians. He was not only deluded by the Palestinians’ narrative of their own tragedy; he was also taken in by the Arab chronicle of immemorial glory and its usurpation by imperialism. Obama narrowed the imperial debit account to Palestine. After all, there were independent Arab polities elsewhere in the region that he praised and over-praised, starting right-off in Mubarak’s Cairo, five months after the inauguration, sloppily and cravenly, with goofy historical error and the eloquence to which falsity is naturally prone.
Alas, Barack Obama seems never to have met an Arab leader he doesn’t trust. But he certainly doesn’t trust Bibi Netanyahu, and he told both President Sarkozy and the world about that.
Believe it or not, Mubarak may have been the least wicked of the president’s allies among the Arabs. Recall that Obama was about to press Israel into a dangerous accommodation with the Syrian tyranny, until even he may have recognized that Assad – the “reformer” who unleashes wholesale massacre against even his own population — may be the most monstrous Arab leader of them all. Even Hamas has deserted him. But Khaled Abu Toameh reported a few days ago in the Jerusalem Post that the two ascendant terror groups in Gaza, Islamic Jihad and Palestine Resistance Committees, have intensified their backing of Assad even though he has especially targeted their fellow Sunnis in Syria. Go figure.
I assume that American intelligence agencies, by means of espionage or long-distance psychiatry, are busy seeking characterological information on political leaders who are in our sights for good or for bad. Someone asked last week what kind of details Neville Chamberlain might have had about Adolf Hitler. I wonder what kind of information Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had about Ho Chi Minh or Henry Kissinger about Mao tse-tung. Someone certainly pulled Bill Clinton’s chain about Yasser Arafat. Alas, Barack Obama seems never to have met an Arab leader he doesn’t trust. But he certainly doesn’t trust Bibi Netanyahu, and he told both President Sarkozy and the world about that. Maybe, to build a confidence, he told Bibi what he thought about Sarkozy. We shall never know.
Among many commentators, Netanyahu is the perennial fall guy for the perennial collapse of negotiations. Many of these critics blame his politically very conservative 102-year-old father for the views of the son. It really all begins with the provocative thesis of Ben Zion Netanyahu, one of the eminent Jewish historians of our time, about racialism being the well of the Spanish Inquisition. I don’t know how this perspective fits into the demonization of the prime minister. But it does, and especially for those still insisting on winning the outdated 1930s argument for Zionist bi-nationalism, which assumed, in a really spectacular error, that “the Arab” (who was not yet a “Palestinian”) and “the Jew” were the docile protagonists of Martin Buber’s brainy but ethereal “I-Thou” drama.
The only Muslim country where Israel remains prime demon (and, thus, Palestine prime victim) is Iran, which is also at war with both the West and all of Sunni Islam.
Palestine is still a central trope in the politics of the Arab world. It may be the only subject on which a fissiparous culture of a quarter of a billion people can agree. In Egypt it figures now, but not all that prominently, in the presidential campaign of Amr Mousa, the former head of the Arab League whose only real business was the ongoing psychological and ideological war against Israel. The Islamist candidate also has Palestine in his rhetoric. But the elections are not about Palestine, just as the Syrian crisis is not about Palestine. In fact, the only Muslim country where Israel remains prime demon (and, thus, Palestine prime victim) is Iran, which is also at war with both the West and all of Sunni Islam.
Only months ago Palestine was about to have been birthed by the General Assembly. It wasn’t, and President Obama deserves the credit for preventing another delusory victory for the Palestinians, who seem mesmerized by the weight of insubstantial resolutions and ceremonies where their flag is flown. And so the problem of Palestine remains. The Palestinian failure contrasts with the reality of Kurdistan; at least Kurdistan in Iraq and maybe soon also Kurdistan in Syria. Palestine was supposed to be in the ascendance and Kurdistan nowhere – but the Palestinians could not recognize one mirage after another when it faced them. They were deluded by fictions, and they deluded others in turn.
Why even otherwise-realistic world powers were also deluded is a problem for historians. Some people still have difficulty in admitting that the Jewish people is now an independent actor — and a dazzlingly powerful independent actor — in the international arena, in democratic reality, in economic learning and exploration, in scientific innovation, in the architectonics of a diverse and widely dispersed community into one. I say yes to a Palestinian state. But it had better be a state without delusions, a state limited in its turf and in its weapons, because, like its Arab neighbors, it cannot be trusted to let well enough alone.
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Martin Peretz is the editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.