07 March 2007 - Escaping unreality
The following is an excerpt from an article I am writing for a new journal at Harvard, New Society: The Harvard Middle East Review, due out in April. The goal of the article is to sketch what a positive Palestinian nationalism would look like. I begin with an analysis of the mistakes of the past and present, and move to recommendations for the future. I’d appreciate any feedback people wish to offer.
Palestinian intellectuals have spent a great deal of energy and ink over the years to rescue Palestinian identity and the Palestinian historical narrative from the obscurity to which it had been consigned after 1948. But a successful Palestinian nationalism must also reckon with the many lost opportunities, strategic blunders and self-destructive ideologies that continue to frustrate national ambitions today.
Almost from the very beginning of the conflict, Palestinian leaders have rejected reasonable compromises and hewed to radical, all-or-nothing demands. An offer by the British for full Arab sovereignty in 1939 was rejected because of a provision for the immigration of Jewish refugees. After the war, when left-wing Jews proposed a binational state, they found no Arab leader willing to publicly join their campaign.
Then there were the partition plans. The Peel Commission of 1937 recommended 75 percent of the land be reserved for an Arab state; the UN partition plan of 1947 offered roughly 45 percent; and UN Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967 gave the Palestinians about 22 percent of the land. Palestinian leaders rejected each of these in turn (though 242 was finally accepted in 1988), resulting in further losses.
Along the way, Palestinian leaders made a series of disastrous alliances with autocratic powers that promised to wipe Israel, and Jews, off the map of the Middle East. Amin Al-Husseini sided with Hitler and the Nazis; Yasser Arafat backed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War; today, Hamas receives funding and weapons from Ahmadinejad’s Iran. All of these have hurt Palestinian credibility.
The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt supported the binational option, and backed a “confederation” of two independent states after 1948. She did so because she believed that if Israel did not reckon with Arab claims, it “would lead the Jews out of reality once more” and back to the “unreality” she felt had prevented Jews from understanding the precariousness of their situation in prewar Europe.
Today it is the Palestinians who are trapped in “unreality.” While Israel has begun to accept the limits of its national boundaries, to evacuate its settlers and to accept the necessity of Palestinian statehood, Palestinian leaders still deny Israel’s right to exist and refuse to abandon terror attacks against it. The “dream” of annihilating Israel persists, and is echoed by pro-Palestinian activists in the western world.
Though Arendt was a critic of Zionism, she believed one of its greatest achievements was that “it tried to teach the Jews to solve their problems by their own efforts, not by those of others.” Palestinian nationalism still lacks this critical ingredient—what the early Zionist leader Leon Pinsker called “auto-emancipation.” Instead, it is dependent on the benevolence and attention of the international community.
Rather than become the author of its own history, the Palestinian cause borrows its narratives from others. The Hamas charter, for example refers to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an old European anti-Jewish screed. Pro-Palestinian activists have begun to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa—a false analogy, aimed solely at delegitimizing Israel. These are no substitute for serious political strategy.