Why Can’t The Palestinians Just “Get With The Programme”?
Much is written about the roots and possible ‘solutions’ to the conflict in historical Palestine, today Israel and the Occupied Territories. Yet with all this discussion, it seems that very little attention is paid to the dynamics that drive this horrific situation. This article hopes to give the reader some idea of what keeps the conflict going for decades – and what makes it so costly in Palestinian Arab lives.
But first we must get the obvious out of the way: there has been plenty of commentary in recent days about the very evident bias of major Western media outlets – otherwise champions of freedom of expression and fairness – towards equating Israeli actions with those of Palestinian resistance organizations, primarily Hamas. We will not trouble the reader with yet another discussion on why the “both sides” narrative of Western mainstream politicians and media is so inaccurate and unfair.
We assume, for the purposes of this article, that the reader is familiar with two basic facts.
First, the immense discrepancy between the destructive power available to the Zionist state and that of the Arab populations that it has conquered, driven into refugee camps or forced into the bantustans of Gaza and the West Bank.
Second, that the conflict began with the Zionist claim to an exclusively Jewish ideological ethno-state in an otherwise diverse region. Most commentators who are sympathetic to Zionist ideology are quick to point out the Arab refusal to accept the UN partition plan of 1947 – as if this suggests a lack of generosity on the part of Arab leaders and people to accommodate a sliver of land “for the Jews”. This story, unfortunately, is misleading Zionist apologia at its purest: because it ignores the conditions for a Jewish presence which the Zionist movement itself had laid out: i.e., as mentioned, an exclusively Jewish state in a religiously diverse land which had a predominantly Arab identity for at least a millennium. The Arab rejection of the State of Israel as proposed in the UN partition plan is rarely ever presented in its precise context: i.e. the very concept of an exclusively Jewish ethno-state in such a diverse region was, by definition, violently exclusionary. And therefore, it comes as little surprise that the Arab leadership found it unacceptable and sought to contest it by arms. The reader must bear this point in mind, for we will soon return to it.
With these reminders out of the way, let us return to the here and now.
The claim is often made – with a fair amount of sympathy for the position of the Israeli state, of course – that the Palestinian Arabs could ‘choose’ to end this situation if they somehow became more ‘realistic’. That is to say, that at any of the critical junctures of their history, 1948, 1967, 1993 or the present moment, they could have achieved peace if they simply accepted the status quo created by Israel through force of arms.
In other words, the Palestinian Arabs – as well as people all over the world who empathize with their plight – are called upon to leave aside the moral question of whether Israeli actions from 1948 up to today are right or wrong. Instead the are required to think only in an ahistoric and amoral way – simply of how to end the conflict and the mass murder of Palestinians. To be tormented constantly and to be told that it could all end with a simple acquiescence: the attractiveness of the proposition is obvious!
But there is a problem. Due to the preponderance of the Israeli perspective in the mainstream Western media and political spaces, we rarely ever ask the burning question that one would pose to the mightier side in any conflict: what are the problems with the Zionist perspective generally, and the position of the Israeli state specifically?
Is there some stubborn refusal to see sense on the part of the Israeli side? Or must we to direct all demands for “getting with the programme” to the weaker side, the Palestinian Arabs?
I argue that Israel’s approach towards the Palestinian Arabs suffers from two fatal flaws – and that these get in the way of any meaningful peace process.
First, the failure of the Israeli state to even begin understanding the view of the Palestinian Arab population which it seeks to fully conquer. The Palestinian perspective is based on the supremacy of the Idea in the mind over mere worldly material Power: in this case, that idea being memory. That is to say: the Palestinian Arabs can remember a time not too long ago (pre-1948) when their families lived in the land that is now Israel. Many still have the keys to their old family homes, etc. Their claim to their land of Palestine is difficult to give up, even with all the terror that the armed might of Israel can inflict on them using siege, white phosphorus and battlefield munitions. This is because reminders of their claim are everywhere around them. They insist on remembering, while the Israeli state insists that the Palestinian people subject themselves to amnesia. Israel expects the Arabs to give up on their people’s existence in historical Palestine and instead adopt the – factually wrong – Zionist line of “a land without a people for a people without a land”. With all the power to coerce and torment at its disposal, Israel calls upon the Palestinian Arabs to adopt the same ideological fantasy as the Zionist movement. Such a demand for forgetfulness by the Israeli state is based on total failure to grasp what drives the position of the Palestinian Arabs: i.e. a real memory, a lived history and above all, a very recent past! The intellectual and political leadership of the Palestinian people see this demand for amnesia as morally repugnant, the fulfillment of which would mean suicide as a people. Or, as the writer and revolutionary Ghassan Kanafani put it in a remarkable interview, “This people, the Palestinian people, prefers to die standing than to lose its case.” He died standing: as a leading figure of the left-wing Palestinian resistance organization PFLP, he was assassinated by Mossad soon after this interview, on the 8th of July 1972.
Second, that the Israeli state’s calculations rely on a crass and flawed version of realism. The problem is not just Israel’s failure to engage with the moral case of the Palestinian Arabs, but also its inability to grasp the strategic calculus of any resistance – be it the PLO in the past or Hamas and others today. This Israeli approach since 1948, which we might call the Realism of Fools, is based on the assumption that Israel holds all the cards.
To be sure, Israel has conventional military superiority, economic dominance and, above all, a mighty lobbying apparatus in Western capitals – one that relies on guilt in continental Europe and outright manipulation in the US, Britain and elsewhere. Moreover, Israel believes that it can count on the undemocratic ruling elites of states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and others to collaborate in its violence against the Palestinians, in exchange for favours from the United States. The problem is that even with all of this arrayed in favour of Israel, it has not proved enough to override the long-term Palestinian strategy of holding firm.
For all the imprisonment, siege, death and general horror that the Palestinian Arabs suffer for holding on to their claim to statehood, they do have some very good reasons to adhere to their principled stance. Israel’s ability to dominate and butcher the Palestinian Arabs is based on a specific constellation of global factors. The grand strategic balance of the world can change in an instant. Tomorrow the US might be unable or unwilling to offer the blank cheque that it has so far provided to the Israeli leadership. Or the neighbouring Arab states might undergo upheavals such as the Arab Spring, which remove collaborationist elites from power and replace them with political forces closer to the popular Arab opinion – one of resistance to Israel’s diktat. In such a situation, the formidable factors that currently work in Israel’s favour will collapse, and so will its strategic position, like a house of cards.
To understand its strategic vulnerability as an ultra-violent and hated force in the eastern Mediterranean region, Israel has only to recall how vulnerable it was during the opening phases of the 1973 Yom Kippur war: when Soviet-backed tactical competence by Egypt, backed by its ally Syria, temporarily put Israel in serious disarray. In that conflict, Israel was able to bounce back as strategic cooperation between Egypt and Syria collapsed, and US support to Tel Aviv kicked in. But will fortune favour the warlike Zionist state in every future conflict? That is something for the Israeli leadership and public to ponder over.
Can we not argue against the crass realism of the Israeli state with a more carefully considered realist argument? Should we not insist that the interests of the Jewish people will be better served by recognizing the humanity of those who they seek to conquer, displace and dominate? We all know what popular wisdom says about those who live by the sword.
In the meanwhile, for reasons of morality and realpolitik alike, there is no real case for the Palestinian Arab people to give up any of their claims. Nobody ever gives up their claim to a land easily, as sympathizers of the Israeli side never fail to remind us. If the Israelis find it unacceptable to give up their own claims, they can forget about the tormented yet courageous Palestinian Arab people surrendering the one thing that they are left with: their claim.
Israel has only made things worse for itself by systematically destroying the two-state solution through its own reckless coercion and settlement expansion. The great fear of Israel’s leadership is looming ever closer: the demand for a one-state solution and the formal end of the failed Oslo process.
What happens when the entire Palestinian leadership – currently fractured between Fateh and Hamas – concludes that the two-state solution is now merely a red herring? Such a process could be helped along by a mass uprising or new Intifada, fueled by repression, bleak prospects and rising frustration among the Palestinian youth.
And what happens when the global discussion begins to take the view that the two-state framework was simply meant to keep the international community asking the wrong questions, while Israel continues to deny the Palestinian people statehood, dignity and basic safety?
It is a distinct possibility that the Palestinian people could begin to unite around a new common position, demanding one multi-religious state for both Jews and Arabs. One recalls how Apartheid South Africa’s leadership made a doomed effort to hold on to a dominance that was both morally and strategically untenable. Brutality could not break the South African people. It will not break the Palestinians.
For as long as Israel’s leaders and public go on failing to grasp the moral and strategic truth of their situation, the conflict will continue. To begin to have meaningful peace talks, they will have to question their own commitment to a violently one-sided concept of self-determination.
The author is the Features Editor at The Friday Times.