Monday, March 2, 2009

The State of Palestine

Well, it's been more than a month since my last entry. I don't know, if any word could describe the state of the world right now, it would probably have to be 'transition.' The Obama administration is settling in (loudly), making this and that appointment and this and that policy implementation, augmentation, or reversal, (breaking this and that campaign promise...) and concluding probably the shortest new-Presidential honeymoon in as long as anyone cares to measure. Alterations are being proposed, even worked toward, in US relations with such countries as Russia, Syria, and even Iran. Regime changes, shake-ups, or other substantial alterations of the political landscape are in the works in Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and Israel. A warrant was just issued for the president of Sudan by the International Criminal Court for his orchestration for the genocide in Darfur (how aggressively the Court and its member nations plan to back it up is anyone's guess), and the president of the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau was recently assassinated. It's been hard for me to even focus intellectually on a particular issue, as no single issue has really dominated international (or at least my) attention lately, to say nothing of actually collecting enough thoughts on something to sit down and write about it. But, owing to the polarizing role it plays in national- and international politics, and even more to the fact that it has long fascinated me, I'm going to focus (as I admittedly have before) on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

About 6 weeks or so ago, Israel ended its approximately 2-week armed incursion into the Gaza strip, launched in response to brazen and consistent attacks on nearby Israeli residential areas by means of small rocket-fire from Palestinian territory. I've said it before: I don't care what the light-foots in the international community say, Israel's decision to respond as they did (if not certain aspects of its actual execution) was completely justified. But that's not what I wanted to write about. I've been thinking a lot lately about a different aspect of this equation: the Palestinian people.

National elections were recently held for top office in Israel, the main contenders being presently-serving Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (pronounced CHI-pi, I understand) and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Livni, who has been the foreperson of Israel's interactions with the Palestinians throughout this conflict, favored dialogue with the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu opposes either, preferring a much tougher stance. By a tiny margin, Netanyahu was pronounced the winner- the loser, in my mind, being any chance of a settling of the present conflict in the Holy Land.

If this post is to have a thesis statement, it's this: Palestinian statehood won't by itself result in lasting peace, but lasting peace will not be achieved without Palestinian statehood. First let me say, that in contemporary media, the words 'Palestinian' and 'extremists' or 'Hamas' are used with excessive interchangeability. The recent round of engagement was between Israel and Hamas' pseudo-theocratic regime in Gaza, not the 'Palestinians.' The Palestinians have a globally-recognized administration, led by moderate President Mahmoud Abbas.

There are a few reasons why I think statehood is a must. First: while yes, originally, the term 'Palestinian' had little more significance than 'an Arab living in Palestine,' it is also true that a much more cohesive Palestinian national identity has evolved over the years, both within and without the community. The basic definition of a 'nation' (not to be confused with a 'nation-state') is a group of people that are ethnically and historically similar and who have a desire for some degree of self-rule. Whether it was the case in 1948 or not, I think any justification for Israel's right to exist could equally apply to the Palestinians.

Another is purely practical. It would be much easier to engage the Palestinians as a state than as a collection of autonomous 'territories' without even a recognized capital or mutually-agreed upon system of borders. It would be easier to make formal agreements with them, as well as to hold them accountable for their compliance, if they had recognized sovereign authority as a state.

Lastly, worldwide (and particularly Israeli) acceptance of Palestinian nationhood, would make Israel safer, plain and simple. Social scientists describe what exists in the Territories as a 'frustrated society.' Imagine the affect their circumstances undoubtedly are having on the social consciousness of the Palestinian populous. Whatever the official definition, and whatever the Israelis' motivations or however aggressive (or not) their policies are, I doubt many people can honestly fault the Palestinians for a certain degree of 'occupation complex.' By and large they're self-governing, but should the Israelis decide to limit the free flow of people or materials into or out of the Territories (particularly Gaza), there's not a lot anyone can really do about it. On the other hand, so much of both the Palestinians' and the Israelis' relationships in the broader Middle East centers on the status of Palestine. Why this is true for the Israelis is obvious; the Palestinians' case is a little more complicated.

Think of the Palestinian population as an individual: you're surrounded by other individuals (the other Arab and Islamic states of the region) with whom you share a sense of ethnic, cultural, linguistic, historic and religious commonality which, by and large, forms the backbone of your relationship. However, owing to what amounts to a simple yet crucial legal and procedural technicality, they all see you as more of the embodiment of a cause than a person, and relate to you more as patrons than as peers. This feeling of political limbo, of ethno-national purgatory even, is not something any person could be expected to endure for long without flirting with the boundaries of purely rational behavior.

The way I see it, one of the most widespread and most un-helpful habits we as people are in is to over-idealize our approaches to the theory and practice of conflict. The fact is, there was nothing philosophical about the recent round of Israeli-Palestinian violence, as hard as the participants and the outside world tried to interpret it that way. Both sides were acting in defense of what they felt was legitimately theirs; they each feel very strongly that the land is theirs to live in, and owing to the fact that the last thing war is is humanity at its finest, objectivity and restraint took a backseat. Whatever past history you may have with the beehive in the backyard, and whatever ideas you or anyone else has about who has the most right be there and what's ok for them to do about it, about the time you go out and start chucking rocks at the hive the bees are going to come after you. Philosophy no longer has anything to do with it- it's down to a question of what the bees are willing to do to keep their home from being destroyed versus what you're willing to do to keep from being stung to death by a swarm of bees. I'm not comparing either side to a hive of mindless bees or a vindictive rock-thrower; lest I be misunderstood, you could really view the Israelis and Palestinians in either role, with about equal accuracy. I bring this up to illustrate the fact that conflict is about self-interest, and more particularly about incongruent definitions of it.

I would be crazy to suggest that all of troubles in the region would be solved with this one step. There are more than a few fanatics out there who would see such a move as the 'dwindling of Zionist resolve' and an opportunity to drive their ambitions violently home. Such people, in this case Hamas and their adherents, cannot be militarily defeated; they must and can only be socially marginalized. Statehood would be a gigantic step toward that end. Those affected- the Palestinians, Israelis, the Muslim world, the United States and their Western allies- would only benefit from the achievement of Palestinian statehood. However, it's going to require an uncharacteristically large dose of thoughtfulness and willingness to compromise, for all involved.


  1. And do you believe there exists today that degree of thoughtfulness? My worry is that, to expand on your analogy, every single bee in the hive has a rocket launcher and an unusually aggressive idea of its rights.

    Well writ.

  2. You have a great ability to observe the current situation and make some very thoughtful and juditious comments about the current state of affairs in Israel.
    Enjoyed the read.