The region we now call the Middle East is an elaborate mosaic. Among its peoples are the Arabs, denizens of the desert who became great conquerors and colonists. The Persians possessed a mighty empire in antiquity -- and will again if Iran’s current rulers have their way. The most vibrant city of the Turks is Istanbul, the Christian capital known as Constantinople until it fell to Sultan Mehmed II in the 15th century. The Middle East also is home to such ethno-religious groups as Maronites, Druze and Alawites; to powerful clans such as the Hashemites and the House of Sa’ud; to Kurds, a nation without a state, and to Jews, reestablished as a nation in their ancient homeland.
The other day, Newt Gingrich waded into this historical labyrinth, setting off a minor brouhaha by noting that only recently did Arabs on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean claim to constitute a distinct nation called “Palestine” -- the name given to the area by Imperial Rome. On this basis, he referred to Palestinians as an “invented” people.
The accuracy of his statement is beyond dispute. In the wake of the Second World War, when the United Nations recommended partitioning Palestine into two states, it did not use the term “Palestinian” to refer to Arab-speaking residents. At that time, pan-Arabism, the idea of forming a single, united Arab nation, was far more compelling than any parochial identification. The question was how to divide what, for 400 years, had been a corner of the Ottoman Empire between the Arabs of Palestine and the Jews of Palestine. The latter were, at that time, more commonly referred to as Palestinians. Their newspaper was the Palestine Post (now the Jerusalem Post), their contributions to the performing arts included the Palestine Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic), and their American-based charitable organization was the United Palestine Appeal.
From 1948 until 1967, Gaza and the West Bank were under Egyptian and Jordanian control respectively. No serious demands for a Palestinian state were heard. Only after Israel took possession of those territories in a defensive war against Egypt, Jordan and other Arab states did Palestinian nationhood become the central issue in what had been, until then, the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Gingrich was attacked from many quarters, among them The New York Times, where foreign affairs columnist H.D.S. Greenway acknowledged that the former Speaker “is right that there has never been a state called Palestine” and that “Palestinian nationalism grew up as a mirror image of Israeli nationalism.” So what’s the problem? Greenway charges that Gingrich intended to “imply that the Palestinians are not worthy of a country of their own.”
Gingrich insists he meant no such thing. Anyone familiar with his thinking would not doubt that. After all, Americans are an invented people. Can you imagine Gingrich arguing that makes Americans less worthy of nationhood than, say, the Japanese?
Like most of us, Gingrich favors a two-state solution similar to the one the Palestinians were offered in 1948 and at Camp David in 2000. In these and other instances, the Palestinians said no. What does that imply? Perhaps that Palestinians – or at least those who lead them – are themselves insufficiently nationalistic.
That’s indisputably true of Hamas, the Iranian-backed Muslim Brotherhood group that rules Gaza. The Hamas Covenant invokes “the best nation that hath been raised up unto mankind.” But that nation is not Palestine. It is the Islamic nation which is to be revived as a caliphate, an empire of which Palestine would be only a province.
The Hamas Covenant asserts without equivocation that “the Palestinian problem is a religious problem,” adding that there can be “no solution … except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.” As for Israel, the Covenant minces no words: “Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.”
OK, but what about Hamas’s rival, Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority? In recent years, Western diplomats have placed much hope in PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad who, I think it fair to say, has made a serious attempt to build institutional and economic foundations upon which an independent and viable Palestinian state might rest.
But as my colleague Jonathan Schanzer last week pointed out in Foreign Policy magazine, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has been methodically undercutting and marginalizing Fayyad. And Washington, Schanzer observes, instead of providing Fayyad “the support he needs to weather the storm, has chosen to stand on the sidelines.”
It gets worse. Abbas has been refusing to meet with Israelis until and unless they make major concessions in advance. Over the weekend, Khaled Abu Toameh, the distinguished Israeli (and Arab and Muslim) journalist reported that, in addition, “Abbas’s Fatah faction has declared war on all informal meetings between Israelis and Palestinians.” The Abbas/Fatah objection to such meetings, Toameh reports, is that they promote “the culture of peace” and are designed to “’normalize’ relations between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Despite all this, there are many people who persist in the belief that the main obstacle to settling the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is Israeli intransigence, the unwillingness of Israeli leaders to “take risks for peace.” Such delusions are perhaps unavoidable when a “peace process” is predicated not on verifiable history and observable reality but on myth, wishful thinking and willful blindness.
What would be an alternative? To say straightforwardly to the Palestinians: “If you want to develop as a nation and live in a state of your own, we will help you. But our support is not unconditional: You must be willing to compromise. You must be willing to make peace with the Israelis who will be your neighbors. If, however, it is not Palestine to which you are committed but to a new anti-Western caliphate, and if building a Palestinian state is less important to you than ‘obliterating’ the State of Israel, we’re going to leave you on your own.”
What happens after that would be for Palestinians to decide and history to record.