The Palestine question, and the Arab answer

The Palestinians’ inability to claim their right has been reinforced by long-term failures of thinking and strategy in which the eclipse of politics by essentialism plays a major part. But the new aspirations sweeping the Arab world create potential for progress, says Hazem Saghieh.

Hazem Saghieh
2 April 2012

It is widely argued that a number of factors has weakened the momentum to solve the Palestinian question: the split between the West Bank and Gaza, the fanaticism of Hamas, the corruption of some Palestinian politicians. Another way to look at the same evidence is that these dangerous phenomena (split, corruption, fanaticism) are produced by the deterioration of the Palestinian question itself.

If this is the case, the situation cannot be overcome either by denial, by repeating the same old stories, or by feeding the Palestinians false promises - for all will result only in frustration.

It is beyond doubt that the Palestinian question belongs to the world’s “national-liberation” causes. The Palestinian’s aspiration to statehood is rightful and legal. But since the era of colonialism itself is no more, it also looks like the only remnant of that time. Many claim that colonialism has renewed itself through imperialism, though this is challenged on two grounds: the economic success achieved by many Asian nations from within the framework of “dependency”, and the fact that it is the very “imperial powers” that are always called to take the lead in intervening to halt massacres or to stop despots in the non-western world. In these circumstances, the Palestinian question could be said to have fallen into the deep gap between the demise of national liberation and the failure of all efforts to sort it out in an acceptable way.

It can also be said, however, that the colonisation and settlement-building to which the Palestinians were subjugated took place in the second half of the 20th century - and is still taking place in the 21st century. The fact that similar projects in north America, Australasia, and South Africa occurred in earlier centuries makes the Palestinian situation unique. This argument is solid theoretically, but has suffered from an enduring flaw that has proved an obstacle to the Palestinians’ fulfilment of their right. This is that over the decades the Palestinians (and the Arabs generally) viewed the colonisation of Palestine in a one-dimensional and confining way, rooted in the 20th century alone.

Yet in other ways, the Palestinians’ struggle was not 20th century enough. In a period when political-military despotisms and primordial loyalties of religion and kinship were increasing, the greatest achievements of the century - modernity, rationality, progress, democracy - were neglected. Thus the demand to end colonisation was not seen as a part of a broader programme which could be taken seriously and acquire the sense of inevitable success that was so powerful elsewhere. For an Arab middle east proudly attached to earlier centuries, the persistent failure to obtain the Palestinian right became its only contemporary stance.

In turn this was compounded by a long delay in moving from an essentialist to a political understanding of that right. When at last this necessary transition did take place, in Madrid (1991) and Oslo (1993), it seemed enforced by the absence of any other options (especially after the collapse of the Palestinians’ chief allies, the Soviet Union and Saddam’s Iraq after his invasion of Kuwait [1990-91] and the consequent freezing of the Gulf states’ financial aid to the Palestine Liberation Organisation).

When the second Palestinian intifada erupted in 2000, it all too clearly revealed its regressive direction: from the political back to the essentialist. In the meantime, Israel pursued its arrogant new strategic option, as cynical as it was brutal: namely to live without peace. The process had been fueled by the murder of Yizhak Rabin in 1995 and the rise of the Israeli extreme right, each development reinforcing the other.

After regression

The atrocity of 9/11 was further used - especially when Palestinians and Arabs in general were  reluctant to denounce it - as a pretext to obliterate the Palestinian struggle. Israel found implicit justification in advancing its plan for one-sided peace in the middle east by events in Lebanon, from where Israel withdrew its remaining forces in 2000 only to find that a Hizbollah movement (backed by Syria and Iran, for their own reasons) committed to armed resistance moved to its borders.

After a long period when Arab regimes (especially the Ba’athist ones in Syria and Iraq) had led opposition to Israel, Iran (aided by Syria) came to the fore by tying the Palestinian cause to its own aspirations, including nuclear ones. In this situation it was easy for Israel to portray itself as surrounded by enemies who don’t want peace, pointing further to the fact that its diplomatic relations with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) were agreed by unpopular rulers and remained cold.

The Iranians’ contribution was to return the conflict with Israel to its primitive stage where anti-semitism and Holocaust-denial feature widely. This regression came years after the arduous modernising of Palestinian political literature which rid it of most of these deformations.

In the middle of that reversion, the Arab uprisings of 2010-11 triggered a qualitative change in the revolutionary agenda of the Arab middle east where the concern for “freedom, dignity and bread” for a time buried regional antagonisms. The ambition to transform these ideals into reality - and awareness of how previous regimes had used the Palestine issue to divert attention from their own failures - led the uprisings to distance themselves from the Palestinian question (another reason for its eclipse).

The situation now poses two, interrelated, questions. First, can the Palestinian cause, represented by its forces and symbols, reinvent itself in a way that joins it to the new Arab revolutionary spirit and aspirations? Second, can the new Arab conditions, to the extent they result in states able to play a respectful, serious and credible role on the international stage, also activate their moral responsibility toward the Palestinians and thus produce an acceptable and reasonable solution to a seemingly intractable problem?

The answers may well come very soon.

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