The case for Palestinian nationalism

Dec 21 2011 - 4:01pm

The region we now call the Middle East is an elaborate mosaic. Among its peoples are the Arabs, desert denizens who became great conquerors and colonists. The Persians possessed a mighty empire in antiquity and will again if Iran's current rulers fulfill their ambitions. 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 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.

Gingrich was attacked from many quarters, not least in 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. And 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, when the U.N. recommended partitioning Palestine into two states, one Arab (not Palestinian) and one Jewish, and at Camp David in 2000. On these and other occasions, the Palestinians said no. What does that imply? Perhaps that Palestinians -- or at least those who lead them -- are themselves insufficiently nationalistic.

Consider 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 that "the Palestinian problem is a religious problem," adding that there can be "no solution ... except through Jihad." 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 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, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been methodically undercutting and marginalizing Fayyad.

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, many people persist in the belief that the main obstacle to settling the continuing 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 solid 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 support you. But there is a price to pay: You must be willing to compromise and make peace with the Israelis who will be your neighbors. If, however, it is not Palestine to which you are dedicated but to a new anti-Western caliphate, and if building a Palestinian state is less important to you than 'obliterating' the State of Israel, you're on your own."

What happens after that would be for Palestinians to decide -- and history to record.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at

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