The 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly has just begun. Unless a
diplomatic miracle happens, that body will soon be asked to approve what amounts
to a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. Palestinian spokesmen say
they had no choice but to make their end run around serious negotiations with
Israel – because what Israel is offering in such negotiations is just a fraction
of the territory to which the Palestinians are entitled.
the hubris in this justification, it helps to recall a historical fact:
Virtually no nation founded in modern times has been born in possession of all
the territory to which it could lay plausible claim. Settling for half a loaf –
that is, statehood in a territory significantly smaller than the historic or
desired homeland – is the price that most national liberation movements have
paid for self-determination and international recognition.
Garibaldi, the pre-eminent military leader of 19th-century Italian unification,
was born to an Italian family in Nice, where most inhabitants spoke the language
of northern Italy. One of Garibaldi’s goals was to unify the Italian peninsula
into a single state, including Nice. When a peace treaty was imposed giving the
city to France in exchange for statehood, Count Cavour, the political leader of
the nationalist movement, at one point tendered his resignation as prime
When the treaty was ratified, there were riots in the streets
of Nice, and thousands moved across the new border to Italy rather than be ruled
by France. French possession of Nice was the price Italy paid for independence,
recognition and peace. Politics is the art of the possible.
Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, was born in Salonika. It had been an
Ottoman city for four centuries. During most of that time, Jews were the largest
ethnic group in the population; for many years they were a majority. But the
city also had a large and powerful community of Ottoman Muslims – including not
only Ataturk, who was born there in 1881, but most of the leadership of the
modernizing Young Turks. In 1912 the Greeks conquered the city and renamed it
Thessalonica. After World War I, Greece suffered a military defeat by the
Turks. But in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, Thessalonica was ceded to Greece in
return for recognition of the Republic of Turkey, with internationally settled
This has been the pattern. Greece, for its part, achieved
national independence in 1823. At that time it was a tiny statelet, with
territory ending just north of Athens. Mount Olympus, the plain of Thessaly,
Constantinople, Homer’s birthplace, and most of the world’s Greeks were beyond
its borders. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles created a series of independent
states for previously stateless peoples, including Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians,
Estonians, Czechs and Slovaks.
None of these states had the borders that
their people’s leaders wanted. In 1947, Lord Mountbatten drew a line
across the map of India. With his stroke, the Indus Valley, the cradle of Indian
civilization and then home to millions of Hindus, was excluded from the new
nation of India. A long and bloody ethnic cleansing by Pakistani Muslims has
left the Indus Valley almost without Hindus. They moved across the line to
India, which flourishes inside the arbitrary line that Mountbatten
Just this summer, the primarily Christian and animist South Sudan
assumed statehood with gratitude and hope, despite a border that excludes the
heavily Christian province of Abyei. Meanwhile large, historic peoples including
Kurds, Tibetans, Baluch, Pashtun, Sri Lankan Tamils, and Uyghurs, can only dream
of an opportunity for national selfdetermination.
Most would accept
sovereignty even over a piece of their historic homeland no larger than a
postage stamp, as long as it was a place in which they could determine their own
fate and cultivate their unique history and culture.
In 1937, Zionist
leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky asked “merely for a small fraction” of the “vast piece
of land” that included modern-day Israel. And in 1948, that is precisely what
the United Nations offered the Jews, reserving the larger part of the land west
of the Jordan for Arabs. Jews accepted the UN’s offer even though the heart of
the biblical kingdoms, Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem, lay outside its borders.
Arab leaders rejected the offer, launching a war to destroy the Jewish state
instead of seizing the opportunity to build an Arab Palestine.
and Ataturk achieved statehood at the cost of ceding the cities of their birth
to rival nations. When the goal of a national movement is to build a
state in which a treasured language, literature and culture can flourish and be
passed on to new generations, the leaders of the movement will pay such a
In contrast, if leaders of a national movement declare that they
will not even negotiate until they have been promised every square inch of the
land that they regard as their historic homeland, they are effectively
announcing to the world that they are not prepared to assume a responsible place
in the community of nations. If Palestinian leaders are serious about taking
their place in this community, they will need to make the kind of concession
that Ataturk and Garibaldi, Greece, Poland, India and Israel made.
would do well to recognize that the borders sought by some members of the
movement are only aspirational, that the nation on the other side of the border
also has a right to statehood, and that it will be necessary, finally, to settle
down to the business of building a government, an economy and a peaceful
future.The writer is an American author and historian. She is at work on
a book tentatively entitled
Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy. This
article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com),
and is reprinted with permission.