‘Palestine’ in the age of identity politics

In contrast to the American political arena, Palestinian politics have always been about identity politics: Palestine is for Palestinians and we are here, whatever that means.

July 20, 2019 21:03
3 minute read.
‘Palestine’ in the age of identity politics

Sara Netanyahu, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman tour Pilgrimage Road . (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

Mark Lilla’s superb book, The Once and Future Liberal After Identity Politics, correctly describes the zeitgeist of identity politics in American society today especially, within left-wing circles. Lilla correctly observes that democratic politics is about persuasion, not self-expression. “I’m here, I’m queer,” will never provoke more than a pat on the head or a roll of the eyes. Accept that you will never agree with people on everything – that’s to be expected in a democracy.

One effect of engaging in social movements tied to identity is that you’ve been surrounded by the like-minded and like-faced and like-educated. Impose no purity tests on those you would convince. Not everything is a matter of principle, and even when something is, there is usually other, equally important principles that might have to be sacrificed to preserve this one. Moral values are not pieces in a puzzle where everything has been precut to fit.

In contrast to the American political arena, Palestinian politics have always been about identity politics: Palestine is for Palestinians and we are here, whatever that means.

This is analogous to what Palestinians see as the Kosovo Model, a zero-sum concept of identity politics and nationalism for the tiniest minority groups. As Yasser Abed Rabbo, a Palestinian negotiator and top aide to Mahmoud Abbas put it back in 2008, “Kosovo is not better than Palestine.... If the whole world, the United States, the European Union, the majority of its states, have embraced the independence of Kosovo, why shouldn’t this happen with Palestine as well?”

The global campaign of anti-normalization as it relates to Israeli-Palestinian relations creates another zero-sum arena where no compromise will ever be enough for Palestinians. All of this is codified in the collective belief in a “right of return” to “Palestine.” Along with the belief that resistance to Israel is permanent and holy, Palestinian identity is largely based on the idea that the Palestinians are, individually and communally, refugees, made so by Israel and that the United Nations should support these refugees until they can return to what is now Israel.

The highly charged tone of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict causes the question of Palestinian independence to be viewed through the prisms of mutually exclusive political and ideological narratives, not only between the two sides but also within each community. The historical evolution of Palestinian nationalism in particular is overloaded with historical revisionism.

It is also difficult to pinpoint a specific date for the origin of Palestinian nationalism. It developed during the early 20th century simultaneously with other ideologies and identities, including Arab nationalism, the nationalisms of the respective Arab states, and various versions of political Islam. However, most acknowledge the leadership of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, whose open and close ties to Adolf Hitler remain an important topic of debate, as the effective beginning of Palestinian identity and its rejectionist narrative.

On the one hand, the vernacular of identity politics fits very comfortably with the two-state concept since it sounds “ideal” for everyone. On the other, it allowed Israelis to be convinced that their adversaries were also evolving toward tolerance and that peace was close by. On the third hand, it also allowed Palestinian leaders like Yasir Arafat and now Mahmoud Abbas to sell any peace process to the Palestinian people knowing that they believed the end-result would be one state. Self-delusion and deception go, as always, hand in hand. This helps explains why the Trump’s proposal, “From Peace to Prosperity,” which focuses on economic growth was flatly rejected by the Palestinians.

Palestinian nationalism never saw the conflict as one between two national groups with legitimate claims and aspirations. The two-state solution has been the tool of appeasing the West and its stated desire for all parties to live in peace according to the democratic, national ideal. For Yasser Arafat in his time, and today for Mahmoud Abbas and of course Hamas, the two-state solution is only a mechanism to buy time until the Palestinians are able to finally overcome and defeat Israel.

The biggest challenge is getting beyond the self-delusion and zero-sum exclusion of identity politics to find common ground that could bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Unfortunately, American politics and culture no longer provide a model for negotiation and agreement based on mutual benefit.

The writer is executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a senior non-resident fellow at the BESA Center and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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