Interesting Times: The end of Palestine?

For 40 years Peace Now and Gush Emunim have defined Israeli politics. Both ideologies now lie in tatters.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
The Six Day War created the two movements that defined Israeli politics for decades: Peace Now and Gush Emunim. The former believed that land-for-peace was ours for the asking; the latter that absorbing the ancient Jewish heartland would secure our future. These ideologies, driven and burdened by messianic overtones, lie in tatters, exhausted from battling each other and the stream of events. But the war fought 40 years ago created something else: the Palestinians. Though the Palestinians try to trace their history back thousands of years, they did not exist in their own minds as a people until after 1967. Before 1948, the name "Palestinians" often referred to Jews living in mandatory Palestine. This newspaper, founded 75 years ago to report to Jews living here, called itself The Palestine Post. During this period, there was a debate between local Arab nationalists and pan-Arabists, but it began with the advent of nationalism itself. "Palestine" was a region, not a religious, cultural or national identity. The Palestine Liberation Organization was founded in 1964, but was considered a tool of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, who put himself in charge of "liberating Palestine." THE STUNNING Arab defeat in 1967 changed all this. "The war proved to be the great opportunity of the Palestinian people," writes Michael Oren, preeminent historian of the Six Day War. "Beforehand, the Palestinians were very dispersed, in both the geographical and the organizational senses of the word." Afterwards, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank lived under Israel, not Egypt and Jordan, and "it suddenly became clear to the Palestinians that they could no longer look forward to salvation from an Arab state or an Arab leader." Now, Palestinian nationalism seems as real as can be. But the four decades during which twin Israeli ideologies rose and fell may have also spelled the demise of their Palestinian counterpart. On the streets of Gaza we are not only seeing a struggle between Palestinian factions, but the revival of the great battle between nationalism and Islamism that has stretched over the last century. Oren argues that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1929 and then vigorously suppressed, returned to life following 1967. Further, "the appearance of the many offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hizbullah and al-Qaida, also started in June 1967." IT WAS NOT inevitable that Islamism would slowly come to fill the vacuum left by Israel's humiliation of pan-Arabism. Had the West, in 1967, taken something akin to America's post-9/11 stance and pressed for democratization and ending the Arab war against Israel, Islamism might not have had the fertile ground of rotten dictatorships in which to grow. Nor was it inevitable, particularly in the decade following the end of the Cold War, that the West would allow Islamist groups to organize and attack with relative impunity. But there we have it. Even now, almost six years after 9/11, most of the West does not accept that its goal is a world free of rogue regimes that support terrorism and seek nuclear weapons; or it does not see this goal as achievable. The Islamists see opportunities for "rollback" - to borrow what was considered a hawkish Cold War term for reclaiming nations that had gone communist - in Iraq, Lebanon and even Egypt and Israel. By contrast, in the West, a parallel rollback effort - regime change in Iran, Syria and North Korea - is considered fringy. Ironically, the Palestinians seem to be both leaders and victims of this process. Being good Islamists, Hamas has no interest in a Palestinian state per se, just in the destruction of Israel as a stepping stone in the wider goal of Islam ruling the world - as a jihadist "Mickey Mouse" character gently explains to Palestinian children on Hamas TV. In effect, Hamas is against both states in the two-state solution, Israel and Palestine, though formally it is willing to create "Palestine" as an interim stage. In this context some, such as Jordan's King Abdullah, say that the two-state paradigm is running out of time, so Israel had better hurry to revive it. While it is true that Israel has a strong interest in thwarting Islamism, it is the Palestinians who need to decide whether they want to scuttle their own national identity. IT IS UNFORTUNATE that the Palestinians, who were led by Yasser Arafat's Fatah at the time, did not take the opportunity of the Oslo Accords to wind down their war against Israel and start building Palestine. They could have had an independent state by now, one not dominated by Hamas. The Palestinians cannot blame this failure on Israeli settlements, since by taking Ehud Barak's 2000 offer to create a Palestinian state in 95 percent of the territory in question they could have been rid of almost all the settlements. At this point, the only way to revive Palestinian nationalism is to defeat Hamas. The Palestinian people themselves are too busy ducking the crossfire to do this. Those in the best position to help are the US, Europe and the Arab states, which must together confront the Islamist axis led by Iran and including Hamas. For Egypt, this means sealing its border with Gaza to stop Hamas's Hizbullah-style weapons buildup. For Saudi Arabia it means turning down the flames of the Arab-Israeli conflict by opening direct contacts with Israel. For Europe it means pulling its weight in the sanctions campaign against Iran by shutting down investment in Teheran's oil sector. For the US it means saying the truth about the Palestinian demand to "return" to Israel - that this is an unacceptable rejection of Israel's right to exist. Though the Palestinians may seem stymied by having to choose between a corrupt Fatah and an Islamist Hamas, they too can help themselves by finally creating a peace movement. Without Israel, there can be no non-Islamist Palestine. The alternative to two nationalist states is one Islamist state. If that is not what the Palestinians want, now would be a good time to speak up.