Palestine goes to the UN


Earlier today, Mahmoud Abbas formally requested United Nations membership for Palestine, brushing off a last-ditch effort by President Obama to get them to pursue direct negotiations instead.  Since Obama has proven entirely incapable of getting Israel to step up to the negotiating table — an effort not helped, it should be acknowledged, by a practically treasonous back channel between House Republicans and the Netanyahu administration — this speech was hardly Obama’s finest hour.  I, too, believe that the only lasting resolution will come through direct negotiations and have argued that the Palestinians were making a tactical error by going to the UN now; still, now that it is done I wish my country would vote for recognition.  That won’t happen.  One of the principal reasons the move seemed like a tactical error to me was that it backed the US into a corner: going into an election cycle, Obama has no real choice but to vote against the recognition of a Palestinian state that he knows should exist.

Indeed — and this is the essential point — Palestine already exists.  No one is quite sure where it begins or ends because these are the details still to be negotiated but that it exists as a political concept and that a state is its natural form is either implicitly or explicitly acknowledged by almost everyone, even those still fighting to stave off a definitive resolution of the issue.  This is, really, Yasser Arafat’s one lasting achievement in a long career marked by violence, corruption, and idiosyncratic leadership: he forged a national identity for the Palestinians.  Israel’s more zealous advocates argue that there was no such thing as a “Palestinian” before the creation of the state of Israel, by which they mean to denigrate the Palestinian claim to the territory.  There is some sleight of hand to this argument: the nation-state as the unit of political identity was an idea that slowly rippled out from the French Revolution and the political boundaries of pre-1948 Middle East were defined not by nation-states but by regions within the Ottoman empire and then colonies or protectorates under the British or French.  So it is narrowly true that there was no Palestinian national identity before Israel, though there were people living in all those villages, of course, and their presence is unchanged by whether they channeled their political ambitions into forming a separate state.

But this argument is also irrelevant: despite the existence of an ancient state of Israel, for centuries most Jews, too, had a communal identity without a distinct national identity, until the Hungarian Theodor Herzl published his landmark book The Jewish State in 1896, which began the process of bringing Zionism — that is, a separate Jewish national identity — from the fringes into what is now such mainstream acceptance in much of the world that it is hard to remember it was ever regarded as outlandish.  Today, the ancient and enduring Jewish connection to the Holy Land is often taken as an indication of an eternal aspiration to recreate the state of Israel but for much of history it was more like the current-day Christian connection to Bethlehem, which is central to religious doctrine but where there are no mainstream ambitions to re-establish a Christian state on the territory.  What changed was the condition of Jews in Europe: Zionism was an Ashkenazi project, born of exclusion from European states and triggering exclusions of its own in new lands.  One of the more sinister manifestation of European nationalism was anti-Semitism, as country after country tried to fabricate an internal unity by purging elements it regarded as alien or cosmopolitan; this, in turn, led Herzl and other early Zionists to disavow the assimilationist path that a great many Jews believed in until the Holocaust provided definitive proof that that approach was untenable; this led to the creation of the state of Israel and the expulsion of the Palestinians; and, finally, it was this experience of displacement that compelled the Palestinians to form their own Zionist-type movement seeking a state.

Hence, we arrive at the current day.  I am a cosmopolitan and believe strongly in the integrity of diverse, multi-ethnic societies.  I live in New York for this very reason and recoil at the nativist streak in the US and elsewhere that seeks to preserve — or, really, impose — a culturally, ethnically, or religiously homogeneous identity on society.  For all their internal diversity, both the Israeli and the Palestinian national projects are inherently exclusive; alas, they are also necessary.  I wrote in Sarajevo about realizing the loss that came with the nationalist wars in the 1990s that broke up Yugoslavia, where a city that had long been shared by Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs, and Croats became more predominantly Muslim than ever before in its history.  But in Sarajevo there had once been a fourth community, which was Jewish, and the destruction of the city’s cosmopolitan identity had really begun decades earlier, with the Nazi conquest of Europe.  Still, those Sarajevan Jews who managed to escape were right to do so: no one should ask them or any other European Jews to live without sanctuary again.  But a state cannot be created where no state existed previously and millions of migrants cannot be brought in to settle it without there being consequences.  One of those consequences is that Zionism catalyzed a rival national movement; as a result, the fact of a Palestine state already exists even if its form does not and the UN should recognize this.  My hope is that the form of this embryonic Paletinian state be negotiated — soon — so that both sides can move on with their lives, but my fear is that Netanyahu is the Slobodan Milosevic of this historic moment and we are more likely to see a hostile, provocative, radicalizing counteraction from him than we are anything like a negotiated settlement.




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