Trump’s Jerusalem decision hurts. But it takes time to know why.
The Palestinians have spent an age coping with reality. The reality of wilting leaders, of capricious allies and an endlessly raw deal. They’ve learned the reality of being broke and on the dole to one or another prince or “career diplomat at State.” More than a hundred years into Zionism, they’ve learned the emotional reality of being weak.
Disappointment, heaving, despairing rage, cynicism and a black outlook jockey for space behind the brows of a boneheaded people. Fool me once, shame on you; but fool the Palestinian leadership as many times as you like.
Unerringly, Palestinian leaders seem to place the hopes of an entire people on a faithless set of actors. Europe, America, and Arab “leaders” consistently violate commitments. It’s nothing personal – it’s just real-world interests leave little room for the considerations of the weak. Nor are the Palestinians particularly special. In a world of great powers, justice is more often a drab retrospective, long after the virtuoso has died. That’s been true for the Vietnamese, the people of Cambodia, Myanmar, Algeria, Bosnia, Nicaragua and everywhere else.
So are the Palestinians – the sorry itinerants of the 20th century – destined to be the losers of the 21st century?
Maybe, but maybe not. Palestinian weakness is the result of a lot of things – not least, bad luck. Herzl’s Plymouth Rock crashed into the shores of Jaffa, but someplace else could have been the object of this present-day analysis. Luck isn’t hereditary and 1948 is ancient history. But an unlearned history will cascade into the future, inevitably.
The Palestinian struggle developed in revolutionary times. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the nations of Latin America, Africa and Asia surge in a post-colonial spasm. Many of those peoples achieved independence from a corrupt, rapacious and racist Europe. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson (and Acheson and Rusk) failed to understand that the revolutionary Marxism of the period was an expression of anti-colonialism. Korea, Vietnam and Palestine were all viewed through the prism of anti-Soviet chauvinism. The American war against communism was, in reality, a war against self-determination.
Ho Chi Minh won his nationalistic, revolutionary war but Yasser Arafat failed to. The Vietnamese updated their analysis and moved on – today, Vietnam is a modernizing country. Marxist tropes have given way to the realities of comparative trade advantages.
The Palestinian strategy in the 1960s was appropriate to the zeitgeist. The theory accorded well enough with the reality of the times. Appeals to the non-aligned nations, popular armed struggle, anti-Capitalism and revolutionary socialism worked elsewhere in one combination or another. Why should the formula fail the Palestinians? Except, of course, it did.
It would be foolish to argue that nationalism – a powerful, universal tribalism – has ceased to drive global currents. Most stars coalesced in the dense aftermath of the Big Bang. Fourteen billion years later, gravity still matters. The recent referendums in Catalonia, England, and Kurdistan show that nationalism still matters, now and probably for a long time to come. Yet, new stars aren’t being created every day (figuratively speaking) and the period of state-building has mainly ended.
That’s the main failure of the Palestinians – they still live in the aftermath of the Big Bang. They act as though Israel can be maneuvered through negotiations with one or another heavyweight tipping the scales in their favor, preferably after a decisive battlefield victory. Yet Israel is not a weak state and an outdated analysis will never yield in the Palestinians’ favor. As a totally controlled and co-opted underclass they simply don’t have any leverage, which is the only thing that really matters in a negotiation.
The question for the Palestinians then, is how to gain leverage. How to achieve some measure of power through – rather than in spite of – their dismal circumstances. How to transform the source of their weakness – their lack of a state, fearsome armaments, and friends with old school interests – into strength.
It seems that the first step to gaining strength, or leverage, ought to be acknowledging reality. The Palestinians don’t have a state. For all practical purposes they will never have a state. Whatever one’s feelings, that’s the reality.
Indeed, the depth of the hurt induced by Trump’s decision showcases what expert liars the Palestinians and their supporters are, only they’ve lied to themselves. They bought the falsehood – in full view of all the contrary evidence – that Jerusalem will be partitioned and that their state will be birthed by the very powers who’ve sought to abort their aspirations. Trump’s overdue, shrill paean to Israeli facts-on-the-ground is an indirect elegy for Two States. Some will regard that fact with sadness.
But the truer, damp pain springs from the knowledge that so much – effort, money, time, energy, opportunity – has been wasted. It’s a rich pain, endlessly fertilized by the loss of life.
Nonetheless there is a path forward for the Palestinians. And it’s a route that takes their only source of leverage as a point of strength. It lies in the power of their moral claim, a fact recognized by civil society through BDS. Israel is an apartheid state – that ought to be the only context for Palestinian tactics and strategy.
By restating the goals of the Palestinian national movement, away from state building and towards human rights and dignity, the PLO, Hamas, and the PA may fundamentally alter their dynamic with Israel. To date, civil society has pursued rights for the Palestinians independently of the political apparatus. The pursuit of equal rights is the only mechanism for transforming statelessness into strength. That ought to be a goal that the Palestinians can coalesce around.