I took the opportunity to write out some of these thoughts, not because the terrible attacks of last week have caused me to change my mind about this issue, but because they’ve brought to light certain realizations I had had some time ago but found inopportune or frankly just too depressing to express.
For the past so many years, “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free,” has gained remarkable currency, repeated in demonstrations, stamped on flyers, tacked to the bios of leftist professors, and so on.
This is not strictly-speaking a new phrase; the first clause in particular was a staple of PLO rhetoric going back decades. What is new is its proliferation among (largely Western) liberals who are not formally associated with any official Palestinian organizations. It was not, for example, a rhetorical feature of the demonstrations and protests that cropped up throughout the Second Intifada or Operation ‘Cast Lead.’ Many of present-day demonstrators (though certainly not all) do not even seem to attach violent intentions to this slogan; it is recited with something like the same bland wishfulness as John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Its widespread usage has unsurprisingly prompted accusations of antisemitism or of eliminationism (seeing as one can hardly forget what state currently lies between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea). But that is not why it interests me. It interests me because of the way that it forces the national question. The “two-state solution,” long beloved of decent centrist types, was premised upon the belief that the Israel-Palestine conflict was not in principle zero-sum. With sufficient goodwill and diplomacy (and, it must be said, a heaping helping of foreign aid all around), territorial and national sovereignty could be divvied up by farseeing leaders in the mutual interests of both their peoples.
At least, rhetorically, the “river to the sea” business, while hopeful in a sense, does not seem to hope for this outcome. Defenders argue that its use is only an expression of hope rather than policy, but rhetoric has a way of creating its own reality—or of being overtaken by it entirely.
Thinking About The Searchers
Part of what makes the Palestinian issue interesting is the way that it has become drawn up into the larger global movements of left-wing politics over the past half-century plus. This, as it often is, was a procrustean process, in which a complex situation was pulled this way and that to fit a readymade framework of decolonization, with the Palestinians cast as indigenous oppressed and Israelis cast as settler-colonialist oppressors. Leaving aside the question of appositeness here, this concept is a fairly general one, having been applied to the historical situation of the Americas, as well as the 20th century retreat of the great European colonial empires in south Asia, Africa, and other parts of the Middle East. Needless to say for anyone familiar with this history, this process has proven quite bloody, given both the expulsions of colonial populations and the subsequent rule of the victors in many, many cases (Haiti, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Kenya, etc.)—though it must be said that the departing colonial powers contributed plenty to the final toll.
While the formal process of decolonization has concluded elsewhere in the world, it has lately become customary in certain quarters (academia and left-wing movements, though I repeat myself), for residents of North America to refer to themselves as settlers or colonists or some variation thereof, and for those claiming First Nation/Native American ancestry to emphasize their indigenous bona fides with respect to the same territory. What stands out here is the “end of history” quality to these recitations. There is no expectation of violence or threat on either side; the issue is a dead one as far as any real territorial struggle goes; at most, it is a question of money transfers and political positioning. Few go further than land acknowledgments.
Certainly, those announcing their status as settler-colonialists don’t expect to be taken by Comanches as their farms and livestock are burned. If this sounds like something out of The Searchers, it’s because it is, but also because so many of the terrible stories out of southern Israel over the past week have reminded me of the primal scenes of John Wayne and his nephew returning to the burning homestead to find his brother and children dead, the women missing.
The Searchers remains a controversial film, for its depictions of Comanche savagery (which is by all accounts not really sensationalized), as well as a couple of dubious directorial choices (ill-advised comedy scenes, casting an Italian-American in warpaint as a Comanche chief, etc.). But what it really is is troubling. It is troubling because it compels the viewer to choose a side—better, it makes the viewer complicit in the violent choices of the protagonists without (as with our typical revenge movie of the week) consoling us with the assurance that it was the “right” side. Or to put it another way, any rightness we feel has to come from the sense that we are necessarily the heirs of the homesteaders and not the Comanches (Wayne's Ethan Edwards, of course, is neither in the end). We are compelled to choose the settlers, because the settlers are us, and our world exists further out on the same trajectory as theirs. To insist otherwise is bad faith in the philosophical sense of the term—mauvais foi. Just as it is bad faith to pretend that the racist furies of Wayne’s protagonist, as well as the more organized violence of the U.S. cavalry were not instrumental in making their world and therefore ours.
I bring up The Searchers, because this stuff really is tricky. The Comanches really did commit quite a lot of stomach-turning atrocities, but the Texans and Californians did their share of reprisals that were at least partly based on a misunderstanding of how authority cascaded across different tribes, and all of this is set against a backdrop of settlerism and first contact for which there were really no prior legal or social institutions to rely upon. (As a moral matter, I personally think “we were here first” is a pretty compelling statement, but it’s hardly one that contemporary liberals accept anyway when it comes to questions of immigration, demographic change, and so forth.)
I come back to this point in thinking about many of the Western reactions to the Hamas attacks, on the part of people who are in many ways as removed from the situation on the ground in Israel and Gaza as contemporary viewers are from the characters depicted in The Searchers. What is striking now is that there is a substantial contingent, primarily on the left, who would take the side of the Comanches. But on what grounds could anyone say they are right or wrong?
Back to Israel
People mostly try to answer that last question by constructing a preferred historical narrative. But as the case of Israel-Palestine demonstrates, attempts to evaluate the competing nationalist claims of opposed groups mostly ends up being an exercise in circularity—yes Zionism predates Palestinian nationalism, but also yes there were historically more Arabs than Jews living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean prior to the establishment of the Yishuv. Similarly, it is not especially helpful to pick white hats and black hats here, because it requires building out a particular narrative and timeline of retaliation, the persuasiveness of which varies according to one's priors.
I’m not even saying this was of thinking is wrong; I’m saying it’s just mostly useless to apply something like judicial standards to a question like the legitimacy of states, in the same way that it would be useless to evaluate great writers according to which one was a superior gardener. There is no set of criteria that will allow you to declare state A to be within the pale and state B to be outside of it—certainly no criteria that would be ultimately convincing to someone not already committed to one state or the other as a political matter.
Here's an example. Stephen Walt is a scholar of International Relations who has distinguished himself publicly as a kind of general spokesman for Realism and also as a commentator on the Arab-Israeli conflict, despite not being an area expert (and possibly not really a Realist…). I can't now recall where exactly, but I was somewhat amused to see him remark that his introduction to the history surrounding the creation of the state of Israel was Leon Uris’ bestselling novel, Exodus, as well as his subsequent surprise to discover that this was a less-than-strictly-accurate account of those events.
I was amused because a) my own experience was similar, except it happened when I was about 11 years old, and b) Exodus (the Uris novel, not the second Book of Moses) pretty clearly advertises itself as schlock. Entertaining schlock, to be sure! But, like Uris’ novel of Ireland’s fight for independence, which it resembles in many ways, it is definitely schlock. The reasons for this are mostly stylistic, but I need to emphasize an important element of Exodus’ rhetorical pitch, for the way that it resembles much of the formal and informal hasbara disseminated by Israel and various Jewish organizations.
This rhetoric consistently highlights the blamelessness of Israel (and before it the Yishuv) and blameworthiness of the Palestinian leaders and Arab states (as does the narrative of Exodus generally). Thus our assessment of the legitimacy of Israel, both in its foundation and subsequent conduct, hinges upon this moral ledger. Perhaps needless to say, I think this is a bad move. It is firstly a bad move because it sets up an unreasonable standard of evaluation that can only be met by dissembling. It is secondly a bad move because it then requires all manner of dissembling, which makes naïfs like Walt upset when they realize they were misled. I don’t by this mean that Israel is in fact uniquely blameworthy as its various antagonists and weirdo personal obsessives insist. I mean rather that this whole business involves a category error.
You can see some of this confusion in the reactions to Benny Morris’ work (as well as that of the other New Historians—I highlight Morris specifically, both because his scholarship is the most substantial and because his appraisal of that scholarship is the most interesting). One of the things that Morris did was tarnish the narrative of a pure creation of Israel by uncovering the various crimes that accompanied it. These involved both the kinds of murders and rapes that are sadly commonplace for wars and other conflicts, as well as evidence of the leadership’s complicity in what we might term tactical war crimes—above all in contributing to the subsequent Palestinian refugee crisis—in the interest of achieving the most favorable postwar territorial settlement. (One of the interesting dynamics of more recent Israeli historiography is to show that the Irgun was not as bad and the Palmach not as good as popular history made them seem).
Now, around the time of the Second Intifada, Morris does appear to have taken a right-wing turn, and some of that doubtless colors his latter-day self-assessment, but I think there is consistency in his surprise that many had taken him to be an anti-Zionist based on his scholarship (it should also be said that many but not all New Historians are or were anti-Zionist). His sensible response was that history is about uncovering truth, and a mature nation ought to be able to handle harsh truths about itself without going to pieces. To put it another way, the fundamental legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise did not stand or fall upon a purity test.
In case it isn’t clear here: almost no state on Earth could survive such a test, especially without a statute of limitations. I have said before that the process of state-formation is a lot like Woody Allen’s definition of comedy: tragedy plus time. It may even be that this point is implicitly recognized by many of Israel’s leftist critics, who simply deal with this by lumping their criticism of Israel’s “settler-colonialism” together with that of the United States, Canada, South Africa, et al.
Nonetheless, the questions of Israel’s birth remains a live one because a) it was a relatively recent affair; b) it involved a quasi-“Western” power, the details of which are simply more apparent to the average North American or European observer than, say, India; c) the status of the Palestinians remains very much in the balance in a highly public way; d) there are highly motivated organizations concerned with connecting that status with the ideological cause of anti-Zionism; and e) anti-Zionism inevitably entails putting Zionism itself, along with the actual creation of Israel, in question. I think this brings us full circle.
Will There Be a Sovereign Palestine?
I’ve spoken a fair bit here about Israel, but what of Palestine’s own claims? The problem is roughly parallel, because the moral calculus involves treating state-formation as recompense for past grievances (possibly because many people misconstrue the creation of Israel as a kind of restitution for the Shoah).
One of the problems with how we talk about Israel-Palestine—which is also one of the problems with how we talk about geopolitics generally—is that we conflate moral claims with practical possibilities. In this case one’s evaluation of the legitimacy of Zionism proper or of competing Palestinian claims to statehood is supposed to issue in a set of policy prescriptions as though it were a judgment handed down from on high. Conversely there is a tendency to retcon what we might call pre-political claims to nationhood according to our preferred policies. E.g. if you don’t want Israel to give up x territory you’ll be more likely to doubt the validity of Palestinian or other claims in that territory, and vice versa.
I don’t think this is helpful, because I think it presupposes a linear and one-way connection between pre-political reality and political practice. And this assumption is rarely if ever borne out by the actual processes of nation- and state-formation, in which the act of creation plays at least some role in creating the same nation (and territory and cultural traditions, etc.) that notionally predates that process.
I have written before about the "boundary problem," which can be summed up as: if peoples establish legitimate democratic states, what establishes peoples in the first place? The inevitable uncertainties bound up with the historical disputes surrounding this question are usually overlooked or downplayed. The Israel-Palestine conflict places then front and center, without offering any way of resolving them (again unless you already accept the premises of one particular side). The reason this dilemma is so knotty and why the Israel-Palestine conflict has proven so intractable is that there is no a priori way of resolving them; they are inseparable from political practice itself. In almost every other comparable case around the world, they were resolved by fiat; at least one party was satisfied, and the others were either forced to accept it or didn’t care enough to dispute it.
Moreover the “musical chairs” aspect of modern nationalism has provided states to many of the players, allowing displaced peoples an acceptable place of refuge (Germany proper for Sudetens, Israel for Mizrahi Jews, India and Pakistan for the respective populations expelled during Partition, and so on). This doesn’t mean that all parties were altogether satisfied with the results: Azerbaijan and Armenia are presently battling over Nagorno-Karabagh; Kashmir remains an open wound for both India and Pakistan; technically, a small island near the Arctic Ocean was a matter of dispute between Denmark and Canada for decades, though no one particularly cared. Similarly, it doesn’t mean that every possible self-proclaimed nation necessarily receives independence: the Kurds, Tibetans, Basques are all well-known examples, as is now Khalistan, which again forced its way into the international news a few weeks ago.
What it does mean, is that most peoples have an adequate, if not necessarily ideal, political situation. This does not describe the situation of the Palestinians. But without denying their unhappiness and frequent suffering, I still don’t think the essential characteristics of that situation (a nation deprived of a state) are necessarily remarkable. What is remarkable is that otherwise untenable circumstances have been maintained through a combination of Arab obstinance (particularly in accepting and integrating displaced Palestinians into their own countries going back to 1947), international support (basically unique in its volume and longevity), and Israel’s own pursuit of what Machiavelli termed the "via del mezzo." That is to say, Israel was unwilling to fully accede to Palestinian demands, or to formally annex the lands and expel the remaining inhabitants as it deemed necessary. This is not an argument for either course; I am pointing out that one of those options—primarily the latter—has historically been the norm throughout the world.
The combination of those factors, however, has provided artificial support for what has emerged as an authentic Palestinian nationalism. I say authentic, because it is clearly recognized both internally and externally; I say artificial not to diminish it, but because support for such a nation has typically come from an eponymous state.
Similarly, I am not saying that Palestinian grievances are not “real” (whatever that might mean), or that their nationhood is less real than that of other nations (whatever that might mean either). I am saying that neither grievances nor national claims have any adjudicatory process in the real world of geopolitics outside of the violent practice of state-building that they have always relied on, and I do not understand why many self-proclaimed realists pretend to be unaware of this fact. The Palestinians have never possessed the capacity for that kind of state-building, and while the Israelis share some blame for this, it’s not really their “job” to do it for them under any definition of democratic popular sovereignty. This is very much a human tragedy, particularly in Gaza, with its young population. I am not sure it is a national tragedy, except insofar as one wishes to argue that the deferral of any presumptive nation-state’s realization constitutes a tragedy.
What all of this suggests is not a particular evaluation of the “legitimacy” of Palestinian nationalism or Zionism or what have you. What it does suggest is rather that the long-term viability of a Palestinian state is very much in doubt. Indeed, it was always in doubt, but those doubts tended to be suppressed, either because they were obstacles to the preferred goals of a host of interested actors, including the United States, the EU, and the usual alphabet soup of NGOs and international organizations; or because those doubts tended to come from right-wing Jews and Israelis who had their own interest in denying a Palestinian state. And this is essentially where things stand today.
“Enduring conflict” is admittedly not a particularly inspiring message, but it is I think a far more likely scenario than any solution on offer, whether of the one- or two-state variety. One can say to this that justice demands a state one way or another. But here I return again and again to Nietzsche’s discussion of Thucydides:
Origin of Justice.—Justice (fairness) has its origin among people of approximately equal power, as Thucydides correctly understood (in the terrible dialogues of the Athenian and the Melian ambassadors); where there is no clearly discernible superiority and a struggle would lead to ineffectual damages on both sides, the thought arises of coming to an understanding and negotiating the claims of both sides: the character of exchange is the original character of justice. Each satisfies the other, in that each receives what he values more than the other. We give the other person what he wants, as henceforth belonging to him, and receive in return what we wanted. Justice is therefore requital and exchange under the assumption of an approximately equal position of power.
I’m not sure any Palestinian leader ever fully grasped this problem of equality. It is not that the Palestinians lack any destructive capability—the events of the past week, not to say the past half-century, prove otherwise. But it is limited and asymmetric and contingent upon Israel’s willingness to hold back. I am aware that as I write this the IDF is pulverizing Gaza, and innocents are dying, and it may seem positively obscene to call this restraint, but the fact is that in the wider context of war, that’s just what it is. One need not go back to the original Siege of Jerusalem for examples; Sri Lanka’s successful prosecution of its own ‘war on terror,’ which was largely ignored by the rest of the world, will suffice.
Of course, it may well be that the Palestinians will prove capable of exerting pain beyond the threshold of what the Israeli body politic can withstand, and Israel will come to decide that the costs of contributing to the establishment and maintenance of a sovereign Palestinian state are lower than the costs of continuing to defer it. And we can finally call this exchange “justice” in the Nietzschean sense. But the sovereignty of such a state would remain a function of the condescension of the “international community” and of Israel itself.
And seeing the present reprisals against Gaza—the rage, the wounded honor, the atavistic fears raised by the taking of so many women, as well as the support of major foreign governments—I see little evidence that the Israelis are anywhere close to that calculation. Our unquiet decade yet shows little sign of calming.