In Walter Russell Mead’s article in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs (ably analyzed by Shmuel Rosner), there is a paragraph that inadvertently captures the problem in the current Middle East peace process. Mead writes that it may be difficult for outsiders to understand the Palestinians’ “yearning for the villages and landscapes lost during the birth of Israel in 1948,” but that American policymakers should recognize that the unconditional right to return is the “central demand” of the Palestinian movement:
The Palestinians’ national identity took shape in the course of their struggle with Zionism, and the mass displacement of Palestinians resulting from Israel’s War of Independence, or the nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic), was the fiery crucible out of which the modern Palestinian consciousness emerged. The dispossessed Palestinians, especially refugees living in camps, are seen as the bearers of the most authentic form of Palestinian identity. The unconditional right of Palestinians to return to the land and homes lost in the nakba is the nation’s central demand.
There are three important points in that paragraph, although they are not likely the ones Mead intended.
First, the observation that the Palestinians’ “national identity” is something that “took shape in the course of their struggle with Zionism” is an implicit recognition that a national identity was not there before. The Palestinian “national identity” is neither pre-existing nor positive, but rather one defined by its opposition to something. That something is Israel.
Second, the assertion that the “displacement of Palestinians” was something “resulting from Israel’s War of Independence” starts the story in the middle. Israel’s War of Independence was itself the result of something before that: the Arab rejection of UN Resolution 181, which would have created a Palestinian state, and a sliver of a Jewish state. The root cause of the displacement was the war the Arabs brought against the Jewish state.
Third, the statement that the refugees in camps are viewed as “the most authentic form of Palestinian identity,” and that the Palestinians’ “central demand” is the unconditional right of return demonstrates the “peace process” is a contradiction in terms. The Palestinians cannot give up the “right of return” without giving up their “national identity”; but as long as they cling to an anti-Israel identity and a “right of return,” they cannot achieve a state.
The Obama administration has been urged to make the peace process a priority, with an American plan and a high-powered Middle East envoy. But the problem with the peace process has never been the absence of plans or the authority of envoys. The fundamental problem is a Palestinian identity fashioned from an anti-Israel narrative, with a central demand inconsistent with a Jewish state.
Before rushing in where Clinton and Bush failed, the Obama team should start “Rethinking the Two-State Solution.”