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Gingrich, Obama and Arab Nationalism

Lee Smith has an interesting piece in Tablet today in which he takes another swipe at Newt Gingrich’s contention that the Palestinians were an “invented people.” Smith’s conceit is not so much to discuss the question of just how or when Palestinians invented themselves. Rather, he is concerned with whether it is in the interests of the United States to support the idea that the only authentic identity is that of Arab nationalism as opposed to the particular national identities of the post-Ottoman Arab successor states in the region that were largely unknown prior to the 20th century.

Rather than brand Gingrich a Likudnik, as many on the left would have it, Smith seems to be accusing the former speaker of being a Nasserite. Which is to say  he is promoting an idea made popular by the late Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser. That wasn’t Gingrich’s intention, but Smith is right that Nasser’s attempt to create a pan-Arab state was dangerous for U.S. interests as well as noxious to the cause of Middle East peace, and we shouldn’t encourage a rerun. But the problem with invented Palestinian nationalism, as opposed to what Smith sees as the similarly recent vintage of the nationalisms of many other Arab countries, is not just that it isn’t strong enough to motivate their leaders to accept a peace deal with Israel that would give them a state.

Smith writes:

The problem is that current Palestinian nationalism is not strong enough. If it were, Yasser Arafat and, later, Mahmoud Abbas might have been more inclined to accept the peace deals offered by Israeli prime ministers and American presidents. If Palestinian leadership were more like the early champions of Zionism, who wanted a state for the Jews no matter its size, then the conflict might have been resolved at any point over the last seven decades.

Maybe the Palestinians are still waiting for a better deal. Perhaps, as some argue, the Palestinians really believe that they’ll eventually manage to drive the Jews into the sea. In any case, one of the major problems is that the decision has never been entirely in the hands of the Palestinians. Even before the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, there have always been external regional forces trying to prevent a resolution to the Palestinian problem, since prolonging the conflict enhances their prestige and bargaining position.

While it is true that in the past, regional forces did much to incite and prolong the conflict, that isn’t so much the case anymore. Though many in the Arab and Muslim world might be dismayed if the Palestinians made peace with Israel, it is doubtful they could stop it. For all of the hatred for Israel on the part of Islamists in the region and rogue nations like Iran, for the last few decades the decision to keep fighting Zionism has been made by the Palestinians.

Even more to the point, rather than their dedication to their own national cause being too weak to emulate the pragmatic decisions of Zionist leaders, the obstacle to peace is the passionate way in which they view their identity. This is something that is very much linked to the way Palestinian nationalism was “invented.”

Pan-Arabism was a 20th century invention that conflicted with far more powerful tribal, regional and religious identities. The world is better off without it and it was, as Smith writes, an astounding blunder on President Obama’s part to couch his June 2009 Cairo speech as an appeal to the amorphous and politically incoherent concept of “Arabs” as opposed to the various peoples of the region. We should be encouraging the national ambitions of the various minorities and sects of the Middle East rather than to think of just Arabs or Muslims. In that sense, nurturing Palestinian identity makes sense.

But the difference with Palestinian nationalism, as opposed to the equally modern nationalisms of other post-Ottoman nations, is that it was conceived solely as a reaction to Zionism. Though those other countries were more the result of Western statesmen drawing lines on the map than an indigenous movement, they have developed and survived because of the willingness of their citizens to adopt the cause of that particular nation. By contrast, Palestinian identity was born as part of a drive to make sure that the Jews were not allowed to reconstitute their sovereignty on any part of the soil of the Ottoman Empire’s territory.

So it is no surprise Palestinian leaders have found it impossible to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. As I previously wrote, to say that Palestinian nationalism was invented in the last century does not mean we should ignore the fact that millions of people now believe themselves to be part of a separate Palestinian people. But peace will not come until the Palestinians are able to conceive of their national cause as being compatible with co-existence with Israel.

The United States should, as Smith says, encourage the diverse national identities of the region and eschew further appeals to Arab nationalism. But ignoring the problems associated with the expression of Palestinian identity serves neither the interests of America or peace.

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