The latest nonsensical controversy coming out of Israel concerns a speech given this week by a Likud member of the Knesset during a debate about the future of the two-state solution. Seeking to cast scorn on the Palestinians’ ambitions for a state of Palestine, Anat Berko said that there was some irony in the fact that the Arabic alphabet has no letter “P.” Palestinians refer to the country as Falastin. Her point was that the name of their country was not authentically Arab or reflect the idea that Arabs had been on the land from time immemorial as they claim. This provoked scorn from Arab members of the Knesset as well as some Jewish members. The story was picked up by the international press including the New York Times and is being interpreted by Israel’s critics as more proof of the Netanyahu government’s unwillingness to make peace, its insensitivity and even racism.
The charge of linguistic racism is a bit of a stretch even for the most fervent of Israel-bashers. This is, of course, overblown. Berko, an academic and a child of immigrants from Iraq, may be a member of Netanyahu’s party but she doesn’t speak for him or the government. During the debate during which Berko spoke, Netanyahu reiterated his support for a two-state solution. But the prime minister, like the head of the country’s left-wing opposition, has recently said, agreed that it was impossible under the current circumstances because the Palestinians aren’t willing to settle for dividing the country rather than destroying Israel.
The point is, the thing that is preventing the creation of a state of Palestine alongside Israel isn’t the “P” that Arabic speakers don’t pronounce or the mockery of backbench Likudniks like Berko. But it might be a useful exercise for those that continue to blame Israel for the absence of peace to ponder the question to which Berko was alluding. Though the question of the origin of the word Palestine is tangential to today’s conflict, the reason why Palestinians continue to refuse to make peace is not.
It is important to state at the outset that the origins of Palestinian national identity might provide an interesting subject for research and debate but is also irrelevant to the question of whether the people that currently call themselves Palestinians are a nation. That Palestinian Arabs exist and constitute a separate national group from other Arab peoples now isn’t in question. If both sides to the conflict were willing to agree to disagree about history and compromise about the present and the future, then this discussion could be confined to the academy. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and that is why the silly exchange in the Knesset about the letter p is not entirely foolish.
What Berko was referring to was the fact that the idea of Palestine as an Arab nation dates back only to the beginning of the 20th century. The Romans were the first to call the country Palestine as part of their ethnic cleansing campaign in the wake of their repression of the second great Jewish revolt in the second century. Arabs played no part in the history of the country until centuries later after the Islamic conquest. But for many centuries after that, there was no specific Arab national group associated with what had been the land of Israel before the dispersion. The Arab political awakening that did occur only happened as a reaction to the return of the Jews to the land in the decades after the birth of the modern Zionist movement in the late 19th century. But even then, the Arabs didn’t call themselves Palestinians. Up until the creation of the state of Israel that was a name only used by Jews who had embraced the British Mandate for Palestine that was created by the League of Nations to facilitate the creation of a national home for the Jewish people after World War One. It was only after Israel’s rebirth in 1948 that the Arabs who had rejected the two-state solution offered by the United Nations began to call themselves Palestinians.
What has that to do with the current problems of the region? Everything.
The problem for Palestinians is that their national identity as a people is not so much bound up with a specific language, culture, or land as it is with the idea of resisting the return of the Jews. Without Zionism, there was no Palestinian Arab nationalism. So when offered a chance to have a separate Palestinian state alongside Israel, leaders like Yasir Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas have understood that saying yes to compromise and peace meant giving up more than their maximal territorial demands. It meant giving up on the very idea of what it means to be a Palestinian even if the Israelis were, as they did in 2000, 2001, and 2008, prepared to hand them control of almost all the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem in exchange for peace. Palestinian nationalism means rejecting the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn.
That’s why the Palestinian view of history is so important. In order to justify their relatively newly minted national identity, they have embraced a narrative that completely negates the Jewish connection to their ancient homeland. Their attempt to claim that Jerusalem, its Temple Mount and the Western Wall have no Jewish connections isn’t merely an insult. Such canards, which are promoted by the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority as well as the extremists of Hamas, are rooted in a need to justify the expulsion of the Jews and to pretend that the country is stolen Arab property rather than a place to which two peoples may have legitimate claims. Those seeking an explanation for why the overwhelming majority of Arabs continue to think Jews have no right to any part of the country and believe violence against them is justified should look first to the history of Palestinian nationalism as much as to the behavior of their current leaders.
Berko’s taunts and the discussion of what letters are pronounced in classical Arabic are no more germane to 21st-century foreign policy than an examination of which English letters are not part of biblical Hebrew. But the fact that Palestinian Arab nationalism is intrinsically linked to a century war on the Jews and Zionism is very much to the point. Peace will be possible between Jews and Arabs only when the latter rethink their view of their identity in order to make it possible to imagine two states for two peoples. When that sea change in a Palestinian political culture that is currently mired in violence and hatred occurs, it won’t matter which letters the two sides pronounce. Until then, any hope for peace will remain out of reach.