The nation state and why the Palestinians never should and never will have one
The nation state is a modern invention. Swaths of territory form a country which belongs not to the king but to the people. The bond tying the people together and making them sovereign is not the same as that which bound the monarchy, and beyond it the aristocracy, namely family. And yet the bond still harks back to something like the family: ethnicity, suggesting that the nation part of the nation state is formed from some original family, the blood ties extending into clans and tribes and ultimately a nation, a people. It is this memory which adds psychological fuel to the feeling of solidarity a nation state inspires, symbolized by a flag, a national anthem, patriotic holidays, even a fascination with national character. Sometimes national discussion even ventures into portraits of moral as well as bodily physiognomy.
As migration flows across the globe increase, one tends to place less emphasis on national characteristics and more on the legal and social dimensions of the state part of the nation state formula. Citizenship, holding a passport, subscribing to and practising civic respect and tolerance, jury duty, all increase in salience. Blood ties recede into the background; discussions of ethnicity are relegated to the folklore interest in ancestry or culinary exoticism. Nationalism itself becomes suspect, something to be feared rather than extolled, as though the clamor of blood that lies deep beneath the surface can always explode to the top and wreak its havoc, as happened in Nazi Germany. That it did not happen more often has much to do with the fact that in its modern form, nationalism has been bounded by the state; and the state which encapsulates it functions according to the rule of law, not the divine right of kings. When it does not function thus, the forces of nationalism once unleashed turn even noble ideals into tyranny. One has but to think of Napoleon’s bayonets exporting liberty, equality and fraternity across Europe.
The nation state, like democracy itself, is a magic formula that miraculously works wonders. It takes a somewhat demonic force rooted in organic impulses and harnesses it to a societal arrangement that makes the people sovereign, yet reins in their solidarity by linking it to the rule of law. Without constitutional restraints on the exercise of power and a judiciary independent of the legislature, the sovereignty of the people turns into majoritarian tyranny, if not outright totalitarianism. To the extent that the proliferation of modern nation states means the proliferation of states governed by the rule of law, the proliferation is not a barrier to intercourse or solidarity between people across the globe. Quite the contrary, in fact, if only because modern nation states operate as political democracies. When they do not nationalism turns ugly, unleashes the fury of blood tie cultures and weds it to political arrangements that ultimately destroy everything in its path, including the nation it purports to defend. Unfortunately, today, the number of nation states that are members of the United Nations far exceeds the number of functioning democracies. That alone would explain why that illustrious organization is nothing short of a joke, whose lofty declarations are rarely in fact respected by those most in need of respecting them. Which goes to show that the construction of a modern nation state is no easy task. The champions of nationalist movements would do well to pay attention.
Bearing that in mind, let us turn our attention to Palestinian nationalism, that darling of the international intellectual classes. For what Palestinian nationalism actually illustrates is a lesson in how not to build a nation state. When the Oslo Accords were signed back in 1993 between Israel and the PLO, the Palestinians were granted limited self-government in Judea and Samaria and Gaza. The upshot was the Palestinian Authority, a state structure in the making designed to preside over those areas in which Palestinians had autonomy until a final peace agreement was reached between the parties. The Palestinian Authority created two councils, one Legislative, elected by residents of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, one National, representing Palestinians living abroad who were selected by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO in turn was composed of many different groups, of which Fatah was the dominant one. Arafat, as the head of the PLO, became the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority. At the same time another structure was set up called the National and Islamic Front, which united other groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad with the PLO in a quasi-governmental structure. All this ensured that there were and are no clear lines of authority in the Palestinian Authority. What does exist are multiple layers of dual authority, one formal, one informal, that guarantees control of what goes on to Fatah through its domination of the PLO. Such dual structures are typical of totalitarian states. They enable arbitrary rule because the leaders can always evade responsibility for their actions. It is never clear whether decisions are made by the party or the state. In the confusion and double speak the party leaders do what they want.
This is exactly what happened under Arafat and it continues to this day. Hence Arafat as Chairman of the Palestinian Authority could make pronouncements saying he favored peace with Israel, while as leader of the PLO he continued to organize terror attacks against that country. As both he would whip up Palestinian nationalism to a frenzy, encouraging his putative fellow countrymen to march on Jerusalem in the millions while telling western media outlets eager to buy his words that all he sought was the peace of the brave. Through the National and Islamic Front he could funnel funds to the terrorist groups, including his own Fatah’s Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade, while disclaiming that the Palestinian Authority was using western monies to do so. Abbas was his henchman in charge of this operation, the very same man who took over from Arafat when he died.
Dual structures are perfect mechanisms for lawlessness, but they come to bite the people who set them up in the end. Dual structures make it impossible to hold governments accountable. They do, however, allow for corruption on a massive scale. This is exactly what occurred in the Palestinian Authority, as Fatah siphoned off western financial aid not only into terrorist activities, but also into the pockets of its members, thereby enabling it to maintain a stranglehold on life in the areas under its control. As a result, when Hamas won the Legislative Council elections in 2006 political life in the Palestinian Authority quickly unraveled. Attempts at a unity government between Fatah and Hamas failed, violence between the two groups spiraled, and in 2007 Hamas carried out a coup d’état in Gaza, effectively splitting the Palestinian Authority in two. This did not lead to any improvement in the rule of law. Now the Palestinians enjoyed two corrupt totalitarian governments, one overtly theocratic in Gaza, the other more gangster like in Judea and Samaria.
This situation has continued to the present. Recently a Hamas member of parliament has denounced the Palestinian Authority for not paying the salaries of thirty released terrorists on the grounds that they are working against the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority. Censorship of independent journalists and suppression of dissent is common in both Palestinian-controlled Gaza and Judea and Samaria. Elections are a mockery in Gaza and continuously postponed in Judea and Samaria, confirming that rule by Hamas and Fatah is de facto ensured and ongoing. Recently, the Palestinian Authority’s constitutional court ruled that Abbas had the power to strip legislators of their parliamentary immunity. The only good thing about all this is that if anyone wanted to see what totalitarianism looks like and how it operates, now that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are things of the past, they have only to study what goes on in the Palestinian Authority, Gaza included.
Rule by gangsters has also destroyed whatever traditional authority structures existed there before Israel committed the folly of bringing in the PLO. Even though Palestinian society is still basically a tribal one – the major cities of Judea and Samaria are peopled by different clan networks – Fatah has managed to superimpose upon it a gangster society whose petty tyrants at all levels of state and party organization feel free to intimidate people judged their opponents at will. Opponents in this context may mean not only people judged to be potential political dissidents, but also opposing clan members with whom the time has come to settle scores. With no independent judiciary, and a solidarity created through an overwhelming ideological indoctrination that mobilizes the society around organized child abuse – witness the use of minors under even teenage years in random stabbing attacks on Jews – the few opponents of the regime, should they exist, have no recourse for redress. Thus have the Palestinians squandered the opportunity offered by the Oslo Accords to create the institutions of a modern nation state. It follows as an inevitable corollary that the only alternative they have is to maintain an ongoing state of terror and ideology typical of totalitarian regimes. Such a state, though turning Palestinian nationalism outward against Israel, eventually turns against its own people. Its fate will wind up like those of other totalitarian experiments in the twentieth century. Only a fool would wish to see such a state emerge intact on Israel’s eastern border. And only a bigger fool would entertain the belief that it is a possible partner for peace with the Jewish state.
Israel is a case study in contrast. Jewish nationalism once the Zionist movement got underway, even under the hostile rule of the British in Palestine, used whatever freedom it had to build up its own political institutions according to democratic procedure and invested its energies and capital in building up the land they one day saw as theirs. When Israeli independence was finally achieved the Zionist institutions of Mandate Palestine easily morphed into a modern nation state. Contemporary Israel has more than its share of differences – religious versus secular, Ashkenazi versus Sephardi, left versus right – and within those differences there are even more differences. Yet Israel has managed to overcome the millennial Jewish tendency to remain a tribe rather than a nation and create a Jewish nationalism inscribed in the rule of law and circumscribed by it. Disagreements are settled by the courts. Elections are guaranteed by law at fixed intervals. The army is subordinate to civilian authority. The result is a brash and raucous democracy where people are not afraid to speak their mind and live their lives as they see fit.
Palestinians could have learned from their Jewish neighbors, but they were too bent on killing them. Palestinian leaders for over a century have dedicated themselves to preventing a sovereign Jewish state in Israel and liquidating it once it managed to emerge and thrive. No good can come of this ongoing Palestinian madness, not to Palestinians, not to Israelis and not to the world that continues to indulge it and misread it.