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Mirage in the Desert By: David Solway
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, October 23, 2008


The Small Dictionary of Middle East Stereotypes posted online by the Metula News Agency is not far south of the truth when it defines “Palestine” as “A small piece of paper stuck on Arab maps and atlases to hide Israel.” The Palestinian fiction has even been admitted by the Palestinians themselves. In a 1977 interview with the Dutch newspaper Trouw, Zahir Muhse’in of the PLO Executive Committee confirmed that the “Palestinian people do not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity…Only for tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct ‘Palestinian people’ to oppose Zionism.”

Hollywood, too, has contributed to the fiction. Director Paul Haggis’ anti-war film, In the Valley of Elah, locates the contest of David and Goliath in Palestine, when no such entity existed. Haggis may have been ignorant of his biblical history, but his well-known leftish inclinations suggest a specific design at work. It is highly appropriate that In the Valley of Elah was filmed in Hollywood, an illusion factory that is about as “real” as Palestine. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the concept of “Palestine,” the simulacrum of the “Palestinian,” is, when all is said and done, not much more than a Tinseltown movie, an empty fabrication—the historical grounding is absent and the sense of a cohesive national identity has been artificially generated by a political cabal working in tandem with the international media. The fact of the matter is, to adapt a current catch phrase, that the Palestinians are all keffiyeh and no sheep.

The same applies to the Palestinian Authority itself, a crypro-political construct invented by the West with Arab backing that has necessarily proven incapable of governing, controlling its bellicose factions and creating the conditions for peace and normal civil life. The irony of the situation is especially mordant: the chief obstacle to peace is the very institution that was formed to facilitate its accomplishment. A synthetic contrivance improvised in Oslo, it has in the current circumstances no alternative but failure. In point of fact, Jordan is the only visible nation state of the Arabs of Greater Palestine, problematic as it may be. Let us remember once again that when Britain defied the terms of the League of Nations in 1923 and created the protectorate of TransJordan from the territory earmarked for Israel, it artificially established a de facto Palestinian state which the West Bank was never intended to be a part of. And when the United Nations proposed its 1947 partition plan, further dividing up the Israeli allodium, it was rejected by the Arabs who responded by launching a massive attack against the fledgling Jewish state. Implausible as this may sound in the present circumstances, another Palestinian state in one shape or another may come to exist one day, but I suspect it would prove to be little more than the result of a process of political taxidermy.

Certainly, there is no usable template in the rest of the Muslim Middle East to serve as a pattern for emergent statehood—even Turkey, the presumed beacon state, remains unstable. The Palestinian mirage suffers from an even more debilitating version of the Arab debacle which, as the Lebanese-American scholar Fouad Ajami points out in The Dream Palace of the Arabs, derives from the connate failure of Arab society in absorbing democratic values and incorporating the principles of the modern nation state. The problem, I would suggest, is that in the Arab mindset, there is no tertium quid or intermediate structure between the tribe, which commands the practical loyalty of the individual, and the ummah, which invokes a mystical allegiance to the far-flung Islamic collective. The nation state is neither one nor the other, too dispersed and abstract an arrangement to create a sense of intimate union, and yet insufficiently numinous and “spiritual” to bind the individual to the transcendent body of the people. Until this changes—which is highly doubtful—the Arab “state” will remain a synthetic contrivance to be exploited in the interests of the ruling tribe or family and is thus condemned to be perennially mercurial.

Indeed, what Albert Camus said of Algeria in his 1958 Actuelles III, that it was only a “virtual nation,” is mutatis mutandis true of “Palestine”—as it is, for that matter, of Iraq. The latter is not a real nation but three tribal regions, or Ottoman vilayets, cobbled together in the aftermath of the First World War and now, predictably, sinking into a quicksand bog of internal strife and indiscriminate slaughter. At best, it will be a magpie nation, assembled from disparate materials, always threatening to come asunder, and held together by American strength of will and concrete support. It may manage to survive, as has Algeria, but, politically, it will remain an active volcano. Camus’ skepticism of “Arab demands” and raw emotionalism applies equally to “Palestine,” which is not a genuine nation but an internally riven enclave of competing jihadist cliques that will likely prove incapable of unified and constructive self-government. It does not take much in the way of aculeate insight to arrive at this conclusion; it is a bit like predicting the past. In the circumstances, it would be foolhardy to dismiss the Shakespearian adage from Henry VI, Part 3, “that Beggars mounted, run their Horse to death.”


David Solway is the award-winning author of over twenty-five books of poetry, criticism, educational theory, and travel. He is a contributor to magazines as varied as the Atlantic, the Sewanee Review, Books in Canada, and the Partisan Review. He is the author of The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity. A new book on Jewish and Israeli themes, Hear, O Israel!, will be released by CanadianValuesPress this fall.


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