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Palestine: A Cause or a State? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Within days, the United Nations’ Security Council is expected to start debating the Palestinian Authority’s demand for recognition as a state.

At first glance, this is a straightforward issue. Since its foundation after the Second World War, the UN has admitted as member over 150 countries. There is no reason why the Palestinian demand should pose problems.

But, it does. For over six decades, nothing related to Palestine has been simple. Ironically, the UN tried to create a Palestinian state in 1947. Arab members rejected the idea. The idea was revived 20 years later in the wake of the 1967 Arab debacle. It was buried by rejectionists and their allies.

Perhaps Israel, too, never wanted a Palestinian state. However, that was never put to the test.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may have revived the idea for personal reasons. Abbas’s term ended two years ago and there is no mechanism to choose a successor. At the same time, his efforts to form a coalition government including Hamas have hit a wall. Thus, talk of a Palestinian state could create some momentum or, at least, alter the headlines for a few weeks.

Does the creation of a Palestinian state depend on recognition by the UN?

It does not. For more than two decades, the world’s most populous nation, China, was shut out of the UN. No one denied that Switzerland was a nation, although for decades it refused to join the UN. On a smaller scale, Kosovo today is a sovereign state although Russian veto prevents it from joining the UN.

In the case of Palestine the problem is with fundamentals.

A recent creation, the modern state is the political expression of a nation’s existence. One must first have a nation and then look for a state to express its existence.

Is Palestine a nation, in the modern sense of the term as described by Herder at the end of the 18th century?

You might be surprised, even angered, by this question. However, none of the dozens of political parties that have claimed to represent the Palestinians in the past seven decades ever described itself as national.

Words such as “nation” and “national” do not feature in the designation of such movements as Al Fatah and Hamas. Instead, they, and many other smaller ones, use adjectives such as “Islamic” or “people’s”. The subtext is that the Palestinians are, at most, “a people” but not a nation. They are regarded as part either of a larger, and mythical, Arab “nation” or an even more problematic Islamic Ummah.

Wedded to leftist or Islamist ideologies, Palestinian political formations systematically rejected the concept of the nation, the backbone of modern statehood.

The contrast with modern national liberation movements throughout the world is telling. For all of them the word “nation” is the key to their identity. Thus, we have the African National Congress in South Africa, and the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria. Even Communist-dominated Vietcong described itself as a National Liberation Front.

Islamist or leftist, Palestinian political movements treat Palestine as a “cause” rather than a political project.

But what is that “cause”?

This was clearly put by Hamas leader Khalid Mishal in a speech in Tehran on 3 October. “Our aim,” he said, “is liberating all of Palestine from the River to the Sea.” In other words, the cause is not to give Palestinians a state but to destroy Israel.

Ramadan Abdallah Shallah, leader of the Islamic Jihad for Palestine was even more explicit. “When we come to power we shall not allow the Zionist regime to live a single moment,” he said in Tehran.

According to the daily Kayhan of 4 October, both men paid tribute to “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei as the man who should have the final word on Palestine.

Mishal said: “The esteemed Commander of the Islamic Revolution, Imam Khamenei, is our Guide and Leader. His wishes will be the cause of the Palestinians. Our sovereign and master is Khamenei.”

This, of course, is not the first time that Palestinian leaders have auctioned “the cause”. There was a time when Abdel Nasser was bootlicked as “guide and master”. In 1991, Yasser Arafat sold “the cause” to Saddam Hussein. A few years later in Oslo, he re-sold it to Shimon Peres.

In his speech, Khamenei promised that, once Israel is destroyed, he would organize a referendum in which Palestinians from all over the world and some citizens of Israel would decide what to do with “liberated Palestine”. Mischievous tongues in Tehran say that one option could be to attach “liberated Palestine” to Khamenei’s “imamate” empire. This is not fanciful. After all, Nasser, too, had hoped to annex “liberated Palestine” for his Arab Republic. Saddam Hussein had dreams of turning Palestine into Iraq’s “counter on the Mediterranean”, a scheme that would have also required the destruction of Jordan as an independent country. Hafez al-Assad fancied Palestine as part of “Greater Syria”.

Mishal and Shallah’s flattery towards Khamenei implies that there is no Palestinian “nation”. A sovereign nation would not demand that the leader of a foreign country decide its future.

The quest for a Palestinian state starts with the Palestinians themselves. They must decide whether they are a modern nation or a fragment of larger entities beyond their control.

Once they have achieved self-consciousness as a nation, they could seek expression as a state in territories where they form a majority. This would not preclude territorial claims against neighbours. (A majority of UN members have such claims against one or more of their neighbours.) However, as a member of the United Nations, a state cannot adopt the destruction of another UN member as its “cause.”

Palestine must choose what it wants to be a “cause” or a state.