The statelessness of Palestinian Arabs has been a principal feature of world politics for more than half a century. It is the signature issue of our time. The inability of Israelis and Palestinians to reach an accord of mutual recognition and land-for-peace has helped infect the globe with violence and radicalism—and has long been a bane of American foreign policy. While the problems of the Middle East cannot be substantially blamed on the injustice done to Palestinians, that injustice has nonetheless played a role in weakening America’s position in the region.
Obviously, part of the problem has been Israeli intransigence. Despite seeming to submit to territorial concessions, one Israeli government after another has quietly continued to bolster illegal settlements in the occupied territories. The new Israeli government may be the worst yet: Its foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, is so extreme in his anti-Arab views that he makes the right-wing Likud prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appear like the centrist he isn’t. The prospects for peace under this government are fundamentally bleak.
And yet this Israeli government faithfully represents the Israeli electorate, which is in utter despair over the impossibility of finding credible partners on the Palestinian side with which to negotiate. Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. President Mahmoud Abbas’s more moderate Fatah movement may be willing to live in peace with Israel, but it has insufficient political legitimacy among Palestinians to negotiate such a deal. With Fatah and Hamas facing off against each other, the Palestinians are simply too divided to plausibly meet Israel across the table. And because the Palestinians are unable to cut a deal, a majority of Israelis, as shown by the recent election results, have apparently given up any hope for peace.
But there is a deeper structural and philosophical reason why the Palestinians remain stateless—a reason more profound than the political narrative would indicate. It is best explained by associate Johns Hopkins professor Jakub Grygiel, in his brilliant essay, “The Power of Statelessness: the Withering Appeal of Governing” (Policy Review April/May 2009). In it, Grygiel does not discuss the Palestinians in particular, but rather the attitude of stateless people in general.
Statehood is no longer a goal, he writes. Many stateless groups “do not aspire to have a state,” for they are more capable of achieving their objectives without one. Instead of actively seeking statehood to address their weakness, as Zionist Jews did in an earlier phase of history, groups like the Palestinians now embrace their statelessness as a source of power.
New communication technologies allow people to achieve virtual unity without a state, even as new military technologies give stateless groups a lethal capacity that in former decades could be attained only by states. Grygiel explains that it is now “highly desirable” not to have a state—for a state is a target that can be destroyed or damaged, and hence pressured politically. It was the very quasi-statehood achieved by Hamas in the Gaza Strip that made it easier for Israel to bomb it. A state entails responsibilities that limit a people’s freedom of action. A group like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the author notes, could probably take over the Lebanese state today, but why would it want to? Why would it want responsibility for providing safety and services to all Lebanese? Why would it want to provide the Israelis with so many tempting targets of reprisal? Statelessness offers a level of “impunity” from retaliation.
But the most tempting aspect of statelessness is that it permits a people to savor the pleasures of religious zeal, extremist ideologies, and moral absolutes, without having to make the kinds of messy, mundane compromises that accompany the work of looking after a geographical space.
Grygiel raises a challenging proposition. If his theory is correct, then the Palestinians may never have a state, because at a deep psychological level, enough of them—or at least the groups that speak in their name—may not really want one. Statehood would mean openly compromising with Israel, and, because of the dictates of geography, living in an intimate political and economic relationship with it. Better the glory of victimhood, combined with the power of radical abstractions! As a stateless people, Palestinians can lob rockets into Israel, but not be wholly blamed in the eyes of the international community. Statehood would, perforce, put an end to such license.
The closest that Israelis and Palestinians ever came to peace was at the end of the Clinton Administration in 2000, when then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak of the center-left Labor Party offered a slew of concessions to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat—only to have Arafat reject them. Arafat’s epitaph was that he remained loyal to the cause of his people, that he never compromised, and that he was steadfast to the bitter end. He may have seen that as a more morally and emotionally satisfying conclusion to a life of statelessness than that of making the unenchanting concessions associated with achieving statehood.
Even if Grygiel’s theory is right, the United States should apply ample pressure on the new Israeli government to compromise with the Palestinians—ratcheting up the rhetoric and slowing down arms deliveries if necessary. It should do this because it is the right thing to do, and because it will help the U.S. to reestablish credibility in the Muslim world. But the U.S. should also brace itself for an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that may never end, because the Palestinians may already have what they want.
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