On the Power of Statelessness: Why Palestinians prefer not to have a state according to Robert Kaplan

In a mediocre article, replete with logical non-sequiturs (especially at the end), Robert Kaplan, national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, tries to spin off from more substantive article by Jakub Grygiel (“The Power of Statelessness: the Withering Appeal of Governing”). Although the analysis is superficial and the policy suggestions at odds with the analysis, it’s worth looking at for both what it occasionally says that’s valuable, and as an example of how hard it is, even for smart people, to think clearly about the Arab-Israeli conflict. (HT/YP)

Do the Palestinians Really Want a State?

Why landlessness may be its own source of power
by Robert D. Kaplan

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.

Alright, so Kaplan’s not the sharpest pencil in the box when it comes to Israeli politics. But all this is really just a set-up. In the meantime, I think it worth noting that if the “moderate” Abbas were an Israeli politician, whose views in his native tongue were duly translated and broadcast globally by the likes of Ha-Aretz, then he’d appear as a far-right, ultra-nationalist, racist, intransigent, war-monger. It’s only the skew of comparing politicians from a civil polity with those from a prime divider society that permits the kind of cheap throw-away lines such as that used by Kaplan above. Indeed, my guess is that if any Israeli politician were to say in Hebrew the kinds of things Abbas says in Arabic, he’d be debounced as an intransigent and banned as a racist.

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.

Well that’s quite a feat. The despair of the Israeli electorate is not just over the present “stalemate,” but about the repeated failure of concessions to ameliorate the situation. Oslo “Peace” Process (1993-2000), leaving Lebanon (2000), leaving Gaza (2005), all have led to more aggression, including suicide bombing. It’s this ferocious and relentless will to aggress on the part of the Palestinians, fed by a media that constantly incites to genocidal hatreds, that has them worried.

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’s nice of Kaplan to recognize that (his and the consensually accepted) “political narrative” doesn’t get to the point. But instead of going to matters of honor and shame, he goes to an interesting, but largely “rational” analysis of the strategic advantages of statelessness.

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.

Interesting point, except that it ignores the past. At no point in this process have any Palestinian leaders showed any real desire for statehood. The “now” is an a-historical attempt to describe a “new” development.

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.

And of course, if the world is willing to dump on Israel for its inherent messiness as a state, and give the stateless a free ride, why not?

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.

Now there’s a brilliant ending to an otherwise interesting article. It’s as if he says, “ignore what I just said and act as if the prevailing paradigm — force Israeli concessions in the hopes of bringing out Palestinian moderation — were still good. Because it’s “the right thing to do.” By whose standards?

Does this man even believe what he says? Or is he just bowing to the “conventional wisdom”? And one wonders how phenomena like the “emperor’s new clothes” can happen.

In any case, what a pedestrian conclusion: wake up and go back to sleep.

4 Responses to On the Power of Statelessness: Why Palestinians prefer not to have a state according to Robert Kaplan

  1. nelson says:

    It used to be said in the mid-90s that Kaplan’s book on the Balkans was one of president Clinton’s favorite readingsd and that it influenced his politics in the region. Maybe Kaplan grew fond of being influential, even if only through his writing, and, adapting his conclusion, he adopted a position more likely to be taken in consideration by the Obama government. After all, the obvious or logical conclusion of his article would find no echo righ now in the White House.

    There must be some opportunism at work here because Kaplan’s writings are usually much better than this awfully mediocre article.

    On the other hand, the thesis that a willfully chosen statelessness exists sounds problematic. I know of no other group that, as the Palestinians did, have rejected a state of its own, any kind of state, at least three times in less than a century (1935, 1947-49, 2000).

    When Hungary lost 2/3 of its lands and both Austria and Turkey lost their empires, they didn’t give up Budapest, Vienna and Istambul, saying “either everything or nothing”, did they?

    Even at its best, Kaplan’s review tries to describe the Palestinian case not as an absolute exception, but as a different or new kind of rule. Actually, however, the “Palestinian cause” has never been a “positive” national cause, with a nation-state as its ultimate goal. It has always been a purely negative cause: an euphemism for the destruction of Israel and the genocide of the Middle Eastern Jews.

    Thus, even if the so-called Palestinians were successfull in creating a state of their own in the whole “Judenfrei” territory “between the river and the sea”, this state would not last, since it would soon be partitioned among its neighbours (without, BTW, much opposition from the “Palestinians” themselves).

  2. oao says:

    i often claim that a lot of western attitudes towards israel and the pals stem from ignorance. well, consider the following:

    Jaw-dropping statement of the day from the Fwench

    now if the FM of a EUROPEAN world power can be so ignorant, what can we expect from the average westerners?

    scape-goating/anti-semitism/anti-zionism is itself grounded in ignorance.

  3. Eliyahu says:

    oao, the mother of all ignorant falsehoods in the Arab-Israeli situation is that of a “palestinian people.” Without dispelling this lie, the other lies are more difficult to dispel. The “palestinian people” lie is an obstacle to a lasting peace.

    if US presidents are reading r Kaplan as a source of info on the Middle East, then the country is surely in unfit hands.

    speaking of Clinton [the husband, not the wife], his notorious affair with young Monica has its parallel now in Italy where PM Berlusconi has denied having an affair with a young, 18-year-old woman. One of her ex-boyfriends says so, whereas Berlusconi denies it. The parallel is in the denial. Clinton said: I did not have sex with that woman. Which we later learned was a lie. Berlusconi denies too. But the girl’s family are threatening to sue the ex-boyfried and the papers that promote the scandal [La Repubblica]. Thus, maybe Berlusconi is telling the truth that the girl’s father is an old friend, or some such.

    What is more significant here is that the same kind of folk who were defending clinton or playing down his peccadilloes in the Monica case, are now in Italy going after Berlusconi. Such as D’Alema of the more moderate of the two communist parties. He demands to know “the truth.” As if the truth had any value for him other than as a weapon to bash berlusconi.

  4. oao says:

    if US presidents are reading r Kaplan as a source of info on the Middle East, then the country is surely in unfit hands.

    i did not need to know that he reads kaplan to know that the country is in unfit hands. alibama is an accurate representative of the us and is what those who voted for him deserve.

    as to clinton/berlusconi, to be honest i don’t care if they are taken down. problem is there are no replacements that are any better. the west has collapsed. just look at the UK expense scandal. not to mention the elite tax cheaters in the us.

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