Around the world, many intelligent people full of self-regard — and many who look to them for leadership — have talked themselves into believing that the Palestinians are doomed without a state to call their own.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
Imagine, for a moment, that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations to announce that he was charting a future in which neither the state nor the nation were to play any role in Palestinian life.
Imagine that he proclaimed the areas under his authority global free enterprise zones, more free of regulation even than Israel.
Imagine that he renounced terrorism against Israelis and all people, in the interest of promoting — if nothing else — an open economy and material flourishing.
Imagine that he acknowledged that the Palestinians did not comprise a nation — and that building a state without a nation to hold it together was a recipe for tragedy and chaos in the Old World.
Imagine that he portrayed this stark fact as an opportunity to escape the burdens and constraints imposed by the whole nation-state model — and dramatized so sadly by post-colonial Africa.
Imagine that Mahmoud Abbas did not go to the United Nations to cast Palestinian statehood as the moral and political imperative of a Western-born worldview beholden to a cramped vision of historical progress. Imagine he came before the UN to suggest that the monopoly of the nation-state over the imagination of struggling human beings had come to an end — that the tragedy of the Palestinians could never be overcome by enclosing their future within the bounds of a political unit that had failed so many — not just in Africa but, palpably, in Europe and the Mideast itself.
Absurd? Maybe. But the manifest absurdity of actual developments in the Palestinian case is dangerous and foolish enough to make imagination take flight.
The prevailing sentiment in favor of Palestinian statehood is influenced only marginally by a desire to bring order and unity to the Palestinians. More dominant is the desire to see them receive the same official recognition as “everyone else”; the longing to compensate them for years of strife; and perhaps above all to make good on the old Wilsonian chestnut that the nation-state system is the political expression of the force of history — a history which we must never find ourselves on “the wrong side” of.
But we are on the wrong side of logic if we still believe that history is on the “side” of the nation-state itself.
Look again at Europe, at once too national and not national enough. What has nationalism prepared Europe to do in this moment of impending catastrophe?
Reconsider Africa, where the phony character of state boundaries lifted from colonial maps continues, all too often, to promote the arbitrary interests of governmental despots ruling over territories too arbitrary to correspond well to the organic living patterns beneath.
Ponder the forces now on display in the Arab and Muslim worlds, where the nation-state has proven itself completely unable to dominate its many ethnic, tribal and religious configurations.
Around the world, the nation-state has been thrown back on its heels by democratization, modernization, globalization and by the continuing disintegration of the economic order established during the Bretton Woods era.
To hand the Palestinians a state in name only — at a time when “the Palestinians” most accurately describes not a people but a collection of human beings in political negative space — would be to hand them a curse. Rather than helping thrust them forward in history, it would lock them into the patterns and poisons of the past.
It’s no surprise that many Palestinians have already turned their backs on the flickering allure of the nation-state. The rise of Hamas in Gaza represents a move away from the notion that a people or a government is what ought to unite individuals.
Instead, of course, a religious creed with very temporal objectives serves that purpose. Gazans are not alone among Palestinians, and Palestinians are not alone among Muslims, in crippling their own development with that kind of creed and the unity it supplies.
Renouncing terror and recognizing Israel are right and proper because Israelis deserve it. But more importantly for the Palestinians, renunciation and recognition are what the Palestinians themselves deserve. Without those acts, statehood will only help formalize and officialize a conflict with no inherent endpoint. Without accepting the existence of Israel, the kind of prosperity and peace that point the human imagination beyond the confines of nationalism and statism will forever be outside the Palestinians’ grasp.
One would think that Americans — a group of people who are not (as Jews know well) a “nation” in any respect like the old European nations — would be able to understand and articulate the limits of the nation-state to the Palestinians who sometimes draw their sympathy.
The popular and elite view, however, is dragged along all too easily by the feeling that victimhood confers wisdom. However oppressed, disadvantaged or simply miserable the Palestinians may be, they ought not be given whatever they ask for simply because they ask for it.
As the world hurtles toward a time of great uncertainty and upheaval, the allegedly intractable case of the Palestinians should remind us to be careful of what we wish for, because we just might get it.
States and nations are failing human beings across the globe. Now is the time, not later, amid greater violence and chaos, to think of alternative ways to help organize and safeguard both ourselves and others.
Supporting Palestinian statehood may pay some precious prejudices the most symbolic of compliments. But those prejudices are already being challenged at their foundations by the sweep and intensity of events. Years from now we may ruefully ask whether Palestine was the last state to be born for a lie.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.