image of jerusalem 2019

“Tell Me, What Will Happen There?”
I was sitting with a colleague in a beer garden (or more precisely, a Biergarten as the Germans call some of their drinking holes) a few days ago when the conversation drifted away from casual chit-chat and started focusing more pointedly on the Levant.

4 August   |   2019   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Although my colleague holds a far more exalted consultancy position than I, he nonetheless sought my opinion on the latest developments assailing the region. And since there are so many of them, in various forms of manifestation, we ended up covering countries from Libya, Algeria and Sudan to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. We also touched upon the future of Tunisia in view of the recent death of President Beji Caid Essebsi, as well as on the Hirak movement and slow reforms in Morocco since King Mohammed VI was celebrating his 20 years on the throne.

You can well imagine that one drink (served with peeled white radishes of course) was lamely insufficient, and so we spent a good couple of hours exchanging views and opinions on pressing issues like Idlib, Haftar’s LNA, the water and power shortages in Iraq, the TMC in Sudan, the Byblos Festival in Lebanon or the epic standoff in Algeria. My colleague then abruptly shifted gears and looked at me Zola-like, with a mischievous grin, and segued, “So you just published a book on the challenges of Israel-Palestine. Tell me, what will happen there?”

Was it a genuine query or more of a canny defiance?

My gut reaction - and there have admittedly been quite a few of those over the years - will have been to revert to my default position by uttering one of my favourite words - pessoptimism - as coined by the Palestinian satirical novelist Emile Habiby in 1974. Crudely, pessimism today, but optimism in the long run. Or else I could have reverted to my other gut reaction, one that friends like James Abbott and Marcus Jones always tease me about in our MENA interviews, by coming out with an exculpatory “Listen, I am not a prophet”!

But pessoptimism and prophecy aside, his question on Israel-Palestine was the ultimate - albeit not in the sense of a deal. Indeed, what will happen there, I thought to myself? If I peeled back the dusty Israeli-Palestinian pages of history for a few minutes, I could go as far back as 1896 when Theodor Herzl published his Der Judenstaat in Leipzig and Vienna. This book is considered one of the most important texts of early Zionism that envisioned the founding of a future Jewish state as a way of avoiding antisemitism in Europe. And again in 1917, the British government issued a key statement that supported the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine that was then an Ottoman region with a small minority Jewish population.

Fast forward at breakneck speed through the British Mandate, the creation of the State of Israel and the destitution as refugees of over 700,000 Palestinians. Then consider the period of Jordanian rule of what is now East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the 1967 and 1973 wars, and the first two Palestinian Intifadas against Israel.

Subsequently, there followed a period of optimism with the Declaration of Principles (Oslo 1) of 1993 that was meant to pave the way for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But many visits later by different US Secretaries of State to the region, and a protracted trilateral Summit at Camp David in 2000, foreshadowed the failure of this chapter and the onset of another period of inertia if not also regression.

However, “Palestine” remained not merely an idea but also a hub for the whole region until 2010 when the Arab uprisings across the MENA region led to a multiplication of hopes and aspirations by ordinary Arab men and women in different countries. As a result, Palestine no longer retained its political epicentre. Import an ornery President Trump into the equation, alongside his Evangelical Christian fan club, then have him hold hands with PM Netanyahu, and the consecutive American steps rendered the situation for Palestinians even dimmer.

I realise that this is a painfully reductionist version of a long struggle. But it still begs the question, “What will happen there?” that my colleague dared me to answer whilst we sipped our coffees. Indeed, what can happen when Israel settles about 400,000 Jews in West Bank settlements amidst some 2.5 million Palestinians? What about the demographic identity of Arab (East) Jerusalem when another 200,000 live in East Jerusalem? Will it be a struggle over the succession to President Abbas? Will the pressures increase on Palestinians - and on Jordan for that matter as a kingdom sandwiched between different peoples and pressures - to endorse the one-sided deal of the century in view of President Trump’s re-election? Or will we witness a long stasis? Will major violence erupt as suddenly as the first Intifada? How will the Palestinian streets (as there are a plurality of streets, some of them at odds with each other) or civil society interpret the situation? Will PM Netanyahu still be around to muddy the waters further, and will Israel veer further to the right with its colonial policies?

Over the years, I have repeated ad nauseam that Palestinian self-determination is both irrevocable and inevitable in de jure and de facto terms no matter the roadblocks or delays strewn ahead. But in order to make this happen, Palestinians cannot only rely on the West let alone on their Arab neighbours. They should look inward too.

The Palestinian political leadership should frankly tidy up their own act by healing their divisions - whether between Gaza and the West Bank, or in Gaza and the West Bank - and put an end to this caustic and venomous competition between ossified factions and persons or ideologies vying for power. Me, me, me! Junk ideology and embrace the national interest. Overcome your internecine differences and remember that nobody can espouse your cause as much as you should do it yourselves. Challenge Israel and the USA with credible alternatives: the two-state solution or the one-state reality. The latter should worry them far more than it would you and that should provide you with political leverage. Also, court the Palestinian individuals and institutions in the Diaspora that are not on your database or who do not interact with you: they have enough clout in their respective adopted countries, but they have switched off because they are averse to the ignominious scuffles and constant intra-Palestinian bickering, mudslinging, blackmailing or plotting. Enough: make this word your hashtag! And renew, renew and then renew some more: you have an enormous human potential for it.

I shared the initial draft of this latest piece of mine with a colleague in Jordan whose counsel I respect - grudgingly, mind you, because it is hard to come face-to-face with dry criticism! My colleague took me to task by arguing that my piece is stale and almost tautological. “You haven’t added anything new to the discourse since your last piece on the subject!” I do not necessarily disagree with this remark, but the only way for me to breach an almost impregnable wall of anti-Palestinian biases and propaganda in the West is to keep repeating the same truths mantra-like time and again. This is the only way I as a powerless individual can reach out to the scores of decent people who are being fed misinformation. They deserve to hear both sides of the debate.

Let me end on a high note – perhaps a touch pedantic too! To my mind, the realities of the Israel-Palestine conflict have become synonymous with philosophia perennis that I learnt from an austere bespectacled philosophy teacher as a kid at college many moons ago. This concept constitutes a core of philosophical truths which is hypothesised to exist independently of and unaffected by time or place.

Applying such a concept in this instance, all I can add in response to my discerning colleague is that unless Palestinians checkmate their own chances with more episodes of errant or strategy-unfriendly behaviour, they should one day gain their own state. They rightly deserve it no matter all the political shenanigans.

“Tell me, what will happen there?” Indeed.

Harry’s new book “Keeping Faith with Hope: The Challenge of Israel-Palestine” has been chosen as ‘Book of the Month’ by This Week in Palestine publication.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2019   |   4 August


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