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Palestinian Luftmenschen

by Michael Lame, posted on September 26, 2011

For anyone not familiar with one of the Yiddish language’s great contributions to the English lexicon, a luftmensch (luftmenschen – plural) is an impractical person with one’s head in the clouds, more concerned with ideas than with making one’s way in the world. Although the term has often been applied to a certain kind of Jewish dreamer, in the Middle East today the term seems less fitting for Israelis than it does for Palestinians, who dream of a state but fail to take the necessary steps to bring it into existence

Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, deserves the Luftmensch of the Year Award. He has gone to the United Nations to seek that which the UN cannot provide, namely, a sovereign Palestinian state.

So how does one create a new independent nation?

A) By declaring it?

B) By winning a war of liberation?

C) By signing a withdrawal agreement with one’s occupier?

D) By gaining admittance to the United Nations?

Declaring a State

Yasser Arafat tried the declaration of independence route years ago, in 1988, during the first intifada. It didn’t work. Although the State of Palestine was unilaterally proclaimed, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem did not end. Nevertheless, Arafat’s successor, Abbas, signed the Palestinian letter of application for UN membership last week as “President of the State of Palestine.”

Winning a War of Liberation

One Nakba and two intifadas have shown that the likelihood of the Palestinians winning their independence on the battlefield is slim to nil. Palestinians can kill Israelis but they can’t kill Israel or defeat it militarily.

Reaching Agreement with the Occupier

In his speech to the UN General Assembly on Friday, September 23, Abbas correctly pointed out that Israeli settlements in the West Bank pose a serious obstacle to the creation of a contiguous, viable, and sovereign Palestinian state. But that obstacle is not insurmountable, nor is it the only one.

Even if the government of Israel declared an absolute moratorium on Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and even if it were willing to withdraw every last Israeli from the West Bank, the gap between the Palestinian and Israeli positions on the future of Jerusalem remains vast, as does that regarding Palestinian refugees, not to mention security arrangements.

For all the optimistic statements that the gaps between the two sides have narrowed from the Camp David talks in 2000 to those at Taba in 2001 to the Abbas-Olmert talks of 2007-2008, the fact remains that no meeting of the minds has occurred and no agreement has been reached between Palestinian and Israeli officials that would allow for the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state.

Adding to the unpromising complexity of the situation is the presence of two competing Palestinian governments, neither of which shows any inclination to disband or to genuinely cooperate with its counterpart. If an agreement with Israel is reached by the Fatah-dominated PLO, it will likely be rejected by Hamas and disregarded in Gaza.

Gaining UN Membership

Reaching a deal with the Israelis, then, is a very tough proposition. Going to the United Nations is much easier.

The largely dysfunctional “international community”, as represented by the UN General Assembly, would like to give the Palestinians on paper what it cannot give them in fact ­­– a sovereign state.

Once before, in 1947, the GA attempted to peacefully establish a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state – “the Arab State” and “the Jewish State”, in the exact words of the partition plan resolution. The GA failed miserably in that attempt. Within 24 hours of passage, that resolution resulted in the outbreak of open hostilities which led to war in what was then British Mandatory Palestine. What the General Assembly could not give the Palestinians then it cannot give them now.

Real power at the UN resides in the Security Council. That body, however, will not accept the Palestinian application for UN membership, if for no other reason than the well-publicized American promise to veto it if the resolution is not buried in committee or voted down.

Given that the Security Council won’t support the Palestinian request and the General Assembly is powerless, what is the point of going to the UN, other than to gain publicity and to make Israel squirm?

The General Assembly could grant Palestine an upgrade from its current “observer” designation to that of a “non-state member”, a status currently accorded to the Vatican. That, in turn, could give Palestine access to the judicial processes associated with UN membership, thereby providing it with legal forums for attacking Israel’s occupation policies and making life abroad unpleasant and uncertain for Israeli military officers and political leaders.

Yet even a strong show of support in the GA will not produce new facts on the ground where Palestinians live. It won’t result in citizenship and passports for any of the hundreds of thousands of stateless Palestinian refugees and their descendants. It won’t remove a single roadblock. It won’t prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes built without permits that cannot be obtained from Israeli officials. Nor will it stop the construction of new Israeli houses and roads east of the green line.

The Need for Agreement

There simply is no independent Palestinian state for anyone to recognize. Nor will there be until and unless Palestinians and Israelis reach an agreement between themselves – perhaps with outside assistance – that both sides can live with.

Palestinians are entitled to dream big. Doing so does not make them luftmenschen. That distinction comes from taking dreams seriously which are not grounded in reality or from not taking the practical steps necessary to realize the dream you say you are committed to. The reality of the Middle East is that, for the foreseeable future, the Palestinians are here to stay and Israel is here to stay. These are asymmetrical statements, in keeping with the total asymmetry of the Palestinian-Israeli relationship.

Since Israel is here to stay and is too strong to be defeated militarily or brought down economically, it must be dealt with through negotiations and diplomacy. And since it is the stronger party by far, the attempts to “level the playing field” or to have the parties negotiate as equals are doomed to failure; they are inconsistent with the reality of the situation.

Weaker parties negotiate deals every day – in politics, in international relations, in business. Such deals are not the best imaginable deals from the weaker party’s perspective but they may be the best possible deals under the circumstances.

Alternatively, the Palestinians can wait for some distant day to arrive when they will no longer be in an inferior negotiating position. But no one knows if such a day will ever come or how many more generations of Palestinians will have to suffer until then.

The Need for Cooperation

A new Palestinian state cannot survive without cooperation from Israel on a host of issues large and small: security, water, commerce, communications, transportation, tourism… The list goes on and on.

One of the toughest of those issues is Jerusalem. To establish Yerushalayim/Al Quds as the capital of two states, which is a questionable proposition at best, becomes truly impossible without a minimum of good will and trust between Israelis and Palestinians.

If it wanted to, Israel could strangle a Palestinian state at any time, especially in its early years of sovereignty. So the very idea of Palestine living alongside Israel “in peace and security” can only be realized if Israel accepts it and supports it. This means that the question of HOW a Palestinian state might come into existence is just as important as the question of WHAT borders and what powers that state will have.

The more adversarial and acrimonious the relationship is between Palestinians and Israelis prior to statehood, the more demanding Israel will be in its security requirements and the more limitations it will seek to place on Palestinian sovereignty. What Palestinian leaders do today will largely determine what sort of entity they will lead tomorrow – an entity that will only be born with the acquiescence of the Israeli government.

Luftmenschen of the Middle East

Of course, all of these statements can be flipped around. One could argue that it is the Israelis who are the true luftmenschen for dreaming and talking of peace when their actions push the possibility of peace further and further away. The harsher the Israelis treat the Palestinians today, the less likely it is that Palestinians tomorrow will accept Israel as a potential partner and a permanent neighbor.

And yet, after all the blame for the decades of missed opportunities, blame that justifiably falls on the leaders – Israeli leaders and Palestinian leaders, American, European, Arab, Russian, and UN leaders – one fundamental difference continues to separate Israelis from Palestinians. Israelis have their own state. Palestinians do not. If it truly is the Palestinians’ primary goal to gain a sovereign state for themselves, then they would do well to act based on an honest assessment of how they are most likely to achieve their goal. Otherwise they will continue to deserve the name of luftmenschen.

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3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Palestinian Luftmenschen”

  1. Ian Lustickon Sep 26th 2011 at 10:53 am

    Just one comment. Yes, it is so much more difficult to negotiate a deal with Israel than to let the international community via the UN provide sanction for treating you as if you had a state, thereby setting the stage, if not for sovereignty, then for a battle (military, political, and diplomatic) to build and establish a state. Such an international move can make it easer for you to produce a state than it would be negotiating with those who inhabit and dominate the country (i.e. the Israeli Jews).

    That is also precisely the reason why the Jews were so happy see the Palestine problem brought to the UN General Assembly in November 1947 to get a declaration that created, not a state, but the opportunity for the Zionist movement in Palestine and out, to fight effectively to build and establish a state (diplomatically, militarily, and politically). Afterall, it would have been so much harder to negotiate the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine with those who inhabited and dominated the country (i.e. the Palestinian Arabs!)

  2. Thomas Mitchell, PhDon Sep 26th 2011 at 12:33 pm

    I doubt if luftmensch is a word that Palestinian leaders dread, or are even familiar with. Real terms that they dread are those like Zionist, lackey, puppet, pro-American, etc. For a take on the interests of the three leaders involved as revealed by their UN speeches go to my blog.

  3. Michael Thomason Sep 27th 2011 at 8:30 am

    Welcome back, Michael.
    Unfortunately, your time away has not cleared your head. What you have said, as I understand you, is that Israel is really, really strong, is in the driver’s seat, and therefore the Palestinians, if they are not to be airheads, must prostrate themselves and ask for whatever Israel deigns to sweep off their capacious table.
    I think your analysis undervalues two insights, on which the Palestinian leadership is apparently now focusing. One is that the current constellation of power is exactly as you have said, making a deal that Palestinians can live with impossible, but that it need not always be thus. Oslo assumed that the PLO had to get whatever it was going to get from Israel in direct talks, without the help of the UN or other international institutions. More recently, the US has given up all pretense of insisting on international norms or even prior Israeli commitments, and has been industriously helping Israel move the goalposts completely out of the stadium. But the rest of the international community, both as represented by member states in the UN and affiliated agencies and in civil society, has grown increasingly unwilling to tolerate the resulting violation of norms and agreements. It is time to test how much help is available, through enhanced institutional engagement, external support of nonviolent resistance, and other means that do not depend on a right-wing Israeli government or its supine American enablers. (The argument about whether that can be done in a way that yields more profit than pain is for another time).
    The second insight is that no Palestinian leadership can indefinitely continue on a path which denies the dignity and worth of the Palestinian people and their nationhood. They simply cannot do what the current government of Israel demands, and that the US supports, which is to accept that Israel is, and will remain, their colonial overlord. Even if the alternative is uncertain and probably painful, they will not forever bow their heads.
    Palestinians have no options that are easy and tolerable. Their leaders have not had a history of great strategic planning, or of preparing their people for the very hard choices. But while they know they are not the Uebermenschen in this play, they will not be the Untermenschen either. Sie wollen nur Menschen sein – nur Menschen, aber Menschen doch. That does not make them Luftmenschen.