Let’s start with a quiz. Which Jewish leader said the following words?
The land over which we have restored our sovereignty was the property of our fathers and no foreigner has claim to its ownership or its inheritance. Our enemies sinfully and unjustly robbed us of our patrimony, but now that G-d has bestowed success upon us we have reclaimed and resettled the inheritance of our fathers.
Was it Theodor Herzl? Perhaps David Ben-Gurion? Or maybe Vladimir Jabotinsky?
The answer is none of the above.
Those words were said 2,200 years ago by Shimon HaMaccabee, the Jewish commander who led a war of liberation against the Seleucid Greeks that has been commemorated ever since by the Chanukkah holiday.
The First Book of Maccabees informs us that Shimon’s declaration was issued in response to an ultimatum from Seleucid King Antiochus IV who demanded that the Jews submit or die. But the Jews fought back and regained their independence, tragically losing it again 70 years later to the conquering Roman legions of Pompey.
Now let’s fast forward to the present and the current conflict between those who call this territory Eretz Yisrael and those who call it Filistin. A useful perspective is acquired by contrasting the respective historical connections of Jews and Arabs to this contested parcel of real estate.
The link between People of Israel and Land of Israel has endured over two millennia in the face of imperial conquest by the British, Ottomans, Mamaluks, Ayyubids, Crusaders, Seljuks, Fatmids, Abbasids, Umayyads, Rashidun Caliphs, Byzantines, Sassanids, Palmyrenes, Romans, Selucids, Diadochi, Macedonians, Persians and Babylonians.
And throughout these long centuries of foreign incursion, ruinous war, forcible expulsion and oppression, the Jews’ stubbornly refused to abandon a primal attachment to their ancestral homeland.
Can a similar claim be made on behalf of the Palestinians?
Former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich succinctly answered that question when he described the Palestinians as an “invented people”. And the controversy generated by that comment did nothing to detract from its essential accuracy.
Newt may not have been politically correct, but he was factually correct nonetheless. The paper trail of Middle East history reveals that a distinctly Palestinian Arab national identity didn’t coalesce until the 1920s at the earliest.
So found the King-Crane Commission, a US diplomatic mission established in the wake of WWI to analyse policy options for non-Turkish territories of the defunct Ottoman Empire. Commissioners Henry King and Charles Crane travelled extensively throughout the Middle East in June-July 1919, meeting more than 400 delegations from indigenous ethnic and religious communities.
Neither King nor Crane was supportive of Zionism and their report recommended that Jewish national ambitions should be “greatly reduced”. But they also discovered that Muslim and Christian Arabs of the Galilee, Jaffa and Jerusalem were “practically unanimous” in their desire to become part of a “Unified Syria”.
These pan-Arab ambitions were reflected in the manifesto published by the First Muslim-Christian Association Congress of 1919 that declared:
We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic and geographic bonds.
All of which explains why historical biography is silent on the topic of pre-20th century Palestinian Arab political leadership. Simply put, there was never a distinctly Palestinian Arab nation for anyone to lead.
Yet for all the flimsiness of the Palestinian national narrative, there’s no doubt this campaign of political self-conjuration has been a spectacular success. The construction of a Palestinian something-from-nothing constitutes the most remarkable triumph of fable over fact in living diplomatic memory.
So what are the implications of this 20th century political mythology for 21st century political reality?
The answer to that question involves a simple quid pro quo.
Most Israelis are prepared to overlook the dubious historical foundations of Palestinian people hood and accept that this idea has achieved political critical mass in our time. This pragmatism is reflected in a survey conducted by the University of Maryland in December 2013 which found Israelis to be “fairly flexible” on the prospect of Palestinian statehood.
But in exchange Israelis require formal Palestinian acceptance of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in an explicitly Zionist state. In other words – genuine national recognition in return for genuine national recognition that nullifies all further claims by either side against the other.
Sadly, a bona fide acknowledgement of Jewish national rights has never really been forthcoming from the Palestinian side. That aforementioned University of Maryland opinion poll found a decisive 71 per cent majority of Palestinians opposing Israel even as “‘a state of the Jewish people and all its citizens,’ thus assuring equality of non-Jewish citizens”.
Another survey, conducted only just last month by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, revealed similarly belligerent results, citing Palestinian:
… majority support for the long-term goal of reclaiming all of Palestine, and for armed struggle as a means toward that end. Fifty-eight per cent of West Bankers and 65 per cent of Gazans say that even if a “two-state solution” is negotiated, “the struggle is not over and resistance should continue until all of historic Palestine is liberated.
As we have observed, a distinctly Palestinian national sense-of-self evolved during the 1920s – not organically, but as a negative reaction to Zionism. And when opposition to the other constitutes your primary raison d’être, reconciliation becomes impossible for fear of negating the central pillar of your own existence.
Thus the core of the Middle East conflict does not revolve around how Israel’s borders are drawn or where Jewish homes are built. The unpardonable sin in Palestinian eyes was the establishment of a sovereign Zionist nation-state in any form or of any size within the Islamic Middle East.
But Israel isn’t going anywhere. And this fundamental building block of Palestinian national identity will have to undergo root-and-branch metamorphosis before any peace worthy of the name will ever be achieved.
Ted Lapkin is director of public affairs for the Zionist Federation of Australia.