Now that a ceasefire appears to have taken hold in and over Gaza—a result, most likely, of the fact that Israel is done destroying Hamas’s tunnels and Hamas is starting to run out of missiles—it is only a matter of time before the so-called international community once against turns its attention to the great white whale of global diplomatic yearning: a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. As it happens, two ironies attach to this well-intentioned quest. Pointing them out is a little like an indiscreet remark at a dinner party about the mad uncle in the attic, but someone has to do it, and it might as well be me.
Marginal reservations about the two-state solution aside, it remains the goal of the (so-called) international community and the formal objective of U.S. diplomacy. The Oslo Accords are based on it as well, which means at least some Palestinians, as well as the Israeli government, are bound to it. And to hear most Palestinians talk most of the time, a separate state of their own in the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem, is what they want.
One irony lies in the shifting positions of the two sides, very broadly construed. Back in 1984, when my friend Mark Heller wrote A Palestinian State: The Implications for Israel, he usefully scandalized the Zionist world. His argument, that a Palestinian state would be in Israel’s long-term interests under certain circumstances that Israel had significant control over, ran painfully against the grain of common wisdom at the time. Most Israelis and diaspora supporters of Israel still found the idea of an independent Palestinian state anathema; most sympathetic analysts remained enchanted, to one degree or another, with some variation of a Jordan Option (myself included). But now, after Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, after Oslo, and after the Likud Party under Benyamin Netanyahu threw in the Revisionist towel and accepted the proposition in 2009, mainstream Zionists overwhelmingly accept a two-state solution.
Back then, too, the vast majority of Palestinians articulated support only for a one-state solution: Palestine, built on the smoldering corpse of the State of Israel—in other words, the Hamas position. But now, according to Khalil Shikaki’s polls and plenty of other anecdotal evidence, most Palestinians are at least resigned to the two-state endgame, even if they don’t especially like it. Thus those who have argued that it’s now too late for a two-state solution because of Israel’s establishment of demographic facts in the West Bank miss the most important counter-development of all: More people than ever on both sides support it.
Despite this, the Palestinian political class, divided and weak as it is, remains either unwilling or unable to partner with Israel to bring a two-state solution about. And the compound condition matters. When the Palestinian side was able, under Yasir Arafat, it was not willing. Arafat’s PLO could have negotiated a state when Ehud Barak led Israel’s government in 1999–2000, but Arafat walked away at Camp David without even posing a counterproposal. He preferred being a live revolutionary to a possibly assassinated head of state. When the Palestinian side subsequently was willing, under Abu Mazen, it was not able to make a deal with either Prime Minister Olmert or Sharon, owing to its political weakness and societal divisions. From the Israeli point of view, it’s like trekking many miles in the scorching heat to a portentous meeting with one’s promised bride at the formidable castle of her uncle, only to find the uncle unwilling or unable to drop moat bridge and raise the portcullis.
The second irony is more complex but no less bracing. Let’s start simply by observing that 2014 so far has not been very kind to the Arab state, generically speaking. Neither was 2013, 2012, or 2011. Syria, Iraq, and Libya have pretty much fallen to pieces, and Lebanon breathes whatever vapors Syria wafts its way. Egypt is an economic corpse that doesn’t know it’s dead and so won’t fall down. (For my ducats there is no better symbol of the Egyptian circumstance than Cairo’s City of the Dead—a vast cemetery full of countless squatters.) Jordan is suffering a multi-sourced nervous breakdown, complete with anti-Hashemite mobs. Algeria and Bahrain are armed camps, albeit for different reasons. Tunisia is a political weathervane that cannot control its borders. Morocco is fragile and faces a rising Berber challenge. Yemen is an armed mess. Sudan is a truncated basket case. Only great gobs of resource rents keep Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar afloat and seemingly quiescent. Oman may be the only Arab country that has managed to keep its balance, and it’s not a real state anyway—just a family with a flag.
This sad state of affairs is not the wayward result of the so-called Arab Spring. Not only does it long predate the Arab Spring, but all that misnamed and wildly misunderstood phenomenon wrought was to accelerate the ongoing decay of the highly unappealing authority relationships in these societies. It has disrupted the ugly and the unacceptable in different ways in different countries, since they’re all different. But with the possible exception of Tunisia (and the jury is still out), the results have not been any improvement on the status quo ante. Some state authorities have their backs up and are trying to be more oppressive than ever, while others are simply flailing.
The ruling classes are right to be worried. Trust in the state has suffered, and rightly so, because the management efficiency of these states, never very good in most places, has eroded further in the face of deteriorating economies and social infrastructure (education, housing, and health care) and the rise of expectations among more mobilized, youthful, cyber-wired, literate, and urbanized populations. All these creaking, slow-moving and mostly corrupt states are in deepening trouble, if they haven’t yet collapsed entirely.
So here we have a bundle of collapsing or very weak states, states that never achieved Weberian status as modern states in the first place, and what is the favorite obsession of the (so-called) international community? To create yet another Arab state, called Palestine.
At least some who have thought about the dissonance between these observations have worried that, unless extraordinary care is taken with the birth of Palestine as a state—assuming the process ever gets that far—it will be born a surefire failure. But most people never allow these two observations to ease into the same mental zone. The generic and worsening weakness of the Arab state per se and the simultaneous desire to create yet another one do not strike most people as interesting juxtaposition because they hermetically compartmentalize the two pieces. The look first at one, then at the other, but do not allow themselves to see the two together. Amusing, no? Or perhaps it’s a bit troubling if this happens to describe your own mental habit, dear reader, to which you, having now read this far, may not ever return.
Why have the Arab states had such a hard time of it, and why might Palestine, were it to be born, be just another example of the trouble? This, to put it mildly, is a big subject, one we cannot do justice to in a venue like this. So I will be telegraphically brief, and those who get the message based on their own intellectual resources will be grateful for its brevity, while those who don’t probably won’t.
If you take an introductory Middle Eastern politics course at any respectable American university, or just read the material assigned on the syllabus on your own (something I have to assume virtually no members of the American political class have ever done), you will soon find that the modern state (in idealized form the nation-state, where nation, strictly defined, and polity are well matched) is an organic development of Western history, whose peoples have developed to one degree or another the attitudes and civic habits that parallel the institutional forms of the state. The modern territorial state, as a post-imperial era expression of nationalist ideology in the West, does not so well fit the Arabs (and many other non-Western ethno-linguistic groups) whose history supplied none of the predicates.
Arab societies are patrimonial in character (the term preferred by Francis Fukuyama and others), as all Western societies were before the modern era, and they are premodern in a specific Weberian political sense. That sense has three key elements.
First, in Arab societies communal ties trump individual agency, so that the social authority of family, and of clan and tribe, remain strong; gemeinschaft has never been fully displaced by gesellschaft. Second, religion has never been privatized away from the public sphere; there is no wide and broadly accepted secular zone in which politics (or the arts) as they exist in the West can take place. And third, it follows that, especially in heterogeneous societies (whether heterogeneous in sectarian or ethnic terms), the state cannot command much symbolic affinity relative to its natural competitors. The result has been what some analysts, like Joel Migdal for example, have referred to as “strong societies, weak states.”
If you make it to the second week on the syllabus, you might be introduced to three or four Arabic words, here in transliteration, to help you fill out this picture: watan, qawm, and hamula.
Watan means “homeland”, which is the closest word Arabic has to capture the concept of the territorial state, and that’s the word that’s most often used to express what in English we call a country. Wataniya means nationalist feeling directed toward this country, the territorial unit with people and its borders. (Put an iya or sometimes iyya on the end of an Arabic noun and you usually get an ism.)
Qawm is a more expansive form of kindred feeling, encompassing all Arabic speakers. So qawmiyya is usually translated as pan-Arabism or pan-Arab nationalism, which is a secularized version of pan-Islamism of which the human community is the umma. Qawmiyya is “above” the territorial state, so to speak, and its symbolic power is, again, derivative of the aspiration of Islam to be a unifying social force.
The word hamula means tribe, or an extended unit of family clans. It comes from the Semitic root hams, which means five in reference to the five-generational patriarchal structure that defines a tribe. It is also the root of the word for “armed”, since a hand symbolizes a fist or the appendage of a body that holds a weapon. This is not entirely coincidental; family units had and in some places still have military tasks to perform, to protect the tribal group or, in some cases, to predate on others. The hamula is where politics in its elemental form happens in traditional societies. It is where affinity (assabiyah) in primordial form is often strongest.
Obviously, no society is static, and no culture is frozen. Arab countries today are in the midst of bewildering change, vaulted beyond the firm grasp of tradition but falling well short of functional modernity. Some are more “tribal” (measurable in part by the percentage of endogamous marriages) and more characteristic of patrimonial polities than others (Yemen, for example, compared to Tunisia), just as some are more heterogeneous than others (Syria, for example, compared to Jordan). But none of the Arab “states” ever made it to the Weberian heights of substituting formal and impersonal authority for traditional consensual or charismatic authority, and nearly all are deteriorating today from whatever elevation they did reach in the good old days of the Arab Cold War.
To put it a bit glibly, then, the Arab state has a Goldilocks problem: To be stable and effective, it needs wataniya, but its reservoirs of wataniya are ever depleted by the power of qawmiyya above it and the assabiya of the hamula below it. To restate the impact of the Arab Spring in a nutshell, it has functioned to accelerate the depletion process, the power of qawmiyya taking the form of sectarian extremism, the power of hamula taking the form of ever more intense subnational identity politics.
The only known effective ways of keeping the Arab watan in working order is to militarize it (army rule) or to monarchize it (rule by a king). The former works via a repressive secret police apparatus (muhabarat) and the latter via a patriarchal structure that reaches all the way to the top, so that the king is the tribal sheikh of all the sheikhs. Actually, both forms of autocracy need both devices: the monarchies also have secret police functions and the military regimes implicitly run via the symbolism of patriarchal authority, hence the cults of personality that have tended to form around Arab dictators cum national “fathers.” But the result, especially in the militarized form of the watan, has always been a weak, jerry-rigged expedient—sometimes unstable (think Syria before Hafiz al-Assad) and sometimes hyperstable in an enforced form of suspended social and economic animation (think Mubarak’s Egypt, Qaddafi’s Libya, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq).
While there has never been a true modern state anywhere in the Arab region, at least as Weber or anyone else who thought about the matter in terms of political sociology understood it, the outer forms and international rituals of the state have been present. But with the inner reality gone missing, the poor fit between new clothes and an old body has not been a pretty sight. There is nothing new here. Listen to how the late Hisham Sharabi, the Palestinian intellectual who lived much of his life in American exile, described the Arab situation in 1987 as one of “neopatriarchy”, the new grafted superficially and awkwardly upon the old social norms: Neopatriarchy reflected “processes of social, political, and moral decay: political despotism, corruption. . . ” that have led to “the frustrations and humiliations, the rage and despair . . . to the paralyzing traumas engulfing the Arab world. . . . The depths of self-hatred and cynicism equal only the ethnocentric fantasies and wild dreams of past glory.” Fouad Ajami’s assessment was not very different, nor is that of Bassam Tibi and many other astute, mostly self-exiled, Arab thinkers.
This traditional mélange of authority relationships masquerading as a modern state, as it were, were bound to confound Westerners, Americans in particular. Most Americans think their forms of government and the civic habits that go with them are universal in character. As far as the average person is concerned, they somehow just fell out of the sky one day in the 17th or 18th century, and we are so lucky to have been chosen to receive the tablets first. (We broke them in civil war and so had to have a second set carved out.) That average person also believes that people are essentially the same in all places and ages and that they’ll come around to our liberal democratic “best practice”—for we and the world all together of course are progressing, that being the faith of the thinly veiled “secular” eschatology of the Enlightenment.
This attitude has been mightily reinforced lately by political correctness, which assumes that any differences among ethno-linguisticaly defined groups of people presume better and worse, more advanced and less—and we can’t have that in a world in which absolute equality of all kinds is a postulate beyond question or even discussion. (To respect the dignity and beauty of difference never seems to occur to the PC crowd, unimaginative dunderheads that they are.) So if Arab “states” are called states and are members in good standing of the United Nations and they have Presidents or Prime Ministers and constitutions and a court system and so on, the typical American will assume that these states must have the overt character, its people the underlying attitudinal bases, and its result the standard socio-political functionality of any “normal” modern state like, say, Norway, or maybe Chile.
And of course the typical American would be wrong. Even most well-educated Americans are remarkably un-self-reflective about cultural differences. Nothing falls down out of the sky except rain and snow, and the occasional meteorite. Political institutions, rather, spring up from the ground of historical experience and human efforts to grasp its meaning.
Would a Palestinian state be any different from the other Arab states, should it come into being? The Palestinians have a couple of notable advantages here. First, they have been watching Israel intensely for the past sixty-odd years, and many have worked in Israel or for Israeli companies. They have been culturally pluralized. They know there is another way for a state to exist and operate. They know there can be such a thing as an independent judiciary, a free press, open debate, and so forth. They have a sense of what individual agency is, and of what equality before the law looks like. Second, they have no baggage, no legacy of failed administrations and regimes going back half a century, unless one counts the very recent experience since Oslo in the West Bank and Gaza. Third, Western patrons will have a special interest in a newly born Palestinian state not failing. They will lavish money and advice (for whatever the latter may be worth).
Will this be enough to compensate for the standard deviations, so to speak, that have made successful Arab territorial statehood so difficult to pull off? Will it compensate, too, for the rise of various new challenges to all states, no matter their origins or provenance or past glories? The Westphalian state is under siege nearly everywhere, for reasons I noodle on a bit in the new issue of the magazine (“What’s Going On”, September/October 2014). Could Palestine escape the general wave of deterioration in the performance and popularity of states worldwide?
No one knows. But the chances are that, one day, in one form or another, Palestine will be not merely declared but actually become real as a state. Not long afterward the Palestinians (and not just the Palestinians) are likely to experience a Goethe moment—getting what they long wished for, only to wonder why on earth they ever wanted a state in the first place, for all the good it will do them and for all the troubles it will bring.
The peoples of the Middle East are expert at living without peace and without much water, too. But no one is allowed to live without irony.