In 1988, Abba Eban, perhaps the finest diplomat and one of the sharpest minds Israel has ever produced, got up before a distinguished crowd in London to give an address with the predictable and yet absurd title, "Prospects for Peace in the Middle East." Predictable not just in itself, but because Eban and other Israeli leaders had delivered countless such addresses in the 40 unpeaceful years since the country's creation; absurd because his remarks, which concerned Palestine, came a year into the First Intifada.
But Eban, who served as Israel's deputy prime minister, its foreign minister, and its ambassador to the United States, laid the case bare for his surprised listeners. He lamented "the paradox of the West Bank and Gaza as an area in which a man's rights are defined not by how he behaves, but who he is." He said of the Israeli occupation, "The need to rule one-and-a-half million people of specific and recognized national particularity against their will weakens our economy, distorts our image, complicates our regional and international relations," and "prevents any prospect of peace." Weighing the Palestinian stone-throwers in the streets against Israel's indisputable -- no, laughable -- military supremacy over its neighbors, he concluded, "We come up against the immense gap between the reality of our power and the psychology of our vulnerability."
"The immense gap between the reality of our power and the psychology of our vulnerability" -- nicely put, and Israel's existential dilemma crystallized. It's a phrase worth bearing in mind this week as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama, and even certain European leaders try to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to not seek full statehood at the United Nations.
But there's another phrase in Eban's remarks that demands as much attention. Note that he referred to Palestinians as a "people of specific and recognized national particularity" -- as a nation, in other words, or at least a population deserving one. Eban, who died in 2002, saw his fears borne out. He outlived the First Intifada only to catch the start of the second one, by which time the Palestinians were well-armed enough to inflict real damage, and to watch the eclipse in Gaza of Yasir Arafat's Fatah party by the more militant Islamist party Hamas. Still, his epigones in Israel and the United States refute him as a matter of course. Get into a discussion with even a well-informed Israeli or defender of Israeli policy on the prospect of Palestinian nationhood, and the outdated and circular line of argument that Palestinians never comprised a state, and thus do not require one now, presents itself inside of a minute. If that doesn't work, they'll tell you that, anyway, Hamas has made a Palestinian state untenable.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for instance, justified his criticisms of what
he says are Obama's too weak efforts by saying, "America
should not be ambivalent between the terrorist tactics of Hamas and the
security tactics of the legitimate and free state of Israel." Whether Perry
knows that Abbas has risked life and limb defying Hamas he didn't mention.
The first argument, too, still finds voice in the government offices of West Jerusalem, but it's not the one Netanyahu and his colleagues, including the prime minister's critics, are marshaling now. No, they say that recognition of a Palestinian state would subvert the principle of direct negotiation that has been the ideal since the Oslo process; that it would indeed embolden Hamas or inspire Palestine to rash actions such as seeking redress in international courts; or that it would -- the psychology of vulnerability again, enhanced by the Arab Spring and the new anti-Israel flare-ups in Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey -- compromise Israeli security. Obama, who has spent months trying to head off the vote, purports to agree at least with the first point and has promised to veto any resolution that makes it to the Security Council. But his U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, was saying more than she knew when she asked, rhetorically, "What will change in the real world for the Palestinian people?"