Wednesday, September 14, 2011
The West Will Not Prevent A Palestinian State's Eventual Birth
The birth of Israel had an anti-imperialist pedigree. And Palestine is the unfinished business of that process of self-determination
By Pankaj Mishra
Next week the Palestinian Authority, stepping away from years of a fruitless "peace process" with Israel, will ask the UN to recognise Palestine as an independent state. It is very likely to be obstructed in the security council by the US, Israel's long-suffering but faithful friend. There is no question, however, that an overwhelming majority in the general assembly will back the Palestinians.
Israel has never looked more isolated as its embassy in Egypt is attacked, and Turkey, another close ally in the region until recently, leads a resurgent pan-Arab anti-Zionism. Its western supporters, too, have been dwindling fast. Besieged at home by furious masses demanding social justice after years of private wealth creation, Israeli leaders find their most devoted friends abroad among centre-right or extreme rightwing politicians in Canada, Italy, Holland and the Czech Republic, all of which are expected to stifle the Palestinian state at birth.
It was not at all like this in the lead-up to Israel's creation. In 1945 George Orwell told his American readers that "the left, generally, is very strongly committed to support of the Jews against the Arabs". The latter had no influential allies when, in November 1947, European and white commonwealth countries helped the UN plan for the partition of Palestine – fiercely resisted by Arabs – pass with a two-thirds majority. During the UN debate Zionists packed the galleries, applauding pro-Israel speakers and hissing at Arab ones. "They created," a British official wrote, "the atmosphere of a football match, with the Arabs as the away team."
Like many American gentiles of his generation, President Truman was prone to racist generalisations about the "Jews": "I fear very much," he wrote in his diary, "that the Jews are like all underdogs. When they get on top they are just as intolerant and cruel as the people were to them when they were underneath." Still, the US arm-twisted two former dependencies, the Philippines and Liberia, into supporting the creation of the Jewish state, and managed to get China and Ethiopia to abstain.
The infant nation states of India and Pakistan voted against partition, as did Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. On the face of it, this seems unconscionable. In 1947, just two years after the full scale of the crimes against European Jews had been exposed, the moral case for the creation of a Jewish state was incontestable. And valiant Zionists outmanoeuvring the exhausted British masters of Palestine had provoked much admiration across Europe and America.
But, as Orwell warned, "few English people realize that the Palestine issue is partly a colour issue and that an Indian nationalist, for instance, would probably side with the Arabs". The Jewish claim on Palestine may have existed for more than two millennia; but in the eyes of Asian leaders and intellectuals embattled against Western imperialists, it began with the Balfour Declaration, which threatened to implant yet another European people on Asian soil.
As Jawaharlal Nehru acidly remarked about the British promise of a Jewish homeland: "One not unimportant fact seems to have been overlooked. Palestine was not a wilderness, or an empty, uninhabited place. It was already somebody else's home." The lack of antisemitic traditions in Asia meant that many Asian leaders could not recognise the need for a separate Jewish state. Cosmopolitan networks of solidarity across Asia ensured that Indian nationalists would take the Arab side, and see Zionism as a form of western imperialism – a perception not challenged by Zionist leaders, who, busy courting European and American politicians, kept a careful distance from anti-colonial nationalist movements in the 1920s and 1930s.
As Jewish immigration to Palestine picked up during the British Mandate, Mahatma Gandhi resisted all entreaties to lend his moral prestige to the Zionist cause. Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle in London in 1931, he said: "I can understand the longing of a Jew to return to Palestine, and he can do so if he can without the help of bayonets, whether his own or those of Britain." In 1938, during the brutal British suppression of the Arab revolt in Palestine, he reiterated that it was "wrong" of Jews to enter Palestine "under the shadow of the British gun".
Eventually the Zionists in Palestine turned against their British enablers; and Israel, born during the high noon of decolonisation, could plausibly claim an anti-imperialist pedigree. But its collusion with Britain and France against Egypt in 1956 – a year after the conference of new postcolonial nations in Bandung – did not endear it to Asian and African leaders reflexively hostile to such imperialist skullduggery as the Suez expedition. Nor was the "colour issue" allowed to fade by Israel's support of France against Algerian anti-colonialists, its occupation of the West Bank in 1967, and its close relations with the apartheid regime in South Africa.
There were many rightwing admirers of Israeli resourcefulness and bravery in India – growing up in a Hindu nationalist family, I came to revere the Israeli general Moshe Dayan – but almost all postcolonial nation states shunned Israel. The latter's frequent attempts to reach out to Asian countries were met with rebuffs. A placatory cable from Israel's foreign minister Abba Eban to the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was sent back with a note: "Undelivered because of non-existent relations".
Israel's diplomatic ties with India were established only in 1993, and then deepened by military and political links between Hindu nationalists and radical Zionists. In the 1990s Israel rapidly expanded its diplomatic presence in Asia beyond Burma, the only Asian country where it had an embassy in the 1950s. The end of the cold war, and Israel's decision to open negotiations with the PLO after the first intifada, brought the country out of its long international isolation.
The peace process had many critics, who saw it as a ploy to buy time for Israeli settlements. With Israel's security and expansion guaranteed by the US, it held back from the necessary and inevitable reckoning with its Palestinian subjects and Arab neighbours. But now the collapse of staunchly pro-American Arab regimes – amounting to a second round of decolonisation – and the related decline of American authority in the Middle East find Israel exposed to the chill winds of history.
The feelings and desires of Arabs entering mass politics can no longer be ignored; and this democratic opinion turns out to be not much less opposed to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza than were the Arab dictators who made radical anti-Zionism a pillar of their despotism.
In Cairo this week Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, proclaimed that "the world is changing to a system where the will of the people will rule". This is self-serving rhetoric from a politician with clear authoritarian tendencies. Nevertheless, Erdogan's assertion that "Israel is the west's spoiled child" is unlikely to be challenged in the Arab world or, for that matter, a swath of Asian countries, where Palestinians are seen as victims of a western-style and western-aided expansionism.
Palestinian politicians remain hopelessly divided. And an independent Palestine might prove tragically unviable, quickly stumbling into the crowded ranks of "failed" or "failing" nation states. Yet Palestine has long been the unfinished business of decolonisation and national self-determination: the central events of the 20th century. And opposition from a weakened west next week will not prevent the eventual birth of a Palestinian state – just as objections from the fledgling and powerless nations of the east in 1947 did not thwart the creation of a Jewish state.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 14/09/2011- Pankaj Mishra is an Indian author and writer of literary and political essays. His book The Awakening in Asia and the Remaking of the Modern World will be published later this year