Conventional wisdom about the Mideast is cratering.
After decades of hearing that a new Arab State of Palestine was the key to regional stability, peace, and development few make that claim today.
Though some still advocate for a new Arab state, all serious observers recognize that the region faces numerous threats that an independent Palestine cannot help — and would likely hurt.
Over the past five years, even the most conventional thinkers have come to appreciate that Islamism (including but not solely ISIS), the Sunni/Shiite conflict, an expansionist Iran, the collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi states into bloody anarchy, and refugees now estimated between 15 and 20 million, are the challenges most in need of attention.
A new state of Palestine would be at best tangential to these concerns, and almost certainly a source of increased instability.
Any such rampant failure of conventional wisdom should lead to a reconsideration of basics. What is it that our supposedly informed experts have been missing? What is the relationship between the "solution" that the international community has been pushing, and the actual problems that it could not possibly resolve? Where should we look now to devise new, appropriate strategic approaches to a region in flames?
The answer is identity. A century ago, European imperial powers — Britain and France — assigned identities to the people living in the Mideast. With a few exceptions, those assignments emerged from lines on a map, rather than from any sense of community or kinship that the people might have felt.
Over the space of a few decades, those assigned identities gelled into their now-familiar names: Iraqi, Syrian, Jordanian, Lebanese, and Palestinian.
The exceptions were the region’s Jews — who were exiled from most of their homes to become consolidated as Israelis — and one group of Christians, the Maronites, who were handed the leadership of Lebanon.
Those largely artificial, imposed identities led to a story that seemed to make sense to the Europeans: The newly formed states experienced the same sorts of problems that plagued new states around the world, and the missing piece was a state for those assigned the Palestinian identity.
Over the past few years, the entire imperial facade has collapsed.
The moment that cracks opened in the Syrian and Iraqi states, both identities disappeared.
The people who had been boxed into those categories reverted to the identities they had internalized centuries ago: Sunni Arabs, Shiites, Christians, Kurds, Druze, Yazidis, and others.
Lebanon, whose national identity unraveled forty years ago, barely even pretends that its tenuous truces have knit its ethnic communities together. Jordan’s King Abdullah has invested heavily to inculcate a nationalist spirit — with results that he is terrified of testing.
And the Palestinians, given the freedom to hold free and fair elections over a decade ago, used them to ignite a civil war.
The region’s recent unraveling was entirely predictable. Its people are jettisoning the imperial bequest of artificial identities, and acting instead in the interests of the identities they feel internally: Sunnis are flocking to Islamists whose rejection of the imposed national identities is unequivocal — ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas explicitly deny the existence of any nations within Islam — in the hopes of unifying the region as a Sunni Arab empire.
Shiites are turning to Iran for help to secure their own territories, many located over enormous oil reserves. Christians are facing genocide, fighting, or fleeing. The Kurds soldier on, hoping for an independence that they have earned. The Druze find themselves abandoned to ISIS, tenuously wondering whether they can turn to Israel for help.
And the Jews of Israel—the region’s sole national identity aligned with a genuine, organic, indigenous nation — continue to thrive, splitting their focus between defensive security and internal development.
For the rest, the gap between rhetoric and behavior is telling. Many of the region’s leaders speak eloquently about Syria, Iraq, and Palestine in the halls of Western power, where such labels are, unfortunately, more meaningful than the reality they obscure.
On the battlefields that their home fronts have become, however, their rhetoric is far more honest; the Hamas charter, for example, explicitly rejects the existence of a distinct Palestinian nation. The causes and groups for whom far too many Middle Easterners fight and die demonstrates clearly how they see themselves.
For the U.S. — and the broader West — the choice is clear. We can continue to insist that the failed nationalist identities are meaningful, try to restore the stable-but-dismal status quo of the late 20th century, and maybe even wedge a new Arab state into the mix for no reason other than the belief that "Palestine" should reappear on the map.
Or, we can respect the peoples of the region by seeing them as they see themselves.
The latter route is far superior.
A region with tens of millions of displaced people will not reconstitute itself without significant population movement. The U.S. should help guide that movement in rational directions that promote stability.
We should try to concentrate the various minorities into safe havens that can grow into "ethno-national" states—whose citizens feel a kinship prior to the birth of their state.
We should provide safety for Sunni Arabs outside the minority regions, in territory that they may choose to unify or subdivide — and then work with Sunni leaders who share our commitment to stability and our desire to make significant gains in the long war against violent radicalism.
We should help those Sunni allies coordinate their efforts with those of peaceful minorities — explicitly including Israel — rather than with their radical "co-religionists."
Most of all, however, we should be clear about our goals in the region. We seek stability.
We seek resettlement along ethnic lines as the best way to promote that stability.
We seek to reduce the ability of radical Islam to further destabilize the region.
We seek to achieve those goals while minimizing coercion, disruption, dislocation, and human suffering. And we feel no allegiance to the failed ideas, structures, or artificial identities of the past century.
It turns out that Palestine may be the key after all. Because understanding why a state of Palestine could never exist unlocks the door to respecting the true identities of the Mideast.
Bruce Abramson is the President of Informationism, Inc., Vice President and Director of Policy at the Iron Dome Alliance, and a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.
Jeff Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic, Chairman of the Iron Dome Alliance, and a Senior Fellow at the American Conservative Union's Center for Statesmanship and Diplomacy. To read more of their reports — Click Here Now.
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