Ideas really do have power, especially when they are held by tens of millions of people. Religions, for example, are constellations of ideas, and religion has been the source of countless wars, great art, music, architecture, literature, political systems, and more. It is impossible to imagine what human civilization would be like without the great religions.
Marxism is another example of an idea with extensive consequences (although I don’t believe they included great art or architecture). There are other ideas that have affected fewer people, but are extremely powerful for those who hold them; Zionism for one. I also think the secular leftism that is so popular on US college campuses counts as a coherent (if not sensible) collection of ideas, although I don’t have a name for it.
The greatest accomplishment of a propagandist is to launch an “ism” and have it take root and spread far and wide on its own accord (“to go viral,” in social media jargon). Good propaganda can be cheap and simple and have great effect. But once it does go viral, an ism has a life of its own. It may not be possible for its creators – or anyone else – to control it.
One of the biggest propaganda successes of the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of this one has been Palestinism.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization was created in 1964 by the Arab League who saw the value of presenting the Arab project to expel the Jews from what they believed to be “Arab land” as the struggle of an indigenous people, “Palestinians,” against colonial occupation by foreigners. Until then, most Palestinian Arabs defined themselves primarily as members of their clan and perhaps as members of a pan-Arab nation.
The first pillar of Palestinism is that the Palestinian Arabs are an ancient people, rooted in the land of Palestine. Historical facts about Arab immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries are ignored or suppressed, and wild stories (“Palestinians are the descendents of the biblical Canaanites”) are invented. Jewish provenance, and even peoplehood, is denied.
The second is that a) the exodus of 550,000 – 750,000 Palestinians from what is now Israel in 1947-8 was a deliberate act of ethnic cleansing by the Jews, and b) all of the descendents of these refugees have a right under international law to “return home.” Neither of these propositions is true. While some Arabs were expelled – mostly from places where the general population participated in hostilities – most fled of their own accord. Movements of populations during war are unfortunately common, and there is no “right of return” in international law for actual refugees, and even less so for their descendents.
The third is that the Palestinians, as a victimized, colonized people, have an unlimited “right to resist occupation.” They are permitted to engage in war or terrorism, despite the provisions of the UN Charter and international law, until their grievances are assuaged.
The fourth is that the responsibility to solve the problems posed by the growing (now more than 5 million) number of Palestinians with their special form of hereditary refugee status, rests with the Western world and Israel. Arab nations, because of their solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, will not agree to grant citizenship to refugees that reside within their borders – even when it is pointed out that it is their policies that have caused the number of refugees to grow from hundreds of thousands to millions.
And finally, the fifth pillar is that the only real solution will be the “return” of the refugees and the conversion of Israel into an Arab Muslim state (Palestinians will say they intend a democratic state, but of course it will have an Arab majority; and history teaches what would happen to the Jews in such a state).
Planted in a fertile bed of antisemitism (or Jew-hatred, as I prefer), Palestinism took root in the Arab world, in Europe, and on North American university campuses. It has grown like a weed, and crowded out the general pro-Israeli sentiments in the West that were common until the 1970s.
Recently, the threat of Iranian expansion in the region has led some Sunni Arab leaders to question their perennial hostility to Israel, especially if they are not confident that their traditional protector, the US, will push back against Iran. They realize that Israel is the strongest military power in the region. They also know that Israel has a great desire to end its historical isolation, its pariah status, in the Middle East.
For example, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu recently had an impromptu meeting with the ambassadors to the US of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. They even shook hands. Even more impressive was a tweet by the Bahraini Foreign Minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, that “even Israel” has a right to defend herself against Iranian aggression. Saudi Arabia agreed to permit flights to Israel to pass through its airspace (though not yet flights by El Al), and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said that both “Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.”
These tendencies run counter to the basic principles of Palestinism. And Palestinism seems to be the second most important religion in the Arab world, having been drummed into the heads of several generations. So any rapprochement between Israel and the Sunni Arab countries would need to be reconciled with their support for the Palestinians. And this is easier said than done.
The Saudi Crown Prince referred to the so-called Arab Initiative, which promises “normal relations” in return for an Israeli withdrawal from all territories captured in 1967, including the Golan and eastern Jerusalem, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. It also requires a “solution” to the refugee problem in accordance with UNSC 194 – which they have always interpreted as mandating a right of return – and a clause that guarantees that Arab states will not have to accept any of the refugees.
Such a deal is not in the cards, at least not unless Israel loses a war against the Arabs. So what will need to happen before the Jewish state can be truly at home in the Middle East? Only one thing: the end of Palestinism.
I’m sure that today some Arab leaders wish their predecessors hadn’t taken up the cause with so much enthusiasm. But like other tenacious conceptual schemes, it has a life of its own. Its creators can’t put it back in its box, and most Palestinians themselves don’t want to.
They don’t want to be considered newly created nation, and one whose culture consists primarily of opposition to the Jewish state. They don’t want to give up their dream of “return” to a “Palestine” that their great-grandfathers might have lived in. They don’t want to give up their armed struggle, or their “popular resistance” which is more or less the same thing. They don’t want to give up their handouts from the UN. And the Arab countries which have refugees in them don’t want those refugees as citizens (Bashar Assad’s solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees in Syria is to exterminate them).
But maybe if we give it another 50 years or so…