Ibishblog readers’ interview II: Muhammad cartoons and more Israel-Palestine issues

For the second time, I’m compiling a group of questions submitted to the Ibishblog that I think can be dealt with relatively quickly under the rubric of a conceit in which readers interview me on a range of topics. It worked well enough last time. If anybody thinks these questions should be answered in a shorter individual postings, please let me know. I kind of like this format, even though it’s long, because many of the questions do seem to work together in an interesting way, even though they are completely independently submitted. Full disclosure: one of the reasons I like this format is that, like so much else on the Ibishblog, it flouts every rule of the blogosphere. Blogs are supposed be frequent, brief, accessible and full of links and graphics. The Ibishblog, on the other hand, is relatively infrequent (at least not daily), extremely lengthy, often inaccessible, almost entirely free of graphics and rarely includes links! So obviously, why would I ever consider creating eight or nine reasonably long posts when I can combine them into one unbearably long one? That said, please keep the questions coming.

Q: I was wondering what is your opinion on westerners feeling entitled to portray the prophet Mohammad under the banner of free speech. Obviously, there is a limit to free speech. Someone coming up to me and insulting my mother falls outside that limit (I’d probably punch him), so does saying the N word if you’re not black and denying the Holocaust. So why does insulting the prophet Mohammad not fall outside that limit?

A: There are really two issues here: first the question of drawing the prophet Mohammed in general and second the question of what level of provocative speech oversteps protected status and enters into the realm of unwarranted and potentially unlawful provocation (or least provocation serious enough to serve as major mitigation for a violent response). Let’s deal with the first: there is no basis whatsoever for any Muslim, anywhere, under any circumstances, to have a violent reaction to anyone who draws the prophet or anything or anybody else. As I pointed out in an Ibishblog posting some while back in which I went into the whole matter in great detail, figurative representations of the prophet are not, in fact, alien to Islamic tradition, although they are a minority phenomenon. There is a great deal of it in Muslim history and cultures, but it’s also true that the more typical and majority phenomenon has been a disavowal of figurative representations of Mohammed, ostensibly in order to prevent any idolatry of the human personage (as I noted, this, ironically, has led to a very different and indeed heightened form of idolatry, or at least fetishism, in the form of hysterical enforcement of the presumed ban). Rounding off the range of broad camps on this issue across time and space in Muslim cultures, there is another minority that opposes any form of figurative representation of any kind, whatsoever. In other words, in the history of Muslim cultures and civilizations, you find representations of Mohammed, prohibitions of figurative representations of Mohammed, and prohibitions of all figurative representations. Therefore, nobody is violating a universal and core belief of Muslims if they commit representation of Mohammed.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that they did. So what? Religious tolerance, religious accommodation and religious freedom in any pluralistic society do not and should not require everyone to respect the sensitivities of all religious groups. Satire is legitimate free speech. Blasphemy is legitimate free speech. A society that does not permit satire and blasphemy is, by definition, an unfree, non-pluralistic society, not fit to live in. It is, by definition, a society that prevents thought, prevents ideas from being challenged, that wishes to wall off certain notions through the intervention of a repressive state apparatus. Now, this is not to say that there is no such thing as offensive speech or that all forms of satire, blasphemy or anything else for that matter are legitimate or equally legitimate. It is simply to say that state prohibitions, extending to recognizing such expression as provocations that mitigate criminal acts such as violence or threats, are inimical to the concept of a free and pluralistic society. In the posting cited above, I gave a detailed account of how I think one can distinguish between what is genuinely Islamophobic speech on the one hand and what is respectable, albeit challenging or offensive, on the other hand. Not everything that is challenging, obnoxious, offensive or infuriating to others is illegitimate.

However, there obviously is such a thing as speech that goes over the line, as the reader points out. The legal threshold ought to be extremely limited so as to provide for maximal free speech, pluralism and freedom of thought. However, when speech does cross a line of social respectability, the appropriate response usually is not a civil, or even less criminal, legal response, let alone vigilante violence, but rather should be the response of a self-respecting society that draws the line at bigotry, intolerance and anything that seeks to stigmatize large groups of people based on their identity. The appropriate response, then, is to identify such speech as not respectable and apply the appropriate informal social sanctions accorded to extremists, racists, supporters of terrorism, neo-Nazis or other individuals with ideas deemed repugnant or dangerous by most rational people.

Here I think is a legal distinction that the United States has more correct than any other society of which I’m aware: speech ought not to be regulated by the government unless absolutely necessary, and even civil remedies ought to have an exceptionally high standard of proof (it is notorious that libel is the most difficult torte to successfully litigate in the American system, and rightly so). The reader’s e-mail address suggests that he’s writing from the UK. It is by no means clear that if someone insults your mother and you punch them in the United States you will not be arrested, tried and convicted for assault and battery. In most cases, I think you would be. Perhaps if the provocation is extreme, your lawyer clever and the jury fortuitously sympathetic, one might get off at trial. But I wouldn’t bet on it. As for the N-word, it’s plainly protected in the United States under almost all circumstances, as are other racial epithets. Denying the Holocaust is a crime in some European countries, and the crackpot although talented historical writer David Irving spent no less than 10 months in an Austrian jail for this thought-crime. I consider this scandalous in the extreme (many European states also have blasphemy laws, official secrets acts and other affronts to, at least American, bottom-line standards for free speech). Irving’s views are ridiculous and his position on the Holocaust is pernicious and unacceptable. But freedom is, and can only be, the freedom to be wrong.

The freedom to be right means nothing at all, since everyone will happily give everybody else the freedom to agree with them, which they think is correct. Anyone who frames freedom in terms of the freedom to do or say only what they think one ought to do or say doesn’t understand the concept (i.e., the claim that Islam gives women the “freedom” to wear a compulsory hijab, or that French “secularism” gives schoolgirls the “freedom” to be forced to remove one). Obviously there are going to be limits, and I think the American ones are pretty sound. Speech that involves a clear and present danger of provoking imminent and specific criminal activity is unlawful. Such speech would involve inciting a specific act of violence against a specific person that is likely to be directly acted upon, or reckless acts such as the cliché of “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” While there is no official secrets act restraining journalists from publishing what they know and, crucially, no power of prior restraint against publications, government officials are constrained by their oaths from revealing information such as the identity of covert operatives and other sensitive matters (although journalists who discover such facts and publish them are not liable because they have no such oath or contract). As a civil matter, there is always the question of libel, which is very difficult to prove, but which is a recoverable action. And, of course, there’s the matter of obscenity, which is presently left up to “community standards,” but in which there is a generalized tendency to exempt anything that has any demonstrable redeeming social importance. In other words, there is very little speech in the United States that is criminal, and somewhat more, but as a practical matter also very little, that is subject to civil action. This is, I think, as it should be.

The bottom line is any respectable individual should avoid being racist or bigoted, and there’s no point in deliberately provoking other people’s religious sensitivities, but if it’s really important to you, it is absolutely essential that we have a society in which people can feel free to draw the prophet Mohammed or anything or anyone they like, and publish it to the widest possible audience, without any threat of violence or fear of intimidation from the government or anybody else. Freedom of speech and conscience protects minority groups and individuals much more than majority groups or perspectives. Muslim Americans and their friends ought to always bear in mind that as soon as speech begins to be restricted in a systematic way, the likelihood that it will simply protect their sensitivities and not impinge on their freedoms is extremely remote. I think all of this is, thus far, pretty well understood, which is why we didn’t see any major outcry in the United States over the Danish cartoons, which as I said in my earlier post, were a mixed bag, or for that matter over South Park which figuratively represented the prophet Mohammed many years ago in a somewhat substandard episode called “Super Best Friends” which has been repeatedly aired in syndication without complaint or incident. The two subsequent episodes in which Comedy Central seem to have pressured South Park not to figuratively depict Mohammed was a pointless capitulation to a nonexistent threat. The United States has been and must remain free of the kind of intimidation that extreme Islamists have brought to bare in much of the Middle East and parts of Western Europe against those who provoke them with blasphemy and/or satire, or perceived instances of those perfectly legitimate forms of free speech.

Q: One of the things you caution of when arguing against adopting the one-state agenda is that the Palestinians would then have to explain why they’re breaking with the world’s position on ending the conflict, starting with the Arab world. On the other hand, when the PA sought “approval” from the Arab League about whether to engage in proximity talks, you expressed disappointment in “renewed Palestinian reliance on ‘approval’ from the Arab League for what ought to be strictly Palestinian decisions regarding negotiations with Israel.” The latter to me merely looks like an attempt from the PA to get political cover for engaging in proximity talks despite the absence of a settlement freeze (trying to immunize themselves from the “surrendering/selling-out” charges (as happened with Sadat when he broke with the Arab world & engaged in negotiations to secure the return of the Sinai). Are you disagreeing with the PA’s position of seeking Arab League approval? Or are you merely expressing disappointment that things have to come to a stage where seeking the approval of the League has become a necessity?

A: Probably a little of both. I can understand why the PLO (it’s not the PA, of course) felt it necessary to seek two forms of cover before the Biden fiasco when they were under very heavy pressure to return to negotiations not only from the Americans, but also from the Europeans and even some of the Arabs. Their problem was mainly derived from the settlement freeze issue. In the summer, the US administration pushed the Israelis very hard for total settlement freeze, and obviously it wasn’t possible for the Palestinians be less opposed to settlements than the Americans were. I suppose they could have left themselves some kind of a back door (and I certainly would have), but they didn’t. The problem was that it was a simple political matter for the American president to pivot, as he did at the October UN meeting, and say “we’re not satisfied with Israel’s answer and we continue to feel that all continued settlement activity is illegitimate, but we’re going to put the issue to one side and concentrate on talks for now, given the temporary moratorium on settlements.” This was cost-free for Pres. Obama. However, it wasn’t politically possible for Pres. Abbas to do the same thing. There were additional problems such as the PLO mishandling of the Goldstone Report, some badly phrased and hence misunderstood comments by Sec. Clinton, and some other matters that added to the woes the PLO was feeling, being trapped between an angry, dissatisfied public with real complaints on the one hand and major diplomatic pressure to go back into negotiations on the other hand.

I do think it was clearly in the Palestinian national interest to return to negotiations for a variety of reasons, most of which I think are not very mysterious. I’m not going to spell them out here (I’ve been over this in earlier blog postings). So the problem was really a political one and they spent most of the fall and early winter asking the other parties for something, anything, politically useful to bolster their position in terms of domestic politics and allow them to return to the negotiations without a prohibitive cost. The first answer was proximity talks, which are by their very nature attenuated and don’t allow for photo ops (with the bitter memory of the extremely damaging footage of PM Barak manhandling Pres. Arafat into the room at Camp David, which was so symbolically resonant in 2000). The second answer was Arab League approval.

The first time the PLO went to the Arab League, shortly before the Biden fiasco and the subsequent confrontation between the US and Israeli governments over settlements in Jerusalem, the unfortunate nature of the development was more heavily weighted in terms of its necessity than any miscalculation. The Palestinian leadership was absolutely convinced they needed this kind of cover, and under those circumstances they may well have been right. Like the proximity talks, which take us back to the pre-Madrid era during which Palestinians and Israelis didn’t meet directly, the gesture of going to the Arab League is a throwback to the “even worse old days.” So, it’s to be regretted that the Arab states are asked to sign off on what ought to be purely Palestinian decisions made on the basis of their own national interests.

The second time the PLO went to the Arab League, after the US-Israel standoff was resolved to the satisfaction of Washington — which included some very significant gains for the Palestinians regarding the talks, especially the agreement that all permanent status issues, including Jerusalem, would be on the table — might put me closer to the category of disagreement with the gesture in the first place. I have to say that if, for whatever reason, the Arab League had declined to sign off on the negotiations after the standoff was resolved, even though that meant significantly more advantageous conditions for negotiations for the Palestinians than when they had first approved the negotiations before the standoff, I think it would have been appropriate and necessary for the Palestinians to go ahead with proximity talks anyway. There is too much to lose from staying away from them and too much to gain, although probably not any kind of major diplomatic breakthrough on final status issues in the immediate term, from entering into them. So, I guess it’s a little of both.

Q: You write: “An even worse throwback is the renewed Palestinian reliance on “approval” from the Arab League for what ought to be strictly Palestinian decisions regarding negotiations with Israel.” This is the clue: It is Israel vs. the Muslim world, is it not so? Hopeless, is it not so?

A: I don’t think so. First of all, please don’t confuse the Arab and the Muslim worlds. I’ve explained my position on this matter in more detail above, and I don’t think that indicates a degree of hopelessness. Palestinians have generally not looked for Arab approval for their national decisions in the past couple of decades, and I don’t think they should start doing so again. This could be, and should be, seen as an anomaly, although I can imagine the potential for some very difficult but needed decisions that would require further political cover of this kind in order to fly. On the broader picture, it’s certainly not hopeless, because an agreement is, in fact, in the interest of both parties and most of the international community. Many people on both sides think it is hopeless, and as I’ve argued many times before, an agreement is not the most likely scenario, but it is not hopeless and concluding so is irresponsible when the alternative is so grim. It’s no good saying, “this can’t work.” Our task, historically, is to make it work, since it still plausibly could.

Q: A recent publication from the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy issued a publication called “rethinking the two state solution”. Specifically, it posited the idea that, as part of a regional peace initiative, Egypt cedes a very small piece of territory in the Sinai adjacent to Gaza to the Palestinian Authority. The idea then being that this can provide room for expansion for the Gazan population, and to allow the development of a new, planned city with sea and airport gateways. On your recent Q&A blog, your statement about Egypt’s desire to avoid any responsibility for Gaza in the future made me consider this. Given Egypt’s wishes to distance itself politically from the fate of Gaza, would such a prospect be impossible to obtain? Do you consider it reasonable and/or realistic?

A: I doubt it. I suppose it’s possible, if an agreement absolutely hinged on this and the Egyptians found themselves completely counting on an agreement for their national security. But I think the Egyptians are pretty sensitive about the question of their territory in the Sinai being lost to them in the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So I don’t think it’s likely. It is a reasonable idea, but I doubt it’s a realistic idea politically. Nonetheless, there’s no point in not considering the matter.

Q: Do you think that the Palestinian side should drop the demand of ‘right of return’?

A: No, I don’t. I think all the refugee issues, including the right of return need to be negotiated, and that rather than being dropped, the question of return in all likelihood will be a matter of major and reciprocal compromises between the parties. As ATFP has been maintaining for years, we have to face the fact that no Israeli government is going to accept the return of millions of refugees but no Palestinian leadership is going to formally renounce the right of return. Therefore we have to separate the right from the return, upholding the principle but not making its realization a sine qua non for an end of conflict agreement that includes the resolution of all outstanding claims. I’ve written in my book on the one-state agenda about the very real benefits, short of return to Israel, for the refugees that would be provided by the establishment of a Palestinian state. There are considerable, and much better than nothing, which is exactly what the lack of an agreement will deliver to the same refugees. Without belaboring the point, I think that in spite of the rhetoric around the issue, a two state solution is the only practically achievable agenda that will deliver anything of major value to the refugees, and that therefore to oppose it in the guise of defending the interests of the refugees is either irresponsibly unrealistic or downright hypocritical.

Obviously, this is going to be the most painful and politically difficult compromise the Palestinians will have to make, but every serious person has realized by now there is no potential for a negotiated agreement with Israel without a major compromise on the question of return. There is a reciprocal issue for Israel, since every serious person has also realized there is no potential for a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians without a major compromise on the question of Jerusalem. If we are ever to see a realized peace agreement, I think it’s inevitable that a major Palestinian compromise on the implementation of the right of return will be in effect reciprocal for a major Israeli compromise on sharing Jerusalem and allowing the Palestinian capital to be in East Jerusalem. I don’t think there’s any other way to get to where we need to go.

Q: Why is it in anyone’s interest to set up a Palestinian state where most of its inhabitants desire application of Shari’a (79.9% according to Palestinian Center for Research and Cultural Dialogue)? Is it really worthwhile setting up a state at this time if it doesn’t respect gay rights, freedom of religion etc.?

A: First of all, as anyone who reads my writings will be well aware, I have been very clear that Palestine needs to be a secular state and I’d certainly agree that it’s not worthwhile setting up a state that doesn’t respect basic human rights, although this is also not an argument for continuing the occupation. And, I’d note, that the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement is essentially secular, and remains so in spite of the rise of Islamism in Palestine and in the region. If that number people were really driven by a domestic agenda that focused on Muslim Brotherhood-style Shari’a law, Hamas would have a solid, unbreakable majority and not be floundering at around 15% overall and 11% in the West Bank according to the last opinion poll I’ve seen.

The explanation for the apparent dichotomy is, of course, that when you ask people vaguely about the application of Shari’a in the contemporary Arab world they are more likely to have in mind the way it operates in most Arab states, and to a very large extent the way religious laws function for Jews, Muslims and Christians in Israel as well for that matter, as a system of “family law” rather than civil or criminal justice. In other words, in much of the Middle East matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance are often adjudicated by religious courts based on religious law. In a sense, this is a throwback to the old millet system of the Ottoman Empire in which different religious communities adjudicated their own “domestic” matters in religious forums independent of mutual interference and undo meddling from the Sublime Porte. Indeed, this is why so many mixed-religion couples from Arab states, and from Israel (where there is also no civil marriage, only religious unions), elope to Cyprus where civil marriage is readily available and must be acknowledged by Middle Eastern authorities upon the couple’s return. A very significant percentage of the majority in the poll cited above I am quite sure has this system in mind when they answer that question, not Shari’a as a substitute for civil and criminal jurisprudence on other matters. Personally, I’m not crazy about these family law religious systems, but they are tolerable within the general rubric of a secular society, especially with the consent of all adult parties. Indeed, the United States allows them, on a voluntary basis of course, as a form of arbitration, and the Jewish Bettei Din religious courts are a major venue, especially among the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, for resolving such “family matters” disputes.

Again, I’ve been very clear in my view that Palestine should be secular, and also democratic, pluralistic, non-militarized and neutral in armed conflicts. This is my personal opinion, and the Palestinians will have to do as they see fit. However, that poll result doesn’t in any way diminish the great likelihood that, as things stand now at any rate, Palestine would be a largely secular state with Shari’a almost certainly reserved for “family law” disputes and only among Muslims, as the present PA policies suggest (see the program of the 13th Palestinian government adopted in August 2009 for an outline of this). I’d love to be able to insist that in addition this is strictly voluntary and that there should always be an independent and decisive civil legal system, but we really don’t have that in most of the Middle East, Israel in many respects (it kind of depends who files first and in which court system), included. And, I certainly don’t think any of this is an argument for continuing occupation or dissolving any of the states that currently exist in the Middle East that allow for this limited application of various religious legal codes in “family law,” or any existing states for that matter.

Q: Why are the PLO so evasive on the issue of recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state?

A: They are not evasive. Rather, they decline to do it. It is, everyone must agree, an extremely unusual if not an utterly unprecedented demand, in international relations for a state to demand of another, in this case potential, state a recognition of its own character. Indeed, it’s odd that any state would cede this kind of authority to another state, when in fact every member state of the United Nations is free to define itself as it likes. It’s clear the Israeli state defines itself as Jewish, even though there is no consensus in Israel as to what, precisely, that means, but of course there are other Middle Eastern states that define themselves in both ethnic and religious terms, to whit: the Syrian Arab Republic or the Islamic Republic of Iran. For a more detailed account of the reasons why the PLO doesn’t want to subscribe to PM Netanyahu’s unworkable formula of describing Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” please see my speech on the topic at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy on their website, on ATFP’s website, or here on the Ibishblog.

Briefly, they see this, very plausibly, as constituting, at this stage in the process, an attempt to make an end run around the refugee issue we were discussing above. The Bush administration saw it that way too, which is why at Annapolis President Bush, although he had been specifically asked to use similar language by the Israelis, in his speech referred to Israel as “the national homeland of the Jewish people,” language ripped directly from the Balfour declaration and which doesn’t have anything remotely like the legal and political implications of language suggested by the Israelis at the time, let alone PM Netanyahu now. In addition, the Palestinian leadership is obviously and rightly concerned that they might be seen as compromising the rights and full citizenship of Palestinian citizens of Israel. On this score, the precise phraseology of the language the central question.

I think it’s important for both Israelis and Palestinians to acknowledge each other’s deep history and attachment to the land, and to recognize the legitimacy of each other’s national projects. I think the Palestinians have plainly gone further in that regard than the Israelis, at least formally, by recognizing Israel’s right to exist in the Letters of Mutual Recognition that were the first key Oslo process documents, while Israel merely recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, but not Palestinian statehood or Palestine’s right to exist. And, I think mutual language reflecting recognition of each other’s right of self-determination, each other’s statehood, and the legitimacy of each other’s national project could well be an important concluding note to a final status negotiating procedure. But for many important reasons I think it clearly has to come at the very end of the process, and the precise phrasing of the language will be extremely important, especially because of a natural and legitimate Palestinian desire not to compromise in any way the rights or perceived legitimacy of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. I’m sure that in the context of a final status agreement in which other, more palpable issues, have been largely or completely agreed upon, appropriate language can be found.

Q: One argument I constantly hear and read is the “who are these ‘Palestinians,'” when it is said that there is no such thing, and secondly that “Israel was created 3500 yrs ago, in 1922 over 70% of it was given to Arabs and created Jordan’ argument.” Have you ever written anything on either or both of these two arguments?

A: Not exactly. But I will give my views now.

The argument that there is no such thing as the Palestinian people is only made by total ignoramuses, and people being deliberately obscurantist. Obviously the Palestinian identity is a modern, indeed contemporary one, as is the Israeli identity, and they both spring from the same time and history, that is to say what happened during and after the Palestine Mandate that began in the early 1920s. So if one were to observe that there is no such thing historically as a Palestinian, and that’s technically true because as a primary political identity category it is 20th century phenomenon, it is equally true that there is no such thing historically as an Israeli, a term that would have meant absolutely nothing before 1948. Arabs and Jews have been identity categories for a long time, although of course the conceptualization and political significance of these terms has also shifted dramatically in the modern context, especially over the past two hundred years. This whole argument is simply inane, and based on a childish way of looking at history and human realities that no informed or serious minded person would bother with. For a pro-Israel person to argue that while there are Arabs there is no such thing as Palestinians is a bit like Arabs arguing that Jews are legitimately a religious group, but not a nation or an ethnicity. It’s ridiculous, because peoples define themselves, and if they consider themselves to be a coherent, united people, then they are, by definition. That’s how peoples come into being in the first place, by self-definition, as an act of collective will and imagination, and nobody else has the right or the ability to usurp this self-definition process. This is obvious and anyone who doesn’t get that is simply a fool.

As for Israel being created 3,500 years ago, that’s also ridiculous, although everyone should acknowledge the deep Jewish, as well as Palestinian, attachment to the land. There were Hebrew kingdoms in the ancient Levant, and many others, and while Zionist mythology holds that the modern Israeli state is the re-creation, or at least the only natural heir, of those Hebrew kingdoms, that’s patently absurd. It’s a little bit like the Palestinians basing their present political claims on ancient Canaanite history, or, for that matter, biblical Hebrew history since it is very likely that many Palestinians are partly descended from biblical Hebrews. And, for that matter, it’s like Saddam Hussein trying, as he indeed did, to justify his rule as some kind of reincarnation of ancient Babylon and so forth. How many Arabs and other Muslims claim to be descendents of the prophet or some such malarkey? How many Lebanese burble on about being “Phoenicians” or Copts invoke the heritage of the pharaohs? Don’t get me started on the Serbs and Kosovo or the alleged birthplace of Rama in Ayodhya. Contemporary political movements, where there is any potential, generally can’t resist reaching back very cynically into the distant past, and really mostly to myths and legends, to rationalize and justify their own political activities that are very much about power in the here and now and are actually informed by contemporary realities. It’s a pretty universal process of legitimation, and it’s not intellectually or politically respectable.

In fact the state of Israel was established in 1948, and has no political history prior to that, although of course the Zionist movement that intended to establish it had an earlier 50 years or so of very real, non-mythological history. Of course, the Zionist movement like many national projects has made use of mythology, history and archaeology to bolster its contemporary political claims. It is intended for and can only be bought into by gullible people, and one doesn’t have to accept all of the arguments of Shlomo Sand to maintain that. What people need to understand is that both Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms are contemporary phenomena, neither of which date back much more than 100 years. Indeed, I think everyone needs to be constantly reminded that as a matter of fact as recently as 70 years ago the terms “Israeli” and “Palestinian” essentially had no meaning, at least nothing remotely like the meanings they have today. People can dress up their contemporary nationalisms in all kind of assumed ancient and traditional garb, but it’s almost always fatuous and in both of these cases obviously so. But I hasten to add this doesn’t make either national narrative or project any less important, real or legitimate.

As for this business of 70% of Palestine being “given away to the Arabs,” it’s true that the original Palestine mandate included both mandatory Palestine and Transjordan, which became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. But from the outset of the mandate, the British split the two territories and governed them separately, on a collective League of Nations understanding that Transjordan would be excluded from any mandatory provisions regarding Jewish settlement. This was strongly agreed to by all parties to the Mandate at the League of Nations. The League of Nations approved the Palestine Mandate in June of 1922 on this understanding, and the expected clause formally dividing Palestine and Transjordan was adopted a few weeks later in August 1922. So really, we’re talking about no more than eight weeks of theoretical unification, during which everyone agreed the area east of the Jordan River was not subject to the Jewish settlement provisions of the Palestine mandate. So, this is all nonsense.

The quarrel over land and power between Palestinians and Israelis, whose modern national and political identities were produced precisely during the British mandate subsequent to the creation of Transjordan, never had anything to do with Jordanian territory or identity. This is a fatuous sleight-of-hand by pro-occupation types to argue that Jordan is Palestine or some such nonsense. It’s completely ahistorical and totally disregards Palestinian and Jordanian history and identity, although of course it’s very convenient for Israelis, and reflects the old maximalist ambitions of the Zionist movement at its most extreme. The other basis for it is the assumption that the British and the League of Nations had the “right” to assign Arab territories for eventual Jewish control, and that the original Palestine mandate, even though everyone agreed the eastern part did not involve Jewish settlement and even though it was only politically unified for a few weeks, constitutes some kind of definitive grant to the Jews in perpetuity. In this context, the early division between Palestine and Transjordan is weirdly interpreted as some kind of “loss” for Jewish rights and a “giving away” of 70% or some such of “Palestine” to “the Arabs.” It’s just a bizarre way of looking at things and a completely cynical twisting of history in order to justify the occupation and delegitimize the Palestinian national narrative and rights, not to mention Jordanian identity, nationalism and history. Nor does such rhetoric consider the implications for the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. I think anyone pushing this argument needs to be asked about that little wrinkle as well.