Hallucinatory states of nationalism

By Khaled Diab

Instead of obsessing over how their identities clash, Israelis and Palestinians need to focus more attention on where they mesh.

30 August 2009

AR version

The rise to power of , and represents a frightening hardening of nationalistic visions that does not bode well for the future. Instead of obsessing over how their identities clash, Israelis and Palestinians need to focus more attention on where they mesh.

For all their mutual loathing and animosity, these extremist Israeli and Palestinian parties have one thing in common: their political vision of the future has no space for the other side except as a vanquished, subject people.

Under immense pressure from the United States, however, 's hardline Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu went against his own convictions and his Likud party's platform and, for the first time, grudgingly and conditionally accepted the eventual emergence of an independent Palestinian state.

Similarly, on the other side of the divide, Hamas's charter also rejects the existence of a Jewish state, but the extremist Islamist party has modified its rejectionist stance since it came to power by offering Israel tacit recognition and a 10-year truce if it withdraws to the pre-1967 borders.

Needless to say, both positions are still unacceptable to the other side. Yet again, peace based on two independent states seems to have stalled in the concept phase, with the key difference being that, in the Oslo years, some real progress was made on the ground.

So, why is it that the two-state solution, despite having been the only diplomatic show in town for nearly two decades, never seems capable of making the leap from the notional to the real?

Part of the problem is the enormous power disparity between the two sides. Ideologically tinged perception is another major hurdle. At their core, many streams within Zionist and Palestinian are rooted in a claim to the entire territory of Mandate . In such a climate, concessions are seen not as pragmatic attempts to coexist but as acts of treachery of the highest order.

In the 1970s, some PLO members, such as the organisation's London representative, Said Hammami, advocated the two-state option and paid for it with their lives. Meanwhile, their Israeli counterparts, such as the peacenik and journalist Uri Avnery, were ostracised and demonised. During the Oslo years, Yitzhak Rabin, despite treading a cautious and slow path that undermined the , also paid for his “betrayal” with his life.

Albert Einstein once described nationalism as “the measles of the human race”. In the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, I would hazard to liken it to an immune system which evolved originally to defend against oppression and weakness but which has grown over the years into a cancer corroding the humanity of all those involved.

Like the 19th-century European models upon which they are based, Arab and Jewish nationalism started off as a quest for self-determination. However, the medicine that sought to cure oppression and overcome weakness quickly morphed into a dangerous and highly addictive hallucinogen which has led the most hardcore abusers on such a wild trip that they have become almost entirely detached from reality. Many people have woken up to the terrible side effects of the nationalism drug, but fear the withdrawal symptoms too much to kick the habit or allow themselves to be lured back into the opium den by charismatic pushers like Avigdor Lieberman or Khaled Meshaal.

With Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Hamas currently calling the shots, it is hard to imagine that there was once a time when identities were more fluid – when the term “Palestinian” also encompassed Jews, when Middle Eastern Jews freely identified themselves and were seen as “Arabs”, while some European Jews, including Britain's only prime minister of Jewish extraction, Benjamin Disraeli, held the romantic notion that they were “Mosaic Arabs”.

But after a century of conflict, perceptions have hardened and identities have narrowed to the extent that the mere suggestion that Israelis and Arabs have something in common is widely regarded as an insult.

But if this conflict is ever to be resolved, we need to invade this common ground, occupy it and make it our own. For both sides, the prospect of dividing up the land into two separate states is painful because it would deprive them of access to areas of great symbolic and emotional value. Acknowledging that Israelis and Palestinians actually live in a single country, and striving to make that state a fairer one that serves all its people, will avoid this distressing carve-up.

We need a bi-national confederated state made up of an autonomous, secular Israeli and Palestinian component – each of which can keep the cultural trappings of nationhood, such as the flag and national anthem. Freedom of movement within this federation would ensure that Israelis and Palestinians have access to all the places they hold sacred and dear, such as Jerusalem, Hebron and Jaffa. In this scenario the energies currently consumed by conflict can be re-diverted to creating prosperity for all.

By recognising that Israelis and Palestinians possess equal stakes in a common homeland, one can do away with the familiar and uncompromising terms of reference of who holds historic title to the land, of occupation and resistance, of terrorism and retaliation, of Cane and Abel, of David and Goliath.

This column first appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 26 August 2009. It was written as part of a special series on nationalism for the Common Ground News Service.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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