Why don’t I care about the Palestinians? It is, of course, wrong of me not to care. It can’t be much fun being a Palestinian. You, or your parents, or your grandparents, ran for their lives in the 1948 war. You — and/or they, plus a couple of generations of uncles, aunts, siblings, and cousins — have been huddled in some squalid refugee camp ever since, living off UNRWA handouts. (“UNRWA,” by the way, stands for “U.S. taxpayer.” But you knew that!) There is no economy worth participating in. Your leaders won a fragmented, halfway sort of autonomy for you at Oslo; but it didn’t work, you’re not sure why. Nothing really got any better, and now the Israelis have smashed it all up anyway. The other Arabs all hate you (a little-known factor of Middle East political life, but one attested by my colleague David Pryce-Jones, who knows the Arabs better than anyone). Things look bad, and you are sunk in despair. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for you?
Sure, I personally favor Israel in this conflict. That’s my right as a freethinking person. I’m a Christian, though, aren’t I? Shouldn’t I have some Christian compassion to spare for the poor suffering Palestinians? Ask not for whom the bell tolls, etc., etc.
Well, I suppose I should, but to be honest about it, I don’t. Why not? Why don’t I care about the Palestinians? The answer is NOT any of the following.
I like taking showers with Jews. Palestinians have dark skin and I’m a racist. My name was originally Derbstein. My British blood is boiling with shame over the lost empire. I am a lackey of, or am trying to ingratiate myself with, the Jews who run the U.S. media. I am a cruel, hard-hearted bigot.
The answer isn’t exactly compassion fatigue, either. That’s pretty close, though. I am aware of a certain level of compassion fatigue in regard to the world at large, and it spills over into the Palestinian issue.
The other day I had the depressing experience of reading, one right after the other, Stephen Kotkin’s wonderfully titled “Trashcanistan” in the April 15th New Republic, then Helen Epstein’s “Mozambique: In Search of the Hidden Cause of AIDS” in the May 9th New York Review of Books. The first of these was a long portmanteau review of six books about the fates of various components of the old U.S.S.R. in the years since the thing fell apart. The second tries to discover why a sleepy rural area of Mozambique, populated by courteous folk practicing a traditional way of life, has high levels of AIDS.
Kotkin’s account of the ex-Soviet colonies — Ukraine, Moldova, the central Asian and Caucasian republics, etc. — is hair-raising. Principal features of the landscape here are utter economic collapse, “gangland violence among state ministers,” rising Islamofascism and the flight of large sectors of the population. (One-third of the able-bodied workforce of Moldova has fled. I have just been reading another report about that wretched country. Sample quote: “Experts estimate that since the fall of the Soviet Union between 200,000 and 400,000 women have been sold into prostitution — perhaps up to 10 percent of the female population.”) Kotkin writes beautifully about this appalling situation, which stretches across the entire southern and western marches of the old U.S.S.R., illuminating his account with memorable one-liners like: “Ukraine has gotten its state and is eating it, too.”
Helen Epstein’s piece on Mozambique tells of a state of affairs just as awful. The fundamental problem, she discovers, is that: “These people are so poor … that sex has become part of their economy. In some cases, it’s practically the only currency they have.” The men go away for months on end to work in the South African mines — where, of course, they console themselves with prostitutes. The women left behind survive as best they can, often by becoming the mistresses of the few local men who can actually afford to eat. Why are they all so poor? Because Mozambique has been wrecked by corruption, tribal war and stupid economics.
What a world! You can only read a certain amount of this stuff before you start to avert your eyes. What on earth can anyone hope to do about all this? All the simple explanations for the horrors that stain a large part of our planet have been used up. We now know that it’s not the fault of colonialism, or neo-colonialism, or capitalism, or socialism. It’s just the way these places are. They can’t handle modernity, for some cultural reason we don’t understand and can’t do anything about.
That’s the context in which I see the Palestinians. The Palestinians are Arabs; and the Arabs, whatever their medieval achievements (as best I can understand, they were mainly achievements of transmission — “Arabic” numerals, for example, came from India) are politically hopeless. Who can dispute this? Look at the last 50-odd years, since the colonial powers left. What have the Arabs accomplished? What have they built? Where in the Arab world is there a trace or a spark of democracy? Of constitutionalism? Of laws independent of the ruler’s whim? Of free inquiry? Of open public debate? Where in your house is there any article stamped “Made in Syria?” Arabs can be individually very charming and capable, and perform very well in free societies like the U.S.A. There are at least two recent Nobel prizes with Arab names attached. Collectively, though, as nations, the Arabs are no-hopers.
All of this applies to the Palestinians. I spent some of my formative years in Hong Kong, a barren piece of rock with zero natural resources, under foreign occupation, chock-full of refugees from the Mao tyranny. The people there weren’t lounging in UNRWA camps or making suicide runs at the governor’s mansion. They were trading, building, speculating, manufacturing, working — with the result that Hong Kong is now a glittering modern city filled with well-dressed, well-educated, well-fed people, proud of what they have accomplished together, and with a higher standard of living than Britain herself. If, following the Oslo accords — or for that matter, in the 20 years of Jordanian occupation — the Palestinians had taken that route, had set aside their fantasies of revenge and massacre, and concentrated on building up something worth having, I might have respect for them. As it is, I don’t.
The only halfway sympathetic thing I can find to say about the Palestinians is that UNRWA has surely been part of the problem. If you go to the UNRWA website, you will see how proud they are of having fed, clothed, sheltered, educated and cared for the Palestinian refugees of 1948… and their children… and their grandchildren. The number of people UNRWA cares for has gone from 600,000 in 1948 to nearly four million today. Now, I understand that the prime impulse of bureaucracies, especially welfare bureaucracies, is the consolidation and expansion of their turf, and a steady increase in the number of their “clients”; but this is ridiculous. The good people of Hong Kong should go down on their knees every night and thank God that there was no UNRWA in the colony in 1949. So, come to think of it, should the German and East European refugees who flooded into Western Europe after WWII. (I have seen the number 14 million somewhere — the Sudeten Germans alone numbered three million. Where are the festering camps? Where are the suicide bombers?)
Even if their lives had not been poisoned by the ministrations of a huge welfare bureaucracy, though, I doubt the Palestinians would have got their act together. None of the other Arabs have. Everywhere you look around the Arab world you see squalor, despotism, cruelty, and hopelessness. The best they have been able to manage, politically speaking, has been the Latin-American style one-party kleptocracies of Egypt and Jordan. Those are the peaks of Arab political achievement under independence, under government by their own people. The norm is just gangsterism, with thugs like Assad, Qaddafi, or Saddam in charge. It doesn’t seem to be anything to do with religion: the secular states (Iraq, Syria) are just as horrible as the religious ones like Saudi Arabia. These people are hopeless. We are all supposed to support the notion of a Palestinian state. Why? We know perfectly well what it would be like. Why should we wish for another gangster-satrapy to be added to the Arab roll of shame, busy manufacturing terrorists to come here and slaughter Americans in their offices? I don’t want to see a Palestinian state. I think I’d be crazy to want that.
What, actually, are the possible futures for the Palestinians? I think the following list is exhaustive.
1. An independent state, under Arafat or someone just as thuggish. 2. Military occupation by Israel. 3. Re-incorporation into a Jordanian-Palestinian nation. 4. Some sort of U.N. trusteeship. 5. Expulsion from the West Bank and Gaza, those territories then incorporated into Israel.
Number 1 is what we are all supposed to want. As I have already indicated, I don’t want it, and I can’t see why anyone else would, either. Except Palestinians, I suppose: If they yearn to be ruled by amoral hoodlums (as, according to polls, they apparently do), I suppose they have some theoretical right to see their wishes fulfilled — but why should the rest of us allow it to happen, given the dangers to us? Number 2 might work for a time, but the Israelis would eventually get fed up with it, and then we’d move on to one of the other options. Number 3 would get us back to the pseudo-stability of pre-1967, but is deeply unpopular with Jordanians — and look what happened in 1967! Number 4 undoubtedly has the UNRWA bureaucrats drooling, but as with number 1, it’s hard to see what’s in it for the rest of us. Aren’t we handing over enough of our money in welfare payments to our own people?
Which leaves us with number 5: expulsion. I am starting to think that this might be the best option. I’m not the only one, either. Here is Dick Armey, Republican leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, talking to Chris Matthews on Hardball:
MATTHEWS: Well, just to repeat, you believe that the Palestinians who are now living on the West Bank should get out of there?
Rep. ARMEY: Yes.
When I say “the best option,” I don’t mean “best for the Palestinians”. I don’t think they have any good options. Being Arabs, they are incapable of constructing a rational polity, so their future is probably hopeless whatever happens. Their options are the ones I listed above: to be ruled by gangsters, or Israelis, or Jordanians, or welfare bureaucrats. Or to go live somewhere else, under the gentle rule of their brother Arabs. Would expulsion be hard on the Palestinians? I suppose it would. Would it be any harder than options 1 thru 4? I doubt it. Do I really give a flying falafel one way or the other? No, not really.