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Arabs should pick interest over identity
Conflict with Israel has unbearable cost, peace should be sought at any price
Palestine TV, the network funded by the Palestinian Authority, aired the “Twelfth Safa Festival for Culture, Tourism and the Arts,” in which groups presented different dances, usually by modifying the traditional dabkeh dance.
Songs were mostly techno with lyrics that sounded like war anthems, such as a man calling on his love to put on a “dynamite vest” and go after “the enemy.” If this is not tourism, what is?
Art is usually a reflection of its surrounding environment and the mindset of its people. But even if we excuse that song as a “one off” dance, and look at the messages printed on the stage, behind the dancers, we would still be disturbed.
In the picture captured from Palestine TV, from right to left, are three texts. On the right, one identifies the event: The twelfth Safa festival. In the middle is a benign and generic phrase, “we are all for our country (or homeland),” probably borrowed from the Lebanese national anthem. The text on the left, however, is unsettling. It reads as such: Identity (in biggest font) is the actual arena of conflict between us and the enemy (in smaller font).” Nothing in the festival — whether on stage or in the songs — mentions the word Israel, but the audience certainly understands that the word “enemy” here refers to Israel or to Zionism.
Instigation against Israel, on a Palestinian Authority-funded TV, can pass for freedom of expression, if we stretch the meaning of such freedom beyond its limits. But the concept of imagining the Palestinian conflict with Israel as one of identity makes it a zero sum game with no room for compromise.
Furthermore, depicting the Palestinian conflict with Israel as one of identity decouples it from reality. The state, any state, is designed to serve the interests of its citizens. National or cultural identity — usually shaped by the founding mythology — is more symbolic than realistic.
In the Palestinian case, the Palestinian Authority should use its media and cultural festivals to spread among Palestinians awareness about the connection between their conflict with Israel and their interests. That is to say, Palestinians should understand that the choices they make in dealing with Israel affect their interests, including their standard of living and their future prospects.
By decoupling national identity from interests, governments get away with subpar performance and governing failures are thus blamed on Israel, America or a third party. This is how Palestinians suffer in Gaza but never connect between their misery and their support of Hamas. To many Palestinians, fighting Israel is one thing, while their low living standard is another.
In all fairness, such immature thinking is not found among Palestinians only. Lebanon’s supporters of Hezbollah have a similar mindset in which they fail to connect between their free falling economy and Hezbollah’s insistence on keeping the country on a war footing with Israel. These Lebanese think that their existential conflict with Israel is one thing, and their deteriorating living standards is another. In effect, these Lebanese praise Hezbollah for its valor in fighting Israel, but blame their government for its corruption and failure to grow their economy.
A few voices among Palestinians and the Lebanese are now saying otherwise, arguing that conflict comes at a cost, that wars have to have a beginning and an end, that living in a state of perpetual war undermines national interests and sends the economy into free fall, and that electing Hezbollah and Hamas comes with the price of international isolation. This is a lesson that the Austrians learned, two decades ago, when they elected a racist white supremacist government, which prompted immediate international isolation. That government collapsed in weeks and the Austrians learnt their lessons and elected a normal government instead. The Palestinians made a similar choice by electing Hamas, but never learnt their lesson or corrected their mistake.
To add insult to injury, Hamas and Hezbollah kill Palestinian and Lebanese voices calling for and end to all wars, and for peace with Israel. These voices argue in favor of surrender with a better future over more heroism and more miserable living.
For their part, national governments, like the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese state, are either too weak or too populist to side with their rational, anti-conflict, citizens. Instead, the ruling wily politicians allow their media to broadcast messages that serve the terrorist groups and pretend that such position is mere “patriotism.”
As with the late Yasser Arafat, and with his successor Mahmud Abbas, as well as with the Lebanese and Iraqi governments, national leaders have to have their “Altalena moment,” like Yitzhak Rabin once told Arafat. Altalena was an arms shipment destined to Jewish militias, against the will of the young Israel state, which bombed and sank the ship, prioritizing sovereignty over military advantage against Arab enemies.
The states in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq have to do the same, or at least build a consensus that will force their militias to disband. Their people will later thank them for it.