Donna Shallala, Secretary of Health under President Bill Clinton, visited Lebanon in 1999 and gave a lecture at the American University of Beirut (AUB). I attended, and was wearing a traditional Palestinian Kufiyyah on my shoulders.
The university’s administration had arranged for student leaders to meet Shallala, and because I had served two terms on the student government and was serving as the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, Outlook, I was invited.
I sat in the first row and was the first to raise my hand to ask a question. Shallala said that “the days of big fat American cheques” were gone and I rebutted: “In the country I hail from, Iraq, they don’t need your big cheques, only remove your sanctions that are killing everyone, including children.” Shallala looked irritated. “Your problem is with your dictator, not with America,” she said.
Students in the room clapped and cheered for my response. After the meeting, they congregated around me, tapped me on the back, and congratulated “my courage.” The news made the rounds on campus. For weeks, students I had never met stopped me and thanked me for “wearing Palestine on my shoulders.”
In 2002, Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield to end the Second Intifada, and imposed a siege on Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. I joined street rallies against late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, during which we shouted “oh Sharon you pig, you must be tied with a chain” (it rhymes in Arabic).
To us, America and the West were evil people who became rich because they made the rest of the world poor. Abusing global resources — especially Arab oil — meant that America had to install puppet dictators, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and to plant settlements, like Israel, to rule over the Arabs. Americans were uncivilized cowboys with no sense of honor or chivalry, only conquest and abuse.
Hailing from an Iraqi family that had escaped Saddam’s endless wars and whimsical tyranny, I saw Saddam as a brutal human beast, and blamed America for him. I had read dozens of books that claimed that, during his student days in Egypt, Saddam had been recruited by the CIA and had become their agent, doing America’s bidding and dirty work thereafter.
But in 2003, I had a life-changing experience. America, the presumed sponsor of Saddam, toppled him and invited Iraqis to build their democracy. The WMD lie did not matter. The war was called Operation Iraqi Freedom, and it did free Iraqis from their brutal dictator. To most Iraqis, it was a dream come true. Now was the time to show what the Arabs were really made of and build a democracy.
On April 9, 2003, the US Marines brought down Saddam’s statue in Baghdad’s Fardos Square. The next day, The New York Times ran my Op-Ed, My First Day of Freedom. The article got me invited on CNN’s Paula Zahn and on MSNBC.
Between the time my article was published and my TV interviews, I came under immense social pressure for “selling out to America.” I tried to reason with my Lebanese friends that, unlike them, my Iraqi family and I had suffered immeasurably under Saddam, and that even if the devil showed up to topple him, we would side with the devil. But I could not win the argument. Most friends stopped talking to me.
By the time I went on CNN and Zahn asked me about Iraq, I did what every Arab does as damage control: Trash Israel and talk about how Palestinians were being forced out of their ancestral land. I repeated the exercise on MSNBC. The interviewers sounded disappointed and cut the interview short. They wanted to talk about Iraq, while I wanted to save face. Friends went back to tapping me on the shoulder.
Despite my setback, I did not give up on democracy. Before the Iraq war, I had joined hundreds of protests in Lebanon demanding freedom of expression, rights for homosexuals and free and fair elections. After years of activism and frustration caused by the absence of change, change came to us on the top of American tanks. Instead of taking it, however, my friends switched to bashing imperialism. That did not sit well with me.
The collapse of Saddam allowed me to visit Iraq for the first time in 21 years. Together with American and British friends, we set up a magazine, the Baghdad Bulletin. We used my family’s house as offices and dorms. I literally bet the house on Iraqi democracy. Months later, a staffer was shot dead and we shut down. But I was not done yet with Arab democracy.
In Washington, a Congress-funded TV — whose goal was to raise the bar of freedom in the Arab media sphere — was about to open shop. I joined in a heartbeat and produced hundreds of shows debating Iraq’s new constitution, its first election, its endless violence. We also focused the spotlight on Lebanon’s 2005 revolution that ended 30 years of Syrian regime occupation. The TV eventually became too bureaucratic for me, sinking in stinking office politics. I left and went back to print journalism. Starting 2011, in my columns, I supported all kinds of Arab revolutions, known collectively as the Arab Spring.
Today, 10 years later, almost everyone regrets the toppling of bloody tyrants like Saddam, Libya’s Qadhafi and Yemen’s Saleh. Arabs are just not cut out for democracy. Once central authority crumbles, militias mushroom and make it even harder to build anything democratic. Then Iran’s tyrannical regime sponsors these militias to project regional influence, and instead of countries changing from autocracy to democracy, they become Medieval in the image of Islamist Iran.
Since 2003, I have focused my energy on trying to understand why democracy never spread among the Arabs. Lessons from Arab failure belong in a different article. Suffice it to say that if we are to assign blame, the Arabs get over 80 percent of it. Democracy needs democrats, and the Arabs have too few of them.
Now back to Palestine. Between 1830 and 1930, Muslim Arabs owned the absolute majority of private real estate and formed a majority of the population. But should that have automatically translated into sovereignty? Throughout the history of the Arabs in Palestine, Palestinians never practiced sovereignty, but were always ruled by other Muslims from faraway capitals, whether in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo or Istanbul.
Meanwhile, Jerusalem has never been as important to Muslims and Arabs. Not a single Muslim or Arab dynasty ever made Jerusalem their capital. The only reason Palestine came into existence was because the colonial British drew it as such. And the only reason why Jerusalem suddenly became so important to the Arabs was because the Jews claimed it.
As for land ownership, Palestinians are not the only Arabs who have lost real estate in a region where competition over territory and population displacement are the norms. Over the past 70 years, like many Palestinians, my family has lost a lot of its wealth to coups, wars, civil wars and hyperinflation in both Iraq and Lebanon. I now live 6,000 miles away from where my father was born and where I grew up, without any hope that I will ever visit militia land, let alone move back to it. It is unfortunate, but it is life, and it happened to me, and there is no reason why it should not happen to anybody else, wether Palestinians who found themselves out of Palestine, or Jews who were ejected from Baghdad, Cairo, Alexandria and Beirut. It is called the “movement of history.”
Now if we let history be history, we might understand that in this time and age, land is not that important. Countries like Singapore and the UAE have shown that land is not a prerequisite for national success and prosperity, and vice versa, in countries where the government is sovereign over its vast land — like in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen — a failing state has showed that land is irrelevant to good government. Land does not make successful nations. Good governance does.
Israel can be blamed for taking away Palestinian real estate, or for making their movement a miserable experience. But Israel cannot be blamed for the Palestinian failure in building functional institutions or democratic government. In fact, the Zionist movement itself was democratic long before it got hold of any land.
Palestinians hate the saying that Palestine was a “land without a people for a people without a land.” In fact, Palestine was a land without a democracy for a democracy without a land. It was Zionism’s democratic success that allowed the movement to beat Palestinians over land, and then create a state. And it is the lack of democracy that is preventing the rise of a Palestinian state next to Israel.
Yet, Palestinians still spend all their energy on cursing imperialism and Israel, and on forming ragtag militias that further distance them from acceptable global norms. Had all this Palestinian energy been expended on building democratic and transparent institutions, a thriving Palestinian state would have been living happily next to Israel.
The biggest problem for Palestinians is not Israel, but the absence of democratic and reliable institutions that can represent all Palestinians and manage their affairs competently.
In his heyday, Arafat attained legendary status, but still could not speak on behalf of Arab Israelis, who refuse to join a Palestinian state. Arafat could never control Hamas, which went on suicide bombing rampages that eventually torpedoed the peace process.
Today, Israelis can certainly do more to make life easier for Palestinians, especially with those notorious checkpoints. Yet these checkpoints are there because Palestinians have failed to stop violence against Israelis, the last of which happened days ago, when a drive-by shooting killed an Israeli teenager and critically injured another. Should Israel ever trust Palestinians with Israeli lives, there would be no reason for Israel to continue policing Palestinians.
Over the past decades, I have learned that the “Palestinian Cause” is empty slogans designed to deflect attention away from Palestinian failure, just like all other Arab and Islamist ideologies use imperialism and Israel to justify their failure.
The long history of blood and tears between Arabs and Israelis is unfortunate, but no problem can be solved through revenge. Seeking a promising future is worth forgetting the painful past. My children are fluent in the Arabic language and culture, and this is much more valuable to me and them than any piece of land, anywhere.
I have made my peace with Israel, a choice that every Arab should have the right to make, without fear of legal repercussions, communal violence, bullying, anathematizing, ostracizing or shaming. If peace is what brings Arabs shame, then they will continue living in perpetual war and endless misery.