The Palestine Liberation Organization's recent declaration of an independent Palestinian state and the U.S. decision to open a dialogue with the PLO have inspired many Americans to hope that finally an unhappy people may be on the route to peace and prosperity. If only the Palestinians can enjoy the benefits of a sovereign state, Mideast problems will recede, leaving all of us better off.
This argument holds a compelling appeal for Americans, for it is we who, since Woodrow Wilson's time, have most of all championed the right to national self-determination.
But the stirring words of the Palestinian spokesmen are empty; anyone who would believe that national independence is the route to happiness ignores some of the most powerful lessons derived from recent decades. Whatever one's views on the Israeli occupation, it would be a profound mistake to expect much of an independent Palestinian state. Indeed, should it come to exist, there is every reason to anticipate new misery for Palestinians and others.
Nationalist calls for liberation and independence have had an extraordinary worldwide appeal over the course of the past 200 years. They took on special force in the non-Western world during the middle third of this century, as colonial empires crumbled and disappeared. In part they had such wide resonance because the cry for national independence included other promises too. Self-determination was not an end in itself, but the path to a great range of benefits, including social justice, educational reform, cultural renaissance and individual dignity. Independence would bring far more than just a change in ruler: it would right ancient wrongs and guarantee a brighter future.
Thus, the Congress Party of India foresaw a prosperous and powerful country after the British left. The Chinese Communist Party overturned the old order in pursuit of a renewed civilization. Ho Chi Minh rallied the Vietnamese troops by evoking images of the just society. Elsewhere around the world—Indonesia, Algeria. Tanzania—similar aspirations moved large numbers to fight and die for independence and the expected benefits.
Of course the nationalists got what they wanted. With the one exception of the Russians (who held on to their colonies by re-naming them "socialist republics"), Europeans ceded power almost everywhere. On taking the colonialists' place, nationalist leaders wasted no time in setting about to translate their long-held dreams into reality.
And the result? It is painful, after a generation or two of nationalist rule, to recall the bright hopes once attached to national independence. Hardly a single government achieved its goals. Warfare and communal violence became endemic in many countries. As repression increased, jails filled with political prisoners. States that boasted ample financial surpluses at independence—Ghana and Egypt come to mind—quickly became debtors. Illiteracy remained high almost everywhere, while obtuse political interference caused a decline in cultural standards. Income levels stayed low, yet disparities of wealth usually increased.
Social justice was an illusory hope, rarely fulfilled. Full democracy became endangered in large regions of the globe. The noble goal of self-determination turned out to mean nothing more than replacing a foreign dictator by a local one.
Comparing yesterday's hopes with today's reality is not a happy undertaking, for virtually every aspiration of years past now is dead. Comparing Third World conditions today with those of a half century ago is a still more dismal exercise, for few governments even managed to match the record of their colonial predecessors in economic, political or basic administrative terms.
Middle Eastern states fit this pattern—and have additional woes of their own, for this region suffers from a special curse of violence and political volatility. Military rulers dominate, the threat of terrorism hangs over every airplane and government building, and the region has become the international testing ground for new weapons. The region today simultaneously hosts no less than three major conflicts (Arab-Israeli, Iraq-Iran, Afghanistan) and five minor ones (Western Sahara, Chad, Cyprus, Lebanon, and the Kurds). Oh yes, the oil-exporting countries have enjoyed spectacular economic growth, but theirs was a freakish wealth that cannot last or produce real, sustainable well-being.
This bleak record must affect the outlook for a Palestinian state. It is simply too late for the old, naive hopes. By now, we have a good idea of the choices facing a new Middle East government. Will it resemble Iran in adopting the fundamentalist Muslim model of religious extremism? Or the Iraqi model—civil war and near-total repression? Or the Syrian model, where the government calls out the air force to destroy one of its own largest cities and many thousands of unarmed inhabitants? The Lebanese model of anarchy and carnage? The Jordanian model of a mild police state in a cultural desert? The Saudi model of archaic monarchy and no individual rights? Or the Egyptian model of military rule, political disenfranchisement and sinking poverty?
These choices are the realistic alternatives facing the potential citizens of a Palestinian state. And should it be the PLO that runs that new state, we then have an even better idea of what lies in store for them. The PLO's record since its founding in 1964 has been an unhappy one of an arrogant leadership ruling with an iron fist and disregarding the interests of non-PLO Palestinians. There is no reason to expect this well-established behavior to change if the organization ever comes to power.
As Sidney Zion has put it: "Suppose there was a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank? Does anyone believe the Arabs would be free? There's not a free Arab state in the world."These dismal prospects suggest the need for caution in considering the attractive visions sketched out by Palestinian spokesmen. We have to remember that visions no less sweet have been proposed many times in the past, only to create oppressive regimes and impoverished societies when actually applied. Smooth-talking proponents of Palestinian nationalism are hawking the political equivalent of snake oil. The seductive charms of nationalism usually turn out to be a prelude to rape: it serves no one — not Palestinians, Israelis or Americans — to fall for this romantic myth.