Notwithstanding the most self-evident merits of resolving the Israel/Palestine impasse, the last several years have provided another, and one that President Bush—who likes using terrorism and its threat to justify policy —can get behind. In this reasoning: the lack of a Palestinian state causes jihadi transnational terrorism.
In his weekly radio address, just before leaving for the Middle East on January 9, the president told listeners he would push Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Abbas to make a deal leading to "two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side and peace and security." Recognizing that we Americans might well shrug their shoulders and think, well, that's nice, but what does it have to do with me? Bush made the case, tacitly, that the lack of Israeli/ Palestinian peace could lead to events like the 9/11 attacks:
I know it is not always obvious why events in the nations of the Middle East should matter to the American people. But in the 21st century, developments there have a direct impact on our lives here. As we saw on September the 11th, 2001, dangers that arise on the other side of the world can bring death and destruction to our own streets.
There are several reasons that Bush connects these. First, there is something of a genetic connection between Palestinian dispossession in the middle of the 20th century and the appeal, to some, of extreme visions of Islamic rule. Second, the idea of occupied Palestine plays a large symbolic role in the jihadi imagination. Third, Bush also permits the line to blur between different kinds of groups in the Middle East, so he may think that groups like Hamas and Hezballah have global intentions. Historically, they have not.
So, would a Palestinian state reduce threat of the particular kind of political violence that visited the United States on 9/11, as Bush promised the American people it would?
Not automatically. We Americans the last five have fallen into one of two camps on what grounds violent hostility to the United States. Some of us say that America is not telling its story well and must communicate better. Others of us say that U.S. policies are the root of problems, among them the web of policies surrounding Israel and Palestine. In the latter kind of thinking, if we went in and fixed the broken policies, the problem would be fixed.
But 'fixing' the Israeli-Palestinian problem is not enough. That's because perceptions are made up of our memories, and imaginations and hopes and prejudices, as much as they are of our concrete reality. The perceptions of would-be transnational terrorists would not change overnight; nor would those of everyone else. But they could and will, over time.
A viable Palestinian state would be just the beginning, not the end of creating a healthier Middle East. The goal of a peaceful Israel and Palestine is a necessity in order to "end the festering despair that terrorism and hatred have fed on," as Jordan's King Abdallah put it in 2003, and on its own merits: to resolve the humanitarian and political crises of the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere; to making Israeli society safer; and to normalize the presence of Israel and its Jewish population as Middle Easterners in full standing.
But after 60 years of Palestinian displacement, and just over 40 since the 1967 war, the symbolic power of Palestine as a figure for loss and lack of identity will hardly fade overnight. Indeed, the symbol of loss may become more powerful, change shape, take hold as a kind of identity in a moment of transition, as other groups who have born losses may remember.By most accounts, there's little chance that Bush's current efforts will bear fruit. Simply no one (but him, it seems) is optimistic that a Palestinian state or a real acceptance by Israelis and Palestinians of where they each are now will materialize in a year. Indeed, both Orthodox Jews and Hamas protested Bush' visit.
Instead of letting that stall all thought of the future, though, this might be an excellent time to think about what could come after a peace deal. What then, might all of those who have been invested in the symbol of Palestine as loss think and do next? Palestinians?Israelis? Iranians? Saudis? Hizballah? Al Qaeda? Mapping out the future beyond statehood in this way might actually help policy makers to better plan a more viable peace deal, or to see its regional implications.