May 15, 1998 marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the British Mandate of Palestine, and the creation of the State of Israel. It was nearly five years after the signing of the “Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements,” better known as the Oslo Accords, between Israel and the PLO that led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. It was also the day that PLO and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat declared May 15th a national day of mourning, Yawm an-Nakba, or the “Day of Catastrophe.”
Arafat – who was at that time supposedly negotiating with Israel in good faith – chose an interesting date, ironic even. May 15, 1948 marked the beginning of the aggressive and ultimately unsuccessful war waged by several Arab states against Israel, a war over Israel’s very existence. The Arab League declaration of war asserted that “security in Palestine” was “a sacred trust in the hands of the Arab States” and that its Arab inhabitants not only have “absolute sovereignty” but that they “alone should exercise the attributes of their independence, through their own means and without any kind of foreign interference, immediately after peace, security, and the rule of law have been restored to the country.”
There are any number of head-shaking moments to be had after reading the declaration of war, such as the assertion that waging an aggressive war was not only somehow legitimate in and of itself but that it was necessary “in order to prevent bloodshed.” Still, if any one assertion stands out as absurd, it must be the pious declaration of the “absolute sovereignty” on the part of the former Mandate’s Arab residents. But to understand why, it is necessary to revisit the events of September 29, 1947, the date on which the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) proposed that the British Mandate be partitioned into a Jewish and an Arab state. The Jews reluctantly accepted the partition plan, while the Arabs categorically rejected it. The rejection itself displayed themes that have continued to plague the conflict to this day, including a longing for an unbroken ‘Arab region.’
The rejection of UNSCOP’s plan was delivered by Jamal Husseini, the Vice-President of the Arab League-created Arab Higher Committee on Palestine. As the United Nations press office reported, “Mr. Husseini said that the peoples of the eastern board of the Mediterranean Sea from the north of Africa throughout Egypt to the Persian Gulf and from the Turkish borders to the Indian Ocean, speak one language and have the same history, traditions and aspirations. One of the greatest political achievements in the world that served as a bulwark of peace and stability was the fusion of several nations into one homogenous entity.” His examples were the USA, UK and USSR, ironically enough.
There was a multinational entity that extended more or less throughout the borders Husseini set out – the Ottoman Empire. Of course the region never really shared “one language” when Turkish and Farsi are spoken by millions in the region along a number of Arabic dialects, much less “the same history, traditions and aspirations.” The Arab League declaration of war in 1948 did not seem to feel the need to elaborate on this utopian fantasy past stating that, “Palestine is an Arab country, situated in the heart of the Arab countries and attached to the Arab world by various ties – spiritual, historical, and strategic.”
Clearly, those “ties” never included actually granting any form of sovereignty to residents of the former Mandate. Egypt did no such thing after it occupied Gaza in 1948, and Jordan annexed the territory it conquered in 1948 on April 24, 1950, renaming it the “West Bank.” Even the Arab League’s Rabat Declaration of October 28, 1974 that established the PLO as the “sole representative of the Palestinian people in any Palestinian territory” came only after the last failure of those states to destroy Israel through full-scale warfare in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
As late as 1988, when King Hussein of Jordan allowed the PLO to ‘secede’ in order to pursue the first of several failed attempts at unilaterally claiming statehood, he stated that, “Jordan will remain the proud bearer of the message of the Great Arab Revolt, adhering to its principles, believing in one Arab destiny, and committed to joint Arab action.”
In 1993, Martin Kramer wrote in “Arab Nationalism: Mistaken Identity” that ultimately the utopian ideology of Arab nationalism might best be compared Soviet communism, “two great myths of solidarity, impossible in their scale, deeply flawed in their implementation, which alternately stirred and whipped millions of people in a desperate pursuit of power through the middle of the twentieth century, before collapsing in exhaustion — and stranding their last admirers in the faculty lounges of the West.”
There are some circles today that embrace the utopian fantasy that not only was Israel’s creation a ‘catastrophe,’ but that if Israel were to disappear then the Middle East would be miraculously pacified. To them, May 15th makes sense as the day to commemorate their ‘nakba.’
But for those who sincerely wish for peace, there are other dates to consider catastrophic, aside from September 29, 1947, when the Arab Higher Commission rejected UNSCOP’s partition proposal.
Two in particular should stand out. July 20, 1951, when Jordan’s King Abdullah was assassinated for supposedly planning peace talks with Israel, or October 6, 1981, when Egypt’s Anwar Sadat was assassinated for actually making peace with the Jewish State. Making peace repudiates the utopian nakbaist dream by taking stock of the world as it is, rather than through the lens of fantasy, and acting on it.