It’s been already quite a few years since I last sat in a university study room, trying to get my head around complex case studies. But I remember well a conversation I had with a French colleague. We had done some work together and, in-lieu of a relaxing break (oh, the irony!) we started to debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My colleague was very critical of Israel – everything was the Jewish state’s fault. Most of all, he opined, Israel was ‘stealing land’ and undermining the ‘two-state solution’. Negotiations, he said, were just a ruse, a stalling device. “Why not just give the Palestinians their state and be done with it?” he demanded; “we should force you to do it!”

“Well, it’s not that simple…” I attempted to explain.

“It’s very simple”, he interrupted, with more than a hint of impatience in his voice. He pulled a block of paper, grabbed a pencil and, with a few quick and decisive lines, sketched the map of Mandatory Palestine ‘from the River to the Sea’. “That’s the map”, he pronounced, stabbing the roughly sketched elongated pentagon. Then, with another assertive motion, he drew a horizontal line across the pentagon’s narrow waist, from west to east. It originated somewhere in the Mediterranean and, I figured, ran through both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, before crossing the Jordan River. “That’s it”, he declared, satisfied – and stabbed each half of the now divided pentagon, first the top half, then the bottom one. “Now you guys take this bit and the Palestinians take the other bit. I don’t give a s**t if you like it or not, you people have got to learn to get along with each other. That’s it, problem solved!”

He was not joking – he was dead serious. He spoke with the hauteur of a Louis XIV: he was ‘the state’ (or the ‘international community’); he felt like a new Charles de Gaulle, annoyed at having to deal with those pesky Algerians.

The 'Middle East Quartet' meets in New York to promote a 'roadmap' for Israel and Palestine. {public domain photo from a previous meeting in Munich, Germany}

The ‘Middle East Quartet’ meets in New York to promote a ‘roadmap’ for Israel and Palestine. {public domain photo from a previous meeting in Munich, Germany}

I was reminded of that discussion recently, when French politicians hosted a ‘summit’ aimed at re-starting ‘the Middle East Peace Process’ (which, despite the name, does not deal at all with the Middle East – as in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt or Libya – but only with Israel and the Palestinians). According to The Guardian,

“The participants [which did not include any Israelis or Palestinians] called on the two sides to genuinely commit to the two-state solution.”

More recently, the Middle East Quartet (which, likewise, isn’t really about the Middle East, but only about Israel and the Palestinians) has met in New York and issued a statement. Among other things, they say that

“The Quartet principals [i.e. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, United States Secretary of State John Kerry and European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini] were joined by the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and France during the second part of the meeting to brief on their work to support Middle East peace. All agreed on the importance of close and continuing coordination of all efforts to achieve the common goal of the two-State solution.”

As usual, the bulk of the opprobrium was directed at the Jewish state:

“The Quartet emphasized its strong opposition to ongoing settlement activity, which is an obstacle to peace, and expressed its grave concern that the acceleration of settlement construction and expansion in Area C and East Jerusalem, including the retroactive ‘legalization’ of existing units, and the continued high rate of demolitions of Palestinian structures, are steadily eroding the viability of the two-State solution.”

I was still ruminating on the French (from Louis VII to Picot, from Napoleon to President Hollande) and on the West in general meddling 3,000 miles away from Paris – not to mention New York – when a friend e-mailed me. She is a kind-hearted Jewish lady, who cares deeply for both Israelis and Palestinians and would like nothing better than to see those two populations living in peace, on either side of a secure border. Yet all that talk about the ‘two-state solution’ was clearly getting on her nerves:

“I have always felt uncomfortable with the trope ‘two state solution’ in relation to Israel and the Palestinians. It isn’t the two state bit which bothers me – it is this idea of a ‘solution’. To start with, the word has a stark finality about it and this comes with dreadful connotations for Jews, with Hitler combining it with the word ‘final’. He wanted to obliterate Jews – how did we come to rehabilitate this word when working towards peace with those who have also wanted to obliterate us?

But there are other reasons to reject the word. It is such an ahistorical concept. When in history has there ever been ‘a solution’ to anything? The moving hand of history weaves complex and varying stories; they change and evolve continuously – each ‘solution’ is but the beginning of a new ‘problem’. Try putting History and Solution into Google and the fourth, fifth and sixth entries are about exterminating the Jews. And the first three? One is about therapy, the second about showing how one solves a mathematical problem and the third refers to an alternative history novel, in which the Axis wins the Second World War.”

My friend’s words got me thinking. And, as always, I wanted to understand: why is it that the word ‘solution’ is so used and abused in the West? How come that it is most frequently employed when discussing the Middle East? And how come that, when discussing the Middle East, Westerners appear not just to desire ‘a solution’, but often to know what the solution should be – only to be suddenly possessed of a desire to impose it upon the people in question?

There’s nothing new in all this, I’m afraid. The very term ‘Middle East’ is a quintessentially Euro-centric concept: it’s only ‘East’, of course, when seen from Europe, from ‘the West’. The Middle East is very much ‘Middle West’ when seen from Japan, India or China. As for America… well, it depends which way one’s looking; but under President Obama, America is looking Europe’s way.

What’s in a name? There’s nothing new in the West’s desire to – ahem! – civilise the East (i.e., provide ‘solutions’ for the poor hapless ‘natives’). And – interestingly – it has always been entwined with another, just-as-keen aspiration: that of relieving those same natives of various natural resources that they couldn’t possibly have a use for, themselves. In past centuries, it was gold and spices. Nowadays it is oil and gas. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

In 1920, the Western ‘solution’ was to divide the Middle Eastern spoils of war among the victors – the French and British colonial Empires. The Arab, predominantly Muslim inhabitants of those former Ottoman lands did not think of themselves as residents of separate countries. True: influenced by contemporary Western ideas, a small minority of intellectuals among them (including, for obvious reasons, a high proportion of Christians) wanted an Arab nation state; as for the vast majority, they showed no signs of wanting to be anything but loyal citizens of the Ottoman Empire-cum-Caliphate.

But the wishes of brown-skinned, primitive natives were of little concern to the new imperial masters. They had their own economic and political interests – which demanded that the Middle East be partitioned in chunks, along arbitrary borders.

A list of those artificial ‘countries’ reads conspicuously similar to the ‘menu’ of perennial Middle Eastern conflicts.

The League of Nations awarded Mandates for 'Mesopotamia' and 'Palestine' to Britain and for 'Syria' and 'Lebanon' to France.

The League of Nations awarded Mandates for ‘Mesopotamia’ and ‘Palestine’ to Britain and for ‘Syria’ and ‘Lebanon’ to France. {public domain images}

There was Mesopotamia, a descriptive name invented by ancient Greeks and meaning ‘Land between the rivers’. That sounded absolutely like Greek to the local inhabitants, who reverted – as soon as they possibly could – to the 7th century Arabic name ‘Iraq’, cousin of the Biblical ‘Erekh’ and grandson of the Sumerian ‘Land of the City of Uk’ (Ur Uk).

Map of Bilad Al-Sham (the Land of the Semites, translated these days as Greater Syria) was a province of the early Islamic Caliphate, before being incorporated in the Ottoman Empire. The province was subdivided into military districts called 'ajnad' (singular 'jund'), of which Jund Filastin (Palestine) was one.

Map of Bilad Al-Sham (the Land of the Semites, translated these days as Greater Syria) was a province of the early Islamic Caliphate, before being incorporated in the Ottoman Empire. The province was subdivided into military districts called ‘ajnad’ (singular ‘jund’), of which Jund Filastin (Palestine) was one. Jund Dimashq (the district of Damascus) was the largest and included most of present day Lebanon, Jordan and the southern half of present-day Syria. The Ottomans later changed the organisation repeatedly, redrawing and renaming the provinces. And so did the Western powers after World War I. {public domain}

There was, then, Syria – another name that the West inherited from the ancient Greeks, who simply mispronounced the old name Aššūrāyu (Assyria). After the 7th century Arab Conquest, the province became known in Arabic as Bilad Al-Sham – the Land of the Semites; an apt name, given that its inhabitants spoke Semitic languages, Aramaic and perhaps some Hebrew. ‘Sham’, by the way (and not ‘Syria’) is the origin of the second ‘S’ in ‘ISIS’. Bilad Al-Sham included not just what is currently known (in theory, at least) as the Syrian Arab Republic, but also present-day Lebanon and ‘Palestine’ (another Greek name derived from the Philistines, Hellenic colonists who – sometime in the 12th century BCE – had established a handful of cities on the Mediterranean shore).

Around the 12th century BCE, proto-Hellenic 'Sea People' settled on the shore of the Mediterranean (see the red patch on the map). They were called Philistines. Which is why the ancient Greeks called the area Palestine. The name stuck especially in the West, which inherited the classic Graeco-Roman culture.

Around the 12th century BCE, proto-Hellenic ‘Sea People’ settled on the shore of the Mediterranean (see the red patch on the map). They were called Philistines. Which is why the ancient Greeks called the area Palestine. The name stuck especially in the West, which inherited the classic Graeco-Roman culture. {public domain image}

Although earmarked for revival as the old-new Jewish homeland, ‘Palestine’ was partitioned by its British rulers, with the Jordan River becoming a border and its Eastern bank (the lion’s share of the land) fashioned into a ‘royal’ fief for Britain’s local collaborators – the Hashimite clan, which was in the process of being ousted from its native Mecca by a rival clan, the Saudites. The newly established kingdom was ‘christened’ (ahem!) ‘Transjordan’ – literally ‘Beyond the Jordan [River]’. Needless to say, that had nothing to do with the will (or lack thereof) of local inhabitants: the land was only ‘Beyond the Jordan [River]’ when viewed from London!

Although part of the League of Nations Mandate of Palestine, the area east of the Jordan River was detached, prohibited for Jewish habitation and made into the Emirate (and later Kingdom) of Transjordan.

Although part of the League of Nations Mandate of Palestine, the area east of the Jordan River was detached, prohibited for Jewish habitation and made into the Emirate (and later Kingdom) of Transjordan. {public domain image}

To complete the ‘menu’, let me add Egypt (at the time a British ‘Protectorate’), Yemen (another British ‘Protectorate’), Somalia and Libya (Italian colonies)…

Not everything is the West’s fault, of course – there’s plenty of guilt to go around. What the previous (Ottoman) rulers bequeathed the new ones was fairly rotten eggs; the Western colonial powers did a good job at cracking them; and the local ‘kings’ and ‘lifetime presidents’ proceeded to vigorously scramble those ‘eggs’ – hence the rather appalling mess we see today.

But we live in the 21st century. And much too little has changed in the approach of some Western politicians – in the almost 100 years that passed since those initial ‘solutions’.

They still bring to the Middle East their quintessentially Euro-centric conceptions of ‘peoples’ or ‘nations’. In 1920, those were predicated on ‘race’ or ethnicity; these politically-correct, ‘multi-cultural’ days, they centre on the legal concept of ‘citizenship’ or ‘nationality’. But Middle Easterners have never been divided in ‘races’; and why would anyone care about citizenship of states which – on top of having been invented by foreigners – afford little protection and much oppression?

Clan and tribe are strong elements of identity in the Middle East. Beyond those, many define that identity along religious and linguistic lines. The word that best translates the Western concept of people/nation in Arabic is أمة (pronounced ‘umma’). It derives from the word ‘umm’ (meaning ‘mother’) and is often used in its Qur’anic sense: the ‘Nation’ or ‘Community’ of Islam. Apart from religion, it is easy to feel a sense of common affiliation with people who speak the same language – or at least who are able to communicate intelligibly using a common idiom, such as literary Arabic.

‘Multicultural’, ‘enlightened’ Westerners may have a hard time coming to terms with this reality. But unless they do, unless they shed the arrogance of ‘civilising’ the Middle East to their one-and-only understanding of humanity, they have only more blood and tears to contribute.

Take, for instance, the ‘Palestine problem’. Leaving aside the Western name and the fact that ‘Palestine from the River to the Sea’ is a Western invention, some Westerners have now decided that there are two peoples/nations in that country – and hence there should be a two-state solution; other Westerners want to turn the country into a multicultural heaven in which everyone lives with equal rights ever after – hence a one-state solution. Note how both ‘solutions’ juggle Euro-centric notions (in italics) and are predicated on the concept of people/nation with its changeable but always Euro-centric meanings: indeed, the ‘two-state solution’ uses the traditional understanding of the term ‘nation’, while the ‘one-state solution’ adopts a more recent meaning, one which a certain Western audience has come to regard as ‘progressive’, ‘modern’ or politically-correct.

As usual, the last thing those Westerners care about is the opinion of the ‘two peoples/nations’ in question. In fact, they have convinced themselves that both sides in the conflict think and behave like Westerners; that their aspirations are Western aspirations.

Western concepts (whether 1920-style or ‘progressive’) may indeed sound familiar and reasonable to Israeli ears. After all, the ancient Israelites may have originated as a super-tribal faith community, but centuries of dwelling as isolated islands of otherness have forged for the Jews an identity more similar to Western-style nationhood.

As for the ‘Palestinians’, however, who is to say? Westerners have decided that Palestinian Arabs are ‘a people’ – mostly because Westerners are familiar and comfortable with that concept. Make no mistake: I have no problem with Palestinian Arabs declaring themselves a people – if that’s how they feel and that’s what they wish. But it is a ‘Palestinian’ decision – not an Israeli or Western one. And the ‘Palestinians’ have yet to speak their collective mind on the matter.

Of course, there is the PLO, whose leaders must have ‘affirmed’ their peoplehood a zillion times. But who do those ‘leaders’ represent? Leaving aside the fact that they lost the only Palestinian elections that could (even superficially) be characterised as ‘free’; leaving aside the fact that they would lose the next ones, if they allowed them to happen; leaving aside all that, the half a million salaried PLO ‘apparatchiks’ and stipended ‘supporters’ are little more than mercenaries; their ‘political opinion’ is based on the bank account, not inner sense of identity. As for Hamas (which won those ‘free’ elections), they are much more concerned with faith and much less with ‘nationhood’ in the Western sense of the word.

So what do ‘the Palestinians’ really want? With no freedoms, no plebiscite and an oppressive, taboo-enforcing society, it is really hard to say. The best we can do, perhaps, is to look at opinion polls. Granted, those too are often politicised and are generally problematic in the absence of freedom; still, I believe it is useful to look at the latest (June-August 2016) ‘Joint Palestinian-Israeli Opinion Poll’. It contains some (however mild) criticism of both the PLO/Palestinian Authority and of Hamas – which makes it perhaps a bit more credible in my eyes.

The poll was conducted in Israel by the (strongly left-leaning) Israel Democracy Institute and by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in the West Bank and Gaza. The European Union supplied the funding, while the German outfit Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung provided ‘partnership and support’.

Predictably, one of the questions was:

“Do you support or oppose the solution based on the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, known as the two-state solution?”

Circa 51% of the 1,270-strong Palestinian sample and circa 59% of the similarly sized Israeli sample expressed support for ‘the two-state solution’. This is ‘the result’ that the poll authors and the Western funders promoted: a majority of Palestinians and Israelis still support the two-state solution. But, of course, some would say, the two sides have divergent understanding of the term: Israeli politicians usually say ‘two states for two peoples’, meaning a Jewish-majority state and a Palestinian Arab-majority state; Palestinian leaders, on the other hand, never say ‘for two peoples’ – their ‘two states’ are an 100% Arab ‘Palestine’ and an ‘Israel’ populated by Jews and Palestinian Arabs endowed with equal rights – including the ‘right of return’ for the PLO-estimated 7 million Palestinian refugees.

This time, however, the pollsters asked the question again, using a more precise wording:

“Mutual recognition of Palestine and Israel as the homelands of their respective peoples. The agreement will mark the end of conflict, the Palestinian state will fight terror against Israelis, and no further claims will be made by either side. Support or oppose?”

When presented with this version of the question, support among Palestinians dropped to just 40%; 57% declared their opposition to the idea. Among Israelis, support grew to 68%, with just 24% opposed.

In other words, only a minority of Palestinian Arabs support the ‘two-state solution’ – as understood by Westerners. Interestingly, that minority dropped to just 20%, when an additional condition was added: that the Palestinian state be devoid of “major/heavy weapons”. Even the putative deployment in Palestine of “a multinational force” only succeeded in raising the support among Palestinians to 36%.

But then the pollsters did something really interesting: this time they addressed only those who answered ‘opposed’ to the ‘Mutual recognition, etc.’ question and offered them additional incentives to change their mind to ‘support’.

A ‘bribe’ of $30 to $50 billion “to help in settling those refugees wishing to live in the Palestinian state and compensating them” persuaded 31% of the ‘opposed’ Palestinians to change their mind and ‘support’. Perhaps surprisingly to some (but certainly not to me), the biggest change of mind occurred in Gaza (41%, compared to just 25% in the West Bank). Gaza, of course, is home to considerably more ‘refugees’, who are likely to benefit personally from the financial windfall. By the way, that same windfall to the Palestinians (combined no doubt with the idea of settling the refugees in Palestine, not in Israel) persuaded 37% of ‘opposed’ Israelis to swing to ‘support’.

But financial incentives are tricky. No doubt, they would be welcome; but what happens after they have been paid? Even more pertinently, what happens when much of the expected windfall is siphoned off by the PLO kleptocracy, while a lot is wasted through the corruption and incompetence of a ‘civil service’ populated by cronies? What happens when the windfall fails to fulfil those great expectations?

Non-financial (or not-directly-financial) incentives are more interesting.

When offered membership of the European Union for ‘Palestine’, 32% of the Palestinian nay-sayers changed their tune to ‘support’ the proposed two-state deal.

The offer of a confederation with Jordan persuaded 29% of those ‘opposed’ to change their mind to ‘support’.

Now, that’s interesting. Both joining the European Union and establishing a confederation with Jordan would involve a certain limitation of sovereignty, in comparison to an utterly independent, self-standing state. With that in mind, perhaps, only 12% of Israelis opposed to the deal changed their mind when offered EU membership. Yet rather than being put off, the yearning-for-independence Palestinians interpreted those offers as strong incentives. In fact, within the constraints of the poll’s statistical significance, they reacted much in the same way to the direct financial incentive, to the offer of EU membership and to the idea of a confederation with Jordan. Now, I can understand that EU membership may hold the attraction of freedom, good governance, rule of law and an indirect, but perhaps more tangible financial windfall. But none of the above applies to a confederation with the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan!

This may be surprising to those Westerners who only listen to themselves. But it is hardly new. West Bank ‘Palestinians’ have been ‘united’ with East Bank ‘Jordanians’ between 1948 and 1967 – and no ‘intifada’ took place. They had representatives in the ‘Jordanian’ Parliament, ministers in the ‘Jordanian’ government and carried ‘Jordanian’ passports; in fact they carried them until 1988, when their ‘Jordanian’ nationality was unilaterally (and illegally) rescinded by the Hashimite king. According to another opinion poll (run by An-Najah University and published in May 2016), 42.3% of Palestinians support the confederation project while 39.3% oppose it.

We do not know what ‘Jordanians’ think of such idea; opinion polls in that country are viewed as ‘a bridge too far’. But, for whatever that’s worth, former Jordanian Prime Minister Abdelsalam al-Majali, announced (speaking in the West bank city of Nablus) that he personally supported a confederation. That’s hardly evidence of popular support, of course; but in Jordan’s tightly controlled political environment, such ‘personal’ statements are inconceivable without the monarch’s blessing.

What, then, does all this mean in terms of that beloved Western ‘solution’? Not much, perhaps. There are no ‘solutions’ in the Middle East, only processes. Processes that most Westerners do not understand. Including the self-described ‘experts’, none of whom managed to predict – or even correctly interpret – a ‘Spring’ that (so far) killed 500,000 people and displaced ten million.

Let us not mince words: the Middle East is still the playground of Western politicians with neo-colonialist instincts. As ever – they lack any deep understanding of ‘Eastern’ (especially Middle Eastern) issues. As ever – they try to advance their own interests, with no regard for the unimportant desires and aspirations of ‘the natives’. As ever – they envisage ‘solutions’ that involve drawing lines on a map. As ever – they attempt to allay their own conscience (and dupe their constituencies), by wrapping a mantle of noble intentions around their rather base mindset. Deep in their hearts, these white neo-colonialists despise what they see as uncivilised, swarthy natives, forever incapable of getting along with each other. Like adults witnessing a fight among children, they patronisingly command those ‘natives’ to ‘just shake hands and be friends’.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and EU High Representati ve Federica Mogherini congratulate each other in New York. They have finally set the Middle East right!

US Secretary of State John Kerry and EU High Representati ve Federica Mogherini congratulate each other in New York. They have finally set the Middle East right! {public domain photo}

In truth, neo-colonialist Westerners have little empathy with Israeli Jews or with Palestinian Arabs – and even less interest in understanding the conflict between them; what they’re really after is a ‘solution’ to their own worries – one that would provide: a) uninterrupted flow of oil and b) good-old docile ‘Gastarbeiter,’ rather than vindictive Islamists.

There’s only one short sentence that the Middle East owes these Westerners – and that’s ‘Mind your own business!’