Jewish settlements, the economy of Israel/Palestine, and Palestinian statehood

In two earlier posts (here and here), I wrote about some questions that I have about the viability of a Palestinian state. In the first, I mentioned George Gilder’s article on settlements. I finally did get a chance to read it, and it’s quite thought-provoking. Like Efraim Karsh (who I wrote about before), Gilder contends that Palestinian Arabs benefited from the Zionist project before Israel was founded in 1948. He uses the words of an American observer, an expert in agricultural techniques, to support his case. Here is one excerpt:

AS LOWDERMILK recounted in his book, in the 21 years between 1921 and 1942, the Jews increased the number of enterprises four-fold, the number of jobs more than ten-fold, and total invested capital from a few hundred thousand dollars to the equivalent of $70 million in 1942 dollars. Particularly significant in Lowdermilk’s view were the purchases of large expanses of unused Arab land by Jewish settlers, many of whom had earned the necessary funds by their own hard work on the arid soils. On most occasions, the settlers bought only a small proportion of an individual Arab’s holding and paid three or four times what similar plots sold for in Syria (and far more even than in Southern California). Thus the Jewish purchases provided capital for Arab farms, allowing a dramatic expansion of their production. “In cases where the land belongs to absentee owners and tenants are forced to move…I found that the Jewish purchasers had provided compensation to enable the tenants to lease other property.”

He also writes that Arabs living in Israel are better off than Arabs in other countries, and that Israeli policies have benefited the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Here’s one example:

Israelis now purify and recycle some 95 percent of the nation’s sewage, including imports of sewage from the West Bank and Gaza — “They sell us sewage and we give them potable water,” said one Israeli official. Israel is pioneering ever more efficient forms of drip irrigation and gains some 50 percent of its water from world-leading desalinization plants. With an array of new hydrological innovations, Israel provides the crucial answers to the acute water crisis that afflicts the Middle East and much of the rest of the world. Just as the Israeli settlers enabled the emergence of an economy in Palestine, so they offer the prospect of saving the entire region from water exhaustion and poverty after the oil boom ends.

Gilder’s arguments would be vigorously disputed by many,  but they’re not based on fantasy. The hardest thing to know is how much reality looks like what Gilder describes vs. how much it looks like what Palestinian advocates describe. One thing that gives me pause about adopting Gilder’s narrative wholesale is an editorial that he recently wrote for the Wall Street Journal, in which he claimed that, in contrast to supporting Palestinian statehood,

At a time of acute recession, debt overhang, suicidal energy policy and venture capitalists who hope to sustain the U.S. economy and defense with Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, U.S. defense and prosperity increasingly depend on the ever-growing economic and technological power of Israel.

If we stand together we can deter or defeat any foe. Failure, however, will doom the U.S. and its allies to a long war against ascendant jihadist barbarians, with demographics and nuclear weapons on their side, and no assurance of victory. We need Israel as much as it needs us.

This strikes me as protesting too much. Israeli achievements are indeed impressive, but making that case is a bit much. There was also a paragraph that had some pretty glaring historical errors. Allow me to fisk it, but with the acknowledgement that Mr. Gilder is much more knowledgeable and accomplish than I am:

Actions have consequences. When the Palestinian Liberation Organization launched two murderous Intifadas [the PLO didn’t launch the first one; they were surprised by it and their leadership was headquartered in Tunisia] within a little over a decade, responded to withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza by launching thousands of rockets on Israeli towns [Hezbollah, which is not a Palestinian group but a Lebanese Shia group, launched them from Lebanon; Hamas, launched them from Gaza], spurned every sacrificial offer of “Land for Peace” from Oslo through Camp David, and reversed the huge economic gains fostered in the Palestinian territories between 1967 and 1990, the die was cast.

It’s time to move on.

The point of the paragraph is defensible, though, that perhaps the Palestinians have forfeited their right to a state. I can’t make that call. But this brings me to my last point.

If I read the situation right, there are three justifications offered for Palestinian statehood:

  • The most prominent is based on Palestinian nationalism: the Palestinians are a people and deserve a state. But there’s no way to settle all of the various nationalist claims in the world because they overlap with each other. Plus, nations (at least in the modern sense) aren’t as eternal as nationalists want them to be. People living in certain areas change their national allegiance over time. Even the idea of a nation, as nationalism defines nations, is a modern phenomenon.
  • Secondly, there’s anger that Israel occupies land once ruled by Muslims. There can be a sense among some Muslims (I don’t know the percentages) that the House of Islam is always supposed to expand. Osama bin Laden was upset that Spain was no longer under Muslim rule. Obviously, this standard can’t be accommodated.
  • Third, there’s a sense that humans are divided into different peoples and cultures, but not necessarily “nations” in the modern sense. This is very old and you can find language like this in the Bible and Greek and Roman sources (and countless other places, I assume). But how is this older sense different from modern nationalism? I imagine that part of the difference is that the modern nation is often seen as the object of supreme importance to nationalists (“self-love” is a word sometimes used to describe it), and there’s not necessarily the expectation that every people has to define itself as a nation-state or by the standards of nineteenth-century European nationalism. This older sense might be more natural. And it can also explain why Palestinians might not want to be ruled by Israelis, even if the economy improves. On the other hand, I read something the other day that suggested that some Palestinians have said that they ought to give up the quest for a state and just apply for Israeli citizenship. It seems that Gilder would recommend this path. But it would also create a problem for Israel, a country founded on Jewish nationalism as a Jewish state: could they absorb millions of non-Jews and remain a Jewish state?

That’s kind of a muddled last paragraph, so I need your help. Is there a difference between the nations, peoples, and cultures familiar to ancient people (and especially as discussed in the Bible) and the modern sense of nationalism? Is that distinction helpful in thinking about Israelis and Palestinians?



  1. I feel a little silly opining since you’re far more qualified than I am to answer your own question, but this is the Internet, gosh darn it, and you’re entitled to my opinion! 😉

    I think self-love (including some bigotry) is probably common to ancient and modern peoples. But your second one: “The expectation that every people has to define itself as a nation-state” seems quite significant to me.

    i.e. What might be unique about nationalism is its large granularity and formalism: the unity and cohesiveness is at the level of a vast nation rather than the smaller ancient tribalism and loose alliances. Nationalism not only draws bright lines between nations to ensure autonomy, it also tends to dissolve internal lines and powers of tribes, so that the nation takes precedence as a cohesive actor.

    A nation of Palestine has been thrust upon the Palestinian people and the externality of that imposition (and the benefits of opposing it) may be reflected by their lack of cohesion. Israel needs Palestinians to act as a nation more than Palestinians do. The US, Israel, etc. tries to prop up and encourage leadership and institutions that promote such cohesiveness and enforcement. I doubt Palestinians appreciate that; I probably wouldn’t.

    Of course, a Palestine that seeks the destruction of Israel must itself be destroyed. This is the paradox.

  2. You wrote, “i.e. What might be unique about nationalism is its large granularity and formalism: the unity and cohesiveness is at the level of a vast nation rather than the smaller ancient tribalism and loose alliances. Nationalism not only draws bright lines between nations to ensure autonomy, it also tends to dissolve internal lines and powers of tribes, so that the nation takes precedence as a cohesive actor.”

    I think that’s accurate. Perhaps a mark of modern nationalism is the importance of uniformity that ancient empires and kingdoms could rarely have hoped for. So the tie to the modern state is important.

    You’re right that Israel now needs the Palestinians to act more like a nation. Historically, it’s my understanding Israel has wanted to undermine Palestinian nationalism, at least since 1948. I understand why they did this: Israel was a new state surrounded by enemies that refused to recognize its right to exist and with an Arab population of its own. Elements within the Israeli government, for example, allowed Hamas to emerge so that it would be a competitor to the PLO. Some have argued that Israeli settlements are intended to break up the Palestinian community in the West Bank. Until the 1987 intifada and 1993 Oslo Accords, I don’t know that many Israelis wanted to think of the Palestinians as a nation or a people. Of course, before 1948, it would be hard to argue that too many people thought of the Palestinians as a people or a nation. To the extent that Palestinians had a national consciousness, many were probably Syrian or Arab nationalists.

  3. Great points. Israel would want to undermine any historic claim to a Palestinian nation in the territories, and as you note, they’d probably be right. At the same time, Israel needs them cohesive enough for meaningful negotiations, but they can’t allow them the autonomy afforded to nations while Israel’s security is threatened.

    Israel not only needs a cohesive negotiating partner but also a partner for peace. I think Hamas looked peaceful early on and I wonder if Arafat actually had the support to make peace. So Hamas may have seemed to have better potential on both counts.

    I’ve read some explanations of the settlements but I haven’t heard that they were intended to break up the Palestinian community. I suppose that might weaken them to some extent, but I’m not sure I buy it.

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