December 16, 2011
Historically, there is ample documentation showing that a separate local Palestinian identity among Arabs living in Palestine started formulating in the 16th and 17th century, and that a national Palestinian consciousness started crystalizing early in the 20th century, as anti-colonial movements took root around the world. This national consciousness transformed into a national movement and later into a national liberation movement, in large part as a result of the friction between the Palestinians and Zionism, the Jewish national self-determination movement.
Modern Arab states in the eastern Mediterranean (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan) were created as their populations struggled to free themselves from post-Ottoman colonial powers (Britain and France) in the first half of the 20th century. Each state had its own unique circumstances. So did the area that today is Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The initiative to divide this area into two states, a Jewish state and an Arab Palestinian state, which was anchored in the United Nations' 1947 Partition Plan, was the local manifestation of this broader process in the Middle East, the process of ending colonial rule.
True, a Palestinian state did not come into being during this period, but such a state was endorsed by the international community at the same moment that the international community endorsed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1947.
All of that being said, while the development of Palestinian nationalism is a fascinating topic for historians and sociologists - as is the development of Zionism and a distinct Israeli identity - it has no relevance to the current situation in the Middle East. Today, Israelis and Palestinians are undeniably two peoples with two very strong national identities. And today these two peoples are struggling to find a formula for a historic compromise that will grant both peoples self-determination with international recognition. Today virtually all Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who in the past epitomized the rejection of Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian statehood, have endorsed the two-state solution, at least in principle, as the inevitable and necessary historical compromise.
And it's not only the leaders. Most Israelis today understand that Israel's future as a Jewish state that is truly democratic depends on the creation of a state for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Delegitimizing efforts to achieve such a state - or delegitimizing the Palestinians as a people that has a claim to such a state - directly threatens Israel's future.
Golda Meir's proclamation that "there is no such thing as Palestinians" was wrong and counterproductive when she made it in 1969. Repeating it today is wrong many times over, and does a terrible disservice to efforts to secure Israel's future through peace.