Hazem Saghieh

On Attaining a State, Not Losing States

Every student of political science knows that politics, whether we call it a science or an art, is about the state: it revolves around state affairs and examines its possibilities, weaknesses, and strengths, as well as proposing alternatives when conditions deteriorate, or thinking about how to develop it in a manner that allows for better representation of its citizens' aspirations and interests.

Thus, there can be no politics or political thought without a state. Many other things would not be possible either, foremost among them the preservation of individual life and the prosperity of communities.

The Moroccans probably provided the most precise Arabic terminology for this when they introduced the notions of “Makhzen” and “Siba.” The Makhzen is where the state’s money is stored; it is the seat of politics, governership, administration, and defense. Meanwhile, the Siba is where no taxes are paid, no state is established, and there is no security force to safeguard people’s lives and property and protect them from gangs and bandits. Linguistically, siba means abandonment, negligence, and taking a misguided course or rushing forward impulsively.

This universal rule also applies to the Palestinians. Their national action ultimately amounts to the pursuit of a state that takes the population from the Siba to the Makhzen. That is their right, just as it is for every other people in the world. They have struggled and continue to struggle for this right, regardless of the broad banner under which they have sought to achieve this end at this or that stage.

The demand for a state and that this state be independent once it is established, has defined national Arab politics since the dawn of the 20th century. This probably began with the 1919 revolution led by the Wafd Party and Saad Zaghloul in Egypt, before spreading to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, and other countries.

We could argue that if the Arab world had managed, between 1948 and the present, to establish just states that respect their citizens and are respected by the world, it would have done far more to help the Palestinians and their cause than it has with the wars that have been waged and the armed groups formed in the name of Palestine that precipitated inta-Arab civil wars.

Respectable states would have negated the need for Palestinians to solicit support, their cause would not have been exploited to compensate for regimes' lack of legitimacy, and these states would have presented an encouraging model to the world to seek a replica in Palestine.

No one knows this better than Benjamin Netanyahu, who has always been extremely hostile to the establishment of a Palestinian state that would harmonize the history of Palestine and that of the world, especially the surrounding Arab region. As has become well known, this explains many of his policies aimed at entrenching the rift between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as reinforcing the sentiment of some Gazans that they could do without the West Bank. To that end, he funded their wish, represented by Hamas to dispense with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank or turned a blind eye to the funds being sent to them.

However, the past decades of Levantine history have witnessed a coup against the course that was taken in Egypt in 1919. This period did not see the development of respectable states that ensure justice for their population, one of whose achievements would have strengthened the Palestinians’ negotiating position, and there has thus been no progress towards a Palestinian state. Instead, what happened is that states were hollowed out from the inside over a long time, and the quasi-state established in Palestine in 1993 did not escape this fate.

That is how despotism, corruption, Iranian encroachment on national sovereignty, the explosion of sectarian identities, and subjection to occupations converged, with the rise of militias - with their arms, parallel economies, ethic, their transnational expansion, and total negation of states - becoming the most overarching theme of this process.

This decay and degeneracy always found reinforcement in a populist and nihilistic culture that claims to replace the state with the "umma" (nation), which is actually a certain community that is not at all keen on the unity of society and is extremely keen on maintaining its dominance through foreign powers, or presenting the state as a mere tool in the hands of one class that uses it to oppress the others.

As a result of this shift, the deep meaning of the Palestinian cause is no longer attaining a state. Rather, a totally antithetical conception has prevailed. The trajectory that is currently on the rise, which is accompanied by countless forms of populist interpretations, is the exploitation of this cause to push profoundly imbalanced and fractured existing states to dissolution and erasure. In one way or another, we see something of the sort in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and possibly also Iraq and Jordan. The peoples of these countries also now need states, albeit states of a different type than those of the ones they currently have, which participated to the demise of statehood.

The state is not made to be worshiped, nor is it a dragon that devours individual freedoms and rights in exchange for the provision of security, nor is it the pinnacle of human development or the ultimate manifestation of reason and freedom, nor is an eternal gift that can never be surpassed in the future. It is not Hobbes' Leviathan nor the highest stage of the Hegelian Geist on which history will settle.

Nevertheless, Palestine and other countries of ours need a state - a state whose existence can allow for its reform and perhaps transcendence. Although we are burdened by a surplus of authority and security, we in the Arab world, especially the Levant, do not have a surplus of statehood. What we do have is a horrific lack that threatens, in the name of obtaining a new state, to overthrow the existing ones.