Toilets in the sand
Bret Stephens September 3, 2004 — There’s a memorable passage in James Clavell’s novel King Rat in which a British pilot, shot down over the Dutch East Indies during WWII, is offered refuge by a tribe of Javanese natives. Taken to the headman’s hut, the pilot observes a porcelain toilet bowl “complete with a seat and lid.” It’s not connected to any kind of pipe, pit, or septic tank, much less to a proper sewage system. It’s just there, rather in the way a Javanese spear might be displayed as an objet d’art in the home of a wealthy London collector. The pilot asks the headman, “What is the significance of the toilet?” The headman replies, “It has no significance, other than it pleases me to watch the faces of my guests and hear them thinking, ´What a ridiculous ornament in a house.´ ” At least the headman had a sense of humor. Not all toilet-ornament owners do. On the Alexanderplatz, in what used to be East Berlin, stands a 365-meter tall TV tower, built in the 1960s as a symbol of the German Democratic Republic´s permanence. In Pyongyang, North Korea, there is the 3,000-room Ryugyong Hotel, 105 stories high, crumbling and deserted. Elsewhere in the former and remaining Communist world lie hundreds of other Potemkin-like monuments to regime self-deception. Nor is the free world immune from such costly vanities: think of the Millennium Dome, the Eurofighter, Concorde, NASA´s Space Shuttle. All were economically unsustainable prestige projects built for nationalistic, rather than pragmatic, reasons. Each, in its way, proved a failure. I MENTION all this as preface for the column I promised readers last week, provoked as I was by a Washington Post op-ed that warned that the planned settlement between Jerusalem and Ma´aleh Adumim would render a Palestinian state an impossibility. Why impossible? According to author Daniel Seidemann, the planned building “will cut East Jerusalem off from its environs in the West Bank, virtually ruling out the possibility of East Jerusalem ever becoming the national seat of Palestine. Given the topography, it will dismember the West Bank into two cantons, with no natural connection between them. If implemented, the plan will create a critical mass of facts on the ground that will render nearly impossible the creation of a sustainable Palestinian state with any semblance of geographical integrity.” The idea that a country requires geographical integrity is an odd one: Hawaii is no less “viable” as a state than, say, Maryland, despite the fact that Hawaii is separated from the mainland by many thousand kilometers (and is itself not territorially contiguous). As it is, a Palestinian state consisting of Gaza and the West Bank was never going to have geographical integrity anyway, even if Israel withdrew fully to the June 1967 lines. True, the continental US is huge and a prospective Palestinian state would be tiny. But why should tiny states be intrinsically less viable than large ones? Is Iraq more viable than The Netherlands? Is the Congo more viable than Slovenia? Please. Palestinians could yet build a Monte Carlo in Jericho, a Vatican state in Bethlehem, a Luxembourg in Ramallah, a Cyprus in Gaza, a Singapore in Nablus, and so on. These so-called Bantustans would then look like stars in a constellation. In fact, the entire issue of a Palestinian state´s territorial viability is bogus – a substitute way of justifying why Palestinians won´t settle for less than X-amount of territory. This isn´t to say that there is something the matter with Palestinians holding out for as much territory as they can get, just as there is nothing the matter with Israel doing the same. It´s normal behavior. But the significant point is that a country´s viability, or “sustainability,” is chiefly a function of the quality of governance, not the extent of terrain. Israel will surely continue to a be thriving, democratic, technologically advanced nation-state following any pullout from Gaza and the West Bank. And Palestine will likely continue to be a Third World kleptocracy, or worse, whether they achieve 50% of their stated territorial demands, or 100% of them, or more. Not everyone would agree with this forecast – no doubt, Palestinian youth will be turning to software engineering the moment they´re through resisting occupation. But most of us suspect, along with Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, that Palestine is on course to becoming “another Arab regime,” which is to say a semi-failed state. Why? It´s easy to make the usual points: Landlocked territory, the hangover of occupation, scarce natural resources, overpopulation, not enough loving kindness from the Americans and so on. But anyone who thinks matters through knows all this is nonsense: Palestine will become another Arab regime because the Palestinian leadership thinks of statehood the way the North Korean leadership thinks of hotels, or the Javanese headman thinks of toilets. That is, they think of statehood as a kind of ornament. Here the contrast with the Israel, and particularly with the pre- state yishuv, is instructive. What strikes even the most casual student of the period is how meticulously the early Zionists laid the groundwork for independence: How they created a set of non- governmental political and social institutions, such as the Jewish Agency and the Histadrut, that could quickly be adapted for statehood. This was not glamorous work, but it suggested an understanding that a state, like a toilet, requires an elaborate understructure in order to function properly. Observing the long gestation of Palestine, one sees different processes at work. There are many ministries, but these seem to have been designed for the purpose of creating ministers and deputy ministers and clerks. A great deal of attention has been paid to the design of Palestinian military uniforms. And, of course, there are the propagandistic emblems of statehood: billboard posters of Arafat next to the Dome of the Rock and the like. Striking here is how much attention is lavished on surface, versus how little on structure. It is like a child´s idea of statehood: flags, parades, titles. But states, like buildings, are feats of architecture in which engineering comes first, aesthetics second. A well-built state, like a well-built house, depends chiefly on what is unseen. The Palestinian state has been built the opposite way, which is why, even at the height of Oslo, it seemed such a flimsy thing; and why, even now, the only things that still work are Israeli-made: the electricity grid, the telephone lines, the hospitals, the sewage system, the roads, the currency. NONE OF this is to say a Palestinian state is a bad idea: Personally, I´m for it. Or, to be more precise, I´m for Israel separating cleanly from the Palestinians, with whatever territorial adjustments that may require. What happens to “Palestine” and the Palestinians after that doesn´t really interest me, just as I could care less whether Syria has good public transport or Jordan has quality health care. It may be the Palestinians will make a go of things and become a qualitative addition to the international community, in Mahmoud Abbas´s fine phrase. More likely, Palestine will not survive the death of its ultimate symbol, Yasser Arafat, and will once again blend or collapse into the larger Arab world. What I do think is important is that the world think clearly about just what sort of enterprise it has embarked on with its support for Palestinian statehood. For instance, when a Seidemann insists on the need for geographical integrity, what does this mean? To me, it seems to imply a state for which land is the ultimate value. But should it be? Or does this simply perpetuate the wrong idea of what a functioning state chiefly requires? It should be remembered that the 1947 UN Partition Plan that David Ben-Gurion accepted, and the Arabs rejected, would have given Israel still less land than what it gained by the end of the War of Independence. But B-G understood that the success of his enterprise rested above all on the soundness of its institutions, not whether it was in Gaza or Ramallah. No wonder Israel succeeded, and gained in strength and size. No wonder, too, that the Palestinians have so consistently failed.