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Why did thousands of Palestinians yesterday converge upon Israel’s borders? Partly because Syria’s war-criminal leader, Bashar al-Assad, and his ally, Hezbollah, wanted them to.But there’s more to it than that. Palestinians also marched from Jordan and Egypt, whose governments did their best to stop the protests. In fact, they marched from every corner of the Palestinian world, in a tech-savvy, coordinated campaign.
What hit Israel yesterday was the Palestinian version of the Arab spring.
Something fundamental has changed. I grew up believing that we—Americans and Jews—were the shapers of history in the Middle East. We created reality; others watched, baffled, paralysed, afraid. In 1989, Americans gloated as the Soviet Union, our former rival for Middle Eastern supremacy, retreated ignominiously from the region.
When Saddam Hussein tried to challenge us from within, we thrashed him in the Gulf War. Throughout the 1990s, we sent our economists, law professors and investment bankers to try to teach the Arabs globalization, which back then meant copying us. In a thousand ways, sometimes gently, sometimes brutally, we sent the message: We make the rules; you play by them.
For Jews, this sense of being history’s masters was even more intoxicating. For millennia, we had been acted upon. Mere decades earlier, American Jews had watched, trembling and inarticulate, as European Jews were destroyed. But it was that very impotence that made possible the triumph of Zionism, a movement aimed at snatching history’s reins from gentiles, and perhaps even God.
Beginning in the early 20th century, Zionists created facts on the ground. Sometimes the great powers applauded; sometimes they condemned, but acre by acre, Jews seized control of their fate. As David Ben-Gurion liked to say, “Our future does not depend on what gentiles say but on what Jews do.” The Arabs reacted with fury, occasional violence, and in Palestine, a national movement of their own. But they could rarely compete, either politically or militarily. We went from strength to strength; they never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
That world is gone. America and Israel are no longer driving history in the Middle East; for the first time in a long time, Arabs are. In Tahrir Square, Egypt’s young made a revolution. President Obama bowed to reality and helped show Hosni Mubarak the door; Benjamin Netanyahu stood athwart history, impotently yelling stop. Now Egypt’s leaders are doing its people’s will, bringing Hamas and Fatah together in preparation for elections. Hamas and Fatah are complying because they fear their own Tahrir Square.
They sense that in Palestine too, a populist uprising stirs; that’s part of what yesterday’s marches were about. For American and Israeli leaders accustomed to Palestinian autocrats and Palestinian terrorists, this is something new. Netanyahu and his American backers are demanding that Obama rewind the clock, but he can’t. The Palestinians no longer listen to functionaries like George Mitchell. They have lost faith in American promises, and they no longer fear American threats. Instead, they are putting aside their internal divisions and creating facts on the ground.
When Israelis look at Salam Fayyad, who Mahmoud Abbas reportedly wants to be prime minister of the united Palestinian government, they see a man with all the qualities old-fashioned Zionists revere. He does not bluster; he builds his state. And he does so based on a ruthlessly unsentimental view of the world. While Netanyahu and the gerontocrats of the American Jewish establishment yearn for a return to the days of George W. Bush, Fayyad has developed a strategy for the post-American age.
He knows that if Netanyahu continues to entrench the occupation and Palestinian leaders keep nonviolently demanding a state near the Green Line, it won’t ultimately matter what Obama does. The more America sticks by Netanyahu, the less relevant America will become. Other powers will begin taking matters into their own hands, and their strategies for achieving a two-state solution will have none of the tenderness of Dennis Ross. Just last week, German and French companies pulled out of railway projects in the West Bank.
The Palestinians could still blow it. They could return to widespread terrorism; yesterday’s protests, if they continue, could force Abbas to take a harder line on refugee return, thus making it easier for Netanyahu to say no. But Netanyahu would be foolish to bet on that. From Egypt to Turkey to Palestine, Israel now faces something it hasn’t faced before: adversaries at home in a democratic age. This is not a movement that tear gas can stop.
The Palestinians are taking control of their destiny because Israel has not. Zionism, which at its best is the purposeful, ethical effort to make Jews safe in the land of Israel, has become—in this government—a mindless land grab, that threatens Jewish safety and Jewish ethics alike. Once upon a time, when the Arabs were hapless and America was omnipotent, Israel could get away with that. Not anymore. If Barack Obama cannot get Benjamin Netanyahu to endorse—and work toward—a Palestinian state near 1967 lines, events will pass them both by. Others will take the initiative; in the Middle East, the U.S. and Israel will increasingly find their destinies in other nation’s hands. For those of us raised to believe that Americanism and Zionism were can-do faiths, it is harder to imagine any crueler irony than that.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.