While talking about his upcoming trip to the Middle East, United States Secretary of State Colin Powell last weekend stated his view that time was not on the side of either the Arabs or the Israelis. My guess is that Mr Powell is wrong well, perhaps not totally wrong, because obviously both sides suffer with the continuation of the conflict; but perhaps his concept of time is a peculiarly American one that see the world differently than do the peoples of the Middle East and other parts of the world, who, unlike Americans, tend to have long historical memories and deep attachment to specific pieces of land.
The two most important aspects of time in relation to the current difficult political and emotional landscape of the Arab-Israeli conflict relate to historical and current time. In historical time, and specifically in the context of what we might call political psychology, we now witness a cruel symmetry between Israelis and Palestinians.
This symmetry reflects two issues. The first is that the Palestinian exile since 1948 has now equaled the duration of the ancient Babylonian exile of the Jewish people of Judah. The Babylonian exile started in 587/6 BC and lasted until around 537 BC, some half a century. The Palestinian exile and diaspora have now lasted for the same period of time. Why is this symbolic or significant?
Because in both cases, we can witness an equally fervent desire by ancient Jews and contemporary Palestinians to end their exile and return to their homes (an interesting point that Israelis should ponder today when they consider the issue of the Palestinian right of return: when they were allowed by the Persians to return to Judaea and rebuilt their Jerusalem temple in the late 6th Century BC, many, perhaps most, of the exiled Jews in Babylon chose not to return, but rather remained in Mesopotamia, leading to the emergence of the powerful cultural and political force of Babylonian Judaism). People around the world today sing modern rock songs whose lyrics recall the Jewish exile in Babylon, reflecting the strong memory and enduring symbolism of the Babylonian exile and its universal perception as a metaphor for every human beings struggle to live in freedom in his or her own country. We are starting to witness a similar globalization of the symbols of Palestinian national struggle, a s the Palestinian headdress (the keffiyyeh) has started to be adopted by some leftist political groups around the world as a symbol of their common struggle against the forces of colonialism, hegemonic economic imperialism, and other nasty things.
The second dimension of symmetry in historical time is that the Palestinians are now into their second century of the struggle between Palestinian and Jewish national rights in the land of Palestine/Israel. If we pinpoint the conceptual start of the Arab-Israeli conflict as the publication of Theodor Herzls book The Jewish State in 1896, then we are now in the first decade of the second century of this conflict that is, we have moved beyond the conflict as a localized and passing episode and have entered the realm of biblical time.
In biblical time, as the history of the Jewish people shows us, several significant things happen: memories of past injustices and suffering persist among succeeding generations, and must be erased by future generations; ones association with a specific piece of land becomes transformed into a burning and central element of ones personal and national identity, and must be actualized in order for peace, serenity and justice to reign in the hearts of men and God; and, the willingness to suffer as one persists in the struggle for ones rights gets stronger and more meaningful with every generation, and the ability to endure pain increases correspondingly.
We enter biblical time when a people refuses to be obliterated, and instead pursues an epic struggle for its rights in its ancestral soil. The Jewish people first entered biblical time in the middle of the second millennium BC (according to the biblical narrative), when they refused to submit to national subjugation in Egypt and struggled to reconstitute themselves as a nation in the land of Canaan. The Palestinians entered biblical time only in the past five years, as they also refuse to vanish as victims of historical circumstance and instead continue to struggle for their rights in their ancestral land in Palestine.
These two aspects of historical time are complemented by important dimensions of current time and its impact on diplomatic efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The most important ones, from the common Arab perspective, are that, a) time forces the Israelis to come to terms with the legitimacy and particular demands of Palestinian national rights (i.e., succeeding Israeli governments will continue to make more reasonable compromise offers in negotiating a permanent peace accord with the Palestinians); and, b) the continued Israeli occupation and subjugation of Palestinians will only increase support for the Palestinians throughout the Arab World, and frustrate Israeli efforts to normalize relations with other Arab countries.
It is not clear if these perceptions are actually correct, or are merely sentiments or wishes among many Arabs. It is very clear, though, that once we enter biblical time, as the Jewish experience teaches us par excellence, time becomes a double frame within which two important things occur: a subjugated people finds the sustenance to keep struggling for its rights across the centuries and the millennia, and it generates the fortitude to maintain its identity and national certitude in the face of painful vulnerabilities in the more transient realm of current time. The more force you use against a people in biblical time, the less impact your force has on them, and the harder they will fight to achieve their rights.
Colin Powell will have a lot of time on airplanes during his trip to the Middle East to read up on some of this stuff, which he can find in any reasonably accurate translation of the Bible, or any history book that covers more than one generation of time. While hes assessing the Middle East ten years after the Gulf War, he might take a moment to assess the Middle East 4000 years after the start of biblical time and the Arab and Israeli people who live in that time.