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The Dream Palaces of the Americans

Afghanistan belongs to the Taliban now, but the Washington elite still has Palestine as an object of its active fantasy life. Naftali Bennett would be wise to stick to the reality principle.

Lee Smith
August 26, 2021
Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ headquarters in Ramallah, May 2014Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ headquarters in Ramallah, May 2014Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

When new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with President Joe Biden and his minders at the White House today, a few things seem like sure bets. First, Bennett and his aides will lay out a scheme for keeping Iran from going nuclear, which the Americans will nod at and ignore. Second, the American side will solemnly raise the necessity of establishing a Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel.

Instead of nodding, smiling, and pretending to share the dream of peaceful democratic Palestinian statehood, Bennett could show true friendship to America by pointing to the example of Afghanistan. It’s clear no one in the American political establishment has yet internalized the lesson.

For 20 years, official Washington, D.C., dared not describe Afghanistan as it truly is and would be after America’s exit. It would have been gauche to do so—worse, it would have shown that one lacked vision, high ideals. Anyone who didn’t believe there was a democratic polity just waiting to escape its despotic chains and unleash its liberal energies was guilty of “the soft bigotry of low expectations”—that is, a racist. In this fun-house-mirror version of Afghanistan, America was building yet another city on a hill, a citadel whose government would promote Western gender theory’s latest findings, which would be enforced by elite special forces units trained by American officers and loyal to the central government in Kabul.

These elements of the Afghan dream state were part of a bespoke tapestry spun out by and for the policy establishment and Beltway defense contractors, NGO workers, think tank experts, and the rest of the client state. So long as everyone was getting paid, the mirage never hurt anyone—unless your child happened to subscribe to the fiction and put his or her life in danger either in uniform or as an aid worker. But now, the dream palace has burned to the ground, and as the smoke clears no one can mistake the fact that authentic Afghanistan is in the hands of the Taliban.

Bennett knows it would be more polite to nod along meaningfully with his hosts and that he’d insult them by explaining Palestinian statehood is a hallucination on the level of Afghan democracy. Speaking up, however, would nonetheless help safeguard the interests of his own country, while winning the favor of an American public that has seen their elites throw away the lives of thousands of the country’s most high-spirited and honorable young men and women to satisfy their whimsy.

Someone has to say something or else someday soon, the world will wake up to find that the Americans are no longer rich, and no longer capable of writing checks to flatter the vanity of an establishment that can’t distinguish reality from fiction. And maybe Bennett will be the man to shake their senses by simply stating the obvious­—like the two-decade-long effort to stand up democracy in Afghanistan, throwing lives and money at a future Palestinian state is a fools’ errand.

Bennett wouldn’t be the first to make the connection between the Palestinians and Afghanistan. In 2013, former Secretary of State John Kerry gave evidence that the U.S. establishment saw the two deadly fantasies as linked. He invited Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, “on a secret visit to Afghanistan to see, in his words, how the U.S. established a local military force that can stand up to terror on its own.” The message, Netanyahu said in a recent Facebook post, was clear: Kerry thought that the model the U.S. employed for Afghanistan would work for the Palestinians, too.

Declining the invitation to visit Kabul, Netanyahu correctly surmised that as soon as the U.S. withdrew forces, Afghanistan would come under the control of the Taliban. And the West Bank would also fall to an Islamist regime if Washington imposed the Afghanistan model there, too.

The Taliban victory is graphic evidence of a truth regarding Palestinian statehood that is typically dismissed as crude, racist Zionist propaganda: It doesn’t matter how much money and training the U.S. and the EU might pump into anyone’s vision of a democratic Palestine that lives side by side in peace with Israel and promotes gay rights and women’s education. It doesn’t matter whether it’s $5 billion or $50 billion or lasts for 10 years or 20. It’s not real. When the money, backed by overwhelming force, stops, the fantasy will collapse, and what’s left will be a nightmare for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Will the fantasy of Palestinian democracy last any longer than the fantasy of Afghan democracy did? Top to bottom: Mahmoud Abbas and Donald Trump, 2017; Barack Obama and Abbas, 2010; George W. Bush and Abbas, 2007; Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat, 1997; George H.W. Bush and Haidar Abdel-Shafi, head of the Palestinian delegation, 1991
Will the fantasy of Palestinian democracy last any longer than the fantasy of Afghan democracy did? Top to bottom: Mahmoud Abbas and Donald Trump, 2017; Barack Obama and Abbas, 2010; George W. Bush and Abbas, 2007; Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat, 1997; George H.W. Bush and Haidar Abdel-Shafi, head of the Palestinian delegation, 1991Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images; Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images; Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images; Joyce Naltchayan/AFP via Getty Images; David Ake/AFP via Getty Images

“The Palestinians,” wrote Netanyahu, “will not establish Singapore, they will establish a terror state in Judea and Samaria, a short distance from Ben-Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, Kfar Saba and Netanya.”

Of course, since Afghanistan is a landlocked country thousands of miles away and the Taliban has neither an air force nor a navy and can’t get anywhere near the U.S., it poses no threat at all to the American homeland. But now, the U.S. political establishment means to compound its 20-year-long blunder in Afghanistan by granting visas to tens perhaps hundreds of thousands of tribesmen and thereby introduce scores of potential terror threats here at home.

Why this madness? Because U.S. policymakers are trying to cheat reality. The Afghans who worked with them are being slaughtered by the Taliban and mass execution videos already in circulation remind the Americans they are as responsible as the Taliban for these gruesome murders. But this was always going to be the price for not winning. Instead of focusing on winning, our elites instead turned Afghanistan into a jobs program for Americans who pushed their agenda on people who didn’t want it or need it—parliamentary reform, art classes, women in the military, LGBT awareness, etc. What America’s Afghan partners needed was for the superpower occupying their lands to ensure victory, for losing would mean death. In war, losing always means death. So now our political class wants to pass responsibility for their moral and strategic failure on to other Americans by ushering thousands of unvettable Afghans across U.S. borders. Our ruling class will do anything to maintain its self-image as the curator of universal justice.

And that vanity is the same quality that keeps them pushing for a Palestinian state. After all, there are many hundreds of other subnational groups that have more of the usual stuff of nationhood than Palestinians do or ever will, like geographical contiguity; population; centuries of collective history expressed in history, stories, and art; prior experience of self-rule; physical control over key features like mountain passes and key ports; natural resources; being set apart from their neighbors by religion or language—all of which contribute to the necessary sense of group cohesion.

But even peoples or tribes who have many or all of these things at one point in time have never come close to achieving statehood, and outside a few activists, ideologues, and poets no one sheds a tear. Basques, Catalans, Bretons, residents of the Italian Veneto, Scots, Welsh, and other subnational groups that have all existed for centuries have all had their dreams of political independence crushed in the heart of supposedly ultracivilized Western Europe. But you don’t see the U.S. government funding the ETA, the Basque separatist terror group, or billionaire hippies celebrating their refusal to sell frozen treats in Spanish-occupied Catalonia.

What makes the Palestinians different than other subnational groups that will never achieve statehood is that powers across the globe have continued to foot the bill for their terror campaigns targeting Israelis, Americans, Arabs, and others. States that are otherwise hostile to each other, like the United States and Iran, or Europe and Turkey, are as one in continuing to fling suitcases of money at the Palestinian cause that could be spent more wisely at home, or by throwing them into the ocean. But why?

Paradoxically, the global conviction that Palestinian statelessness is a pressing historical injustice, and the money and attention they spend to rectify that injustice, are not proof of the inevitable victory of the Palestinian cause. Rather, they show that the Palestinians are not a nation. With similar levels of financial and political support, virtually any semicohesive population on the planet could build and sustain a small country. The Jordanians accomplished this feat with an improvised monarchy and a praetorian guard made up of Bedouin tribesmen and a few thousand Circassians.

Even more seemingly untenable constructions would be easy enough to sustain, for a while at least. With Palestinian-level money, the Copts of Egypt—a historically, religiously, and linguistically cohesive people—could stand up a small state. The post-pharaonic Coptic republic might not last long—Egypt’s Muslim population would invariably make war on it—but it would be a state, until America stopped paying for it. South Sudan became a state in 2011, with only a small fraction of the aid money Palestinians have received since the Arabs first made war on Israel more than 70 years ago. Even in the heart of the American empire, Native American tribes have achieved some measure of self-government, and in some cases obtained shares of profitable casino businesses that help to house and educate their people.

Have the Palestinians failed so miserably at even the basics of nation-building because they are not historically a national group? The archeological record, and the evidence of late-19th- and early-20th-century migration patterns, shows that modern-day Palestinians are an ad hoc collection of Arabic-speaking people who came from all corners of the Levant, mostly from Greater Syria but some perhaps from as far away as the Gulf. During the same years, Zionist Jews from Poland, Russia, and Yemen were making aliyah because they thought of themselves as members of a preexisting nation returning to their homeland, while Arabs came for the opportunities they believed that Jewish enterprise would create. The Palestinian movement became most cohesive when its leadership resolved to eliminate those same Jews. And that’s why if you remove the terror infrastructure from the Palestinian national movement, whether Fatah, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad, there is no Palestinian polity to speak of.

Many national movements used terror as an instrument in their struggles for statehood, including Israel, India, Vietnam, and the United States. None were reducible to it. The Palestinians are unique in having no political organization except for terror. This doesn’t mean that Palestinians, as individuals, are better or worse than anyone else. It just means that, contrary to the conviction of U.S. policymakers and their allies in the media, academic, and cultural establishments, the national idea at the core of Palestinian political culture cannot sustain a state-building enterprise.

The Palestinian movement is a historical byproduct of two larger, linked struggles: the Cold War, and what Middle East analysts call the Arab Cold War. This latter term refers to the regional struggle between Arab states—primarily Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia—which, while driven by its own internal dynamics, also intersected with the superpower standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was at the intersection of these two larger conflicts that the Palestinian national cause was created as an instrument used by Arab powers, who vied to control the factions, leadership, and other components of the Palestinian file in order to compete with each other and to service Moscow as it targeted U.S. regional allies. In turn, the CIA was interested in Palestinian terror groups as pieces on the global chessboard that could potentially be used to U.S. advantage against the USSR.

Yasser Arafat became the leader of the Palestinian national movement by putting all the competing factions under his control and thus, with Soviet backing, becoming the world’s leading terrorist. It was only natural that after his death, Palestinian terror groups would again go for each other’s throats. That one of these groups (Hamas) controls the Gaza Strip while another (the Palestinian Liberation Organization) runs the West Bank not only shows that the Palestinians are not a unitary people but also reflects the DNA of the Palestinian national enterprise.

Today’s Palestinians are the custodians of an abandoned Soviet outpost that was designed to host terror operations against Western interests. Yes, leading theorists of Western Marxism praised the Red Army Faction’s steely-eyed resentment of postwar Europe, while alienated graduate students affixed posters of Ulrike Meinhof to the walls of their squats. But nihilism, as the Soviets knew, is an elite practice, not a popular cause. To truly unmask the Western liberal bourgeoisie as sentimental hypocrites whose time had passed, it was necessary to strike at those they swore never again to forsake, whose culture and religion helped birth the conceptual and spiritual universe of the West—i.e., the Jews.

The Soviets created the Palestinian national movement with terror as its raison d’être in order to injure Israel and weaken the West’s strategic interests and destroy its cultural elan. It is a monument to Western self-loathing that while the Soviets are gone, in capitals throughout the West the fantasy of a Palestinian state lives on. We are still the same people the Soviets targeted—only, as the Afghan dream palace shows, more vulnerable to the deadly myths of our own making.

Credit the Biden administration for understanding the sociological and political reality of the Palestinian situation—if you’re not paying Palestinian terror groups, you’re not funding the Palestinians. When the White House pledged relief and reconstruction money to Gaza after Hamas attacked Israel this spring, it was not only underwriting the Islamic resistance movement’s latest war but incentivizing it to make war again. Biden’s State Department has reportedly deleted from its reports to Congress all references to the Palestinian leadership’s support for terrorism, and to its backing of economic warfare against Israel in the form of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The Biden team wanted to preempt congressional objections that the White House planned to send $360 million in taxpayer money to the Palestinians, including restarting payments to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which the Donald Trump administration cut off in 2018.

As former President Barack Obama told The New York Times in June, the Biden administration, which is staffed with people from his White House, is completing the work Trump interrupted. His top priority in the Middle East portfolio was the Iran nuclear deal. But the Palestinian issue is so central to Obama’s worldview that he sealed his final month in office with a U.N. Security Council Resolution (2334) that enshrined as U.S. policy the hardline Arab and Iranian position—even historical Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem are on occupied Palestinian land.

And still the Israeli establishment imagines that the smart move is to stay close to Washington by allowing the political establishment to indulge its fantasies. The example of Afghanistan shows that letting American elites project their fantasies onto your country is hardly a path to success—unless your goal is to leave your countrymen to their fate while you escape on a helicopter stuffed with cash.

Then Vice President Joe Biden and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meeting in Ramallah, West Bank, March 10, 2010
Then Vice President Joe Biden and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meeting in Ramallah, West Bank, March 10, 2010Debbie Hill - Pool/Getty Images

For us, holding our elites accountable for the catastrophes their fantasies engender abroad and are bringing home begins with clarity: Our foreign policy is a bipartisan disaster.

You can’t blame just the American left for pushing a Palestinian state. In seeking to confer statehood on a network of terror groups, the left is simply supporting the same cause it has since the Cold War. It was after the superpower struggle when the Republican Party threw open the Overton window to make room for a “two-state solution.” And it was the most patrician of American political dynasties who spearheaded this international exercise in extortion to threaten Jewish national existence—the Bushes. That’s right—the same family that wanted to make Afghanistan a democracy were the prime political movers in Palestinian statehood over the past several decades.

The George H.W. Bush administration is typically praised for its realist approach to the Middle East—it famously reasoned that deposing Saddam Hussein after driving him out of Kuwait would leave Washington responsible for Iraq’s future. And who wanted to take on a nation-building project of that magnitude? Yet with the Cold War ending, and the Bush administration descrying a new world over the horizon, Secretary of State James Baker stamped the GOP seal of approval on something equally wasteful of American energy and dangerous to U.S. interests. In October 1991, over the strenuous objections of Israel’s government, headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Washington invited a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation to a Middle East peace conference in Madrid that it co-sponsored with Moscow.

Rewarding the Arab states that supported Operation Desert Storm by giving the Palestinians an international platform was foolish on its face. It was the Arabs who owed their thanks to America, for rescuing not only the Kuwaiti regime, but all the royal families of the oil-producing Gulf states. Further, Washington assisted Syria’s Assad clan by crippling Saddam, its chief rival. Competent American statesmanship might have compelled the Arabs to demonstrate their gratitude by normalizing relations with Israel. Instead, they credentialed Palestinian terror.

From his exile in Tunisia, Arafat had made a big show of supporting the Iraqi dictator in the lead-up to the U.S.-led invasion, further alienating Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf powers he had blackmailed with terror threats for two decades. To forge a new world order, logic dictates eliminating those parts of the previous order that might prevent it—like Arafat. But by legitimizing Palestinian aspirations, Baker made Arafat’s return inevitable, since only the grand impresario of the Palestinian national movement could keep the factions from warring against each other.

George W. Bush’s strategic rationale for pushing the Palestinian cause was even more incoherent than his father’s. Less than a year after the attacks of Sept. 11, with U.S. troops dispatched to Afghanistan, and American forces massing in the Gulf to once again invade Iraq, Bush unveiled his peace plan envisioning a Palestinian state. At the time, Bush’s “Roadmap for Peace” was sold as brilliant statesmanship. He was waging war against Muslim extremists while simultaneously working to eliminate the rationale that Muslim extremists gave for 9/11—the historical injustice done to the Palestinians.

That is, even as the president sent American men and women into warzones, he was reinforcing the public messaging of the people trying to kill them.

Then the Bush administration doubled down: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed the Palestinians to hold elections. It was little surprise when Hamas defeated Fatah at the polls, since all public reporting showed that a Hamas victory was the inevitable outcome. For the Bush team, the problem was that the Palestinians had elected the terror group that U.S. policymakers hadn’t yet figured out how to pay.

That the Republican Party joined the global left in legitimizing the national aspirations of a terror cult set up to murder Jews while weakening a U.S. ally is hardly surprising. Left or right, it makes no difference: For the ruling class, their chief interest is maintaining and advancing the self-image of an elite that in spite of all evidence to the contrary claims to bend the world to its will.