Monday, August 03, 2009

In A Busy World, Names Matter. The Tale of Macedonia, Palestine and Israel.


Greece is currently feuding with Macedonia over, of all things, the use of the name Macedonia. Greece insists that Macedonia change its name because the Greeks fear that Macedonia is stealing the Greek National identity, and may one day lay claim to an area of Greece known as Greek Macedonia.

How did this come about? If you open a history book, you will find that Greece's national hero, Alexander the Great, hailed from “Macedonia.” Greece argues present-day Macedonia consists mostly of Slavs and others who invaded the region a millennium after Alexander died. Greece claims Alexander as its own, from the city of Pella, located in present-day Greece.

Because Macedonia refuses to change its name, Greece vetoed Macedonia’s bid to join NATO, and is blocking Macedonia’s admission to the European Union.

Names matter. Names influence politics and policy. In a busy world, public opinion forms quickly, and is often based on information that is untrue, or that lacks context. World public opinion can drive outcomes, whether or not the opinion is fact based.

People throughout the world haven’t focused much attention on the Greek-Macedonian dispute, but the governments of Greece and Macedonia are at loggerheads. Because it is not a hot button issue for many people outside of Greece and Macedonia, I can tell you this story without sounding provocative.

The name “Palestine” is also a name that matters. This name is central to one aspect of the Israeli/Arab-Islamic dispute.

In the early part of the 20th century, “Palestine” was the name given by the international community to a geographic region slated to be a Jewish homeland. The indigenous people of the area, Jews, were returning to their homeland.

Part of Palestine was taken away from the slated Jewish homeland and given by the British to the son of an Arab ruler who lost control of what became Saudi Arabia. Thus nearly 80% of Palestine became the present-day Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

In 1948, the Jews of the now smaller “Palestine” decided not to call itself Palestine, but rather to call its country Israel. This was a fateful decision. The Arabs who lived in areas of the smaller Palestine—most of them, like the returning Jews, lived there for a generation or two at most—associated themselves with other Arabs who lived in “Jordan” and other Arab nations that attacked Israel to drive Jews into the sea.

In 1950, Jordan “annexed” what the United Nations then called Judea and Samaria, and called the area the West Bank, since the area was on the West Bank of the River Jordan. The people who lived there became Jordanian citizens (Jews were not allowed to stay).

In the 1960’s, a movement formed in Egypt, Yasser Arafat's PLO, set about to re-brand local Arabs with a new name their fathers loathed, a named once associated with Jews—Palestinians. The PLO's aim in adopting the name was to start the process of destroying Israel. They made no claim to the “West Bank,” then controlled by Jordan, or Gaza, then controlled by Egypt. The movement was not then powerful enough to challenge this status quo.

But something changed along the way.

The current crisis for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is that the majority of its population now calls itself Palestinian too. King Abdullah of Jordan fears “Palestinians” will reference the map that once showed a “Palestine,” that included both Jordan and Israel, and attempt to seize control of Jordan.

The “Palestinian” national identity created in the 1960’s to destroy Israel, now threatens the Jordanian monarchy.

That is why this past month, Jordanian authorities have started revoking the citizenship of thousands of “Palestinians” living in Jordan. Tensions are rising. Violence is occurring.

The Jordanians claim their latest measures are aimed only to ensure that “Palestinians” are not prevented from returning to their original homes inside Israel. In truth, the actions are meant to preserve the Hashemite Kingdom.

Jordan's Interior Minister Nayef al-Kadi said, "We insist that Jordan is not Palestine, just as Palestine is not Jordan.” Compare Kadi’s words to the words of King Abullah’s father, King Hussein. He said this of Palestinians and Jordanians. “The two peoples are actually one. This is a fact.”

In a busy world, names matter. If Jordan were called “Palestine,” world sympathy would quickly turn from support for a homeland for Palestinians, to support for solving a border dispute between countries.

The upshot is this. There is plenty of room for everyone to live peacefully and prosper in the Middle-East. Israel, the sole Jewish majority state, should be large enough to be independently viable in all respects. Simultaneously, the world should help facilitate better lives for Palestinians and Jordanians. This is doable, but in a busy world, names matter, and they often get in the way.

--David Naggar