Much of the international politics of the 20th century revolved around the drive for national self-determination, such as that of the Serbs in the Balkans, setting in motion the crises that led to the Great War, or that of the Germans in the Sudetenland, aggravating the tensions that brought about the titanic clash between the Western Allies and the Axis powers.

And in the aftermath of World War II, the anticolonial struggle for national independence served as the engine for much of the violence that erupted in what came to be known as the Third World.

Both Zionism and Arab nationalism ended up playing a central role in this historical epoch, as the two movements allied themselves with the victorious powers of World War I that committed themselves to grant political independence to the Jews and the Arabs in the Middle East, a process that was accelerated as Britain (and France) started their withdrawal from the Middle East after World War II, including from Palestine, which, based on a U.N. resolution, was supposed to be partitioned between Arabs and Jews.

In a way, the contending drives for self-determination in the same territory (Palestine or the Land of Israel) have been at the center of the Arab-Israeli Palestinian conflict since 1947, when the Zionist leadership had accepted, while the Arab leaders rejected, the idea of partitioning the land between the two peoples.

During the Oslo Process of the 1990’s, it seemed as though both sides were about to reach a compromise regarding their competing claims over the Holy Land that could have established an independent Arab state (Palestine) living side by side and in peace with a Jewish state (Israel).

But diverging positions over core national or ethno-religious issues, including the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites as well as the fate of the Jewish settlers and the Arab refugees, made it difficult to reach an Israeli-Palestinian deal at a time when the geopolitical stars (the end of the Cold War and the unipolar status of the United States) seemed to be aligning for a Middle East peace agreement.

And since the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2000, the dramatic changes in the global and regional balance of power, including the Iraq War fiasco and the ensuing diminishing U.S. power in the Middle East, coupled with the current political upheaval in the region, are making it even less likely that the two sides would be able to restart negotiations anytime soon—if at all.

Indeed, the remarkable transformation of the Middle East has also helped trigger changes in the political balance of power in the Israeli and Palestinian communities that make the regional environment even less conducive for making peace in our time.

In Israel, the secular and Westernized political elites, represented by social-democratic and liberal parties that had ruled the state since its establishment, have been supplanted by an alliance of political movements dominated by radical Zionists, ultra-Orthodox religious Jews, and Russian immigrants that controls the current ruling Israeli government.  The members of this alliance dismiss the notion of a peace agreement with the Palestinians as dangerous wishful thinking and have no intention of giving up Israeli control over the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) any time soon.

This shift to a more militant ethno-religious stance is mirrored on the Palestinian side by the rise of the Islamist Hamas movement that now controls the Gaza Strip and poses a direct challenge to the more secular nationalist movement of Fatah.  The movement maintains its rule over the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority (and thanks to U.S. and E.U. support and Israeli acquiescence).  But the likelihood of Fatah acquiring political legitimacy depends on its ability to deliver some measure of national self-determination.  And that is becoming more difficult to achieve in face of the annexationist policies of the Likud-led government that retains control of large chunks of the West Bank and continues building Jewish settlements there.

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had initially hoped that President Barack Obama would be willing to press Israeli Prime Minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to suspend the buildup of Jewish settlements in occupied Arab territories in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.  But after mobilizing his political troops in Washington, led by the axis of Republican lawmakers (and presidential candidates), Christian Zionists, and the conservative media universe—not to mention the powerful Israel Lobby—“Bibi” succeeded in checkmating the “anti-Israeli” Obama.  The current White House occupant did nothing more than reiterate the positions of previous Democratic and Republican presidents who had called for dividing the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River along the 1967 ceasefire lines.

The failure on the part of Obama to help revive the dormant peace process has convinced Abbas that the only way to counterbalance the mighty Israeli-American alliance would be by demonstrating that, in the face of the new centers of power forming in the Middle East and worldwide, the American sheriff and his Israeli deputy are losing their ability to enforce their agenda—or, to be more accurate, the Likud-neoconservative game plan—on the region.  Hence, the decision by the PA to try to achieve statehood recognition by requesting U.N. membership through the 15-member Security Council or, if Washington vetoes the bid as expected, to win a Vatican-like representation through the General Assembly.

At minimum, the Palestinians would be able to demonstrate how diplomatically isolated the United States and Israel are and that Palestinian political independence is inevitable.  Moreover, some form of U.N. membership would provide the PA with not only diplomatic legitimacy but the international legal means to challenge the Israeli occupation of the evolving nation-state of Palestine.

But the Palestinians are finding it difficult to get the nine votes in the Security Council needed to prompt a move toward U.N. membership, and even in the best-case scenario the process leading in that direction could be long and would probably produce few major gains for the PA.  Abbas will face a reality in which the PA retains control over a few small pieces of territory in the West Bank, and is facing an Israeli government intent on smashing Palestinian aspirations—and that could become even more intransigent if a neoconservative-sanctioned Republican wins the White House in 2012.

It is true that the era of Pax Americana in the Middle East is coming to an end and that Turkey, Iran, and post-Mubarak Egypt are intent on filling the strategic void in the region.  But the formation of a new regional balance of power that would be antithetical to U.S. and Israeli interests and more favorable to the long-term interests of the Palestinians could take years.  Meanwhile, rising birthrates of ultra-Orthodox Jews and the growing power of the Russian immigrants would allow Likud and its partners to consolidate their power in Israel while securing Israeli control over most of the West Bank and crushing whatever remains of the Palestinian drive for independence.

The members of Israel’s diminishing secular and liberal minority are warning that under these conditions Israel would end up losing her Jewish majority, creating a situation in which Jews would rule over what is bound to become an Arab majority in the Holy Land.  But the prospect of Israel turning into a Middle Eastern version of apartheid South Africa may not bother Netanyahu and his pals in Jerusalem and Washington who believe that Israel would be able to maintain that status quo.  The Palestinians would still have their nationalist narrative—but would fail in achieving their goal of national self-determination.

At the end of the day, the successes and failures of various national movements are determined by political and economic forces.  Hence, notwithstanding their inspired national myths, the Basques and the Kurds have yet to win political independence, something that the people of Panama, a superficial entity created by the United States, have achieved.  In the case of Zionism, it was the rise of antisemitism in Eastern and Central Europe and the ensuing Jewish holocaust, coupled with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the British occupation of the Middle East, that made the creation of a Jewish state possible.

Whether the Palestinians can also succeed in fulfilling their dream of political independence would depend less on media-hyped campaigns at the United Nations and elsewhere and more on whether they would be able to take advantage of the new balance of power in the Middle East in the coming years.  They will need much more than their current narrative of national self-determination.