"How long will I have to wait before there is an independent Palestinian state?"
Once, when there was an approximation of a peace process, when American presidents actively pressed for a two-state solution, the answers were judicious, considered, reasonable: Five years from Israel's 1994 initial Oslo withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho. Or, for adherents of what the State Department once proudly billed the Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict - the year 2005.
These days, though, the more credible answer to the question runs along these lines:
How long have you got?
I have been a supporter of a Palestinian state for longer than most Palestinians alive today have been alive. I expect that I may be a supporter of a Palestinian state until I am dead.
At this point, I have also come to expect that I will be dead before there is a Palestinian state.
Or, as another supporter of Palestinian statehood, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said Monday, "The continuation of Palestinian-Palestinian conflict will have a negative effect on the Palestinian cause, and end Palestinians' hopes for establishing an independent state."
Increasingly, the movement for an independent Palestine has lost its pragmatism and its momentum. What is left is a mumbled mantra, a modern version of Next Year in Jerusalem.
It could just be that the greater the suffering of the Palestinians, and the longer their wait for an independent homeland, the more unlikely it becomes that the fantasy will, in the foreseeable future, be anything but.
The reason is as human as human nature denied. The more you suffer, the longer you wait, the more you feel you deserve in compensation for all that waiting and all that suffering.
No wonder there's no compromise with the demand for the return of six million or so Palestinian refugees to the ancestral homes of which they have heard so much, located within the confines of Israel proper.
No wonder there's no rush to recognize a clearly antagonistic, unsympathetic, and profoundly unhelpful State of Israel, or to stop praying for its demise.
The efforts of Israel to delay, undermine, sabotage or otherwise foil the creation of a Palestinian state have been well-documented, in the pages of this newspaper as nowhere else.
The efforts of Palestinians to hasten statehood, meanwhile, have often backfired with disastrous results, adding years and perhaps decades to the countdown to independence.
The question came to mind anew as I took advantage of illness to attend to a New Year's resolution I made a year ago and which expired last week. >From my sickbed, I watched a tape of "Munich," Steven Spielberg's film on the Israeli assassination campaign that followed the murder of 11 members of the nation's Olympic team by PLO Black September gunmen in 1972.
A fever of 103, chills and intermittent flu-modulated nightmares may be just the mental state in which to reappraise Spielberg's most controversial work.
Especially these days. Turning the VCR off for a moment, the screen filled with breaking news footage of masked Hamas and Fatah security men killing each other, as well as their rivals' children, as well as chances of Palestinian statehood any lifetime soon.
I approached the film with equal measures of curiosity and trepidation. When "Munich" was released just a year ago, its critics on the Jewish right made it seem as though Spielberg and screenwriter Tony ("Angels in America") Kushner were about to do in the space of one film what the Palestinians had failed to do in the space of more than a century, convincing the world that the Palestinians were right all along.
At the time, the Zionist Organization of America, denouncing screenwriter Kushner for anti-Israel bias, immediately declared a boycott on the film. "Save yourself $10 and stay home," advised ZOA National President Morton Klein. "This 'second Munich,' like Chamberlain's Munich, only promotes appeasement of terrorists and the enemies of civilized democracies."
"We must send a message to Spielberg that we will not support a film that libels Israel and humanizes these haters and killers."
The prominent neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, lumped Spielberg and Kushner together with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinehad, saying that all three had called into question the underpinnings of Israel's existence.
"It takes a Hollywood ignoramus to give flesh to the argument of a radical anti-Semitic Iranian," Krauthammer wrote.
Improbably, from this remove, what Spielberg's "Munich" actually tells us, is not that the Palestinians should win, but why they do not.
In the scene most vociferously condemned by the Jewish right, a PLO field commander named Ali unwittingly speaks with an Israeli agent named Avner, outlining a future in which an independent Palestine supplants a defeated Israel.
Ali: Eventually, the Arab states will rise against Israel. They don't like Palestinians, but they hate the Jews more. It won't be like 1967. The rest of the world will see by then what the Israelis do to us. They won't help when Egypt and Syria attack, even Jordan. Israel will cease to exist.
Avner:This is a dream. You can't take back a country you never had.
Ali: You sound like a Jew.
Avner: Fuck you. I'm the voice inside your head telling you what you already know. You people have nothing to bargain with. You'll never get the land back. You'll all die old men in refugee camps, waiting for Palestine.
Ali: We have a lot of children. They have had children. So we can wait forever. And if we need to, we can make the whole planet unsafe for Jews.
Avner: You kill Jews, and the world feels bad for them, and thinks you are animals.
Ali: Yes, but then the world will see how they've made us into animals. That will start to ask questions about the conditions in our cages...
Avner Do you really miss your father's olive trees? Do you honestly think you have to get back all that? That nothing? That chalky soil and stone houses, it that what you really want for your children?
Ali It absolutely is. It will take 100 years, but we'll win. How long did it take the Jews to get their own country?
It is a curious echo of a statement by the man believed to be the last surviving Munich assailant.
"I'm proud of what I did at Munich because it helped the Palestinian cause enormously," Jamal Al-Gashey said in 1999 in the acclaimed documentary "One day in September."
"Before Munich, the world had no idea about our struggle, but on that day, the name of Palestine was repeated all around the world."
Al-Gashey's in no rush. Ali's in no rush. Ahmadinejad's in no rush. They'll tell you - it's all a matter of time. Next year in Palestine, or next century, it's all the same to us.
You have to admire that kind of thinking. In one stroke, it legitimizes self-destructive action, fosters inaction, and explains, enshrines, and celebrates failure.
With that kind of thinking, a hundred years from now, when readers ask how long they'll have to wait for a Palestinian state, we'll know just what to answer.
How long have you got?