A False Quarrel

Greg Waldmann
Open letters monthly , Mar-2011.


What is a Palestinian State Worth?
By Sari Nusseibeh
Harvard University Press, 2010

“Let me propose,” writes the Palestinian academic and activist Sari Nusseibeh in What is a Palestinian State Worth? , “that Israel officially annex the occupied territories, and that Palestinians in the enlarged Israel agree that the state remain Jewish in return for being granted all the civil, though not the political, rights of citizenship.” It will seem startling that such an idea could come from the pen of an organizer of the first intifada, a former prisoner of the Israeli military, and a one-time representative of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. But Nusseibeh isn't exactly endorsing this, not as a permanent solution. It is a provocation, one he hopes is “so objectionable that it might well generate its own annulment, either by making all parties see the need to find a tenable alternative or, if indeed adopted, by serving as a natural step toward a single democratic state.” The two-state solution has become stale in the imagination, and it is time, he says, to “think outside the box,” to find another way forward. He wants Israelis and Palestinians to prepare to live together because he believes the dream of two peaceful states living side by side is probably dead. Few people have more authority to issue that judgment.

Sari Nusseibeh's childhood was divided between East Jerusalem and Damascus, where he was born in 1949, son to Anwar Nusseibeh, a Palestinian nationalist, and Nuzha Al Ghussei, a wealthy aristocrat. Answar, a pragmatist, labored to advance the Palestinian cause from within the Jordanian government, which took over the West Bank in the wake of the 1948 War. When Israel captured it two decades later, he was one of the first Palestinians to attempt a dialogue with Israelis. Answar encouraged his son to do the same, and Sari decided to travel into Israel – “the most astounding trek of my life,” he recalled in his 2007 memoir, Once Upon a Country . He volunteered on a Kibbutz founded by refugees from Europe, and their dedication awed him. After studying philosophy at Oxford and Harvard, Nusseibeh returned to Palestine, to teach at Birzeit University near Ramallah and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was involved in college unions and promoted dialogue with Israel (Nusseibeh was one of the first prominent Palestinians to meet with the right-wing Likud party), but it was the first intifada that pulled him in completely.

The uprising had no leader, but Nusseibeh was among its central figures, helping to create the more than 200 committees that formed the rudiments of government administration and authoring a Palestinian Declaration of Principles, which he presented to the world in Jerusalem. The intifada grew more violent and then petered out, and Nusseibeh, who always had an uneasy relationship with more militant members of the Palestinian liberation movement, played a peripheral role during the Oslo years. By the middle of the 1990s he was fully dedicated to Al-Quds university, which he formed and presides over to this day. Nusseibeh seems to see the intifada , not the Oslo years, as the real apogee of Palestinian potential. This is because, he writes today, Israeli occupation “depended upon the Palestinian's acquiescence – however unwilling – to that reality. Therefore they were able to disrupt the reality by acts of disobedience…. Since the signing of Oslo, in contrast, the occupying power has withdrawn from Palestinian civil life.”

Certainly the intervening years have been dispiriting, and the author's first-hand experience with the personal failures of powerful men on both sides has no doubt made this especially bitter. He was jailed on empty charges by the Israelis during the first Iraq War and released without apology. After advocating that Palestinians abandon the “right of return” and criticizing the militarization of the second intifada in 2002, Nusseibeh was unceremoniously removed from his post as PLO representative in Jerusalem by Yasser Arafat. About the same time, a former militant and fellow peace activist was arrested by the Israelis. Nusseibeh issued a statement blaming “the anti-peace lobby in the government of Israel,” but his anger seemed omni-directional. He declared “the cessation of all his peace efforts in the Palestinian community…The very credibility of the peace efforts is seriously undermined by such actions, which seem to reflect bad faith.” He left politics and co-founded a peace initiative with former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon, which now appears to be defunct. Its website hasn't seen an update in nearly 3 years. Israelis and Palestinians don't expect peace anytime soon.

An air of personal affront opens What is a Palestinian State Worth? : “[Outside] academic pursuits,” he writes, with a hint of exasperation,

if you find that a discussion about a pressing political problem is going around in circles rather than focusing on finding a solution, caught up in a loop created by the very people with whom you are having the discussion, you may justifiably conclude that those people are probably more invested in the discussion itself than in solving the problem.

He has tired of the same old “game,” as he calls it elsewhere. It is not hard to see why.

Israel's fractious political system rarely gives ruling coalitions the stability necessary to make concessions, while the Palestinians remain politically bifurcated. Benjamin Netanyahu presides over one of the most intransigent Israeli governments in recent history. A year of inducements and threats by the United States (most astoundingly, billions of dollars of combat aircraft in exchange for a mere 90-day settlement freeze), failed to halt the construction of settlements in the West Bank. In the contested lands, Hamas conspires with the Israeli embargo to drive Gaza into the ground while Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority slowly builds the infrastructure of a state it may never control. Recently leaked negotiation documents have revealed PLO concessions that opponents of moderation may use to demagogue their way to power. The irony is that 2010 was the most peaceful year in the Holy Land in a decade.

Nusseibeh is understandably frustrated, but strangely, he is not grim. An oddly detached sense of hope runs through What is a Palestinian State Worth? ; there is nothing like it in the literature of this conflict. Every year thousands of articles and blog posts are produced about how to end the conflict. They all feel stale. This book does not.

Which isn't to say that Nusseibeh has a credible alternative to the back and forth of the past twenty years. He has a degree in philosophy from Oxford and a Ph.D in Islamic philosophy from Harvard, and he uses that training to tease out and justify, in quasi-Socratic fashion, a set of humanist principles intended to guide Palestinians and Israelis to comity. I am not being flippant what I say that this is wildly unrealistic. Nusseibeh is so sick of the game that he has decided to draw up new rules. There is value in this. The contrast brings some sharpness to all the dull arguments about process we've been reading and forgetting since Oslo.

The problem, according to the author, is context. Israelis and Palestinians are enslaved to it; they place too much value on their sectarian identities, and the duties that come along with them. Context “can become a kind of higher-order being or entity that is far more dangerous and threatening than an ordinary biological individual” because it can define and control whole populations. This abstract model has implications for the whole of humanity, but Nusseibeh's specific concern is what happens to these “higher-order” identities when people are habituated to violence and humiliation. He fears that decades of this have infused both states, the real Israeli and a hypothetical Palestinian,

with a defining character rooted in [a psychological need for a state] but grown as a miscreant, in such a way that new generations of individuals become captives of that deformed but defining character. What begins as a normal and justifiable psychological human need thus mutates into a demented ideological imperative or dictate.

A state can be a fine thing, but not an obsession with it. Nusseibeh has little use for national anthems, flags, coinage, or any other of the state's traditional accoutrements. Obsession with these has obscured the value of other things. The emphasis must be on people – their freedom, dignity and quality of life.

Nusseibeh isn't so glib as to think that ancient layers of meaning can be peeled off – not all of them. He concedes their permanence but not their prominence:

If we take the individual rather than the state or some other meta-biological being as our starting point, and if we peel off enough of the layers we have inherited…we will find that we share, impelled by our common sentiment for compassion, the will to do what we believe is right.

Elsewhere, he asks us to

Imagine a world in which all pretexts used to justify killing are rejected save the human imperative. A moral order based on human values would have a much more solid base than one bound to a context-specific (such as national or religious) narrative. If my values as a Muslim conflicted with my values as a human being, it would make no sense for me to reject the latter in favor of the former, as I am whatever I am (for example a Muslim) by virtue of my being a human being in the first place.

It is heartening to see someone so battered retain some hope. Much of What is a Palestinian State Worth? is devoted to justifying that hope through argumentation and inductive reasoning. Though sometimes tangled, sometimes pedantic, it offers a chance to take on the fundamentals of the conflict, and that, along with Nusseibeh's compassion and enthusiasm, is the book's great virtue.

Still, as I read I couldn't escape the feeling that Nusseibeh was deluding himself, that his mind was detaching itself from events on the ground and banking into the clouds. History, he believes with some justice, is on the side of good, because “[c]umulatively, over time, those things which each of us considers ‘the right thing to do' converge as common values, coming to command universal consensus and to be considered almost self-evident moral truths.” But history can be sped along by faith in the power of the human will:

Depriving ourselves of the privilege of imagining what it would be like to have the power to redefine the world around us, we instead submit ourselves [to] the way we imagine the world has already been defined.

If Muslims and Jews kill because of their values, “then clearly something must be wrong with those values, and it is high time for both groups to fall back on some human sensibility.”

We've seen how Nusseibeh connects beliefs and the environment in which they are born. If, as he acknowledges, violence or privation beget a miscreant identity, does it not follow that the specifics of value systems will usually be less important than the underlying forces that pull them into collision? Land and self-determination are the primary issues here, as they are for Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, for Kurds, Turks and Arabs in Iraq and Turkey, and for Chechens and Russians in the Caucuses. These problems must be solved before those peoples can think of each other as humans foremost.

Nusseibeh's values argument has wider implications: if it is true in the Holy Land then it is true in the rest of the world, and towards the end of his book, Nusseibeh can't help but speak in universal terms. What he is hoping for – what he is hoping people can will into reality – is a revolution in the way humans see each other despite of the circumstances of their existence. But history belies such hopes. Conflict rarely blurs differences; instead, it glorifies and throws them into stark relief. If antagonists strongly link their fight to identity, they are more likely to retrench than realize their folly, especially when peace is not forthcoming. We see it in the rise of the right-wing in Israel and the election of Hamas in the Occupied Territories: it was more moderate forces who were swept away.

Is it worth trying to convince the Israelis and Palestinians to subordinate that by which they define themselves? It is a noble ideal, and ideals always have a shaping role to play, however small. But progress probably means the same old story: Israelis and Palestinians need more effective pressure from the rest of the world and they need governments with the ability to make the bargains they set out to arrange. Nusseibeh would agree that only their peoples can make them do that, but it will be self-interest, not empathy, that drives that change.

One of Nusseibeh's hopes, the one we began with, is that the creeping certainty of a bleak future might force people to open their minds. So far in the Holy Land it has been the opposite. But now the region's resurgent nationalism has raised the stakes once more. New governments and old will have to be more responsive to their people, and in general, the so-called “Arab street” wants a harder line against Israel. How is Israel likely to respond – by realizing that now is their best chance for peace, or by doubling down on occupation?

Probably Israelis and Palestinians won't subscribe to Nusseibeh's humanism until they have the breathing room to do so. But maybe they'll push doubt far enough out of their minds to take a few steps forward, and, once peace feels like it could be a real thing again, keep on going.