What is a Palestinian State Worth?, By Sari Nusseibeh

Guy Mannes-Abbott
The Independent , April-2011.


Writing about William Wordsworth, Jacques Ranciere celebrated a consideration for "all that is too small" in his poetry about the post-revolutionary landscape of France. The theorist also articulated a post-millennial consensus; lauding the poet for taking care of "the dead child that every politics abandons". Such a child is the moral focus of Sari Nusseibeh's new book, but with unintended results.

Nusseibeh is a career teacher, president of al Quds University in Jerusalem and author of an autobiography; Once Upon A Country A Palestinian Life. A very early advocate of a "two state solution", he then nurtured civil disobedience during the 1988 intifada.

Nusseibeh always strives to meet enemies half way; his solution required a demilitarised Palestine and no right of return for survivors of the "nakba" of 1948. Here he lavishes praise on the self-mirroring Israeli scholar Uri Avneri while remaining neutral about Ilan Pappe, exiled author of the The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Nusseibeh regards the latter's discomforting rigour as a distraction from "peace", forgetting that justice requires truth as well as reconciliation.

In What is a Palestinian State Worth? Nusseibeh announces a "thought experiment"; the spurning of any need for a Palestinian state. He advocates a single state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean which remains Jewish in exchange for second-class Palestinian status; civil but no political rights. This is no bombshell; I have heard the same despairing conversations in downtown Ramallah. It has credence because, as Nusseibeh says, it might be the shortest route to the only just solution: a single secular and democratic state in historic Palestine.

The emphasis throughout is on the freedom of the individual to resist what he calls "meta-biological" identifications and "entities"; Palestinian People, Settlers' Movement, Zionism. The problem is twofold. First, this is no relationship of equals but a dispossessed people preyed upon in their own land by a racist machine of mortifying violence. Second, the best work in the book explores continuities between the British dominion over and fateful partition of Mughal and Ottoman Empires. Also, it ends by advocating an education system that "reminds people of their own strength", a "Palestinian destiny of Palestinian making" - somewhat undermining his thesis.

There is a wild mismatch between the book's tone, aimed at a politely curious Bostonian, and the brutal actuality of Palestinian existence. The author cannot be spending much time visiting those imprisoned in the Palestinian hills, nor in besieged Gaza. Yet even in Nusseibeh's ancestral Jerusalem, neighbours are expelled routinely, and homes bulldozed. These Occupation crimes happen precisely because an understandable obsession with the "dead child" spored a politics devoid of any shared humanity.

Nusseibeh's most immediate difficulty is that no-one cried "Resist Meta-Biological Entities!" in Tahrir Square. History teaches that change happens "in the name of". Individuals self-immolate in despair but change comes when people act as one in a "spontaneous" uprising. Reality contains an urgency that Nusseibeh, with his logical models and charming civility, seems unable to see or address.