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Cost Analysis

In a new book, Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh assesses what Palestinians stand to gain from the creation of their own state—and what they stand to lose

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Sari Nusseibeh at the Atarot detention center in northern Jerusalem, 2004. (AWAD AWAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Jews who reach the point of hopeless frustration with the Israel-Palestine problem have been known to demand, “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” Especially during the years of Yasser Arafat’s leadership of the PLO, this was a way of criticizing the Palestinian leadership for its rejectionism and commitment to violence, which so obviously failed to advance the Palestinian cause. It’s also a kind of rhetorical throwing up of hands, a way of saying that only a miraculously virtuous and charismatic figure could possibly break the impasse in the Middle East.

But underneath the reproach and the frustration, the longing for a Palestinian Gandhi is an expression of the Jewish desire to be enabled to make peace by being morally compelled to make peace. Gandhi, after all, did finally succeed in driving the British out of India, and his Palestinian equivalent would presumably succeed in making Israel withdraw from the West Bank. The key to this dream, however, is that such a Palestinian leader would be so trustworthy, so committed to peace and nonviolence, that an Israeli withdrawal would not invite future aggression.

Sari Nusseibeh is not a Palestinian Gandhi—he is a secular intellectual, not a saint, and while he has occupied prominent roles in Palestinian life (formerly as a leader of the first intifada and a Palestinian Authority diplomat, currently as president of al-Quds University), he has never commanded a mass following. But in his short new book What Is a Palestinian State Worth? (Harvard University Press, $19.95), he comes closer to advocating a Gandhian strategy than any other Palestinian leader I know of. Near the end of the book, Nusseibeh turns to Hind Swaraj, Gandhi’s 1909 pamphlet on Indian Home Rule, as a manual for the Palestinian cause: “The way for India to become free and exercise real self-determination or home rule is through swaraj, the inner freedom and self-sovereignty individuals achieve by remaining true to their humanity,” he explains.

If Palestinians would take their cue from Gandhi, they would cease looking upon their own patriotism as a religious or national cul-de-sac, and begin viewing it instead as an overarching affinity with the land and its multifaceted racial as well as religious history. They would have to transform their vision of a free Palestine from that of a princedom to be ruled by Arab Palestinian “princes” to that of a land of a free people living by moral values. In such a land, an Israeli could be just as patriotic a Palestinian as an Arab Palestinian!

These sentences capture both what is so admirable and encouraging about Nusseibeh’s book, and what, from a Zionist perspective, is ambiguous about it. On the one hand, for Palestinians to acknowledge the “multifaceted racial [and] religious history” of the region would mean, presumably, to accept the Jewish place in that history. But it is not wholly clear, from Nusseibeh’s language here and elsewhere in the book, whether that means accepting Israel as a Jewish state. For an Israeli to be a “patriotic Palestinian” seems to look forward, instead, to a binational state, in which Jews and Arabs would embrace a common political identity. “The vision of the peaceful and prosperous future may take any of several forms,” Nusseibeh writes: “one state, two states, confederation involving one country, or two, or three, and so on.”

This ambiguity is not strategic or accidental; it lies at the heart of Nusseibeh’s philosophical argument. Essentially, What Is a Palestinian State Worth? is a brief for liberalism—which makes it, in the generally illiberal political culture of Palestine, a radical document. The first principle of liberalism is that the individual is prior to the collective, that states and ethnicities and religions—what Nusseibeh calls, a bit awkwardly, “meta-biological” entities—are meant to serve human beings, not vice versa. “Moving along the garden path from I to we and then to the state,” he writes, is a “normal and justifiable psychological human need,” but it has the potential to become “a demented ideological imperative or dictate.” When that happens, “instead of individuals ‘having’ the state to fulfill their needs, the state is regarded as primary, as what ‘has’ individuals as its tools.”

It is here that the question of Nusseibeh’s title comes into play. If the state is more valuable than the individuals who make it up, then a Palestinian state is “worth” any number of human lives—for instance, the lives of a suicide bomber and his or her victims. “During the period after 2000,” he writes, “when Palestinian suicide attacks almost became the norm to express resistance to the occupation, disaffection with politics, or simply frustration and anger with life itself, I began asking myself what the state we were fighting for is worth. How much killing can a group suffer or commit before the suffering and the loss of life outweigh the values on whose behalf the killing is being committed?” Out of the horror of that period, Nusseibeh draws the following exemplary rule: “Respect for the preservation of human life, rather than violation of life in the name of any cause, should be what guides both Israelis and Palestinians in their pursuit of a just peace.”

No decent person could dissent from this principle. What keeps it from being observed, of course, is fear—fear that, if I do not use violence today, my enemy will use it tomorrow. That fear explained the Israeli invasion of Gaza, with its horrible carnage, and it explains the continuing Israeli reluctance to withdraw from the West Bank, despite all the demographic and political arguments in favor of such a step. Occupation, with all its costs, is still preferable to the creation of a hostile Palestinian state so close to Israel’s heartland.

One of the things that makes Nusseibeh exceptional among Palestinian commentators is his ability to sympathize with this Israeli fear: “Some might argue that Jews in particular, given their history, have no choice but … to rely on their own might, however detrimental its use may be to others, as a way to ensure their security, or at least to minimize their vulnerability as much as possible.” Most Palestinians, he writes, “cannot believe that Israelis live in perpetual fear,” partly because, in their own eyes, Israel seems to have a monopoly on force. Still more important, and more ominous, Nusseibeh suggests that Palestinians cannot imagine this self-protective fear because it “has been so incredibly exorcised” from the Palestinian psyche. “Among Palestinians,” he writes in the book’s most daring passage, “there may well be a more fundamental underlying cultural or religious disposition to believe in the reality of death so strongly as to view life as being on a par with death, or even of far less value.”

So long as this is true, there is no chance for peace between Palestinians and Jews, much less for the building of the kind of Palestinian society Nusseibeh hopes for. What is needed is a radical transformation of the attitudes of both Arabs and Jews—the kind of psychological paradigm shift that seems impossible, mere wishful thinking, until it actually occurs. “What we need to do is to redraw the current reality so as to provide, to both Palestinian and Israeli publics, an alternative vision of the future so overwhelming that it will make present-day political squabbling pale in significance,” Nusseibeh writes.

This is less a political project than a spiritual one: “faith, vision, and will are all indispensable to our quest for a better future.” And Nusseibeh’s challenging conclusion is that this transformation will have to come from the Palestinian side first. Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s distinction between force and power, he explains: “if one defines power as the ability to cause political change to one’s own advantage, it is the Palestinians who hold this power even though (or precisely because) they are being held down by a mighty military force.”

The most controversial proposal in What Is a Palestinian State Worth? has to be understood, I think, as Nusseibeh’s attempt to change the terms of the Palestinian-Israeli discussion. At the beginning of the book, Nusseibeh suggests that the Palestinians give up their demands for sovereignty and instead agree to become second-class Israeli citizens—that is, citizens without the right to vote or run for office. “Thus the state would be Jewish, but the country would be fully binational, all the Arabs within it having their well-being tended to and sustained. … In any case, such a scenario would provide [the Palestinians] with a far better life than they have had in more than forty years under occupation.”

It seems to me that Nusseibeh, who was one of the earliest proponents of a two-state solution, is not seriously endorsing this idea. He is fully aware that it would not be feasible or desirable, from either side’s perspective. It is, rather, a thought experiment, designed to challenge the assumptions of both Jews and Arabs. For the Palestinians, it is a challenge to “think deeply about what states are for”—that is, to examine whether they want the trappings of statehood or a better, more secure life. For Jews, it is a challenge to contemplate whether such a two-tiered system, with its echoes of South African apartheid, is consistent with Israel’s principles—and whether such a system might not already be in place in the Occupied Territories. I wonder if Nusseibeh’s book, published in English by an American university press, is actually going to reach either of the audiences who need it most; let’s hope it does.

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Steph F. says:

It seems to me that this book is meant for an audience outwith “either of the audiences who need it most,” given that it is indeed published in English by an American university press, and that its arguments seem positioned to try to affect the terms of the debate outside the region as well. In any case, it does sound worth reading — thanks for bringing it to wider attention.

He makes it way to complicated. The problem is that very few Israelis still believe that the Palestinians want an independent state living peacefully alongside Israel. Everything coming from the Palestinian side (especially in Arabic) shows that they view a state as a stepping stone to destroying Israel. A great example of this is Gaza, where instead of building a state after Israeli withdrawal they built a missile launching platform. If they were to sincerely change their views and convince Israelis that they did, then peace would be no problem.

A.L. Bell says:

One problem here is that we, quite understandably, want the Palestinians to be reasonable and secular, but then we come in with the idea that Israel should permanently be a Jewish state, even if we’re agnostic ourselves and the demographics of the country change.

On the one hand: I think of myself as being a lazy Orthodox Jew. I want King David to ride out of the sky on a gleaming white stallion and set up the borders of the the Kingdom of David wherever he wants them to be.

And, of course: Jews have a deep, historical tie to the land of Israel; Jews ought to be able to go live there; whatever people who live there ought to be grownup enough to let Israel have the Israeli flag and continue to be Jewish in some deeply spiritual sense.

And, yes, many of the “Palestinians” are really Yemenites with ties to the land that aren’t all that old.

But: how does it make sense for modern people who believe in democracy to make it a precondition that Israel has to be eternally Jewish in a practical sense? If we’re saying that there’s a precondition that the Palestinians have to avoid retributory ethnic cleansing, that they must, for historic reasons, maintain the Jewish law of return, that they have to somehow recognize that Jews have to have religious dominion over Jews living in Israel, etc. etc., then I think that makes perfect sense.

I think it makes sense to give the Jews the right to veto big changes in the Israeli government that could affect their rights and security. If, say, this were a dispute about native peoples living in a part of Australia that was sacred to native Australians, we’d be asking for the same consideration for those native peoples.

And, extremely obviously, if the Palestinians want to have a free, independent country, they have to behave like normal, modern, peaceful people and stop blowing people up left and right.

But if, say, we’re asking that Israel always be officially, practically, governmentally Jewish, no matter what, is that demand something worth endless bloodshed?

At a practical level, the reason to want Israel to stay Jewish today is that the Jews have been a lot better than running a country than the Palestinians have or other non-Jewish peoples in the Middle East have been. There’s very little evidence that the Palestinians can run a country well.

But if, in some hypothetical future, there was a well-behaved Palestinian majority in Eretz Yisrael, and they freely voted to put the Muslim Brotherhood candidate in power and (while respecting human and political rights) ratified a constitutional amendment changing the name of Israel to Ishmaelistan, and the Jews still living in Israel voted for that change, then, really, what great argument do we have against that?

So, I just don’t think it makes sense to make the statement that “Israel must always be Jewish” a precondition to anything. I think the precondition should be more like, “The religious and social rights of the people now living in Israel should be respected; the people living there now should have the right to veto any changes that could hurt their well-being; and any government in Israel should respect the needs, values, histories and traditions of the religious communities operating in Israel.”

We’d be turning a statement that sounds like a bit of Jewish Shariah — made, in a lot of cases, by shrimp and ham eaters who aren’t the least bit haredi about any other aspect of life — and turn it into the kind of universalist call for respect that we could apply to any people in the world.

And, OK: in our hearts, we might think Israel should be Jewish because we’re Jewish and Israel is Israel, but, if we’re basing arguments about Israel’s future on the Torah, then where is our standing to stop Muslim Palestinians from applying crazy Islamic laws?

Dr. Nusseibeh sounds a faint glimmer of hope in an otherwise hopeless universe. His open-mindedness regarding the final disposition of “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians, as described by Mr. Kirsch, is refreshing. Certainly not the first suggestion of federation/confederation, still, coming from a prominent Palestinian it is refreshing. I recall reading in 1976 about a proposal by a past director general of the Israel Foreign Ministry for a federation. I believe he proposed Israel, Palestine and Jordan join as independent countries. Then, in 2001 a Dr. M A Fazal, a Palestinian, suggested Israel and Palestine create a federation. Certainly not in their category, but I also had written that a federation between Israel, Palestine and Jordan (and possibly later to include Syria and Lebanon) would create political stability in the Levant, an economy capable of more than competing in the world market, and a military deterrent to any outside threat.

But of course all of this is a pipe-dream. While I cannot speak for Dr. Nusseibeh’s description of the Palestinian psyche, as a Jew I feel more competent. And while most Jews today, inside Israel and in the Diaspora, do not consciously dwell on the Holocaust as a current possibility, I suggest that 2,000 years of persecution in the west has instilled in our psyche a perhaps suppressed, but not deeply, awareness that life in the west for the Jews will never be entirely free of risk. And the Holocaust demonstrates that what for sixteen centuries had been theologically inspired Jew-hatred, that the secularization of the west inherited the animus, if not the reason, unawares.

This inner murmur of threat determines (in general I would never use such a concept) the outlook of Israeli Jews towards our neighbors motives; haunts our future existence in the Diaspora. Israel is it. We have to make it happen.

So my thanks to the Sari Nusseibeh’s on the Palestinian side. It’s encouraging to some on that side understand us.

Peter W. says:

Sadly, for every Nusseibeh, one can find a dozen of “Palestinian” Arabs who want to eliminate “Palesitinian” Jews. The problem is not making peace with Nusseibeh, it’s making peace with his genocidal compatriots.

Re the comments above: it’s worth remembering in all this who is doing the occupying, building on others’ land, and the vast majority of the killing. Clue: it isn’t the Palestinians.

This problem needs creativity and a will to get somewhere on both sides, true; it both sides need to marginalise the fanatics in their own camp, agreed.

But we won’t get far if we imagine that one side isn’t doing the oppressing. Denying that is like saying that Apartheid South Africa involved morally equivalent sides.

Each succeeding generation sees ancient religions as less and less relevant or beneficial to people’s lives, and more of an impediment to real spiritual and intellectual growth. At this rate, humanity will outgrow them entirely before the peace process bears any real fruit.

BH in Iowa says:

The “Palestinian” agenda has bever been about the creation of a twenty-third Arab state. It’s only about the destruction of the one Jewish state.

FreeThinker says:

What I can never understand is why, if the Palestinians drop their demand for an independent state, they would want to integrate with Israel? Why not integrate with Jordan instead? Oh yea, that doesn’t involve the abolishment of the only Jewish state.

That being said, I hope Israel drops the West Bank ASAP, holding it is not worth anything.

I’ve said that least 1818469 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

F*i’ tremendous things here. I’m very glad to see your article. Thanks a lot and i am looking forward to contact you. Will you please drop me a mail?


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Cost Analysis

In a new book, Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh assesses what Palestinians stand to gain from the creation of their own state—and what they stand to lose

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