REVIEW: Sari Nusseibeh. What is a Palestinian State Worth?

What is a Palestinian State Worth?

Sari Nusseibeh

Harvard University Press, 2011

234 pp.

Reviewed by Mori Ram, Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University, Israel.

The two-state solution has become a consensual endgame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet in recent years the feasibility of this aspired outcome has been seriously put in doubt. More than 300,000 Jewish settlers currently reside in the West Bank which has turned into a splintered patchwork of road blocks, military outposts and separation walls. Palestinian society is severely polarized with political division having reached the extreme with Hamas’s violent takeover of Gaza and the subsequent blockade by Israel. It seems that at the very time when a Palestinian state has become so tangible, the parameters for its transpiring have all but disappeared.

This situation brings noted intellectual Sari Nusseibeh to inquire “what is a Palestinian state worth?” States, explains Nusseibeh, should be measured by their ability to provide prosperity and security for their citizens.  Yet a Palestinian state will probably be militarily powerless, have scant natural resources and a compromised territorial contiguity. What then is it expected to provide, procure and prevent?   And if Israel, backed by international guarantees, will ensure the well-being of Palestinians, what need is there for a state anyway?

Nusseibeh states his task as posing necessary innovative questions that may chart creative ways for the conflict’s conclusion. Consequently Nusseibeh suggests, as a “thought experiment”, that Israel may officially annex the occupied territories allowing Palestinians in this “enlarged Israel” to acquire “civil, though not political, rights of citizenship”. They would have access to the land, be part of the country but would be separate from the state. While they would not be able to vote or be voted into government posts nor be able to serve in the military, their situation would fare considerably better as they would enjoy “civil benefits of the de facto single state without being accused of diluting or ‘defiling’ its Jewishness”(p.14).

Nusseibeh’s efforts are focused on illuminating the process through which people are captivated by “Meta-Biological entities”, which he defines as ideologies or belief systems that compel an individual to behave, react and enact in a certain way.  Thus, “what begins as an innocuous-seeming ‘context’ can acquire a kind of actual existence … of a higher-order being or entity that is far more dangerous and threatening than an ordinary biological individual” (p.73).

With this in mind Nusseibeh reviews the conflict’s historical progress speculating how “out of the box” solutions, could have propagated an alternative course.  One chapter is dedicated to the discussion of whether life has intrinsic value or must acquire an external cause, like the Dome of the Rock for devout Muslims, without which life is perceived as worthless.  For Nusseibeh the dilemma is crucial yet solvable. Any order that is based on the morality of human values would be much more solid than one bound in a specific ideology. “If my values as a Muslim”, he explains, “are conflicted with my values as a human being, it would make no sense for me to reject the latter in favour of the former, as I am … a Muslim .. by virtue of my being a human being in the first place” (p. 58).

Nusseibeh explores the impact of “the state” and “the “nation” in the life of Israel’s Palestinian minority as an example of such struggles. Next he examines whether there are universal values that all can share, suggesting equality and freedom as those providing the common ground of any mutual action. He proceeds by re-discussing the proposition laid in the introduction. The two-state or bi-national state scenario, have become un-applicable, the former for its apparent obsoleteness and the latter for its prematurity. An interim solution will enable the time to build the understanding through which a permanent solution will be found that might resemble one of the two already recognized, or be completely different to them but based, never the less, on the confinement of Meta-physical entities such as “the state”.

Nusseibeh stays true to his role as an intellectual proposing new questions and spurring novel challenges to the way we construct our world view. His political essay provides important insights into the way that various ideological convictions can become coercive to the individual who possesses them. Especially noteworthy is his ability to articulate, by presenting numerous examples, a way to abstain from the friend-enemy division that gave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict such an un-solvable nature. In the remainder of this review I would like to suggest some further points for consideration that arise from his thought provoking thesis.

Nusseibeh argues that Palestinians’ mistrust of Israelis is rooted in the latter’s designs on the territory allocated for a possible Palestinian state. Israelis on the other hand, have more rudimental anxieties pertaining for their very life which “has been so incredibly exorcized from … the Palestinians, that it is almost impossible for either side to understand the workings of the other. Palestinians cannot believe that Israelis live in perpetual fear (for their lives), and Israelis cannot understand how Palestinians live without such fear “(p. 189). This interesting, yet disputable, binary division testifies to Nusseibeh’s belief, which is more clearly explained in the book’s final chapter, in an embedded potential of Palestinians, as they are the weaker side in the conflict, to free themselves from the uncertainties which Israelis seem more constrained within.

Thus, it is through empathy to the Israelis’ inability of escaping their meta-biological entity that Nusseibeh adopts Israel’s “might as a right” to govern the territories it took by force. This means that Nusseibeh’s confidence in the individual aptitude to resist uncertainties produced by the conflict, while indeed truly inspiring, is somewhat confined to one side of the equation.  It is remarkable that a book which stimulates genuine optimism in the power of the human spirit is in fact based on a pessimistic outlook. Had Nusseibeh been more convinced either by the two-state resolution which he defines as good or by the bi-national one which he defines as just, he wouldn’t have strived to persuade, quite compellingly, that an interim solution should be adopted. Yet the temporality aspect of the proposition which is vital to its success has to rely on confidence in all parties involved. This, as mentioned, is questioned.

Finally, Nusseibeh criticizes the “siren song of the state” explaining how some of its characteristics, like a standing military, national airline, or official coinage are no more than trappings if it lacks actual might and moral strength. While “The State” can become an elusive and ensnaring epistemological structure, one cannot disregard the fact that it has also become almost inseparable from the ability of the individual to realize her human rights.  Accordingly, the proposition that Israel would offer Palestinians “civil, though not the political, rights of citizenship” needs further clarification.

The meaning of these rights is not elaborated beyond two examples. The first relates to private property. Jews will be entitled to settle anywhere, but private property as well as “Arabs’ rural and agricultural development” will not be harmed (p.144-5). Secondly, Palestinian right of return will also be observed. On the collective level, Nusseibeh rejects the implementation of this right suggesting that it places an entity such as “Palestine” before the Palestinians’ wellbeing by delaying the conflict’s end. On the personal level though, and within the parameters of the proposed solution, this right will be safeguarded, allowing Diaspora Palestinians “to make the longed-for journey back … either to visit or to settle down—since civil rights surely includes the right to return to one’s homeland” (p. 146, emphasis added).

The cogency of these examples is surmised as indisputable. Nevertheless, one is left to ask how Palestinian individuals will make sure that their civil rights will indeed be fortified.  Differently put, without the ability to take an active part in shaping the political structure of the state, such rights become no more than voidable privileges – a situation strikingly similar to the years under Israeli occupation.  Nusseibeh does make clear that any arrangement should be supervised by international mediators. But since another part of the proposal entails a formal Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories, it will enable the former to argue, as some Israeli policy makers already do, that any sovereign act in its enlarged territory is an internal matter, only now with a greater degree of validity.  Paraphrasing Nusseibeh one might ask, what are civil rights worth without the political power to enforce them?

These questions are not made in order to rule out Nusseibeh’s intervention nor do they undermine the important insights he elucidates regarding human nature, but rather seek to offer further reflections on the nature of the “box” which Nusseibeh wishes us all to eschew.  Faith, explains Nusseibeh, is a key concept that, although abused more than used, remains a central tool in propagating a viable solution. We are all required to make a leap of faith which will, among other things, ensure that a temporary solution will indeed remain temporary, eventually allowing people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, to see one another as equal individuals with additional properties like “Jewish”, “Muslim” or “Christian”. In a world disenchanted from the leviathanesque entities Nusseibeh convincingly challenges, the secular faith he proposes becomes a fascinating gospel.


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