I thought Sari Nusseibeh’s recent interview with Akiva Eldar was interesting for several reasons.
1. First, Nusseibeh brings up the possibility that the Palestinians of East Jerusalem may present a candidate for - and vote in - this year’s Jerusalem municipal elections, a wild card that could have all sorts of implications in a city where the Israeli secular and religious vote is split (which I blogged about here). Nusseibeh goes on to suggest that the Palestinian candidate might just be … Sari Nusseibeh. I don’t know if he’s serious or just putting a cat among the pigeons, but that would be a candidacy full of interesting possibilities.
2. Second, I was interested to hear him talk about how the two state solution might be running out of time. Obviously, he’s not the first person to say that, but in his case it’s interesting because in a sense this represents Nusseibeh’s coming full circle. As early as 1987, Nusseibeh courted controversy by suggesting that Israel should annex the Palestinian Territories, reunify Mandate Palestine as a single state, and grant citizenship to all its residents, fully integrating the Palestinians and Israelis into a single polity. Two years later, when the first intifada had erupted, and Palestinians seemed to have made a choice to strive for a national existence separate from Israel, rather than to campaign for equal citizenship within it, he revisited his comments in an interview with Gideon Levy. He made the point then that the Palestinians' apparent decision to go for two states rather than one wasn’t set in stone, but would alter as the changing realities on the ground affected the likelihood of success for one approach over another:
… And, he warns, the psychological clock is ticking. “The entire populace is becoming radicalized as a result of the continued Israeli occupation”, he explains. “The symptom of this [shift] is that more and more people are turning to Muslim fundamentalism. One shouldn’t overestimate its importance” he cautions, but one should draw the appropriate conclusion.
The message is that while an independent Palestinian state is still attractive to most Palestinians, both inside and outside the territories, it may not be for very much longer. “Today you could sell this to the people, not that they would fall in love with the idea,” says Sari. He cautions: “The national psychological readiness for a two-state solution is not a permanent fixture of the Palestinian psychology. It’s in the Palestinian heart now, but it can quickly fade if there is no response to this feeling of opening up. It’s like a star or a comet that comes close by and then goes away. One has to catch it when it is close to your quarters.”
-- cited in ch 3, pp 85-6, The New Palestinians, Wallach &Wallach (Prima Press, 1992).
In practice of course, the Oslo process that arose from the first intifada did not bring an end to occupation. While the inhabitants of the main Palestinian urban centers were granted a limited autonomy, the Israeli grip on the land itself intensified, leaving Palestinians confined to isolated, self-governing islands in an Israeli sea. From a Palestinian perspective, it was the realization that Oslo was leading them to a self-governing Indian reservation that sparked the second intifada, which will almost certainly be the last intifada for a two state solution. And now, Nusseibeh wonders if things have come full circle. He looks at the situation on the ground today and wonders if we have passed through that scenario he foresaw in 1989, when he suggested that Israel’s inability to negotiate an exit from the Occupied Territories and the Palestinians’ inability to force them would result in disillusionment with the two state solution, making his 1987 advocacy of a single state prescient after all.
3. But the thing I really liked about the interview was that Nusseibeh outlined the rationale behind his advocating for a two state solution, which is something you don't see very often. In fact, you're as likely to see the motives of those Palestinians who advocate for two states misrepresented by those who oppose it, rather than spelled out by those who support it. I'm not sure why that should be; maybe people got so used to hearing that two states was the inevitable solution that nobody felt they had to make the argument anymore, which kind of left the discussion in the hands of people who really didn't have much time for it.
You hear criticism of the two state solution from various angles. Among some pro-Palestine advocates, Palestinian two-staters are "traitors" who are selling out the refugees by accepting the ethnic cleansing of 1948 and adopting Zionism’s concept of ethnicity rather than nationality as the basis of the state. And from Israel’s supporters, I hear criticisms that Palestinian two-staters don’t really mean it: that the two state solution isn’t about peace, but about taking back Palestine piece by piece. And the proof that is apparently supposed to clinch that argument is: “If the 1967 borders are the answer to the conflict, then how come there was terrorism before 1967?!!!”.
Those are two different arguments and they come from different sides of the aisle, but the criticism that underlies the two is really the same. One group says accepting two states is wrong because it adopts the ideology behind the expulsions of 1948; the other says accepting two states is wrong precisely because it is a cover-up for the fact that Palestinians still won’t adopt the ideology behind the expulsions of 1948. Either way, the underlying criticism is that the two state solution is no solution because it doesn’t definitively settle the ideological conflict that underpinned the events of 1948.
What I liked about Nusseibeh’s interview is that he explains that Palestinians who advocate for a two state solution do so because it is a practical solution, meant to bring a more peaceful, secure and normal existence to the greatest possible number of people, as quickly and as painlessly as possible. It is an unapologetically utilitarian approach to resolving the conflict, and doesn’t claim to be an ideological one. It doesn’t 'win' the ideological argument of 1948 because that’s not what it’s intended to do. Criticizing the two state solution because it doesn’t do what it isn’t designed to do is a bit like arguing that there’s no point taking aspirin for headaches, because aspirin doesn’t cure cancer:
What is the driving force behind a two-state solution? The fact that it seems more acceptable to a majority of people on both sides and therefore more applicable. The primary motivation is to minimize human suffering. This is what we should all be looking at. If there will be a one-state solution, it will not come today or tomorrow. It's a long, protracted thing, not the ideal solution. Unless, in an ideal world, people really want to be together, then it is the ideal solution. The best solution, the one that causes the least pain and that can actually be instrumental to a one-state solution, is to have peace now, and acceptance of one another on the basis of two states.
Fifty, 100, 200 years down the road there will be some kind of conclusion. Sometime in the future - however far away this future is - I believe we'll be living at peace with one another, in some way or another. I am not sure how, whether in one state or two states, or in a confederation of states, but people finally will come to live at peace. In the meantime, we will simply cause pain to one another. It's tragic. It is very tragic, because we know we can do it now. That today it is possible with some guts, leadership, vision, we can make it happen today, we can reach a peaceful solution today.
Nusseibeh is touted as the personification of the “Moderate Palestinian”. Unfortunately for Israelis, that word “moderate” does not mean what many of them have convinced themselves it means. Moderate is not a synonym for Zionist. It isn’t an abbreviated way of saying, “OK, we accept whatever you dictate to us”. There is no such thing as the Palestinian leader who is “moderate” in the sense that he or she believes it was or is all right for Zionists to expel Palestinians from their homeland, or to treat those who remain as lesser citizens of a “Jewish state”. (And the mistaken belief that there are such Palestinians, and they are found at the higher reaches of the PA, was the basis of the "Jewish state" flap last November). Nusseibeh doesn’t think that, and none of the Palestinian leadership that it’s fashionable to call “puppets” thinks that either. What the so-called "moderates" actually say is that regardless of how we got here, we are where we are, and where we are really sucks: so let’s talk in good faith about where we can go from here, right now.
Lots of countries and peoples have been torn apart by painful destructive ideologies, but they’re not condemned to go on living the same way forever. And lots of countries were born in some terrible original sin – slavery, genocide, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, oppression, inequalities, opportunities denied and lives wasted – but often they find ways to confront the skeletons in their closet. Healing might be slow, or painful or partial, but other countries find ways to emerge from a difficult past instead of constantly reliving it.
The two state solution says Israelis and Palestinians can do that too. It says the 1967 borders can be the basis for a settlement to this conflict not because they are ideologically perfect or legally correct, but because they enjoy a degree of internal support, broad international acceptance and make demographic sense, or at least they would if one of the parties could stop gobbling up the Occupied Territories with its illegal settlement project. People like Nusseibeh advocate two states on the 1967 borders not because they are closet Zionists, but because it is a practical way to bring Israelis and Palestinians out of the unsustainable and intrinsically violent master-slave relationship they are stuck in, and to bring to the largest possible number of them the experience of living as normal citizens in functioning nation states. (And some anti-Zionist Jews support it for the same reason). It is the quickest and most practical way to turn two peoples who currently relate to each other as occupiers and occupied into full and equal citizens of independent countries who relate to each other as neighbors.
So advocates for two states aren’t saying that 1948 doesn’t matter. They say that the underlying Big Issues of 1948 – justice, equality, self-determination and citizenship, etc. - matter as much to them as to anyone else, but that the immediate practical concerns of everyday life matter too, and the most pressing of these is to find some kind of formula under which Israelis and Palestinians simply stay alive. If you can’t tackle that immediate issue, then you’re not going to grapple with the rest. But if you can tackle it, through a two state arrangement that gives everyone a shot (bad word, I know) at some kind of normal life in a modern functioning state, then perhaps two traumatized peoples will finally feel enough security in their own national existence that they can begin to talk rationally and honestly about how they got where they are and – maybe – where they want to go to from here.
Maybe ten generations into a two state solution, when the defining mutual experience of Israelis and Palestinians is not Nakba and intifada but coexistence as neighbors, the people of historic Palestine/Greater Israel might look at their tiny territory – which forms one natural geographic and economic unit – and think how stupid it was to ever try to partition it. And they might just think that a single state, or a confederated state, consensually entered into, is the political format that is most natural and advantageous to everyone. Or maybe, seeing as nationalism seems to be one of the most persistent of all the –isms, ten generations of living in two nation states will solidify their belief that a more concentrated nationalism on part of the land is preferable to a diluted nationalism on all the land, and they will remain neighbors and not co-nationals.
The two state solution is intended to give everyone the breathing space to go through this process. It doesn’t try to win the argument of 1948, it tries to outline a way for people in their present situation to create a future in which they can constructively and cooperatively make sense of their past. It doesn’t deny the underlying issues of 1948 - and ultimately Israel will never really be at peace with itself or with its neighbors until it can honestly confront what it means to create by force a state that can exist only through the ethnic cleansing of others – but it says the most pressing demand right now is to bring some kind of normal coexistence to the largest possible number of Israelis and Palestinians, who are currently so wracked by insecurity that they cannot even listen to each other’s narrative for fear of undermining their own, and maybe losing everything.
The Israeli author, Amos Oz, has written: [T]here is the Shakespearean resolution and there is the Chekhovian one. On the one hand, at the end of a Shakespearean tragedy, the stage is strewn with dead bodies and maybe there's some justice hovering high above. A Chekhov tragedy, on the other hand, ends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed, absolutely shattered, but still alive. And I want a Chekhovian and not a Shakespearean one for the Israeli/Palestinian tragedy.
Well, the two state solution is the Chekhovian solution. Everyone can tell you what’s wrong with it, everyone can tell you it can’t work, and everyone curses its advocates as clowns and defeatists and collaborators. The point that Sari Nusseibeh makes is that the two state solution might well leave everyone disappointed, disillusioned and bitter, but maybe, at the end of the day, it might also leave everyone alive.