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The Thought Experiment

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 its commitment to violence, which so obviously failed to advance the Palestinian cause. But it is 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. 

Underneath the reproach and the frustration, the longing for a Palestinian Gandhi is an expression of the Israeli 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 great risk, or 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 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 remarkable work of 1909 on the moral and political principles of 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 is so 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 bi-national 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 rhetorical elimination of the Jewish state is all too blithe, and it is of a piece with Nusseibeh’s unfortunate indulgence of the work of Shlomo Sand, who has gone a step further and denied the very existence of the Jewish people as a historical entity. But in a sense, Nusseibeh’s belief that there is no inherent value in Israel’s existence as a Jewish state lies at the heart of his 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, seems 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 declares.

This is less a political project than a spiritual one: “faith, vision, and will are all indispensable to our quest for a better future.” 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.”

Nusseibeh’s most controversial proposal has to be understood, I think, as Nusseibeh’s attempt to change the terms of the Palestinian-Israeli discussion. At the beginning of his book, he 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. I hope it does.

The piece was originally published in Tablet.

Adam Kirsch is the author, most recently, of Benjamin Disraeli (Nextbook/Schocken). His new book, Why Trilling Matters, will be published this fall by Yale University Press.