restricted access What Is a Palestinian State Worth? (review)
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Reviewed by
Sari Nusseibeh, What Is a Palestinian State Worth? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 256 pp.

Most readers of Nusseibeh's new book will be struck by his proposal for how discussion between Jews and Palestinians about their future in the Middle East should begin. His suggestion reminds me of how my late Glaswegian mother would give directions in the street. "I don't know how to get to your destination from here," she used to say, "but if you don't mind driving a few minutes from here to my house, I can tell you from there how to start out afresh, and you'll be where you want to be in no time!" Nusseibeh's most radical suggestion is, like my mother's approach to directions, essentially a conservative one. He proposes dropping the idea of an independent state for the Palestinians in order to find the most productive way forward. I call this proposal conservative because it amounts to returning to the depoliticized conditions that allowed Palestinians to survive peacefully for centuries under Ottoman rule. Nusseibeh invites Palestinians to wonder whether struggling for an independent state is an end worth suffering so much for: is it the best way to ensure peace, civil liberties, health care, and education, or is the accomplishment of those things being held back by an obsession with pointless symbols and empty promises? "As a way to move beyond the seemingly interminable status quo," he suggests that "Israel annex the occupied territories, and that Palestinians in the enlarged Israel agree that the state remain Jewish in return for being granted all the civil, though not the political, rights of citizenship. Thus the state would be Jewish, but the country would be fully bi-national." Though he protests that a Palestinian state might ultimately provide the optimal solution to Palestinians' problems, the struggle for that solution is not yielding any of the benefits without which the Palestinian people can no longer manage.

In the new political reality that such a change would bring about, Nusseibeh insists that a visionary conversation about what states are worth would be needed. This discussion between Palestinians and Israelis must, he says, transcend politics and the discourse of justice, rights, power, and territory. It must be about purpose and vision: "We need vision to 'see' and then to project the earthly heaven and we need faith to believe it is within our capacity to bring the earthly heaven into existence." Such a discourse would both require and generate [End Page 371] faith, which Nusseibeh identifies, I think correctly, as the key to progress in the Middle East. In his view, "shifting our focus to the future is a way to transcend the present mistrust of each side for the other and thereby to transform that negativity into a positive vision of an imagined new world." Nusseibeh is right to recognize that such discourse requires a taste for the prophetic and a willingness to think outside the confines of the two-, one-, or even three-state solution. For him, the solution is the coincidence of vision, while the politics is no more than the mechanism of its implementation.

Given the radicalism of the proposal, I think that Nusseibeh might be surprised to discover that, of all the sectors of Israeli society with whom he might engage, it is the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-right wing who might respond most constructively to his proposals. They are the ones who are first to question the sanctity of the state and to give vision and faith precedence over politics. Perhaps this realization may come as a disappointment. Personally, I believe it is a sign that there is indeed still hope.

Alick Isaacs

Alick Isaacs, the author of A Prophetic Peace: Judaism, Religion, and Politics, teaches at the Melton Center of the Hebrew University and is codirector of the Talking Peace project sponsored by Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem. He is associate editor of Common Knowledge for history and religion.

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