Much of the effort to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians has focused on establishing a mutually agreeable two-state solution. And yet, despite wide public support, negotiations to that end break down repeatedly. What Is a Palestinian State Worth?, by Sari Nusseibeh, is an attempt to step back and reassess the basis of this seemingly intractable conflict. If the goal of a Palestinian state cannot be achieved, Nusseibeh suggests that perhaps it is a goal that should be set aside.
Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem and a noted Palestinian intellectual, has written a deeply personal examination of the everyday lives of Palestinian people. Though the book is a work of political philosophy in which Nusseibeh earnestly addresses the worth of a Palestinian State, his approach is universal in its attempt to identify the role of the state in modern life. Nusseibeh carries the questioning spirit of his title through this whole work, and in chapters headed “What Makes Life Worth Living?” and “What Are States For?, he thinks his way to answers.
States for Nusseibeh perform a utilitarian function, providing to their citizens such things as health, education, and safety. As a younger man, he saw a state as the only possible means to those human ends. Now that, as he writes, “the state, as we had conceived it, is no longer practical or realistic,” Nusseibeh has written this book to reconsider the ultimate human desires embedded in the longing for a Palestinian nation, and to provoke the consideration of alternatives. “Politics for me has always been a means, not an end,” he writes, and the aim of his book is to put forth an alternative means.
What he offers is a challenging prompt, which he himself labels a “thought experiment.” From the book’s Introduction:
…let me propose that Israel officially 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 binational, all the Arabs within it having their well-being tended to and sustained. Given Israel’s demand to be recognized as a Jewish state, and as long as it refuses to grant those Palestinians full citizenship, their next best option is to have full civil rights even without the right to hold elective office—so that they can enjoy the civil benefits of the de facto single state without being accused of diluting or “defiling” its Jewishness. In any case such a scenario would provide them with a far better life than they have had in more than forty years under occupation or would have under another projected scenario: Israeli hegemony over scattered, “autonomous” Palestinian enclaves.
Nusseibeh describes this approach as “so objectionable that it might well generate its own annulment, either by making all parties see the need to find a tenable alternative or, if indeed adopted, by serving as a natural step toward a single democratic state.” Though modestly proposed, the provocation of this thought experiment is clear. Israel could not accept such a compromise and remain both Jewish and Democratic. Palestinian leaders could not offer it without formally legitimizing an occupation they’ve fought for nearly fifty years.
Whether his proposal is actually politically tenable is mostly beside the point for Nusseibeh. As he explained to Haim Watzman in an interview for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Nusseibeh isn’t really intending to offer a solution. “It's not like going to the supermarket and they're out of two-states so you pick up a one-state. It looks like we are stuck, so the question arises: What are we to do?” He says of the book that “A lot of stuff in there is questions, things I haven't worked out properly… I hope people who read it will be able to think about it, raise more questions, that it will allow them to find new ways of going forward.”
In the month since its publication, What Is a Palestinian State Worth? has been received as the provocation it was intended to be. Long, thoughtful pieces in the Chronicle, the New York Review of Books, Tablet Magazine, and Open Letters Monthly respond with varying degrees of enthusiasm to the content of Nusseibeh’s book. All, though, agree that what Nusseibeh has done is issue a life-giving intellectual challenge to this deeply lodged conflict. As Greg Waldmann put it in his Open Letters Monthly review, “An oddly detached sense of hope runs through What is a Palestinian State Worth?; there is nothing like it in the literature of this conflict. Every year thousands of articles and blog posts are produced about how to end the conflict. They all feel stale. This book does not.”