How Israel Can Avoid a Hellish Future

Israel's challenge is to reframe the political climate such that one or another mathematically possible two-state solutions can become possible.

Sari Nusseibeh
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The first fruits ceremony at Kibbutz Givat Haim, Shavuot, 1948. In the beginning, Nusseibeh writes, the kibbutzim could inspire even Palestinians.
The first fruits ceremony at Kibbutz Givat Haim, Shavuot, 1948. In the beginning, Nusseibeh writes, the kibbutzim could inspire even Palestinians.Credit: Otto Gill / Kibbutz Givat Haim
Sari Nusseibeh

There was a time, in the late 1960s, and after the ’67 war, when even I – a conquered Arab and Palestinian – thought I could sense the vibrant and missionary zeal of an extraordinary nation, set to achieve a rare and sublime human condition that would be a model for all to follow, whether friend or foe.

I remember being overawed by the puritanical ideology of young kibbutzniks, as I sat after dusk with them on the steps of the humble convention/dining hall of the kibbutz (Hazorea) where I stayed, listening to them divulge their thoughts and dreams. I didn’t figure in their dreams, of course. But their dreams figured in my consciousness, as I could see these had more to do with building up a new life for themselves than with destroying the life I had.

My enemies, I told myself, had their story to tell. I even started toying with the airy idea that young Palestinians, like myself, should set up our own kibbutzim in the West Bank, where new human communities could be established, with a new social order based on the principles and ideals I heard the young kibbutzniks talk about.

In time, I began to see the ugly side. Of course, I had a notion of that ugly side from before, even from before I had the slightest notion what an Israeli looked like. It was a notion formed by an earlier generation of Palestinians, who had experienced the Nakba (or “catastrophe,” the term Palestinians use to refer to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948), and which had become a sacred memorial tablet imprinted in Palestinian minds.

But I had tried through my personal experiment, and succeeded, to see the “other side.” And doing that, I felt there was hope. A human space exists – I came to believe – in which their people and mine could still live our ideal dreams. A beautiful future can still surely be built for both of us. But now, I must say I can no longer see that “beautiful side” of the nation, however hard I try.

I can, of course, see and admire beautiful individuals. Israel boasts so many of them – poets, writers, journalists, scholars, artists – and just ordinary people in ordinary jobs, trying to live their harmless lives. But that special luster of an idealistic nation to be admired has vanished. I can no longer see it anywhere. It has become replaced, in my mind – sorry to say – by what appears to have become a scientifically skilled colonialist group of self-serving thugs, bent on self-aggrandizement, capitalizing on world-guilt for past pains and horrors suffered, and now hiding behind a religious fiction to justify all the pain and suffering it does to my own people, our heritage and culture.

The most I can now feel for my enemies in my sober moments is being sorry for them! Somewhere along the line, I tell myself, something cracked. They managed to lose what was special in them, or about them – what might have vindicated their project, even in my own mind. If once they held the flame of an extraordinary dream – to re-gather the nation in its historical homeland and to show the world what a moral human community might look like – they somehow only succeeded in the end to turn themselves into yet another ugly colonial power, feeding off the sorrows of others.

Their days, I tell myself now, more with a sense of dread than with any sense of elation, are surely numbered, like all other colonialist projects. One-hundred years is but a faint stroke in the annals of history. Nor will their downfall come by my own doing, but by theirs. Of course, my friends tell me that that is how they have always been – that that has always been their nature. But I refuse to believe that. Because I believe I heard firsthand the throbbing of their idealistic hearts.

Can I feel sorry for myself as well as for my enemy? Surely I can. For the sorrow springs from the same source: their failure to bring back with them to the homeland that beautiful and ideal dream in which the space where they flourish leaves the same, or enough space for me.

Do I see Israel now as a failed project? Do I see a time when, like South Africa, it will disintegrate from within? I cannot say I can see that. But I can easily imagine it happening. I can easily see how whatever it is that is rotten and has embedded itself in the system will eventually wear it out of existence, replacing it by something else. Not by war, but by its own body-grown cells. This I can imagine, especially since I cannot easily imagine a reasonable two-state solution happening anymore, a solution that will spare Israel that sad future. Not because such a solution is mathematically impossible, but because it is has become politically unrealistic.

I cannot see an Israeli government now offering what a Palestinian government can now accept. I can therefore only foresee a worsening climate – not a one-time disaster (say, an avalanche following the killing of a Jew while performing a prayer in the Noble Sanctuary, on what Israelis call the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) that can once and for all be put behind, by whichever side, but an increasingly ugly living climate in which only those who can acclimatize and be ugly themselves can survive.

In simple words, even if called “holy,” I can foresee this place turning into a hell for all those who live in it. It will not be place for normal human beings who want to pursue normal lives, let alone a place where anyone can hope to fulfill a sublime life.

Do I have any thoughts about how the prospects of such a dreaded future can be avoided? Or how the future could be made less painful? I do. I will put them in a few words. Perhaps these words will resound somewhere: As I see it, the challenge is to reframe the political climate such that one or another mathematically possible two-state solutions can become politically possible. Not by increase of pressure, but by amelioration of living conditions.

To do this, Israel has to be in the driving seat – which, to all intents and purposes, it is anyway. Let it remain there. While there, let it, as it navigates forward toward one possible mathematical solution, address as a highest priority on its agenda with the Palestinians, the step-by-step creation of the enabling conditions for their well-being, by devolving authorities and rights, both to the individuals as well as to the emergent Palestinian Authority.

Being in the driving seat, such devolution of authorities will be under its total control. Security can thus remain entirely in its hands. Why insist on conditioning the turning over of individual human or civil rights, or even of Authority rights, on a negotiated settlement? After all, 20 years of Oslo hasn’t produced the desired outcome (assuming, of course, it was desired in the first place). Why keep basic civil and human rights, therefore, suspended, waiting for Godot? Why not, instead, approach this the other way round: by creating the conditions for Palestinian well-being that can eventually make a settlement politically more feasible.

By “well-being,” I mean “good living conditions,” whether at the level of the basic human and civil rights of individuals, or at that of the sovereign rights of the Authority itself. Needless to say, I do not foresee a two-state settlement, eventually and after such a program, necessarily following the contours of the existing model for two states – a model that has been flogged at the hands of politicians beyond death. But other creative two-state models – becoming visible in time – can perhaps look, and prove to be much more feasible, and better.

The failed example of the Gaza Strip, of course, springs immediately to mind. Hasn’t Israel withdrawn unilaterally from there, leaving behind an even more belligerent climate than had existed before? There are indeed many things to be said about the Gaza experiment, but I think none undermines my proposal.

Indeed, one thing Israel can do right from the outset is to declare its beneficent intentions: that it henceforth will begin a wide-ranging initiative aimed at changing the political climate, in preparation for a proper solution. It could even (as a gesture of goodwill) let Authority personnel in on the steps it is taking, or intends to take at each juncture, stating it will be open to their suggestions and comments on each one of them.

Take two examples: Israel can turn over a particular part of Area B (under shared Israeli and Palestinian control) into part of Area A (under full Palestinian control), somewhere; likewise, a particular part of Area C (under full Israeli control) into an area B. And it can allow, experimentally, people over age 60 from the West Bank or Gaza to begin to move freely throughout the country, therefore enabling them also to visit their holy sites in Jerusalem.

Supposing the first steps work (meaning, without negative security consequences, and with decreased sentiments of hostility), Israel could take the next step. Margins of breathing space can be incrementally expanded, each time providing more space for the well-being of Palestinians. Will Palestinians go for such steps? Who wouldn’t? And why wouldn’t they?

Israeli fears of bringing about the conditions favorable for a one-state solution can only be met by Israeli actions to ensure that a two-state solution in the future remain possible. They cannot be met by hasty unilateral actions to “give off” population centers and as little else to the Authority, and the creation of effective separation barriers, under the guise of a peaceful two-state settlement. Such acts will indeed be a reenactment of the Gaza model.

And these fears cannot be met by holding off on any political action, waiting for yet another U.S. envoy, or a divine response to the prayers at the Vatican. They can only be met if potential future outcomes are taken by the horns, and are subjected through visionary and measured steps in the direction of the best of such outcomes. Is Israel up tothe moral valor required to take such steps?

Some right-wing Israelis are countenancing the deprivation of Palestinian Israelis of their Israeli citizenship, thinking this to be a logical way to ensure the long-term Jewish nature of the state. In the present circumstances, nothing can seem to be more fascist in nature. What is Israel turning into?

But let us imagine a different kind of future – where the well-being of Palestinians now ruled by virtue of the ‘67 war, comes to equal that of their compatriot Israeli citizens. And where, in the context of porous borders and absence of forced migrations, an emergent Palestinian state can begin to look more and more like the natural home for Palestinian citizenship. Wouldn’t a self-willed re-alignment of citizenship then seem more natural?

In the above, I have stayed clear from making comments on day-to-day developments – coalitions, reconciliations, prisoner strikes, new tenders for settlement expansions, transfers of funds, uprooting of trees, confrontations, and so on, to the last syllable of what has become our routine life. Left to themselves such developments can indeed constitute the wheels of history. But they would be running along a tragic trajectory. Perhaps we will be spared from major disasters. But what an ugly future it will be – and we will all be caught up as prisoners inside it.

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