Anyone looking for reasons to despair about the prospects of peace in the Middle East need only listen to the endless stream of incitement and denial of Jewish history and rights that comes from the Palestinian Authority’s leadership and official media. But genuine perspective about the political culture of the Palestinians can also come from paying attention to what their moderates are saying. Unfortunately, that gives us just as little comfort.
Thus, Sari Nusseibeh’s polemic against the idea of a Jewish state ought to provide sobering reading for hawks and doves alike. Nusseibeh is a philosopher and peace activist who is well-respected internationally as well as by Israelis. Yet in his essay published last week on the Al Jazeera website, even he seems willing to indulge in rhetoric that not only disparages Jewish rights to share the land but also Jewish history. If the phrase “Jewish state” sticks in the craw of such a worldly intellectual, there seems little hope ordinary Palestinians will be able to accept it.
First, Nusseibeh’s claim Israel is “moving the goalposts” by demanding the Palestinians accept a Jewish state is absurd. Though he cites the decision of an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry about the future of Palestine that wrongly claimed the British Mandate need not create a Jewish state as part of its obligations to fulfill the Balfour Declaration, he fails to note the following year, the United Nations General Assembly overrode that decision. Despite their obsession with the world body, Palestinians tend to forget the 1947 partition resolution explicitly demanded the creation of a Jewish state alongside an Arab one.
The reason for Israel’s demand is simple. Unless and until the Palestinians specifically accept that the part of the country they do not control is forever Jewish, the conflict will not be over. Nusseibeh and other Palestinians are right when they say it is not for them to determine the nature of the Jewish state. But no one is asking them to do that. Jewish identity is complex, and Israelis may well spend the rest of eternity trying to define themselves. But, whatever their ultimate answer, the fact that Israel will be the state of the Jewish people cannot be questioned without unleashing the dogs of war that have doomed the Palestinians to tragedy during the last century.
Though he seems to believe in some sort of two-state solution (a departure from his recent book that was reviewed in COMMENTARY back in January in which he indicated Palestinians might be incapable of self-rule), Nusseibeh’s attempt to split hairs over the meaning of Jewish statehood is deeply troubling. He knows very well that accepting Israel as a Jewish state does not mean it is a theocracy. Nor will it invalidate the citizenship of the country’s Arab minority. His citing of biblical texts about the slaughter and dispossession of the Canaanites seems designed merely to provoke. The idea that recognizing a Jewish state would mean, as he claims, Palestinians will be legitimizing their own destruction is simply an absurdity that has no place in a reasonable discussion of contemporary problems.
As bad as that might be, far more troubling is Nusseibeh’s unwillingness to let go of the so-called right of return for the descendants of Palestinian refuges. Any mention of the this right is simply a signal that Palestinians are not interested in ending the century-old war over this small patch of land. Just as worrisome is Nusseibeh’s attempt to incite Christians to oppose a unified Jerusalem. While disturbing, any such effort is doomed to failure because the only time that there has been genuine religious freedom and access to all holy sites in the city has been during the last 44 years of undivided Jewish sovereignty.
After more than 2,500 words of dishonest incitement, Nusseibeh concludes by saying that Israel should be a democratic country with a Jewish majority and a Jewish state religion. But that is what it is now and what Israelis and those who support it understand to be a Jewish state. Palestinians who haven’t been able to create their own democratic culture can’t credibly claim that they are, as Nusseibeh says, merely worried about the future of Israeli democracy. Why then is it so hard for even a member of that small majority of Palestinians who actually believe in living in peace with the Jews to say the phrase “Jewish state?” Perhaps because to do so invokes finality to the conflict that gives even moderates like Nusseibeh pause. If even someone like him is moved to this level of invective by those words then it is hard to imagine when the rest of Palestinian society will accept them and the permanence of their Jewish neighbors’ hold on even part of the land.