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Joint Responsibilities

A Response to"The Case for Binationalism"

Leonard Fein

Lama Abu-Odeh's timorous endorsement of binationalism as the preferred solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict inadvertently offers all the evidence even the most conciliatory friend of Israel requires to dismiss the idea of binationalism, and to dismiss it with prejudice.

To be fair to Abu-Odeh, she is explicit in stating her concerns: Palestinian aspirations and Palestinian interests are the beginning and end of her agenda. And why not? Surely she cannot fairly be charged with responsibility for advancing Israeli aspirations and interests. Yet as surely, any serious proposal for resolving the dismal and deadly conflict must at some level take account of the Other. Even Abu-Odeh seems to recognize this need, which she "meets" by suggesting that Israel's Sephardic (or Mizrahi) population would be "obvious allies" of Palestinian civil rights activists. Chomsky redux: Let the toiling masses on both sides make common cause against their avaricious overlords. Or, more accurately: Let deracinated intellectuals on both sides move their distant masses in any which way that suits them, paying no attention whatever to the sentiments of those masses. Or, more accurately still: Let us be done with the Jewish state by enabling Palestinian Arabs quickly to become the majority population in the new binational state (to which, according to Abu-Odeh, all Palestinians will have the right to return). Thus the Palestinian national project, a failure these last fifty and more years, will finally replace the Jewish national project.

Nowhere does Abu-Odeh make explicit the sheer gall on which her argument ultimately depends. After all, she proposes the replacement of "a right to national self-determination," by "constitutional liberalism." Appeal to so neutral a principle cannot be dismissed as favoring one nationalism over another. Or can it, if its practical consequence would be to take power from those who have effectively achieved their "right to national self-determination" and, as an inevitable demographic consequence, invest power in a population for whom endorsement of "constitutional liberalism" is at most a tactic rather than an expression of conviction?

Still, one might be disposed to take this sunny prescription (which last failed in the 1930s when its chief proponents were Martin Buber, Henrietta Szold, and Judah Magnes) more seriously if the argument were more balanced. For these two angry peoples to live equably side-by-side, they would somehow have to de-caricature one another—as well as themselves. But Abu-Odeh wants us to know only of Israel's militarism, of the success of its security apparatus in purveying "exaggerated fears about state security," fear based not on reality but on "ethno-phobia." Nowhere in her essay is there even a hint that the Palestinians share any responsibility at all for the current disastrous situation.

Thus: Oslo failed because "the Israeli political and military class has no serious intention of conceding to their Palestinian counterparts any set of powers, nor any stretch of decently contiguous territory, that would allow that nationalist project to succeed, even on a modest scale." Oslo, in other words, was never meant seriously by the Israelis, and the second intifada finally called the Israeli bluff. Never mind that an agreement by Arafat to negotiate Barak's Camp David offer (before, as at Taba, it was simply too late) might have been a much easier and more humane way to call the Israeli bluff—if, indeed, it was a bluff.

Or: "[T]he political migration to the right of many members of the Israeli peace movement as the second intifada broke out…indicate[s] the breadth of opposition to Palestinian independence outside the political class." Apparently, Abu-Odeh believes that the more pacific response would have been for members of the peace movement to be so touched at the depth of passion displayed by suicide bombers and drive-by shooters that they would have migrated leftward rather than to the right. But she takes no note whatever of these crimes, save at the very end of her essay, when she dedicates her work to "all those kids who died for Palestine," forever, she says, her "heroes." "All those kids?" The suicide bombers among them?

To call attention to the suicide bombers is not to exculpate the Israelis nor to justify the Occupation. The Israeli peace movement, along with its Diaspora allies, have engaged in painful self-criticism all along the way. Were there a parallel movement on the other side, there would be a Palestinian state today, celebrating the tenth or even twentieth anniversary of its independence. Abu-Odeh suggests the possibility of such a parallel movement in her second and third recommendations for "activist strategies"—essentially, a shift to civil disobedience and unarmed resistance. Had the Palestinian national movement adopted these strategies, the Palestinians would have both their state and the respect such behavior would warrant. But that is not the path they have chosen, whether in the context of repressed nationalism or in the context of liberal individualism. Now, very late in the day, no less a personage than Sari Nuseibeh, president of Al-Quds University and now Arafat's representative to the diplomatic community in Jerusalem, has boldly come forward to assert that both sides bear responsibility for the ongoing calamity—and that both sides, therefore, must accept responsibility for moving towards a just and durable peace. That means, argues Nuseibeh, a two-state solution.

What Nuseibeh understands, as do all serious students of and actors in this drama, is that there is a history here, that one cannot and ought not jump in with a utopian vision entirely disconnected from that history. A serious peace will derive not from the courts and not from the killers and not from the utopians, but from a sober recognition of human and humane imperatives, a recognition championed on both sides, with neither claiming exclusive victimhood and with arrangements in place that can help each side to overcome its perfectly reasonable suspicions regarding the other. An argument that holds that the suspicions of one side alone are valid and that one side alone must have its needs addressed serves only to confirm fears, not to move the discussion forward.<



Leonard Fein, a scholar of Israeli politics and a social activist, is among the founders of Americans for Peace Now.

Return to the forum on Binationalism, with Lama Abu-Odeh and respondents.


Originally Published in December 2001/January 2002 issue of the Boston Review



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