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No Easy Solution

A Response to"The Case for Binationalism"


Ebrahim Moosa

Lama Abu-Odeh's binationalist solution simultaneously offers a glimpse of hope and a calculated risk in the life and death battle for survival of the Palestinian people—at a time when the military and diplomatic odds are stacked against them. With a newly discovered sense of immediacy, the Bush administration has announced its recognition of an as-yet undetermined Palestinian state. By all indications the administration will embrace some form of two-state solution.

Anyone familiar with the terrain and history of the Palestinian struggle knows fully well that the only viable and equitable solution to Israeli occupation is a unitary, secular democratic state, based on equality, not nationalism. Such a solution would have to dismantle the racial institutions of Zionism as well as the infrastructures of privilege set up by the Palestinian elite.

Abu-Odeh's call for binationalism is premised on an understandable distrust of the Palestinian elite and its ability to play midwife for a democratic order, to deliver justice and fulfill the aspirations of the poor and dispossessed. All indications are that a Palestinian state will be as fraught with corruption and misrule as other Middle Eastern nation states. The only way I can make sense of her proposal is in the context of my own prognosis for stillborn democracy in the proposed Palestinian state.

Nevertheless I find her argument to tilt too far in the direction of realpolitik. In its essentials, Abu-Odeh's argument embraces both imperialist hegemony and the mantra of globalized neo-liberalism. More crucially, she is consciously targeting an American gallery in order to showcase the Palestinian cause in the repertoire of civil rights, the liberal version of the rule of law and human rights. Why? Because, she argues, Americans have a weak stomach for the bloodiness of anti-colonial struggles!

This kind of logic plays right into a feigned American innocence and amnesia. Aside from its own wars of independence, the United States knows all about bloodiness from Indo-China, Japan (Hiroshima & Nagasaki), brazen gunboat diplomacy in Lebanon, followed by Iraq and now Afghanistan.

Hope for a more just American intervention in world affairs lies perhaps squarely in the hands of the U.S. public. The late Eqbal Ahmed, in his characteristic astuteness, once observed that the will of the U.S. ruling class to dominate is not quite shared by its people. If Abu-Odeh is aiming her appeals of citizenship rights, human rights and egalitarian legal rhetoric at the American ruling class, as I suspect she is, then she is entering treacherous waters.

Recent history has shown that everyone from yesterday's Cold War allies and today's terrorists like Bin Laden, to despots like Saddam Hussein and oppressive regimes the world over can find favor with the U.S. ruling class, under the right circumstances. That same ruling class turned against its allies in pursuit of U.S. military and national interests. The United States even had a hand in aborting democratic experiments from the Congo under Lumumba and Iran under Mossaddeq. The U.S.'s lack of opprobrium when the military cancelled democratic elections on the eve of an impending Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) victory in Algeria must undermine our confidence that Western powers are genuinely committed to supporting democratic rights in international diplomacy. No principle or vision is sacrosanct in Washington except its own security and self-interest. U.S. "national interests" must be the single most catastrophic ideology of death and misery, after Communism. To waltz with the world's only superpower is nothing short of a death wish. Ask the Afghans and the Iraqi Kurds.

The only chance of meaningfully affecting U.S. foreign policy—and it is a long shot—would be to make a concerted pitch at the American public through a variety of campaigns. Following such sustained effort, one would have to pin hopes on the fact that public opinion would translate into meaningful policy. Only when humane foreign policy is deployed can one raise hopes of reconciliation abroad. There is a glimpse of such possibility after the tragedy of September 11, with growing public suspicion that the government has been doing something terribly wrong over the years to invite such unprecedented fury against the United States.

Change by legal instruments features prominently in Abu-Odeh's vision of binationalism. Elements of the judiciary in South Africa under apartheid rule did some of the things that she anticipates the Israeli judiciary may achieve in a binational context: create legal space for Palestinians, restore human rights and give effect to constitutional rights on the basis of citizenship. But even in the South African context such judicial activism had limited effects, albeit with limited notions of citizenship for non-white people. What guarantees does the binational model offer for equality without perpetuating the second-class citizenship to which Arab-Israelis have been destined? In South Africa, only the transfer of power allowed for the juridical vision to be reshaped in tandem with the new political vision of society that enshrined human rights values and civil rights for each citizen.

Anticipating creeping humanization by means of legal instruments in a binational Israeli-Palestinian entity places an undue responsibility on judges and poses as an impossible task even if judges were mandated to achieve it. For such a view subscribes to the fiction that the judiciary is entirely independent from the executive: judges, we know, are truly political animals. Even if Palestinians were to become judges, their activism would be circumscribed by the Zionist vision of Israeli society, unless that vision were to be radically re-written in legal and political terms. If not, then it means that Palestinians would administer their own misery in sanctified legal terms, as the Palestinian Authority currently does in the bantustan prelude to Palestinian self-determination.

Abu-Odeh's proposal is silent about the modalities of power-sharing. She only envisions a federal state that will secure the interests of the respective peoples within that federal configuration. Two visions side-by-side: one triumphalist and rich, and the other defeated and poor, within the same territorial borders are recipes for perpetual conflict. The political imagination and will for sharing power and territory in conflict-ridden societies is wanting. Western Europeans can do it now, but only because they buried the hatchet a half-century ago.

I find Abu-Odeh's sentiments, goals and objectives highly commendable. And if there were not such a protracted history of conflict, the binational solution would have much to recommend it. Much as I empathize with her desire to find a way with incremental gains for Palestinians within a single territorial entity, with fewer warriors and martyrs but a more secure future, I am afraid that both peoples have passed such a moment of possibility. The bloody conflict between them has ended all trust and the balance of power in the region (and globally) favors Israel.

Under U.S. auspices the Palestinians will have their piece of negotiated territory without their legitimate aspirations being met; there is good reason to believe that the tensions between the diverse currents of the nationalist movement and the Islamists will exacerbate the situation, unless the national question is addressed in an inclusive and imaginative manner. Perhaps in the future, when Palestinians and Israelis recognize that their mutual survival is at stake, a vision of sharing might be realizable. Perhaps then we will recall Abu-Odeh's hopes.

For now global capital (and its international advocacy undertaken by the United States) dictates the terms for global peace exclusively in terms of its own security interests, and those of its European allies and its sole ally in the Middle East, Israel. It is a policy riddled with racism, unabashedly discriminatory and bereft of humanity. It leaves the globally disenfranchised with no other option but to mobilize and resist this juggernaut's determined destruction of their culture, their history and their civilization.<



Ebrahim Moosa is professor of Islamic Studies in the department of religion at Duke University and co-director of the Center for the Study of Muslim Networks.

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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