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
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
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
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.