from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Sari Nusseibeh and Palestinian Moderation

October 5, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Israel’s difficulties in making peace with the Palestinians are nicely revealed in an opinion piece by Sari Nusseibeh published by Al Jazeera English last week .

Nusseibeh is often viewed as the most moderate of all Palestinian moderates. Typically, in the New York Times Leon Wieselier called him “a deeply admirable man”  and wrote of his “liberal nationalism” and his “humane understanding.”  He is president of Al Quds University, holds a Ph.D. from Harvard, and has long been viewed as a leading peace activist.

So Nusseibeh’s new article “Why Israel can’t be a ’Jewish State’” is worth a look.  Here are some of the key points:

In 1946, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry concluded that the demand for a "Jewish State" was not part of the obligations of the Balfour Declaration or the British Mandate. Even in the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, when Zionists sought to "establish a home for the Jewish people", there was no reference of a "Jewish State".

Here Nusseibeh simply omits UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1948, which called for the partition of Palestine into "Jewish and Arab states."  It is not a small matter to overlook. Looking back to 1897 and 1946 and ignoring Resolution 181 is, at the very least, a bit odd.

Let us suggest also that having a modern nation-state being defined by one ethnicity or one religion is problematic in itself - if not inherently self-contradictory - because the modern nation-state as such is a temporal and civic institution, and because no state in the world is - or can be in practice - ethnically or religiously homogenous.

This is a classic ‘straw man’ argument, because Israel as a Jewish State would of course not be homogeneous any more than Egypt is homogeneous (it is in fact about 15 percent Christian) while its constitution today states that “Islam is the religion of the state….The principles of Islamic law are the chief source of legislation.” As I have written here previously, there are plenty of states that say flatly “Islam is the religion of the state” and that civil law is based on sharia. Denmark, Norway, and England also have state religions and of course have complete freedom of religion. Nusseibeh argues that this is all fine: it is OK to say “Islam is the religion of the state” but not for Israel to be a “Jewish state” because the latter term suggests “ethnic cleansing.” Given that Israeli Arabs have always been free to speak, vote, and hold office while most of their Arab brethren have been living in dictatorships, this argument is more than a bit of a stretch. Israeli law is mostly British in origin, and Nusseibeh simply ignores the fact that so many Islamic countries state that they base their own laws on sharia. So what he is doing here is simple: applying a double-standard.

Recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" implies that Israel is, or should be, either a theocracy (if we take the word "Jewish" to apply to the religion of Judaism) or an apartheid state (if we take the word "Jewish" to apply to the ethnicity of Jews), or both…

This is not analysis but polemic, for the reasons just stated. Nowhere does Nusseibeh state or imply that for a Muslim majority country to say “Islam is the religion of the state” and “Sharia is the basis of our laws” might lead to theocracy or apartheid. There are four states whose very name contains a religious reference: the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Do all of them uniformly practice apartheid and theocracy, in Nusseibeh’s view?

Recognizing a ‘Jewish State’….means, before final status negotiations have even started, that Palestinians would have then given up the rights of about 7 million Palestinians in the diaspora to repatriation or compensation; 7 million Palestinians descended from the Palestinians who in 1900 lived in historical Palestine (i.e. what is now Israel, the West Bank including Jerusalem, and Gaza)…

It’s worth noting that Nusseibeh wants compensation not only for Palestinians he believes were forced out of Israel in 1948, nor even for those people and their descendants. Now the figure of those entitled to “return” rises to 7 million and includes anyone whose ancestors lived in what is now Israel in 1900. This is preposterous; what possible right could someone have, for example, whose ancestors moved to Damascus or Cairo in 1940, before Israel came into existence?

Nusseibeh then proceeds to an argument so extraordinary that one blushes to see this “deeply admirable” and “humane” man write it down. If Israel is recognized as a Jewish State, he says, it follows that Israelis will kill all the Arabs who live there.  He cites a number of Biblical passages and then delivers this key passage:

it remains true that, in the Old Testament, God commands the Jewish state in the land of Israel to come into being through warfare and violent dispossession of the original inhabitants. Moreover, this command has its roots in the very Covenant of God with Abraham (or rather "Abram" at that time) in the Bible and it thus forms one of the core tenets of Judaism as such, at least as we understand it. No one then can blame Palestinians and descendants of the ancient Canaanites, Jebusites and others who inhabited the land before the Ancient Israelites (as seen in the Bible itself) for a little trepidation as regards what recognising Israel as a "Jewish State" means for them, particularly to certain Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Jews. No one then can blame Palestinians for asking if recognising Israel as a "Jewish State" means recognising the legitimacy of offensive warfare or violence against them by Israel to take what remains of Palestine from them.

That phrase “what remains of Palestine” is part of another argument: “every day the Israeli settler movement is grabbing more land in the West Bank and Jerusalem.” Nowhere does Nusseibeh support that claim, which would require him to prove that the land area of settlements grows literally every day—or if we allow him poetic license every month or even every year. No doubt he thinks the claim so obvious as to beyond the need for proof, but it is not.

Nusseibeh, the man of “humane understanding,” a philosopher by training, ends by saying that calling Israel a “Jewish State” would necessarily “arouse fears among Palestinians and Arabs about being ethnically cleansed in Palestine.”  One may assume that in that phrase he refers to Israeli Arabs as well as those of the West Bank and Gaza, so he is not only warning of “ethnic cleansing” but engaging in some linguistic ethnic cleaning of his own here: he is referring to Israel as part of “Palestine.”

Now, one can argue as Nusseibeh does that Israel should not seek to be a “Jewish State” and should call itself a democratic state with a Jewish majority. What is shocking about Nusseibeh’s view is not that conclusion but the arguments he makes to support it, which proceed from polemics and straw men through double standards and finally reach the accusation that a Jewish State would be a murderous state, ethnically cleansing and eliminating its non-Jewish citizens. This is perilously close to the accusation, made by the kind of Palestinian that Nusseibeh is supposed to loathe, that Israel is a Nazi state.

Thus the state of the “peace process” in October 2011. A leader of the Palestinian “moderates” writes articles that make him sound like Khaled Meshal, Hassan Nasrallah, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his description of Israel.

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