The Beginning or End of Hope? Transforming the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict through Nation Building. Reviews of Married to Another Man by Ghada Karmi, The One-State Solution by Virginia Tilley and One Country by Ali Abunimah.

The Beginning or End of Hope? Transforming the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict through Nation Building. Reviews of Married to Another Man by Ghada Karmi, The One-State Solution by Virginia Tilley and One Country by Ali Abunimah.

Abstract: Merali reviews three recent books supporting a one state solution for the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. From Virginia Tilley’s seminal volume of 2005, The One State Solution, through Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah’s One Country to Ghada Karmi’s Married to Another Man, the review examines the three authors’ claims on the one state solution as a normative and practical project, comparing and contrasting the three sets of claims, and applying their ideals to the current situation in Palestine.

I admit that most, if not all of my writing, particularly from my youth is emotional. I always thought it was my strength – not hiding my beliefs and transforming that anger into words that might just change, if not the world, at least someone’s mind.

It is an admission that colleagues may find frustrating, after my endless advice to them not to get emotional in television and radio interviews. It further makes some of my following observations and at times uneasiness about the books under review – fairly hypocritical. I apologise to all three authors in advance. Reading their work has made me critically assess my own, and for that I thank all three.

What hope?

The pain of personal experience is a driving force for what is often narrative in Ghada Karmi’s powerful and passionate defence of the one state solution, Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine (Pluto Books; 2007). Its title avers to a letter from two representatives of the Viennese rabbis who were despatched after the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. Their cable back to Vienna read:

“The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.”

It is that initial recognition amongst early Zionists that Palestine belonged to another nation that starts Karmi’s account of her own journey. Her experiences as a child of expelled Palestinians, brought up in the diaspora, often alongside Zionists who, try as she might to explain to them, simply could not or more specifically would not let go of the idea that somehow along the way Palestine has become or always had been Israel.

Karmi’s account, through many examples of exchanges she has had with Zionist supporters, deals with the very difficult issues of Jewish pain post-Holocaust and the framing of Israel as necessary to not simply Jewish identity but existence. Such exchanges, often in the most mundane of settings, notably as part of café life in North West London, brings out both the pain of Karmi’s personal experience, but also sets the grand claims of ‘Israel’ on an equal footing – two supporters of different sides across a table and coffee not amidst guns, each side presented for the reader to discern whose account, whose opinion makes more sense.

Needless to say, each encounter leaves Karmi more frustrated, a situation heightened by the shift in the ‘official’ Palestinian line on statehood, transposing into an acceptance of two states after the Oslo Accords. Married to Another Man is at times so compulsive, that the reader is drawn into the most intense feelings experienced by the author in a way that makes one lose hope in anything redemptive – the hopelessness of Palestinian diaspora experience as Karmi portrays, its politicking, the lack of understanding of its more noble aspirations at reconciliation with justice, the failure of liberal Jews to renounce the Zionist cause and with it claims to superiority over Palestinians, is so unrelentlessly depressing, one might argue that there is no solution to the issue, be it one, two, three or no state. Yet from this agony, Karmi is able to take the reader to her own conclusion that only one state for both Palestinians and Israelis can offer an end to the violence that demands justice.

Despite the command of the book in conveying this, indeed despite its ‘happy ending’ of the beleaguered activist retaining the moral high ground, the author’s vulnerability nags. Who will this book convince beyond those who can so deeply empathise either by shared experience or equally passionate support for the Palestinian cause? As a reviewer, my hope is placed in the latter camp; it concerns me that if I at times had to quell some doubts as to the rather sweeping generalisations that paint all those with whom the author disagrees with roughly the same contempt, how would others react? Some foes from a Jewish doctor friend in North Finchley and members of the PLO who accepted with little regret the idea of two states instead of one, are at least humanised through their appearance as actors in the life history of the author. Others, be they as disparate as historical Zionists or ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ of the vague variety (a creature which also inhabits Tilley’s accounts), all put in an appearance as villains with no singular humanity to lock onto as agents. Karmi does not hide her polemicism and she should be commended for that, but it is a limitation that may not help sell what is a remarkable journey through an ideology to a wider audience that needs to listen.

Desirable and Feasible?

Karmi asks this question towards the end of her narrative, seeing ultimately more problems with the conceptualisation of a future in a bi-national, or as she prefers secular democratic, state on both sides. She contends that arguments as to the infeasibility of a one state project had confounded any debate or discussion around the idea that such a project was desirable. This is a departure in some measure from the earliest account of the three books under review The One State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli – Palestinian deadlock (University of Michigan Press, 2005), by Virginia Tilley, as will be further discussed later. Karmi meantime states that the one state project is demonstrably desirable because it is the only practical solution to Palestinian claims for justice and Israeli needs of security. Karmi is brutal both in her condemnation of Palestinian and Arab inability to understand Israeli security concerns, as well as her condemnation of Israeli fear:

“Though these needs were frequently derided by Arabs who wondered why a state armed to the teeth and supported to the hilt by the world’s one superpower should have felt insecure, Israeli Jewish fear was real. Whatever its source – and most of my Palestinian survey respondents put it down to the fact that, as they said, thieves never rested easy while their victims were close by – Israeli insecurity was an important factor… My father, who had lost everything through the creation of Israel and yet who mainly blamed the British for allowing the tragedy to happen, viewed Jewish anxieties with humane concern. He saw the whole Zionist project as nothing more than a product of this Jewish fear. Arabs did not understand that, he often said, and it was one reason for their inability to deal with Israel.”

There are few heroes in this account. The brief references to her father and his generation – their amazing sense of understanding and magnanimity is a starting point for Ali Abunimah’s One Country to be discussed later, and set both accounts by Palestinians out from the third contribution.

Very few Israelis or Palestinians measure up to the standards Karmi expects of them. Karmi’s high expectations of all sides leaves her open to some of the charges that have already been levelled at her and which she meticulously recounts: of being unrealistic, unwilling to speak peace and often promoting prolonged conflict. Whilst clearly this book seeks to self-justify, it does more than that. In making this journey so centred on herself, Karmi’s vulnerability as author makes this account more convincing. It does not just vindicate her own beliefs but sets out the stall for why others should share them.

Why Not Two States?

Virginia Tilley’s otherwise excellent account of exactly – in fact exactly – why a two state solution is dead in the water, is plagued by a gnawing sense of despair, and inconsistency in its treatment of foes, of which there appear to be three. Two of them, through the one state solution, may in her contention eventually be reconciled, i.e. Palestinians and Israelis. The third foe however is a bogey, never adequately defined let alone examined like their Zionist and to lesser extent Palestinian counterparts. Often poorly generalised, the ‘Islamic threat’ Tilley hopes may be neutralised as a result of lasting and just peace.

Turning the supposition that the one state solution is unreal, Tilley presents it as the only real option. It is a compelling logistical case for one state. A whole chapter of Tilley’s deliberations (Chapter 2. The Immovable Object) looks at the settlement grid – the real facts on the ground that make a two state solution impossible. The much vaunted description of any potential Palestinian state in this context as bantustans is made very real, almost tangible in its physical and political reality, in an inspired 31 pages that end thus:

“In the international spotlight, one arm of the state,… have sometimes offered grand statements about territorial compromise, absorbing international attention for months or years. But they have always insisted on postponing serious debate or decision about the settlements, offering one excuse or another – for example, waiting for a new election; a new international summit; signing of an agreement; or some condition, such as the evaporation of Arafat or the cessation of Palestinian violence (which is caused partly by the settlements themselves)… Meanwhile, out of the spotlight and actually sheltered by the distractions of international diplomacy, the other arm of the state, the Jewish national institutions, worked steadily with the settler movements to annex territory they already consider an integral part of Israel. And now it is too late.”

However the normative stall Tilley sets out suffers in part again from her clear attachment to the Palestinian cause – more emotion. That emotion mirrors in some way Karmi’s disillusion with ongoing practices in this field. Tilley is perhaps more forgiving of Palestinian acts. Her frustrations are levelled almost entirely towards an Israeli public and political class whose attachment to Zionism, she meticulously unpacks as essentially nefarious and unredeemed.

Whilst many, many pages are given to analysing and refuting Zionist arguments, the lack of such precision in assessing Palestinian claims, has the effect of equating Palestinian nationalist aspiration and imagination with Zionist iconographies. Given Tilley’s attachment to the Palestinian cause, driven in part by her belief that Palestinians may be more inclined to democratic principles than other Arabs (amongst whose ranks she rather negligently adds Iranians and Iran), such equivalence is likely unintentional. However it still harries. It suggests that peoples are inherently disposed to unpalatable ideas be they Zionist Jews or Arabs (and / or Iranians). There is no universal or transformable personhood in Tilley’s reasoning, and she later explicitly reckons that this fact needs to be incorporated into any future project – saving Zionist chauvinism tailored to a unitary state.

In this context, Tilley’s suggestion that some form of Zionism must have some ideological affiliation to the one state project because it cannot be eradicated from most Jewish psyches, is at best alarming. So bleak is her understanding of the Zionist project she summarises its dilemma thus:

“Still too democratic in nature to tolerate expelling Palestinians a third time, yet too ethno-centric to absorb them, Israel wavers on the knife edge of its own self-identity, as a putatively civil democracy formally premised on ethnic hierarchy, a “light unto nations” that relied for its formation – and still relies for its preservation on ethnic cleansing. For the Jewish state is inherently unstable as long as non-Jews live within it; only by ethnic cleansing in each succeeding generation can it ensure continuing domination…Neither the Wall nor a crippled Palestinian state will permit that formula to endure. Israel will only suffer needlessly, politically and physically, from the apartheid formula it has invented in its own unenlightened self-interest – until, inevitably, someday Jews cease to be a majority.” (p. 87)

It is the dispossessed Karmi, as we have seen before, who, despite seeing similar trends amongst Israelis and similar claims about Zionism, rests her faith in ideas, and the ability to change people’s minds over time. Karmi in fact challenges Tilley’s contention elsewhere (Karmi, p.253), that Zionism does not require an ethnic state, and ‘under the right democratic conditions, could be compatible with the creation of a unitary state…’ Referring to Yoaev Peled, Karmi sees this as ‘improbable, given the present evidence.’

Tilley’s attachment to this idea is one way that the one state solution is undermined as a normative project – one which Tilley otherwise has some success in conveying. More problems come with her throwaway asides that suggest that the longer the impasse, the stronger ‘Islamist terrorists’ become, and thus the more dangerous the world becomes:

“Bounded by the wall in such grotesque fashion, the crippled Palestinian “state” will foster bitter Palestinian resistance, endangering not only Israel but also – as pan-Arab and Muslim outrage transduces into expanding global terror networks – the entire international community.” (p.86)

This apocalyptic vision of effectively Muslim violence smacks of the very anti-Palestinian rhetoric that is invoked by the so-called war on terror at every turn. In one paragraph (p.93) she is able to dismiss Hizbollah and Al-Qaeda as ‘Islamic terrorism’ born out of Israeli aggression. All Islam and Islamists are bad – the suggestion being one that is more usually represented by Melanie Phillips and Daniel Pipes that somehow there is a link and a line from Al-Qaeda to Hamas. ‘Stop terrorism – give the Palestinians a shared state with Israelis’ is not a convincing banner or indeed a tempting bandwagon to jump on.

“Where then is the hope?”

So asks Ali Abunimah, in One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books: 2006, p133). He too, sees no end of reasons for scepticism, as he puts it, as to why:

“…a suggestion for a shared future for Israelis and Palestinians in a society that is democratic and tolerant, where two peoples who have fought for decades agree on rules they can all live by… that either group can ever be convinced to follow such a path.”

Abunimah’s work, like Karmi’s, recounts a blissful past of co-existence and harmony between Jewish and Palestinian communities. Abunimah’s hark back however is the starting point and lynch pin of the book’s thesis. Again grounded in a personal impression and ideal, Abunimah’s continuous search for a way back to the time when his grandparents lived side by side with Jewish residents in Palestine, and children from all groups played together, carries the reader in hope of a possible blissful future. The desperation of the other two authors’ very real encounters with chauvinism from all sides and a brutal realpolitik that sees political players striving for their own survival as much as any ‘ideal’ of statehood, also features in Abunimah’s account. These are obstacles however to the end prize, upon which Abunimah’s eyes are very really fixed. His search for a solution is not born out of a desperate ideal that may in time and through much education redeem two sets of deeply embittered peoples, but as a way of return to happier times, set in a thoroughly modern context.

Whilst looking to Belgium and Northern Ireland – perhaps not so traditional loci for examples – Abunimah returns to the most salient parallel, that of South Africa for a way of transforming the Israeli- Palestinian conflict into Israel-Palestine, Palestine-Israel. Whilst not wanting to impose his own version of one state, he irresistibly outlines norms and names that could provide a blueprint to transformation of intractable conflict to pluralist society.

What About Hamas?

It is a question I add as a litmus test to the authors’ attempts to understand local Palestinian politics en route to ideals of secular democracy and / or binationalism. It is a little unfair to view Tilley’s 2005 book through the same lens, given that it precedes the election of Hamas in 2006. However her throwaway description of Hamas as an ‘anti-democratic’ force whose gains would need to be curbed in any nascent state of Palestine in a two state context, herald the events of 2006 and 2007 and the strangling of the Hamas government. The irony that Hamas’ gains are in fact democratic is lost in Tilley’s analysis, or indeed the idea that external support that would effectively halt Hamas’ progress and marginalise the then PA leadership, would be anti-democratic.

Both Karmi and Abunimah deal with Hamas better. Whilst neither are supporters, they see trends in Palestinian society that reject the cronyism and corruption of the PLO and the former PA incumbents. Abunimah in particular tries to come to terms with what an Islamic or Islamist agenda might mean in the context of Hamas’ governance and long term aspirations. Unlike Tilley he sees the difference between those who threatened Christians with violence after the Danish cartoon controversy, and the support of the Hamas leadership to Christian communities as a result of that threat. The role of Islamic or Islamist politics in the long term future of one state are also mooted by Abunimah. His ideal one state envisages alliances between religious parties from various faiths, including Islam and Judaism, against other alliances that seek the liberalising of some of that society’s more conservative norms. It is a state where tribe no longer matters, and values are shared across the board. There is redemption and there is hope in this world after all.

Married to Another Man, Ghada Karmi

The One-State Solution, Virginia Tilley

One Country by Ali Abunimah

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