It takes courage to speak out on an issue as contentious as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dr Sari Nusseibeh, one of Palestine’s most influential philosophers, has always been willing to think differently, even if that means facing hostility for his ideas. But in five decades he’s never wavered from his goal: securing a solution for the well-being of his people. 5 talks to him about what he describes as ‘the one-state reality’.
- Israel and Palestine can already be said to co-exist in a one-state reality. Time can give rise to a ‘new citizen’ that will look beyond ethnicity and religion, transcending conflict by recognising a common humanity.
It’s a short distance for Dr Nusseibeh from his home to his office in East Jerusalem. Due to Covid-19, Israel is in lockdown, so the professor of philosophy and former President of the Al-Quds University in Jerusalem isn’t able to venture very far. But when he does go out of what he calls his ‘tiny crucible’, he sees a country that has gone through a significant transformation in the past 50 years.
“What I see is that the entire area of the West Bank has basically become encaptured somehow in a suspended state. I don’t feel that this space is independent or separate from Israel. I feel that it feeds primarily on the ‘mother country’, which is Israel. Mentally a lot has changed because generations have changed. People in their 20s, 30s even 40s have never known the reality that I have known. They have different attitudes to the attitudes I grew up with. I think they include being more receptive to the fact that they are somehow organically linked with the state of Israel.”
Born in 1949, Nusseibeh’s lifespan coincides more or less with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian struggle. It has been referred to as ‘the world’s most intractable conflict’ and has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was then that the major Arab and Jewish nationalist movements were born. Both wanted to attain a sovereign state for their people in the Middle East.
“I felt strangely, paradoxically perhaps, that the country had finally become reunited”
The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948 immediately sparked the Arab-Israeli war. When it ended the next year, Israel held much of what was then called ‘the Mandate territory’, which is most of current-day Israel. Jordan annexed the West Bank and Egypt took over the Gaza Strip, with a very short-lived All-Palestine government declared in Cairo.
Ongoing tensions led to a new war in 1967 between Syria, Egypt, Jordan on one side and Israel on the other. This came to be known as the Six-Day War, referring to the time it took the Israelis to defeat the Arab countries. Israel gained control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, forcing the Palestinian leadership out of the country.
Since the 1970s a string of proposals has been put forward attempting to reconcile the Palestinian position and the Israeli standpoint. The key areas of contention remain the status of Jerusalem, the Palestinian concerns over Israeli settlements in the West Bank, security on both sides, borders and the division of land as well as the right to return for millions of Palestinian refugees living in the Palestinian diaspora.
Growing up as the son of a distinguished Palestinian statesman and witnessing the heated political discussions at his parents’ house, Nusseibeh learned that for him, a debate should always focus on finding a solution and avoid going around in circles. When the Six-Day War ended in victory for Israel, he didn’t feel bad about it, as in his eyes, the outcome could bring about a solution. “I felt strangely, paradoxically perhaps, that the country had finally become reunited. I began to think about this in political terms and I saw it as a great opportunity to create one state, even back then!”
In the early 1980s, Dr Nusseibeh went so far as to make a hugely controversial statement, asking Israel to annex the West Bank and Gaza. “People were angry with me for saying that and they made sure to let me know that they didn’t want to be part of a single state or to have equal rights with Israel. They wanted to have an independent Palestinian state. So I went along with that. I began to be a proponent of a two-state solution and actually became involved in trying to make that come about.”
Never afraid to change his mind
Sitting behind his laptop, he smiles as he talks about the way his thinking developed through the different stages of the conflict. He always seems to have been ahead of the curve. In spite of his own efforts to make a two-state solution happen, he began to see that it wasn’t going to work. “I was beginning to lose hope. It makes no sense to simply continue living in a state of suspension while in the meantime we are being deprived of very basic needs as individuals and as a community. I was saying: ‘let’s get out of this hole, let’s think outside the box’.”
“Why not go for a different approach and ask for equal rights and civil rights in Israel?”
And so in 2011 he wrote a book called What’s a Palestinian state worth? In the book’s introduction he talks about his “lack of interest in a separate Palestinian state, except as a means towards an end – achieving collective well-being or transforming a state of oppression into a state of freedom.” Nusseibeh challenges his reader to go on a thought experiment with him. “I said, we still don’t have a solution. We don’t have one state, we don’t have two states. So why not go for a different approach and ask for equal rights and civil rights in Israel?”
This made people suspicious of him. They couldn’t believe that these were Nusseibeh’s own ideas. “You know,” he says as he lights another cigarette, “when you come out with an idea that’s not part of the established mode of thinking, then immediately there is the suspicion that somebody is behind it, the CIA or some other external force. People don’t think that it can come from you. They assume that you must think the same way they do and feel the same way too. People find it difficult to accept differences, I think.”
Back to his beginnings
A few months ago, Dr Nusseibeh wrote an article for Tablet Magazine and the title he gave it sums up his current thinking about the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The one-state reality. “What happens more and more is that the Palestinians seem to be sucked into the state of Israel. We are no longer separate from it. Israel is taking over more land, bringing in more settlements, controlling more of the borders, resources, the economy, trade, you name it. We are totally in the grasp of Israel. That’s why I call it a one-state reality.”
The peace plan that was presented by the Trump administration in January – which came about without any Palestinian authorities at the negotiations – added to Nusseibeh’s conviction that the one-state is already there. “I shouldn’t say anything positive about Trump, but I think Trump’s plan exposed a reality that many of us were blind to, namely that if ever we want to be separate from Israel, we want to have our own freedom, our own state and sovereignty and feel the dignity that we need to feel as an independent people – we have to face that this is not going to happen. And I think exposing this reality in a sense is a good thing.”
“It’s going to require people to grow out of their immediate identities of ethnicity and religion”
In spite of the one-state reality, Nusseibeh’s ultimate goal of achieving the well-being of the Palestians is still far off. He envisions a long and hard road ahead for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. “I’d like it to provide citizens with the values that I think anyone in an enlightened world would want to have recognised, primarily the sense of dignity, of self-respect, of equality and of course, of opportunities. The state needs to be a place where people come to realise that they relate to one another more basically as human beings. It’s going to require people to grow out of their immediate identities of ethnicity and religion. If it’s going to come about, it will be many, many years from now.”
In the course of those years, a ‘new citizen’ will be born, according to Dr Nusseibeh. “When you look ahead 10, years, 20, 30 or 40 years into the future, people will want to reclaim what belongs to them as human beings, whether Israelis or Palestinians. These new citizens, or their prototypes, are already out there at a grassroots level on both sides. They don’t have the position and the power yet, because apparently it’s not their time. I am not speaking about political people connecting but you would be amazed at the amount of interaction on a human level that exists, even in the worst of circumstances. One should go on believing in the existence of the new citizen.”
Nusseibeh knows that there is no quick way to fix the relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. “We need to be steadfast until we finally come to a situation where we can live in our homeland as equals. My style of wisdom has been to say: one should not set out to win against the other. One should set out to win the other over.”
Find out more
- Find out more about the region’s complex geopolitical history in this informative United Nations timeline.
- The Undaunted podcast is dedicated to conversations with radical peacemakers. Listen to the inspiring story of an Israeli mother who lost her son to a Palestinian sniper but uses her pain to drive peace.