Book Review: “One Country”

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Ali Abunimah, the increasingly prominent 34-year old Palestinian-American activist and writer, never shies away from confronting those who support Israel at the expense of Palestinians. Best known for creating in 2001 the popular electronic intifada website (www.electronicintifada.org), Abunimah and his cadre of bloggers are currently relied upon not only by activists but also by members of the U.S. intelligence community for analysis and reporting from areas deemed too hazardous for American passport holders. From The Washington Post to major broadcast media outlets, Abunimah’s profile rises each time he takes on pro-Likud Goliaths — at times with calm intellect and at others with trenchant reprimands — including debates with Jerry Falwell and Daniel Pipes.

Abunimah’s intellectual insurgency continues in his first book, the recently published One Country, a provocative and well-written account attacking the same failure of imagination that delivered to the world the present Arab-Israeli calamity. Originally the basis for an academic presentation he delivered at St. Anthony’s College at Oxford in 2004, One Country powerfully advocates the creation of a “united, democratic state in Palestine-Israel.” Abunimah writes succinctly, targeting neither the convinced nor the adamantly opposed but rather the very open-minded policy maker, journalist or moderately informed member of the general public.

One Country begins with an indictment of the antecedent processes that were supposed to guarantee Palestinian rights and statehood. Abunimah takes us through the progressive worsening of American mediation before, during and after the Oslo peace process. He cites the steady erosion of respect for international law and condemns the fatally flawed Oslo agreement for its impractical features, including those that required Palestinians to stop all forms of violence while the occupying Israeli state could appropriate more Palestinian resources, demolish more Palestinian homes, confiscate more Palestinian land, and erect more illegal Jewish settlements than at any other time in history.

Using a range of data, from statistics to personal narratives, Abunimah demonstrates how efforts to pursue a two-state solution have only added to Palestinian misery. These efforts encouraged the further erosion of the remaining 22 percent of historic Palestine, a process legitimized by President George W. Bush in his infamous letter of April 2004 to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that approved Israel’s major settlement “population centers.” The two-state impulse has further encouraged the Jewish colonization of Arab East Jerusalem that continues to this day, mocking the prospect of a future Palestinian capital in the ancient city. Abunimah also illustrates how two-state proponents have effected the most extreme form of economic hardship in modern Palestinian history, insisting that elections and “democracy” precede Palestinian freedom and statehood. The Bush administration had eagerly adopted this prescription from right-wing Israeli politician Natan Sharansky.

The administration has not simply failed to respect the Palestinian vote; it has actively worked to bring down the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority — channeling money and weapons to Fatah and demonstrating the charade that U.S. “mediation” has become. “There is no credible ‘peace process,’” Abunimah correctly concludes, “to provide hope that the misery on the ground is merely a transitionary phase on the way to deliverance, and the one big idea that is supposed to save us — the Palestinian state — lies in tatters.”

Amid all the obfuscating processes, Abunimah notes, Israel finds itself in August 2005 without an absolute Jewish majority in the territory it controls, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Hence the rationale behind the Gaza Disengagement, argues Abunimah: Israel intended to offload the 1.4 million Palestinians of Gaza, raising the overall Jewish majority back up to 57 percent. This is a short-term fix, he argues, as Palestinians are projected to be back in the majority within two decades. Abunimah masterfully points out the ways in which Israel has considerably raised its sunk costs through settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, claiming to have created an “irreversible reality.” Of all the points the author makes, the most contestable is the “irreversibility” argument. Clearly the settlements of the Sinai weren’t so permanent following the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty at Camp David 1978, nor were the settlements of Gaza, as was demonstrated in 2005. The historical and religious significance of the West Bank and Jerusalem, as well as the huge settler populations there, are simply not parallel. But the Israeli attachment to West Bank land only boosts Abunimah’s argument that all the land should be equally shared by both Arab and Jew.

Indeed, as One Country makes clear, a unitary state is not about Palestinians per se. “The point is not to deny Jews a safe haven in Palestine-Israel,” Abunimah writes, “but to make the necessary changes that can at last allow it to become one for the first time since Israel was founded.” He constructs a hypothetical framework for a unitary Israeli-Palestinian state, drawing largely from the model of South Africa, to which he devotes an entire chapter. Abunimah leaves the reader a strategy for building public support for his ideas, especially in Israel, urging action on two fronts: “One is in the realm of dialogue, imagination and construction of an inclusive vision,” while there is also “a need for resistance to the outcome Israel is trying to impose on Palestinians.”

Countless world leaders, diplomats and analysts have in recent years urged the Bush administration to pursue a two-state solution while it is “still possible.” A visionary study by the Rand Corporation in 2005 even outlined how a functional Palestinian state could work (noting that Palestine would require a capital in Arab East Jerusalem for this to be viable in any form). While the situation on the ground suggests that we are far from a two-state solution, it would have been useful for Abunimah to explore more intermediary steps before declaring the idea dead. The recent Israeli-Hizbollah war broke a taboo in Israel, allowing armed UNIFIL peacekeepers to deploy along the Blue Line. It is not beyond the realm of imagination for a similar approach to be explored in the West Bank in the context of renewed final-status negotiations. When compared to the one-state option, which has almost no currency in Israel or the international community, sending armed peacekeepers to protect both Palestinians and Israelis along the 1967 lines seems even more realistic.

It is improbable that the lame-duck Bush administration will make a final push for Arab-Israeli peace, given its current foreign-policy debacles and ideological binders — e.g., the road to Jerusalem passes through Baghdad. Thus, writers like Abunimah have license to think about scenarios that many observers will consider far-fetched. Unlike the dilemma over whether to term the bloodshed in Iraq “sectarian violence” or “civil war,” it is a tough call to pronounce the two-state solution dead. Nevertheless, One Country is a valuable springboard for debate, conventional thinking having been so counterproductive to peace. It also serves to remind both Israelis and Israel’s friends abroad that the alternative to the two-state solution may be one that they will view as negating the Zionist idea.

Clayton E. Swisher is author of The Truth About Camp David. This review was included in the Winter 2006 edition of Middle East Policy.

Related Links

  • Middle East Policy
  • “One Country”: A new book from EI cofounder Ali Abunimah