Book review: “Where Now for Palestine? The Demise of the Two-State Solution”

The impetus for Where Now for Palestine? The Demise of the Two-State Solution, as editor Jamil Hilal states in his introduction, is the increasing recognition within the Palestinian nationalist movement and among some Israelis that “the Oslo process has collapsed and the two-state solution has reached an impasse.” This collection of eleven essays aims “to show in some detail why and how this collapse has happened, and why some new solution has to be found” (p. 20). Hilal, a research fellow at Muwatin, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, is the author of several books and numerous articles on Palestinian society, history, and politics. In this work, he calls for the formulation of proposals for a bi-national state, and says that such proposals should be examined by Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Against a political and historical discourse where partition and separation are key themes, contributing historian Ilan Pappe offers an engaging essay arguing that by the time it became the target of the Zionist movement, Palestine was already a unitary political entity with a distinct and cohesive local culture. These continuities, Pappe argues, challenge “the dominant mainstream Zionist perception of Palestine as formed of two units: one Jewish and one not Jewish” (pp. 31-32). Political scientist As’ad Ghanem offers a clear analysis of how Israel’s obsession with demography (current projections suggest Jews will be only 26-35 percent of the population of historic Palestine by mid-century) has been the consistent driving force behind its policies. Thus, for example, Ariel Sharon’s shift from conflict resolution (on Israel’s terms) to a long-term conflict management paradigm constitutes continuity with rather than a break from previous Israeli approaches.

Political scientist and human rights activist Nils Butenschon’s historical legal analysis of the framework Palestinians have relied upon in making their national claims shows how the commitment of the “international community” to both Palestinian and Jewish self-determination places Palestinians in a unique position in the post-colonial paradigm, one in which they must essentially negate their own rights by affirming Israel’s “right to exist” as a condition for being granted a measure of recognition. Sufyan Alissa uses surveys of the economic status quo to highlight material realities that call the two-state solution into question. Jad Isaac and Owen Powell of the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem use environmental surveys to the same end in their chapter, the only contribution that makes extensive use of maps and figures to document geographical features and economic resources.

It is only Sharif Elmusa who tackles the one-state solution head-on, sympathetically, and with passion, offering an effective if unsystematic rebuttal of some of the key objections. One such is the claim that the liberal notions of citizenship underpinning most bi-national proposals are incompatible with and doomed by the ascendant Islamist trend, as represented by Hamas. Elmusa is open to the possibility that Hamas, which he acknowledges “has not fully pushed for an Islamist sociocultural agenda,” possesses the ideological flexibility to adopt a “multiethnic” formula, as Hizballah has done in Lebanon (pp. 221-22). Elmusa also considers the possibility of a greater Palestinian state incorporating Jordan.

Political scientist Husam S. Mohamed’s essay on the Bush administration and the two-state solution is less satisfying. It offers few new insights, and, while critical of the administration’s approach, it uncritically accepts some officially defined US concepts; Mohamed defines a “moderate” Palestinian strategy as one “acceptable to Israel and the Bush administration” (p. 113), for instance, and writes about Israeli occupation “breeding violence and extremism” among Palestinians (p. 114).

There are two chapters on Hamas that overlap considerably. The first, by current Palestinian Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr, asserts that Hamas’s primary motivation is the “Islamic transformation” of society. Citing only unsourced generalizations about the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its founder, Hasan al-Banna, Abu Amr asserts “as a matter of fact” that Hamas “is required from a doctrinal point of view to seek and seize power to promote its Islamic agenda.” Abu Amr takes Fatah’s democratic credentials for granted, completely ignoring recent scholarship demonstrating the evolution of Hamas’s internal debates and the obsolescence of some of the movement’s early declarations (such as the 1988 charter) as reliable guides to understanding its leaders’ current thinking and policies. Scholars Are Knudsen and Basem Ezbidi’s co-authored chapter on Hamas is slightly more satisfying, but, like Abu Amr’s, it makes no mention of significant contextual factors, such as US efforts to prop up Fatah with arms and money to undermine Hamas.

Drawing on transcripts of meetings held by diaspora Palestinians, political science scholar Karma Nabulsi documents effectively the community’s sense of abandonment by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the lack of representation these Palestinians have felt since Oslo. In doing so, however, she exaggerates and romanticizes the extent to which the PLO ever actually was democratic. If the old structures were so participatory, how was the leadership able to abandon the people so quickly and completely? Nabulsi’s conclusion — particularly baffling in the context of this book — is that a debate on the one-state solution versus the two-state solution is actually counterproductive until a fully participatory PLO has been rebuilt. With no strategy offered for doing this, the chapter is effectively an invitation to silence a vital discussion.

Except as noted, each chapter is well referenced with endnotes, and the book has an index making it easier to search for topics across chapters. There is too much overlap between chapters in the factual material covered, however, at the expense of new insights or visions standing up to the important challenge set by Hilal.

The volume succeeds in demonstrating why the Oslo process could not lead to a workable, stable, or just two-state solution, but it fails to systematically lay out alternatives or strategies for getting to them. Undoubtedly this is a task that no single edited collection could fairly be expected to tackle comprehensively, however, and thus Where Now for Palestine? may be viewed as a welcome start that might spur others to take on a pressing question.

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006). This review originally appeared in The Journal of Palestine Studies, Issue 147, Volume 37, Spring 2008, and is republished with the author’s permission.

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