Sari Nussaibeh (photo: Rina Castelnuovo)

Interview with Sari Nusseibeh
Plea for Radical Pragmatism

Sari Nusseibeh, a prominent Palestinian philosopher, says that the two-state solution is no longer viable. In this interview with Naima El Moussaoui, he argues that a single Jewish state on the whole territory in exchange for second-class Palestinian status could help move the situation out of gridlock

Mr. Nusseibeh, you have been an advocate for a "two-state solution" for a long time. Now you assert that a Palestinian State "is no longer practical or realistic". What made you change your opinion?

Sari Nusseibeh: It's not my opinion that has changed; it is the reality. History does not stand still, history keeps moving and so what was possible or realistic then, fifteen, twenty years ago, does not remain realistic as changes take place on the ground. In our particular case, various things happened. I would say most importantly the growth of the Israeli settlement movement. This is the major obstacle for a two-state solution. We are talking about half a million settlers that have come to settle between 1967 and now.

What do you think about controversial proposals of a territorial exchange for establishing a mutually agreeable two-state solution?

Nusseibeh: In theory, exchange of territory can be perhaps applied with a lot of imagination. But I find it's going to be hard to do this especially in the present context when the political attitudes of both sides are not ripe. In Israel, for instance, you have a whole society that has moved more to the right, and thus, is not ready to make compromises like perhaps ten years ago. On the Palestinian side you have a house that is divided, that cannot therefore speak with only one voice and make the kinds of compromises that are necessary.

Security fence in the settlement of Kiryat Arba (photo: Jeremias Eichler)
Sari Nusseibeh concedes that his plan is non-democratic, but, he says, "it is a better non-democracy than what we have today." Pictured: security fence in the settlement of Kiryat Arba

​​If you take those two aspects into account, these political realities, you cannot but conclude that you really need a miracle to have a two-state solution come about. Of course I would welcome it if it did come about. So if God sends an angel with a two-state solution in his bag and were to offer it to the two peoples, I would take it, and I think the majority of the people on both sides would take it. I think the classical two-state solution is the best solution in the sense that it is the one that causes least pain to everyone. But, as I said, it doesn't seem like it is going to happen.

What is your perception regarding the demographic reality in Israel considering the estimated twenty percent of the Israeli Arabs in the country?

Nusseibeh: Yes, you have a large Arab population in Israel, maybe just over a million people constituting something like twenty, twenty-five percent of the population, and it is not a population that the Jews are happy with, and it is not a population that is happy itself being in Israel or being Israeli citizens. And you have a lot of Jews living across the Green Line in the West Bank. And you have Jerusalem, which is the reality test case.

So what should we do? Either you let things unfold as they are, meaning more extremism on both sides; meaning more misery, more clashes, more deterioration. Or one has to come up with new ideas and one new idea is: one state or a condominium or confederation of two states, and maybe the second option is perhaps more realistic in a shorter period than the first. We already have a very strange kind of conglomeration; it makes basically no sense to divide, it makes more sense to unite.

I'm thinking in the future of a situation very much like Europe where you would have a single geo-economic space perhaps with different states and two governments, a Jewish government and an Arab Palestinian government, but where people can travel freely and work freely and where goods can be transferred, a single market and so on.

In your most recent book, "What is a Palestinian state worth?", you offer an interesting and maybe provoking new road map towards an Israeli-Palestinian confederation. In your so-called "thought experiment", you propose: "that Israel officially annex the occupied territories". Your idea is a single Jewish state on the whole territory run by Israelis in exchange for second-class Palestinian status meaning civil but no political rights like the right to vote. You write that Netanyahu's rightwing government might agree with this proposal. Why should Palestinians be interested in a "second-class citizenship" in a Jewish state?

Nusseibeh: It sounds terrible but the question is the following: You have the Palestinians living under Israel's rule for the last more than 40 years and they neither had an independent state nor full civil rights within Israel. And if you ask the Israelis: Why not give them an independent state? The answer varies but among the other things, their fear is of lack of security. We can't give them a state. And if you ask them the question: So why don't you give them at least civil rights? They say: Well, the problem is if you give them those rights the next thing they'll do is ask for political rights and after they asked for political rights the next thing you'll find out is that our Jewish state has become overtaken by the Arabs. This is an excuse for not giving us political rights.

Smuggler's tunnel between the southern tip of Gaza and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula (photo: picture alliance/landov)
"Palestinians are under pressure for many different reasons, but they are better off than being under siege in Gaza, unable to move, unable to study, unable to go out except through a tunnel or whatever." Pictured: Smuggler's tunnel between the southern tip of Gaza and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula


So the Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza are actually left there in limbo, neither moving towards an independent state for one reason nor totally annexed to Israel and given full political rights for the other reason. So in response to the Israeli argument I'm saying: You can continue to have the Jewishness of your state, you can continue to have the government in your hands. But in the meantime, and until a final solution is reached at least, give me, the Palestinian, the basics civil rights that are due to any human being: the right of free movement, of work, of transfer of goods, of access to legal services, health services, social benefits and so on and so forth. All of these things are denied to me. So what I'm suggesting is a third way as an interim step.

You mean starting with full civil rights for Palestinians as an "interim step" towards a single bi-national democratic state or a confederation between the Palestinians and Israel. Obviously this interim state that you suggest, making religious and ethnic distinctions between its populations, wouldn't be democratic.

Cover of Sari Nusseibeh's What is a Palestinian state worth?
Condition changer: cover of Sari Nusseibeh's "What is a Palestinian state worth?"

​​Nusseibeh: No, so it is not a democracy but it is a better non-democracy than it is today. And it is a way to open up a new window for a different future. Because you see what you have is the following: First of all you shouldn't think in static terms. I'm not suggesting this as an end status, what I'm suggesting is a condition changer, a changer of attitudes, of minds, of ways of life because if we allow things to just unfold the way they do it's not good for us. I mean it's not good for us to say: okay, two states are not happening so let us sit back – because that means more extremism and violence and God knows what.

Some people might criticize that your proposal would lead to a road map of apartheid, because there is this element of distinguishing between first-class and second-class citizens.

Nusseibeh: But you don't have to start with this in order to get to apartheid. To the people who might say this I would say that they are overlooking the fact that we already live in apartheid today. So my road map is a road map out of apartheid towards something better, it's not towards apartheid. I don't like to use particularly this word because it's provocative and I don't see why I should provoke, but the real matter of fact is that there is a dual system.

We live under the control of one government; it is the government of Israel that controls the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. We need to emancipate us and to become free from this rule. And if we can go one step towards civil rights it's not a bad thing.

Your "experiment" is already in effect in Jerusalem. Does it work in this "test case"?

Nusseibeh: Exactly. It works a little bit better than the situation is for instance in Gaza or the situation is in some remote villages in the West Bank. Now if you think of those areas where Palestinians are under occupation, the Palestinians who are in the West Bank or in Gaza, they face far more restrictions and conditions of servility than conditions faced by the Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem. They don't have a perfect existence, in fact they are under pressure for many different reasons, but they are better off than being under siege in Gaza, unable to move, unable to study, unable to go out except through a tunnel or whatever. So, what I'm saying is let's think of new ideas, maybe mine is not a great idea. Fine, then let's think of other ideas.

Is this the goal of your book to evoke the consideration of alternative means in this deeply lodged conflict, instead of offering a final solution?

Nusseibeh: I wanted to make people not lose hope in the future. I wanted to remind people on both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, that what is important about life is not that they are Jewish or that they are Muslims or Christians, what is important is that they are human beings. If they start from there, that they are human beings, they'll find a lot of things in common that they can build together. If you ask what are the real concerns of people, what do people in Gaza want, what do people in the West Bank want, what do the Israelis want, what do the Jews want, if you address those concerns and peel off the symbols, I think we could achieve much more, compared to what we've achieved so far. I want to encourage people to think, to ask themselves questions.

It should not be allowed that life be dominated by big interest groups, lobbyist, companies, politicians, and movements. I think primarily what is important is the individual and it is the individuals that create all these lobbies, and interests and movements. And it is the individuals that must not allow themselves to be enslaved by their own creations.

Interview conducted by Naima El Moussaoui

© 2012

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

More on this topic

Comments for this article: Plea for Radical Pragmatism

The most logical way to get there was, it Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would apply for Israeli citizenship. They could write an application like this one:

If a majority of Palestinians would sign this, the situation would change completely. How would Israel justify to suppress residents of the area, who want to be loyal citizens?

Anselm Kiersch07.09.2012 | 01:48 Uhr

"Build you own" do not yearn to be dependent on your oppressor, create an alternative regional and national civil services, encourage cooperation between villages and municipalities. build national organizations for health care and social insurance, urban&economic planning and International trade. Create direct business cooperation with Israeli organizations of all fields.
It isn't the end of occupation - yet, but it is a true beginning of national Independence.

Gilad Katz08.09.2012 | 10:45 Uhr

This is not going to work.
Palestinians will reject the idea because how can you willingly accept and say 'Yes' to attaining second-class status?! And the Jewish Israeli side will say no out of fear that their country would then eventually be a Muslim-majority country and its Jewish identity under threat.
Sorry, I know, I have no better ide on offer, but Mr Nusseibeh could have saved the trouble coming up with a illusory idea like that.

Kenan Mohamed10.09.2012 | 12:07 Uhr