A Review of Ali Abunimah’s The Battle for Justice in Palestine

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Ali Abunimah, an internationally known, Chicago-based political analyst, has completed a new book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine, published by Haymarket Books. His earlier book, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, published in 2007, has been widely discussed, as has his website, The Electronic Intifada, co-founded in 2001 and known for its no-holds-barred advocacy for Palestinian rights.
With his second book, Abunimah has brought forth a comprehensive, multi-faceted analysis of the varied ″battles″ within the Israel-Palestine conflict. His new book also contains a careful explanation of what is lacking in the proposed two-state solution, and what is abundantly present in his proposed solution: self-determination for the Palestinian people.
A significant part of Abunimah’s new book focuses on major developments in both America and Israel, such as: minority-group incarcerations; brutal mass policing; the escalating success of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement; and Netanyahu’s insistence on Israel being recognized as a Jewish State (whereas Abunimah asserts that Israel – Jewish or not – has no more right to exist than the US or any other country).
Maintaining that as circumstances change, a one-state solution could become feasible. What’s more – and this is key – he argues that this one state will have a commitment to an environmental sound and non-exploitive economic system, unlike what exists in South African post apartheid. In sum, he thus delineates a fresh approach to self-determination – tailored to Palestine.
In the book’s final chapter, “Reclaiming Self-Determination”, Abunimah proclaims that Palestinians are both those in the Holy Land and those now involuntarily in exile. Altogether, Palestinians total about eleven or twelve million, an amount not significantly different from that of the Jewish population worldwide. He recognizes, however, that not all in exile would return.
Abunimah stresses that the two-state solution might lead to partial, and conceivably even complete, sovereignty — which, he writes — is ″exercised by a state through the fulfillment of commonly agreed functions: effective control of territory, borders and resources, and maintenance of political independence, among others.″ But, the two-state solution cannot lead to self-determination, the true goal of Palestine.
President Woodrow Wilson stated that the principle of self-determination means ″the settlement of every question, whether of territory, of economic arrangement, or of political relationship″ must be made ″upon the basis of the free acceptance of that settlement by the people immediately concerned and not upon the basis of the material interest or advantage of any other nation or people which may desire a different settlement for the sake of its own exterior influence or mastery.″
Intently continuing his scrutiny of the meaning of ″self-determination,″ Abunimah paraphrases Tomis Kapitan, a philosophy professor at Northern Illinois University, who wrote that ″the right of self-determination belongs not to national groups, but to the legitimate residents of any region whose status is unsettled.″ In addition, Kapitan asserts that these residents ″have a right to determine their political future by constituting themselves as an autonomous political unit, or by dissolving into smaller states.″
Abunimah subsequently asserts that all Palestinians who are involuntarily in the diaspora should be considered legitimate residents. He bases the assertion on the 2007 One State Declaration, which was inspired by the South African Charter and the 1998 Belfast Agreement (regarding Northern Ireland). This One State Declaration, prepared by Palestinian, Israeli, and other intellectuals, states that ″the historic land of Palestine belongs to all who live in it and those who were expelled or exiled from it since 1948, regardless of religion, ethnicity, national origin or current citizenship status.″
It is clear that the Palestinian people, under this definition, would reject the two state solution because it denies the ″right of return″; and if we accept this Palestinian movement goal of self-determination rather than sovereignty, what then is the role of Israeli and diasporan Jews, and where do they fit in? Omar Barghouti, author of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights and a leader in that movement, maintains that individual Israeli Jews, shorn of their favored, supremacist position, would be part of the collective Palestinian citizenry but would not qualify as a separate entity for Jewish group self-determination, because they are not a people, which, according to the UN, must be ″under colonial or alien domination or foreign occupation.″ Similarly, Susan Akram, professor of international law at Boston University, spoke in March 2012 about how there has been no United Nations ″recognition of the ′Jewish People′ as a nationality concept that grants self-determination.″
On the other hand, in addition to Barghouti’s approach, and without surmising Abunimah’s views on that subject, I suggest that the Palestinian self-determination movement and a legitimate Jewish Israeli self-determination movement could exist simultaneously and in tandem, based on such factors as:
1. The Jews in Palestine were also under colonial domination, while at the same time, the Nazis were systematically trying to exterminate the Jews in Europe, leading many Jews to seek refuge in Palestine.
2. The Jews are a legitimate entity for self-determination because the Jewish religion itself has a great deal of particularity, with stories and rituals referring to a particular group of people and their history and special relationship with God.
3. Except for biblical times and relatively insignificant cases (such as the Soviet Birobidzhan experiment), the Jews have had no homeland territory, whereas other peoples who were similarly discriminated against still live indigenously in their homelands.
4. Jews, both before and after 1948, have developed institutions and practices that are often parallel to, yet separate from, those of the Palestinians (and raises the question as to whether the whole area might be re-invigorated through fruitful co-existence).
While Israel has greatly discriminated against and harmed the Palestinians, the Palestinians have also committed unworthy acts, and there is no proof that harmful practices and behavior on both sides could not be atoned for and changed. A reconciliation process like that of South Africa could and should include significant financial and other redress for the Palestinians and the total elimination of Jewish supremacy, but could not the Holy Land also remain a special homeland for the Jews as well as the Palestinians, and a tangible expression of both Jewish and Palestinian culture? In fact, pre-state groups such as Brit Shalom and Ihud, while small, did work in that direction, and there are notable groups of Israelis today, such as Gush Shalom and Rabbis for Human Rights, who also fight oppression, as well as growing numbers of Jews in the wider world who do so, such as Jewish Voice for Peace and J-Street.
Abunimah specifically stated that self-determination may or may not lead to sovereignty. How much greater would be the case for unquestioned statehood, as well as sovereignty be, if the Palestinian and Jewish movements for true self-determination – including with economic justice and environmental enlightenment – could coalesce, merge, or at least work together for joint sovereignty and statehood? The case could even be further strengthened if both peoples could include within their respective groups of people having a right of return, those who are voluntarily in their respective diasporas.
A multitude of details would have to be painstakingly worked out, but there are several existing models – all of which insist on equal rights for all (i.e., a state with cantons, such as Switzerland; one land, governed throughout by two parallel states; or one state with two separate geographic/ethnic sub-areas – both of which, constitutionally must contain a majority of their own main constituency). Exploring and brainstorming the possible details of these, as well as other models, could be a vital step in what may even prove to be in the not so terribly distant future – perhaps God willing …
Howard Cort is the founder of Political Approaches to Coexistence (PACO). A variety of peace plans can be found on his website.