One Land: How Many States?

Dismayed by the stalled peace process, a growing number of Palestinians are pushing for a binational state

26les (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Cover story of Issue 26, April 14, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. In late March, Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki published a survey with some disturbing findings. It showed a sharp increase in Palestinians' support for terrorist violence and a pervasive skepticism about the chances of peace with Israel based on two states for two peoples. According to the poll, 84 percent of Palestinians supported the early March terrorist shooting spree, in which eight students were killed at the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. And while two thirds of those polled said they wanted a two-state solution, an equally large majority did not believe it would be achieved in the next five years. The mood in the West Bank is bleak. According to Shikaki, who heads the respected Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, the Annapolis Conference last November raised hopes for a two-state solution sky high, but since then it has been all downhill. "What happened after Annapolis?" he fumes. "Israeli settlement construction is on the rise, daily life under the Israeli military has become worse, the number of checkpoints has in fact increased, and what Palestinians hear from their leaders every day is that permanent status negotiations are going nowhere. So all their expectations are being dashed." The fact that the fundamentalist Hamas is in control in Gaza, and not part of the Annapolis process, heightens skepticism about the chances for a two-state solution any time soon. Moreover, says Shikaki, when Palestinians look at the results of the Gaza model of violence against Israel, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas's West Bank model of diplomacy, they conclude that violence is achieving more. For example, he says, Israel has ignored calls from Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad for a cease-fire in the West Bank, but is bending over backwards to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas. "For most Palestinians, the reason for this is perfectly clear. Salam Fayyad does not have suicide bombers or squads of rocket launchers like Hamas does. So what does Israel do? It runs after those who can hurt it and it ignores people who want to make peace with it. That is the conclusion of most Palestinians," Shikaki laments. Besides growing support for violence, the dark mood among West Bankers has spawned a debate over a new strategy against Israel: Instead of the two-state paradigm, calls are growing for a "one-state solution," with the Palestinians demanding one-man-one-vote in a single unitary state in which they would soon become the majority. According to Shikaki, this is still very much a minority view, supported by around 25 percent of Palestinians, and popular mainly among left-wing intellectuals and young people. But, he says, the numbers could change overnight if a credible mainstream leader were to adopt the one-state approach. "If [jailed Fatah leader] Marwan Barghouti or [Damascus-based Hamas leader] Khaled Mashaal were to come out in favor, the consequences could be dramatic," he tells The Report. Shikaki is not the only shrewd observer of the Palestinian scene to point to the growing relevance of the one-state approach. Before he retired last June, Peruvian diplomat Alvaro de Soto, the former U.N. Middle East coordinator, predicted that "if the Palestinian Authority passes into irrelevance or collapses, calls for a one-state solution to the conflict will come out of the shadows and enter the mainstream." No doubt some players, Palestinian and international, are using the specter of the one-state solution to put pressure on Israel to move more quickly on the two-state track, or face the consequences. For others, the one-state option is a genuine goal. There are two main models: Full equality between Israelis and Palestinians, including one-man-man-one-vote, in a unitary state; or power-sharing between two ethnic groups, Israelis and Palestinians, in a binational state, in which each group is guaranteed a share of state power and the right to run its domestic affairs. The first model is based on the South African experience, in which a downtrodden majority group is given the vote and takes power; the second looks to power-sharing in multilingual or multi-sectarian countries like Belgium, Switzerland or Lebanon. On the Israeli side, there is little support for either model, even among far left-wingers sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Gush Shalom leader, Uri Avnery, for example, says he opposes the implied dismantling of the Jewish state, and no American president would allow it. "It's not realistic," he declares. "It's just idle talk by a few professors, who have had enough of Israel and want to dismantle it, or who don't have the slightest understanding of the situation here and live in a world of academic illusion." Other leftists go further. Menachem Klein, one of the initiators of the 2003 Geneva Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, maintains that the problem is not so much the one-state proposals, which have zero chance of implementation, but the attendant turning away from the two-state peace dynamic. This, he warns, could transform an argument over borders into a virtually insoluble ethnic conflict. "There won't be a one-state solution, but rather a horrific one-state problem," he declares. Ironically, the binational idea had its origins on the Jewish side. In the late 1920s, the tiny Brit Shalom movement, led by Hebrew University Chancellor Judah-Leib Magnes and philosopher Martin Buber, suggested various power-sharing arrangements. These, however, never took root in the Jewish mainstream, which, like the Palestinian national movement, sought dominion over all of Eretz Yisrael/Palestine. The two-state idea came initially from the British. After escalating Arab-Jewish clashes in mandatory Palestine, the Peel Commission in 1937 proposed dividing the land into separate Arab and Jewish areas, an approach underwritten by the international community and accepted by Israel in the U.N. partition resolution a decade later. On the Palestinian side, the PLO started off in the 1960s demanding a secular Palestinian state to replace Israel. In 1974, Yasser Arafat hinted at a readiness for shared power in a binational state. And in 1988, he accepted the idea of two states for two peoples, which has been the basis for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking ever since the first Oslo agreements in 1993, and which remains the mainstream position on both sides. Over the past few years, however, far left-wing critics of Israel, most of whom deny its right to exist as a Jewish state, have been touting the idea of a single unitary state. Books like Virginia Tilley's "The One State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock," Joel Kovel's "Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine," Jamil Hilal's, "Where Now for Palestine? The Demise of the One State Solution" and Ali Abunimah's," One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse," all make the case for a single democratic Palestine or a binational state that would replace the Israel of today. Although still on the margins of the Israeli-Palestinian debate, the tiny band of one-staters significantly stepped up their public activities last year. In early July, Universidad Complutense de Madrid organized a seminar on "Israel-Palestine: One Country, One State"; in October, the Oxford Union held a debate on the proposition: "This House believes that one state is the only solution to the Israel Palestine conflict." In November, London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS, staged a two-day conference on "Challenging the Boundaries: A Single State in Israel/Palestine." And on November 29, the anniversary of the U.N. partition resolution, participants in the Madrid and London parleys signed a "One State Declaration," arguing that the still unrealized two-state approach had been on the agenda for decades, and that the time had come for the establishment of a "non-sectarian state" that would "dismantle all Israeli systems of colonialist oppression." One of the participants in the SOAS conference was Asad Ghanem, an Israeli Arab who teaches political science at Haifa University. He argues that the Jewish settlement project has made an equitable two-state solution virtually impossible. Instead, he advocates a binational state, in which Israelis and Palestinians have separate parliaments for domestic affairs and a joint parliament for affairs of state. There would be a joint police force and a joint army, although he says he would be ready for Israeli Jews to have a built-in predominance in the military as reassurance in the face of a large and potentially daunting Arab world. According to Ghanem, this binational arrangement would have several major advantages: Jewish settlements could remain in place, since there would be no territorial issue; Arab refugees could return, as there would be no demographic issue; Israeli Arabs would be able to identify with the Palestinian collective to which they belong, and not be seen as a potentially subversive fifth column in Israel; and both Israelis and Palestinians would be able to express their national aspirations. "I say if we can't have two states, let's start looking at the option of equitable power sharing as the basis for peaceful coexistence in a single state. I understand Zionism is a movement seeking national expression for the Jewish people. There is no reason why this goal cannot be achieved in a binational set-up," he avers. In early March, Ghanem took his ideas to the West Bank for the first time, launching a planned series of meetings in Ramallah. The disillusion over the two-state solution seems to be playing into his hands. He says even people in Abbas's office asked to be invited, although the president remains firmly committed to the two-state approach. For most Israelis, Ghanem's proposal looks like a dangerous pipe dream. Israeli-Palestinian history is reminiscent more of the killing fields of Lebanon, Ireland or the Balkans than of the relatively minor intercommunal tensions of Belgium or Switzerland. Indeed, unless there is a two-state solution, Menachem Klein sees Israel and the West Bank sliding into a nightmarish one-state reality torn by endemic ethnic violence. More than the one-state two-state debate, Klein is worried about conditions on the ground. An expert on Palestinian affairs at Bar-Ilan University, he argues that Israel and the Europeans have created a kind of "joint trusteeship" over the West Bank, which is about to blow up in their faces. "Israel controls security and the Europeans provide funding to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. But the Palestinians will not tolerate this for much longer. The ground is on fire and Israel is blind to what is happening. Shin-Bet head Avi Dichter is absolutely wrong when he says there is no new intifada on the horizon," he warns. If Israel continues to control the territories, Klein envisages the emergence of a one-state reality in which a Jewish minority rules over a Palestinian majority by force. "This means one ethnic group ruling over another, and the conflict rapidly changing from a conflict over borders into a conflict between two ethnic groups in a shared territory," he maintains. Obviously, says Klein, the way to stop this is to restore confidence in the two-state peace process. But, he charges, the Israeli defense establishment, which dictates policy in the territories, is pushing a weak government in the opposite direction. "The Israeli strategy is to weaken the central Palestinian Authority, turn Abbas into an Israeli puppet and to physically rule over all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. That's what the generals are telling Olmert we need to do," he claims. Klein is convinced that as soon as the price of ethnic conflict becomes too high, Israelis and Palestinians will fall back to the two-state model. "Ultimately, we will have the two states for two peoples with the 1967 borders we could have had without the slide into ethnic conflict," he sighs. Some Palestinian and international players have been making desperate moves to stop the looming slide into violence. In late February, Palestinian cabinet minister Yasser Abed Rabbo urged the Palestinian leadership to force the two-state model on the parties by unilaterally declaring Palestinian independence, Kosovo-style. He said he had been motivated partly by the falling credibility of the two-state approach, which had "become a joke" on the Palestinian street. His proposal: The Palestinians declare independence, finger Israel as an aggressor on their land, and appeal to the international community to force it to leave. More than an operative plan, it was a wake-up call to both sides to get serious about negotiating a two-state solution. Similarly, Tony Blair, the special representative of the international quartet, (the United States, the EU, Russia and the U.N.), is trying to make the two-state solution more credible by beefing up the Palestinian Authority's capacity to govern. But it won't be easy. A growing number of Palestinian intellectuals who once favored the two-state solution are now questioning its merits. Indicative of the trend is Ahmad Khalidi, a senior associate member of St. Antony's College, Oxford, who was involved in the Madrid and Oslo processes in the 1990s and in later back-channel negotiations with Israeli moderates. In a seminal article in the British Guardian newspaper in December, Khalidi debunks the state currently being offered the Palestinians in the two-state talks. "Today, the Palestinian state is largely a punitive construct devised by the Palestinians' worst historical enemies, Israel and its implacable ally, the U.S.," he wrote. "The intention behind the state today is to constrain Palestinian aspirations territorially, to force them to give up on their moral rights, renege on their history and submit to Israel's diktats on fundamental issues of sovereignty... The temptation is to say thanks, but no thanks." Worse for the two-state approach: Not only is a Palestinian state no longer attractive from the Palestinian point of view, it is, according to Khalidi, no longer attainable. "We have four processes that have to be traversed on both sides: There has to be agreement on substance, ratification by both peoples in the broadest sense, implementation and sustainability. Each one of these poses a formidable obstacle, and the chance of getting through all four on both sides is almost inconceivable," he tells The Report. Like Klein, Khalidi sees the emergence of a problematic one-state reality, but unlike Klein he does not think the eventual return to the two-state paradigm is inevitable. He argues that within the one-state reality the argument will no longer be over borders, but over equality and power-sharing. "This won't necessarily lead to a binational state," he says. "It could lead to conflict or even a revival of transferism (expelling the Palestinian population) on the Israeli side." Khalidi argues that in these potentially volatile circumstances, people on both sides need to start thinking beyond existing paradigms. "Partition is not a new concept and for one reason or another it hasn't taken hold. I think we have to ask ourselves why and to wonder whether that kind of partition is necessarily the only political resolution of this conflict. Are there any other forms of association between Jews and Arabs that are likely, plausible, workable, fair, just and equitable? I don't have a clear answer." Avnery, a pioneer of two-state thinking on the Israeli side, does. He is convinced that Palestinian demands for a one-state solution will only hurt the Palestinian cause. "The occupation will continue, and the struggle against it will be compromised. If you want the whole land to be one state, there would be no reason not to build settlements all over the country. That would be the only practical outcome," he maintains. In Avnery's view, before anything good can happen, there will have to be two states for two peoples. Only then, perhaps, will various types of association be possible. "When we met in Beirut in 1982, Yasser Arafat spoke to me about a Benelux-type federal arrangement among Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and also possibly Lebanon. He repeated this the last time I saw him a few weeks before his death. States can have relations between them. That is realistic. All the rest is not," he says categorically. What makes the negative trends even more frustrating for supporters of the two-state solution is the fact that diplomatic conditions for achieving it have rarely been better. Both leaderships are committed to it, the international community is working for it, and polls show that most people on both sides want it. Indeed, even on Shikaki's otherwise negative poll, 67 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution and normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world; 70 percent support a two-state solution in which the peoples agree to undergo a process of reconciliation; and 55 percent support a two-state solution in which the Palestinians actually recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Weak leadership on both sides, says Avnery, is preventing a deal, and leading to disaster. Eventually, though, he is convinced that the two-state solution will be achieved. And he quotes former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban who once said: "Nations always do the right thing only after every other possibility has been exhausted." "I have no doubt that Israelis and Palestinians will eventually get there," says Avnery. "The only question is how long it will take and what terrible things will have to happen in the interim." Cover story of Issue 26, April 14, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.