This article was published in Le Monde Diplomatique in March 2007.
There is talk once again of a one-state bi-national solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Oslo peace process failed to bring Palestinians their independence and the withdrawal from Gaza has not created a basis for a democratic Palestinian state as President George Bush had imagined: the Palestinians are watching their territory being fragmented into South African-style bantustans with poverty levels of over 75%. The area is heading to the abyss of an apartheid state system rather than to a viable two-state solution, let alone peace (1).
There have been a number of recent publications proposing a one-state solution as the only alternative to the current impasse. Three years ago Meron Benvenisti, Jerusalem’s deputy mayor in the 1970s, wrote that the question is “no longer whether there is to be a bi-national state in Palestine-Israel, but which model to choose” (2). Respected intellectuals on all sides, including the late Edward Said; the Arab Israeli member of the Knesset, Azmi Bishara; the Israeli historian Illan Pape; scholars Tanya Reinhart and Virginia Tilley; and journalists Amira Haas and Ali Abunimeh, have all stressed the inevitability of such a solution.
The idea of a single, bi-national state is not new. Its appeal lies in its attempt to provide an equitable and inclusive solution to the struggle of two peoples for the same piece of land. It was first suggested in the 1920s by Zionist leftwing intellectuals led by philosopher Martin Buber, Judah Magnes (the first rector of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Haïm Kalvarisky (a member of Brit-Shalom and later of the National Union). The group followed in the footsteps of Ahad Ha’am (Asher Hirsch Ginsberg, one of the great pre-state Zionist thinkers).
Underlying their Zionism was a quest for a Jewish renaissance, both cultural and spiritual, with a determination to avoid injustice in its achievement. It was essential to found a new nation, although not necessarily a separate Jewish state and certainly not at the expense of the existing population. Magnes argued that the Jewish people did not “need a Jewish state to maintain its very existence” (3).
No to partition
Although supporters of the bi-national state remained a marginal group in Zionist politics under the British mandate, they made sure they were heard both in official Zionist circles and the international arena. They also pleaded before the 1947 United Nations special committee on Palestine. When the commission finally recommended partition, they strongly opposed it, calling for a bi-national state in Palestine, forming part of an Arab federation. They campaigned for a federal state that would respect the rights of all citizens, while guaranteeing the national aspirations of the Jewish people to cultural and linguistic autonomy. They proposed, in line with the British, the creation of a legislative council based on proportional representation, safeguarding the rights of its nationals but also assuring equal political rights for all citizens of the state.
But with the UN’s partition plan and the Arab-Israeli war that broke out in 1948, a one-state solution was shelved. It came to light again in 1969 with the call by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement for the creation of a “secular and democratic state” in Palestine. The new state was based on the right of return — while accepting a Jewish presence in Palestine — and it was to end the injustices stemming from the creation of Israel and the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinian villagers. Although it called for the destruction of Israel as a colonial entity, it upheld the principle of a single state for all, Muslim, Christian or Jew. This was the first official attempt by the Palestinians to address the relationship between national and individual rights of citizenry. The idea met with no enthusiasm in Israel, and none internationally, and again lost momentum.
The failure of the one-state option has often been attributed to the idealism of its cause and its failure to come to terms with local realities. Nevertheless, as Magnes pointed out, the option offered significant advantages in demographic and territorial terms in 1947 to the Jewish cause (4).
In fact, the idea failed because the political actors of the time rejected it: the Zionist organisations were not interested, the British were unsupportive and the Arabs too suspicious. Between 1948 and 1993 the only significant change in these positions came from the Arabs, who finally came to terms with the existence of Israel.
Despite the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s calls for a secular, democratic state, Arafat prepared Palestinians for partition as the only available option. The PLO’s national council accepted the position in 1974, and confirmed it with its declaration of Palestinian independence in 1988 and the acceptance of the UN partition plan. A separate, independent Palestinian state was the best hope, even if it had to be on only 22% of the territory. The long Palestinian struggle for statehood culminated in 1993 with the Oslo accords.
From dream to nightmare
The tragedy of Oslo is that it turned the dream of two states into the nightmare of a single new state of apartheid. Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin declared that the great success of the accords, perhaps their only success, was to recognise that Israelis and Palestinians were “destined to live together, on the same soil in the same land” (5).
Since 1994 the Palestinians have not been liberated; they have been imprisoned by the Israeli system of permits and the installation of 50 permanent checkpoints and terminals fragmenting the territory into eight bantustans (6). Since 2002 the Palestinian Authority has seen its territory further eroded by the 700km-long wall being built with the aim of severing the West Bank from the remaining 46% of the territory.
What is the attraction of a bi-national state in these circumstances? For a start, a two-state plan appears to be less of a solution to the nationalist aspirations of either Zionists or Palestinians. Before 1947 partition had not been tried; since then it has taken root in circumstances of total Israeli domination. Despite the historic compromise of 1993, the Palestinians have not obtained the independent, viable state they sought. Palestinian nationalism has also met its limits: its leaders have failed to guide their people to independence and are now reduced to tearing themselves apart.
But partition has also failed to give Jews the security the state of Israel promised. About 400 Israelis were killed in suicide attacks in the 1990s, and 1,000 more have died since the second intifada of 2000. Antisemitic feelings are worsening around the world.
Demographic changes will continue to undermine any plans for partition. In 2005 there were 5.2 million Israelis living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river, and 5.6 million Palestinians. Despite Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and its plans to demarcate the West Bank frontier, a separate Israeli state will have to deal with the much more rapid demographic growth of the Palestinian population within its own frontiers. This will have not only economic but political consequences, given the Palestinian population’s current lack of basic rights.
There is another factor that argues against a two-state solution: the idea of citizenship founded on justice and equality. History has shown that, in this region as elsewhere, partition cannot be achieved without the expulsion and transfer of populations. This raises ethnic issues. There can be no peace, from a moral point of view, without an equitable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, based on the right of return or compensation, as required as early as 1948 by resolution 194 of the UN General Assembly.
But this right of return, and the expansion of the Palestinian population, endangers Israel’s Jewish identity. This has always been a major problem for Israelis.
According to historian Tony Judt, this is where Israel reaches its limits. No state can claim democratic credentials whilst practising ethnic exclusion; not after the crimes of the last century (7). Virginia Tilley says that partition, and the very existence of Israel, are “flawed from the start, resting on the discredited idea, on which political Zionism stakes all its moral authority, that any ethnic group can legitimately claim permanent formal dominion over a territorial state” (8).
The establishment of a bi-national state would redefine the identity of the state; it would favour democracy over nationalism. For Ali Abunimeh it would allow “all the people to live in and enjoy the entire country while preserving their distinctive communities and addressing their particular needs. It offers the potential to deterritorialise the conflict and neutralise demography and ethnicity as a source of political power and legitimacy” (9). At the heart of this conflict there remains a persistent territorial issue. Ethnicity (and, even more, religion) continues to be the main source of legitimacy and the quest for power.
Those arguing for a single democratic state now detect growing popular support for this solution, inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement. Boycott campaigns are being organised in Europe and the United States against what is often now called Israeli apartheid (10).
Groups in Israel and in Palestine are working together against the construction of the separation wall and are inventing new forms of resistance. The struggle has been redirected, against Israel’s policies rather than its people, and for rights for all rather than separate states for each.
True, the three political protagonists seem far from convinced. Israel’s politicians and the majority of its population insist on separation, as their wholehearted support for the wall seems to prove. The international community seems intent on a two-state solution, but does little to bring it about or influence progress. The Palestinian leadership is at a loss for a strategy, and the differences between Hamas and Fatah continue to generate conflict. But the present deadlock has created new conditions. Perhaps the time is ripe for original ideas and untried solutions.