The desperate and desultory New York “summit” among Barack Obama, Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas and the evident capitulation of Obama to Israeli defiance of even his minimalist effort to achieve mere maintenance of the status quo have left most observers who genuinely seek peace with some measure of justice in an understandable state of despair.
However, there is an alternative to despair — breaking free from the partition straitjacket and runaround and demanding democracy and equal rights for all in the unitary state which, de facto, has already existed for the past 42 years.
If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ever to be solved, peace-seekers must dare to speak openly and honestly of the “Zionism problem” — and then to draw the moral, ethical and practical conclusions which follow.
When South Africa was under a racial-supremicist, settler-colonial regime, the world recognized that the problem was the ideology and political system of the state.
The world also recognized that the solution to that problem could not be found either in “separation” (apartheid in Afrikaans) and scattered native reservations (called “independent states” by the South African regime and “Bantustans” by the rest of the world) or in driving the settler-colonial group in power into the sea. Rather, the solution had to be found — and, to almost universal satisfaction and relief, was found — in democracy, in white South Africans growing out of their racial-supremicist ideology and political system and accepting that their interests and their children’s futures would be best served in a democratic, non-racist state with equal rights for all who live there.
The solution for the land which, until it was literally wiped off the map in 1948, was called Palestine is the same. It can only be democracy.
The ever-receding “political horizon” for a decent “two-state solution”, which, on the ground, becomes less practical with each passing year of expanding settlements, bypass roads and walls, is weighed down by a multitude of excruciatingly difficult “final status” issues which Israeli governments have consistently refused to discuss seriously, preferring to postpone them to the end of a road which is never reached — and which, almost certainly, is intended never to be reached.
Just as marriage is vastly less complicated than divorce, democracy is vastly less complicated than partition. A democratic post-Zionist solution would not require any borders to be agreed, any division of Jerusalem, anyone to move from his current home or any assets to be evaluated and apportioned. Full rights of citizenship would simply be extended to all the surviving natives still living in the country, as happened in the United States in the early 20th century and in South Africa in the late 20th century.
The obstacle to such a simple — and morally unimpeachable — solution is, of course, intellectual and psychological. Traumatized by the Holocaust and perceived insecurity as a Jewish island in an Arab sea, Israelis have immense psychological problems in coming to grips with the practical impossibility of sustaining eternally what most of mankind, composed as it is of peoples who have themselves been victims of colonialism and racism, view as an abomination — a racial-supremicist, settler-colonial regime founded upon the ethnic cleansing of an indigenous population.
Perhaps this New York “summit” will be the last gasp of the fruitless pursuit of a separationist solution for those who live, and will continue to live, in the “Holy Land”. Perhaps those who care about justice and peace and believe in democracy can then find ways to stimulate Israelis to move beyond Zionist ideology and attitudes toward a more humanistic, humane, hopeful and democratic view of present realities and future possibilities.
No one would suggest that the moral, ethical and intellectual transformation necessary to achieve a decent “one-state solution” will be easy. However, now even more than ever before, informed people must recognize that a decent “two-state solution” has become impossible.
It is surely time for concerned people everywhere — and particularly for Americans — to imagine a better way, to encourage Israelis to imagine a better way and to help both Israelis and Palestinians to achieve it. It is surely time to seriously consider democracy and to give it a chance.
JOHN V. WHITBECK, an international lawyer who has advised the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel, is author of “The World According to Whitbeck“.