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Israelis and Palestinians: One State or Two?

by ANDREW LEVINE

Regardless the merits of their respective claims, it was clear even before the state of Israel came into being that a just and lasting peace between the Jewish settlers in Palestine and the Arab population living there could only be imposed from outside.  It has been the same ever since.

The settlers, then and now, are on a mission – for God (or rather G-d) and Nation.  They will not settle for less than everything – unless they are given an offer they cannot refuse.

By now, the Palestinians have no choice but to concede almost everything.  But there are limits; and the Israelis are adept at exploiting them.

It has also been clear, for nearly as long, that only the United States, in concert with other Western powers, can impose a “solution.”

Why doesn’t it?  Geopolitical considerations are not the main reason, though they may once have been.  The Israel lobby is of far greater importance.

But nothing lasts forever.

American and Israeli “national interests” are increasingly at odds, and public opinion in the United States is finally beginning to take the plight of the Palestinians seriously.

American Jews, especially younger ones, are no longer as solidly behind Israel as they used to be; and it is beginning to dawn on the political class that the Israel lobby, though abundantly funded and universally feared, is not as omnipotent as they used to think.

It may not be a Paper Tiger, and it is not about to crumble when defied, but it can be defeated.

Lately, it has been defeated.  It has been unable to get the United States into a war with Iran.  Indeed, despite its best efforts, American-Iranian relations are improving.

And even as weak a leader as Barack Obama was able to keep the lobby from dragging the U.S. into a war with Syria.  Admittedly, this couldn’t – or wouldn’t — have happened without an assist from America’s new best enemy, Vladimir Putin, but the point remains: the lobby need not always get its way.

Its ties with right-wing theocrats remain strong, but they are not infrangible.  Should the prospects for catastrophic Middle Eastern wars recede, Armageddon will no longer seem quite so imminent to Christian Zionists.

Then perhaps these relics of an age even more benighted than the one the rest of us inhabit will become less intent on aiding injustice in the land they deem holy, and less interested in stirring up murder and mayhem there.

That was how they were before the late 1970s, when the Israeli Right began courting them.  Their unabashed cynicism continues but, with the End Times postponed yet again, who knows how much longer they will be able to keep their hapless stooges involved.

It is therefore possible that someday America will do the right thing.  But what would that be?

The international consensus is and always has been that Palestine should be divided into a Jewish and an Arab state.  In order to become a state at first, the Jewish settlers had no choice but to accept this “two state solution.”  They have been resisting it ever since.

For decades, the Israeli political elite just wouldn’t hear of it.  Since the Oslo accords, they have officially endorsed it — nominally.

However, their goal hasn’t changed; only their strategy.  Instead of projecting unstinting obstinacy, the idea now is to negotiate when America insists, but to make sure the negotiations fail.

Meanwhile, settlements, “facts on the ground,” multiply, to the point where a Palestinian state is probably already no longer viable – because there isn’t enough contiguous territory left and because the settlers are there to stay.

And so, the status quo endures, just as the Israelis want.

Israeli governments, left and right, realize that eventually, something is bound to give.  But from their point of view, the farther off that day is, the better.  They have faith that somehow, in the fullness of time, it will all work out.  That’s how it is when God is on your side.

But God works in mysterious ways.   There is therefore always the chance that, in some not too distant future, some sort of bi-national confederation gets concocted or, more likely, that a handful of non-contiguous bantustans get strung together and called a Palestinian state.

All it would take is for Israel to get almost everything it wants and for the United States to apply just a little pressure.  The Palestinians would have to agree, of course; but they are perilously close to the point where they have nothing to lose.

But even a solution that gives Israel almost everything it wants is unlikely as long as maximalists remain in charge there.  However governments change.

And in Israel, as in most other places, the government is a far greater problem than the people.

Any solution that concedes anything at all will be unacceptable to large numbers of Jewish Israelis, and they won’t give up without a fight.  However, by all accounts, most Israeli Jews would be content to live alongside a Palestinian statelet.

Many, perhaps most, could also live with – and flourish under – a genuine two-state solution.  The problem is getting from here to there.

The more American diplomacy flounders, and the more American politicians, fearing the Israel lobby’s wrath, prevaricate, the more intractable that problem becomes.

But it is still not impossible to get there – not yet.

Unfortunately, what most Israelis cannot live with is a “one state solution” that guarantees equal rights for all, but that is essentially a state of its citizens.

Then there would be no way to assure a Jewish majority – because demography is a fact on the ground too, one that Zionists are powerless to change.

This is why even today, after almost six decades of ethnic cleansing, a state encompassing all of Israel-Palestine cannot be both a Jewish state and a state of the kind for which the French and American Revolutions were fought.

And neither, of course, can it be a state of all the world’s Jews.  This latest demand of the Israeli government is an obvious ploy introduced only to assure that the latest round of negotiations, undertaken because John Kerry and Barack Obama insisted, will fail like all the others.

The demand is absurd, but absurdity is par for the course.

Zionism has had a number of distinct, though interrelated, goals throughout its history: these include establishing a haven from anti-Semitic persecution and advancing Jewish cultural renewal.

There is nothing objectionable, and nothing absurd, in that – though there has always been a problem about how to advance these objectives without undermining the rights of the people already living in Palestine.

But the demand for a Jewish state – a state that is also democratic – does introduce an element of absurdity, an incoherency, into the Zionist project.

A state can be, say, Danish and democratic if, as in Denmark, its institutions are democratic and its population is comprised overwhelmingly of Danes.  It would not be Danish in principle, however; only in consequence of historically contingent facts.

The kinder gentler wing of the Zionist movement, the leading force in the pre-independence Jewish community in Palestine and the rulers of the Israeli state for its first three decades, wanted Israel to be a Denmark for Jews.

But that could not be; not with Palestinians already there.

That reality turned the already incoherent idea of a state that is in principle (not just contingently) Jewish and democratic toxic.

The problem is that democracy — in the sense in question, the sense assumed in liberal democratic theory — is universalistic and egalitarian, while the demand for a Jewish state is particularistic and exclusionary.

This is a special case of a more general problem for which there is a general solution: to make real world liberal democratic politics accord better with the theory of liberal democracy.

This is seldom easy, but it is usually doable without giving up on either liberalism or democracy.   It is not doable, however, without giving up on at least part of the Zionist project.

The situation is worth reflecting upon, if only to gain a clearer purchase on the kinds of solutions that would have to be imposed if and when Israel’s enablers finally take a notion to make the situation they sustain more right.

* * *

Equality of citizenship was the first great egalitarian demand of the modern era.  Ever since, the idea has been of fundamental importance in all major justifying theories of liberal democracy.

However, it has always been honored more in theory than in practice.  Indeed, some of its most ardent proponents have been its greatest transgressors.  This was especially true of the enlightened slave owners who helped fashion the American republic.

It took almost two centuries of struggle – a Civil War, a women’s suffrage movement, a labor movement, a civil rights movement, and a whole lot more– before a decent approximation of equal citizenship finally came to the land where “all men are created equal.”

But, from the beginning, notions of equal political rights and of equality before the law registered in American attitudes and institutions.

Because they were so deeply entrenched in the American ideology, they became part of the ideological and rhetorical repertoire of the social movements whose efforts led eventually to the realization of the ideal.

Thus the contradiction between the theory and the practice of liberal democracy was put to good use – eventually.

Who, at first, was less than a full citizen?  Women, of course, and slaves and, for a long time in many states, men without property.   And, inasmuch as former slaves and their descendants were discriminated against in countless ways, along with Native Americans and Latinos and others, race was a factor as well.

But “nationality” and “ethnicity” were never grounds for unequal citizenship.

Indeed, the very concepts were unknown when the basic principles of liberal democratic theory were forged.

From time immemorial, there have been tribes and clans and other social groupings based on lineage and descent; and notions of peoplehood, grounded in established social practices, have also been politically meaningful from time to time.

After the so-called axial age, when the great world religions first emerged, co-religionists too were drawn together by special bonds of solidarity.

But national and ethnic identifications are new.  They had no applicability before the nineteenth century – except, of course, in retrospect.  It fell to the tradition of German Romanticism and then to later nineteenth and twentieth century currents of thought to provide their theory; before that, they were essentially unknown.

The state form of political organization is also comparatively new.   Before the dawn of the modern era, there were no real examples; only precursors and anticipations.

To be sure, political authority relations are as old as the human race itself.  They come in all shapes and sizes – from tiny family units to vast empires.

But states, political entities in which authority is concentrated into a single institutional nexus and extended over a population comprised of individuals who share no other social bonds, did not exist anywhere before the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.

States played an important role in the development and extension of capitalist market relations; the one made possible and reinforced the other.

The state therefore preceded the nation state, though the latter faithfully followed the former, inasmuch as national economies work best when the individuals in them identify with one another along communal lines.

By now, it is a commonplace that nations are “imagined communities”; that they are “socially constructed” under particular political, social and economic conditions.

But the imagination needs facts upon which to work.

For a collection of people to take on an ethnic or national identification, it helps if they live close by one another, speak a common language, share common cultural and religious traditions, and if they are able to claim common descent.

These factors almost never coalesce spontaneously.  It takes effort to forge ethnic groups and nations.  Even the citizens of Denmark had to be made into Danes.

For millennia, Jews comprised religious congregations that maintained various connections with one another.  Throughout Christendom, in the Muslim world, and indeed in all the great empires where Jews lived, their social and political status was distinct; and, in some times and places, their economic functions were distinct as well.

It therefore makes sense to speak of a Jewish people existing across a large swathe of space and time.

But until notions of ethnicity and nationality became fixed in the mainstream European culture into which Jews gained access after the French Revolution, it made no sense to speak of a Jewish nation.  After that, it did make sense, but only to the extent that the imagination made it so.

Still, the case was more than usually implausible.  Jews did not share a common territory, they spoke different languages (including, mainly, the languages of their non-Jewish neighbors), and apart from the stringent norms imposed by religious observance, there were few common cultural traditions that the world’s far-flung Jewish communities shared.

Throughout history, Jews mainly had children with other Jews.   Nevertheless, the idea that all Jewish communities are comprised of descendants of the inhabitants of Palestine expelled by the Romans at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple has always been implausible on its face.

That narrative has more to do with Christian accounts of the punishments God leveled upon those of his Chosen People who refused to accept His only begotten Son than with the self-understandings of contemporaneous Jewish communities.

Nevertheless, the idea of a Jewish nation, based on common descent, gained currency as the nineteenth century wore on.

As the Zionist movement took hold, its reality became an article of faith for many Jews.   And with racialist and anti-Semitic ideas on the rise throughout Europe, the idea easily gained broad acceptance.

No other religious group makes a similar claim.  To be sure, there are Christian and Islamic states.  But these are states governed, in varying ways, along theocratic lines, not states of an imagined Christian or Muslim nation.

Nevertheless, by now, the idea of Jewish nationality has taken hold, as has the idea that Jewish statehood is and ought to be its goal.

This is why Israel has become the preeminent concern of Jews intent on fostering a distinctively Jewish identity politics.  It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that nowadays, outside recalcitrant Orthodox circles, Judaism is finished, and that Zionism has taken its place.

Before the 1960s, Palestinian intellectuals and notables were more likely to be pan-Arabists than Palestinian nationalists.  But in reaction to both Zionist victories and the ineffectiveness of pan-Arabist politics, a Palestinian national movement finally emerged.  Its principal demand too was, of course, statehood.

At first, Palestinian nationalists called for a secular, democratic state in all of Mandate Palestine.  This would accord with the principle established in the French and American Revolutions; it would be a state of its citizens.

But that was not their main rationale.  Palestinian nationalists were loath to acknowledge the legitimacy of a settler state that had taken their land and brought ruin upon their people. They must also have thought that, despite the weak hand they were dealt, they could somehow prevail.

But whatever their reasons, they got it right from a liberal democratic point of view, and the Israelis have it wrong.

However, in this instance, what theory demands is out of line with what is on the political agenda.  The Israelis have the upper hand militarily, they have the United States behind them, and most of them will never give up on the idea of a Jewish state.

But if they don’t give up something, their democracy – or rather the Herrenvolk democracy they now enjoy – is bound to deteriorate as the Apartheid regime that Israel has imposed upon the occupied territories takes over Israel itself.

If a secular, democratic state is out, and if an Apartheid regime is an unacceptable alternative, then there is only one possibility left: to return to the two state solution Israeli governments have been doing all they can for so long to prevent.

In other words, Israel must be made to make due with the ethnically cleansed territories it ruled before 1967; it must agree to fixed borders behind the so-called Green Line – modified perhaps in the ways that previous failed negotiations have imagined.

This is far from ideal – either from a liberal democratic or a Zionist perspective.   But it may be the best that can now be made of a bad situation.

Can we still get from here to there?

The Palestinians can never do it by themselves, and the United States and other Western governments will not do it unless civil society forces them.  That is why the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is so important.

The model, of course, is the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa.  However, the situations are not the same.

For one thing, the non-white majority in South Africa was militarily and politically stronger than the Palestinian resistance is today.

And the effect on local economic elites is not likely to be the same either.  In South Africa, the pillars of the white South African establishment reached a point where their economic interests forced them to accommodate to black demands.  Before acceding to Palestinian demands, their counterparts in Israel would more likely just leave Israel for greener pastures, as many of them now do anyway.

It is therefore not clear how much good would come from imposing economic costs upon them.

But there is no other way.   It is either that or abandon hope altogether.  We owe the victims of the status quo – and, indeed, all the peoples of Israel-Palestine, — more than that.

Zionism has been a catastrophe for Palestine’s Arabs.   It is becoming clear to ever-larger numbers of people – including Jews in North America, Europe and Israel too — that it has been bad for the Jews as well.

It may not still be possible to do more than mitigate some of the harm, but even that would be worth doing.  It is certainly better than the alternative.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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