Recent political developments in the Israeli government point to a larger trend–the demise of two states as a viable option for peace in Israel-Palestine. This may open up an opportunity for a movement based on addressing the core issues of the conflict, and to reaching a truly historic solution in the form of one democratic, secular state–an old PLO position worth resuscitation.
The “national unity” coalition that ruled Israel’s government since February 2001 collapsed recently. Ariel Sharon immediately began courting smaller far-right parties to make up for the withdrawal of the Labor party.
The Labor party ostensibly pulled out after failing to re-direct the $147 million designated to the settlements in the Israeli budget. Before anyone thinks that this might signal a genuine reincarnation of an interest in peace, they should consider the timing. An insightful editorial by the Financial Times called this controversy “manufactured” (10/31/02). Such resignations come like clockwork, one year before the scheduled Israeli elections.
Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the Labor party leader, defense minister in the coalition, and prime minister hopeful, is being “transparently opportunist.”
“He appears to be opposing Israel’s generous subsidies for the settlementsBut Mr Ben-Eliezer’s stand in no way affects the expansion of the settlements championed by Mr Sharon.”
To keep his government together in this time of crisis, Sharon is currently in talks with the religious fundamentalist, National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu bloc. Both of these parties are avowedly pro-settler, and support the transfer of the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. The new defense minister will likely be Shaul Mofaz, a nasty military careerist, whose idea of negotiations begins with expelling Arafat from the occupied territories. If Sharon can keep the government together with these new ingredients, their influence is sure to grow, as will calls to transfer Palestinians.
The hapless “roadmap for peace” pitched by US envoy William Burns was the first scurry in diplomatic activity initiated by the US in a while–right as it prepares for an all-out attack on Iraq. PLO legal advisor, Diana Buttu, told bitterlemons.org that she heard that Ariel Sharon rejected the most significant Israeli obligation it stipulated, a “settlement freeze.”
With the interminable growth of the settlements, and the possibility of the mass transfer of Palestinians, the prospects for peace look bad and are only getting worse.
There is a serious decline in the possibility of a viable two-state solution, the widely acknowledged basis for peace. A ‘Christian Science Monitor’ piece quoted “one diplomat” as saying “it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the two-state idea is in deep trouble” (10/23/2002). He or she went on to add that this leaves “a one-state solution,” specifically, “one state with two classes of citizens if that state is to have a Jewish character or a democratic secular state in Palestine, which means the death of Israel within 10 years.”
This “death of Israel” means that Israel will no longer be able to maintain a structural predisposition towards people of the Jewish faith, while denying the same rights to Palestinians, or “non-Jews” in the official lexicon. What it really means is the end of Israel as the “Jewish State.”
Is that a bad thing?
When the Oslo peace process began, it was premised on a two-state solution, Israel proper as it is, and a Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza. The negotiations were to work out the immediate kinks while kicking the central issues to the final status talks. During the whole process however, Israel continued to expand settlements on the same land that the Palestinian Authority was negotiating for. Thanks to programmatic deception by Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton, many believe the breakdown in the peace process was due to Arafat’s obduracy, rather than any structural flaws. Thus, settlement expansion continues unabated, even while many of the already built portions remain uninhabited.
Israel’s policymakers just cannot be clear, nor united, on what it is that peace requires. The settlements continue to chew away at future Palestinian territoriality and sovereignty, undermining the very basis for a two-state solution. Israel likely will be unable to evacuate them, especially as the population of settlers booms. Nor will they resort to living under a Palestinian government. Ever since a right-wing settler nut took out Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli politicians have been pretty wary about appearing to abandon the settlements or cross the far-right too much. The cost for this hold is a Palestinian state.
With such inner cross-currents, it should no surprise that Israel’s face towards the Palestinians has been schizophrenic when it comes to peace. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon routinely declares his commitment to peace, yet in May, his party’s Central Committee “adopted a resolution completely rejecting the creation of a Palestinian state” (Ha’aretz 5/13/02). It was pushed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the man most likely to be the next Prime Minister. Sharon just invited Netanyahu to join the government to replace Shimon Peres as foreign minister, a further indication of the decline of the two-state option. Similarly, Israel’s construction of a wall complex within Palestinian territory is appropriating more land and dividing Palestinian estates and populations.
As PA officials cling to the two-state dream, Israeli officials offer no vision or goal beyond the achievement of guaranteed security for all Israelis. PA officials have no choice but to hold on to the two-state solution since it the basis for their positions. Acknowledgement that it is dying implies they are irrelevant. They will never admit that, even though the scope of land they could rule in such a peace agreement is shrinking and shifting.
As time passes, the land that was to be a Palestinian state is becoming less and less Palestinian. Palestinian land is becoming increasingly circumscribed and divided by settlements and the mechanisms the army arranges to maintain, protect, and connect them. Israel is changing the “facts on the ground,” which after 55 years of perpetual fact-arranging, appears to be its ‘raison d’etre.’
A PA dossier passed on to the State Department, argued that Israel’s moves will reduce the Palestinians to living in ‘the Middle East equivalent of a native American Indian reservation'” (Financial Times 10/9/02).
The death of the two-state solution would require a parallel change in the nature and form of the Palestinian struggle. The ‘Jerusalem Post’ reported that “last month, (Diana) Buttu surprised American and Israeli officials when she announced in Washington that Israel would eventually have to consider giving Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip citizenship.” Instead of a nationalist struggle for a disconnected, mutated piecemeal-state, Palestinians would have to campaign for legal and political equality, assuming Israel had not transferred them already.
The response from the State Department to Buttu’s comments was telling: an official “dismissed the idea, saying it threatened Israel’s Jewish character.”
One problem among many with the State Department’s response is that the government of Israel is purposefully unclear as to where the border of this “Jewish character” ends. With roughly 400,000 geographically-dispersed settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem alone, no one can exactly delineate where the Jewish character actually is in relation to the land. Israel itself has no official borders. Since portions of its Jewish population are interspersed into the Palestinian territories, this concept of attributing a religious character to that land is ridiculous. The 20-30% of Israel that is not Jewish, by this logic, is existentially undermining the Jewish character — how 19th-century is this argument?
Another problem is that there is no “Jewish character” in terms of the population. With nearly half-a-million Russian Christians and non-Jewish migrant workers, plus Israel’s citizen-Palestinians, it is only about 75 % Jewish in Israel proper alone (throw in the 3.5 million Palestinians in the territories living under Israeli rule and there is demographic parity).
This response must actually refer to the political character of the state–the “Zionist character.” Undeniably, Israel’s political and legal structures are predisposed towards benefiting Jews to the disadvantage of everyone else. In the State Department’s moral universe those in power are always more important than those who are ruled. Granting voting rights to the wily natives would upset this precious arrangement. What about the fact that the tyrannical rule of Israel’s military administration over the Palestinians undermines Israel’s democratic character? From the point-of-view of the Enlightenment and essential principles of western liberalism, isn’t it better to promote the democratic character of a state than an ethno-religious one?
To digress briefly, this adds another major hole to that American official love for democracy. First, they clamor all day and night for democracy, except when “anti-democratic” (i.e. Anti-American) elements are elected. Now, the new exception is when it strains the ethno-religious purity of Israel. At what point does the clich about supporting democracy become utter bullshit? How many exceptions does it take?
The most spectacular thing about this Jewish character argument is that it holds Israel to a lower standard than Americans expect of themselves. The United States is 75% white according to the last Census. While, there are a few proponents of preserving America’s “white character” — David Duke, for example — there would be widespread and justified outrage if this was suggested publicly by a mainstream politician. Yet, its Israeli equivalent is repeated ‘ad nauseam’ as if it represented some sweet ideal rather than a noxiously racist and backwards expression of ultra-nationalism.
To add to the hypocrisy, the Palestinians whose equality would undermine the “Jewish character” of Israel are the native inhabitants. Israel made them into minorities in their own homeland. In other words, Israel’s founders were about transforming Palestine’s Palestinian character, as so many other colonial projects sought to replace one population with another. No State Department officials decry Israel’s settlement policy as an attack on the Palestinian character of the West Bank.
It is as if, with a twisted mirror, we are witnessing a possible, untaken route of American history unfold in Israel–one where the natives were not erased by genocide as they were here, but left to fight for self-determination or rights against a state deemed to have a character excluding them. In the face of this, our incompetent and/or spineless State Department can only fumble on immorally about the need for ethno-religious purity. Holders of this view are on par with the worst chauvinists in history. They are opponents of integration–they sound like they missed that whole civil rights movement thing.
At least the end of this funny business about a kennel-state is over, we can get back to the basics. The problem lies within the ideology of Zionism, the original notion that this land must have a “Jewish character.” Just as we shed the illusions of a peace process gone bad, made wretched by Israel’s insatiable thirst for colonial expansionism, we are stuck in a Zionist paradox–where secular-humanistic modernity meets good old fashioned, exclusive ethnic nationalism. How else can we explain the stasis of those bad-faith, self-depreciating negotiations known misleadingly as the peace process?
It should not have to be stated that I am clearly not against the idea of a Jewish state. I understand as anyone else does the need for a place of shelter and protection for Jews. The problem is that Israel did not form in isolation. This Jewish state was born on the dispossession of the Palestinian people. This is the root of the current problem plain and simple. It strikes me as absurd that a persecuted people seeking a safe haven would pick the land of another people to stake a claim. Israel clearly has not brought the world’s Jewry the safety and security it claimed it would.
It should be clearer now than ever that peace will not come with the “Zionist character” of Israel in tact. By this, I do not refer to a Jewish presence, but rather a Jewish monopoly on power and a fundamental preference for global Jewry in the distribution of rights. The Israeli government is so far incapable of seeing the Palestinians as equals. There can be no peace among unequals. This inequality stems inherently from the systematic aspiration to establish a homogeneous character on a heterogeneous land. If an ideology calls for land appropriation and the dispossession of the natives, it necessarily deems them inferior.
That is why the basis for Oslo as it unfolded was a nearly singular emphasis on Israeli security, as if Palestinians live with perfect security. This transformed the PA from a self-conceived national government, to a sort of political-prison complex that was obliged to monitor, discipline, and suppress its own population to the tasty delight of Israeli and American peace ceremony planners.
Any breach of Israeli security by any party, aligned with the PA or not, was treated as a transgression of the peace process as a whole. Warden Arafat failed to keep the prisoners in order–and the Palestinian collective paid the price for it. This set up a nearly impossible security imperative that came at the cost of the same rights a Palestinian state was supposed to ensure. Arafat traded in Palestinian rights for Israeli security. How could we believe that a meaningful polity could emerge with the basis of its legitimacy being the security it provided another state? A democracy is supposed to be a government by the people for the people, not by Israel, and for the comfort and fuzzy psychological reassurance of the Israelis.
Any “roadmap” offered by the US or the rhythmless barbershop “quartet” is likely to be based on the same doomed formula. Yet, PA tongues will welcome it with tails wagging as if equality can be negotiated for. The fundamental problem is that a real state requires a few elements: territoriality, a monopoly on the use of force, and internal and border control. Israel will never grant a Palestinian government any of the latter because Israel will reserve for itself the power and right to intervene in Palestine whenever it chooses–making Palestine an unprecedented experiment in statehood. Israelis bear such colonial paranoia that there would be the same distrust even if they succeeded in Israel’s current strategy of completely pacifying every Palestinian.
Israeli measures are continuing to undermine Palestinian territoriality. There is no chance of a usefully independent state on those patches of land. So let’s bury the idea. I may be guilty of overstating the case. The demise of the two-state is probably not as close to finality as I wished it was. Can anyone blame me? The two-state solution was a bad idea from the beginning.
I do not believe that Palestinian nationalism was ever anything more than an expression of three desires: first, returning to the land. Second, being left alone by the Israeli, Jordanian, Lebanese, etc. armies. Third, having a right to a basic livelihood. All of these can be satisfied by the success of a new anti-Apartheid movement based on reconstructing Israel-Palestine as a secular, democratic state. A separate state at best would only fulfill the last two.
Of course it will not be easy. It will take a directed struggle, vision, and much sacrifice. There also will need to be serious transformations in the Jewish Israeli and Palestinian communities. We must move past archaic nationalism to think in a rights-based manner, in terms of equality and mutually beneficial coexistence. This also requires the near-impossible task of forgiving. Both happened to some extent in South Africa. It is possible in Israel-Palestine.
Its list of opponents would be magnificent: Israeli and Palestinian opportunistic and short-sighted politicians who benefit from the conflict and having two separate states, extreme racists and religionists, the Arab regimes who need Israel to justify their repression, and the US government, which expects some level of instability to keep things in control and arms sales going.
Still, I find this idea less of a fantasy than negotiating a state worthy of being called Palestine at this point. This kind of solution is to the benefit of both peoples, so it must come from them and it will get the world’s support.
WILL YOUMANS is a law student at UC-Berkeley. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org