The Bi-National State

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb” prophesied Isaiah (11:6). This is possible in our times, too–provided you bring a new lamb every day.

In desperate times, messianic ideas flourish. They permit an escape from the dark present to a better, brighter world; from a feeling of helplessness to a sense of creation.

No wonder that in these dark times, the bi-national idea is raising its head again in some Israeli left-wing circles. It’s a beautiful and noble idea, imbued with faith in humanity. But, like Isaiah’s prophecy, it is an idea for the days of the messiah. If it has any realistic chance at all, this may come in another two or three generations. In the meantime, it is indeed an escape from reality. A dangerous escape, as we shall see.

According to the bi-national idea, the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River–Palestine / Eretz Israel–will again constitute one state, as in the days of the British Mandate before 1948. Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, will live there together as equal citizens. The exact form of the regime–bi-national or non-national –is secondary.

All citizens will vote for the same parliament and the same government, serving in the same army and police force, paying the same taxes, sending their children to the same schools, using the same textbooks. An attractive idea, indeed.

It may seem strange that this idealistic vision is reappearing just now, after it has failed the world over. The multi-national Soviet Union has disappeared, and now even the multi-national Russian federation is in danger of falling apart (see Chechnya). Not only Yugoslavia has disintegrated, but so have its fragments. Bosnia, too, has fallen apart and been glued together artificially, with foreign soldiers trying to keep the peace somehow. Serbia has been compelled to give up Kosovo in all but name, and the integrity of Macedonia is in doubt. For a long time now, the unity of Canada has been threatened by movements within the French-speaking population. United Cyprus, with its model bi-national constitution, is barely a memory. And the list is long: Indonesia, the Philippines and many other countries, not to mention our neighbor, Lebanon.

But there is no need to look far away. Our own reality is enough. The immediate roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more than a hundred years. A fifth generation has been born into it and its whole mental world has been shaped by it. Basically it is a clash between the Zionist movement and the Arab-Palestinian national movement. After a hundred years, the force of Zionism is far from exhausted. Its main thrust –expansion, occupation and settlement–is in full, offensive swing. On the Palestinian side, nationalism (including the Islamic version) is deepening and growing from martyr to martyr. It takes real faith to believe that these two nationalistic peoples will give up the essence of their hopes and turn from total enmity to total peace, giving up their national narratives and being ready to live together as supra-national citizens.

The 20th century has seen several “utopias” that have caused terrible disasters. The communist vision, for example, was based on the assumption that there is a perfect human being or that human beings can be perfected. It clashed with a reality of imperfect human beings. As the German post-communist leader, Gregor Gysi, once told me: “We tried to impose the perfect system on imperfect human beings. So we tried to impose it by force.” Thus a system of terror came into being and millions were slaughtered, from the Ukraine to Cambodia.

One must pose three essential questions:
1. Will both sides accept this solution?
2. Can a bi-national state function?
3. Will it put an end to the conflict?
My answer to all three questions is an unqualified ‘no’.

There is no chance at all that the present, post-holocaust, Israeli generation, or its successor, will accept this solution, which conflicts absolutely with the myth and the ethos of Israel. The aim of the founders of the State of Israel was that the Jews–or a part of them–could at last take their destiny into their own hands. A bi-national state means the abandonment of this aim, and, in practice, the dismantling of Israel itself. The Jews would return to the traumatic experience of a people without a state throughout the world, with all that that implies. And not as a result of a crushing military defeat, but as a free choice. Not very likely.

And what about the Palestinian side? Some Palestinians do indeed talk longingly of a bi-national state, but I believe that for some of them, at least, this is just a code word for the elimination of the State of Israel, and for some others an escape from bitter reality to the dream of returning to their homes and villages of the past . But the great majority of the Palestinian people want to live, at last, in a national state of their own, a state that expresses their national identity, under their flag and their government, like other peoples.

The chance that the two nations will accept the bi-national idea in the foreseeable future is remote indeed.

Would such a state–if it came into being–be able to function?

There is hardly any multi-national state in the world that really functions properly. (Have I mentioned Switzerland?) Because in order to function properly, one of two conditions must be fulfilled: either all sides cede their national identity or they must have equal economic and political power.

The very opposite is true in this country. There is a gaping inequality between Israelis and Palestinians in almost every respect. The disparity is immense. In a joint state, if it were to be set up, the Jews would dominate the economy and most other aspects of the state, and try very hard to preserve that situation. At this point in time, a bi-national state would be an occupation regime in a new form that would thinly disguise a reality of exploitation and economic, cultural and probably political repression. The situation of the Arab citizens in Israel, after 55 years, is not very encouraging.

Therefore, I do not believe that such a solution, if it were possible at all, would put an end to the conflict. It would only set it on a different track, perhaps more severe and more violent.

All this is known, of course, to the adherents of the bi-national idea. In order to escape the contradiction between their vision and reality, they have developed a theory that goes like this:

In the beginning, the joint state will indeed be some kind of an apartheid state. But the situation will change gradually. In time, the Arabs will become the majority in this state. Even now, some 5.4 million Jews and 4.6 million Arab Palestinians live between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. The Arab birthrate will change the ratio soon. The Palestinian majority will fight for equality. The world will support it, as it supported the South-African struggle against apartheid. Thus we will achieve a real state of equality.

This is a wishful dream. The white racists in South Africa were hated by the whole world. Unlike the Jewish Israelis, they had no powerful base of support. American Jewry has immense political, economic and media might, and they will not lose it for many years to come. Israel continues to rely on–and will do so for a long time–the guilt feelings of the Christian world inspired by the holocaust. At the same time, the Arabs are becoming more and more the bogyman of the Western world. It will be far more difficult for international pressure to influence the Jewish community that will dominate the bi-national state. It will take generations, and in the meantime the expansion of the settlements will go on relentlessly. In a bi-national state every Jew can, of course, settle wherever he or she wants. The Palestinians will continually lose out economically, and the gap between the two peoples will grow.

It can be assumed that the power struggle in the bi-national state will cause severe violence, as it did in South Africa.

The conclusion is: two states are needed for two peoples. This will direct the national feelings of the two peoples into reasonable, constructive channels, that will make co-existence, cooperation and, finally, a genuine reconciliation possible.

The independent political structure of the State of Palestine will put at its disposal international and national barriers against the danger that its far more powerful neighbor would exploit use its economic might to exploit the Palestinian people or even expel them. The Palestinian people will at long last feel that it has a solid base, as did the Jews after the establishment of the State of Israel.

The recent past has shown that even this is extremely difficult to achieve. We still have to overcome much mutual fear, hate, myths and prejudices to make it possible. But those who despair at these obstacles and so adopt the bi-national gospel resemble an athlete who can’t manage a 100 yard sprint and therefore enrolls for the marathon.

There is great danger even in propagating this idea. It is said that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” The very mention of the bi-national vision will scare the great majority of Israelis, who are now slowly approaching acceptance of the two-state solution, will arouse their most deep-seated existential anxieties and push them into the arms of the extreme right-wing. It will give the Right a powerful weapon: “What did we tell you? The real aim of the adherents of the two-state solution is to abolish the State of Israel by stages!”

Some of the new advocates of the bi-national solution use a very odd argument. They say: “Sharon declares that he is for the two-state solution, but he means some enclaves comprising 50% of the occupied territories. Therefore we must not support the establishment of a Palestinian state.” The simple answer is: should we abandon a good and positive idea just because the enemies of peace pervert it and try to use it for their ends? Logic would dictate the opposite: to expose the perversion of the idea by Sharon and fight for a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders.

In the early 50s, when we raised the two-state idea again after the 1948 war, we did not speak of “separation”. Today, too, we reject this term absolutely. We speak of two states with an open border between them, with free movement of people and goods (subject, of course, to mutual agreements). I am convinced that, in the light of the geographical and political facts, a natural process will lead to an organic connection, perhaps a federation, and later, by common consent, to a regional community like the European Union.

In the end, we shall reach the objective: to live together in peace, side by side. Perhaps a later generation will one day decide to live in one joint state. But today the propaganda for this utopia diverts attention from the practical, immediate objective, at a time when the whole world has accepted the idea of “two states for two peoples”. This remote utopia blocks the way to a solution that is achievable in the near future and sorely necessary, because in the meantime “facts on the ground” are being created.

I am convinced that the 21st century will bring vast changes in the structure of the world and the way of life of human society. The importance of the nation-state will gradually diminish. A world order, world law and world-wide structures will play a central role. I believe that Israel will whole-heartedly take part in the march of humanity. We shall not be tardy. But there is no point in expecting the Israeli public to be 50 years ahead of the times.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. One of his essays is also included in Cockburn and St. Clair’s forthcoming book: The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: avnery@counterpunch.org.


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URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

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