Olmert’s Nightmare

Ehud Olmert’s nightmare is at hand. Not only does the former Israeli prime minister now really have to fight those corruption charges. He also faces the realization of his fears that the Palestinians might give up on a two-state solution in favor of a struggle for equal rights that would mean, as he put it, the “end of the Jewish state.”

Yo, Ehud, that struggle is a growing movement, and it isn’t a threat to Jews — on the contrary, Jews are very much a part of it.

Just last weekend in Boston, American and/or Israeli Jews accounted for nearly a third of the 29 speakers at a conference organized by TARI (Trans Arab Research Institute) with the William Joiner Center at the University of Massachusetts.

This is the second major public conference on how to achieve a single democratic state for Palestinians and Israelis. The first was held in London in November, and a third is slated for Toronto in June.

In a sign of the one-state movement’s persistence, the conference was over-subscribed weeks before it was held; dozens were turned away because the hall only seated 500 people. Those who got in remained glued to their seats as one intense presenter followed another, in spite of limited time for questions and, on day two, no lunch.

For my part, I remain agnostic. As I said in my remarks at the conference, both states must provide equality for all their citizens — Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, women or men, whatever their ethnicity. And, by the way, this isn’t currently the case in either the established Israeli state or the putative Palestinian state.

In other words, even if two states are established, Israel cannot continue to be a state that privileges its Jewish citizens over its non-Jewish citizens. So either one or two states would mean the end of a Jewish state — although not of the state of Israel.

Besides, I believe other vital challenges face the Palestinians, including how to keep Palestinians physically on the land of Palestine, and how to effectively and non-violently challenge a leadership that represents at best a quarter of the Palestinian people so as to prevent the abrogation of Palestinian rights.

I share the view of policy analyst Phyllis Bennis who warned at the conference that the United States might seek to impose a mini-state with minimal sovereignty and rights.

That’s why my talk focused on an analysis of the sources of non-violent power available to the Palestinian people, including economic, moral, cultural, legal, and political power.

One important fact (simple but of utmost importance) was reiterated by several Palestinians — from the occupied territories, from within Israel, and in exile. They said loud and clear that working for the one-state solution means working with Israeli Jews. As acting TARI chair Hani Faris put it, “The idea of one state cannot fly without a Palestinian wing and a Jewish wing.”

Political scientist Laila Farsakh acknowledged this would be difficult given the anger Palestinians feel at Israel after Gaza and given their history of dispossession at Israel’s hands. As one strategy to overcome this anger, she suggests a debate on identity that would cover the past and present role of Jews in resisting Zionism. Another is to examine treatment of Jews in Arab societies.

There is no “monolithic Jewish voice,” Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti reminded, adding that it is anti-Semitic to claim otherwise. He pointed to the “disproportionate number of Jews” in the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel until Palestinian human rights are achieved.

And political scientist As’ad Ghanem emphasized that no one can decide for a people what their national consciousness is: “I know who I am as a Palestinian; I cannot decide for the Israelis who they are.”

As for the Jews, several referred to the way that Zionism had subverted the values of Judaism, and highlighted alternative discourses. As law philosopher Ori Ben-Dor put it, “Zionism abuses the Jewish memory and the humanist message of the holocaust.” Historian Norton Mezvinsky said Palestinians and other Arabs have not been the only victims of Zionism.

Historian Gabriel Piterberg held up the poetry of the late Avot Yeshurun as a model of blending narratives and identities by mixing Arabic and Yiddish idiom into Hebrew poetry. Anthropologist Smadar Lavie said a common struggle against the oppression of Jews of Arab descent and Palestinian Arabs offered a way out of Zionism towards co-existence. Historian Ilan Pappe pointed to many concrete “de-Zionising” projects on the ground, including shared kindergartens.

A remarkable aspect of the conference was the way nearly all speakers highlighted the Zionist project — creating an exclusivist state — as the root of the problem, and discussed ways to challenge it.

Civil rights advocate Nancy Murray and others suggested presenting the attack on Gaza in the context of how Israel was created as well as pointing to the parallels of the one-state discourse with the values Americans uphold.

One of the few – perhaps only – Zionist speakers at the conference, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, came to bury Zionism not to praise it. “As a Zionist, I wanted a Jewish state but that option is abrogated. The ‘one state’ is already here, the only question is what kind of state it will be.”
Many critiqued the two-state political platform as the “savior of Zionism” — especially well argued by Nadim Rouhana.

A shared theme was the urgent warning that future Israeli assaults on Palestinians cannot be ruled out. Ilan Pappe and this author drew the audience’s attention to the Israeli High Court decision to allow 100 Israeli extremists, whose leader belonged to a banned Israeli party, to march in the Israeli Arab town of Umm El Fahem guarded by thousands of heavily armed Israeli security forces.

This is a scary echo of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s insistence on walking through Al Aqsa mosque, the spark that lit the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000 and set the stage for the brutal crushing of the Palestinian Authority in 2002. It is especially alarming given the loud calls for the transfer of the Israeli Arab population or denial of citizenship, most vociferously by Israel’s new foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

A major theme was the need to reconstitute the Palestinian body politic. Political scientist Karma Nabulsi outlined existing efforts and strategies as she reviewed how the “discourse about solutions has derailed and disenfranchised the Palestinian popular collective and excludes the people as the source of legitimacy and sovereignty.”

Several participants noted the need to move from discussion of the concept of one state to concrete strategies on how to get there to address not just agnosticism but outright opposition among many Palestinians, Israelis and the rest of the world. As law professor George Bisharat put it, one-staters need to address the “image that one state is utopian and unattainable.”

Stating that “We are still at the first question,” As’ad Ghanem offered a particularly frank critique. The Jewish state, the Islamic state and the two-state options all have more public support. The difficult questions are:

• Who are the citizens of the one-state, Israeli or Palestinian?

• What would be its relationship to the Jewish Diaspora and the Arab national movement?

• How could Palestinians and Israelis be convinced it would serve their needs?

In offering concrete strategies, Omar Barghouti’s examples included ways in which restitution of inherent rights could be achieved without harming acquired rights.

The discussion of concrete steps challenged my agnosticism. So did the passion and creativity of the debate. The best vision of the one-state solution does make the alternative debates “barren,” Ghada Karmi put it.

Think about it. Who’s defending the two-state option today? The Palestinian Authority, its case ever weaker against the decades-long clanging of Israeli bulldozers as they colonize Palestinian land and demolish homes.

And the realists in the United States, Europe, and Israel, whose core argument is that a Palestinian state is the only way to save a majority Jewish state — an argument that does not inspire.

Those who support a two-state solution must do better if they want to hang on to hearts and minds. For, make no mistake, as American politicians are fond of saying, the adherents of the one-state movement share a faith. And fear and brute force – whether exercised by Israel, America, or the Palestinian Authority – are no match for faith.

NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow at the Insitute for Palestine Studies.



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