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Terms of Coexistence

“Where is the Palestinian Mandela?” pundits occasionally ask. But after these latest Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington fail — as they inevitably will — the more pressing question may be: “Where is the Israeli de Klerk?” Will an Israeli leader emerge with the former South African president’s moral courage and foresight to dismantle a discriminatory regime and foster democracy based on equal rights?

For decades, the international community has assumed that historic Palestine must be divided between Jews and Palestinians. Yet no satisfactory division of the land has been reached. Israel has aggravated the problem by settling roughly 500,000 Jews in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, eliminating the land base for a viable Palestinian state.

A de facto one-state reality has emerged, with Israel effectively ruling virtually all of the former Palestine. Yet only Jews enjoy full rights in this functionally unitary political system. In contrast, Palestinian citizens of Israel endure more than 35 laws that explicitly privilege Jews as well as policies that deliberately marginalize them. West Bank Palestinians cannot drive on roads built for Israeli settlers, while Palestinians in Gaza watch as their children’s intellectual and physical growth are stunted by an Israeli siege that has limited educational opportunities and deepened poverty to acute levels.

Palestinian refugees have lived in exile for 62 years, their right to return to their homes denied, while Jews from anywhere can freely immigrate to Israel.

Israeli leaders Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have admitted that permanent Israeli rule over disenfranchised Palestinians would be tantamount to apartheid. Other observers, including former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have said that apartheid has already taken root in the region.

Clearly, Palestinians and Israeli Jews will continue to live together. The question is: under what terms? Palestinians will no more accept permanent subordination than would any other people.

The answer is for Israelis and Palestinians to formalize their de facto one-state reality but on principles of equal rights rather than ethnic privilege. A carefully crafted multiyear transition including mechanisms for reconciliation would be mandatory. Israel/Palestine should have a secular, bilingual government elected on the basis of one person, one vote as well as strong constitutional guarantees of equality and protection of minorities, bolstered by international guarantees. Immigration should follo nondiscriminatory criteria. Civil marriage between members of different ethnic or religious groups should be permitted. Citizens should be free to reside in any part of the country, and public symbols, education and holidays should reflect the population’s diversity.

Although the one-state option is sometimes dismissed as utopian, it overcomes major obstacles bedeviling the two-state solution. Borders need not be drawn, Jerusalem would remain undivided and Jewish settlers could stay in the West Bank. Moreover, a single state could better accommodate the return of Palestinian refugees. A state based on principles of equality and inclusion would be more morally compelling than two states based on narrow ethnic nationalism. Furthermore, it would be more consistent with antidiscrimination provisions of international law. Israelis would enjoy the international acceptance that has long eluded them and the associated benefits of friendship, commerce and travel in the Arab world.

The main obstacle to a single-state solution is the belief that Israel must be a Jewish state. Jim Crow laws and South African apartheid were similarly entrenched virtually until the eves of their demise. History suggests that no version of ethnic privilege can ultimately persist in a multiethnic society.

Israeli perspectives are already beginning to shift, most intriguingly among right-wing leaders. Former defense minister Moshe Arens recently proposed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Israel annex the West Bank and offer its esidents citizenship. Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin and Likud parliamentarian Tzipi Hotovely have also supported citizenship for West Bank Palestinians, according to Haaretz. In July, Hotovely said of the Israeli government’s policies of separation: “The result is a solution that perpetuates the conflict and turns us from occupiers into perpetrators of massacres, to put it bluntly.”

Is one of these politicians the Israeli de Klerk? That remains to be seen. Gaza is pointedly excluded from the Israeli right’s annexation debate. They still envision a Jewish state, simply one with a larger Palestinian minority. But their challenge to the two-state orthodoxy, which empirical experience has proven unrealistic, is healthy. If Americans aspire to more than managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via perpetual and inconclusive negotiations, we should applaud this emerging discussion. Having overcome our own institutionalized racial discrimination, we can model the virtues of a vibrant, multicultural society based on equal rights. President Obama, moreover, would be a fitting emissary for this vital message.

GEORGE BISHARAT is a professor at Hastings College of the Law and writes frequently about law and politics in the Middle East.

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