I am writing this piece in response to the recent article by Peter Beinart and a follow-up by Joshua Leifer who both try to drive a final stake into the heart of a “Two-State Solution.” At the risk of offending well meaning (but I think somewhat misguided) fellow activists who have tried to support the Palestinian people in their long struggle by espousing a “one-state solution,” I feel compelled to express my serious misgivings about this argument.
From 1989 to about 2006, I spent a lot of time working in the Middle East. I returned there for a year in 2010-11—the so-called Arab Spring. Along the way I got to know quite a few Palestinians who were living in exile. Through many long hours of political discussion, never once did any one of them even bring up the idea of a “one-state solution,” let alone express it as a preference.
Later, in the states as I became more engaged in this issue, I did meet some Palestinians who opted to support a one state solution. Yet whenever I pressed them, it seemed clear that is was still a second-best choice to them; they had been driven to the point where two-states simply seemed unattainable.
The views of these Palestinians inform much of my argument. Perhaps the biggest tragedy in the creation of this whole situation has been the consistent refusal of either the Israeli Zionists, or their American supporters to really listen to and include the views of the Palestinians. After all they are the ones with the most at stake. At the same time, all the solutions that Zionists and Western supporters from Britain to the US have managed to create is the tragic situation that exists today. Five generations of Palestinians currently live (or have lived) in exile, either abroad or in their own former homeland. Those who live under Israeli control suffer from occupation, unequal laws, arbitrary police action and, at times, outright assault. Many others live in neighboring countries where they are sometimes exploited and also subject to other political violence as Israeli military policy runs its usual course.
To me, the central problem here is the whole concept of “Zionism.” It is, in my view, a clear form of racism. Whether you consider Jewish identity to be a matter of ethnicity (parentage) or adherence to a set of religious principles, or both, doesn’t really change the basic fact: the project of Zionism was to create a “Jewish State” where Jews would be privileged over other members of that state.
The historical record suggests that we could go even further. Theodore Herzl’s own writing in “Der Judenstaat” (the blueprint of modern political Zionism) made the plan quite clear—the natives of Palestine were to be removed (preferably “circumspectly”). I believe this is part of a fundamental misunderstanding: when generations of Zionists insisted that they ‘wanted to live in peace with their neighbors,’ they didn’t mean the Palestinian people. They meant the people of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. To them Palestinians didn’t really exist—or were to be removed. In the famous phrase, it was a ‘land without people for a people without land.’ Ah, it brings back memories of American history books which suggested that when white people came to American it was an ‘empty continent.’ It was pure fiction.
And yet, since the first Zionists arrived in the mid-1890s, the Palestinians have constantly lost land. They have never, as far as I can tell, reclaimed any up to now. That is why I believe that the situation will only be resolved when the idea of Zionism is defeated. By that I mean made to stop and take a look around and reconsider. Unfortunately, the idea of settling for a one-state solution does nothing in that direction. As far as I can tell, this idea has gained great traction among Israeli extremists in recent years for a simple reason: it provides cover for achieving the final solution they have always aimed at—the full and total annexation of all Palestinian land. We should consider what acceding to this endgame would naturally involve.
It would involve making all the previous UN resolutions irrelevant. If Palestinians were to agree to such a thing (basically agreeing to the “legitimacy” of the theft of their country), it would be a tacit admission that previous Palestinian resistance had been illegitimate. Further, Palestine would cease to be an international problem, where intervention by the international community is permitted and even required. It would become an internal matter for the Israeli government to deal with without oversight. Reference to international law would become virtually irrelevant. We have already seen enough of Israeli policing tactics to envision what Palestinian life in such a state would be like. In effect, the one-state solution, though it is put forward with lots of idealistic talk about equal rights and human rights and a fair shake for all, is highly unlikely to produce such results. There are a number of reasons for my assertion.
The one-state example for “liberating” Palestinians is often couched in terms of a comparison with the defeat of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. That comparison is instructive in some ways, but deceptive in others. It is worth sorting our what is applicable and what isn’t.
First, the black population of South Africa vastly outnumbered the white. Second, the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment strategy was highly effective because the South African economy was then highly dependent on exporting commodities like diamonds, rare minerals, etc., and tourism- all sectors that were highly vulnerable to international boycotts. Third, Mandela’s policy of non-violence made the regime look horrible in contrast. Fourth, America wielded great influence in propping up the Apartheid regime, but fresh off the Civil Rights movement in the US, black Americans represented an important political constituency that was able to sway US politics and policy in a more enlightened direction. Fifth, Americans began seeing high budget Hollywood films describing the agony of South Africa. None of these factors exists in the case of Israel today.* Reference is often made to Ghandi’s non-violence as well. Again, circumstances in India were vastly different from those in Palestine today. Indians outnumbered the British by thousands to one. The British Raj could not function without Indian cooperation. Finally, thousands of Indian leaders were fluent in English and educated in British law and the country was simply too enormous for the British to control the media and the news.
The other points we should note about the South Africa comparison are first, that (given the above) the apartheid regime was truly defeated. It was no longer sustainable and even its adherents admitted it. The second point has to do with the fairly peaceful outcome there. This was partly due to Mandela’s leadership, but probably mostly to the long process of “Truth and Reconciliation.” The latter involved open testimony in which the former defenders of the regime confessed and admitted to their various crimes. It was only that process that allowed forgiveness and healing to take place. Forgive me, but in the talk of the one-state solution, I never see any evidence that the perpetrators of that project are willing to confess to doing anything wrong. Perhaps more to the point, the imposition of a one-state solution would simply enable them to claim final victory and maintain that their policy was right all along. In those circumstances it is unlikely that they would seriously yield any real equality or political power to the Palestinians. History can show few instances of people giving up political supremacy simply because they are asked to.
I think I know why some Palestinians look towards a one-state solution. They are just desperate and see no alternative. It gives them an (I think) false sense of hope. I think I know why some Zionists like the idea- it gives them the huge advantages I have just outlined. Of course, to get to an agreement they would promise all sorts of things, but they have made plenty of broken promises before, and gotten away with it. But I always wonder why American liberals are so taken by this idea. In the 80s and 90s, there was a significant constituency for peace among Israeli Jews. Alas, Israel has not become more liberal over time. This raises serious questions about what Palestinian life within a single state would really be like.
In the early 90s the Jewish Rabbi Meir Kahane was designated as a terrorist by the FBI. He fled this country and took up residence in Israel (where he got himself elected to the Israeli Knesset). He was expelled from that body for preaching unacceptable radicalism. It was one of his followers who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. It was another of his followers, the American doctor Baruch Goldstein, who committed the horrible massacre of Muslims in a mosque in Hebron. Today, there are parties and cabinet members in the Israeli government that espouse attitudes and policies equally, if not more radical than Meir Kahane. Yet this has never resulted in a cut-off of US aid or support. It is in that context, that we need to think about the reality that a one-state solution, especially if announced unilaterally by Israel, would really amount to.
I can only draw one conclusion. It would be like condemning the long-suffering Palestinian people to the equivalent of Apartheid South Africa in the 1950s. As I noted earlier, they would lack any of the tools need to change their condition. So, it seems to me that supposedly liberal Jews and liberal Americans who support the one state solution are really making a huge commitment that they are in no way able to live up to. In essence, what they are saying is, “trust us to set you free.” But honestly, what is their track record? The record is that while a lot of people talked nice, the Israelis were allowed to create what is called “facts on the ground.” They are facts only in the sense that they are clear evidence of Israeli dishonesty. Yet the whole approach of the one-state solution is to simply avoid this issue and say it is too difficult to correct.
If western liberals were never able to enforce solemn UN resolutions, stop illegal settlements and occupation and force Israel to negotiate seriously, they are unlikely to be able to intervene in Israel’s internal matters to the extent of guaranteeing equal justice for the Palestinians in a unitary state. For God’s sake, we see every day how even in the shadow of the emancipation and the civil rights movement and 100 years of trying we have not managed to treat out own black and other minority populations fairly.
The idea of a one state solution appears to me to be just an easy win for Zionist aggression. I remember watching a segment of 60 Minutes in about 2006. It was about how Israeli settlements continued to make a real second state more difficult to achieve. A loud mayor of a settlement was being interviewed. He basically said “Oh, it’s much too late! Sorry. What’s done is done. That egg can’t be unscrambled.” I thought to myself at the time “Oh right, the Zionist project was about unscrambling an egg that was over 2,000 years old. You could do that, but now we can’t reverse the last ten years and a few thousands of settlers.” What a funny business! What funny logic these Zionists use. At that point I remembered a simple fact. It was only about six weeks after the first ethnic cleansing by Zionists in Palestine in 1947 when they announced that the some 600,000 indigenous people who had recently fled the violence would not be accepted back. Israeli official statements claimed it would be too difficult to “re-assimilate them.”
These observations inform my assessment of a one-state solution. I have read a lot of ideas, from Jeff Halper’s advocacy of a “Consociational Democracy” to many others. (For the record, this a term used for political accommodations made in places like Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands. It has only worked in when the parties involved are roughly at parity in terms of political power, have shared objectives, and don’t have a serious history of grievances against each other. None of that applies to Israel.) In essence all these proposals seem to boil down to a single set of requirements—namely, no burden must ever be imposed on the Israeli side—all the flexibility and responsibility, concessions and tolerance must come from the Palestinian side. The Palestinians must do this or that (create a unified leadership while Israel conspires to stop it) or create a vast consensus among Arab states (while Israel tries to short circuit it) or create leaders of a “non-violent movement” (while Israel acts to neutralize such leadership and discredit it). Palestinians united are too dangerous to negotiate with: Palestinians divided are not worth negotiating with. And so it goes. It is all a matter of blaming the victims and, in spite of their lack of leverage, placing the onus on the victims to make the crime right.
So, what is a solution? To me, it should begin with a Palestinian state. After all, Israel mentions the 1947 UN Partition resolution as part of the legal justification for its existence in its own declaration of independence. It has never lived up to that promise. Proponents of the one state solution talk much about the “swiss-cheese” that the West Bank has become and how it has made a viable Palestinian state impossible. Well, recognize first that that was the Israeli plan from the start. Why reward it?! Since all those settlements are illegal, why not force Israel to remove them? Beinart claims there are about 640,000 illegal settlers on Palestinian land. How can they be removed?
To start with, you can probably cut that number in half. Many live in areas that Palestinians already agreed to swap. Next, you could start with the smallest out-posts and move on to the most recent settlers. These have scarcely had time to put down serious roots. Then offer incentives for earlier settlers to move back to within the pre-1967 (or even 47) lines. They are not all die-hard Zionists: many were just new immigrants who took a free apartment where they could get it. This is doable, if you go about it in a disciplined way, but no one ever bothers to even talk about what might be involved. Certainly, the US withdrawal of aid, or the funneling of all US aid to Israel into a fund that would only be allowed to finance resettlement within Israel’s current borders could be powerful incentives. You might say that is unlikely. I would counter that expecting Palestinians to be treated fairly in a unitary state without the prior defeat of Zionism would be even more unlikely.
In 1998-99 I lived in Qatar, a tiny state with a Qatari population of about 150,000 Qatari citizens. The other 600,000 inhabitants were guest workers. Qatar is lucky enough to be perched on top of a massive bubble of natural gas—rumor has it, it is enough gas to power India for a couple of centuries. Qatar is otherwise a large sand dune with a harbor, yet it has made itself a vibrant and relevant country. Singapore is a tiny island, but it does quite well also. Palestine has some serious agricultural potential. It also has a large, highly educated population. Even as a “Swiss cheese”, they could become a viable state. Perhaps the most important point is that they could simply provide papers for their citizens in exile. It may come as a surprise to many, but the mere fact that Palestinians need to rely on states like Egypt, Jordan, and Syria to provide their passports places serious burdens on the Palestinians. Simply having a state of their own to issue credentials would notably improve the lives of the millions of Palestinian refugees who live outside their former homeland.
Peter Beinart writes about the one state solution:
“But it’s not fanciful. The goal of equality is now more realistic than the goal of separation. The reason is that changing the status quo requires a vision powerful enough to create a mass movement.”
Well there was a mass movement in Palestine, the overwhelmingly non-violent “great march of return.” As non-violent protesters approached the border, they were gunned down by Israeli army snipers. Well over a thousand Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces, but it was ignored by most of the world. There was no corresponding mass movement in Israel…The snipers enforce the status quo. And Mr. Beinart is arguing that Palestinians would be safe under such brutal policing methods?
Beinart again writes:
“A fragmented Palestinian state under Israeli control does not offer that vision. Equality can.”
Yes, real equality could, but Israel could have offered it long ago. In fact, they could end the occupation, and honor other outstanding commitments right now without any reference to further negotiations. What is different now? Are Palestinian-Israelis treated equally in Israel today? Not really. Beinart himself doesn’t really renounce the idea that Israel will be primarily Jewish. Of course, a real Palestinian state would have to be free of Israeli control—why does he specify that it would be?
Well, I don’t really know what young Americans have to do with the choices that Palestinians should make about their own state and future. Apparently, even in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic they are not smart or caring enough to wear masks. I imagine Beinart’s objective here is just to argue that he has public support somewhere. As to young Palestinians, where does Mr. Beinart get this data? Is he talking about Palestinian Americans?
Beinart concludes by saying:
“That’s what my grandfather and father loved — not a Jewish state but a Jewish society, a Jewish home. Israel-Palestine can be a Jewish home that is also, equally, a Palestinian home. And building that home can bring liberation not just for Palestinians but for us, too.”
Beinart completely misses the fact that the land in question used to be a Palestinian home. That was lost only because of the Zionist project. What would really change if that project remains intact? He also doesn’t clarify the real difference between the words “state,” “society,” and “home.” In practice, wouldn’t it just amount to a “Jewish state.” So, putting the slippery title of his article aside, Beinart really is angling for a “Jewish state.” Just under a different guise. Why not try this experiment on Palestinian terms? After fair warning and encouragement to resettle in Israel, the illegal settlers would just be left behind when the Israeli army withdrew. They would then be free (like the Palestinians) to make their home as equals in a Palestinian state, home, and society. I would think they should give up their right to vote in Israel as well. I should stipulate here that a Palestinian state is only viable if it has control over its own borders. Also, that everything possible be done to reduce the “Swiss cheese” effect that is such a large part of Israel’s control.
Maybe the problem with that solution is simply that it wouldn’t make Peter’s dad and grand-dad happy. So much for Israeli intentions to change the status quo.
My greatest fear is that Zionists will now leap on the idea of a one-state solution as an excuse to simply annex what remains of Palestinian land. They have rather obviously been testing those waters. Then they will use their rather incredible propaganda machine to say, “problem solved—justice for all.” But meanwhile they will think of excuses to delay really granting anything like equality to the Palestinians. After all, that’s what the British did during their Mandate. There will be interim steps and a “cautious approach,” an endless “process” in which Palestinians will be asked to “prove themselves” in all kinds of degrading ways—and who will always be found lacking because they are not Jewish.
While I distrust Beinart as an authority on this, he does suggest an interesting point. I have always been keenly aware that a sea change in American attitudes are the key to any real progress on this issue. Israel is in the position it is today largely because of US support. The possible withdrawal of that support is the greatest point of leverage for changing Israeli behavior that exists.
With that in mind it is interesting to see the current state of polling in the presidential race.
Trump’s aberrant regime has certainly been a godsend to extremist elements in Israel. A Biden victory, especially if it is big, could be the one thing that might change that dynamic. Though Biden himself has never been stellar on this issue, the strong support for Biden in the more progressive elements of the Democratic Party might create space for them to get a full hearing. My bottom line is simple. Until there is a consensus in the Palestinian leadership to opt for a one-state solution, I will try to support them in their current strategy. That is, appeals to international law, a call for an end to occupation, calls to tear down the wall, and the creation of an ever stronger BDS movement. Need I point out that shifting advocacy from a two-state, to a one-state solution would make all of these tactics largely irrelevant. Perhaps that is exactly why a one-state solution has increasingly gained adherents among Israeli extremists. What is needed at this point is solidarity with the people of Palestine. In the last 15 years I have never seen anything that has divided pro-Palestinian activists more deeply than this argument about one-state. I sometimes wonder if (at least in some quarters) that was really the point all along…
A recent article by Joshua Leifer in the Guardian, entitled “The Two-State Solution is a Political Fiction Liberal Zionists still Cling to,” built on Beinart’s argument. Let’s be clear: the two-state solution is a fiction in the way that racial equality in the US has proved to be a “fiction.” They are not fictions because they are bad ideas, but because we have never confronted what it would take to make either of them real or done the needed hard work to bring them both to life. Doing that work to make these “fictions” real should be our main focus. A convenient switch to a totally new fiction is just another cop-out.
* Israel is at virtual parity with Palestine in terms of population, has a diversified economy, the largely non-violent nature of Palestinian resistance is ignored, America uses its influence mostly for Israel and there is no Palestinian political constituency to speak of in the US and, (so far) nobody In Hollywood wants to get in trouble for a movie challenging the Zionist myth.
By Gilbert Schramm