By Jeff Halper, Founder ICAHD
It’s happening, but slowly. Surveying the special issue of the Palestine/Israel Journal devoted to the threat that the hallowed “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict” may be in jeopardy – or, as the issue’s title has it, “at a dangerous crossroads” – one gets the feeling of half-hearted, almost desperate assertions that the two-state solution is the only “plausible” one. “It is conceivable that the two-state solution is effectively dead — or at best in intensive care,” writes one contributor. The two-state solution may be “rescued,” writes another, if Israel withdraws unilaterally from the northwest portion of the West Bank or, suggests another, if governments reaffirm their adherence to international law. But the fact that the special issue of this liberal Zionist journal was put together in an obvious state of anxiety, its authors grasping at straws, speaks most eloquently of the slow but inexorable shift in political analysis taking place. Indeed, it could not avoid including several writers – Ha’aretz’s Gideon Levi and the Gazan professor Husan Dajni among them – who call outright for a one-state alternative to the defunct two-state solution.
In his piece, Tony Klug notes that “Sandwiched between the mantras of ‘There is no alternative to the two-state solution’ and ‘The two-state solution is dead,’ the contemporary debate over how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been reduced to little more than a shouting match between two absolutist camps, both certain that they are correct.” As someone who has been shouting that the two-state solution is dead and we must move on for more than a decade, I would submit that the debate and discussion should only intensify. Each “solution” involves fundamentally different visions, plans and aspirations for the futures of our peoples, and whether we will succeed in getting to a better future depends upon what direction is chosen.
The main argument for the two-state solution is that it is fair(ish) (both peoples obtain national self-determination, albeit Jews on 78+% of the country, the Palestinians on 22-%), conforms to international law and has been accepted internationally as the preferred solution – all true, in an “ish”-es kind of way. Many members of the critical Israeli peace camp who have gradually shifted from the two-state to one-state proposition, like me, did not do so because the latter option was better, but because we came to understand that it is simply not in the cards. If we were having this discussion in 1970, when the occupation was still in its infancy and our view of Israel as a progressive, “socialist” country was still innocent, it would be understandable. But this is 2019, more than half a century after the occupation began, more than a quarter of a century after the abortive Oslo “peace process.” We understand things we did understand then. We understand that Israel never intended for a viable Palestinian state to ever emerge (the settlement project doubled in size during Oslo, where Labor ruled for five-a-half of its seven-year life); we understand that human rights and international law have no traction in international relations; and we understand that “the two-state solution,” which no government in the world really believes is a plausible outcome, has become merely a convenient mechanism for conflict management as Israel takes over the entire country in incremental steps.
As Gideon Levy puts it in his piece in this special issue of P/IJ,
The alternative to the two-state solution is, naturally, a one-state solution. This state has already existed for 52 years, since the 1967 war. The time has come to recognize that as well. The occupation is here to stay, as are the settlements. And the Green Line has been erased a long time ago, whether we like it or not. We are no longer talking about a temporary situation, and it is doubtful if it ever was or was ever intended to be. Whoever speaks of the occupation as a passing phenomenon does not know the reality and facts on the ground. Go out to the West Bank, see the Jewish settlements on every hill, and then say if that is what a temporary reality looks like. Pay attention to the traffic on the roads, the construction, the infrastructure of bypass roads that have been specially constructed to make the occupation permanent and to enable the settlements to thrive undisturbed. Look at the Separation Wall and the reality that it has created, and understand what is left of the Green Line. Those were not 52 years of occupation. Those were the first 52 years.
That’s what one state looks like, not the infrastructure for two states. That’s what one state looks like with two regimes… The one state has been here for quite a while. The fate of all the human beings living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is determined in the government buildings in Jerusalem and the security buildings in Tel Aviv. That’s what one state with one government looks like, period. The only struggle that remains to be carried out now is the struggle over the nature of the regime in this one state… This is the time to prepare for the next struggle: the struggle for equal rights for all, period.
Settler Colonialism, Not a “Conflict”
But we are beginning to understand an underlying reality far more consequential: that Zionism is a settler colonial movement whose overall and undeviating purpose is the “redemption” of the Land of Israel – all of it, the judaization of Palestine, the transformation of an Arab country into a Jewish one. The two-state idea is based on fundamental misunderstanding of the “conflict.” In his article in the special issue entitled “The Two State Solution Remains the Only Pathway,” Ambassador Jake Walles sets out this misconception. “Fundamentally,” he writes,
the conflict is about two groups each claiming the same land as their homeland. Each side is attached to this place for national and religious reasons, and each side makes valid historical claims to support its case…. Resolving the conflict requires reconciling the national aspirations of both sides for their own national homeland. Israel represents the achievement of this objective for the Jewish people, and its legitimacy needs to be recognized as part of a resolution of the conflict. Likewise, the national aspirations of the Palestinian people can only be addressed through the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Looking at Zionism as a settler colonial movement – which needs not take away from it its character as a national movement, but merely clarifies the strategy used by nationalist Jews to take over the country – fundamentally challenges that “both peoples” symmetry by which “the conflict” is usually portrayed, and on which the two-state idea rests. From the Zionist point of view, there is no “other side.” All settler colonial movements invent a story of why the land belongs to them and not to the indigenous people, why they are entitled to claim and possess the coveted country. Zionism never recognized the very existence of a Palestinian people, not to mention its national rights – and does not until this day. Settler colonialism is unilateral. The country belongs to us exclusively, there are no other legitimate claimants, and we have nothing to negotiate about, except the terms of the natives’ submission. And because there are no “sides,” there is no “conflict.” Zionism has never recognized an Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, only “terrorism” (that quintessential colonial term that criminalizes all resistance) that stands in the way of us redeeming our homeland. Now we understand why Israel has never accepted the term “occupation” (how can you “occupy” your own country?), and why it will never accept the two-state solution.
There is one other political “fact on the ground” that two-state supporters don’t see, or don’t want to see: there already exists a single state system between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. One cannot get into the entire country from any direction without going through Israeli border controls. The entire country is ruled by one political authority (with due respects to the collaborationist Palestinian Authority and Hamas in its besieged hell-hole), enforced by one effective military. There is only one infrastructure (electricity, water, highways, etc.), and one official currency. More than a million Israeli Jews now live on the land that would have been a Palestinian state. By any measure one state already exists – and it is an apartheid state. Israeli Jews (and to a much lesser extent Palestinian citizens of Israel) live under one legal regime, non-Jewish non-citizens live under a completely different military/legal regime. Different national, religious and ethnic groups living under separate legal systems within a common polity, that’s apartheid.
Now for all of this, good people still support the two-state system. Indeed, the gist of this issue of the P/A Journal is that, in the words of career officer Shaul Arieli, “There Is No Other Solution.” I suspect that the underlying reason for this is a commitment to Israel as a “Jewish state,” for which its supporters are prepared to endure indefinite conflict management while still “speaking out” at the most outrageous Israeli violations of human rights. But to be fair, until recently Palestinians and their critical Israeli allies did not articulate a detailed and thought-out alternative to the two-state solution, a truly just, workable and “plausible” one-state alternative. Nonetheless that alternative is gaining momentum, less because of its own intrinsic justice and more because, “support” it as you will, for most people in Palestine/Israel and critical analysts and activists abroad, the two-state solution is clearly dead.
Over the past couple years, the One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC), led initially by Palestinian citizens of Israel and their Israeli Jewish partners, has formulated such a detailed program. It recognizes that since the problem is not merely Israel’s occupation of 22% of historic Palestine or a “conflict” between two sides, but one of settler colonialism, the only just, comprehensive and effective resolution is the decolonization of the entire country. Its 10-point program can be summarized by seven fundamental elements:
(1) Replacing the current Israeli structure of separating people into distinct ethnic, religious and national groupings of different rights with a constitutional democracy based on common citizenship for all and equal civil rights;
(2) Acknowledging the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return home, and taking concrete steps to reintegrate them into society;
(3) Offering constitutional guarantees protecting the rights of the country’s national, ethnic, religious communities and others to their collective identities, associations, cultures and institutions;
(4) Enabling and fostering the emergence of a new shared civil society;
(5) Genuinely liberating Palestinians and Israelis through a process of political but also ideological decolonization, including a new, inclusive national narrative. If Israeli Jews acknowledge the national rights of the Palestinian people and past colonial crimes while establishing an egalitarian democracy, Palestinians will accept them as legitimate citizens and neighbors, thereby signaling the end of Zionist settler colonialism and entering into a new postcolonial relationship of accommodation, normalization and reconciliation.
(6) Putting into place an inclusive post-neoliberal economy offering economic security, sustainability, meaningful employment and just compensation; and
(7) Acknowledging a connectedness to the wider Middle Eastern and global communities that requires engagement in creating new regional and global structures of equality and sustainability upon which the success of local decolonization ultimately depends.
Is this a “plausible” solution? Let’s see how the ODSC Plan stands up to the reasons Klug gives, in his piece in the P/I Journal, for why a single state is impossible:
The one-state vision rests on the simplistic notion that complex Middle Eastern societies can be atomized down to the level of the individual and that a historical clash of two national movements can be reduced to a one-dimensional struggle for civil rights. It discounts the rudimentary need for both peoples to come to terms with the national imperative of the other. Indeed, it is predicated on there being no such national imperative. This denial, whether doctrinaire or merely uninformed, is its most serious defect.
Our ODSC Plan takes into account not only the national identities of Palestinians and Israelis but also other significant collective identities, be they ethnic (Bedouin, Mizrahi, Samaritan), religious (the many branches and denominations of Islam, Jewry and Christianity and other faiths, such as Bahai), gender, class or communities-of-interest. Article 4 of our Program reads: “Within the framework of a single democratic state, the Constitution will also protect collective rights and the freedom of association, whether national, ethnic, religious, class or gender. Constitutional guarantees will ensure that all languages, arts and culture can flourish and develop freely. No group or collectivity will have any privileges, nor will any group, party or collectivity have the ability to leverage any control or domination over others. Parliament will not have the authority to enact any laws that discriminate against any community under the Constitution.”
We recognize that in both the Middle East, home to Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews, and in Eastern Europe, where most of the Zionists originated, society was composed of collective groups, primarily religious, but often with strong ethnic or national characteristics, and not mere individuals. To pretend that the new state will be comprised only of individual voters while ignoring collective identities that in fact are more meaningful to the populace would merely force collective interests and agendas underground rather than dealing with their concerns openly. We fully expect that Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews alike will hang onto those identities, their collective narratives and their communal institutions, rituals and memories even within the new democratic society, certainly in the first generations.
Take Palestinian refugees as an example. After more than 70 years, many of them and their descendants’ families want to come home to Palestine, as Palestinians. Those living in the camps have no concept of or experience with a civil society comprised of equal individuals, and certainly will have difficulties finding common cause with Israeli Jews. They will need the collective space to come home, reorient themselves, work on overcoming the traumas of exile and acquire the skills needed for a modern economy and inclusive polity. These are processes that will take generations; refugees cannot simply be pushed into a civil society not entirely their own.
By the same token, many Israeli Jews, perhaps the large majority, will also be resistant to immediately entering into a democratic, citizen-based civil society, particularly the settler population and the ultra-orthodox. (How Mizrahim will fit in, whether they will fulfil that potential of being a “bridge” between the dominant Ashkenazi population and the Palestinians that was always hoped for, remains to be seen.)
The ODSC Plan thus offers a middle ground. While allowing for and protecting such collective spaces as religious schools, institutions and holidays, museums, vehicles of language such as newspapers and literature, and even celebrating the multicultural character of the society through encouraging ethnic foods, music, theater and participating in holidays and customs of different cultural groups, the thrust of public policy will be towards encouraging a common, if pluralistic, civil society based on equal individual rights.
The proponents of this vision are emulating an old western tradition that has historically imposed its own values and systems on other peoples from the outside. The instinct to do this… betrays an underlying neo-colonial mindset of “we know best” that has caused mayhem around the world for generations. That there are very few, if any, examples of this Western-style democratic-secular model in the region should at least give its ardent proponents pause for thought.
This is a strange claim precisely because it ignores the legacy of Western colonialism. Who says that democracy is a “Western” system that is rejected by the peoples of the Middle East? Who says that the autocratic regimes ruling Muslim countries today are “natural” to their peoples? The despotic regimes of the region are the product of colonialism, enforced until this day by the so-called “democratic” Western governments. Islam provided for women’s rights long before Christianity or Judaism did, and a vibrant feminist movement existed from Egypt, across North Africa to Afghanistan already in the 1920s. The Intifadas, the Arab Spring, the revolt against Asad in Syria begun by progressive forces, the highly secularized and progressive societies that characterized Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon in the first half of the 20h Century – all these indicate that the peoples of the region had “Western” concepts of society and government, many of which were undermined or outright opposed by Western colonial governments, or overthrown, as the CIA did with the Mohammad Mosaddegh government in Iran in 1953, replacing him with the despotic Shah.
On the contrary, we in the West (and particularly in “democratic” Israel where we displaced yet another Middle Eastern people and have kept them living under occupation this past half-century) owe it to the peoples of the region to support their aspirations for democracy. Ironically, resistance to a democratic state in Palestine/Israel comes from the “democratic, secular, Western” Jews of Israel, not from the Palestinians.
The inevitable Israeli-Palestinian coalition government in a unitary state, where the fragile population balance would be politically critical, would be highly unlikely to reach an agreement on a full-scale Palestinian right of return, a central plank of the one-state argument.
This claim is based on a fundamental misunderstanding: that there would be a Lebanon-like “coalition” of parties based on ethnic, national and religious grounds. That is not our vision. Britain, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, India and many, many other multi-national countries have successful democracies in which people do not necessarily vote according to their collective identities. In Israel itself, some 20,000 Jews vote for “Arab” parties (which also have Jewish representation), while half of the Palestinian citizens of Israel vote for Zionist parties, from Meretz and Labor to Shas and even the Likud. In a democracy, many other factors feed into the equation besides nationality, ethnicity, race or religion – class and gender play key roles, and well as support or opposition to government policies and specific issues. “Right” and “left,” “progressive” and “conservative,” “religious” and “secular,” “rural” and “urban,” “young” and “old” – these and a thousand more variables cut across partisan population lines in the conduct of the everyday business of living together. As a new civil society emerges based on political, economic and social inclusion, there is no reason why a diverse electorate will not dilute, if not replace entirely, the ethno-national and religious divisions upon which Israel (far more than Palestine) is founded.
The right of Palestinian refugees to return home as part of our in-gathering of citizens (refugees do not lose their civil status just because they flee a war or repression, or are driven out, nor do their descendants) is an absolute in any resolution of “the conflict.” It is also a right over which Israelis have no veto power. While their reintegration into society will be prolonged and difficult, there is no reason to fear their return, or even to fear the Palestinian majority population. Indeed, with good will and good faith, the fundamental reconstruction of Palestinian/Israeli society that must take place may be transformed from a dire threat into a positive challenge.
A one-state set-up would be unlikely to be the end of the matter. The Scots, the Catalans, the Basques and others live in democratic secular states with full equal rights. This hasn’t stopped many of them from agitating for self-determination and separate statehood. Czechoslovakia was one united democratic secular state until a disgruntled Slovakia seceded in 1993.
Perhaps the creation of a single democratic state will not be the “end of the matter.” Perhaps, like Czechoslovakia, a two-state solution will emerge from the one state, the opposite of what has been predicted. Perhaps a looser form of confederation will emerge as relations normalize with the other states in the region; perhaps an Arab or Muslim EU will come to be – or any of many possibilities. So what? As long as these developments occur in a spirit of equal rights and good neighborly relations, why not even assume that current realities can and will change. I don’t see a problem here.
Calling for one state plays right into the hands of the Israeli hard right by severely undermining the worldwide campaign to terminate the occupation through a physical Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and affording legitimacy to the settlement and annexation enterprises.
Once again, this argument of pitting an end of occupation against an end to settler colonialism is mere reductionism. Merely ending the occupation does not resolve the wider issue of the Zionist colonization of Palestine, nor issues of power relations if and when a tiny and truncated Palestinian state emerges (nor the refugee issue). Tackling and resolving the overall issue of decolonizing the entire country “ends” the occupation on the way to establishing an equal and just relationship between the two peoples. In this way, the entire gamut of inequalities is addressed, with decolonization offering another benefit crucial to Israel: normalization. Only the indigenous can declare the end of settler colonialism and the arrival of a situation in which, in a common civil society, the indigenous can finally “indigenize” the colonial population. Merely ending the occupation does not achieve this, and yet this represents the only genuine “solution” to the “conflict.”
Over the past 60 years there have been several attempts in the region to merge separate entities, the best known of which was the United Arab Republic (UAR) of Egypt and Syria, which lasted, mostly on paper, from 1958 through 1961, when Syria withdrew. If such attempts failed miserably among peoples who regarded themselves as having many traits in common, why would we anticipate a more positive outcome between two peoples who don’t share such traits and have been bitter foes for over a century?
Again, Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews are “foes” only if their struggle is conceived as a “conflict” between two “sides.” There are many reasons why the UAR didn’t work, partly because Egypt and Syria it were not a single country or population. That is very different from Palestine/Israel, where the two peoples (refugees and emigrants living outside the country aside) share a common polity – albeit one of colonization, occupation, repression and apartheid. Many ties – linguistic, economic, cultural, political – connect these two peoples, despite their fundamental inequality, all of which will come into play as conditions for an inclusive new civil society emerge, in the younger generation as well. We need museums and memorial ceremonies because, once a conflict is resolved, the young people quickly move on.
Calls for one state are often predicated on the premise that the two-state solution has failed. But it hasn’t even been tried. The problem is the chronic failure of world powers to apply judicious pressure through a combination of rewards and penalties. A different end is not going to change this. More discerning and focused campaigning might More discerning and focused campaigning might. Starting all over again — with a more contentious goal — would be likely to set back the struggle for an equitable end of conflict immeasurably if not indefinitely.
No doubt concentrated and forceful support for the two-state solution by governments could easily have succeeded – any time in the past seven decades and, indeed, until today. In fact, international law and human rights conventions put additional wind into those sails. It must be clear as well: both the Palestinians and the Israeli peace camp supported the two-state solution. Our argument that it is dead and we must move on does not arise from a rejection of this approach, but from the fact that it did not happen, and clearly will not happen. Realpolitik is too strong, as I describe in detail in my book War Against the People. Few politicians, few political parties and no country or combination of countries will apply the pressure or expend the political capital needed to force Israel out of the OPT, where more than one million settlers now live.
We have to bite that bullet. Simply asserting that the two-state solution is still alive, as does Klug, most of the contributors to this issue of P/IJ, J Street and all the rest – despite the fact that the US and Israeli governments both now reject it and the “facts on the ground” are far too massive to achieve it – does not help. Simply asserting in a vague way, as Klug does, that “more discerning and focused campaigning” might somehow do the trick falls far short of offering an actual political path to such an outcome. His answers to the question he raises: So what may be done?” is unconvincing: “Ideally,” he writes, “Israel would take stock itself and sharply change course by declaring its intention to end the occupation promptly, accept the general principles of the Arab Peace Initiative and enter into authentic negotiations with all parties with the express purpose of ending the conflict once and for all. Failing this, the international community could call on Israel either to recognize a Palestinian state imminently or, pending the resolution of the conflict, grant equal rights to everyone subject to its rule.” This is not a solution or a strategy.
Towards a Strategy
Three realities underlie the ODSC strategy: 1. the two-state solution is dead and gone; 2. neither the Israeli Jewish public nor the governments of the world will cooperate in fundamentally changing the present status quo; and 3. the Palestinian cause has achieved the proportions of the anti-apartheid struggle worldwide, but effective mobilization of the global public requires an end-game. And so the ODSC takes a leaf out of the ANC playbook in terms of mobilizing three main target populations: the Palestinians, Israeli Jews and the international community, civil society and governments alike.
The struggle for decolonization must be led, of course, by the Palestinians. It is their struggle, and no other party can define for them what decolonization entails, what will replace it or represent their collective voice. On the surface it appears that the Palestinians have little power or leverage: after a century and a quarter of relentless settler expansion, 60% of the Palestinians live in exile outside their country, Israel is poised to annex most of the West Bank, Israel succeeded in breaking armed Palestinian resistance in 2002 (with the localized exception of Gaza), and Israel enjoys the support of the vast majority of the world’s governments, including many Arab and Muslim ones. But Israel’s suppression of Palestinian resistance is not complete by any means. There exist many spaces of agency and resistance within a structure of settler colonialism, both in Palestine/Israel and certainly internationally. How to exploit those spaces and generate effective global resistance is the task of a political strategy. Decolonization involves shaking the convictions of settlers, laying out a compelling shared future, fundamentally altering power relations, producing new identities, new narratives, new systems of signification and a new polity and civil society.
A major political ally in this struggle is the international civil society and, if effectively pressured, governments. Although the struggle for freedom in Palestine has reached the proportions worldwide of the anti-apartheid campaign, neither the Palestinian Authority nor Palestinian grassroots leadership nor Palestine’s Israeli and international allies have mounted effective political campaigns. True, there have been campaigns and acts of resistance that over the years have shifted public opinion in favor of the Palestinians – the global but politically limited BDS campaign being the most visible, as well as Intifadas, the Gazan March of Return, the educational work of human rights organizations, interventions on the part of activists groups, but such actions remains limited by the lack of a political end-game, without which we cannot focus address the most basic question of our supporters and opponents alike: What do you want? (One answer often given, a “rights-based approach,” is vague and falls far short of an end-game and plan of decolonization.) Once our campaigning is focused around a just, acceptable and workable end-game – which the ODSC suggests is decolonization leading to a single democracy and a new, inclusive civil society – then there is no reason why we cannot overcome all the political obstacles.
All this despite the fact that, as in South Africa, where the whites were not – and were not expected to be – active agents in the struggle to dismantle apartheid, in Israel the Jewish public must also be largely written off as a partner. When settler entitlement becomes normalized and the indigenous become irrelevant and criminalized, there is little chance that advocacy for decolonization will have any traction whatsoever. This does not mean that certain (small) segments of the Israeli population cannot be recruited, and, indeed, they can play a key role by lending credibility to the struggle. Their involvement also demonstrates the possibility of co-existence within a shared, egalitarian future society. This is important because, in yet another caution as to the perils of the one-state idea, Menachem Klein in this issue of P/IJ points to the likelihood of a civil war between Israeli Jews, “unless we address the question of how to reduce the potential damage in such an eventuality.” I suggest that shared resistance leads to shared life in a postcolonial society, not least because it offers an opportunity for members of the settler society to acquire the legitimacy and indigeneity they so desperately seek, but that cannot be obtained through force and repression. It is the only way Jews will ever “return home” to Israel and the Middle East, the essence of the Zionist vision.
To help pave the way and avoid conflicts, the ODSC Program envisions a transformation from a colonial apartheid regime to a state of equal rights for all its citizens. Although Israeli Jews will not be partners in decolonizing Palestine, the inclusive nature of our program will permit them, once their settler system has been rendered unsustainable, to move ahead to embrace a fundamentally different reality. Only the inclusiveness of the Freedom Charter and the new Constitution allowed the transition in South Africa to happen peacefully. This could happen in Palestine/Israel as well.
Supplied with a political end-game that anticipates and addresses the many fears and objections raised by those who cannot see beyond the current state of affairs or who refuse to see beyond the now-defunct two-state solution, we can move ahead to focus our energies on the true task before us: achieving political mobilization towards the actual end of decolonization and the creation of a new, inclusive democratic society, truly a light unto the nations.
(Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a member of the One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC). He can be reached at <jeff@icahd,org>.)