The Troubled History of the Two-State Solution

by Ben White

9 September 2018

Since 30 March, when ‘Great March of Return’ protests began in the occupied Gaza Strip, the Israeli army’s brutal crackdown on Palestinian demonstrators has prompted condemnation worldwide. On 14 May, Israeli snipers positioned across the other side of a fortified fence killed 60 Palestinians and injured many more – some 1,300 were hit with live fire.

The bloodshed of 14 May occurred the day before Nakba Day, marked annually by Palestinians to remember the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities in 1948, and protest Israel’s continued rejection of the refugees’ right of return. Many of the Palestinians expelled first by paramilitaries and then Israeli state forces ended up in the Gaza Strip, where today, the majority of the population are from villages inside modern day Israel.

The Gaza Strip is sometimes treated in isolation, but in fact, along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it is part of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) – and prior to 1948, was part of Mandate Palestine. Under Israeli military rule since 1967, it has also been subjected to a devasting blockade for over a decade – during which time, the Gaza Strip has been subjected to three large-scale Israeli military assaults.

On the ground today in Israel and the oPt, the status quo is that of a de facto, single state: the Israeli authorities control all of the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and afford or deny rights to the land’s inhabitants on a racially discriminatory basis.

The political landscape, meanwhile, offers no prospect of a breakthrough anytime soon. Neither the current Israeli government nor any that might conceivably be formed are willing to accept Palestinian sovereignty or self-determination. This rejectionism is an underappreciated, critical factor in the dim prospects for a two-state solution – a framework to which many remain dedicated.

But how, and why, did the two-state solution achieve such a dominant position? One key factor was the decisions taken by the Palestine Liberation Organisation to seek statehood in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, a step which was seen by those supportive of it as compatible with the wider struggle for Palestinian self-determination and refugees’ rights.

Subsequent critical decisions were taken in the context of the Madrid and Oslo peace talks in the early 1990s, culminating in the Oslo Accords and establishment of the Palestinian Authority. For those Palestinian leaders who signed on the dotted line, establishing pre-state infrastructure under the auspices of a ‘transitional’ autonomous authority was seen as a route to statehood.

This approach was buttressed by two assumptions: first, that the United States would apply sufficient pressure on Israel so as to move the transitional stage through to full statehood, and second, that the Israeli ‘peace camp’ was both willing and sufficient politically empowered to realise a sovereign Palestinian state in the oPt. These assumptions have been proven incorrect.

Other factors have also played important roles – such as the way in which international bodies like the United Nations (UN) have considered the territories conquered by Israel in 1967 as under military occupation. Since 2012, moreover, the oPt has been recognised as the territory of the State of Palestine, in the latter’s capacity as a non-member observer state at the UN.

More generally, political and intellectual support for a ‘two-state solution’ can be traced back to proposals made by the British government and the UN’s 1947 Partition Plan, which saw the question of Palestine as a problem of two, equally valid, nationalisms arguing over the same territory – on which basis, partitioning the land seemed like a necessary compromise solution. In fact, the history of the Zionist movement in Palestine, and its establishment of the State of Israel, is better understood as settler colonialism.

Efforts at dividing Palestine, in an attempt to resolve aspirations for a ‘Jewish state’ at the expense of, and in the face of opposition from, Palestine’s majority non-Jewish population, have been an abject failure, characterised by violence and social segregation. The way in which Palestine has been ‘divided’ has created not two competing states, but an Israeli state with near total authority over who gets access to power, land, and other resources.

In response to this, simple ‘tu quoque’ responses about supposedly competing nationalisms are insufficient – what is needed is material action to resolve material injustice. Partition and privilege must be rejected; decolonisation and transformation must be embraced. The de facto apartheid single state can thus become a single democratic one, where Palestinians and Jewish Israelis are citizens of the same state, and can decide their political future democratically together. Self-determination need not be a zero sum game..

In 2007, Adalah: The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, published a significant document, which it called ‘The Democratic Constitution’. The group described it as “a constitutional proposal for the state of Israel, based on the concept of a democratic, bilingual, multicultural state”, drawing on “universal principles and international conventions on human rights, the experiences of nations and the constitutions of various democratic states”.

The constitution provides for a state “that is based on full equality between all of its residents and between all of the different groups within it”, where “Jewish and Arab citizens shall respect each other’s rights to live in peace, dignity and equality, and will be united in recognizing and respecting the differences between them, as well as the differences that exist between all the groups in a democratic, bilingual and multicultural state”.

While this document was designed primarily as an intervention on behalf of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who have long faced systematic discrimination, in the context of a single democratic state, it offers a guide for how to protect Jewish and Palestinian rights. In other words, it acts as a kind of draft constitution for a single democratic state, one of a number of resources which can be drawn on in the transformation of political structures currently shaped by the priorities of settler colonialism.

One objection to a single democratic state – as opposed to the existence of a ‘Jewish state’ in Palestine – is that it would be a denial of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination (and, some add, is thus an anti-Semitic proposal). In fact, self-determination “doesn’t necessarily mean that every national or ethnic group must have its own state, but rather that the government should represent all the different groups”. As legal scholar Michael Kearney told me, self-determination is “less understood these days as a right to one’s own exclusive state, and more as a right to non-discrimination and to democratic participation in society”.

In a 2003 essay in the New York Review of Books, the late Tony Judt described “the very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ – a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded” as “rooted in another time and place”. Israel, he added, “is an anachronism”. Israel’s advocates do their best to confuse the issue by speaking of Israel as a Jewish state in the same way that France is French, a comparison which is unintentionally revealing.

To quote Judt, “France is the state of all the French; all French persons are by definition citizens of France; and all citizens of France are…French”. Israel, “by contrast”, is “by its own account the ‘state of all the Jews’ (wherever they live and whether or not they seek the association), while containing non-Jewish (Arab) citizens who do not enjoy similar status and rights. There is no comparison”. Put simply, the right to self-determination does not equate to a right to an ethno-state,and it certainly does not equate to a right to expel, colonise and discriminate.

Decoupling self-determination and ethnic statehood is not easy, especially when many Jewish Israelis fear the consequences of a loss of “power and privilege”. Haifa University professor Arnon Soffer told the Guardian in 2007: “We have to do everything to keep Israel as a Jewish state…They use words like ‘democracy’, but if they are in power, it is the end of democracy. We have to stop being naïve”. In Soffer’s words, we see that nothing has changed since Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky declared that “the name of the disease is minority” and “the name of the cure is majority”. Nor are such anxieties unique to the Israeli right – in fact, they are often best articulated by the self-described ‘Zionist left’.

In March 2015, Amos Oz wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Let’s start with a matter of life and death. If there are not two states, there will be one. If there is one, it will be Arab. If Arab it is, there is no telling the fate of our children and theirs”. But why? What is so terrible about this prospect? Tellingly, Oz never really explains, directly, why “an Arab state” would be such a terrible prospect for his children and grandchildren – it is just assumed. The language used is revealing. A state with, say, a 60 per cent Arab (Palestinian) majority of citizens, is not the same thing as an “Arab state”. Oz’s shorthand betrays the majoritarian, ethnocratic ethos of the “Jewish state” he seeks to preserve.

There are echoes here of white South Africans’ fears right up to the final years of the apartheid regime. In one 1987 poll of white South Africans, 91.4 per cent of Afrikaners and 78.2 per cent of English speakers thought black majority rule would mean discrimination against whites, while 78.5 per cent of Afrikaners and 70.1 per cent of English speakers believed that ‘the physical safety of whites would be threatened’.

In 1990, Albie Sachs – a lawyer and anti-apartheid activist who Nelson Mandela would later appoint to the country’s Constitutional Court – acknowledged concerns “that removing one tyranny might lead to its replacement by another”. However, he continued, “from a moral point of view, it seems most dubious to refrain from dealing with an actual and manifest evil because of anxiety that its elimination might lead to the appearance of another evil…The best time for fighting for freedom is always now, and the best starting point is always here”.

As it was for many decades in Apartheid South Africa, for now, “Israeli military and economic power insulates them from having to face reality”, as Edward Said put it in 2001. “Therefore, it is up to us [the Palestinians] to provide the answer that power and paranoia cannot”. He continued: “If we are all to live…we must capture the imagination not just of our people, but that of our oppressors”.

Ali Abunimah expressed a similar sentiment in a 2009 piece, writing: “Without indulging Israeli racism or preserving undue privilege, the legitimate concerns of ordinary Israeli Jews” – such as “personal and family dislocation, loss of socioeconomic status and community security” – can be “addressed directly in any negotiated transition to ensure that the shift to democracy is orderly, and essential redistributive policies are carried out fairly”.

According to legal scholar and Israeli citizen Raef Zreik, “[the Palestinians’] main role is to show that a Jewish nationalism that is not colonial is a viable option. This means that while the Palestinians say ‘No’ to Jewish supremacy they can say ‘Yes’ to Jewish equality, while they say ‘No’ to Jewish privileges they can say ‘Yes’ to Jewish rights, ‘No’ to Jewish superiority but ‘Yes’ to Jewish safety”.

In a critical response to Virginia Tilley’s ‘One Country’, Israeli academic Yoav Peled claimed that “adherents of the one-state solution should have the courage to face the fact that without Jewish domination of whatever portion of Palestine/Israel, there will be no Jewish national home” (my italics). In response, Tilley challenged the assumption that equality in immigration and land control (two “resources” cited by Peled that must remain under “Jewish control”) would necessarily “eradicate the Jewish national home”. Would such processes of decolonisation and democratisation, she asked rhetorically, “dissolve Jewish-national life for a Jewish-Israeli population…that sustains a sophisticated national literature and media, vigorous arts and a sturdy political culture? It is hard to defend such a claim”. It is only by uncoupling ‘domination’ and self-determination, two concepts that the Zionist movement fought hard to weld together, that Palestine/Israel can move from a single apartheid state to a democratic one. “Decolonization should not be understood as a blunt and absolute reversal of colonization”, Omar Barghouti wrote, “putting us back under pre-colonial conditions and undoing whatever rights had been acquired to date. Instead, decolonization can be regarded as a negation of the aspects of colonialism that deny the rights of the colonized indigenous population and, as a byproduct, dehumanize the colonizers themselves”.

This is an adapted extract from Ben White’s new book, ‘Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel‘ 

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