One land for two peoples

The formal death of the two-state solution makes a bi-national state inevitable – the best way forward for both peoples.

Palestine bid
The concept of Israel as a historic homeland for Jews from every corner of the globe is one that is understandably not intuitive to the Palestinians who have for generations been the land's physical inhabitants [AFP]

In the immediate aftermath of Mahmoud Abbas’ symbolic victory at the UN of official recognition for the state of Palestine, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took concrete steps to ensure that such a separate and independent state would never come into existence.

With the announcement of the construction of 3,000 new settlement units in E1, the last unsettled land connecting the theoretical future Palestinian capital of East Jerusalem with the West Bank, the Israeli government has severed these territories and formally put an end to the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict.

In the words of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad, the construction in E1 is “the last nail in the coffin” of the peace process, while Daniel Seidemann of the Jerusalem-based Israeli NGO described it as “a doomsday scenario” and “the fatal heart-attack of the two-state solution”.

With this announcement, it can be said that the plan for peace agreed to by both sides in the Oslo Accords; the vision of two peoples living side-by-side in two wholly separate states, has finally been extinguished by an increasingly right-wing Israeli polity in which the settler movement has gone from fringe to mainstream in a few short decades.

The question to be asked now is, “What comes next?” What is the way forward now that the status quo roadmap for the future has been overturned?

Israel’s advantage over Palestinians

Israel of course maintains an overwhelming advantage over the Palestinians in terms of brute force and could enact a military solution to the conflict by annexing what remains of Palestinian-administered territory and exiling its inhabitants once more – a repeat of the Nakba or “catastrophe” which Palestinians suffered first upon the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. 

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Another potential solution would be to continuing to expand occupation of Palestinian lands while denying the inhabitants equal rights, prohibiting their freedom of movement and giving them no say over the government which controls their lives. In other words, a formalised system of Apartheid in which rights are afforded selectively based on racial and religious factors and the concept of equality under law is foregone.

However, the problem with these “solutions” is that history has shown them to be unsustainable: The tidal wave of international opprobrium either of these moves create would be enough to turn Israel into an international pariah on par with North Korea or Apartheid-era South Africa, the latter of which was dependent, as Israel is, on participation in the international system and could not survive in isolation.

Additionally, there is good reason to believe that many Israelis and their present-day supporters around the world would be disenchanted with a state that would take such a route and would be unlikely to continue to provide it with the same level of tireless international support that has heretofore allowed a small, relatively-young country to thrive in an oppositional environment for over a half century.

In sum, taking the totalitarian way forward that those in Israel’s rapidly ascendant right-wing advocate is a likely route towards national self-destruction; something which is not in the long-term interest of Israelis and ultimately not of  Palestinians as well, the latter of whom have an economically symbiotic relationship with Israel which would be adversely impacted by the country’s implosion and who would not necessarily stand to gain where the Israeli state loses.

The other popularly discussed way forward, the one-state solution; a bi-national state in which both Israelis and Palestinians could potentially be assured a future in the region which is both secure as well as democratic, has been subject to objections by those who continue to push forward a two-state resolution which by all accounts is dead and buried.

The major criticisms which have been levelled have been that a bi-national state would be immediately plunged into civil war along ethnic and religious lines, the unique ethnic character of the state of Israel would be lost (to the detriment of its Jewish population), and that there is no precedent for such an integration in modern history.

Some of these fears have been reasonable while some have been hyperbolic and others appear to be cynically inflated to avoid mere discussion of the topic. However, in a zero-sum game between a one-state and two-state solution, the death of the latter behooves a reasonable discussion of how the former may be implemented in a manner which protects the rights of both Jews and Arabs and ensures a peaceful transition to a stable and secure new country.

Contrary to fear-mongering from certain parties, a shared country is not by definition an impossibility, as the prospect begins to loom larger the need to articulate a rational, comprehensive and implementable one-state vision for the future grows as well. Such a reality could be aided in coming to fruition by addressing a few of the basic points of contention in any one-state solution; a solution which would be infinitely better to plan and negotiate into than to fall chaotically and haphazardly.

Disarmament and disbandment of Hamas

The disarmament and disbandment of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and many related offshoot militant groups would be a necessary precondition for the implementation of any bi-national state. 

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many narratives

While Hamas has earned a reputation as being unrepentantly in pursuit of a maximalist solution to the conflict, there is acknowledged to be a deeply pragmatic strain within their leadership that has for several years helped to restrain violence and to suppress more extreme armed militant groups in the Gaza Strip.

A precondition in the context of negotiations must be the neutralisation of these groups’ armed wings and their integration into the political process, and with that the repudiation of such anachronistic ideological documents as the Hamas charter which stand in opposition to the implementation of a cohesive shared state.

While many within Israel have viewed reconciliation with Hamas impossible, the reintegration of groups once designated as terrorist into broader society is not without precedent.

During the end of South African Apartheid, armed groups responsible for attacks against civilians, such as the Azanian People’s Liberation Army and Lesotho Liberation Army, were successfully “declawed” and merged back into society at-large once the system of separation which legitimised them ceased to exist.

There is little reason to believe that the same cannot be accomplished with Palestinian groups, and the example of the Palestinian Authority’s remarkable success in supressing rogue militants in the West Bank stands as an example of what Palestinian leadership can accomplish towards maintaining peace when given a legitimate stake in the future.

On a societal level, to go from seeing one another as enemies to compatriots with the same shared destiny, the legacy of the past 60 years of conflict must be addressed in a way which is constructive and focused on healing as opposed to retribution and score-settling.

Again, here the example of South Africa is instructive; the “Truth and Reconciliation” commissions implemented in the years after Apartheid to air the grievances of both sides over decades of bloody conflict were instrumental in laying the groundwork of a country where exacting vengeance for the past is no longer a pressing imperative.

For those who say it is impossible, South Africa’s peaceful transition stands as a clear counterpoint; in some respects its situation was even more fraught than that in Palestine, yet the feared civil war and communal violence never came. Utilising the same techniques of public accounting and reconciliation over grievances, Israelis and Palestinians in a bi-national state can lay the foundation for future social cohesion.

Once forced to confront the reality of a shared destiny, it is far more difficult to take maximalist positions which are inherently risky, unsustainable and self-destructive. Furthermore, a managed transition with international support, as what was planned for and occurred in South Africa, is far less likely to end in chaos and is more likely to produce a stable future state.

Lebanon, another country which in its short history has seen itself far more violently divided than Israel, has managed to piece together a system of government in which the political power of every religious constituency is represented and none can impose their will over the others through demographic advantage.

While social and ethnic fault lines still exist in the country, within its constitutional system can be glimpsed the obvious solution to Jewish Israelis’ fears of being politically marginalised in a state where there will be a slight Arab majority.

By guaranteeing a 50/50 split in parliament, executive and judiciary powers between religious communities, it can be ensured that neither side can be marginalised. Both can express shared national aspirations within the context of a shared state.

The concept of committing power to various constituencies in order to give cohesion to a divided populace is nothing new or unique, and through it the fear that Israel will cease to be a state which gives expression to the political power of Jewish Israelis can be allayed.

Shared Jewish custodianship of the land

Finally, the concept of Israel as a historic homeland for Jewish people from every corner of the globe is one that is understandably not intuitive to the Palestinian people who have for generations been the land’s physical inhabitants. 

However, the archaeological proof, including the presence of Judaism’s most holy sites, is there in the country and stands as a testament to the legitimacy of a shared Jewish custodianship of the land.

Additionally, generations of native-born Israelis today live in the state and feel a connection to it which is absolute and which is to the exclusion of wherever else their immediate ancestors may have immigrated from. Just as well, Palestinians as the owners of the territory for centuries have an undeniable right to it and cannot be excluded from it on the basis of ancient historical claims.

A formal mutual recognition of these self-evident realities, inherent in Binyamin Netanyahu’s demand of the Palestinian Authority to recognise the “Jewish character” of Israel, with reciprocity to its observable Arab character as well, would be a necessary starting point to any future integration.

Wherever Israelis have come from (and indeed, 20 per cent of Israeli citizens are themselves Arab), they are today as indigenous to the land as any Palestinian and would need to be formally recognised as such in a shared constitution which grants equal rights and claims to both.

The concept of a shared state for peoples who have heretofore been divided and at odds with one another is not a unique or innovative concept and history provides many examples.

With the formal death of the two-state solution, the practical impossibility of a totalitarian military or “Apartheid” solution, the prospect of a bi-national state is the de facto way forward for Israelis and Palestinians and it must be planned for in a way which ensures a safe and stable future for both.

The denunciation of one-state proponents as impractical is not well founded and in light of the developments of the past several years it can be said that those who fail to entertain plans for an orderly negotiated solution are inviting potential chaos in the future.

Palestinians for their part should put an end to armed resistance and the pretence of calling for a now-impossible separate state and begin the fight for equal rights within the state of Israel.

A future bi-national state of Israel with equal rights, equal political power and equal moral legitimacy for both its Jewish and Arab populations is the best possible outcome for the country and its peoples and offers the only possible vision of a stable and secure Middle East.

Israelis and Palestinians both must begin in earnest the hard work of planning for this future, and laying the groundwork for the destiny they inevitably share.

Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @MazMHussain