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December 31, 2009




States of Denial


December 31, 2009   



On a hot day in Vienna in August 1925, Arthur Ruppin ascended the podium at the Fourteenth Zionist Congress and declared, “Palestine will be a state of two nations. Gentlemen, this is a fact.”

Earlier that year, Ruppin, Martin Buber, and other Zionist leaders had founded Brith Shalom (Covenant of Peace), an organization dedicated to Jewish-Arab coexistence in Palestine. Their platform: a binational state for the two peoples.

*    *    *

61 years after the founding of the State of Israel, the idea of a binational home for Jews and Arabs seems like an afterthought. New developments and old realities, though, are bringing the idea back into discussion.
With the Palestinian Authority arguing for a Palestinian nation-state, the two-state solution has dominated recent diplomatic efforts, from the failed Oslo Accords of 1993 to Barack Obama’s latest attempts to press Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on settlement building and get Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the table.

Obama’s new engagement and pressure on Israel has made some hopeful. And the emergence of J Street, the new pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby in Washington, has increased optimism among liberal Jews.

But Netanyau has balked on the details of a freeze on settlement expansion in the occupied territories and Abbas appears reluctant to negotiate. Furthermore, he controls only the West Bank; Hamas, a militant group which has not participated in peace talks and which calls for Israel’s destruction in its charter, governs Gaza.

Tensions also remain high over Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel as well as the Israeli blockade of Gaza. If Obama fails now, alternatives like the one-state solution may creep back into the mainstream.

With such developments in mind, New York University Professor Tony Judt—who has supported a binational state for years—says that the optimism surrounding Obama’s efforts ignores current realities.

“The two-state solution—the core of the Oslo process and the present ‘Road Map’—is probably already doomed,” he wrote in a 2003 article in the New York Review of Books, adding that the rise of extreme right politics on both sides, and the success of Israeli settlement in the West Bank, makes the achievement of two states unlikely.

While the early Zionists conducted an open debate about the future of Palestine, readers received Judt’s article with outrage, writing thousands of angry letters.

But Judt is not the only one to question whether the two-state framework will succeed.


“The two-state solution has become the elephant in the room for diplomats, human-rights activists and the ‘Arab street’ alike,” wrote political scientist Virginia Tilley in the New Left Review in 2006. Judt and Tilley join an unlikely mix of intellectuals who have posited the one-state solution, including Israeli intellectuals like Daniel Gavron and Meron Benvenisti, Palestinians like Ali Abunimah and Libyan President Muammar Kadaffi, who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times this January advocating the binational state of “Isratine.”

In his 2003 article Judt addressed the core paradox of Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy. He reminded his readers that most of them lived in multiethnic, multicultural, pluralist states.

Israel itself is a multicultural society in all but name; yet it remains distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens,” he wrote.

To Judt, Israel is problematic not because it is a state for Jews, but because it privileges them “in an age when that sort of state has no place.” Historically, he places Zionism in the category of Serbian, Armenian, and other post-World War I ethno-nationalisms. By the time of Israel’s late founding in 1948, international politics had turned to human rights and international law—not the stuff of ethnic privileging.

In a 2003 article in the London Review of Books, Tilley also gave examples to illustrate the stratification of Israeli society: she argued that housing loans, education loans, and public-sector employment in Israel legally privilege Jews by being tied to army service—which is not open to Israeli Arabs—or the Law of Return—which enables Jews worldwide to move to Israel with special benefits.

“Some 93 percent of Israel is at present reserved for Jewish use,” she wrote.

The Israel Land Authority, a government agency, cannot lease Israeli land to foreign nationals, including Palestinians and Arab residents of Jerusalem. An Israeli High Court order has prohibited this discrimination in principle—the sort of move that Tilley and other one-state advocates think is necessary.

Palestinian land laws also prohibit Palestinians from selling land to Jews.

The challenge, then, according to Tilly’s 2003 article, would be to find “a democratic secular formula which would preserve Israel’s role as a Jewish haven while dismantling the apartheid-like privileges that presently assign second-class citizenship to non-Jews.”

Tilley knows that a unified state would not solve all disputes—such as the fight over the Temple Mount, which flared up again this fall.

“It would recast those disputes as ethnic arguments within a democratic polity rather than between polarised and mutually demonised Others,” she wrote in 2003.

To Princeton University Professor Russel Nieli, though, there is nothing wrong with ethnically based states.

“The idea of a single-state solution within the near future… is pure fantasy,” he wrote in an email to New Voices.

In Tikkun magazine this July, Nieli instead proposed “Two-state condominialism,” which would demarcate two states along the 1967 borders but would allow Palestinians and Israelis to settle within the territory of either state.

No matter where they lived, Palestinians would vote and receive healthcare and other services from the Palestinian state. The same would hold true for the Jews and their state, whether they lived in the West Bank or Tel Aviv.

“Each state, in other words, would have extensive extra-territorial rights and obligations vis-à-vis its citizens in the neighboring state,” wrote Nieli in Tikkun, something like the U.S. government’s provisions for the many American diplomats and citizens living abroad.

Nieli told New Voices that his proposal is “a marriage of the one-state and two-state solutions,” an idea that has not yet garnered a significant response.

*    *    *

Whether or not Nieli is right about Israelis’ or Palestinians’ attachment to their own states, one-state advocates insist that the current demographic distribution of the Israeli and Palestinian populations could sink the two-state solution.

A centerpiece of Obama’s attempts to restart peace negotiations has been a “settlement freeze,” or an official halt to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, home to nearly 300,000 Israelis, which are considered illegal by the international community but not by Israel. It would be a first step toward an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, leaving some settlements intact by swapping land with Palestinians in other places.

To Israeli writer Daniel Gavron, however, this withdrawal no longer seems realistic.

“It’s not just the big settlements, like Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim,” Gavron told New Voices. “But even smaller settlements like Ofra and Elon Moreh are right bang in the middle [of the West Bank].”

The UN and human rights groups claim that the three major Israeli settlement blocs—Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel—will carve up Palestinian territory into cantons. Ma’ale Adumim lies between Bethlehem and the Palestinian political capital of Ramallah, and Ariel is between Ramallah and Nablus.


Israel disputes this, claiming that bypass roads would still allow Palestinians access between their largest cities.

In addition to the territorial issue, the settlers themselves garner significant support in Israel and are unlikely to move willingly, as evidenced by the conflict that ensued when Israel evacuated 7,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005.

With all these obstacles to separation, Gavron, a lifelong labor Zionist, ended his latest book with an unexpected bang.

He proposed that Israel be dissolved in favor of a single binational state, the State of Jerusalem.

“I think that the Jews would be rather horrified at losing the State of Israel to a one-state entity,” Gavron said. “But in a way we’ve got ourselves to blame, not the settlers. It’s the rest of us who’ve allowed them to do this.”

Gavron and Judt agree that the settlement movement’s “facts on the ground” have been more successful than many realize, making complete separation between two states impossible.

If withdrawal is impossible, Gavron would let the entire territory of Israel and the Palestinian territories encompass a one-man, one-vote democratic state—similar to Buber’s 1939 idea of a unified parliament of Israelis and Arabs in Palestine.

Israelis and Palestinians could live where they please, which would solve the problem of the “right of return” for Palestinians who were displaced in the Arab-Israeli fighting of 1947 and 1948. At the same time, the new state could maintain the Jewish Law of Return.

Gavron calls this “an open solution, without any walls through it,” or at least without Israel’s barrier along the West Bank border, built following the second Intifada.

Israel is a country that has absorbed astronomic numbers of Russian refugees, Gavron argues, and it could do the same with Palestinians. Palestinians share some of Israelis’ high-tech savvy, which he says could be another source of cooperation.

The State of Jerusalem would also merge the various Palestinian security forces with the IDF, which Gavron claims would make for fairer treatment of the diverse population.

And whereas ancient Israel gave the world the Sabbath, Gavron’s state would honor the Muslims’ Friday, the Jews’ Sabbath and the Christians’ Sunday—with a three-day weekend.

*    *    *

Away from the double-decker tour buses on 34th St. in Manhattan, the elevator rises to the third floor and opens onto a quiet, Jerusalem-stone foyer. American and Israeli flags adorn the waiting room. In the corner office of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) headquarters, President Morton Klein gives his own charismatic version of dissent to the two-state consensus.

“We predicted early on that Oslo would lead to disaster,” he told New Voices.

“Unlike many other organizations, we demanded that Oslo be adhered to, that is, that the Arabs fulfill their obligations under their signed agreement,” he said. “And they never have.” While Judt sees Israel as the impediment, Klein blames the Palestinian Authority.
For Klein, Israel fits into a narrative of Western democratic states fighting terrorism, and a Palestinian state would be “another terrorist state in the Middle East.” It is a narrative that achieved popularity during the Bush years; a picture of Klein with President Bush at the White House graces ZOA pamphlets.

To Klein, a Palestinian state is something to be granted by the US, and only if it is a “civilized and peace-loving” state that has outlawed Hamas. Until then, Klein is against “even beginning to discuss” such a state, much less an Israeli withdrawal from any of its potential territory.

It is, in a way, a one-state paradigm.

Both Judt and Gavron see Klein as advocating for something like a Greater Israel controlling the West Bank. The deteriorating situation for Arabs there and in Israel may then drive them to emigrate to Jordan, or at least vote there in some capacity.

Gavron thinks this would never pass, but Judt is wary of underestimating, seeing a stark choice for the future: either Greater Israel, or a binational state. Either way, the “facts on the ground” make it a one-state solution.

“[Klein] likes that idea, I abhor it,” Judt told New Voices, “but we agree that it is true.”

*    *    *

This conversation has heated up at US colleges as well. While ZOA has been filling students’ inboxes for years with Israel advocacy information, the rise of J Street is having its effect on campuses too. This year, J Street took over the left-leaning, student-run Union of Progressive Zionists (UPZ), providing a campus alternative to ZOA and other hard-line Israel student groups.

But Judt is unenthusiastic about the American Jewish Diaspora’s ability to make peace. He argues that diasporas in general “make small, vulnerable and victimized countries radical and resentful.”

Gavron thinks Jewish students can and should come around to his new ideas and would have J Street U focus more on environmentalism.

“I’m not discouraging American students from coming [to Israel],” Gavron told New Voices. “Zionism today is about preserving our environment and working together, among peoples.”

Gavron echoes Buber’s contention at the Twelfth Zionist Congress that coexistence in Palestine depended on “intensive and systematic methods of cultivation.”

He inherits not only Buber’s socialist bent, but his optimism. When he shares his ideas, he sounds 30 years younger than he is—as if ready to implement the plan himself.

*    *    *

But the one-state solution is something that neither Judt nor Gavron is tied to. It is a much more difficult goal for them than it was for Brith Shalom, and both realize it would be a Herculean task.

Both Judt and Gavron view Obama as the last, best hope for an agreement. And if two states were to pass, Gavron would be “deliriously happy,” he told New Voices.

Nor has Judt given up on Obama. He thinks that the negotiations could succeed now, but only if they abandon “so-called confidence building” and go straight to final-status issues: Jerusalem, territory, and rights of return—if only just in theory.

Advocates of a binational state seem willing to address those issues. They do not all claim to have answers, but they are asking many of the same questions that the early Zionists did.

Do Jews or Palestinians need their own nation-state to fulfill their aspirations? Should the international community try to establish more ethno-national states? Or can the two peoples retain ethnic states while living amongst each other?

That day in August 1925, Ruppin’s talk of “a state of two nations” scarcely knocked his audience off its feet. He was a top Zionist official who settled Jews in much of the Land of Israel and helped to found Tel Aviv. And his audience had every reason to think that Palestine would remain under British rule. But Ruppin soured on the prospects for binational cooperation after the 1939 Arab riots and uprising.

Buber, however, living in the Diaspora, wrote that achieving a majority by any means necessary would merely reverse the Jews’ persecution, “permitting us to do to others…what others are doing to us here.”

Today, the one-state intellectuals—in the face of such conflict—are exhorting the public that, in the words of Buber, “the hour is late.”

“We’re well past midnight,” Gavron said. “I think we’re around four or five in the morning.”

The question: How do we turn back the clock in Jerusalem—or reset it altogether?

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