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Two States Are Still Better Than One

Ralph Seliger
October 30, 2012

by Ralph Seliger
THERE’S NO QUESTION that the vision of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is under increased attack from the left, after years of opposition and stonewalling from the right. A new volume of essays, After Zionism: One State For Israel and Palestine (edited by Antony Loewenstein and Ahmed Moor and published by Saqi Books), is blurbed enthusiastically by the Canadian-Jewish radical writer and activist Naomi Klein as “courageous and exciting,” and one of its contributors, Philip Weiss, has built a popular anti-Zionist web publication, “Mondoweiss: The War of Ideas in the Middle East” (sponsored for two years by The Nation Institute, and now by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change). Supporters of the international Israel boycott (BDS) movement, which never really supported a two-state solution (as even Norman Finkelstein recently noted, bitingly), increasingly speak of a one-state solution as a plausible alternative — including in an intense back-and-forth at the Jewish Currents website.
Some liberals, including many Zionists, fear that the viability of a two-state solution is being extinguished under Netanyahu’s leadership. In May 2010, Peter Beinart, former editor of the stalwart pro-Israel New Republic, published a sharp broadside against the American Jewish establishment’s complacency about Israel in the New York Review of Books. Beinart cited an overly accepting attitude toward intolerant trends and illiberal policies in Israel, which he sees as contributing to a serious alienation from Israel among young, non-Orthodox American Jews. He followed suit with his book, The Crisis of Zionism, which expresses a now-or-never imperative about a two-state solution if Israel is to remain a democracy. Meanwhile, from within the very highest reaches of Israel’s establishment, Avrum Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset who once served as chair of the World Zionist Organization, has risen to boldly proclaim his dissent from Israel’s current direction.
These passions have come to the fore out of frustration with the failure of a twenty-plus-year peace process to deliver an actual peace and an end to Israel’s West Bank occupation, and with the rightward lurch of Israel’s political climate since 2000. To be fair, however, it was the brutal second Intifada, immediately following the near-deal brokered by Bill Clinton, that caused the collapse of Israel’s electoral peace bloc. What followed was detailed in an August 21st, 2012 op-ed in the New York Times by Eetta Prince-Gibson, former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Report, who totaled the casualties of this period from September 29th, 2000 to the eve of Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip in December 2008 as follows: “6,651 people were killed — 5,524 Palestinians, 1,063 Israelis and 64 foreign citizens, according to figures compiled by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. More than 10,000 people were wounded.... Between 2000 and 2005, there were 1,048 suicide attacks against Israel, of which 903 were thwarted by Israeli security forces....”
The emergence of the more moderate Kadima party — launched by Ariel Sharon, of all people, primarily from the ranks of Likud, to complement the new pragmatic Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad — was ultimately a lost opportunity for peace. After being provoked by thousands of rockets and other attacks on sovereign Israeli territory, the Kadima-led government launched a massive assault on Gaza, from which Israel had totally withdrawn in 2005. Along with the legal difficulties that forced Ehud Olmert’s resignation, the war in Gaza cut short a promising round of negotiations between Olmert and Abbas (see Bernard Avishai’s article in the December 2011 issue of Harper’s, and his earlier piece in the New York Times Magazine, February 11th, 2011), and again moved Israel to the right under Netanyahu.
Violence by each side begets counter-violence. Who provoked whom is less important than the reality that both sides’ punishing blows have consistently undermined negotiations, going back at least to the wave of terror bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in February and March of 1996, which were crucial to Netanyahu’s first ascent as prime minister. The threat and fact of repeated violence have drawn out the peace process indefinitely, rewarding extremists on both sides, whether they be Palestinian suicide bombers or the assassins of Yitzhak Rabin and the thugs within the pro-settler movement.
Still, it is hard to see how one state for two peoples who have been warring for nearly a century could possibly work as an alternative to two states. It amounts to arguing that one thing didn’t work, so let’s try something more difficult.
One-state advocates would have to win over a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians who have, according to poll data, consistently supported the concept of two states for years. Even if most Palestinians were to give up on an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, and were to switch to demanding equal rights as Israeli citizens — as a number of independent Palestinian activists now propose — they would then have to convince a majority of Israeli Jews that their interests as Jews, even if they became a minority within this new entity, would be protected. Given the poor track record of the Arab and Muslim Middle East in safeguarding the rights of minorities and preventing inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence, this task of persuasion would be herculean.
Not only do most Jews still value the idea of a Jewish state as an insurance policy against anti-Semitism, but nearly half of Israel’s Jews come from families that fled varying degrees of violence and discrimination in Arab and other Muslim countries. These Mizrakhi Jews are well-known for their suspicion of Arabs and form the hard core of Israel’s most right-wing and intolerant elements.
Bernard Avishai reasoned as follows about the one-state idea in his Harper’s essay:

[S]ome Palestinians say, Let’s just create a common state based on individual rights. But this is because the culture they take for granted — determined by the Arabic language and the Islamic calendar — is reinforced by the entire region. It is as if Anglo-Montrealers like myself were to appeal to French-speaking Quebecers to stop putting up cultural breakwaters when we know full well that the rest of North America has only English tides. It is wrong for Abbas to elide the central concern the vast majority of Israelis will want addressed: the special need they feel to protect their Hebrew-speaking civil society, the umbilical cord to the historic civilization of the Jewish people and an immigration law that provides refuge from anti-Semitism.

Avishai then suggests that Abbas actually engage with the roadblock demand established by Netanyahu, that the Palestinian Authority acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state:

Abbas has said he refuses to condemn Arab Israelis to second-class citizenship. He also told American Jewish leaders that he would ‘never deny [the] Jewish right to the land of Israel.’ So why should he not stipulate the kind of Jewish state that would not prejudice Arab rights — and welcome this nation to the region much as Anwar Sadat did?

Avishai continues by quoting, from his own interview with Abbas, an acknowledgment that the security component of his negotiations with Olmert was successfully concluded. It is good to be reminded of the headway made with Olmert in 2008 — and by negotiators at Taba in 2001. Progress made at Taba inspired the detailed model for peace unveiled in 2003 as the Geneva Accord.
This history suggests that a two-state solution remains achievable, given the right timing and effort. For Israel, the challenge is to elect a peace-oriented government, neutralize the settler movement, and promote the economic conditions for a viable Palestinian state. For the Palestinians, the challenge is to continue to deter anti-Israel violence, to curtail instances of incitement in their schools and media, and to cultivate trust among Israelis by clearly accepting Israel’s legitimacy — even while still advocating for the civil rights of Israel’s Arab citizens.
Admittedly, all of this is a very tall order — but partisans of peace on both sides should not allow this to discourage their ongoing efforts. It may be, as Avishai and other visionaries have proposed for decades, that a new cooperative relationship will someday be forged among Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, which may well include binational confederative structures — but this would have to evolve during a long period of peaceful relations and stability. Today, a single state has even less chance of succeeding than in the 1930s and ’40s, when elements of Palestine’s Jewish community (including the second largest pre-state Zionist movement, Hashomer Hatzair) actually did advocate binationalism — with nary a taker from the Arab side.
If efforts to achieve a two-state solution are not renewed, Israelis and Palestinians will be condemned to a bitter struggle for generations to come. This would be true even if a non-violent, rights-based strategy were pursued on behalf of a one-state solution. Given the history of violence and intolerance in the region, plus the tragic undercurrent of Jewish history, Israeli Jews will not easily surrender the hard-won achievement of the world’s only sovereign Jewish state. This is a stance that no approach — whether economic boycott, international resolution, or any tragically ill-conceived return to violence — would alter.

Ralph Seliger specializes in writing about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues. He was the final editor of Israel Horizons, publication of Meretz USA (now Partners for Progressive Israel), and continues to blog at the Meretz USA weblog and atTikkun Daily.