For nearly 20 years, the two-state solution has been promoted as the agreed framework for negotiations and ultimately peace to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But two decades on, it has failed to bear fruit.
In his book, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian-American writer and commentator on Middle East and Arab-American affairs and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website, argues that the “conventional wisdom” of the two-state, land-for-peace equation needs to be rethought. Partition, he argues, is a flawed idea that is doomed to fail.
The only viable choice is a return to the proposal of a one-state solution — one country with equal rights and votes for both Israelis and Palestinians. Al Jazeera’s Laila El-Haddad interviewed Abunimah about his book.
AL JAZEERA: You go from reluctantly backing a two-state solution to advocating a one-state solution. When did you make the ideological shift and why?
ABUNIMAH: I always struggled with it, but I did for many years sincerely believe that a two-state solution was the best, the most possible, the most pragmatic.
I made the final shift about three or four years ago during the [second] intifada, when I recognised that all the talk of a two-state solution, all of the diplomatic initiatives, were so divorced from the reality of what Israel was doing on the ground that it became clear to me it was not possible. I learnt more, I read more about South Africa, about Ireland, about Palestine, and this is where I ended up.
AL JAZEERA: You spend a significant part of your introduction sharing your own family’s exile from Jerusalem in 1948, and later acknowledge that some might say you have no desire for reconciliation because you dwell on history. How do you reconcile competing historical narratives in a future state?
ABUNIMAH: It is a hard question. Peace can never be built on denial. When someone has to deny their history, that is an exercise of power against them. When there’s equality, people will be able to tell their history and tell their stories without it being seen as a threat to the other.
AL JAZEERA: You have repeatedly described efforts to push forth a two-state solution as “flawed conventional wisdom.” What do you mean?
ABUNIMAH: You can get a majority of people to agree in principle to partition as in “yes it’s a good idea let’s agree on partition.” But you can’t get them to agree in practice. And nobody succeeded in getting to a partition plan that a bare minimum of Palestinians accept and a bare majority of Israelis accept and vice versa.
The absolutely maximum they were prepared to offer in Camp David was much less than the minimum that the vast majority of Palestinian would accept. And there was not even an Israeli consensus around Camp David. So, as long as we’re vague, as long as we say “we agree on partition in principle,” then everyone says we agree it’s a good idea. But when you sit down to do it, nobody ever succeeded. The Israelis want too much and the Palestinians want too much to make it work.
You can’t partition something that is inhabited by the same people. That’s why partition failed in Ireland and brought about misery in India where still to this day [people] remember where they were displaced from and many bloody wars have since taken place.
Partition is about trying to create on the ground a purity that exists only in people’s minds. Human reality is always about mixing.
AL JAZEERA: You draw on the South Africa case extensively. But ultimately, there was a desire among South Africans to live together in one state, a desire that many argue is currently absent in both Palestinian and Israeli societies. So why push for a one-state solution nobody in the mainstream necessarily supports?
ABUNIMAH: There is a common misunderstanding that there was already agreement on the goal of a united democratic South Africa. That is not the case.
The policy of the whites was separatism and Apartheid was about creating a separate state for whites and an artificial state for blacks — the so-called Bantustans. So, actually, partition along the lines we see in Palestine was the model in South Africa that the whites were pushing, and I quote De Klerk saying so — that they only accepted the notion of a united South Africa after they lost and recognised that they couldn’t maintain their power.
Whites were not more ready to live with blacks than Israeli Jews are to live with Palestinians. The fact that they were willing to do so was the outcome of the struggle.
AL JAZEERA: But are Palestinians as ready to live with Israelis as blacks were with whites?
ABUNIMAH: In some ways more so. Another common misunderstanding is that most Palestinians want their own state. In the West Bank and Gaza you have about 60 per cent consistently over time that say they support a two-state solution.
But you also have consistently between a quarter and a third who say they support a bi-national state or a secular democratic state. Not an Islamic state — but a state for Palestinians and Jews with equal rights. Support for an Islamic state gets three or five or 15 percent maximum.
So it’s remarkable that support for a two-state solution is so tepid even in the West Bank and Gaza when there is a full industry — a multi-billion-dollar industry — to promote the two-state solution. I also think it is remarkable that support for a one-state solution is so high and increasing given the fact that there is no official leadership that is advocating it.
That’s Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza. If you look at the situation within Israel, you find that the sort of united leadership of the Arab and Palestinian communities within Israel has called for transforming Israel into a bi-national state and interestingly the example they use is Belgium — one of the examples I use in the book.
According to a recent poll of Arab-Israelis, only 14 percent of respondents thought that Israel should remain a Jewish democratic state in its current form. Fifty-seven percent said they wanted a change in the character and definition of the state, whether a state for all its citizens, a bi-national state, or a consensual democracy.
In other words, the clear majority want a bi-national state.
Then you move to the third group of Palestinians — those in the diaspora. And the diaspora have not traditionally supported a two-state solution because they have a lot to lose. The price of that is the right of return.
AL JAZEERA: You ask whether it is really possible to separate two deeply intertwined populations (the Palestinians and the Israelis) and whether they really want what separation would entail. Are they really so deeply intertwined and haven’t Israeli policies over the past few years been meant to “untwine” them?
ABUNIMAH:They are intertwined in the way that Catholics and Protestants are intertwined in Northern Ireland. Also in the sense that they are geographically completely interspersed, you have a million-plus Palestinians in what is supposed to be Israel, and half a million Israelis inside what is supposed to be the Palestinian state.
What I say is that partition — drawing a line between these two peoples — has never been possible. And when they recommended it in the Peel Commission [in 1937] for the first time, they said clearly that there is no way to draw a line between these two people, and that, therefore, the only way to create a Jewish state is by the involuntary transfer of hundreds of thousands of Arabs.
And that situation remains — you cannot have a Jewish state without the forced transfer of Palestinians or a Palestinian state without forced transfer of Jews.
AL JAZEERA: What do you see as the biggest challenge to a one-state solution?
ABUNIMAH: There are many. But the biggest challenge is getting there. We shouldn’t get to a situation where we say “it’s so difficult and unimaginable.” Any solution is difficult and unimaginable. Who can imagine a two-state solution given the realities on the ground? I think peace of any kind, justice of any kind, seems very far from the perspectives of today. When you look at South Africa, the darkest period came before the dawn, let’s say. And I think we are going through the darkest period.
And we have to realise that Israelis will not look for a way out unless they feel they have to. And that’s how it was with white South Africans. With a clear message that at the end there is a vision that everybody is part of.
AL JAZEERA: As part of the solution you propose, you argue for both implementing the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and for preserving the Israeli Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to people with at least one Jewish grandparent. Do you see this move as legitimising Zionism or at least incorporating a Zionist element into the new state?
ABUNIMAH: You could say that. And I don’t see them as equivalent — the Law of Return and the Right of Return. But I do see that as one way that the state can provide the kind of acknowledgment of the identity and interests of both communities that live in it.
And as I say also there are not floods of people coming in under the Law of Return.
AL JAZEERA: You say partition is intimately associated with ethnic cleansing, and cite the Israeli settlements as an example of this, yet you propose that the bulk of settlements would be allowed to remain in a future state. Aren’t these two notions at odds with one another?
ABUNIMAH: No because the whole point is that a Palestinian state requires the removal of settlements and that is something that is unlikely to happen. We are not talking about 8,000 settlers in Gaza — we are talking about half a million people, and half of those are around Jerusalem.
I’m saying let’s end the hypocrisy of talking about opposing the settlements when in reality everybody is saying they are going to stay. Let’s deal with what the problem is with the settlements: they are really basically racist colonies.
The houses are basically not the problem — the problem is that the settlement is a closed space for Jews only. And it is an exercise of power. But if you say that the settlements become towns and anybody can live in them, then it’s a different matter.
AL JAZEERA: And settlements that have been built on Palestinian land?
ABUNIMAH: There has to be full restitution for people. The principle is there. In a democracy you can make people give up land for a public good.
AL JAZEERA: So it could resolve the issue of settlements in one fell swoop?
ABUNIMAH: Of course it raises different problems, but resolves the issue of purification — of forcing settlers out so there can be a Palestinian state. It’s a recognition that the country is inhabited throughout by Israelis and Palestinians.
AL JAZEERA: There was significant public and international pressure that eventually helped break down Apartheid South Africa, forcing them to accept an ideological shift. Isn’t this kind of intervention and pressure notably absent in the Palestinian case?
ABUNIMAH:Yes it’s a crucial point. But that pressure did not come from the governments, it came from civil society. You’ll recall that the European and American governments were not eager to put sanctions on South African — they had a lot of good business with them. It was a civil society movement, very much ad hoc on campuses and churches that eventually forced governments to put sanctions in place.