Transcript of Remarks by Ali Abunimah
“For the Record” No. 267 (28 November 2006)
According to Ali Abunimah, author of the recently released book One Country, the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has proven to be the least pragmatic and the least workable of all options. In his book, Abunimah proposes an alternative solution, one state shared by two peoples. During a 17 November 2006 Palestine Center briefing, he explains how he reached that conclusion and why his proposal for a one state is best for both people for geographical, economical and security reasons. He also discusses the experiences and lessons to be learned from South Africa and that in order to achieve peace in the region a unifying vision and justice for the Palestinians is needed.
The Palestine Center
17 November 2006
I would like to thank the Palestine Center for inviting me to be with you this evening. It is wonderful and slightly daunting that there are many old friends here and many new faces. I was saying yesterday when I was at Columbia that when you write a book, I have written many articles, this is the first book I have done by myself, writing a book has a somewhat different quality to it. It’s more intense and you write it in a very intimate space and I usually wrote this book at the kitchen table.
You’re writing it and you want it to sound as good as it can for you, and you don’t really think that one day the rest of the world is going to read it. All of a sudden that dawns on you and then it is too late, it is in print and there is no way to stop it or call it back and you have to stand before the world and stand accountable. This book was something that I’ve worked on for the past year and a half, but its genesis goes back further. Of course the idea of a single state in Palestine/Israel is not my idea. It is an old idea that has its roots among Zionists and of course was the principle idea of the Palestinian national movement through the 1960s until it was formally abandoned in the 1980s with the acceptance of a two-state solution.
I personally, for many years, advocated for two states because I accepted the argument that this is not just but it is pragmatic and Palestinians have to be pragmatic. Indeed, [Palestinians] were led to believe by the world that if they accepted, if they recognized Israel in 78 percent of Palestine, on which it was established by force, and were willing to accept a state in 22 percent of the country that they would then be left to enjoy that state in peace. That state would allow them to fulfill, to exercise the rights they’d been long denied.
Still today we are told, you utopians can dream about a single state but it is not practical, and the practical thing is to pursue a two-state solution. Sometimes people even say, well this sounds very nice but you can’t get there in one step so accept a two-state solution now and then everything will in time get better and then who knows what the future will bring.
I thought long and hard about these arguments and about where the Palestinian people and where Palestine was headed and came to the conclusion that they are false. The premises that I myself had accepted were unsustainable in the light of the facts. Also, I became more convinced of this when I delved into the history. The first formal plan for partition of Palestine was the Royal Commission of 1937, the Peel Commission, which proposed formally partitioning Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state.
The part that I did not know and that came as a surprise to me is that the Peel Commission concluded that partition was impossible because the population was too intertwined and you could not draw a line between the Arab population (as they were called then) and the Jewish population. So the Peel Commission proposed the forced transfer-the term they use is-voluntary or otherwise, of a substantial proportion of the Palestinian population in order to create a Jewish state. So from its genesis, the idea of partition is inseparable from ethnic cleansing.
When partition came about in 1947-1949, it was only through ethnic cleansing. As [Israeli historian] Benny Morris put it so memorably a few years ago, the state of Israel would not have come into existence without the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Palestinians. That is of course self-evident because Israel is constituted as a Jewish state, a state that gives special rights and special privileges to one group of people based on arbitrary criteria that you or I cannot join up to. In becoming a U.S. citizen, there are criteria. If you fulfill certain legal conditions, at least on paper, it takes longer for some people to become citizens than for others, but in theory these are transparent criteria to which anybody can aspire but it is not so in Israel.
You may have read in the news today that Israel has discovered yet another Jewish tribe, an ancient tribe in India, and it is now sending rabbis-parachuting in rabbis-to convert them and bring them to Israel. They brought the Indians from the Andes and now they are bringing the Indians from South Asia to populate the settlements.
The reality is that the two-state solution has proven to be the least pragmatic and the least workable of all options. If you consider that, Palestinians did accept the idea, did make these far-reaching, unprecedented offers. I like to take the language the Israelis use and reverse it. Then it becomes true. You remember what they said about Camp David-we made these far-reaching offers-no, the Palestinians made a genuinely unprecedented offer. I think no colonized people ever offered their colonizer 78 percent of their homeland, and this offer has been consistently rejected by the Israelis who have said no, West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza is too much for you, much too much for you, we still want more and more and more.
Despite the decades of political and diplomatic effort devoted to creating a Palestinian state, no such date exists. The last time we were promised one by 2005. It is now almost 2007, and they are still dangling the carrot in front of, they think the Palestinians are like a donkey. My father always talked about, I don’t know if this is true, he also says they walked to Jerusalem barefoot in the snow as a child. They think of the Palestinians as a donkey and the carrot is the state dangling from the stick and we are going to keep going after it while Israel continues the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Nevertheless, there is a multi-billion dollar industry devoted to maintaining the fiction that a two-state solution is both possible and popular. But there is no evidence that the majority of the Israeli public supports a two-state solution. There are plenty of opinion polls that say 60 or 70 percent of Israelis support withdrawal from occupied territory, dismantling settlements and allowing a Palestinian state. But when the question is asked specifically do you support withdrawing from all the settlements, do you support withdrawing from East Jerusalem, do you support a Palestinian state which is truly independent and sovereign, that [majority] disappears.
We are also told that a one state solution, the Palestinians are against it. Again, the evidence is questionable. The opinion polls that have been taken inside the occupied territories over a decade show that support for a two-state solution varies from a low of about less than 50 percent up to a high of around 60-65 percent, which is remarkably low considering the massive industry devoted to telling Palestinians that that’s what they should want. At the same time, and this point struck me when Michael Tarazi made it in The New York Times two years ago, that support for a single democratic state for Israelis and Jews among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has fluctuated between about 25 percent up to a high of about 40 percent or so in the past decade. This is remarkably high given the fact that this is a taboo subject. There isn’t a single recognized leader who has that as a platform, and you have this massive multi-billion dollar industry telling us that this is a nonstarter and we shouldn’t even discuss it.
That is only dealing with Palestinians under occupation. The majority of the Palestinian people of course do not live under occupation. They live both in the diaspora and as citizens in the Israeli state. Now, among Palestinians in the Israeli state, the majority certainly want what Azmi Bishara called for, a state of all its citizens, a state which does not discriminate based on ethnic, racial or other arbitrary and discriminatory criteria. So among Palestinians in Israel, the notion of a state that gives equal rights to everyone is certainly the majority view. Among Palestinians in the diaspora, it is very hard to gauge opinion because they are scattered to the corners of the earth. But in my experience and when you look at the discussions and debates that occur among Palestinians in the United States, on college campuses and in other places, there is a recognition that the two-state solution means in effect the cancellation of the right of return which for Palestinians in the diaspora is central.
To the extent that Palestinians supported a two-state solution, it was because they believed that a state could give expression to their rights. Now, what the Israelis have done is they have subverted the notion of a state. So for decades they said, no, no, no, no Palestinian state, there is no room for two states between the river and the sea. Now, they insist we have to have a state, saying you have no choice. Remember in the seventies and eighties, if a Palestinian said that they wanted a state that made them persona non grata. It was illegal for Israelis to talk to them, they were placed under United States sanctions and they were called terrorists. Now, it is illegal to say you do not want a state. The reason Hamas is unacceptable is because they say we are not interested in this two-state solution. So it became forbidden to compulsory.
Of course it is not the state; it is the content that matters. If it were a Palestinian state that actually gave Palestinians equality, equal access to the land and resources of Palestine, then of course that is off the agenda. If it is a Bantustan, as the Apartheid government in South Africa attempted to set up in South Africa to circumvent demands for equality and equal share of the resources of the country, that is what is meant by state. I know that has become a familiar argument to many people, and it is one I explore in more depth in the chapter on what we can learn from South Africa both in terms of how the conflict is structured and how to get out of it.
The key issue, the driving force behind all Israeli policy in popular or media mythology in this country, the driving force behind Israeli policy is security. That is the Israeli claim-it is about security. The reality, from the very beginning, is that Israel is driven by a concern for demography. The project of Zionism was to take this country which was multicultural, multi-religious and turn it into an exclusively Jewish state, and Jewish by the definition of the Zionist movement not Jewish by the definition of the totality of Jews living all over the world. This has proceeded in stages, the ethnic cleansing in 1948, followed by 1967 and now we see the policies being enacted in the present time.
I want to read a short segment from the book that illustrates what lies behind Israel’s so-called unilateral separation. The notion that there is no Palestinian partner so we poor Israelis are willing to retreat behind walls and give up so much.
I will read two short passages:
“ ‘The state of Israel is coming to an end.’ For decades, demographer Arnon Soffer has been confronting Israelis with this alarming prophecy. Until a few years ago, Soffer was a prophet in the wilderness, or so he thought, warning his unheeding compatriots that by 2010 the high Palestinian birthrate would result in Arabs outnumbering Jews in historic Palestine-Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip. But ‘suddenly in the last three years, the scales have fallen from people’s eyes,’ Soffer said in 2004. ‘The change in public opinion began with the second intifada and the Israeli Arab riots and then the suicide bombings,’ [he said.] One Israeli who saw the light was Ariel Sharon. The night Sharon was swept into office in February 2001, Soffer’s phone rang. ‘Bring me your separation maps tomorrow,’ the voice at the other end demanded. It was Sharon himself. For years, Soffer had worried that Palestinians would realize all they had to do was sit tight until their numbers forced Israeli Jews to give up power. ‘In order to save the State of Israel,’ he argued, ‘we have to separate unilaterally and as quickly as possible.’ At last, someone was listening, someone with the power to implement Soffer’s ideas.”
The second segment gives us some insight into what this looks like in practice and some framework to understand the horrors that we are seeing everyday.
“Olmert called the unilateral solution Israel’s ‘great hope,’ but Arnon Soffer, the demographic guru, offered a less optimistic prognosis. [Again, speaking in 2004, he said,] ‘unilateral separation doesn’t guarantee ‘peace’ it guarantees a Jewish-Zionist state with an overwhelming majority of Jews.’ What will be the price of this achievement? The ‘day after unilateral separation,’ Soffer said, ‘the Palestinians will bombard us with artillery fire-and we will have to retaliate. But at least war will be at the fence-not in the kindergartens in Tel Aviv and Haifa.’ Soffer was unambiguous about Israel’s response: ‘We will tell the Palestinians that if a single missile is fired over the fence, we will fire ten in response. And women and children will be killed and houses will be destroyed.’ Further down the line, ‘when 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza,’ Soffer predicted, ‘it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It is going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.’”
That is what you are seeing now in Beit Hanoun. That is Israel’s vision. Israel, created as an exclusivist Jewish state by force and maintained against the will of the majority of the population of Palestine by force, can only continue to exist by escalating massacres and atrocities.
This is not an unfamiliar situation. It is exactly the situation that the Apartheid government in South Africa found itself in the mid-1980s. The calculation that they made around 1989 was that whites can stay in power for at least another ten years, but it would involve massacres on a scale that the Apartheid regime was not willing to contemplate. The Israelis are made of sterner stuff than the Apartheid rulers of South Africa.
What helped things to change in South Africa and in the book I look in depth at the change in mindset among the whites in South Africa who had grown up with an ideology that was remarkably similar to Zionism. And this is something a lot of people don’t know because we always thought of the whites there as being like Nazis, thinking of themselves as a superior race. In their own ideology, they didn’t. They thought of themselves as the underdog and the victim, and their whole mythology was based in real history, real facts that they had been brutally oppressed by the British and so they saw themselves as fighting an anti-colonial war against the British just as the Zionists talk about their independence from Britain as if the Palestinians didn’t exist and as if, on the other hand, Africans didn’t exist in Africa. The experience in fighting the British, tens of thousands of Africana whites were killed out of a population of a few hundred thousand. It was their holocaust, and so they saw this white state as being the guarantee that they would never again go through that just as Zionism positions itself as being the guarantee that the Jewish people will never have to be afraid again.
The same time, this is the irony of Israeli claims, we’re told Israel is the only safe place in the world for the Jewish people. Jews cannot be safe in Toronto or in London or in the United States, where the majority of them live anyway. Only Israel can make them safe. On the other hand, we are told that Israel could go up in a puff of smoke, in a mushroom cloud, any second. Israelis are building nuclear bomb shelters. There was a piece in The New York Times a few weeks ago about the popularity among wealthy Israelis of having private nuclear bomb shelters installed in their backyards. So this idea that there is the safest place on earth, but you know any second they could disappear.
The change came in South Africa. It went from a situation where the vast majority of whites voted consistently for Apartheid and said that any alternative would mean the destruction of whites in South Africa, they’d be driven into the sea, to a situation where in 1992 69 percent of whites voted to end Apartheid. Why did that happen? I think there are two main reasons. One, the balance of power was changing. The anti-Apartheid resistance in South Africa and internationally had reached a point where the situation was becoming untenable. The other reason is there was a vision.
Now the point I tried to make in the book is that you have to have both. The ANC had a very clear vision from 1955 onwards, a non-racial South Africa-one person, one vote. Now that wasn’t enough. The Africanas didn’t say, oh look the ANC has published the Freedom Charter let’s sit down with them and implement it. For the next 50 years or so, they dismissed them. They said your true intentions, as I am told constantly, oh your lovely, deceptive conciliatory rhetoric but your true intention is to destroy Israel. So the ANC was told for 50 years. It was only when the balance of power changed as a result of a determined struggle that the Apartheid government said to the ANC show us what you’ve got, tell us what your ideas are, how can we get out of this abyss. So there has to be a vision and a struggle.
Right now with the situation in Palestine, we have no vision. We have a placebo. The two-state solution is a placebo, and it is a tranquilizer so that people can avoid responsibility. This afternoon I went and met with one of the staffers of my [U.S.] Senator Barak Obama and basically I said, so what’s Barak Obama, he’s on the Foreign Relations Committee, so what is he going to do about, I put it more politely, but basically what’s he going to do about Israel. Is he going to put pressure on Israel? And the answer is oh he supports the Road Map. So what does that mean? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
The notion of a two state solution allows people to evade responsibility for action by saying I support a peace process. Now the EU in their latest statements say there is an urgent need for restoring the peace process. No there isn’t. Peace process has never achieved anything for the Palestinians. What’s needed is justice and from justice will come peace. They don’t need a peace process, they need justice. But nobody says that. They say a peace process because a peace process gets you off the hook. And the longer it goes on, the longer you can evade your responsibility for holding Israel accountable. And so it was with South Africa when the United States and Britain and the Europeans talked about constructive engagement. Oh yes well Apartheid is not very nice but you know the Africanas are terrified so we need to have constructive engagement, and if we’re nice enough to them then they’ll change willingly.
Well 50 years of that didn’t result in anything. Now with hindsight, everybody says they were against Apartheid and they forget the reality that Apartheid had its supporters in the United States, in Europe, in government. Chester Crocker, I quote him in the book, Ronald Reagan’s advisor for southern Africa, said at one point that the only thing Reagan knows about South Africa is he’s on the side of the whites. But people who knew better were also unwilling to challenge Apartheid because South Africa was part of what was called the Cold War but would today be called the war on communism and as Israel is allegedly part of the war on terror. So South Africa had its supporters.
Of course there are big differences. There was no Africana diaspora and lobby similar to the Zionist lobby that we have to contend with in this country. So it’s not an identical situation of course, but we lack any unifying vision. There is the fantasy of separation, the fantasy that the other will disappear which gets us all off the hook of thinking very, very hard about what an alternative future could look like. And in terms of the struggle, there are lessons.
The ANC and the anti-Apartheid movement supported and engaged in arms struggle as Palestinians have done. And they upheld their right. And Nelson Mandela wrote that I believe that we had the right to use terrorism. That was his word. I am not saying I agree with Nelson Mandela on that because there are cameras here and people will misquote me. The point is that the ANC upheld the right to arms struggle even to use what Nelson Mandela called terrorism. They emphasized civil resistance and they emphasized means of resistance which did not create so many new victims that reconciliation was impossible. I think that is an important lesson for Palestinians that I think is being absorbed. We’ve seen the dramatic changes in the approach Hamas is taking.
Recently Ahmad Yusuf, an advisor to the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, had in The New York Times an op-ed in which he said we want to follow the path of the IRA [Irish Republican Army]. They’ve been making this very explicit comparison to northern Ireland and said look, I’m paraphrasing, we don’t believe that right now there are political solutions to our conflict with Israel, but we want a truce of ten years for negotiations and if at the end of ten years there is a solution, great. If there isn’t, it will be up to a future generation to decide whether to continue that. This is fundamental because it was when the ANC and the Africana government realized that through violence each could deny victory to the other but neither could prevail that the serious talks started on change. We see that change among Palestinians. It has yet to come on the Israeli side. I think the Palestinians are there waiting for an Israeli partner. Unfortunately, there is no partner yet. But I think with continued international pressure through the global movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions, an Israeli peace partner, an Israeli [former President of South Africa] F.W. de Klerk will have to emerge.
I want to conclude because my time is up in saying that this book focuses for the first half in analyzing what I believe is wrong with the current approach and what has failed about it and in learning what we can from South Africa. The other part of the book is trying to imagine what a future would look like and offering some principles for what a joint Israeli-Palestinian state would look like so we can begin to put, forgive my non-vegan metaphor, flesh on the bones of this vision and looking at examples from other countries that have had to deal with these sorts of ethnic conflicts which are rooted in colonialism whether it’s in South Africa, in northern Ireland and in Belgium, which is a country that has some features that I think are very relevant. And I certainly don’t claim to provide all of the answers.
I think this is about raising questions and inviting everybody who is concerned about this issue to engage in a common task of beginning to develop a vision that is actually pragmatic, actually implementable and actually just. At the same time, we don’t have the luxury of sitting around musing about these things. There is urgent work to be done. We need to escalate the civil resistance. We need to increase the support for the movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions. But that struggle will not have meaning and will not get us where we want to go unless it is guided by a vision which at the end of the day both Israelis and Palestinians can see themselves as part of.
Ali Abunimah is a Palestinian-American writer and the son of Palestinian refugees. He is the creator and editor of The Electronic Intifada, Electronic Iraq and recently Electronic Lebanon. A graduate of Princeton University, he is a frequent speaker and commentator on the Middle East.