Can Israel escape a binational future?

On 18 December, the low-key headline on the website of Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper noted: “Herzliya conference sees verbal attacks on Israeli Arabs.” What this concealed was that Israel’s top military, political and business leaders, gathered for an annual get-together in the town of Herzliya under the auspices of the Israeli Institute for Policy and Strategy, were hearing implicit calls for genocide from some colleagues.

According to Ha’aretz, Dr. Yitzhak Ravid, a senior researcher at the Israeli government’s Armaments Development Authority, called for Israel to “implement a stringent policy of family planning in relation to its Muslim population.” In case his meaning wasn’t clear, Ravid added: “the delivery rooms in Soroka Hospital in Be’ersheba have turned into a factory for the production of a backward population.”

Ravid’s comments almost certainly violated the 1951 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, whose definition of genocide includes “imposing measures intended to prevent births” within a specific “national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Not only is committing such acts considered genocide under international law, so too is “direct and public incitement to commit genocide.”

The day before Ravid spoke, the former Israeli prime minister and current finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, set the tone. He told those gathered that the 1.3 million Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin (rather than the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories who can simply be fenced in) represented the true “demographic threat” to the Jewish state, and that if this population grew from its current 20 percent to 35-40 percent, Israel would become a “binational country.”

Such declarations represent an ideological racism that has its roots in the late 19th- and early 20th-century European setting in which Zionism was born. How ironic that the kinds of statements made against Jews in Europe in the 1930s can now be freely uttered in a supposedly “modern” and “liberal” Israel, without a peep from those fretting loudest about what they consider is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.

The increasing frequency of calls from some Israelis for measures legally defined as genocide, including “population transfer,” also reflect the sudden realization that the foundations of the Zionist project are disintegrating rapidly as Palestinians are once again becoming a majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

Israel’s “peace camp” has long recognized the inherent incompatibility of democracy and the Zionist notion of a state ruled by and for Jews that controls a substantial non-Jewish, indigenous population. It is mainly the desire to preserve a Jewish-ruled “democracy” that converted the Israeli left to the cause of partial Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, and nominal Palestinian statehood in the evacuated areas.

The Likudnik right, by contrast, has always viewed talk of withdrawal as appeasement, and literally blasphemy against God, arguing that only by expanding settlements and forcibly putting down Arab rebellions could Jewish sovereignty be assured.

But recently, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, one of Israel’s most uncompromising settlement builders, a contender to succeed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a former “mayor” of occupied Jerusalem, stunned Israelis and split the Israeli right by calling for Israel to withdraw from parts of the West Bank. The Jerusalem Report’s Gershom Gorenberg described the impact of Olmert’s shift by saying “it would be less surprising if (US Vice-President) Dick Cheney came out for socialism.”

Yet, despite these verbal fireworks and Sharon’s vague talk of “painful concessions,” the chances are remote that any prospective changes will translate into an Israeli consensus that could achieve a workable two-state solution acceptable to Palestinians. Israelis remain divided over what “withdrawal” means. No influential Israeli politician is proposing a full — no tricks — return to the 1967 borders and an evacuation of even a majority of the settlers — let alone all of them. This, accompanied by a blanket Israeli refusal to even discuss the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, means that no one is contemplating the minimum it would take to get a majority of Palestinians to sign on to a two-state deal.

On the right, Sharon and Olmert are advancing bankrupt schemes for “unilateral separation,” an idea Sharon reaffirmed in Herzliya on 18 December, which in practical terms translates into apartheid for the Palestinians who will be allowed, as was said of the South African Bantustans, “to police themselves and administer their own poverty.”

Meanwhile, even the most generous proposal the Israeli left has produced, the so-called Geneva Initiative — which leaves most settlers where they are, annexes to Israel almost all of Jerusalem and gives Israel a complete veto on the right of return — cannot find a consensus. The initiative has not only been repudiated by the Israeli right, but even by leading “doves.”

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister and head of Israel’s delegations to the Camp David and Taba talks in 2000, derided the Geneva Initiative in an 11 December interview with France’s Le Figaro, saying the Israeli participants were “outbidding each other with concessions.” Ben-Ami observed that the Labor Party, which, he underlined, remained the sole vehicle for a center-left government to return to power, “has not swallowed the Geneva document, and in my opinion, will not swallow it.” Yossi Beilin, the chief Israeli architect of Geneva, has, meanwhile, broken with Labor and joined forces with the shrinking left-Zionist Meretz.

While Israel’s elites try to square the unsquarable circle, Israel is building more settlements and accelerating construction of the security barrier. In the unlikely event that Israelis manage to unite around any kind of withdrawal, let alone one that meets the rights and minimum needs of the Palestinians, by that point the occupation will be even more entrenched and the debate would resume on accommodating new “facts on the ground.”

As the two-state illusion fades, there is an opportunity for new ideas on how to escape the bloody impasse. There are, on the one hand, the hideous prescriptions of Dr. Ravid and Mr. Sharon; on the other, the hope offered by a single binational state guaranteeing full rights and equality for Jews and Palestinians. This is the only solution that conforms to universal human rights.

Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of the Electronic Intifada. This article first appeared, slightly abridged, in The Daily Star