One democratic state might be the solution (2/2)


Eighth, the two-state solution will not ultimately satisfy any of the other nations living in this region forever. Religiously but also demographically such a solution will put barriers between the same nations. This solution has the potential to divide and spread the Palestinians into two or more different countries.

Ninth, within the framework of a two-state solution, the refugee problem will never be resolved, nor will the other equally persistent issues of Jerusalem or settlements and the settlers be tackled fairly and adequately. (400,000 settlers including Jerusalem and settlements now account for almost 42 percent of the West Bank, not including Palestinian East Jerusalem. Israeli settlements and bypass roads have virtually encircled occupied East Jerusalem, making it impossible for Palestinians to develop and expand their most important urban center - and making a mockery of the idea of a shared capital.

Tenth, Israel’s so-called security wall, parts of which is nearly 8 meters high and are topped with watch towers and barbed wire, has more to do with seizing Palestinian land than it does with security. The wall is not being built on Israel’s border, but rather in occupied Palestinian territory in such a way as to separate Palestinians from their adjacent farmland and water resources, thereby denying Palestinians not only their freedom of movement but also their livelihood.

In summary, one can conclude that the two-state solution might have been possible some years ago. Not any more. The realties, which Israel itself created on the ground are beyond the scope of honest co-existence simply because too much water has flowed under the bridge of this conflict. Israel alone must assume responsibility for the impasse. The Palestinians never held the bargaining chips in their hands. We had to be content to play second fiddle simply because the US under the influence of powerful lobbies had tied their hands, and Europe simply cannot really extricate itself from the guilt of the holocaust.

In the sixties, the notion of a single democratic state where people of different nations and religions in the area could live had gained much currency. Many factions in the PLO believed in this solution. But the battle for justice in the Middle East has begun to defy the obvious. The best choices are not always the wisest choices! Such are the dimensions of the conflict. So, what are the contours of a single state solution? And why does it seem such a futile path to pursue especially considering that it is such an attractive and ideal solution? In fact this is not a popular one on the streets of Palestine these days nor indeed in Israel. It used to be a much-discussed idea some four decades ago as a viable idea. It was popular among the educated and informed progressive groups and many political factions who saw the benefit of having one democratic state.

A single state is one which is democratic and secular. Not Jewish. Not Islamic. It will stand for justice and equality of all races and religions. It will accept and tolerate each religious community and accord each of them their right to practice and propagate their religion. Those who oppose this are from both sides. The Jews, influenced by Zionism, fear being overpowered in demographic terms very rapidly and the balance of power in number terms turning against them. The Palestinians, for their part, fear that that the superior economic circumstances of the Israelis will enable them to maintain and perpetuate their higher status. This pattern of thinking may just be getting too cynical. Can one simply rest in the past and abandon principles? Or shall we dream dreams and work on actualizing them?

The respected Israeli analyst Uri Avnery, writing in the Palestinian Chronicle, a journal of Palestinian studies, under the auspices of the UC Berkeley, has posed questions that must be considered before proceeding with this idea and popularizing (or re-popularizing it). He argues that if this idea has any realistic chance of being actualized it will happen a few generations down the line at best. There is, in his view, no political space for such an idea to take root and grow in the here and now. He dismisses the idea as untenable by pointing to the negative experiences of the multi-national Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Canada, Cyprus, Indonesia, the Philippines, Lebanon and many other countries. He asks: Will the two now-strongly nationalistic identities- the Zionists and the Arab-Palestinian- give up their national narratives and be ready to give up their supra-national claims.

How do I read this? With disappointment mostly because Uri Avnery is meant to be part of the Israeli progressive project for the resolution of the Palestinian Question. So you begin to wonder what IS happening. Either, Uri is pessimistic or he is simply unwilling to concede the essential Israeli claim to land and more land. By discounting the prospects of one democratic state (bi-national state), Uri leads the progressive Israeli charge to defend Zionism while still couching it in the language of progressive and liberal thinking. He argues in this vein: ”There is no chance at all that the present, post-holocaust, Israeli generation, or its successor, will accept this solution, which conflicts absolutely with the myth and the ethos of Israel.” Speaking of the Palestinians he observes that “some Palestinians do indeed talk longingly of a bi-national state,” but this, he complains, “is just a code word for the elimination of the State of Israel and for some others an escape from bitter reality to the dream of returning to their homes and villages of the past.”

Uri Avnery as a representative for the average Zionist left, simply cannot possibly countenance such a state functioning because, as he says: “there is hardly any multi-national state in the world that really functions properly.” I am not sure if he includes the USA and Canada in this argument as well. He goes on to describe how the gaping inequality between Israelis and Palestinians in almost every sphere would be perpetuated by the Israelis. The Palestinians will continually lose out economically, and the gap between the two peoples will grow. His conclusion? “Two states are needed for two peoples. This will direct the national feelings of the two peoples into reasonable, constructive channels that will make co-existence, cooperation and, finally, a genuine reconciliation possible.” But like many of the opponents of the bi-national state, Uri becomes a bit jaded, even somewhat blinded in his vision of things when he argues, “There is great danger even in propagating this idea. His logic: “The perfect is the enemy of the good…(and) the very mention of the bi-national vision will scare the great majority of Israelis, who are now slowly approaching acceptance of the two-state solution. It will arouse their most deep-seated existential anxieties and push them into the arms of the extreme right-wing.” He goes on to rationalize things and guesses that “talk of bi-nationalism will give the Right a powerful weapon to justify their suspicion that the real aim of the adherents of the two-state solution is to abolish the State of Israel by stages!”

This is the crux of the problem because it somehow says to us, the Palestinians, that we must wait for the generosity of the Israeli before we are given legitimacy. What if they never come around? How many generations of Palestinians will have to put up with the colonial instincts and approaches of Israel? Mr. Uri Avnery himself comes with the right arguments when he says: “Should we abandon a good and positive idea just because the enemies of peace pervert it and try to use it for their ends? Logic would dictate the opposite: to expose the perversion of the idea by Sharon and fight for a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders?” Mr. Avnery hopes that one day “we shall reach the objective: to live together in peace, side by side. Perhaps a later generation will one day decide to live in one joint state. But today the propaganda for this utopia diverts attention from the practical, immediate objective, at a time when the whole world has accepted the idea of “two states for two peoples”. I can agree with Mr. Avnery fully when he states in a prophetic tone: “I am convinced that the 21st century will bring vast changes in the structure of the world and the way of life of human society. The importance of the nation-state will gradually diminish. A world order, world law and worldwide structures will play a central role. But I can not agree with him when he says, “I believe that Israel will whole-heartedly take part in the march of humanity. We shall not be tardy. But there is no point in expecting the Israeli public to be 50 years ahead of the times.”

I would argue that Mr. Avnery has not tackled the facts on the ground for the last 35 years and how to deal with them. In the same token I would argue with his belief that the current Israel, as a racist state, can play the human role he described unless it changes its practices and attitudes. Mr. Avnery knows quite well the Apartheid system inside Israel and the way the Arabs and the other minorities are treated. If Israel changes all these practices then it would be possible for Israelis to accept the one-state solution. Since Israel failed to offer equality to its own citizens for the past 50 years, it is unlikely that it could add something positive to human history. Supported by the Christian Zionists and other re-actionist forces in the US and Europe, the racist country of Israel plays the role of regional watchdog, fighting to suppress all progressive countries or powers in the region.

I must underline the fear I expressed just a while ago- Mr. Uri Avnery comes across as a fervent Zionist except, of course that he gives the impression of progressive and visionary thought. I am no political analyst or philosopher but I cannot help asking: If an idea is a good one, why wait for a few generations to realize it? And who said that pluralism is not viable simply because it has not been the European experience? Why find grounds to be re-jectionist when you have to be proactive in the search for positive ideas? I have a grave fear and concern that those we once banked on have now turned around and opted for the status quo. In fact, I am rather persuaded by a growing sentiment in Palestinian circles that the average Israeli rejects both a democratic bi-national state and a two-state solution. They simply do not subscribe to the idea that Palestinians have the right to freedom and independence.

Mr. Avnery is different only in one way. He wants soft-Zionism, not the Sharon variety. Me? I want no Zionism at all. Nor do I want fundamentalism in Islam or Christianity or in any form anywhere in any political spectrum. I don’t want to see any fanatic ideology in the world. Zionism is in the lead of such ideologies and should be fought against. This is what is expected from Mr. Uri Avnery and others.

One will have to go beyond the confines of Israeli and Palestinian territories to find merit in the one-state idea. Or shall I call it the one-state ‘ideal’? Or, perhaps, as Mr. Avnery would call it, ‘The Utopia’? A unified state is one which will need sweat and tears- I hope there will be no blood. It will require concerted effort and struggle too against the very tenets of the Zionist project. [For that matter, the struggle must vociferously oppose any form of fanaticism- Islamic, Jewish, or Christian. I want to be a dreamer and to dream dreams of a world, of a Middle East in which my children and their children and all subsequent generations of children will not have to resort to defining borders, of going to Madrid, Oslo, Camp David, and other secret locations to avert catastrophes. I need a solution which will bring eternal peace, not one that will take me from one war to another.

The Middle East is not devoid of natural and human resources. A region free of the fear of conflict could convert weapons of destruction into instruments of peace and development. The collective gifts of all the peoples can be mobilized and unleashed into a common union and market place of enhanced prosperity. This is what many of our people dream of- simple peace and prosperity. NOT hatred and war, or death, or demolished houses, or ransacked olive fields or orange groves, or midnight knocks on the door and the arrest of a loved one who may never return.

The alternative is nothing short of disaster. Israel can win a short-term war. It can even try to expel the Palestinians out of the West Bank or Gaza. They may have won the conflict but only for an interim period. The bigger question is “Will they have won peace?” The Palestinians for their part can continue the resistance and unravel the Israeli populace with attacks. Even peaceful resistance- which is the bulk of the Palestinian resistance- takes its toll. The question remains: ”Who will win peace? Perpetuating the conflict and extracting short-term victories is easy. But what are the consequences? Death and destruction? Hatred and more prejudice? Young lives and futures jeopardized by irreversible anger? Recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan must illuminate our minds. Mere military success adds nothing to peace. On the contrary, it breeds violence.

Palestinians and progressive Israelis must resist the urge to counter the claims of a Jewish State with an Islamic regime, which can only pour more oil on the flames of the conflict. It is incumbent on progressive forces to find ways of articulating the ideals of a single, democratic, secular state and to use comprehensive education strategies to have the Palestinian and Israeli masses consider the idea. Young fertile minds must be won over as a start and, if the notion of the two-nation theory is not viable, then one must ask about the notion of a single democracy, where Israelis and Palestinians can co-exist within the parameters of a pluralist society. What chance does this formula have of getting any further? Those who once were sold on the idea have now voiced doubts and questions. It’s not that they disagree with its positive connotations, but that they have become tired and suspicious. The entire political landscape is polluted with distrust and the bitterness of failed experiences, of naked aggression, of homes demolished, of agricultural fields destroyed and rendered useless, of sons, daughters, and fathers put into prison for no rhyme or reason, and of children brutalized.

Palestinians and progressive Israelis must also educate international opinion and gain advocates in a variety of forums, for example, the EU, the G-8, the Non-Aligned Movement, the African Union- and all other international political alliances. International NGOs, international religious bodies of all faith traditions, trade unions, etc., should be mobilized to understand and advocate for such a model.

They say:” The powerful do not part with power voluntarily; they do so under pressure.” Here is a function for the international community. Unless pressure is brought on Israel to abandon its separatist stance, any peace initiative is a non-starter. This is the function of the international community but the Palestinians and the progressive Israelis must provide the materials and arguments for their case.

One can also hope to put in place the foundations of a joint progressive entity which can unify the struggle of both nations. A joint solid progressive political party would implement such a resistance project. Palestinian and Israeli aspirations can only be fulfilled when people across the divide the separatist tendency affirm the fact of pluralism as an ideal to be pursued with vigor and enthusiasm, and thus hand the forces of fundamentalism and Zionism a sound rejection. The spark for this must come from a new generation of people- or from those who have been sidelined by the present forces because they have sought to propose alternatives.

In Israel, the Peace Movement, which has traditionally opposed occupation and all its attendant features needs to pursue its work with greater courage and vigor and to overcome its fear of being labeled a traitor? These are the risks of peace and they must be taken if we are to avoid the risks of war. Lest it appear that these are brand-new ideas, I must quickly point out that there exist a large number of people who share the one-state ideal. They are unorganized and scattered. They cut across the political divide. If only they can find ways to come together and unite, their combined forces and their moral authority can influence and shape public opinion significantly. In some ways it can be argued that there is a sense of ‘conflict-fatigue’ growing among people. People would enthusiastically welcome a solution that held the promise of justice and security for both the peoples.

This is, perhaps, the time to create a new political force. Such a force must, of necessity, cut across the religious and ethnic divide. It must unite all progressive and liberal forces who believe in pluralism- political, religious, ethnic, racial, etc. After all, the solutions are going to have to be political. The current political space is occupied by parties who are tired and devoid of new ideas and caught up in self-interest. How can you expect those whose need to survive exceeds the need to come up with real political solutions? The failure of Oslo has proved this argument beyond the shadow of a doubt.

For both sides, there exist some extremely tricky issues that have to be resolved. None of these are ones that can be papered over or postponed. Solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be found on a piece-meal basis, one-at-a-time. The solutions must be comprehensive.

The solutions will not come from mere compromise. We cannot reach compromise because a compromise is usually a half-and-half thing. No one is happy at the end of it. I would rather use the concept of reconciliation, which is to say we must adopt shared principles. Within the framework of these principles, each side can agree to give up something in the interests of the larger peace. For this we need statesmen. And where shall they come from? From among our people. Recount the Bible stories of liberation. The prophets were not messianic or charismatic people. They were humble men who possessed a vision of something distant and worked tirelessly to achieve it. We might have to settle in for the long haul. The question becomes then: What seeds are we sowing and on what soil?

Is this a dream? Perhaps. But the prophet Isaiah tells us that when we are devoid of visions, we perish.

Rifat Odeh Kassis is the Executive Director of the East Jerusalem YMCA and the President of Defense for Children International - Palestine Section. This paper was first delivered at the International Seminar on the Palestinian Struggle and Globalization, 29 – 31 August 2003, Bethlehem.