Peace in Palestine through territorial partition is a doomed fantasy and the time has come to discard it. While it may once have worked on paper, in practice the Israeli state has succeeded, through the relentless colonization of the Occupied Territories and lately its grotesque separation barrier, in its long-standing goal of rendering any workable partition impossible.
While Israel was conceived as a state for Jews, Edward Said explained in 1999, the “effort to separate (Israelis and Palestinians) has occurred simultaneously and paradoxically with the effort to take more and more land, which has in turn meant that Israel has acquired more and more Palestinians.” The result is that Israel can in the long run only remain a “Jewish state” through apartheid or, as some Israeli Cabinet ministers demand, ethnic cleansing.
Armed Palestinian resistance has rendered the colonization effort extremely costly to Israel, but has been unable to stop or reverse it. The “road map” was the final test of whether a two-state solution could be realized through peaceful means. The refusal of the US to exert any pressure on Israel, despite an unprecedented 51-day cease-fire by all Palestinian factions, leaves no doubt that a US administration, no matter how determined its rhetoric, cannot in good faith work toward such a solution. There is no other coalition of countries that is ready, willing and able to act as a counterweight to the US.
Recognizing years ago the implications of the intertwined population and complex geography that Israeli colonization has created, Said wrote that “the question is not how to devise means for persisting in trying to separate,” Israelis and Palestinians, “but to see whether it is possible for them to live together as fairly and peacefully as possible.” Said believed that the way to achieve this is in a single state.
While Said’s logic and vision were irresistible, the strongest counterargument was the pragmatic one: that something like peace could be most quickly achieved through ending the occupation and establishing a state for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, an international consensus and framework of international law contemplating this outcome had been painstakingly built over three decades. To discard it, many Palestinians feared, would have been to take a leap into the unknown.
But it is inescapable now that what already exists is in effect one state: Israel, in which half the population — the Palestinians — have second-class rights or no rights at all, not even citizenship.
The insistence on partition, not on one state, is increasingly a delusional deviation from this reality. I want to be clear that my belief that the two-state solution is unachievable derives not from an analysis that the status quo of settlement and occupation is irreversible, since anything built by humans can conceivably be dismantled by them, but that the political dynamic that has created the present situation is irreversible within the current framework.
The only way to rob the Israeli colonization project of its raison d’etre is not to continue to throw ourselves into the path of a superior force, or to continue to plead with the United States, but to render the motive of territorial conquest irrelevant. In one state, all people will be able to live wherever they want, provided they obtain their homes legally on the same basis as everyone else, not through force and land theft. In other words, we have to break the link between sovereignty, ethnicity and geography within Palestine.
It is the moment, therefore, for us to declare the era of partition over and commit to a moral, just and realisable vision in which Israelis and Palestinians build a future as partners in a single state which guarantees freedom, equality and cultural self-determination to all its citizens. Refusing to make this choice now means effectively agreeing to the endless bloodshed and extremism offered by Israel’s political-military establishment and Hamas.
The path to one state contains obstacles, the greatest being Jewish Israelis’ desire to maintain the power and privileges they enjoy today. But whatever resources they possess, ideological opponents of one state will suffer from an insurmountable weakness: They will be arguing against the most basic and deep-rooted principles of democracy — “one person, one vote” and equality before the law.
It will take enormous efforts to convince a majority of Israelis that the security and legitimacy they will never achieve through conquest and repression can be achieved by merging their political future with that of the Palestinians. I am convinced, however, that for most Israelis, resistance to this concept will not stem from an ideological commitment to a status quo in which they are privileged and others oppressed, but will arise from simple fear of discarding today’s certainties, no matter how dismal. To get them to do so, they must be presented with a convincing alternative. Even without such a campaign, several prominent Israelis have recently declared their support for one state. This is a hopeful development.
We should be under no illusion that seeking a one-state solution is a short-cut to peace. On the contrary, we need to prepare for years of sustained political struggle. But at least this path offers an alternative to violence combined with the prospect that real peace can be achieved. Persisting along the present path offers hope of neither.
Although the goal of a single, democratic and secular state was long the central platform of the Palestinian national movement, until it was abandoned in the late 1980s, Palestinian leaders made no serious effort to convince Israelis, or for that matter ordinary Palestinians, that they were not simply proposing to replace Israeli with Palestinian domination.
The burden to persuade Israelis lies largely with Palestinians, who while demanding equal rights and an end to the Jewish Israeli monopoly on power, must hold out a future in which the two communities express their identities as equals rooted by right and history in the same land.
This is undoubtedly an unfair burden, but it is a fact that oppressed groups must often show their oppressors a way out of the tunnel they have dug. This was true in South Africa, where even in the darkest days of apartheid, the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela offered white South Africans a future of reconciliation, not revenge. As in South Africa, a truth and reconciliation process can help both peoples overcome the pain of the past even as they build a just future together.
Israeli and Palestinian supporters of a one-state solution must build a new movement. This partnership must work to translate the vast international sympathy for the Palestinian cause into active support for the transformation — with international assistance and guarantees — of Israel and the Occupied Territories into a democracy for all its inhabitants. It must be a movement that builds political and moral power through non-violent resistance and civil disobedience, and mobilizes the widest possible base. Only through such a movement, I am convinced, shall we create peace in our lifetimes.
Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of the Electronic Intifada. This article first appeared in the Daily Star on 16 October 2003