As I watched the images last week of destruction from the Gaza Strip, where an Israeli shelling attack had killed an entire family, as a Palestinian I could understand the feelings of one survivor who said, “I cannot see a day when we will live in peace with them.” But I also know there is no other choice.
When Israel was established, its founders said it would be an exemplary, moral state. For many Jews, it seemed like a miraculous redemption after so much suffering and loss in the Nazi Holocaust.
Palestinians experienced a different reality. Israel became a “Jewish state” in a country that had always been multicultural and multireligious. The expulsion and exclusion of Palestinians from their own homeland has led Israelis and Palestinians into an endless nightmare of mutual non-recognition and bloodshed.
For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that this conflict can only be resolved by partitioning the country into two states. Yet despite enormous political and diplomatic efforts to achieve this, the two peoples remain thoroughly if unhappily intertwined. Israel’s project of establishing settler-colonies inside the territories where Palestinians wanted to create a state has rendered separation impossible.
At the same time, Israel finds itself in a conundrum. For the first time since the state was founded, Israeli Jews no longer form an absolute majority in the territory they control. Today there are roughly 5 million Jews and 5 million Palestinians living in the same land. The trends are incontestable. Within a few years, Palestinians will form the clear majority.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recognized in 2003 what this would mean: “We are approaching the point where more and more Palestinians will say, ‘There is no place for two states,’ in this country, and ‘All we want is the right to vote.’ The day they get it, we will lose everything.” Warning that Israel could not remain both a Jewish state and a democracy if it held on to all of the occupied Palestinian territories, Olmert added, “I shudder to think that liberal Jewish organizations that shouldered the burden of struggle against apartheid, will lead the struggle against us.”
Some Israeli extremists, like the new Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman, believe this “demographic problem” can be solved by expelling non-Jews. Israel’s chosen solution, which it calls “unilateral separation,” walls Palestinians into impoverished ghettos Palestinians compare to the townships and Bantustans set up for blacks by the apartheid government of South Africa. The result of this approach, as we see in Gaza, is more hopelessness, resistance and defiance, and sure disaster for both peoples.
The two-state solution remains attractive and comforting in its apparent simplicity and finality. But in reality, it has proved unattainable because neither Palestinians nor Israelis are willing to give up enough of the country that they love. Faced with this impasse, a small but growing group of Israelis and Palestinians are tentatively exploring an old idea long dormant: Why not have a single state in which both peoples enjoy equal rights and protections and religious freedom? Many people dismiss this as utopian dreaming.
Allister Sparks, the legendary editor of the anti-apartheid Rand Daily Mail newspaper, observed that the conflict in South Africa most resembled those in Northern Ireland and Palestine-Israel, because each involved “two ethno-nationalisms” in a seemingly irreconcilable rivalry for the “same piece of territory.” If the prospect of “one secular country shared by all” seems “unthinkable” in Palestine-Israel today, then it is possible to appreciate how unlikely such a solution once seemed in South Africa. But “that is what we did,” Sparks says, “without any foreign negotiator [and] no handshakes on the White House lawn.”
To be sure, Palestinians and Israelis would not simply be able to take the new South Africa as a blueprint. They would have to work out their own distinct constitution, including mechanisms for ethnic communities to have autonomy in matters that concern them, and to guarantee that no one group can dominate another. There would be hard work to heal the terrible wounds of the past. Such a solution offers the chance that Palestine-Israel could become for the first time ever the truly safe home where Israelis and Palestinians can accept each other. It may be an arduous path, but in the current impasse we cannot afford to ignore any ray of light.
Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian-American, and the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.