Two States or One?

When the PLO formally recognized Israel within its internationally recognized borders and agreed to a two-state solution in 1993, like most Palestinians, I swallowed hard but accepted it. We believed that this unprecedented historic compromise, though bitter, was necessary to bring about peace. Those who completely rejected the creation of a state limited to the West Bank and Gaza Strip — a mere twenty two percent of the country in which Palestinians were an overwhelming majority just fifty years ago — were relegated to the margins of the Palestinian movement, both on the left and the Islamist right.

Israel gave everyone the impression that it would agree to a Palestinian state, and that it was only a matter of working out the technical formalities. But almost 10 years later, Israel has still never recognized the Palestinian right to statehood, much less agreed to the creation of such a state. On the contrary, in practice it has done everything to make the emergence of such a state impossible by continuing to furiously build colonies all over the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. The settler population in the West Bank has more than doubled since 1993, and not a day goes by without further colonization.

Because this policy has succeeded in solidifying Israeli control, and has, as intended, rendered a rational partition of the country virtually impossible, an increasing number of Palestinians, including some representatives of the Palestinian Authority, have started to talk once again about bi-nationalism — the creation of a single democratic state for Israelis and Palestinians — as the only viable solution to the conflict.

This idea is horrifying to many Israelis, who view it as a plot to “destroy Israel” since the vastly higher birth rate among Palestinians will soon make them a majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, just as they were until 1948.

None are more horrified by this prospect than Israel’s traditional “peace camp,” represented by the Labor and Meretz parties. And yet, because of its liberal values, the “peace camp” is unable to embrace formal apartheid or ethnic cleansing to “solve the demographic problem” as do Israel’s right wing parties. The liberals want both the benefits of Jewish privilege that comes from living in a “Jewish state” while at the same time being faithful to their democratic values. They have shown themselves to be entirely bankrupt morally, intellectually and politically, and to have no serious ideas whatsoever for resolving the conundrum of their hypocrisy. They embrace Palestinian statehood warmly in theory but miss no opportunity to undermine and sabotage it in practice and to present proposals for meaningless and nominal statehood within a greater Israel.

I am one of those who accepted the two-state solution (although I opposed the Oslo Accords because I believed they could not lead to that goal) not enthusiastically, but because it offers Palestinians and Israelis a chance at normalcy from which they could one day — like the European Union — build a future of peace and prosperity from the ashes of war and hatred. Moreover, an international legal framework already exists for the transition from the current situation to Palestinian statehood, at least in theory making the path easier than to any other solution.

For Palestinians, giving up the seventy-eight percent of Palestine that became Israel in 1948 is giving up a part of themselves. It is gut-wrenchingly hard, and for some impossible. I respect that. For millions of Palestinians this is the land from which they, their parents or grandparents were expelled, in which homes and farms, shops and factories, churches and mosques, an entire society, was uprooted in exchange for decades of dispossession, misery in refugee camps, and demonization by Israel and its apologists. But, like millions of others, I was prepared to accept it for the sake of peace.

Although I recognize that the two-state solution will soon become impracticable, if it is not already, due Israel’s relentless settlement construction, I believe it may still have a last chance if Israel is willing to embrace the following principles:

1) Israel must recognize that the Palestinians have already made an historic compromise by accepting a state in only twenty-two percent of their homeland, and that no further concessions can justly be asked of them. Israel must declare that by conquering seventy eight percent of Palestine in 1948, far more than was allotted to it in the 1947 UN partition plan, it has completely fulfilled its territorial ambitions and will not seek any more expansion.

2) Israel must immediately cease all construction in the occupied territories, including “natural growth” and all the other devices that are used to disguise ongoing settlement building. Israel must immediately stop confiscating Palestinian land either for building settlements or settler roads.

3) Israel must agree that the goal of any further negotiations is a complete end to the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem within a fixed, early period, and agree to withdraw under neutral international supervision and guarantees.

4) Israel must recognize an independent, sovereign Palestinian state whose borders are those of June 4, 1967, with minor, agreed-upon modifications to rectify anomalies, such as divided villages and bisected roads. Any land ceded on one side of the line must be compensated with land of equal size, value and utility on the other side, as close as possible to the exchanged land.

5) Israel must agree to evacuate all settlements in the occupied territories, without exception, including settlements in and around occupied East Jerusalem.

6) Jerusalem, as an open city, would be the capital of two states. A formula for sharing power fairly between Palestinians and Israelis, with guaranteed access to holy places for peoples of all faiths, would replace the illegal Israeli occupation “municipality” imposed on the city since 1967. This could be accomplished by various formulas. If the Palestinians agree to allow any settlements to remain in and around Jerusalem, Israel must compensate both the State of Palestine and the private land owners for the land, and the settlers must agree to live either as Palestinian citizens or permanent residents under Palestinian laws. If Palestinians agree that some Israeli settlers can remain in East Jerusalem then Israel must agree to allow Palestinians to return to the homes from which they were expelled in West Jerusalem in 1947-48.

7) The most difficult issue is the right of return of Palestinian refugees and compensation and restitution for their property and suffering. The right to return is an individual legal right and is not negated by the two-state solution. At the same time, recognition of Israel as a sovereign state means acknowledging a political reality and interest that will have to be factored into any formula to implement the right of return. It is not difficult to imagine solutions which fall between the maximalist positions of both sides and which simultaneously take into account Israel’s concerns, and provide Palestinian refugees with real choices, including return to their original homes, as mandated by UN Resolution 194. Palestinians could, for example, agree among themselves to a system of priority where those with the greatest need to return get to choose first (among the choices Palestinian refugees whose original homes no longer exist might be offered is a home in an evacuated Israeli settlement). Israel will not be able to get away with a merely symbolic recognition of Palestinian refugee rights, but nor would millions of refugees suddenly flood back as in the Israeli “nightmare” scenario. There is ground in between that can be reached through negotiations and international mediation.

Palestinian private property remains inviolate and all property seized by Israel, even of those who choose not to return, must be returned to its owners or paid for at the fair market price, including use and interest. Clinton Administration Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat set out some sensible principles for dealing with property confiscated from European Jews and others by Nazi Germany, which could be adopted here. The same principles should apply to any Jews who were forced to leave Arab states as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

These conditions represent an enormous historic compromise. They call for two states, a Jewish Israel on seventy eight percent of the territory of historic Palestine and a State of Palestine on just twenty two percent. They call for full recognition of Israel within secure and recognized borders, the implementation of UN resolutions, sharing of Jerusalem and a just resolution to the refugee problem that respects refugee rights as well as Israel’s needs.

From this basis, Israelis, Palestinians and later perhaps Jordanians, Egyptians, Lebanese and Syrians, might after a couple of generations feel they can join together in something like the European Union. That would be a choice freely made among sovereign peoples. I could live with this, and, though I do not speak for anyone but myself, I believe that other Palestinians could too — indeed this is basically what millions of them thought they were endorsing when they elected Yasir Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority.

The problem is that there is not one major Israeli party or leader who is willing to put such a vision to the Israeli people. Even the most “dovish” want to keep most of the settlers where they are, annex large chunks of the West Bank, keep control of most of Jerusalem, and reject categorically any discussion of the right of return. No allowance is made for the massive compromises already made by the Palestinians, and more still are demanded. Israeli sociologist Jeff Halper argues that it is already too late and Israel’s “matrix of control” in the occupied territories cannot, in effect, be dismantled. If Halper is right, then nothing any Israeli leader says will save the two-state solution. But if he is wrong and it can be saved, time is very short and we must hear a commitment to completely end the occupation from the Israelis now. After all, they are the principal beneficiaries of this solution.

The whole world is waiting, not least the Arab world which again held out its hand to Israel last March when the Arab League unanimously reaffirmed its commitment to a two-state solution.

Sadly, though, the political field in Israel looks unlikely produce anyone who will seize this golden opportunity. I believe, therefore, that Israel will likely miss the boat on the two-state solution, and we will have to think about what it will be like to live together in one state, and more importantly how to get there peacefully because no road map exists. For me, that is not a bad thing. I have no problem with the idea of living with Israelis, as long as we are equal before the law and in practice. I do not see the births or immigration of Jews as a “demographic time bomb” to be regarded with horror, nor am I frightened of having next door neighbors who speak a different language or worship in different ways. I embrace human and cultural diversity, no less in the land where my parents were born, than I do here in the United States.

I am prepared to accept two states as a practical solution to the conflict and do everything in my power to make it work. However, the mere trappings of nationalism — flags, anthems, stately buildings, and passports — mean absolutely nothing to me in themselves and I would just as soon do away with them. What matters is the content: does the flag represent true independence and sovereignty? Does the anthem represent common humanist values? Do the buildings enclose genuinely democratic institutions that do justice? Does a passport give its holder the freedom to travel the world and live securely in his homeland? These are the questions that matter.

Palestine/Israel could be two countries with a border between them that may one day lose its significance, just as the border between France and Germany has lost its power to divide people. Or, it could be one country for two peoples. I do not really care as long as we choose one path quickly and stick to it, and that, in the end, Israelis and Palestinians enjoy peace, democracy and human rights together, not at each other’s expense.

True peace, whatever way we choose to achieve it, has a price. The powerful must give up some of their power and share it with the weak, or conflict is inevitable. Both a genuine two-state solution, as well as a single democratic state, would require that Israelis relinquish their monopoly on power in a manner they have never seriously considered thus far. Peace only came to South Africa when whites realized this and gave up their monopoly on power. Israel is far from that point and still seems to be looking for a way to avoid the choice. That means discussion about how to live together will remain only academic, while conflict and bloodshed rage on.