More on political fancy and one state/two states

by Yaniv Reich on November 12, 2009

In yesterday’s post, I argued against the simplistic and, in my view, weak argument that a one state framework for achieving peace in Israel/Palestine is “political fancifulness”. Given that this argument is one of the most commonly heard criticisms of the one state idea, I want to spend a bit more time addressing it.

I use an example taken from Mondoweiss’ post on Daniel Kurtzer in which they paraphrase his remarks at the Middle East Institute. By way of background, Kurtzer was the US ambassador to Israel during 2001—2005.

There are two competing paradigms for solving Israel/Palestine. Undoing 1948 is the one-state paradigm. Undoing 1967 is the two-state paradigm. Because we believe in Partition, we believe that we can undo 1967––i.e., return to the ‘49 Armistice borders. There are two competing human claims in each paradigm: settlers and refugees. Undoing 1967 means destroying the colonists’ dreams. Undoing 1948 means restoring the refugees’ dreams. Well, the Palestinians have to tell the refugees that the keys they still have to houses in Israel––very few if any will get to return. And as for the colonists—well, not every one of them will get to stay in their houses.

First, as Mondoweiss points out, this is a false dichotomy between settlers and refugees. I’ll take this issue up in more detail in the future, but one of the benefits of the one-state paradigm is that Jews with strong religious attachment to West Bank holy sites would be able, conditional on eschewing violence, to live and pray wherever they chose. So on this point the one state paradigm can actually restore Palestinian refugee rights and allow “colonists’ dreams”, to use Kurtzer’s unpleasant phrase. As long as settlers are willing to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors, which is certainly unclear, then no artificial choice between resolving 1967’s and 1948’s issues need be made.

More generally, the idea that the one state peace paradigm “undoes” 1948 while the two state paradigm “undoes” 1967 is a stark and interesting framing of the distinction. In what way? Well, because the core issues of the conflict began in 1948, not 1967.

To be sure, 1967 and its aftermath represented a tremendous, “all-in” gamble by self-righteous and militant Zionists who believed they had stumbled upon their chance to regain all of biblical Israel. One consequence of that bet was taking official responsibility for the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, who before had been under Jordanian and Egyptian administration, respectively. This created a whole new set of issues, which have been the primary focus of the two state framework for peace, as enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 242 and all Israeli-Palestinian “peacemaking” henceforth.

However, when war broke out on June 5, 1967, immediately before Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians who had been ethnically cleansed from their homeland had been living in refugee camps or exile for nearly 20 years. The two state solution fails utterly to rectify these issues, a fact Kurtzer acknowledges (too lightly). The right of return has always been a non-starter for Israel: It has consistently and unequivocally refused to disuss—even discuss—these rights because it fears for its demographic balance of Jewish vs. Arab voters. Yet the issue is unavoidable and essential: these refugees make up a majority of the Palestinian population and peace will never be complete until their rights are restored in a form acceptable to them.

To the extent that a given peace framework only resolves issues from 1967, even if the basic parameters of “undoing” 1967 could be achieved, a two state agreement still contains severe weaknesses that make it unlikely to succeed. The systematic failure of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to converge around the “final status” issues is evidence of this fact.

If 1967 only partially settles the core issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, why is the two state framework not considered “politically fanciful” on the grounds it doesn’t address the “basic needs” of both nations, a charge Agha and Malley impute to the one state paradigm? How is it that a partial solution is considered realistic and serious after 42 years of failure, while an option that potentially resolves all core issues is considered an interesting academic exercise not worthy of deliberation?

The answer reflects nothing more than the current constellation of political power in the world, not any coherent ethical or political framework. The conclusion to the preceding questions is summed up perfectly in Antony Loewenstein’s headline: Two-state believers live in their own academic world.

There are strengths and weaknesses to both the one state and two state frameworks. These should, indeed they must, be debated in a rational manner that is consistent with universal ethical standards more than political power. (The comments column here is as good a place to start as any, in my humble opinion.)

The challenge now is to begin the long and difficult conversation about any possible framework for bringing peace and justice to all Jews and Palestinians.

My position is this: Myopically clinging to half-solutions does not seem a realistic or reliable way of moving forward.

Update: Antony Loewenstein just wrote a great editorial on the rebirth of the one state idea.

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