Time to discuss seriously one state vs. two states peacemaking

by Yaniv Reich on November 11, 2009

Somewhere in my mind, I envisioned this blog slowly gathering incontrovertible evidence that Israel was founded on the contradiction of ethnically exclusive “democracy” in a land populated by over one million ethnic outsiders. Then, I intended to show with patient effort how so many features of the violent patterns we see in Israel today can be traced to this contradiction.

I also wanted to argue, slowly and deliberately, that when Israel came into being, there was another path available that could have resulted in a safe home for the Jews, but mid-20th century Zionists chose semi-theocracy and ethnically exclusive democracy instead.

My idea was that after developing these arguments, I would eventually broach one of the more difficult issues to raise: the failures of the two-state solution and alternative frameworks for bringing peace and justice to all Jews and Palestinians.

Alas, current events move faster than this lesson plan. In the space of roughly two weeks, we have watched the last vestiges of hope—in the mainstream media—for the two-state solution dissipate in the face of Israeli right-wing fundamentalism and Obama administration dithering.   Of course, the two state solution remains alive and kicking, barely.   But there is a growing recognition that the window in which a two-state solution might have been achieved is rapidly closing (if it was ever open).

Outline of the Two State vs One State Question

In this context, I consider a new article by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the NY Review of Books. They write:

The idea of Israeli–Palestinian partition, of a two-state solution, has a singular pedigree. It has been proposed for at least eight decades. Jews first accepted it as Palestinians recoiled; by the time Palestinians warmed to the notion in the late 1980s, Israelis had turned their backs. Still, its proponents manage to portray it as fresh, new, and capable of leading to peace.
This inability to turn the idea into practice has prompted reactions that roughly divide into two types. The most common is to blame transient conditions or faulty execution. The implication is that there is no need to revisit fundamental assumptions about the goal itself: an essentially territorial deal that would split historic Palestine into two states along the 1967 borders; divide Jerusalem according to demographic criteria; find a solution to the refugee issue through compensation and resettlement outside of Israel; end the historic conflict; and terminate all claims. What are needed are more optimal conditions, smarter implementation, and some luck.

The history of the peace process has been plagued, according to this account, by unfortunate circumstances: leaders too weak to strike a deal when they wished to or too obdurate to sign one when they could; one side ready for compromise when the other was not; divisions on the Palestinian side or dysfunctional governments on the Israeli one. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s historic mission was ended by an assassin’s bullet; Ariel Sharon’s gradual acceptance of a viable Palestinian state was interrupted by a stroke; his successor’s attempt to end the conflict was cut short by scandal … The US figures as a central culprit.

There is truth to all these explanations, and it is beyond dispute that ideal conditions have been missing for the last sixteen years. It is difficult to imagine a time when they will not be.
A second type of reaction to the persistent inability to reach a two-state settlement is to thrust aside the goal altogether. Two-state detractors offer several alternatives. The most prominent is the one-state solution, which is premised on the belief that Jews and Arabs can coexist in a democratic, multiethnic, binational state. Its proponents defend it as both ethically and practically superior to partition, an answer to the many questions that have bedeviled its pursuit. These include Jewish and Palestinian attachment to the land of Eretz Israel or historic Palestine (since members of both communities could live anywhere within it); the rights of refugees (since they could return to the land of their original homes if they so desired); Israeli security (since there would be no state of Israel to defend and no state of Palestine that might attack); Jerusalem (shared and worshiped equally by both); and closure. A single state, its advocates say, would do away with antiquated notions of ethnically or religiously based political entities, and replace them with the more modern concept of equal citizenship. To which some add that establishing a Palestinian state has become unfeasible, given the scope of the settlement enterprise and the changes that have already taken place in the West Bank.

The proposal is intellectually attractive, morally pleasing, but politically fanciful.

Weak Argumentation Against One State

Agha and Malley go on to argue, very weakly in my view, that somehow the one-state solution doesn’t “fulfill both sides’ basic needs”.  The (extremely strong) assumption here is that the two state solution does indeed meet those needs, such as the inalienable rights of the Nakba’s Palestinian refugees.  Later in their essay, they go into substantial verbal acrobatics to try and ensure that the two-state solution manages to address in a limited way these core issues, but their case seems to me far more deficient than the arguments they wield against the one state idea. In particular, they have two arguments against the one state idea: (1) its politically fanciful because it does not respect the fundamental aspiration of Jews to have an ethnocratic state (this is the most common criticism; see Mondoweiss for a related discussion), and (2) Palestinians wouldn’t find “satisfaction” in a one state peace either because “they would end up as underclass, second-class citizens and a source of cheap labor, unable to compete for land and other resources.”

First, we can dismiss the second point outright, because its clear that economic subservience is a reality of Palestinian existence already and will remain so whether or not there is an independent state, as is argued explicitly in many World Bank reports on the Palestinian economy.  As in political and national matters, so too in economic affairs: Palestinians and Israelis are forever intertwined.  This second-class economic status of Palestinians in Israel/Palestine must be addressed as an integral part of whatever progress happens on the political front, whether its one, two or forty states.

Now let’s discuss Agha and Malley’s argument that the needs of the Zionist movement are not fulfilled in one binational state.  At the outset, we must distinguish between needs and wishes; Agha and Malley fail to do this and misleadingly suggest that preferences are in fact needs.  Moreover, its not clear at all why or how they come to a concept of “basic needs” that is rooted in just one interpretation of Zionist (or for that matter, Palestinian) aspirations.  Do they not know of the rich Zionist history that was firmly against the idea of a Jewish ethnocracy in Palestine?  Have they not read Rabbi Judah Magnes or the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber?  Do they not realize the intense debates that existed within the Zionist movement before Israel was created about whether a state for the Jews ought to be built in partnership with the local Palestinians rather than imposed on them?  By ascribing their particular, monolithic interpretation of “basic needs” to the Jewish people, Agha and Malley are giving undue importance to one particular (currently dominant) mode of thinking about Zionism.

Addressing “Political Fancifulness”

Moreover, its unclear why we should subjugate our ethical judgements to the whims of a largely racist Israeli population that is resistant to change.  The Afrikaaners in apartheid South Africa surely would not have seen themselves circa 1986 as having their “basic needs” met by a democratic state.  Does their ethnic perception and rigid self-identity change the moral imperative to end apartheid?  Absolutely not.

Ali Abunimah just published a superb essay on precisely this point:

Does solid Israeli Jewish opposition to a one-state solution mean that a peaceful one-state outcome is so unlikely that Palestinians should not pursue it, and should instead focus only on “pragmatic” solutions that would be less fiercely resisted by Israeli Jews?

The experience in South Africa suggests otherwise. In 1994, white-minority rule — apartheid — came to a peaceful, negotiated end, and was replaced (after a transitional period of power-sharing) with a unitary democratic state with a one person, one vote system. Before this happened, how likely did this outcome look? Was there any significant constituency of whites prepared to contemplate it, and what if the African National Congress (ANC) had only advanced political solutions that whites told pollsters they would accept?

Until close to the end of apartheid, the vast majority of whites, including many of the system’s liberal critics, completely rejected a one person, one vote system, predicting that any attempt to impose it would lead to a bloodbath. As late as 1989, F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid president, described a one person, one vote system as the “death knell” for South Africa.

A 1988 study by political scientist Pierre Hugo documented the widespread fears among South African whites that a transition to majority rule would entail not only a loss of political power and socioeconomic status, but engendered “physical dread” and fear of “violence, total collapse, expulsion and flight.” Successive surveys showed that four out of five whites thought that majority rule would threaten their “physical safety.” Such fears were frequently heightened by common racist tropes of inherently savage and violent Africans, but the departure of more than a million white colons from Algeria and the airlifting of 300,000 whites from Angola during decolonization set terrifying precedents (“Towards darkness and death: racial demonology in South Africa,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, 26(4), 1988).

The vast majority of whites, wracked with existential fears, were simply unable to contemplate relinquishing effective control, or at least a veto, over political decision-making in South Africa.
What did change for South Africa, and what all the weapons in the world were not able to prevent, was the complete loss of legitimacy of the apartheid regime and its practices. Once this legitimacy was gone, whites lost the will to maintain a system that relied on repression and violence and rendered them international pariahs; they negotiated a way out and lived to tell the tale. It all happened much more quickly and with considerably less violence than even the most optimistic predictions of the time. But this outcome could not have been predicted based on what whites said they were willing to accept, and it would not have occurred had the ANC been guided by opinion polls rather than the democratic principles of the Freedom Charter.

Abunimah’s essay contains much more historical evidence on white South African attitudes on apartheid, which undermines substantially Agha and Malley’s shallow criticism of the one state idea.  I strongly encourage you to read his whole essay at the link above.

There are significant problems with the one state idea, most notably how to deal with right-wing violence and extremism among Jews and Palestinians.  There are many details about social issues that require discussion and development in the context of a one state-based peace: democratic education, constitutional formulas, welfare measures to address massive inequality, etc.  We should be focusing on these issues rather than red herrings about the perceived weaknesses of binational democracy.

Let us begin a purposeful, rational debate about the two state solution, its flaws, and other alternatives for peacemaking.  Surely, 61 years of failure at partition is sufficient reason enough to start this inquiry.

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