How to move from two-state paradigm to one-state democracy

The following (first) review of my new book, After Zionism, has just been published in the Palestine News Network:

Journalists Antony Loewenstein and Ahmed Moore have succeeded in putting together an impressive collection… of essays in their new book After Zionism. The essays all focus on the shift that is now taking place in many people’s thinking about the Israel-Palestine conflict: from the two-state paradigm to the emerging one-state mode thinking. The essays cover a lot of ground both historically and politically and comprise a mixed bag of views, sometimes divergent, that are sure to spark much needed debate about the future of the conflict. With the fallout from the PA’s UN Statehood bid fading and shifting dynamics across the region this book couldn’t have come at a more important time!

The content covers a lot of ground. For instance, Ilan Pappe contributes a chapter to the Nakba and its legacy as it haunts the conflict today. There are essays here on American Jewish identity (Philip Weiss), the Oslo process (Dianna Buttu), joint struggles in the West Bank (Joseph Dana) and two attempts at outlining how a one-state solution could work (Jeff Halper and Ghada Karmi). As well as chapters on the development of Zionist thought as well as an analysis of Israel’s discriminatory land laws.

The quality of the essays varies and given the depth and breadth of the book and so reviewing all of them is beyond the scope of just one review. In order to be brief I will only address a portion of the book’s chapters that concern themselves with advocacy. The chapters that are historical and literary in nature, which are dynamic and well worth reading, I will leave aside.

The two-state solution is dead, announce the books contributors, and it is time to start approaching alternatives. The alternative, the editors write in the book’s foreword, is the one-state solution. The feeling amongst many is that the basic conditions that need to be addressed in order to bring a just peace to Israel/Palestine – the return of refugees, full and equal citizenship for Palestinians within Israel’s borders, the end of the occupation – cannot be fulfilled by the two-state solution.

Editor Ahmed Moore, a young Palestinian-American journalist who’s writing on the Middle East has appeared across outlets throughout the world and who consistently brings fresh insights into often-stale debates, pens the first chapter of the book. He recounts his earliest experiences of College life and the struggle to express a Palestinian identity. He writes eloquently about the Zionist narrative in American politics and its capacity to distort history and marginalise Palestinians, citing the latest string of slurs by Republican candidates claiming Palestinians don’t exist. Reflecting on his return to Palestine and finding his old neighbourhood Al-Ram partially depopulated by the annexation wall he declares that he has borne witness to the death of the two-state solution. This narrative is a familiar one for many young Palestinians who have lived abroad and then returned to their home to find it deracinated by the occupation.

This thinking is heading in the right direction and is broadly representative of a growing number of young Palestinians and Israelis.

The shift from the idea of a two-state solution to the one-state solution is not as easy to make as many of the contributors to this anthology assume. The usual thinking is that there are so many settlements that we should by-pass the idea of a Palestinian state and head straight for one state.

However, people need not see two states as a be all and end all. One can view a two-state settlement (note: not solution) as an intermediary stage toward a one-state solution. So the establishment of a Palestinian state need not be the end of the struggle. In fact this may be a necessary step toward a bi-national solution, which seems more feasible given the nationalisms that are by now firmly ingrained in both Palestinian and Israeli societies. Moore inadvertently touches upon this point perhaps without fully grasping it. He writes at the end of the chapter:

“It is very likely that before the one-state solution is fully developed, the Bantustan option will be established in the West Bank. But the Palestinian struggle will continue despite that.”

The logical follow up to this question is if a two-state settlement isn’t the end of the struggle then why not factor that in to advocacy? Why not see a real (not a bantustan option) two-state settlement as only an end to the occupation and to the fighting before proceeding to push toward a one-state solution after that?

This I think is a weak point of the Palestine solidarity movement as it stands today. The one-state/two-state debate is conducted entirely upon the dichotomous view that resolving the conflict must occur in one swoop and could not possibly move through phases.

Saree Makdisi is similarly guilty of this logic in his contribution. His chapter waxes lyrical about the power of symbols, the imagination and the realm of ideas to bring about a one-state solution without bothering to assess the harder problems of the conflict – those of nationalism, ingrained identity, time frames and public opinion. Instead he dismisses critics such as Mouin Rabbani as simply not being imaginative enough.

Countless arguments can be in made in favour of the moral superiority of the one-state solution and the moral poverty of its two-state counterpart. That these arguments show the moral superiority of the one-state solution is beyond doubt. However, what is more difficult, as Ghada Karmi writes in her essay, is marking out a strategy from how to get from the current dismal state of affairs to the end-goal of a single state. Karmi briefly runs through the various formulations of both the two-state solution and the one-state solution and argues that each one on the table is inadequate and then proceeds to present her path forward.

Her solution? Voluntarily annex the Occupied Territories to Israel and force it to accept full responsibility for the Palestinian population thus clearing the decks for a civil-rights style struggle effectively ending Zionism which, upon its victory will create a single secular democratic state in historic Palestine.

In her own words:

“Key to this new strategy is the idea of a voluntary annexation of the Occupied Territories to Israel, thus transforming the struggle against occupation into one for equal civil rights within an expanded Israeli state”

And that:

“Faced with such a situation, it is difficult to see what Israel could do. At one stroke, the Palestinians would call Israel’s bluff over the peace process and its unrelenting colonization, which has benefited so well from the protracted and futile peace talks to date”

This approach calls for giving Israel the keys, so to speak. But there is a very serious problem with it. Namely, that Israel doesn’t want the keys and sees no reason to take them. The Palestinian Authority also won’t dissolve itself. Quite the opposite actually since the PA has recently shown itself willing to use armed violence in order to put down any challenge to its control. After all it is a collaborationist clique and has a job to do. So the strategy is a non-starter.

Jeff Halper is heading in the right direction. He offers a refreshing approach to the problem in his chapter. Seeing the insurmountable task of convincing an Israeli and International public to run with the one-state solution straight out, Halper advocates a two-stage strategy for meeting the requirements of a just peace, which he argues include the return of refugees and economic and environmental sustainability amongst others. The first step is to end the conflict along the lines of a two-state settlement (note: not solution) which would ‘meet “the Palestinians’ requirements for national sovereignty, political identity and membership in the international community”. The second stage is for the international community to broker a “regional confederation among Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon”. This would ensure the economic and environmental sustainability of both Israel and Palestine.

But what about the refugees? Halper argues that since “They could choose to return home to what is today Israel, but they would do so as Palestinian citizens or citizens of another member state”. This would nominally mean that both Israeli and Palestinian nationalism would survive.

There is a lot to be said about the argument since it sensibly recognizes that the solution to a conflict that has now been roaring for more than a century will actually have to come in stages, even if it is only two stages, since there is no instant solution currently proposed that is both moral and practical.

Having said that the idea of a regional confederation is quite convoluted and relies upon other nation states, such as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan all agreeing to it and consistently enacting policies that push the development of the confederation forward. As Halper himself notes, Israel sees itself as a kind of Singapore, a wealthy and cultured nation amongst a sea of antitheses. For this reason many Israelis would not accept being part of a confederation with Arab states. Convincing them might not be an insurmountable task though and would certainly be more achievable than coercing them into abandoning zionism.

That said, a confederation need not encompass all of the countries in the region, rather it could be between the two nations Israel and Palestine, which would lay the groundwork for integrating to two and eventually dissolving the already artificial borders.

The best elements of the book are the breadth of vision and creativity that Halper and others present, as well as the razor sharp analysis of Saray Roy, the leading academic specialist on Gaza, who uses her chapter to trace the changing dynamics in the region.

The low points of the book are when it is derivative and clichéd.

Omar Barghouti, who is fast becoming the most recognizable face in Palestinian solidarity today, attempts a philosophical treatise as his contribution to the book. It reads like a pretentious attempt at literary theory and sticks out like a sore thumb between the magnificent Zionist myth-debunking chapter by Antony Loewenstein and the honest but misguided one-state strategy of Ghada Karmi mentioned above. The crux of Barghouti’s essay is that through assessing the power relations between various theoretical constructs such as ethnic identity and zionisation we come to the conclusion that a secular, unitary, democratic state of Palestine is the morally superior way to end the conflict.

The worst aspect of Barghouti’s chapter is its tendency toward armchair philosophy. By ignoring the obstacles that exist in reaching a one-state solution he conjures up the sort of thinking suitable of any coffee shop revolutionary. One particular instance of this is his careless dismissal of bi-nationalism on the grounds that it doesn’t gel with UN Resolution 194. He doesn’t explain why. Instead he just asserts the point and leaves his reader guessing. He also leaves many of his own questions unanswered but they aren’t worth pursuing here.

By addressing the question of ethnic and national identity at a level of abstraction his philosophizing is entirely ignorant to the long history of violence that has resulted from forcing different ethnic and religious groups to assimilate into one another within state borders. For somebody who has claimed that there is nobody as violent as ‘the white race’ Barghouti seems to have forgotten that Europe was for several hundred years the most violent place on earth due in no small part to the concerted attempts to forced different ethnic, religious and national groups into the narrow confines of the nation state (usually for the benefits of capital).

A second drawback to the book is that certain clichés of the current political discourse are never properly examined. The term Bantustan, which is used at the core of Dianna Buttu’s essay and appears frequently in the chapters of the other contributors, is all too common amongst activists and commentators of this conflict.

The reason this concept becomes problematic in Palestine is because the intention of the Israelis is different from the intention of the Afrikaners. The intention of the Bantustans was the maintain segeregation and a flow fo cheap back labour. This was because black South Africans made up the overwhelming majority of the workforce and so they couldn’t bare to part with them. However, the intention of the Israeli occupation is, as Moshe Dayan said when the occupation first began in 1967, to make the Palestinians live like dogs and if they want they can leave (the crucial word being… leave). The goal is to drive the Palestinians off the land – ethnic cleansing. The goal is not to keep them on the land and use them as cheap labor like the Afrikaners did.

It is not that there aren’t glaring similarities between the two situations. Of course there are. But terminology has a point to it and if it is misleading, distracting or both then it won’t advance one’s argument anywhere and in fact bogs it down in moslty pointless debates about historical similarities and dissimilarities.

There is one crucial similarity to South Africa that isn’t often mentioned but that is instructive nonetheless. And that is the role that the US played in propping up the Apartheid regime even after it was a pariah state. The is happening with Israel.

The lack of attention paid to US Imperialism and the role that has in shaping America’s policies of hegemony throughout the region is a definite shortcoming in all of the chapters. For this reason it would have been worth, in my opinion, including a chapter on American anti-imperialism as it relates to the Middle East since this is a crucial determinant in whether the conflict will even end at all let alone end in one-state of two.

The omission of any analysis of this relationship also gives the uninformed reader the impression that Israel is a lone ranger of sorts and in control of its own of its own foreign policy.

It is not.

Israel’s policy must fall in line with US policy since Israeli is wholly dependent on the US for survival.

This incorrect framing has damaging consequences for advocacy since it distracts people’s attention away from US support for Israeli crimes, without which such crimes could not occur.

These criticisms aside there is a lot here that will breath new life into a stale debate. All in all this is an ambitious book that captures at the right time the paradigm shift that is happening within debates about Israel-Palestine. Its contributors consist an all-star lineup of commentators and scholars who have played a prominent role in shaping public debate and the chapters mostly reflect this. The breadth of the book is ambitious and, the criticisms that I’ve raised aside, it is quite comprehensive. The editors state in the introduction that naturally they do not agree with everything in the book’s diverse chapters and so the book itself is really a debate.

Where will the debate lead? How will the Palestinian national project respond? Only time will tell. But this collection is bound to have an impact one way or the other.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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