Two States Solution

Print edition : May 18, 2007

A protest, holding the red-black-green Palestinian flag and braving the Israeli water cannon, at the construction site of Israel's separation barrier in the village of Bilin, near the West Bank town of Ramallah, on April 27. While Israel says the barrier is necessary for its security, Palestinians say it is meant to grab their land.-EMILIO MORENATTI/AP

The Two States formula is increasingly gaining credence in the Jewish state as the only acceptable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

IT is probably a symptom of the general unease in the country that Israelis are beginning to argue seriously about the somewhat worn slogan "Two States for Two Nations". For a long time this was the war cry of the Left, which called for the recognition of the Palestinian people and their right to self-determination, "side by side with Israel". For years, the very emblem of Palestinian nationality - the red-black-green flag, which the Israelis invariably called the "PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organisation] flag" - was banned, and you risked arrest if you carried it, even in the form of an enamelled pin. Things went so far that a large wall-painting in a Jaffa street, depicting slices of watermelon - green shell, red flesh and black seeds - was hastily whitewashed by the municipality, suspecting (rightly) that it was a surrogate flag.

The Two States slogan was primarily a call to end the occupation of the territories conquered by Israel in 1967 - the Gaza Strip (seized from Egypt), the Golan Heights (from Syria) and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem with the Old City (from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan).

Throughout these years, the PLO charter called for a democratic secular state in what was formerly British Mandatory-ruled Palestine. This was described by the Zionist establishment as a smokescreen to hide the intention to destroy Israel.

But Israel is so designed that it cannot cease to be a `Jewish state', or a `state of the Jews'. More than 10 years ago, an editorial in the leading Israeli daily Haaretz summarised it thus: "The state was established to provide a national home for the Jewish people, and so it remains on the threshold of the 21st century. The Jewish people is a unique ethnic-national entity, combining religion and nationality... The rules governing the political scene in Israel are derived from the axiom that this is a Jewish state... This position is anchored in Supreme Court rulings and in the laws concerning the Knesset, which determine that `a party may not compete in the general elections for the Knesset if its aims or its acts oppose, openly or implicitly, the existence of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people'" (February 12, 1996).

What about the 20 per cent or so Israeli citizens who are not Jewish? Well, tough... They have had to resign themselves to being a (barely) tolerated minority. Israel is formally a democracy, in the sense that all the citizens are entitled to vote in parliamentary elections, and in theory even to form their own parties. And indeed, for close to 60 years - since the establishment of Israel in 1948 - the Arab citizens kept their heads down and their voices muted. This was not an entirely voluntary policy - until 1965, they lived under military government, their movements restricted by special passes, while suborned village and clan heads delivered votes to the principal political parties (mainly the Labour Party). A handful stuck to the Communist Party - it pre-dated the state by decades - as the only officially `Jewish-Arab' party, which strove to represent the local interests of the Arab community, whose lands were systematically expropriated and whose cultural life was dictated by the Zionist elite.

A Palestinian near the entrance to his house, which is surrounded (left) by the Jewish settlement of Givon Ha'hadasha, near Ramallah.-AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

The scene was suddenly thrown into disarray in the very recent past. The gauntlet was flung down in the boldest way by Dr. Azmi Bishara, an Arab member of the Knesset, whose political nursery had been the Communist Party but who split away from it and formed a party named Balad, which holds three seats in the 120-seat parliament. A brilliant and charismatic figure, Bishara stood out in the Knesset like a giant among pygmies. He challenged the very idea of the Jewish state and called for `a state for all its citizens'. Moreover, he made no bones about the affiliation of the Arab citizens of Israel with the Arab nation as a whole.

This is always an incendiary idea in West Asia, ever since Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser personified it in the minds of people from Morocco to Iraq, from Syria to Yemen. This idea overrides all the internal divisions in the Arab world - Muslim and Christian (Bishara is Christian), nomads and urbanites, Shia and Sunni - and presents an awesome image of a vast and rich mass, geographically, demographically and culturally inter-connected. This potentiality has always raised hackles in the West, which traditionally prefers to deal with the Arab world on a piecemeal basis, and it is the Zionists' greatest nightmare, as no amount of Jewish immigration can ever match this mass.

Whether it was Bishara's rhetorical challenge which sparked a new spirit in the Arab population of Israel, or it happened because its time had come, the fact is that in recent months there have been new documents and proposals published by Arab lawyers and civil-rights advocates, calling for Israel to become `a secular state of its citizens'. This seems like a very moderate challenge, as it does not speak for the millions of Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation but have no rights whatsoever, either civil or national. Nevertheless, it led to a tidal wave of fury in the Zionist camp. Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin-Bet, the Israeli domestic security service, warned that if these groups continued to agitate against the Zionist-Jewish state, it would be necessary to stop them - `even if they do not break the law'!

The general reaction, from the Left through the centre of the political spectrum, has been to reject the very notion of a single state for all the citizens - the Two States formula, they chorus, is the only acceptable solution to the conflict. The nationalist Right, of course, has little use for the latter formula either, but is unable, at this late stage, to reject it outright, given that one of their great heroes, Ariel Sharon, implicitly endorsed it, though the leadership of Likud party has not. However, the Right has not been very successful in formulating a different solution. The fact is that in the land they call the Whole Eretz Israel (the biblical Promised Land), between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea, there are nearly five million Palestinian Arabs, including the million and a half who are citizens of Israel. To expel the lot is clearly unrealistic, as even the fiery extremists realise - it is logistically unworkable and internationally unacceptable. So they tend to stay out of the debate, only reiterating that this is the Land of Israel, given by the Almighty to the Jews, and whoever does not like it must lump it.

So it seems that the Two States Solution is, if only by default, the kind of prospect that most of the Israeli population - including most of the Arab citizens - would accept. Azmi Bishara abruptly left the country in March and later resigned from the Knesset, thus losing his parliamentary immunity. He reiterates his determination to return, although there is an ongoing police investigation against him, and hints, carefully leaked to the media, that he is suspected of aiding the Hizbollah during last summer's war in Lebanon. He was in fact in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, during the intense Israeli bombardment, and is known to have visited Damascus and met with the Syrian leadership. If he is charged, it would be a political-ideological prosecution, clothed in terms of national security, and it might not succeed. But Bishara is not physically fit, having received a kidney transplant, and may hesitate to risk arrest and detention.

The argument between the One State and the Two States proponents continues unabated. The other day Uri Avnery, the remarkable former member of the Knesset, journalist and all-round maverick, aged 81, published an article opposing the One State solution. He reiterates the argument that the Jews wanted and needed a place of their own, and moreover, in a single state the Palestinian population, whose socio-economic condition is far poorer than that of the Jewish population, would be condemned to living as its helots. Others argue against the One State solution because the Arabs need a state of their own to recover from the depredations suffered for the past 60 years at the hands of the Zionists. Moreover, it is pointed out that there is no democratic-secular tradition in the Arab world, and a state shared jointly by Jews and Arabs would soon become embroiled in the `clash of civilisations'.

Israeli Arab member of Parliament Azmi Bishara, who challenged the very idea of a Jewish state and called for a state for all citizens. He resigned from the Knesset on April 22.-ALI ALLOUCH/AFP

Inevitably, comparisons have been made with Apartheid South Africa - the nearest model of a state run on the basis of a racial division. Israelis generally loathe the comparison and point out numerous differences to prove that the fall of Apartheid and the creation of an inclusive democratic state could not serve as a model for Israel/Palestine - as suggested by former United States President Jimmy Carter in his recent book.

It is an essential tenet of the Zionist state that every Jewish person in the world (a problematic definition, but too complex to be tackled here) is entitled to come to Israel and become a citizen on the spot. It is a tenet of the Palestinian Arab ideology, from the PLO through Hamas and other movements, that Palestinians must have the Right of Return - that is, the refugees from the wars of 1948 and 1967 must be allowed to return to their towns and villages in what is now Israel.

One wonders what would happen if both camps were willing to modify these demands - would it make the One State solution easier to adopt?

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