A Binational State? God Forbid!

Uri Avnery, founder of Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) and a three-term member of the Knesset, is former editor in chief of Ha'olam Hazeh.

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When I come to contradict the theses of my friend Azmi Bishara, I am conscious of a certain irony. While Bishara, a Palestinian, albeit a citizen of Israel and indeed a self-declared candidate for the prime ministership of this state, mercilessly attacks Yasir Arafat and his strategy, I, an Israeli, albeit an old friend of the Palestinian cause, support them wholeheartedly. This would appear to be a battle with reversed fronts.

I have no quarrel with most of Bishara's analysis in the winter 1999 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies. Indeed, great parts of it run parallel to my own articles on the situation. My quarrel is with his conclusions.

His description of the Israeli-Palestinian-American minuet at each stage of the negotiations is exactly right, except one detail: after each of these frustrating forth-and-back movements, something remains in Palestinian hands.

Bishara has a lot of contempt for such little gains. Not I. Throughout the twentieth century, this was a major tactical difference between the Zionists, who always accepted what they were offered and worked for more, and the Palestinians, who always rejected because it was not enough. History has proved the Zionists right. Their slogan, "dunam after dunam, goat after goat," led to victory, while the maximalist approach of all Palestinian leaders until Arafat led to much more than defeat. It brought about a historic tragedy for the Palestinians.

The result is the very "imbalance of power" that Bishara bemoans. Israel has an overwhelming superiority on all fronts: military, political, economic. There is no way of changing this imbalance dramatically. What is needed is a strategy that will achieve partial gains and consolidate them, while fighting for more.

Arafat has created such a policy and adhered to it with remarkable tenacity. He has achieved outstanding results. Forty years ago, when Fatah was founded, there was no Palestine on the map; even the existence of a Palestinian people was denied. Those few (including myself) who advocated in the 1950s the creation of a Palestinian state were ridiculed. Today, an important part of the Palestinian people lives under an internationally recognized Palestinian self-government, whose many obvious faults are insignificant--and hopefully temporary--compared to the fact of its very existence, as an embryo of a full-fledged state.

This is not an ideal situation. But compared to the starting point of this long march, a tremendous advance has been achieved. It is the job of the statesman to define the line of "main effort" at each stage of the struggle. Arafat was right when he decided, in the early 1960s, against much opposition, that the main effort must be armed struggle. Sad to say, only violence put the Palestinians on the map again. He was also right when he decided, after the October 1973 war, that the main effort must now be Palestinian-Israeli accommodation. That has already given the Palestinians a territorial base, however small. I believe that he is right in believing that now the main effort must be the proclamation of the State of Palestine.

The Titanic Option

Bishara is correct in stating that the mere proclamation of the state will not solve the outstanding problems--Jerusalem, settlements, borders, etc. Of course not. But the real question is Will statehood, recognized by the vast majority of governments throughout the world, improve the chances of the Palestinians achieving a viable solution? For me, the answer is quite clear. The "imbalance of power" will not disappear as if by magic, but it will get smaller. The creation of the state will not be the end of the struggle, but the beginning of a new chapter of the struggle. The state is not the solution, but the means for achieving the solution. It is not an end itself, but an instrument for attaining that end.

With the biting irony adopted by many in the Palestinian opposition, Bishara reminds us that a State of Palestine has already been declared once. How many times, he asks, can one declare a state? But Bishara is far too intelligent not to perceive the difference. The Algiers declaration was a symbolic act, a declaration of intent. Today, when there already exists a Palestinian entity on the ground, the implications of statehood are vastly different.

Bishara fears that such a step would finally cut the ties between the Palestinians inside Palestine and the millions outside. I fail to see that. Quite the contrary. The exile of the refugees is a fact, part of reality, a tragic legacy of past failures. This reality cannot be changed by patriotic slogans. But a State of Palestine, which will issue passports to all Palestinians and turn them at least into absentee citizens, will strengthen the ties of the refugees to the homeland and with to other parts of their people, improve their situation wherever they are, and strengthen the chances for a just solution.

Another fact of life, bemoaned by Azmi, is Palestinian dependency on the Israeli economy. The mere proclamation of a state will not change that. But a state will be in a much better position to improve the situation, conduct negotiations, receive credits, facilitate exports, and improve the lot of workers abroad (including in Israel).

Azmi argues that statehood will not put an end to Israeli settlement activity. But that makes it all the more urgent! This offensive against the very existence of the Palestinian people goes on relentlessly, lending a crucial urgency to countermeasures. Time is of the essence. It absolutely forbids Palestinians to say, as Bishara seems to be doing, Let's wait until the balance of power changes. Let's first put our house in order, strengthen democracy, reform the PA. That's like the captain of the Titanic saying Let's first clean the cabins and renovate the dining hall. A state is in the position to take action, mobilize forces, and alarm world public opinion. It certainly will not worsen the situation.

The Binationals

What, then, is the alternative? At the end of his 500-line article, Bishara devotes the last six lines, as a kind of afterthought, to "a binational solution."

With all due respect, I do not believe that Bishara arrived at this conclusion by way of elimination, after despairing of all other options. I believe that the whole analysis was written down with the sole intent of arriving at this "afterthought."

The dream of a binational state is as old as Zionism. It was invented by left-wing Zionists at a time when the Jews were yet a small minority in Palestine, with the aim of allowing massive immigration and land acquisition without a bloody confrontation with the Arab majority. Not surprisingly, the offer did not find any Palestinian takers.

Later it was taken up by the Palestinians, when they had become the weaker side. They thought to evade the necessity of confronting the reality of Israel by speaking about a "democratic, nonsectarian state, in which Jews, Muslims, and Christians will live together as equals." For Israelis, this was just a polite way of saying that their state must be dismantled. No takers again.

Nowadays, this dream experiences a curious resurrection. Some intellectuals, both Israelis and Palestinians, are taking it up, some half-heartedly, some with gusto. Their motives seem to be as diverse as their personalities and political histories. But whatever the motives of its advocates, the proposal for a binational state deserves to be analyzed on its own merits. The real questions are these:

  1. Is there a chance that the two sides will accept a binational state?
  2. If so, will a binational state be able to function?
  3. If so, will this put an end to the conflict?

My answer to all three questions is an unequivocal No.

(1) There is no chance whatsoever, that the Israeli side would accept such a solution in the foreseeable future--and no other future is relevant. It contradicts the basic Zionist ethos of the State of Israel.

The Zionist movement was founded at the end of last century as an answer to European nationalism, one of whose dominant features was anti-Semitism--from the pogroms in Russia to the Dreyfus Affair in France, from the intellectual anti-Semitism of a Richard Wagner to the populist anti-Semitism of a Karl Lueger, the first politician elected on an undisguised anti-Semitic platform. Zionism was an effort at collective assimilation after the efforts of the Jews to become "assimilated" individually failed; Israel was the embodiment of the idea that the Jews, rejected in Europe, should create a state of their own where they could express their identity and decide their own fate. It is, officially, a "democratic Jewish state," meaning that it belongs to the Jews, but that non-Jews can live there with equal civil rights. (In practice, even after fifty-one years, non-Jews in Israel are very far indeed from such equality.) These attitudes are not only official doctrine, they are deeply embedded in the mentality of almost all Israelis.

The binational idea therefore negates the very essence of the Zionist idea, the "raison d'être" of Israel as perceived by its Jewish citizens. It would be far easier for them to accord the Arab citizens special rights as a national minority (as proposed by Bishara) than to turn Israel into a non-national state (as also proposed by Bishara)--and even that idea is very far from the hearts of most Israelis.

It can be argued that popular attitudes may change, that Zionism may fade away, that ideas like a non-national, supranational, multinational, or binational society will take root. But such a basic transformation can only come about over a long period of time, by slow development. Can the Palestinian people wait for 50 or 100 years for such a miracle to happen? With the relentless push of Israeli settlements going on, what will remain of Arab Palestine then?

On the other side, are the Palestinian people really ready to accept a binational state, not as an abstract idea, but as a political and social reality, with all that it entails? I cannot voice an opinion on that, but I do have my doubts. The Palestinian people need a confirmation of their national identity, as much as the Israelis did. If they did not experience statehood, they will always feel that they have been deprived of something that all other nations enjoy--national pride and recognition, a place of their own in the family of nations, a flag, a passport.

(2) However, let's assume for a moment that both people agree to a binational state. Could it really function? I am not aware of a single instance of two nations living peacefully in one common binational or multinational state.

It is easy to point at the former Yugoslavia, particularly at Croatia and Bosnia, not to mention Kosovo. Some might argue that that's too easy, that these are "backward" people crazed by mutual hatreds, while we are civilized. But what about Canada, where two highly civilized communities, divided by nothing but language, totter perpetually on the brink of breakup? Half of the Quebecois want their own national state, and they are likely to achieve this in the foreseeable future. And what about Belgium, where Walloons and Flemings have been living together for centuries, but whose interaction has at best been uneasy? Even in Scotland there is now a strong movement for independence.

The most typical example of a binational state, consciously created as such, is Cyprus. Two peoples, crowded together on a small island, tried after centuries of mutual hatred to create a model constitution that took into account the nationalist feelings of both. The result was disaster. In Lebanon, the binding together of different communities by an agreement that apportioned power according to a fixed ratio led to bloody civil war, occupation, and repeated foreign interventions. Yet the Lebanese speak the same language and are divided only along ethnic-religious lines. The "success story" of Switzerland is an anomaly, the result of a centuries-old process, the very opposite of an artificial creation imposed by an act of will. It is utopian to believe that Israelis and Palestinians, two extremely nationalistic peoples, could turn practically overnight from total enemies into loving compatriots, able to live and function in one common society.

(3) If such a state were created, what kind of state would it be? Would it put an end to the conflict?

In a binational state, Israeli superiority in nearly all practical fields--economic, social, military--would be such that the Palestinians would be turned into an exploited underclass devoid of real power. Such a situation exists now in Israel proper, with its Arab citizens, nearly 20 percent of the population, living in circumstances visibly below those of Jewish communities. Many parts of the administration and the economy are closed to Arabs, officially or unofficially.

In a binational state, the national struggle would by no means cease. It would make it much easier for Jews to buy Arab land on the West Bank, control immigration, and take other measures to safeguard their national superiority.

Some may believe that, over time, demographic facts in the binational state would alter this balance of power in favor of the Palestinians, who would immediately constitute some 40 percent of the population. Since the state would be democratic, it would automatically follow that power and economic privilege would pass in due course into the hands of the Palestinians, who might then change the name, the flag, and the identity of the state. But this is a naive picture. Far more probable is a development in the direction of the former South Africa, with years and years of violent struggle ahead.

Even today, with an Arab minority that constitutes less than a fifth of the population, few Jewish Israelis are ready to accept the slogan "the state of all its citizens." Will Israelis voluntarily reconcile themselves to the idea of living in a state in which two out of every five citizens will be Palestinian--with a Palestinian majority in sight?

A binational state is not an abstract thing. It means that both nations must enact the laws together and abide by them, irrespective of the differences in their social evolution, mental outlook, and cultural background. For two different peoples, living together in a single state could turn into a nightmare.

Again, mentalities might change. New generations may entertain different ideals. But how long would it take? What would happen to Palestine on the way? Indeed, who can prophesy developments with any pretense of certainty?

The Two-State Solution

Immediately after the 1948 war, when I called, for the first time, for a two-state solution, I was not animated by nationalist fervor, nor did I believe in the holiness of states. For me, then and now, states are a necessary instrument at this point in time. And I had--and still have now--a healthy respect for the power of nationalism. Communism, fascism, and many other "isms" of the twentieth century have disintegrated without leaving a trace, but nationalism endures. Perhaps it expresses a basic human urge, perhaps it is only a sign of the times, but nationalism will be around for a long time.

Seemingly, there is a paradox. We see that economic, political, and military realities are leading inevitably toward regional units, such as the European Union. But at the same time, smaller and smaller units demand self-expression. While real power moves from London, Paris, and Madrid to the EU, Scots, Bretons, Basques, and Catalans demand autonomy and even independence.

This is quite logical. Real power moves slowly from state to region, from region to global structures. This process releases small peoples from the necessity of giving up their identity, culture, language, and self-government in areas that have been expropriated by larger units. If the major economic and military decisions are made by Europe, why must Corsica subject itself to Paris?

The idea of an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution was always based on the assumption that the border between them would be open and that they would have a joint capital in Jerusalem. The guiding vision is not "separation" but partnership, with each nation expressing its identity in a national home of its own.

I am convinced that after living together, side-by-side, with Jerusalem as their common capital, the State of Israel and the State of Palestine will grow slowly together, under the pressure of geography and economics, and form a kind of federation within a general regional organization--as I wrote fifty-one years ago--a kind of Semitic Union along the lines of the present European Union.

It must not be forgotten that the European Union came into being after a profound debate between the idealists, who preached a kind of United States of Europe, and the realists, like Charles de Gaulle, who advocated a "Europe of Fatherlands" based on existing states. This vision won. A process that takes into account nationalism may be slower, but it certainly is more realistic and does reach the desired end. The Euro has come, borders have been practically eliminated, and each nation waves the blue flag of Europe next to its own national flag.

Much the same, I hope, will happen in our region. Israel and Palestine (and perhaps Jordan too) will rapidly or slowly grow together into a kind of federation, becoming part of a regional union. Thus the positive parts of the "binational solution" will become reality in a natural process.

In the early 1950s, those of us who advocated a two-state solution stood alone. The United States and the Soviets, Europe and the Arab states, Palestinians and Israelis were united in their opposition to this program. Much later, in 1971, the official PLO publishing house in Beirut published a book by Camille Mansour, titled Uri Avnery and Neo-Zionism, condemning the "Avnery Plan" [sic!] of a two-state solution as a "plot against the Palestinian revolution." Now this plan is accepted by practically all governments, by most Israelis, and by the great majority of Palestinians. They were converted by the logic of reality.

The Historical Moment

Should the Palestinians have declared their state on 4 May 1999? Instinctively I would have said Yes. There comes a moment in the life of a nation when it must say To hell with all tactics, let's do what we have to do!

However, on second thought I believe that the Palestinian leadership was right to postpone the act for a few months. The Israeli elections were only one reason for that. The declaration would certainly have helped Benjamin Netanyahu win the elections. Palestinian self-restraint made the remarkable victory of Ehud Barak possible. Barak may turn out to be as difficult as Yitzhak Rabin was at the beginning of his tenure, but Barak is a logical person and represents the realistic part of Israel. Realism and logic will inevitably lead him to the two-state solution, even if we still have a tough struggle ahead of us, concerning borders, settlements, and--of course--Jerusalem.

It seems to me that the main reason for the postponement was the reasonable chance that the United States, Europe, and the vast majority of governments around the world will in the end recognize the State of Palestine, if the ground is prepared carefully, and that is what Arafat has been doing. The success of this effort is worth a short postponement. Also, perhaps under the leadership of Barak an agreement can be achieved that will make it possible to proclaim the state by consent. At the moment, Barak sets conditions that are unacceptable. But in the course of negotiations conditions may change, especially if the Israeli peace forces keep up the pressure, as my friends and I fully intend to do.

If this fails, should the Palestinians proclaim their state within a year? Yes. Absolutely. When? On the last day of this millennium? In the beginning of 2000? Only the Palestinians themselves can answer that.


Uri Avnery, founder of Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) and a three-term member of the Knesset, is former editor in chief of Ha'olam Hazeh.

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