A small but growing number of Israeli and American Jewish critics of Israel have concluded that the root cause of Israel's continuing oppression of the Palestinians is Zionism, which at its core is the belief that the Jewish people have both the right and the need of a state of their own. Some of them even argue that because of the inherent conflict between Zionism and the rights of the Palestinian people, the creation of a Jewish state in part of Palestine was never justified. Tellingly, though, almost all who so argue are Jewish, for few Western gentiles of good will--by whom I mean those who are not merely non-antisemitic but who deplore and deeply feel that Christianity bears a heavy responsibility for historic antisemitism--are prepared to go that far, whatever their criticisms of Israel today.
Most contemporary Jewish critics of Zionism hold to a more moderate view, that of "post-Zionism," or the belief that whatever its initial justification, Zionism and the insistence that Israel must remain and be formally acknowledged by the Palestinians as a Jewish state is now a pernicious anachronism and an unbridgeable obstacle to a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Zionists disagree. However, further distinctions must be made, for on this issue there are at least three different schools within Zionism. Rightwing Zionists believe not only that Israel must remain a Jewish state, but that the main failure of the early Zionist years was that the large-scale expulsion of the Palestinians during the 1947-48 period did not go far enough, for it still left more than 150,000 of them within the Jewish state.
The Zionist left--or "liberal Zionists," as they are widely known today--accepts that some form of Palestinian expulsion was necessary to establish the state, but strongly deplores the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians since then, especially after the 1967 war. For example, Zeev Sternhell, perhaps Israel's most prominent and honored political scientist and an outspoken opponent of Israeli policies, recently told David Remnick that "Our basic failure in 1967 was not to understand that what was good and legitimate until 1949 had ceased to be after that."
The largest group, the centrist Zionists, while somewhat uneasy about the continued occupation and often willing to give lip service to a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, typically oppose the Israeli concessions that are the sine qua non of such a settlement.
Was Zionism Ever Justified?
The first step towards answering that question is to sort out Zionism's good arguments from its bad ones. For one thing, doing so is a crucial intellectual necessity if one is to truly understand the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second, it is also morally necessary, for much--but not all--of the Zionist argument cannot withstand serious logical or moral analysis. But most importantly, it is the continuing failure of most Israelis to distinguish serious history from Zionist ideology that largely accounts for Israeli self-righteousness, rigidity, moral failures, and blindness to their own best interests.
A good beginning to this demythologizing process is to separate the original Zionist argument for the necessity of a Jewish state from the argument that such a state had to be in Palestine, and nowhere else. Jewish nationalism, the Zionist political movement, emerged in Europe in the early 20th century, a reaction to the centuries-long history of antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere, and especially to the revival of severe antisemitism in France and, even more so, the pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.
As Sternhell has put it, "Jewish nationalism was first of all a defensive reflex," and an "existential necessity," a consequence of "the rise of state anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire, which clearly sought to rid itself of its Jews." In light of the often-murderous persecution of the Jewish people throughout history, culminating of course with the Holocaust, few if any other people have had a more powerful case for possession of a state of their own.
Where that state should be located, however, was a very different matter. The terrible paradox of Zionism is that by the mid-twentieth century the arguments for the creation of a Jewish state were so strong as to be nearly self-evident, but most of the arguments for the right to create that state in Palestine were very weak.
The founder of the Zionist political movement, Theodore Herzl, initially considered the question of where the Jewish state should be located as an open one, a practical rather than an ideological or religious issue; consequently, for awhile the Zionists canvassed a number of locations. However, the search for alternatives to Palestine was quickly abandoned. The turning point--and the origin of the Palestinian-Israeli and the larger Arab-Israeli conflict--came at the Zionist congress of 1905, which decisively rejected any effort to create the Jewish state in any place but Biblical Palestine.
To be sure, even if Herzl's secular views had prevailed, it was by no means certain that a Jewish state could have been created elsewhere--most of the supposed alternatives were frivolous and held very little promise. Perhaps the most serious one was suggested in 1903 when, following the Russian pogroms, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain offered 5,000 square miles of what was then British East Africa to Herzl, to serve as a refuge for the Jewish people.
The Zionists were not interested. In any case, the British offer would obviously have not solved the problem of a Jewish state being created by colonial imposition, and ultimately it probably would have simply transferred the problem of the conflict between Zionism and the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine to those of Uganda and Kenya, thereby creating an African-Israeli instead of an Arab-Israeli conflict.
Even so, it is a reasonable argument that the search for a better solution than Palestine was abandoned prematurely and, more importantly, for the wrong reasons. That is, even if alternatives to Palestine ultimately had proven to be unfeasible, the very willingness to search for them would have required a dissociation of Zionism from Biblical theology, and that would have made the need for a just compromise with the Palestinians evident from the start.
From the 19th century to the present, Zionists have made a number of arguments for exclusive Jewish political rights in Palestine, all but one of them entirely unconvincing, beginning with the argument from Biblical history.
Modern Biblical historical scholarship and archaeological evidence calls into question most of the Zionist mythology. In brief summary (for a fuller discussion, see here), it is not the case that the central homeland of the Jews was in Palestine, nor that the Jews had established political sovereignty over much of that land: there were large Jewish communities in Egypt and elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean basin, and Palestine was inhabited by a number of peoples, no one of which was politically dominant.
Moreover, there appears to be little evidence that the Romans engaged in a wholesale expulsion of the Jewish people from Palestine after they suppressed the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 AD. Rather, most of the Jews remained in Palestine throughout the period of the Roman Empire, but over time the majority became Christians, and later Muslims, leaving only a small group which preserved its Jewish identity.
Thus, while there has been some kind of unbroken Jewish presence in Palestine for some thirty centuries and that it is true that some Jews have religious or emotional ties to that land (especially to Jerusalem), the much more important fact is that the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people who have lived throughout the world in the last two thousand years do not think of themselves as a "Diaspora," longing to "return" to Palestine. In any case, the key point is that Christians and Muslims in general, and Palestinians in particular, also have strong historical connections, claims, and ties to Palestine of religion and sentiment. That being the case, there is no persuasive basis for privileging the Zionist claim of ancient rights, let alone eternal ones.
The argument for Jewish political rights in Palestine does not rest solely on unsupported Biblical mythology, let alone on the religious belief that God promised Palestine to the Jews for all eternity--a claim that can persuade only those people who can be persuaded by such an "argument."
However, the full Zionist case also is based on a secular argument: instead of (or in addition to) religious beliefs, territorial history establishes a permanent Jewish territorial right to rule Palestine. In order to fully analyze that argument, let's assume--against most of the serious historical evidence--that the Zionists are right that the Jewish people lived primarily in the ancient land of Palestine for many centuries, that they established political sovereignty over it, and that they lost their homeland only because they were forcibly driven from it.
Even if all that had been true, however, it is a fallacy to believe it would establish a persuasive modern Jewish claim to the land of Palestine. The argument that an ancient claim to a land has precedence over very long periods of a different reality--in Palestine, eight centuries of Christianity followed by thirteen centuries of an overwhelming Islamic majority--is accepted in no other place in the world, whether in law, moral reasoning, or plain common sense.
Palestine has been repeatedly conquered by outside invaders since ancient history: by Assyria, Babylon, Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Empire--indeed, if the Old Testament is to be the historical source, by the Jews themselves! On each occasion, the previous inhabitants of the land were killed, driven into exile, or subjugated by new rulers, who then held sway for centuries. Who, then, are the "rightful" claimants? In the absence of a persuasive religious claim accepted by everyone ("the Promised Land"), including those of different nationalities and religions, the stopping of the clock as it marches backward in time to twenty centuries ago, neither earlier nor later, must be completely arbitrary and self-serving.
Put differently, by what objective criteria are the claims of one set of victims--the Jews, supposedly driven out by the Romans two thousand years ago--privileged over all other such claims? If ancient victimization is the criterion, then the descendants of the Canaanites--that is, today's Syrians--must have priority over the descendants of the Jews. On the other hand, if recent victimization is the criterion, then all victims of conquest after the Roman "expulsion"--certainly including today's Palestinians--must have priority over the Jews.
There is scarcely any place in the world that has not at one time been conquered, subjugated, and populated by a previously foreign people. Thus, a kind of common sense statute of limitations on land claims by right of previous inhabitance has evolved--as it must, since in its absence there would be no stability, no principled objection to endless wars of restitution, and no law other than might makes right.
Of course, there can be no precision in ascertaining the point at which the passage of time has nullified the moral or legal validity of previous land claims, and certainly there are hard cases. However, the Zionist claim, based on dubious "history" two thousand years ago is not one of them. On the other hand, paradoxically, the Palestinian claim, whose historical validity is not in doubt, is based on events only sixty-four years ago. (Even so, as I shall later argue, a Palestinian "right of return" is, in practice, unrealizable).
The Balfour Declaration
Not all the Zionist arguments for the right of the Jews to sovereignty over all or most or Palestine are based on biblical or ancient history. To begin, Zionism--and the Israel Declaration of Independence--holds that the Jews gained a modern right to establish a state in Palestine by virtue of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and its subsequent incorporation into the League of Nations Mandate to Britain.
The fallacies of that argument are evident. First, the Balfour Declaration did not call for a Jewish state, but only a Jewish "national home" in Palestine; moreover, it stipulated that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine." Included in civil rights, of course, are democratic political rights, which are obviously denied by Israel to the occupied and otherwise oppressed Palestinians.
Nor did the incorporation of the Balfour Declaration into the League of Nations do much to increase its legitimacy, for the League was basically a club of the leading colonial powers of the day, and had no moral right to dispose of Palestine against the wishes of the indigenous majority, then about 650,000 Arabs and only 30,000 Jews.
Unlike the other Zionist arguments, the fact of the Holocaust cannot be dismissed as irrelevant in legitimizing the creation of Israel. To be sure, the matter is complex: the conflict between the Jews and Palestinians long preceded Nazi Germany, and in any case the Palestinians were in no way responsible for the Holocaust or, for that matter, for the earlier history of murderous European antisemitism that produced Zionism. As the Palestinians ask: Why should we be made to pay for evils we did not commit?
On the other hand, the Holocaust made the case for the creation of a Jewish state and a haven for the victims of antisemitism not only irrefutable but urgent. And by the end of WWII, the die was cast: it was far too late to consider alternatives other than Palestine.
To be sure, in 1941 Lord Moyne, one of Britain's leading colonial officials for the Middle East, had suggested to David Ben-Gurion that Jewish refugees could be resettled in East Prussia after Germany was defeated and the area's German inhabitants were expelled. However, Ben-Gurion is said to have responded that "the only way to get Jews to go [to East Prussia] would be with machine guns."
In early 1945 Franklin Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia to discuss the Palestine issue. According to one account, Roosevelt was considering the establishment of "an exclusively Jewish Palestine, with the Arabs bribed to leave." However, Saud was vehemently opposed, and "recommended instead that the Jewish refugees of Nazi oppression be granted the choicest homes and land of the defeated Germans."
Of course, nothing came of such proposals, perhaps partly because no Zionist leader had any interest in considering them. This was perfectly understandable, of course, but perhaps unfortunate: ex-Nazi Germany was probably the only country in the world in which the right of people not to be expelled to make way for a Jewish homeland could have been easily and morally overridden.
Ethnic Cleansing and the Creation of Israel: Were There Alternatives?
There is no serious doubt that during the 1947-49 period some 750,000 Palestinians-- roughly half of the indigenous Arab population living in the area of Palestine designated by the UN to be a Jewish state--were forcibly expelled or fled in an entirely justified fear that they would be killed by the Zionists if they didn't.
Many critics of Israel, including some Israeli "post Zionists," argue that ethnic cleansing was an inextricable and inevitable outcome of Zionism itself, and that it simply wasn't possible to create a viable Jewish state without driving out large numbers of Palestinians. However, while there can be no doubt that the principle of "transfer" was deeply embedded in Zionist ideology, it doesn't follow that the brutal expulsion of the Palestinians was the only way to ensure a large Jewish majority in Israel--or at least an Israel that remained within the UN boundaries.
Under the UN plan, the land allocated to a Jewish state contained about 500,000 Jews and 400,000 Arabs. Understandably, Ben-Gurion told other Zionist leaders that "Such a composition does not provide a stable basis for a Jewish state....[It] does not even give us absolute assurance that control will remain in the hands of the Jewish majority." Even strong critics of the entire Zionist enterprise, such as Ilan Pappe, agree: "The almost equal demographic balance within the allocated Jewish state was such that...Zionism would never have attained any of its principal goals." (35)
What demographic balance would have worked? In fact, since the creation of Israel Jews have constituted about 80% of the population, evidently sufficient to provide a stable Jewish majority. Let us suppose, then, that in 1947 the Zionists had agreed to accept such an 80% majority within the UN boundaries: in that case, some 220,000 Palestinians would have to have been moved into the rest of Palestine or neighboring Arab states, rather than the approximately 750,000 that were expelled when Israel expanded its borders in 1948-49.
More importantly, there might well have been other ways to achieve that goal without engaging in murderous ethnic cleansing. For example, there should have been much more serious efforts to buy out the Palestinians with very generous offers, or if one prefers, "bribing" them to leave, as Roosevelt had considered: surely the international community as well as wealthy Jewish supporters of Israel would have been willing to provide the funds.
And even if financial inducements to leave had proven insufficient, it hardly follows that draconic ethnic cleansing was the only available method: there could have been a far less extensive and brutal "transfer"--such as, if necessary, enforced relocation accompanied by generous financial restitution. It is perhaps worthy of note that the partition plan recommended by the British Peel Commission in 1937 cited previous precedents in which which "compulsory exchanges of population" had succeeded in preventing civil or international conflict.
[Note: because the argument of "enforced relocation" has attracted a lot of criticism, I have revised the following paragraphs so that I can elaborate]
Undoubtedly, some Palestinians would have refused to voluntarily leave no matter how well they were compensated, so that compulsory relocation would still constitute an injustice to them. Even so, differences in degrees of injustice matter a great deal. First of all, numbers matter: Of the 220,000 Palestinians who would have to be relocated if the Jews were to attain an 80% majority in Israel, surely some significant number of them would have done so if they had been offered very generous compensation. The remaining ones would then be informed that, in due course and with plenty of advance notice, they would be required to leave, could choose where they wanted to go, and would still get generous compensation for the loss of their homes and then also get financial assistance in picking up their lives wherever they chose to go.
In short, some relatively small number of Palestinians (say, 50,000?) would had to have been expelled, unwillingly but essentially nonviolently, to areas just a few miles away, with essentially the same geography, climate, history, religion, language, and culture. Yes, that would still be an injustice, but radically less so than the violent expulsion of 750,000 people, many of them who fled in justified fear that they were in imminent danger of being killed, and others who were rounded up in a matter of hours and marched across the border with little but the clothes on their backs.
Others clearly disagree, but in my moral universe it is necessary to make distinctions between degrees of injustice and to strike some kind of balance between conflicting moral claims. If I believed that there were no alternatives to what the Israelis actually did, had it genuinely been the case that the only way a Jewish state could have been established in Palestine was by massive and brutal ethnic cleansing, it would have been better to have done without a Jewish state. However, if the inevitable injustice to the Palestinians had been limited to a compulsory but generously recompensed relocation of far fewer people, then the existential need of the Jews for their state of their own, which in practice by 1947 could have been established in no other place but Palestine, would have outweighed the rights of those Palestinians who were involuntarily relocated, but in the manner I have discussed.
Finally, even after the expulsion of the Palestinians, in a variety of ways the Israelis might have at least mitigated the injustice--better said, the criminality--of the Nakba, if only they had had the moral and practical sense to have done so. First, they should have acknowledged and apologized for the Nakba, and committed themselves to do everything to make up for it-- short of disbanding Israeli as a Jewish state.
Second, they could and should have avoided further territorial expansion and expulsion of the Palestinians after 1949, especially the conquest and occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza after the 1967 war. Then, they should have agreed to a genuinely viable and independent Palestinian state in those territories, and along with the international community, provided generous development assistance to it.
Still further, the remaining Arab minority within Israel could have been given full political, social, and economic equality, as in fact Israel's Declaration of Independence had promised, a commitment that has been violated throughout the history of Israel.
Had they done all of these things, there is every reason to believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have ended long ago--despite the Nakba. Moreover, as I will discuss later, it might not be too late to resolve the conflict by such measures, despite all the obvious obstacles.
Settling the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: the One-State vs. the Two-State Solutions
Post-Zionism and the Jewish State Issue
Although still a small minority, in recent years an increasing number of Israelis and American Jews critical of Israel have turned to "post-Zionism." There are two schools of thought within the post-Zionist camp. The more radical view is that it was never necessary or desirable to have created a Jewish state in Israel; as already argued, that argument is not persuasive.
The more moderate view holds that whatever the original case for the creation of Israel, it is no longer necessary or desirable that it continue as a Jewish state--meaning a state in which Jews are a large majority and have political sovereignty, which is heavily Jewish in culture and religion, and which allows, as a matter of right, unlimited Jewish but not non-Jewish immigration.
Even the more moderate version of post-Zionism, however, is not convincing:
*First, it is argued that, whatever the past history, antisemitism has been so discredited and is now so weak that it is no longer necessary for the Jews to have a state of their own.
This is a remarkably ahistorical argument, one which ignores the fact that there have been many other periods in history--most of them far longer than the sixty-five years since the Holocaust led to a revulsion against antisemitism--in which Jews have seemed to flourish but which culminated in revived antisemitic persecution, forced conversion, expulsion, or mass murder: for example (but not limited to) in ancient Rome, in much of Europe during the 11th century Crusades, in England in the 13th century, in Spain and Portugal in the late 15th-early 16th centuries, and elsewhere.
To be sure, it may be argued that those periods of antisemitism constitute ancient and therefore no longer relevant history. That might well have been the case, had it not been for revived antisemitism in the modern era: as already noted, in France, Russia, Eastern Europe, and obviously above all, in Nazi Germany's Holocaust--which by itself should have sufficed to end the argument over the need for a Jewish state.
Still closer in time, even after the end of WWII, for several decades significant antisemitism continued in parts of Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and during the 1980s and 1990s antisemitism in Russia, while not becoming murderous, was serious enough to convince hundreds of thousands of Jews that it would be wise to emigrate to Israel.
Finally, during the 1980s and 1990s, some 80,000 Ethiopian Jews were rescued from civil war and famine, many in covert Israeli military operations that brought them to the Jewish state. To be sure, for the most part they were not fleeing from antisemitism, but their need for escape and refuge--and their right to migrate to Israel under the Law of Return--was no less urgent.
*Second, it is sometimes argued that the concept of a Jewish state assumes the superiority of the Jews--as in "Zionism is racism." However, except for a small minority of religious zealots, Zionist ideology is not based on the belief that the Jews are superior to others--just more vulnerable, or potentially so. This is not to deny that many Israelis are, in fact, genuinely racist and probably even increasingly so, but rather that racism is not inherent in, or a necessary component of, Zionism and the belief that Israel should continue as a Jewish state.
*Third, a common argument against a Jewish state is that the least safe place for Jews today is Israel. That may be true, but the explanation (notwithstanding Israeli propaganda and genuine but mistaken beliefs) is not that Israel is a Jewish state, and therefore unavoidably a target for hatred, but that Israel is Israel--that is, a country that has acted with criminal and blind stupidity, persisting on a course that makes it hated in the Arab/Muslim world because of its oppression of the Palestinians.
Put differently, only the most obtuse of Israel's supporters--not that there aren't plenty of them--hold that Israel's predicament can only be explained by the fact that it is Jewish, rather than because of its behavior. Regardless of the situation today, then, Israel would become much safer if it ended its occupation and repression of the Palestinians.
Even so, genuine antisemitism cannot be regarded as permanently erased from the world, at least not yet. Thus, a fair settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would make it possible for Israel to remain, or at least become, a haven rather than a target.
*A fourth argument against the need for a Jewish state is that there has never been a time in which most of the world's Jews have wanted to live in Israel. Some argue that this was the case even immediately following the Holocaust, claiming that a majority of the European Jewish survivors would have preferred to go to the United States rather than to Palestine.
Even if that was true, though, it would have been irrelevant, since the United States was not willing to take most of them. And while there is no doubt that most of the world's Jewry today have no desire to move to Israel, that is also irrelevant. The Jewish state idea does not assume or require that at any given time most Jews want to live there; rather, it assumes that the history of the Jews being what it is, in some future circumstances a significant number of them may want to move to Israel, whether out of free choice or desperate necessity.
*Fifth, it is argued that many other minorities have been victims of persecution, oppression or even genocide--among those cited are the Armenians by the Turks, the Bosnian Muslims by the Serbs, the Rwandan Tutsis by the Hutus, and perhaps others--but no one offered them a homeland and state of their own. Why, it is asked, don't those peoples have the same rights as the Jews? Why should the Jews be granted special privileges? Why don't other endangered minorities have the right to a new land of their own?
As I have already argued, there are a number of ways in which the history of the Jews have differed from those of other persecuted minorities, and these differences alone could be construed as justifying the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. However, the present issue is not whether a Jewish state should now be created at the expense of another people, but whether Israel, already in existence, should continue to be a Jewish state.
In addition, there is a major problem in the argument against granting special treatment--"privileges"--to some peoples but not to others: it is a moral fallacy to believe that if you are unable or unwilling to remedy all injustices you must not remedy some of them, or that if every jeopardized minority can't be saved, then none of them should be. Thus, pending a utopia in which the human rights of all peoples are protected, the argument against allowing Israel to serve as a refuge for endangered Jews is not convincing.
*Finally, it is argued that the continuation of Israel as a Jewish state, formally accepted as such by the Palestinians, would prejudice the rights of the Israeli Arab minority. However, so long as the Arab minority is not large enough to make Jewish sovereignty impossible, there is no necessary or inherent inconsistency between equal--or almost equal--civil, political, and economic rights for the Jews and Israeli Arabs. In fact, the Israeli Declaration of Independence--explicitly creating a Jewish State--promised to "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion [or] race...[and] guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture."
Of course, that promise has been broken, for in a variety of ways the Israeli Arabs have always been treated as second class citizens. Even the Israelis have acknowledged this, and over the years their leaders have repeatedly committed themselves to end this injustice, only to renege. Even so, the commitment is significant, for in effect it reiterates the premise of the Declaration of Independence that there is no necessary contradiction between a Jewish state and full rights for non-Jews.
What follows is that Israel has the right to remain a Jewish state if--but only if--it finally lives up to its commitment to treat its minorities with full equality. Or, at least, almost so--there is one justifiable exception. Since the core purpose of a Jewish state is to provide a refuge to Jews everywhere, there must continue to be an unlimited right of Jewish but not non-Jewish immigration into Israel.
Does that create an injustice for the Israeli Arabs? If so, it is a relatively minor one--especially if offset by the creation of a Palestinian state with its own "right of return" granted to Palestinians anywhere. Even genuine democracies often, in one way or another, privilege some of its people over others, sometimes quite justifiably--affirmative action in the U.S., for example. There are always differences of degree and circumstance, and the extent to which there are departures from the ideal of full and equal rights for everyone matters a great deal.
In short, in the real world the choice is not between perfect justice and radical injustice, or between ideal democracies and empty ones: the most we can expect are imperfect but reasonably just and democratic societies. For that reason, a two-state settlement, in which the Palestinians get a state of their own and Israel remains a Jewish state--but which ensures near-complete equality between Jews and its non-Jewish minorities--is as close to a morally just solution as we are likely to get.
Binationalism and the One-State Solution
Proponents of a binational solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict disagree with the assessment above: they argue that the two-state solution has failed, has less and less chance of ever being attained, and in any case that it would be morally inferior to a binational democratic state, with two peoples, genuinely equal in every respect, living side by side in peace.
If only. I shall argue that in practice a binational state would not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not result in democratic equality for the Palestinians, and in any case is entirely unfeasible.
Broadly speaking, there are two different concepts of a possible one-state solution. The first is that of a unitary state, the second is the binational state. The best explanation of the differences is provided by Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian academician who has recently written an article, "The One State Solution," for the Journal of Palestinian Studies, the leading scholarly journal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She writes:
There are several models for sharing Palestine...the binational model, where the two groups share the country but remain ethnically separate; and the secular, democratic, one-person, one-vote model based on individual citizenship and equal rights irrespective of race, religion, or gender. The binational model preserves the structure of two religious/ethnic communities, while the secular democratic model emphasizes the individual rather than the community, in the style of Western liberal democracies.
Most serious discussions of one-state solution are based on the binational rather than the unitary model, which would clearly be the more utopian one in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, at this point in history even the binational concept is neither desirable nor feasible.
In support of this argument, I will examine two analyses in particular, one by an Israeli with impeccable moral and intellectual qualifications, the other by Karmi, the Palestinian academic quoted above, who in 2007 wrote a book arguing for a binational state, but more recently has expressed grave doubts about its feasibilty.
For over sixty years, Uri Avnery, perhaps the greatest living Israeli, has been a particularly outspoken, articulate and indefatigable opponent of the Israeli occupation and oppression of the Palestinians; one day there will be a Palestinian Museum of the Nakba, where a tree should be planted in recognition of Avnery as a Righteous Jew.
Because of both his intellectual and moral stature, Avnery's views on the binational state issue are particularly worthy of note. In 1999 Avnery wrote an article, also for the Journal of Palestine Studies, entitled "A Binational State? God Forbid!", in which he argued that neither side would accept a binational state and even if they did the state would not be able to function and would not put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There is no chance that the Israelis will accept a binational state, Avnery argues, because "it negates the very essence of the Zionist idea, the raison d'etre of Israel as perceived by its Jewish citizens"--and, clearly, by Avnery himself. Moreover, that raison d'etre encompasses more than the continuing belief that a Jewish state is still necessary to serve as a refuge against severe antisemitism, but also that most Israeli Jews still want to live in a Jewish state for historical, cultural, or religious reasons, and that they have a right to do so.
Karmi, while not opposed to a binational state in principle, also has grave doubts about its feasibility and now perhaps even its desirability-- and not only because of Zionist beliefs but also Palestinian ones. To begin with, in effect she concedes that Avnery is right in his assessment of the consequences of binationalism: she writes that "many one-state supporters are motivated not by the principle of an inclusive society and equal rights, but rather by more pragmatic considerations...[including] awareness of the Palestinians' ultimate advantage in a one-state arrangement." (70, emphasis added)
Of course, the Israelis also have noticed those consequences of binationalism: Karmi cites a 2009 poll in which a grand total of 9% of Jewish Israelis favored a binational state.
Moreover, if the Israelis won't grant full equality to a minority currently constituting 20% of the Jewish state, what possibility is there that they would do so if they became a minority in a binational state? In a recent interview in Haaretz, Haim Oron a leading liberal Israeli Zionist and the departing chairman of Meretz (Israel's most "leftist" Jewish political party) said: "Why not a binational state?....That option no longer exists. The real option according to that scenario is an apartheid state. Am I supposed to trust the Jewish majority - which is incapable of giving equal rights even to the Druze, still less to the Arab minority - to bring a binational state into being?"
In any case, the problem is not only that of Israeli attitudes, for there is little likelihood that a binational state would be acceptable to most Palestinians--even most moderates, let alone to Hamas and its supporters, for whom it would be out of the question. Karmi notes that the 2009 poll cited above found that only 20% of the Palestinian people favored a one state solution; she explains why:
The level of distrust, grievance and ill will between the parties is such that the very idea of sharing the land would be anathema to both....the Palestinians would not willingly abandon their struggle for independence in order to struggle anew for equality in a joint state....Palestinian fears of being kept in a permanent underclass should not be dismissed....many see Western support for the two-state solution, however unpalatable and truncated and unjust, as their main protection and hope....For many, abandoning their struggle for an independent state with strong international backing for the chimera of a one-state option would be pure folly.(73)
Even if the attitudes of the Palestinians should change, most likely if they come to despair (even more than they do now) of the possibility of gaining their own state, it is hard to imagine any circumstances in which most Israelis would come to favor a binational state.
The South African Model?
Some supporters of a binational solution cite the South African case as a precedent and model for a previously adamant regime and population that suddenly abandons its ideology and power position to accept a binational (in the South African case, biracial) state. However, not only was the South African situation a very rare exception to the general rule that those in power don't willingly give it up in the name of equality and justice, but the differences between South Africa and the Israeli-Palestinian case are considerably greater than the similarities:
*In South Africa, the whites were a small minority of the population (13%) when apartheid began to crumble in the early 1990s; in Israel the Jews are a large majority (over 75%).
*In South Africa apartheid never had moral legitimacy and was widely condemned by the international community; by the 1990s continued white rule was supported by almost no state, and international economic sanctions were having a serious impact.
By contrast, Jewish rule within Israel itself is widely supported, at least by the West, and there are no economic sanctions--not even the BDS movement--that target Jewish rule within Israel proper, as opposed to the occupation of the Palestinians.
*The internal resistance to apartheid in South Africa was far wider and more effective than resistance to continued Jewish rule within Israel. Moreover, it is likely that Jewish resistance to a binational state will be more intransigent and, if necessary, even more ruthless than the white South African commitment to apartheid finally proved to be.
None of this is to deny the possibility--however slim--that over time Israeli attitudes might change, but any such change would result in Israeli acceptance of a two-state solution long before its acceptance of a binational state.
The Anti-Models: Failed Binationalism
Avnery writes: "Let's assume for a moment that both people [the Israelis and the Palestinians] 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."
Perhaps he exaggerates a bit--the United States and Switzerland are clear examples of successful and stable pluralistic states. Canada and Belgium are also sometimes cited, but it was not so long ago that it appeared the English-French linguistic and cultural conflict might lead to the breakup of Canada into two much less pluralistic states. And in Belgium today the French-Flemish geographical, cultural, and linguistic conflict is far from being resolved; as Karmi writes: "the precariousness of the Belgium federation, even after more than a century in existence, demonstrates the difficulties inherent in such models, especially, perhaps, with regard to an eventual Israeli-Palestine." (69)
In any case, there are many fewer models of successful multinational, multiethnic, multireligious, or multiracial states in the world than there are unsuccessful or unstable ones--indeed, even in the South African case it is far from clear that continuing racial tensions can be resolved.
Elsewhere, binationalism has clearly failed more often than it has succeeded; modern examples of particularly violent intracommunal conflicts would include the religious conflicts in Northern Ireland throughout most of the 20th century; the Greek-Turkish conflict within Cyprus in the 1970s; the many periods of communal Muslim-Christian conflict or outright warfare within Lebanon, particularly in the 1980s; the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ensuing nationalist or religious wars of the 1990s; and the unending tribal/nationalist/religious conflicts in Africa since the end of the colonial era.
These conflicts would seem to be much more relevant examples than Switzerland of what might happen in a binational Israeli-Palestinian state. In a binational state," Avnery writes, "the national struggle would be no means cease." Moreover, even if outright civil war or large scale violence could be averted, there is no reason to believe that a binational state would solve the problem of continued Jewish domination over the Palestinians. The Jews would continue to hold far greater economic and military power than the Palestinians, and the end of a large Jewish demographic majority would make it more likely that they would fiercely resist the loss of their domination and power than that they would willingly give it up.
The Problem With Binationalism, Or "Poof, You're a Hamburger."
Man rushes into a diner, hurries to the counter, and says to the grill man: "Quick, make me a hamburger!" Grill man waves his hand and says: "Poof, you're a hamburger."
Acknowledging the arguments against both the desirability and feasibility of a binational solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Karmi concludes: "Despite these compelling arguments and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, a small but growing number of dedicated advocates of the one-state solution remain undaunted....One-state supporters need urgently to elaborate an implementation plan. Not doing so would earn them dismissal as utopian or hopeless dreamers."
In some situations, naïve utopianism and historical innocence might be harmless, but not in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which entirely unrealistic dreaming undermines and diverts attention from the only possible solution, the two-state settlement.
Revisiting the Two-State Settlement
There can be no doubt that the prospects for a two-state settlement are increasingly dim, as Israeli attitudes become increasingly rigid, the settlements in the West Bank and the Jewish "neighborhoods" in East Jerusalem continue to expand, and the Obama administration abandons any effort to pressure Israel into policy changes.
Nonetheless, since the one-state solution--binationalism--is all but inconceivable, a two-state settlement is the only game in town. The major components of a two-state settlement, what can be called the "international consensus" plan, explicitly or at least implicitly contained in every serious proposal in the last twenty years (especially the Clinton proposals, the Taba negotiations of 2000, the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan, the Geneva Accord, the 2002 and 2007 Arab League proposals, and the recent Olmert-Abbas negotiations) include the following:
*The creation of a Palestinian state in some 95-98% of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, which will become the capital of the state.
*A relatively minor "land swap," with Israel retaining areas just over the 1967 borders, in which most of the settlers live, the Palestinians to be compensated by the transfer of Israeli territory equal in size and quality. The Israeli settlements remaining inside the new Palestinian state after the border adjustments will be removed and its inhabitants returned to Israel, possibly excepting those who are willing to remain as citizens of Palestine.
*Water resources and agricultural land near the border will be equitably shared.
*Jerusalem will be divided into Jewish West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem: what is presently Jewish will remain Jewish, what is presently Arab will remain Arab. However, if Israel keeps building Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem it will destroy such a compromise settlement, so removal of some of the Jewish areas will be unavoidable.
*Sovereignty and control of the Old City of Jerusalem, especially the Temple Mount/Haram al- Sharif will be either shared in some fashion by both sides or internationalized. There a number of detailed proposals and many variations on this idea can be imagined--so long as the religious sensibilities of both sides are protected.
*The Palestinian state will be demilitarized--or "non-militarized" as the current jargon has it: it will have relatively lightly-armed police or armed forces, sufficiently capable of maintaining internal order, but not strong enough to pose a military threat to Israel.
*The borders of the new state will be secured by an international peace keeping force, large enough to prevent or at least provide a significant deterrent against military attacks against either Israel or Palestine, from whatever quarter. Since the main Israeli security concern is not so much a Palestinian threat but an attack from the East by large Arab armies (Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Syria), the Israelis will insist that American forces be a major component of the international force.
*The Palestinian refugee "right of return" will be realized by some small and symbolic return to Israel, but primarily by an unlimited right to return to Palestine, for those who choose to do so. In addition, both as part of the settlement and in recognition of the past injustices suffered by the Palestinians, the international community will provide generous compensation to the refugees and their descendants. (I will have more to say about this issue, below)
*In addition to the refugee compensation program, the international community will establish a large-scale and long term development program to ensure the economic viability of the new Palestinian state.
*The Arab world as a whole must agree to accept the Israeli-Palestinian settlement and to fully normalize diplomatic and economic relations with Israel--it should not be difficult to obtain this agreement, since that is precisely what the twenty-two states of the Arab League have already, in principle, agreed to.
Whatever the final details, a two-state settlement must include all these components if it is to be acceptable to both sides. That it is not utopian to believe that it may yet prove doable, it is well to note that the 2009 secret negotiations between the Olmert government and the Palestinian Authority apparently came reasonably close to producing an agreement. And even Hamas in the last few years has been moving closer and closer to an acceptance, de facto if not formal, of a two-state settlement.
Must the Palestinians Agree to Recognize Israel as a Jewish State?
In the last year Benjamin Netanyahu has raised a new Israeli demand: that the Palestinians formally acknowledge and accept Israel as a Jewish state as part of, or perhaps as a precondition for, a two-state settlement. Recently there have been a few signs that Netanyahu has dropped or downplayed this demand; even if he has, however, there are indications it has now taken on a life of its own and that the Israeli people may now insist on it.
At one level, the question of whether Israel should be recognized as a Jewish state is already settled: the UN partition resolution explicitly divided Palestine into "Arab and Jewish states," and from the time of its creation, Israel has been recognized by most of the world as a Jewish state. Thus, until Netanyahu upped the ante, there was little controversy over the issue.
Moreover, it is clear that most Israelis prefer that their state remain Jewish, not only because of the possible need for Israel as a refuge, but also for historical, religious, and cultural reasons. For these reasons, there does not appear to be any compelling reason to deny the Jewish Israelis the right to continue to live in a Jewish state--but only so long as they don't prevent the Palestinians from having the comparable rights in their own state.
Even so, Netanyahu's new demand that the Palestinians explicitly and officially accept Israel as a Jewish state has created two further--but separable--problems. The first concerns Netanyahu's clearly ill intention in raising the issue; the second concerns whether the Palestinians should nonetheless agree to the demand in the context of a two-state settlement.
Obviously Netanyahu continues to oppose an end to the Israeli occupation and Jewish settlement of Palestinian territories, and therefore his demand that the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as the Jewish state was a disingenuous and cynical ploy to raise yet another obstacle to a two-state agreement. Whatever Netanyahu's cynicism, however, the Jewish state issue reflects genuine and deep-seated Israeli fears of the ultimate intentions of the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular.
This fear may be misplaced, exaggerated, or even an unavoidable consequence of Israel's occupation and repression of the Palestinians: even so, it is a reality that must be reckoned with. That being the case, there is a strong case is that the Palestinians should agree to the Jewish state demand as the final component of a two-state settlement that met all the legitimate Palestinian demands, as outlined above.
To be sure, as briefly mentioned above, an official Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state would also entail an end to the Palestinian demand for the "right of return" to Israel of an estimated seven million (!) Palestinian refugees and their descendants. However, that demand has a zero chance of being accepted by Israel under any circumstances. In fact, that the Palestinians will have to drop the right of return to Israel in the context of a two-state settlement that meets their other conditions has already been informally and sometimes close to explicitly recognized by moderate Palestinian leaders, including Yasir Arafat by the 1990s, the PLO leadership during the 2003 Geneva negotiations, and the Palestinian Authority representatives in the 2009 negotiations with Olmert.
In short, the Palestinian right of return can only be realized in a Palestinian state, not in Israel. Not only is that a fact of life, but in the context of a two-state settlement it does not seem unreasonable or unjust for both sides, the Jewish and Palestinian peoples alike, to have the same right of return to, but only to, their own state.
Even so, the Palestinians should have at least the moral if not the legal right to insist that the Palestinians remaining inside Israel must be given full political, civil, societal and economic rights. It should not be difficult for Israel to agree to this, for (as already pointed out) in theory it has already done so, as promised in the 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence, in some of Israel's laws, and in repeated promises of its leaders.
Of course Israel has violated its commitments to the Israeli Arabs throughout its history, so what would prevent it from doing so in the future? Probably not much, given the disparity in power between the Jews and the Arabs, as well as the Israeli willingness to disregard international opinion. But that's not the point. Since Israel can't be forced to live up to its principles, surely the best chance that it will do so in the future would be in the context of peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world as a whole.
Summing Up:How to Reconcile Zionism with Justice for the Palestinians.
Given the history of the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, the Zionist movement had an irrefutable case that the Jewish people needed a state of their own, somewhere. Nonetheless, there was a moral dilemma--there was no place to put the Jewish state that didn't create an injustice to the peoples who lived there and who were not prepared to make way for the Jews.
By the late 1940s it was clear that for various reasons, in practice the Jewish state would have to be in Palestine--and that resulted in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has lasted until now. Even given the unavoidable injustice to the Palestinians, though, it might have been possible for Israel to have mitigated that injustice in a number of ways, particularly if it had refrained from ethnic cleansing and allowed the creation of a Palestinian state.
Israel is here to stay and almost certainly it will continue as a predominantly Jewish state, whether or not it is formally acknowledged as such. Not only is that a fact of life, but it is a legitimate fact of life: in light of 2000 years of antisemitism it cannot be said that there is no longer a need for a Jewish state, principally but not solely to serve as a refuge for Jews who may find themselves in desperate straits into the future.
That said, for reasons of justice, international stability and, for that matter, Israeli security-- whether or not the Israelis recognize it--there must be a fair settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until fairly recently, there was an overwhelming international as well as moderate Palestinian and Israeli consensus that the basis for the settlement must be the creation of a viable and genuinely independent Palestinian state, living in peace side by side with Israel.
In the last few years, however, as a result of Israeli blindness, rigidity, and the continuing expansion of Jewish "settlements," urban areas, and neighborhoods in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it has become common to say that the two-state settlement is now dead, and must therefore be abandoned for a one-state settlement, or the creation of a single binational Israeli-Palestinian state.
The problem with this concept is that its desirability is doubtful and its feasibility non-existent. Given the generally unpromising history of binationalism elsewhere in the world, a century of bitter Jewish-Palestinian conflict, and the huge disparities in military and economic power between the Jews and the Palestinians, it is far more likely that a binational state, rather than ending the conflict would be a recipe for inequality, instability, and a bitter struggle for dominance.
In any case, there is next to no chance that a binational state can be established in the foreseeable future. Even if most Palestinians came to accept it--and they are far from doing so today--it is just about unimaginable that the Israelis would. Put differently, all the Israeli attitudes that currently make a two-state settlement increasingly difficult to achieve make a one-state settlement impossible. And if one should counter that attitudes can change, then it would almost certainly be the case that the changes in Israeli attitudes that would make a two-state settlement feasible would occur long before the changes sufficient to support a one-state settlement.
In short, if it is true that the two-state settlement is dead, then the one-state solution is even deader. However, it is premature to declare the two-state settlement dead; even today, somewhere between 40-60% of Israelis say that in principle they support such a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To be sure, when asked about the specific concessions Israel would have to make in order to bring about a two-state settlement, all of them are opposed by Israeli majorities, so there is a long way to go before a two-state settlement can be made feasible.
The only course that offers any hope is for the international community in general and the U.S. in particular--especially the American Jewish community--to adopt serious and sustained political and economic pressures on Israel and to increase efforts to morally "delegitimize" not Israel's "existence," but its occupation and repression of the Palestinians.
We live in an imperfect world, full of injustices, tragic dilemmas, and circumstances we can't control. There is no perfectly just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even in principle, let alone in practice. If those who rightly abhor Israeli policies give up on a two-state settlement, however dim its current prospects, in favor of a quixotic venture to create a fantasy--a stable democratic state in which Israelis and Palestinians live in peace, harmony, and equality--they will make it even more likely that the Palestinians will receive no justice at all, and will be condemned to live indefinitely under Israeli occupation and repression.