Israeli Jews and The One-State Solution

Anyone who rejects the
two-state solution, won't bring a one-state solution. They will instead
bring one war, not one state. A bloody war with no end.
-- Israeli President Shimon Peres, 7 November 2009.

One of the most commonly voiced objections to a one-state solution for
Palestine/Israel stems from the accurate observation that the vast
majority of Israeli Jews reject it, and fear being "swamped" by a
Palestinian majority. Across the political spectrum, Israeli Jews
insist on maintaining a separate Jewish-majority state.

But with the total collapse of the Obama Administration's peace
efforts, and relentless Israeli colonization of the occupied West Bank,
the reality is dawning rapidly that the two-state solution is no more
than a slogan that has no chance of being implemented or altering the
reality of a de facto binational state in Palestine/Israel.

This places an obligation on all who care about the future of
Palestine/Israel to seriously consider the democratic alternatives. I
have long argued that the systems in post-apartheid South Africa (a
unitary democratic state), and Northern Ireland (consociational
democracy) -- offer hopeful, real-life models.

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

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

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

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

Throughout the 1980s, polls showed that even as whites increasingly
understood that apartheid could not last, only a small minority ever
supported majority rule and a one person, one vote system. In a March
1986 survey, for example, 47 percent of whites said they would favor
some form of "mixed-race" government, but 83 percent said they would
opt for continued white domination of the government if they had the
choice (Peter Goodspeed, "Afrikaners cling to their all-white dream," The Toronto Star, 5 October 1986).

A 1990 nationwide survey of Afrikaner whites (native speakers of
Afrikaans, as opposed to English, and who traditionally formed the
backbone of the apartheid state), found just 2.2 percent were willing
to accept a "universal franchise with majority rule" (Kate Manzo and
Pat McGowan, "Afrikaner fears and the politics of despair:
Understanding change in South Africa," International Studies Quarterly, 36, 1992).

Perhaps an enlightened white elite was able to lead the white masses to
higher ground? This was not the case either. A 1988 academic survey of
more than 400 white politicians, business and media leaders, top civil
servants, academics and clergy found that just 4.8 percent were
prepared to accept a unitary state with a universal voting franchise
and two-thirds considered such an outcome "unacceptable." According to
Manzo and McGowan, white elites reflected the sentiments and biases of
the rest of the society and overwhelmingly considered whites inherently
more civilized and culturally superior to black Africans. Just more
than half of prominent whites were prepared to accept "a federal state
in which power is shared between white and non-white groups and areas
so that no one group dominates."

During the 1980s, the white electorate in South Africa moved to the
right, as Israel's Jewish electorate is doing today. Support seeped
from the National Party, which had established formal apartheid in
1948, to the even more extreme Conservative Party. Yet, "on the issue
of majority rule," Hugo observed, "supporters of the National Party and
the Conservative Party, as well as most white voters to the 'left' of
these organizations, ha[d] little quarrel with each other."

The vast majority of whites, wracked with existential fears, were
simply unable to contemplate relinquishing effective control, or at
least a veto, over political decision-making in South Africa.

Yet, the African National Congress insisted firmly on a one person, one
vote system with no white veto. As the township protests and strikes
and international pressure mounted, The Economist
observed in an extensive 1986 survey of South Africa published on 1
February of that year, that many "enlightened" whites "still fondly
argue that a dramatic improvement in the quality of black life may take
the revolutionary sting out of the black townships -- and persuade
'responsible' blacks, led by the emergent black middle class, to accept
some power-sharing formula."

Schemes to stabilize the apartheid system abounded, and bear a strong
resemblance to the current Israeli government's vision of "economic
peace" in which a collaborationist Palestinian Authority leadership
would manage a still-subjugated Palestinian population anesthetized by
consumer goods and shopping malls.

Because of the staunch opposition of whites to a unitary democratic
state, the ANC heard no shortage of advice from western liberals that
it should seek a "realistic" political accommodation with the apartheid
regime, and that no amount of pressure could force whites to succumb to
the ANC's political demands. The ANC was warned that insistence on
majority rule would force Afrikaners into the "laager" -- they would retreat into a militarized garrison state and siege economy, preferring death before surrender.

Even the late Helen Suzman, one of apartheid's fiercest liberal
critics, predicted in 1987, as quoted by Hugo, "The Zimbabwe conflict
took 15 years ... and cost 20,000 lives and I can assure you that the
South African transfer of power will take a good deal more than that,
both in time and I am afraid lives."

But as The Economist observed, the view that whites would
prefer "collective suicide" was something of a caricature. The vast
majority of Afrikaners were "no longer bible-thumping boers." They were
"part of a spoilt, affluent suburban society, whose economic pain
threshold may prove to be rather low."

The Economist concluded that if whites would only come so far
voluntarily, then it was perfectly reasonable for the anti-apartheid
movement to bring them the rest of the way through "coercion" in the
form of sanctions and other forms of pressure. "The quicker the white
tribe submits," the magazine wrote, "the better its chance of a
bearable future in a black-ruled South Africa."

Ultimately, as we now know, the combination of internal resistance and
international isolation did force whites to abandon political apartheid
and accept majority rule. However, it is important to note that the
combined strength of the anti-apartheid movement never seriously
threatened the physical integrity of the white regime.

Even after the massive township uprisings of 1985-86, the South African
regime was secure. "So far there is no real physical threat to white
power," The Economist
noted, "so far there is little threat to white lives. ... The white
state is mighty, and well-equipped. It has the capacity to repress the
township revolts far more bloodily. The blacks have virtually no urban
or rural guerrilla capacity, practically no guns, few safe havens
within South Africa or without."

This balance never changed, and a similar equation could be written
today about the relative power of a massively-armed -- and much more
ruthless -- Israeli state, and lightly armed Palestinian resistance

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

Zionism -- as many Israelis openly worry -- is suffering a similar,
terminal loss of legitimacy as Israel is ever more isolated as a result
of its actions. Israel's self-image as a liberal "Jewish and democratic
state" is proving impossible to maintain against the reality of a
militarized, ultra-nationalist Jewish sectarian settler-colony that
must carry out frequent and escalating massacres of "enemy" civilians
(Lebanon and Gaza 2006, Gaza 2009) in a losing effort to check the
resistance of the region's indigenous people. Zionism cannot bomb,
kidnap, assassinate, expel, demolish, settle and lie its way to
legitimacy and acceptance.

Already difficult to disguise, the loss of legitimacy becomes
impossible to conceal once Palestinians are a demographic majority
ruled by a Jewish minority. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's
demand that Palestinians recognize Israel's "right to exist as a Jewish
state" is in effect an acknowledgement of failure: without Palestinian
consent, something which is unlikely ever to be granted, the Zionist
project of a Jewish ethnocracy in Palestine has grim long-term

Similarly, South African whites typically attempted to justify their
opposition to democracy, not in terms of a desire to preserve their
privilege and power, but using liberal arguments about protecting
distinctive cultural differences. Hendrik Verwoerd Jr., the son of
assassinated Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, apartheid's founder,
expressed the problem in these terms in 1986, as reported by The Toronto Star,
stating that, "These two people, the Afrikaner and the black, are not
capable of becoming one nation. Our differences are unique, cultural
and deep. The only way a man can be happy, can live in peace, is really
when he is among his own people, when he shares cultural values."

The younger Verwoerd was on the far-right of South African politics,
leading a quixotic effort to carve out a whites-only homeland in the
heart of South Africa. But his reasoning sounds remarkably similar to
liberal Zionist defenses of the "two-state solution" today. The Economist
clarified the use of such language at the time, stating that "One of
the weirder products of apartheid is the crippling of language in a maw
of hypocrisy, euphemism and sociologese. You talk about the Afrikaner
'right to self-determination' -- meaning power over everybody else."

Zionism's claim for "Jewish self-determination" amidst an intermixed
population, is in effect a demand to preserve and legitimize a status quo
in which Israeli Jews exercise power in perpetuity. But there's little
reason to expect that Israeli Jews would abandon this quest voluntarily
any more than South African whites did. As in South Africa, coercion is
necessary -- and the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS)
movement is one of the most powerful, nonviolent, legitimate and proven
tools of coercion that Palestinians possess. Israel's vulnerabilities
may be different from those of apartheid South Africa, but Israel is
not invulnerable to pressure.

Coercion is not enough, however; as I have long argued, and sought to
do, Palestinians must also put forward a positive vision. Neither can
Palestinians advocating a one-state solution simply disregard the views
of Israeli Jews. We must recognize that the opposition of Israeli Jews
to any solution that threatens their power and privilege stems from at
least two sources. One is irrational, racist fears of black and brown
hordes (in this case, Arab Muslims) stoked by decades of colonial,
racist demonization. The other source -- certainly heightened by the
former -- are normal human concerns about personal and family
dislocation, loss of socioeconomic status and community security:
change is scary.

But change will come. Without indulging Israeli racism or preserving
undue privilege, the legitimate concerns of ordinary Israeli Jews can
be addressed directly in any negotiated transition to ensure that the
shift to democracy is orderly, and essential redistributive policies
are carried out fairly. Inevitably, decolonization will cause some pain
as Israeli Jews lose power and privilege, but there are few reasons to
believe it cannot be a well-managed process, or that the vast majority
of Israeli Jews, like white South Africans, would not be prepared to
make the adjustment for the sake of a normality and legitimacy they
cannot have any other way.

This is where the wealth of research and real-life experience about the
successes, failures, difficulties and opportunities of managing such
transitions at the level of national and local politics, neighborhoods,
schools and universities, workplaces, state institutions and policing,
emerging from South Africa and Northern Ireland, will be of enormous

Every situation has unique features, and although there are patterns in
history, it never repeats itself exactly. But what we can conclude from
studying the pasts and presents of others is that Palestinians and
Israelis are no less capable of writing themselves a post-colonial
future that gives everyone a chance at a life worth living in a single,
democratic state.

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