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Israelis Embrace One-State Solution from Unexpected Direction

Ali Abunimah

 by Electronic Intifada

There has been a strong
revival in recent years of support among Palestinians for a one-state
solution guaranteeing equal rights to Palestinians and Israeli Jews
throughout historic Palestine.

One might expect that any support for a single state among Israeli Jews
would come from the far left, and in fact this is where the most
prominent Israeli Jewish champions of the idea are found, though in
small numbers.

Recently, proposals to grant Israeli citizenship to Palestinians in the
West Bank, including the right to vote for the Knesset, have emerged
from a surprising direction: right-wing stalwarts such as Knesset
speaker Reuven Rivlin, and former defense minister Moshe Arens, both
from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party. Even more
surprising, the idea has been pushed by prominent activists among
Israel's West Bank settler movement, who were the subject of a must-read
profile by Noam Sheizaf in Haaretz ("Endgame," 15 July 2010).

Their visions still fall far short of what any Palestinian advocate of a
single state would consider to be just: the Israeli proposals insist on
maintaining the state's character -- at least symbolically -- as a
"Jewish state," exclude the Gaza Strip, and do not address the rights of
Palestinian refugees. And, settlers on land often violently
expropriated from Palestinians would hardly seem like obvious advocates
for Palestinian human and political rights.

Although the details vary, and in some cases are anathema to
Palestinians, what is more revealing is that this debate is occurring
openly and in the least likely circles.

The Likudnik and settler advocates of a one-state solution with
citizenship for Palestinians realize that Israel has lost the argument
that Jewish sovereignty can be maintained forever at any price. A status quo
where millions of Palestinians live without rights, subject to control
by escalating Israeli violence is untenable even for them. At the same
time repartition of historic Palestine -- what they call Eretz Yisrael
-- into two states is unacceptable, and has proven unattainable -- not
least because of the settler movement itself.

Some on the Israeli right now recognize what Israeli geographer Meron
Benvenisti has said for years: historic Palestine is already a "de facto
binational state," unpartionable except at a cost neither Israelis nor
Palestinians are willing to pay. The relationship between Palestinians
and Israelis is not that of equals however, but that "between horse and
rider" as one settler vividly put it in Haaretz.

From the settlers' perspective, repartition would mean an uprooting of
at least tens of thousands of the 500,000 settlers now in the West Bank,
and it would not even solve the national question. Would the settlers
remaining behind in the West Bank (the vast majority under all current
two-state proposals) be under Palestinian sovereignty or would Israel
continue to exercise control over a network of settlements
criss-crossing the putative Palestinian state? How could a truly
independent Palestinian state exist under such circumstances?

The graver danger is that the West Bank would turn into a dozen Gaza
Strips with large Israeli civilian populations wedged between miserable,
overcrowded walled Palestinian ghettos. The patchwork Palestinian state
would be free only to administer its own poverty, visited by regular
bouts of bloodshed.

Even a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank -- something that is
not remotely on the peace process agenda -- would leave Israel with 1.5
million Palestinian citizens inside its borders. This population already
faces escalating discrimination, incitement and loyalty tests. In an
angry, ultra-nationalist Israel shrunken by the upheaval of abandoning
West Bank settlements, these non-Jewish citizens could suffer much
worse, including outright ethnic cleansing.

With no progress toward a two-state solution despite decades of efforts,
the only Zionist alternative on offer has been outright expulsion of
the Palestinians -- a program long-championed by Israeli Foreign
Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party, which has seen its
support increase steadily.

Israel is at the point where it has to look in the mirror and even some
cold, hard Likudniks like Arens apparently don't like what they see.
Yisrael Beitenu's platform is "nonsensical," Arens told Haaretz, and simply not "doable." If Israel feels it is a pariah now, what would happen after another mass expulsion of Palestinians?

Given these realities, "The worst solution ... is apparently the right
one: a binational state, full annexation, full citizenship" in the words
of settler activist and former Netanyahu aide Uri Elitzur.

This awakening can be likened to what happened among South African
whites in the 1980s. By that time it had become clear that the white
minority government's effort to "solve" the problem of black
disenfranchisement by creating nominally independent homelands --
bantustans -- had failed. Pressure was mounting from internal resistance
and the international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

By the mid-1980s, whites overwhelmingly understood that the apartheid status quo
was untenable and they began to consider "reform" proposals that fell
very far short of the African National Congress' demands for a universal
franchise -- one-person, one-vote in a nonracial South Africa. The
reforms began with the 1984 introduction of a tricameral parliament with
separate chambers for whites, coloreds and Indians (none for blacks),
with whites retaining overall control.

Until almost the end of the apartheid system, polls showed the vast
majority of whites rejected a universal franchise, but were prepared to
concede some form of power-sharing with the black majority as long as
whites retained a veto over key decisions. The important point, as I
have argued previously, is that one could not predict the final outcome
of the negotiations that eventually brought about a fully democratic
South Africa in 1994, based on what the white public and elites said
they were prepared to accept ("Israeli Jews and the one-state solution," The Electronic Intifada, 10 November 2009).

Once Israeli Jews concede that Palestinians must have equal rights, they
will not be able to unilaterally impose any system that maintains undue
privilege. A joint state should accommodate Israeli Jews' legitimate
collective interests, but it would have to do so equally for everyone

The very appearance of the right-wing one-state solution suggests Israel
is feeling the pressure and experiencing a relative loss of power. If
its proponents thought Israel could "win" in the long-term there would
be no need to find ways to accommodate Palestinian rights. But Israeli
Jews see their moral currency and legitimacy drastically devalued
worldwide, while demographically Palestinians are on the verge of
becoming a majority once again in historic Palestine.

Of course Israeli Jews still retain an enormous power advantage over
Palestinians which, while eroding, is likely to last for some time.
Israel's main advantage is a near monopoly on the means of violence,
guaranteed by the United States. But legitimacy and stability cannot be
gained by reliance on brute force -- this is the lesson that is starting
to sink in among some Israelis as the country is increasingly isolated
after its attacks on Gaza and the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Legitimacy can
only come from a just and equitable political settlement.

Perhaps the right-wing proponents of a single state recognize that the
best time to negotiate a transition which provides safeguards for
Israeli Jews' legitimate collective interests is while they are still
relatively strong.

That proposals for a single state are coming from the Israeli right
should not be so surprising in light of experiences in comparable
situations. In South Africa, it was not the traditional white liberal
critics of apartheid who oversaw the system's dismantling, but the
National Party which had built apartheid in the first place. In Northern
Ireland, it was not "moderate" unionists and nationalists like David
Trimble and John Hume who finally made power-sharing under the 1998
Belfast Agreement function, but the long-time rejectionists of Ian
Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, and the nationalist Sinn Fein,
whose leaders had close ties the IRA.

The experiences in South Africa and Northern Ireland show that
transforming the relationship between settler and native, master and
slave, or "horse and rider," to one between equal citizens is a very
difficult, uncertain and lengthy process. There are many setbacks and
detours along the way and success is not guaranteed. It requires much
more than a new constitution; economic redistribution, restitution and
restorative justice are essential and meet significant resistance. But
such a transformation is not, as many of the critics of a one-state
solution in Palestine/Israel insist, "impossible." Indeed, hope now
resides in the space between what is "very difficult" and what is
considered "impossible."

The proposals from the Israeli right-wing, however inadequate and indeed
offensive they seem in many respects, add a little bit to that hope.
They suggest that even those whom Palestinians understandably consider
their most implacable foes can stare into the abyss and decide there has
to be a radically different way forward.

We should watch how this debate develops and engage and encourage it
carefully. In the end it is not what the solution is called that
matters, but whether it fulfills the fundamental and inalienable rights
of all Palestinians.

© 2021

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