"Time for a bi-national state"
Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas may have affirmed that they want a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but it may be more promising to return to a much older idea.
There is talk once again of a one-state bi-national solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The
There have been a number of recent publications proposing a one-state solution as the only alternative to the current impasse. Three years ago Meron Benvenisti,
The idea of a single, bi-national state is not new. Its appeal lies in its attempt to provide an equitable and inclusive solution to the struggle of two peoples for the same piece of land. It was first suggested in the 1920s by Zionist leftwing intellectuals led by philosopher Martin Buber, Judah Magnes (the first rector of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Haïm Kalvarisky (a member of Brit-Shalom and later of the National Union). The group followed in the footsteps of Ahad Ha’am (Asher Hirsch Ginsberg, one of the great pre-state Zionist thinkers).
Underlying their Zionism was a quest for a Jewish renaissance, both cultural and spiritual, with a determination to avoid injustice in its achievement. It was essential to found a new nation, although not necessarily a separate Jewish state and certainly not at the expense of the existing population. Magnes argued that the Jewish people did not “need a Jewish state to maintain its very existence” (3).
No to partition
Although supporters of the bi-national state remained a marginal group in Zionist politics under the British mandate, they made sure they were heard both in official Zionist circles and the international arena. They also pleaded before the 1947 United Nations special committee on
But with the UN’s partition plan and the Arab-Israeli war that broke out in 1948, a one-state solution was shelved. It came to light again in 1969 with the call by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement for the creation of a “secular and democratic state” in
The failure of the one-state option has often been attributed to the idealism of its cause and its failure to come to terms with local realities. Nevertheless, as Magnes pointed out, the option offered significant advantages in demographic and territorial terms in 1947 to the Jewish cause (4).
In fact, the idea failed because the political actors of the time rejected it: the Zionist organisations were not interested, the British were unsupportive and the Arabs too suspicious. Between 1948 and 1993 the only significant change in these positions came from the Arabs, who finally came to terms with the existence of
Despite the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s calls for a secular, democratic state, Arafat prepared Palestinians for partition as the only available option. The PLO’s national council accepted the position in 1974, and confirmed it with its declaration of Palestinian independence in 1988 and the acceptance of the UN partition plan. A separate, independent Palestinian state was the best hope, even if it had to be on only 22 percent of the territory. The long Palestinian struggle for statehood culminated in 1993 with the
From dream to nightmare
The tragedy of
Since 1994 the Palestinians have not been liberated; they have been imprisoned by the Israeli system of permits and the installation of 50 permanent checkpoints and terminals fragmenting the territory into eight bantustans (6). Since 2002 the Palestinian Authority has seen its territory further eroded by the 700km-long wall being built with the aim of severing the
What is the attraction of a bi-national state in these circumstances? For a start, a two-state plan appears to be less of a solution to the nationalist aspirations of either Zionists or Palestinians. Before 1947 partition had not been tried; since then it has taken root in circumstances of total Israeli domination. Despite the historic compromise of 1993, the Palestinians have not obtained the independent, viable state they sought. Palestinian nationalism has also met its limits: its leaders have failed to guide their people to independence and are now reduced to tearing themselves apart.
But partition has also failed to give Jews the security the state of
Demographic changes will continue to undermine any plans for partition. In 2005 there were 5.2 million Israelis living between the Mediterranean and the
There is another factor that argues against a two-state solution: the idea of citizenship founded on justice and equality. History has shown that, in this region as elsewhere, partition cannot be achieved without the expulsion and transfer of populations. This raises ethnic issues. There can be no peace, from a moral point of view, without an equitable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, based on the right of return or compensation, as required as early as 1948 by resolution 194 of the UN General Assembly.
But this right of return, and the expansion of the Palestinian population, endangers
According to historian Tony Judt, this is where
The establishment of a bi-national state would redefine the identity of the state; it would favour democracy over nationalism. For Ali Abunimeh it would allow “all the people to live in and enjoy the entire country while preserving their distinctive communities and addressing their particular needs. It offers the potential to deterritorialise the conflict and neutralise demography and ethnicity as a source of political power and legitimacy” (9). At the heart of this conflict there remains a persistent territorial issue. Ethnicity (and, even more, religion) continues to be the main source of legitimacy and the quest for power.
Those arguing for a single democratic state now detect growing popular support for this solution, inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement. Boycott campaigns are being organised in Europe and the
True, the three political protagonists seem far from convinced.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The
(1) Leila Farsakh “
(2) Meron Benvenisti, “Which Kind of
(3) See www.one-democratic-state.org
(5) Yitzhak Rabin’s statement at the signing of the Declaration of Principles,
(6) www.btselem.org/english/statis tics/. See Dominique Vidal, “
(7) Toni Judt, “
(8) Virginia Tilley, The One-State Solution,
(9) Ali Abunimah, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, Henry Holt,
(10) See the calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against http://www.bds-palestine.net/