Time for New Ideas on the Mideast

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dead. Israeli settlements have created facts on the ground that render a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza impossible. It would have more holes than a wedge of Swiss cheese. 

This conclusion pains me. Ever since the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized Israel’s right to exist in 1988, hopes for Mideast peace hinged on a Jewish state in current Israel (with perhaps some border modifications) and an adjacent Palestinian state. But, in the last decade, the settlements have scotched that dream, and many in Israel — and their supporters among American Jews — have hoped for a continuation of the status quo in which Palestinians quietly (relatively) suffer the indignities of Israeli occupation. The outbreak of the recent violence laid bare the foolishness of such a hope.

The only alternatives left in the beleaguered Mideast are a continuation of the occupation, or the creation of one equal state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, a solution embraced by some younger Palestinian activists (and some American and Israeli Jews). Such a solution would not be easy to reach. It might entail a binational state in which Jews and Palestinians each exercise a degree of autonomy over language, religion, and culture. Binational states are subject to stress, but some survive today: Two examples are Belgium, comprised of French-speaking Walloons and Flemish-speaking (related to Dutch) Flemings, and Canada, in which French-speaking Québécois are a minority in a sea of English speakers.

Many Israelis and American Jewish groups argue that a one-state solution violates the Jewish right to self-determination and is, therefore, a form of anti-Semitism. That position is absurd, for, as Peter Beinart points out, the right to self-determination does not mean every national or ethnic group has a right to its own country. That noble concept, raised to its logical extreme by Woodrow Wilson in his 14 Points in an attempt to rebuild a shattered Europe in 1919, is ultimately untenable. The world is full of too many people of too many different groups in too many overlapping places to make strict adherence to self-determination workable. The only sensible way to interpret the right to national self-determination is to focus on autonomy instead of sovereignty. A binational state from sea to river — with autonomy for Jews and Arabs — would satisfy that interpretation.

I am not naive. I know that a one-state solution will be a difficult sell in Israel. Many Zionists dream of a democratic and Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael — the land of biblical Israel. Satisfying all three criteria is, of course, impossible. There simply is no way Israel can govern Samaria and Judea — the heart of biblical Israel — and remain democratic. Samaria and Judea are known to the international community as the West Bank, inhabited by 2.7 million Palestinians. While the West Bank now has a degree of autonomy, ultimate authority resides with Israel as an occupying force. Such an occupation means a constant set of indignities and loss of civil liberties for Palestinians and a brutalization of the Israeli occupiers who exercise control through military rule. 

A joint Jewish and Palestinian state means modern Israel will cease to be an exclusively Jewish state. Of course, Israel proper today is, in a sense, a binational state in which Israeli Arabs are 20 percent of the population. They are citizens of Israel. They have, on paper, full equal rights, but, as the recent outbreak of violence has shown, Israeli Arabs suffer from discrimination and violations of their civil rights in intolerable ways. 

A one-state solution cannot be achieved without resolving the issue of Palestinian refugees and the right of return. There are roughly seven-million Palestinian refugees scattered around the world. These refugees fled, were expelled, or were forced into exile between 1948 and today. Three-quarters of a million Palestinians were displaced and became refugees as a result of the Arab-Israeli war following the establishment of the state of Israel. Palestinians refer to this displacement as al-Nakba, the catastrophe. Israeli seizure of the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 war forced tens of thousands of Palestinians into exile. Many other Palestinians have been internally exiled, forced out of their homes but still resident in either Israel or the occupied territories.

Israel insists that Palestinian refugees must abandon hope of returning to their homeland as a precondition for any peace settlement between Jews and Arabs. The Israeli government — and its American supporters — provides many excuses to deny the right of return. The Palestinians, they say, were encouraged by Arab leaders to flee in 1948 or willingly left their homes. Often it is claimed that Palestinians have made homes elsewhere. Also, many Israelis and American Jews claim under international law that the only refugees are the people who fled in 1948. Their children and grandchildren are no longer entitled to refugee status.

This is an interesting assertion made by a people who base their claim to statehood on a three millennia-promise. No people have clung to a dream of return to an ancient homeland with more gusto than Jews in the Diaspora. Jews end every Passover seder, after all, with the vow, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Given the tragic history of the Jewish people, the longing for Zion was and is understandable. Jews, of all people, ought to appreciate other peoples’ longing for their ancient homeland. 

The ultimate tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that both people are right. Both deserve to live in peace in a homeland of their choosing. Both deserve self-determination. Unfortunately, both claim the same small plot of land. As recent events emphasize, this ongoing strife dictates the need for new ideas and new modes of thinking if the constant cycle of war and violence is to end. It will not be easy!

Posted May 25, 2021

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