The recent statement made by Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei concerning a binational state and resulting in such an uproar was not only a response to developments in Israeli-Palestinian relations, but also a response to growing debate inside Palestinian society and among various Palestinian political tendencies.
But before exploring the reasons for the statement, it is important to first clarify any misunderstanding. While many interpreted Qurei's comments to be an expression of support for a binational state, this was not at all the context of his statement. Qurei was only intending to warn Israelis and the international community that if Israel's settlement expansion policy continues on its current trajectory, it will remove in practice the possibility for an independent Palestinian state and with it a solution based on two states; thus Palestinians would have only one remaining option to achieve their rights as equal citizens of a country: the one state solution. Qurei's warning stemmed, then, from his commitment to the two state solution, which remains the official position of the Palestinian people and their leadership.
Indeed, the binational state is not a solution. On the one hand, it contradicts a key element of Israel's objectives, i.e., to have a Jewish state, and on the other it contradicts a fundamental Palestinian goal, which is to have a state of their own. That is why this option has never been promoted by the Palestinian leadership and will never be its chosen policy. It could, however, be the practical outcome of current Israeli practices in the occupied territories, the wall and settlement expansion, which are delaying the establishment of a Palestinian state and making its prospects dimmer by the day. These changes happening right under our nose will likely be irreversible: as the saying goes, a ton of regret never made an ounce of difference.
Inside the Palestinian territories, there has been a very vigorous debate on whether or not the Palestinian Authority should be maintained or dismantled. In the perception of Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority, as it was established through the Oslo accords, was the nucleus and initial stage of the independent Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Now, a growing number of Palestinians are suggesting that because Israel insists on narrowing the physical boundaries of the Palestinian Authority and leaving it with no authority to speak of, this authority might eventually become a "middleman" for the Israeli occupation in the territories. These people are suggesting that, either this authority be ensured the prospect of developing into an actual state, or that it be disbanded and Israel forced to carry the full burden of occupation with no facade of a Palestinian companion. This step would also force Israel to face the consequences of shrinking the Palestinian dream of statehood, an outcome that will harm Palestinians but will also do great damage to Israelis.
The shortsighted right wing government of Israel, driven by ideological motives, is leading the two sides towards strategic options that are different from those that have characterized the conflict for decades. And once we reach that point, everyone is going to regret it dearly, in particular those who dreamed of peace and coexistence, because a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel is the prerequisite for a comprehensive, stable and lasting peace in the Middle East.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
On January 8, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) voiced his "private opinion" to the effect that Israel's fence and settlement policies constitute "an apartheid solution to put the Palestinians in cantons. . . . We will go for a one state solution in which the Palestinians have the same rights as Israelis." Three days later, following a reminder by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership that the movement's objective remained a Palestinian (and not a binational) state, Abu Ala effectively retracted his remark by stating: "The Palestinian Authority adheres to the idea of a viable two state solution."
It is tempting for Israelis to dismiss the Palestinian prime minister's first remark as a mindless slip of the tongue. Certainly it is instructive to note the knee jerk reaction of the PLO leadership, hastily reaffirming the two state solution. The fact is that Abu Ala's remark did not precipitate a landslide Palestinian movement toward abandoning that strategy.
But it was significant. It constituted the first time since 1988, when the PLO officially adopted the two state solution, that a mainstream Palestinian leader involved in negotiations with Israel--indeed, the man who personally negotiated the Oslo accords--cast doubt on that position. Nor was Abu Ala whistling in the dark: more and more Palestinian intellectuals have, in recent months, echoed the same sentiment, some of them in these virtual pages of bitterlemons.org.
Abu Ala is right: the fence (as hijacked by Sharon for political purposes) and the settlements are indeed liable to create an apartheid-like situation. He also knows, as do we all, that the Palestinians will soon constitute a majority of the population under direct and indirect Israeli rule between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, thereby fulfilling an additional condition for comparisons to pre-1994 South Africa. His remark could indeed possibly be a harbinger of an eventual PLO decision to reject the two state solution as no longer viable, and to adopt an updated version of its pre-1988 position advocating a single state solution.
Why, then, did Abu Ala's fellow PLO leaders hasten to reject his remark and force a retraction? The answer appears to lie in the revolutionary nature of the consequences of abandoning the two state solution. Even assuming that PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's real objective is to "Palestinize" and delegitimize Israel from within in the course of a process that does not truly reflect Palestinian acceptance of the Jewish state, that strategy is nevertheless based on a two state solution. In contrast, the logical corollary of the prime minister's "private" position is the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority and the return of full Israeli rule, military or civilian, under which the Palestinians would commence a campaign for "one man, one vote."
This means that, from Yasser Arafat on down, more than 100,000 ministers, clerks, officials, and security personnel would be out of a job. In the eyes of the international community that has recognized the Oslo process and the roadmap, it would be the PLO that officially backed out of these two-state arrangements. All eyes would now focus on the capacity of the Palestinian national movement to galvanize the Palestinian people, the international community, the surrounding Arab states, and a majority of Israeli voters behind the new cause. Would they succeed? How long would the struggle take? Meanwhile the conflict would get worse, not better.
Adopting a one-state strategy, then, is an immense undertaking; a huge gamble. It risks sizeable Palestinian and Arab vested interests. It could prolong and escalate the conflict considerably, necessarily involving the Arab citizens of Israel (since under this strategy the green line loses its significance) and the surrounding Arab countries as well. It is not a decision to be made lightly by the Palestinians.
Some on the Israeli left and in Palestine believe that it is still possible to negotiate our way out of this mess with the Palestinians. But they appear to have little political clout on either side. Perhaps more significantly, a few actors on the ruling Israeli political right have begun to understand the dilemma and now advocate unilateral withdrawal precisely in order to avoid a demographic-political disaster. But three key conditions for their success are still missing.
First, this pragmatic new right does not yet acknowledge the need to leave open the door for future political negotiations with the Palestinians over areas not abandoned by Israel, such as the Jordan Valley and greater Jerusalem, and to restore the fence to its original, green line security location--in other words, to depoliticize any Israeli unilateral moves. Secondly, there appear to be no leader and no political coalition on the Israeli political horizon that could confront the settlers and physically remove them. And third, Washington has not yet become convinced of the necessity and utility of such a move.
Abu Ala pointed to the inevitable and tragic outcome of the current geographic, demographic and political direction that both sides are moving in. His remark may have crossed not only the green line, but an important red line as well.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
bitterlemons.org: What was your reaction to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei's (Abu Ala's) statement about a one state solution?
Karmi: I think that any statement that comes from the Palestinian Authority on the question of binationalism has to be seen within the context of Palestinian weakness vis-à-vis Israel. In other words, I do not think that this was a statement about what Abu Ala or anybody else in the Palestinian Authority believes to be the ideal solution. Seeing the facts on the ground, you would have to be blind or stupid--knowing that this barrier wall is going up and land is being stolen from the Palestinians every day--to go on believing that the Palestinian state is a possibility. It is partly a bald statement about the facts.
But it is also possibly a scare tactic for the Israeli government, saying, "We know that the last thing you want is for us Palestinians to live with you in one state, therefore if you don't want that to happen, get your act together and give us viable territory."
While I understand this position and am sympathetic to it because we are witnessing the most appalling situation in Palestinian history since 1948--it has never been so bad as this--obviously, I come from a position that is quite different. I have a belief that there should be only one state in this part of the world, there should be no partition of Palestine, and I cannot approve of the implied acceptance of Israeli racism [in Abu Ala's statement], if that is what he is saying.
bitterlemons.org: Can you talk more about your position?
Karmi: I do not hold this position because I thought it up over the last year, or because I have despaired of the two state solution. If we want a peaceful settlement to this terrible conflict to be a realistic long-term solution, I believe there is only one solution, and that is one state in Israel and the occupied territories. There would be one state, a state of its citizens, which means that the people who live there will be the Israeli Jews who live there today, plus a population of Palestinians, partly who are now currently under Israeli occupation, but partly those who were displaced in 1948 and their descendents. This state will be called "Israel/Palestine" or whatever they want. Said Hamami, the [Palestine Liberation Organization] representative in London who was tragically assassinated, used to say that they can call it a cucumber, if that is what they want.
bitterlemons.org: So what you are talking about is a process of decolonization.
Karmi: This is a very long process and a difficult one for Israel. First there must be an end to the occupation and a process of decolonization of the territories where the most recent settlements have been put up.
But it is more than that. The whole question of Zionism has to be confronted. The ideology that says that there must be a piece of territory that is exclusively the preserve of this one group called "Jews" is utterly pernicious in my view. It is an ideology that has caused enormous suffering for Palestinians. A state that sets itself up with the ideology that "we are going to create a place for ourselves no matter if it is currently inhabited, and no matter what happens to those natives;" and then to actually get rid of the natives in order to make that state; and then in order to keep it ethnically pure (which is a ridiculous notion, not only in the 21st century but also for Israel where 20 percent of the population is non-Jewish) to make sure that none of the original inhabitants ever comes back; and then to stuff [the state] as full as possible with Jews, no matter how phony these Jews are (they could be a convenient lost tribe from Ethiopia or Russians of which 40 percent are actually not Jewish)--this idea that created the state of Israel is utterly pernicious. It is dangerous, it is malicious, it is antidemocratic and it is racist.
It has not only damaged Palestinians, but many Jews who now have this notion that they have a right to this territory, and that this territory is solely their own. American Jews and British Jews, even though they have no intention of living there themselves, want other Jews to live there and do what has to be done in order to keep this situation going.
But I just want to be clear on one point. The moment one talks about Zionism and the fact that it has to go and that the Jewish state has to go, there is a reflex reaction of terror, panic, hatred and accusations of anti-Semitism, plus the old canard that "they will throw us all into the sea." Nobody is throwing anybody into the sea, I hope. And nobody is going to massacre anybody, I hope.
bitterlemons.org: Why do you think that advocates of one state solution are a minority in Palestinian politics?
Karmi: The idea was first proposed in 1969 by the PLO and it didn’t get much further because it was instantly rejected by Israel. Also, the power imbalance was very clear. The Palestinians could see that they were a bunch of refugees up against a highly armed nuclear state. The idea was seen as unrealistic and the PLO dropped it and started to talk about the two state solution.
If you add to that the fact that the two state solution applies mostly to those Palestinians under occupation, one can understand why their first reaction is to get Israelis out of [the occupied territories]. Which is why I say that one might even have an arrangement where the occupied areas are "de-occupied" and acquire an interim status, but always with the idea that in the end everybody will be living together. You need a leadership that proposes this idea, you need discussion of this idea and you need to sell it.
Ghada Karmi is a leading Palestinian political activist based in London, who had to leave Jerusalem in 1948. She is currently working on a book provisionally titled, All Dreams Must End: A Unitary State in Israel/Palestine.
bitterlemons: Do you take Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) seriously?
Benvenisti: I take him seriously, [in the sense that] he listens to the internal Israeli demands regarding demography, and he's using them. He's not saying that he will demand [a one state solution]; he's still committed to the two state solution.
bitterlemons: Why Abu Ala?
Benvenisti: I can't second-guess him. I think he's part of the debate, part of the discourse that I'm also involved in. He understands that if there's no progress then the condition of binationalism, which already exists, will become even more established. The situation now is binational, [it involves] not only [Israeli] occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Beyond military occupation, this is a process that began 25 to 30 years ago and now resembles a quasi-permanent domination of the area and a recreation of mandatory Palestine as one single geopolitical entity. Therefore what Abu Ala appears to be saying is, we're talking not about a wish but a fact. You don't want it, but this is the way you realistically define the situation. Very soon it will be clear to all that this is what has happened.
bitterlemons: Is a viable two state solution no longer feasible?
Benvenisti: We have a problem of definition. What two states? Viable solution, or viable states? This needs a lot of clarification. By now the chances for two completely separate sovereign states, say resembling Israel and Jordan, are impossible. To make that surgical partition and create boundaries that leave both states independent and sovereign in all respects is impossible.
bitterlemons: What about the two state solution now advocated by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon?
Benvenisti: A Palestinian state limited to less than half of the West Bank and two thirds of Gaza is acceptable to Sharon. A two state solution based on a willingness to divide the land equitably has now been turned into a slogan of Sharon and company, the Israeli right, that creates a system of domination that resembles a bantustan. So the two state debate today has a totally different twist.
bitterlemons: Is a single state solution good for Israelis?
Benvenisti: A single state can be a model for soft partition, as opposed to a surgical partition with finite borders that separates two distinct political entities. You can come up with a model of power sharing on the federal level and sharing the territory. The boundaries of the provinces will be softer than the rigid borders of two political entities and this can resolve some of the problems that surgical partition exacerbates.
bitterlemons: How would a federal system work?
Benvenisti: It doesn't divide Israel from the West Bank only, but it should deal with [territory] west of the green line as well. The capitals can be on a two-tier system. [It would be] a federated system based on the principle of identity between ethnic groups and the territory they control. But control is not sovereign. Solutions to recent inter-communal conflicts were not based on the British standard solution of partition, but rather on power sharing and federation. Dayton, Good Friday in Ireland, the aftermath of the bloody civil war in Lebanon all involve power-sharing and confessional arrangements between the parties.
bitterlemons: What about the South African example?
Benvenisti: The only place there is a unitary system solution is South Africa, but that's unique, and based not on partition but on majority rule. There are many models of binationalism, but the only way its being interpreted in Israel/Palestine is "one man, one vote." That's not suitable and it’s a model I reject. The [prediction that South Africanization of the conflict means the] "end of the Jewish state" is a scarecrow; it's suggested to show that binationalism cannot work. But this is not the model I suggest. There should be a model that respects national culture and channels the conflict between ethnic groups, and not the system of majority over minority tyranny represented by one man, one vote.
bitterlemons: Is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) capable of making the switch? After all, it rejected Abu Ala's suggestion.
Benvenisti: Now, absolutely not--nor is the Zionist establishment in Israel. The PLO thrives on the two state solution; the Palestinian National Authority cannot survive without it. It is only when [Palestinians] face the total bankruptcy of the PNA and its failure that they will understand that not only did [the PNA] not do anything, it ruined the chances of the Palestinians to get anything out of the Israelis. The notion that there is a PNA is what allows the ongoing occupation.
bitterlemons: Are there Palestinians who advocate your point of view?
Benvenisti: There are a lot of them, but others cherish the pipedream that they'll win the battle of the womb. A system that allows the automatic victory of those that breed is impossible. I don't suggest that Israel commit suicide. My system can be made to work with the Palestinians. This is a Siamese twins situation of Israel and Palestine living in one ecosystem in which only close binational cooperation will work. If there's no close cooperation nothing will happen, and Israeli domination and superior power will be the case forever.
bitterlemons: So matters will get worse before they get better?
Benvenisti: Things are already bad enough. The only thing not clear to people is where they are. Once the illusions are dispelled, people on both sides will have to turn to interim agreements as steps toward the creation of new conditions and a new level of cooperation. Unilateral moves won't work. The current way--either a Palestinian state or nothing--will lead us nowhere.
Meron Benvenisti is former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a columnist for Haaretz.
To unsubscribe from this bitterlemons HTML email list, simply write to email@example.com with "unsubscribe" in the subject line. To subscribe to the text version instead, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively.
Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.