Could a Binational State Be Olmert’s Legacy?

By Joharah Baker

Today, September 17, the Kadima party will vote for a new leader, thus ousting the corruption-riddled Ehud Olmert from his seat of power as both Party leader and eventually, as Prime Minister of Israel.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is expected to succeed Olmert, with a projected lead of 47 percent of the vote, with Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz trailing her with a distant 28 percent. Livni is also currently heading the negotiations process with the Palestinians, which has so far proven to be a less than impressive mark on her report card.

For the Palestinians, whether Kadima votes in Livni, Mofaz or any other prominent member of this right-of-center party, nothing much is expected in terms of positive change in the negotiations process. It has been 10 months since the restart of negotiations, marked by the ceremonious Annapolis Conference and the negotiators really have nothing to show for it. On the contrary, the main sticking points between the parties have only grown thornier such as settlement expansion and Jerusalem. Even while Olmert insists that it is still possible to reach an agreement by the end of this year, the reality indicates otherwise.

Olmert’s words took a different turn this week, however, perhaps because they are nothing more than the words of a drowning man hoping for one last gulp of air before going under. Still, what he said at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on September 15 is definitely worth noting.

In his last speech before stepping down as Kadima president, Olmert warned the Israeli public that the price of not reaching an agreement with the Palestinians would be "intolerable." He was referring to the creation of a binational state, where both Palestinians and Israelis live as equal citizens in one country. This is the alternative, Olmert said, to signing a peace deal now before it is too late.

The idea of a binational state is hardly new but one which the majority of Israelis have vehemently objected. The Palestinians as well have adopted the official position of advocating a two-state solution, where the newly found state of Palestine would live side by side peacefully with Israel. Their state would ostensibly be established on Palestinian lands occupied by Israel in the 1967 War, which include the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

At least that was the plan. Since the official Palestinian recognition of Israel in 1993, the dream has thinned out, its last remnants clearly circling the drain. No one is more aware of this than the Palestinians who despite their continued adherence to the concept of two states, understand that Israel’s blueprint for the West Bank and Jerusalem will never actually allow it to happen. That is why there have been more voices in the Palestinian arena supporting the idea of a binational state. Even as far back as a decade ago, when many still had hope and faith that the peace process would eventually bear fruit, Palestinian intellectuals such as the late Edward Said recognized this to be the only viable solution.

In a 1999 article entitled "Truth and Reconciliation", Said commented, "I see no other way than to begin now to speak about sharing the land that has thrust us together, sharing it in a truly democratic way, with equal rights for each citizen." In a clear criticism of the peace accords signed between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993, Said continued, "It is my view that the peace process has in fact put off the real reconciliation that must occur if the 100 year war between Zionism and the Palestinian people is to end. Oslo set the stage for separation, but real peace can come only with a binational Israeli-Palestinian state."

It is nothing unordinary for the weaker party to aspire for a binational state, at least if history is our best indicator. Pre-1948, when Jews were a minority in Palestine, they backed a binational state. However, after winning the war and the tables were turned, Israel began to sing to a different tune.

Today, only the most liberal Israelis might fathom the idea of a one-state solution. When Olmert made his statement, it was more of a warning than anything else and perhaps one last bid to go down in history as the Israeli leader who went where no other Israeli leader has gone, namely signing a peace deal with the Palestinians. In this sense, reference to the binational state was a fear-based reference more than an acceptable alternative. Israel was created and has shaped its national identity around the premise that it is a homeland for the Jews. The demographic reality where Jews are the majority is one point most Israelis will not compromise. Thus, the idea of separation between the two has been the predominantly popular solution for the Israeli public.

Kadima, formed of mostly right-wing Likudniks, also coined the phrase "convergence plan" where the separation between Palestinians and Israel would be based on the latter’s unilateral designation of borders in line with the West Bank separation wall. According to this plan, the bulk of illegal Jewish settlements would be annexed to Israel while the remaining settlements would be evacuated.

In reality, this is what is happening. Settlement expansion has continued, especially but not exclusively in settlements in and around east Jerusalem and the separation wall will, according to the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem, ARIJ, push 31 percent of the West Bank to the Israeli side of the barrier. Hence, the Israeli-style separation is already in effect. All that a final agreement needs, according to Olmert’s perspective, is some fine tuning where final status issues are concerned, namely Jerusalem and the refugees.

The Palestinian leadership is also using the one-state solution as a threat, warning that if Israel continues to reject acceptable borders between the two states, the Palestinians would turn to the international community and demand a solution based on a binational state. In this sense, the threat is more of a bargaining chip for the Palestinians. If Israelis are scared enough at the prospect of sharing the country with the Palestinians and thus losing the Jewish character of Israel, they may be more inclined to accept Palestinian demands on final status issues.

In mentioning a binational state, Olmert was conjuring up the image of Israel’s worst nightmare. When Palestinian leaders throw the possibility of a binational state onto Israel’s plate, they understand it is hardly a solution right around the corner, not only because Israel is so resistant to it but also because the Palestinians themselves have pinned their hopes for so long on the dream of their own independent state.

Nevertheless, if peace negotiations continue to stall and Israel continues to create facts on the ground in its greedy bid to grab as much land as possible, both sides know there will be nothing left for the creation of a viable and sustainable Palestinian state. As things stand, this possibility is already questionable. If the clock continues to tick, the one-state solution may be the only one left.

-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org. Republished in PalestineChronicle.com with permission.)

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