By Michael Neumann
Those familiar with the Israel/Palestine conflict know that people propose one-state and two-state solutions. Two states means Israel plus a Palestinian state. One state means a single state covering all of Palestine.
There is a sort of one-state solution that I consider unattainable but otherwise unobjectionable. It essentially calls for Palestine to be given back to the Palestinians. This need not be a violent process, but it is radical. It can mean that all Jewish families and individuals who entered Palestine in the last 100 years or so have to leave, abandoning all their landed property. A more moderate but still radical variant is that these people can stay, but not on land previously occupied by Palestinians, unless the previous occupants were willing to sell or rent that property. Whatever its disposition, there would have to be compensation for past illegitimate occupancy. Presumably this compensation would be pretty enormous, into the millions of dollars per incident. The rationale for these solutions is that the Zionists did not simply settle in Palestine as immigrants, but planned and achieved a state which gave Palestinians a choice: accept ethnic Jewish sovereignty or leave. One-staters can argue that no one should profit from this abhorrent plan, so that everything should in principle revert to the pre-Zionist state of affairs.
My principal reason for favoring a two-state solution is that, like many, I don’t feel there’s the slightest chance that Israelis would accept a one-state solution as described, or that anyone could dictate it to them. If someone can show otherwise, fine. But recently another sort of one-state solution has been advanced, and it’s snake oil.
The snake oil solution simply speaks of creating a single secular state in Palestine. This is sold without a price tag, but with a promise: it will be cheap! Essentially the Palestinians have everything to gain, and Israel’s Jews nothing to lose but their chains: that is, their obsessive attachment to a state designated, in the sales pitch, as nasty, racist, undemocratic, and all sorts of other things. The idea that the nastiness of the state rule out the proposed solution never surfaces. Since Israel is roundly condemned in the pitch, it’s assumed that the salesmen are on the level.
Invariably the promise of a cheap one-state solution is tied to the South African example. South Africa, it is said, experienced a non-violent transition to a single state in which whites and blacks have a future together. But is South Africa really a model for what could happen in Palestine?
South Africa is big (1,219,912 sq km), Palestine tiny (26,320 square kms). South Africa resource-rich, Palestine resource-poor. What is tolerable in South Africa is by no means tolerable in Palestine: the extraordinary magnanimity of South Africa’s current leaders towards the white population is based on an abundance of land and resources not available in the Israel/Palestine conflict. There are other differences. In South Africa, whites were outnumbered almost ten to one within their own borders; Israeli Jews are a majority in Israel. When at last South African whites made serious concessions, it was not because they were awed by the fortitude of Nelson Mandela or crushed by economic boycotts. It was because violence within South Africa’s borders was spiralling out of control. This is a long story that I have touched on elsewhere , but one historian puts it in a nutshell:
In June 1976 the Soweto uprising shook South Africa to the core.
The violent unrest challenged almost every aspect of the apartheid state’s ideology. It is possible to read South Africa’s history and conclude that apartheid’s eventual disintegration was predetermined from the moment the first bullet hit thirteen-year-old Hector Peterson.
(James Sanders: Apartheid’s Friends: The Rise and Fall of South Africa’s Secret Service, London (John Murray) 2006, 77.)
Finally and crucially, Israel’s attachment to its existence as a Jewish state runs far deeper than the Boers’ attachment to apartheid, because Israel thinks of itself as the sole barrier to the physical extermination of the Jewish race. This commitment is fervently supported by the great powers; its legitimacy is an article of faith: in marked contrast, it was the *ill*egitimacy of South Africa’s apartheid state that became an article of faith among those same great powers. In other words, international support for Israel’s current status is mountainously greater than support for South Africa’s apartheid.
When it comes to settling land claims, the South African example is particularly inappropriate. In South Africa, white land ownership had a very long history. Whites had been in SA for 400 years, and their expansion included a period in which the Mfecane disturbances disrupted native land allocation. Among the Palestinians, on the other hand, there was a far more solid consensus about who was entitled to what. Most Israeli Jews have been in Israel for less than 60 years, and in the occupied territories for a far shorter time, between 40 years and a decade. They did not occupy vacant or disputed land; they obtained it either through purchase (but as part of a scheme to seize sovereignty) or through expulsion of the Palestinian owners. The Palestinian title to much Israeli occupied property is in many cases a matter of record. For Israelis to give up the land to which they are not entitled would be absolutely ruinous, particularly since, if justice were done, there would be huge compensation to be paid for the ill-gotten gains of illegal occupancy. Again, millions of dollars *per usurpation* would be at stake.
To appreciate the full scale of the problem, remember that there will be two accounts about what Palestinian property was rightfully and legally obtained: the Palestinian, and the Israeli. For many Palestinians, regaining their property is the difference between a life of relative comfort and one of abject poverty. No binational state has ever had a land problem on anything like this scale. When land disputes are taken into account, the snake oil solution looks a lot less like South Africa and a lot more like the bloody soil of Lebanon.
In a two-state solution, land claims are settled in the clearest and most brutal way. The Jewish settlers in the occupied territories leave, period. The whole of the occupied territories belong to the Palestinians. In Israel, the property situation is essentially unchanged, with Israeli Arabs doing as well as they can . Though immeasurably better than the death and starvation that today stalks the Palestinians, this is a bad solution. But it is doable, and its flaws are out in the open.
And how does this work in the snake oil one-state solution? Here the sales pitch gets murky. In Israel, Jewish property holders either keep what they have, or the disputes continue as they have since before Israel’s foundation–it isn’t clear. In the occupied territories, though, the settlers get a sweet deal: Jews in the occupied territories simply keep what they have.
Am I kidding? Here we have Jeff Halper, justly celebrated for his Committee against House Demolitions, writing around 2003:
"Israeli Jews wishing to live in the settlements could continue to do so under Palestinian sovereignty (which would permit the settlements to be integrated, of course), but would lose their role as extensions of Israeli control by remaining Israeli citizens. " [A Middle Eastern Confederation: A Regional ‘two-Stage’ Approach To The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict . A working paper by Jeff Halper, written around 2003)]
Here he is again, writing in The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle on November 24, 2006:
"The two-state solution is dead. Israel killed it (as Begin charged Sharon with doing back in 1977). The settlement enterprise has gone beyond the point of no return."
And Virginia Tilley agrees:
"…Israel must admit its Muslim and Christian population as citizens and then grapple with the ensuing tough work of pluralist democracy like the rest of us.
"This was the hard-won South African solution, where the state now represents everybody. Seventeen languages and differing historical narratives are recognized and dignified. Whites have retained their property and wealth, while black Africans are rising rapidly to join the middle and upper classes.
"…that we presently have a one-state solution–Israel’s apartheid version–allows us to affirm a different one: a unified secular-democratic state, in which everyone is equal in dignity and rights, and where the Jewish and Palestinian national homes can share the land as they should."
Note the glowing "Whites have retained their property and wealth". I gather that, come Tilley’s revolution, Palestinians and Israelis will be equal in their right to stare at what was once a Palestinian home. This will be very good because it will ‘recognize and dignify different historical narratives’.
The more you look at claims about the settlements, the more suspicious you grow. Sure, the settlement enterprize has gone beyond the point of no return, and sure the settlements are there to stay. It’s just that the settlers aren’t: their buildings would house Palestinians quite as well as Jews. Is it impossible to get the settlers to give up their settlements? Not at all. If the Israeli army withdraws, the Palestinians would have no difficulty persuading the settlers it was time to leave. The Algerians did the same with settlers much more deeply rooted than in Palestine. If it’s so impossible, why did it already happen–why did Israeli troops make it happen–in Gaza?
It’s impossible to get rid of the settlers only if the Israeli government supports them, that is, only if it’s impossible to get the Israeli government to stop supporting them. But if that’s impossible, how, is it possible that Israeli government will give up something far dearer to it–its home turf, its own existence, and the existence of a Jewish state, at the very least within 1948 borders? How are the settlements a tougher nut to crack than the state of Israel itself?
What’s the point of this one-state solution? If the settlements are something to be legitimated, why not say the same–as Tilley hints–of all Israeli land claims, everywhere in Palestine? Entrenching the settlements means a great big pat on the back for the very worst, least conciliatory, most violent political forces in Israel, the spoilt, fanatic racial supremacists who conceived the settler movement and made it into the formidable force it is today. It confirms that their strategy worked. Do Halper and Tilley really think this is a formula for peace? "Peace in our time", perhaps.
If only one could think that Tilley and Halper had been dishonest in stating their positions. Far from it; they have been very straightforward, if not very clear. The interplay between muddled idealism and muddled practicality makes for quite a comedy of errors. Having two states isn’t good enough for these people; they want justice. To get justice, they confirm the worst of the usurpers in their usurpation–not only of land, but of scarce resources. Apparently the Palestinians will clutch citizenship papers to their breasts and be happy in the dusty leavings of what was once their land. Meanwhile the settler movement and their allies will be free to pursue their project of ‘redeeming’ Palestine, and it will all be ok, because it will happen within the confines of a single secular state.. Humpty Dumpty couldn’t have got it more ass-backwards.
-Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, "What is Anti-Semitism", to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: email@example.com. (CounterPunch.org)