By Roger H. Lieberman
Perhaps the most telling indicator of how historically, geographically, and morally impoverished “mainstream” American discourse on the Middle East remains is the fact that the most crucial question for the future of Israel-Palestine is rarely even mentioned. This question is not whether Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Territories resembles South African Apartheid – if anything, it is considerably worse – or whether Israel can talk to a Palestinian Authority that includes the Hamas movement – it obviously can and should.
The real decisive issue facing Palestinians and Israelis today is whether the most logical and constructive remedy to the conflict between them is the partition of historical Palestine into two states, or the reorganization of the aforementioned territory as a single, democratic state for all citizens.
While attracting only the most cursory attention, as yet, from the public at large, the two-state vs. one-state debate has become vigorous – and often quite acrimonious – among peace activists. Such open debate on the merits and shortcomings of these respective models for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence is essential for clear-headed understanding of the issues at stake, and is the essence of a democratic society. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need for supporters of justice in the Holy Land to speak with unity. Tangible progress is desperately needed to alleviate the pervasive sense of hopelessness that is fueling the factional bloodshed in the Occupied Territories, which imperils the prospects for peace along either the two-state or one-state framework.
Before terms for consensus among advocates of the respective peace formulas can be worked out, it is necessary to review the most valid arguments of each side.
Advocates of the one-state solution have correctly pointed out that the scale of Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank – especially within the unilaterally enlarged municipal limits of Jerusalem – severely compromises the territorial and economic viability of a Palestinian state. These large settlement blocs – often coyly referred to by Israeli propagandists as “neighborhoods” – have remained a persistent stumbling block in peace negotiations. Furthermore, assuming no imminent shifts in the regional balance of power, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will inevitably be forced to cope with severe constraints vis a vis Israel over control of natural resources – especially water – as well as freedom of movement between the two disconnected parts of their country. Most importantly, a two-state arrangement will, by definition, put severe limitations on the ability of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland and reestablish themselves in areas from which they were driven when the conflict began in 1948.
On the other hand, two-state supporters highlight the unfortunate reality that Israeli Jews and Palestinians have become so alienated from one another by government policies, and the prolonged experience of conflict, that the majority on both sides find it exceedingly difficult at present to conceive of sharing the same democratic state. Dialog and political coordination between Jews in Israel and Palestinians in the Occupied territories on the basis of equality and reconciliation has been very limited – though it has developed to a more respectable level among Jews and Palestinians inside Israel. Furthermore, the preponderance of international efforts to resolve the conflict have been based on UN resolutions that call for a two-state settlement, and Palestinian efforts since the Oslo Agreement have focused on building the civic and political institutions necessary for a viable independent state. Would it be wise to abandon years of effort to achieve this end, notwithstanding their ignominious failure thus far?
The task of bridging the gap between these two positions becomes much more manageable if we are willing to discard the “final status” paradigm of one, all-encompassing peace settlement intended to define relations between Israelis and Palestinians for decades to come. To seek such an agreement is perfectly natural for anyone who passionately seeks justice in the region. But it is important to keep in mind that Israel has been exploiting the drive toward a once-and-for-all settlement in order to reach an inequitable “peace” that demands minimal compromise on its part and puts as low a ceiling as possible on internationally-supported Palestinian aspirations. Therefore, since there is already a visceral consensus among supporters of Palestinian rights that any legitimate peace process should strive toward a future in which both peoples share the same rights and opportunities, the immediate focus should be on what immediate reformation is required to provide the first stage for what will inevitably be a long process of restitution and normalization.
In this context, it becomes particularly important to make the distinction between a good two-state arrangement and a bad one. Any “peace plan” that seeks to legitimize Israel’s settlement blocs, accedes to the annexation of East Jerusalem, absolves Israel of material and moral responsibility for the Palestinian refugee crisis, and hinders the ability of Israel’s current Palestinian citizens to improve their condition, is obviously not a solution to anything, and isn’t worth a farthing of support from any intelligent person. These criteria obviously invalidate Ehud Barak’s much-acclaimed “generous offer” at Camp David in the summer of 2000, as well as the schemes presently being entertained by Ehud Olmert and tacitly – if not explicitly – endorsed by the Bush Administration.
On the other hand, the Arab Initiative, originally put forward in 2002 and now being revived, merits much more serious consideration. Unlike the “peace processes” championed by Israel’s American apologists, the Arab Initiative requires Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, recognize East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, and work toward decent and practical restitution for Palestinian refugees in accordance with UN Resolution 194. In exchange for acting on these essential and urgent prerogatives, the plan offers Israel peace and normal diplomatic relations with all 22 member states of the Arab League.
By affirming the Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem, as well as the moral necessity of addressing the refugee problem, the Arab Initiative offers a worthwhile starting point from which to commence the peaceful integration of Israel into the Middle East and reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. In these respects, it is in perfect accord with a longer-term goal of regional unification. Once this process has been initiated, it will become far more feasible for Palestinians to return to lands inside Israel from which they were expelled six decades ago, and for both Palestinians and Israeli Jews to conceive of themselves as neighbors with common political and economic interests. Given the limited common ground between Israeli and Palestinian politicians and intellectuals at present, this may prove the most expedient and realistic path toward achieving a one-state solution.
Those who long for a just peace in Israel-Palestine have every reason to give their support to the Arab Initiative, regardless of whether they personally favor the two-state or one-state paradigm. If the current diplomatic efforts fail to bear fruit, Palestinians will have little choice but to shift toward a “one-man, one-vote” solution on the model of post-Apartheid South Africa – and the international community will have little choice but to follow suit. But there is no inconsistency in supporting both paths toward peace under the present circumstances – because no matter which produces decisive results, the process of healing and reconstruction, once begun, will be long and challenging for everyone. This has been the case in Northern Ireland and South Africa, and it will surely be the case in the Holy Land.
-Roger H. Lieberman is a graduate of Rutgers University, with a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science.