By Blake Alcott
Last year liberal Zionists launched efforts to get international recognition for a tiny state called Palestine. The US-brokered peace talks that terminated in mid-2014 were the last of many attempts to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree to two states, and its failure prodded European parliaments, with the connivance of the Palestinian Authority (PA), to go ahead with the statelet whether Israel agreed or not.
The catch was this: the motions included recognition not only of “Palestine” but of a secure Israel within a two-state solution. That is, the liberal Zionist goal was in reality international acceptance, 66 years after Israel’s founding, of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
But the two-state solution has always ignored the plight both of Palestinian citizens of Israel and the roughly six million Palestinians in exile. It addressed, after a fashion, only the concerns of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Since it is this limitation that largely explains why two-state solutions have failed, some soft Zionists are now moving farther: they want at least to satisfy Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Their call is for equal rights for everybody residing between the river and the sea, hailed as an acceptable solution for instance by the Bruno Kreisky Forum together with socialist European parliamentarians. But as made clear by a high-powered seminar held in early 2015 by Independent Jewish Voices, rights are to be extended only to these people – including normalisation of the residents of Jewish-only West Bank settlements – but not to the Palestinian refugees and their descendants. They are again left out in the cold.
The New-old Bi-National Vision
Because it foresees equal rights, the vision cannot get around de-partitioning Palestine into one state. At the same time, it accepts the need of many Jews and many Palestinians for their own “nation”. So what is being proposed is bi-nationalism, not simply a state of all its individual citizens on the widespread model of consitutional democracy. Never easy to define, advocates associated with the Israel/Palestine Centre for Research and Information and Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute call this bi-national confederation “Two States, One Homeland”.
The One Land, Two States initiative similarly calls for “parallel states” not geographically separated into sub-states or cantons. People would enjoy freedom of movement, residence and economic activity anywhere in historic Palestine. In brief, while the exact division of powers between the federation and its two units remains vague, these visions try to avoid, at this smaller scale, the ethnocracy of the two-state solution.
Bi-nationalism goes back to Brit Shalom and its best-known member Judah Magnes. At a time when Jews comprised 15, 20 or 25 percent of the Palestinian population, Jews and non-Jews would each have had half the power, or “parity”. This unsurprisingly garnered no support from Arabs, who denied Jewish collective and historical rights in Palestine whatever the power ratio. Some idea of parity, or veto rights for each “national” group, lives on in today’s visions.
The ‘Rights’ Discourse
This softer-Zionist insistence on a “rights-based” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict aims at getting away from the discourse of “solutions” – in spite of its own offering of a bi-national solution and as if the task has not always been to judge solutions by how well they fulfil human rights. However that may be, what Palestinian rights are to be restored?
For the stateless residents of the West Bank and Gaza, bi-nationalism’s elimination of the Green Line means, at last, official citizenship. The vision also laudably implies that any proposed rump Palestine is not so much non-viable as undesirable. It however also cements the Israeli West Bank settlements, which, although legally no longer for Jews only, would remain an insult to the Palestinian collective even if tempered by official restoration of Palestinian land ownership.
This old-new bi-nationalism is an obvious improvement for non-Jewish citizens of Israel, who would no longer be third-class citizens behind Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews; privileged Israeli use of water and transport infrastructure would also end. Its soft-Zionist proponents are moreover admitting that it is all of historic Palestine that is “occupied”, not just the areas taken over in 1967. The return to their places of origin of “internally displaced” Palestinians – Israel’s “present absentees” – remains however an open question, implying as it does the eviction of present residents.
Regarding the rights of the third group of Palestinians – those involuntarily in Diaspora – this bi-national stream of thought fails abjectly. They should be able to return to their homes in Israel, reclaim their property, and participate as citizens. But at most it is suggested that the number of returnees might equal the number of Jewish West Bank settlers allowed to remain where they are. This is nothing but the continued racist exclusion of the millions of ethnically cleansed.
Zionism affirms a Jewish state – not just anywhere, but in Palestine. If this state excludes the 20 percent of Palestine called “Judea and Samaria”, it is two-state Zionism, notably not along the borders of UN Resolution 181 but rather those of “pre-1967”. It might be liberal compared with the hard Jabotinsky Zionism of Israel’s government, but it is stingy and militaristic towards Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza.
The “softest” Zionism of the new bi-nationalists, however, is in an insoluble bind. Its secular liberal advocates must see that both the Nakba and the ongoing ethnic cleansing since 1948 are now uncontested in the wider world. The basic historic injustice must be admitted and the two-statist Peace Now movement left behind. But this extension of secular liberalism would mean being saddled with the millions of cleansed and their right of return.
To be sure, the conclusions drawn by bi-nationalism from the now accepted Palestinian narrative highlighting the cleansing of Plan Dalet are more liberal than those for instance of historian Benny Morris, who believes that in 1948 Israel should not have stopped at the Green Line. The new initiatives are however unsettlingly consistent with that of Morris and of Ari Shavit in his 2013 book My Promised Land, two writers who in fact condone the ethnic cleansing. Shavit’s position, more precisely, is a-ethical: what Zionism did was ugly, murderous, demeaning and impoverishing, but it had to be done; it was either us or them, and so cannot be judged.
On this view Israel is neither responsible nor culpable, and this is the reactionary point shared by hard and soft Zionists. If they really accepted Zionism’s guilt, today’s bi-nationalists would have to embrace the right of return – actually the three rights of repatriation, restitution of property, and compensation. But they don’t. At most they say that the new polity of present residents, once formed, would pass its own immigration laws. But they don’t mention the individual right of return upheld by UN Resolution 194.
Bi-nationalism vs. One Democratic State
How can we understand this refusal to see the entire Palestinian polity and this leniency towards the West Bank settlements? The revival of bi-nationalism does take the liberalism in liberal Zionism a step further, but the bottom line, it seems, is actually the survival, with legitimacy, of one of the two “nations” – the Jewish one. Equating the rights and political power of the two ethnically defined collectives is a way of fending off any possible de-legitimisation of the Jewish-Israeli collective by a resulting Palestinian majority.
By contrast, there are two anti-Zionist visions on the table. They attest the culpability of Zionism and insist on the lack of any connection between Palestinians and Jewish persecution in Europe. One foresees a single Arab/Palestinian state and the other one democratic state (ODS). The first wants an Arab nation with rights to sovereignty over the land and self-determination for the indigenous residents, while welcoming European Jews as a non-Arab minority.
For the latter, human rights and equal political rights are self-evident as is the right of return of Palestinians and the freedom to remain of Jewish Israelis. But it is defined in individual rather than national or collective terms – even as it would grant any putative collective rights to the indigenous rather than the immigrant colonialists.
Soft bi-nationalists are not yet ready to include all Palestinians in the proposed state: this would mean the end of Zionism. However, their rights-based approach forces them to grapple with the one democratic state entailed by restoration of citizenship to the ethnically cleansed and their descendants, without whom their bi-nationalism will remain insufficient. Let us hope they take this final step.
– Blake Alcott is an ecological economist at home in Cambridge and Zürich and is the director of One Democratic State in Palestine (England) Limited. (This article was first published in Middle East Eye).