The Israeli Idea of a ‘Palestinian State’

By Saree Makdisi

To judge by the next day’s headlines, Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy speech last month was a great success. "Israeli Premier Backs State for Palestinians," declared the New York Times. "Israel Endorses Two-State Goal," said the Washington Post. "Netanyahu Backs Palestinian State," announced The Guardian.

He did no such thing, of course, unless by “state” one understands an amorphous entity lacking a definite territory, not allowed to control its own borders or airspace, shorn of any vestige of sovereignty (other than a flag and perhaps a national anthem), not allowed to enter into treaties with other states—and permanently disarmed and hence at the mercy of Israel. It would make about as much sense to call an apple an orange or a piano a speedboat as to call such a construct a state, and yet those are the conditions that Netanyahu imposed on the creation of such an entity for the Palestinians (if they get that far in the first place).

The strange thing is that Netanyahu’s speech marked both the definitive end and a symbolic return to the beginning of the two-state solution as that hapless notion has been peddled since the Oslo Accords of 1993-95.  For what he said the Palestinians might—perhaps—be entitled to is pretty much what Oslo had said they might be entitled to fifteen years ago: a “self-government authority” not allowed to control its own borders or airspace, shorn of any vestige of sovereignty, etc.  And on top of that they can also forget about Jerusalem—that is and will forever remain the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people.

If it sounds so drearily familiar, that’s because it is: we have come full circle. First time as tragedy, second time as farce.

Oslo actually never mentioned the apparently magic words “Palestinian state,” so Netanyahu actually outdid Rabin and Peres in terms of rhetorical magnanimity. But, rhetoric aside, by bringing the situation full circle back to what they “offered” Arafat back in the mid-nineties, Netanyahu also revealed to those last few Palestinians who might have believed otherwise that the only kind of Palestinian “state” any Israeli government has ever countenanced (or will ever countenance) will look like what was on offer at Oslo. Netanyahu is offering the same thing all over again because that’s the only

Palestinian “state” that Israel will accept. Take it or leave it.

The Palestinians who still cling to the idea of a Palestinian state to be achieved through negotiations (from a position of weakness) with Israel had better absorb this once and for all and move on to other objectives—and other strategies to succeed.

That’s why the return to the beginning also signals the coming of the end. For after all the agony of the past fifteen years no Palestinian in her right mind would want to go back to Oslo all over again. Those agreements led to three things: the permanent institutionalization of the Israeli occupation of Palestine; the permanent separation of the occupied territories into shards of land cut off from one another and the outside world (and hence what Sara Roy calls—and the World Bank implicitly acknowledges as—the de-development of the Palestinian economy); and the doubling of the population of Jewish settlers illegally colonizing the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem.

There were just over 100,000 Jewish colonists in the West Bank in 1993; there are around 300,000 there today, and a further 200,000 or so in occupied East Jerusalem. According to the UN, their population is increasing at a rate three times greater than that of Israel itself, and will double again to about a million within a decade.

This phenomenal expansion is what is referred to as the “natural growth” of the colonies, which in his speech Netanyahu—brazenly defying President Obama—said he would protect. A few more years of this kind of growth and the territory that might once (maybe, long ago) have been considered as the basis for a Palestinian state will be all but eaten up by the sprawling colonies.

There’s hardly anything left of that territory anyway. The UN said two years ago that some 40 percent of the West Bank is already taken up by Israeli infrastructure off limits to Palestinians; the 60 percent that remains is broken up into an archipelago of islands so cut off and isolated from each other that a brilliant satirical map has been circulating on the internet representing the West Bank as a kind of Pacific island paradise, with dotted lines showing imaginary ferry routes from Ramallah to Nablus and Bethlehem to Hebron. It would be funny if it were not so sad. And even in most of that 60 percent, Israel retains security control (that’s according to Oslo; today its army conducts raids wherever it likes—and it does so virtually every day).

What Netanyahu was saying to any Palestinians foolish enough to accept his terms is that if they want to stick a flag in their archipelago of little impoverished islands of territory and call it a state, they can go right ahead.

But for them to get even that far, they must first, he now says, recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This is a new Israeli demand (it first came up during the buildup to the doomed Annapolis summit in November 2007), the latest in a sequence of such demands going back to the 1970s. First the Palestinians had to renounce terrorism; then they had to recognize Israel; then they had to rewrite their national charter; then they had to tear the charter up; then they had to say—again, louder—that they recognize Israel’s right to exist; then they had to end all resistance to four decades of brutal military occupation. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s previous foreign minister, even said that the Palestinians had to learn to purge the word “nakba” (referring to the catastrophe of 1948) from their vocabulary if they wanted to have a state. The one thing that Palestinians have not formally been asked to do is to say that they are terribly sorry for having dared to resist the occupation in the first place—and no doubt that demand is on the way as well.

In return, Israel has had to commit to nothing other than a few vague and craftily-worded—and endlessly deferrable—promises. And it has carried out (at its own pace and according to its own terms) a few tactical redeployments of troops and colonists (from a grand total of 18 percent of the West Bank, at the very peak of Oslo). Some of those redeployments have actually, as in Gaza, made the process of dominating and controlling the Palestinians that much easier (Israel could never have subjected the people of Gaza to the indiscriminate violence it rained on them day and night in late 2008 and early 2009 had the Jewish colonists there remained in place).

The Israelis have always been able to find some Palestinian leader or other to go along with their endless demands, to jump ignominiously through one hoop after another, more like a third-rate court jester than the leader of an unvanquished and defiant people. When one leader finally said enough was enough (as Arafat did at Camp David), he was dismissed and another more pliant one (the hopelessly compromised and unimaginative Mahmoud Abbas) was found to take his place, from among the dwindling ranks of those candidates the Israelis deemed not worth assassinating or imprisoning in a campaign of violence going back to the 1970s. (Indeed, it bears repeating that Abbas and his hangers-on survived to this day only as the result of Israel’s anti-Darwinian process of unnatural selection of potential Palestinian leaders, in which the fittest were eliminated and the most inept were allowed to reproduce).

But this latest demand is too much for any Palestinian leader—even one as endlessly obsequious as Abbas—to accept.

For to recognize Israel as a Jewish state would be not only to renounce (which no leader and indeed no individual Palestinian has the authority to do) the right of return of those Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their homes during the creation of Israel in 1948. It would also be to abandon to their fate the remaining million or so Palestinians (including their descendants) who survived the nakba and have been living as second class citizens of Israel, and perhaps even to give Israel license to expel them all and complete the “job” (as Benny Morris puts it) of 1948.

Israel today is no more Jewish than America is white or Christian. The big difference, though, is that, whereas America (for the most part) embraces its own multiculturalism, Israel still desperately wants to be Jewish. Its absurd demand to be recognized as such (no other state goes around impetuously demanding that others accept its own sense of its national character) is an expression of its own profound insecurity: not its military insecurity—the only serious military threat Israel faces on its own territory is imaginary—but rather its anxious awareness of its status as a botched, and hence forever incomplete, settler-colonial enterprise. Unlike Australia, there were too many aboriginals left standing when the smoke cleared over the ruins of Palestine in 1948. And to this day the Palestinians have refused to simply give up, go away or somehow annul themselves.

That fact—and its attendant anxiety among Zionists—poses a real problem for the million Palestinians inside Israel, whose fate is far from settled.

Western liberals consider Avigdor Lieberman to be right wing because he says openly that he wants the indigenous Palestinians removed from what he considers to be the Jewish land of Israel (to which he came as a Russian-speaking immigrant). What they fail to acknowledge is that Tzipi Livni, who ran in the recent Israeli elections as the voice of peace and moderation—the darling of Western liberals—hinted at exactly the same dark fate (“Once a Palestinian state is established, I can come to the Palestinian citizens, whom we call Israeli Arabs, and say to them ‘you are citizens with equal rights, but the national solution for you is elsewhere,’” she said during the electoral campaign—i.e., you are equal, but not really, and ultimately you must look elsewhere for a sense of home). And Netanyahu has long espoused a similar position.

How could he not? This is not rocket science or linear algebra: it is what it means for a state to insist on having a single cultural identity irrespective of who happens to actually be living on the territory it considers its own. It is all too rarely thought of in the same terms, but the violent insistence on monoculture is just as ugly in Israel as it is in Iran, Saudi Arabia, among the cadres of the British National Party, the followers of Jean-Marie le Pen, the hoodlums of Aryan Nation or the hooded posses of the KKK. The drive to obliterate or expunge cultural difference from a homeland conceived of as an exclusive space will always be inherently ugly.

And the fact of the matter is that the expulsion or “transfer” of Palestinians has been a core feature of Zionism as it has been practiced since 1948. It is inherent in Zionism as a political program—from right to left—because, if the idea behind Zionism is to establish an exclusively Jewish state (which it is), the only way for a would-be Jewish state to have been established on land that began the twentieth century with a population that was overwhelmingly (93 percent) non-Jewish was through the removal of the land’s non-Jewish population. The sense that there is an inherently Jewish land inconveniently cluttered up with a non-Jewish population that needs to be dealt with somehow or other drove Zionist planning all through the 1930s (the “transfer” of the Palestinians was planned more than a decade before the 1948 war). And, as grotesque as ever, it was on full view in Netanyahu’s speech.

The key moment in the speech came when he said that “the truth is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish Homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians.” This attitude comes straight out of the primitive racialism and imaginary civilizational hierarchies of the nineteenth century. The Jews are a people with a homeland and hence they have a right to a state; the Palestinians are not a people at all, or certainly not one of the same order. They are merely a collection of vagabonds and trespassers intruding on the Jewish Homeland. They have no rights, let alone a centuries-old competing narrative of home attached to the same land, a narrative worthy of recognition by Israel.

On the contrary: the Palestinians must accept that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, and they must do so on the understanding that they are not entitled to the same rights. “We” are a people, Netanyahu was saying; “they” are merely a “population.” “We” have a right to a state—a real state. “They” do not. “They” have to recognize “our” rights; “we” owe “them” nothing in return, except, possibly, a curt nod of dismissal from “our” view into the walled-off ghettoes and cantons which we might (perhaps, if “they” behave well) be persuaded to build for “them” on “our” land—and “they” had better be grateful even for that.

This racialized sense of inherent entitlement and unique superiority—fuelled (in just the way that a child is spoiled by over-indulgent parents) by over $100 billion of our tax dollars, the endless deference of our elected representatives, the open-ended diplomatic cover provided on demand by all our presidents after Eisenhower—is what allows Israelis like Netanyahu (and Lieberman, and Livni, and Olmert, and Sharon, and Rabin, etc.) to threaten, bellow at and admonish the Palestinians.  It is also what allows Israel to occupy Palestinian land, demolish Palestinian homes, starve Palestinian children, imprison and shoot Palestinian youths, tear up Palestinian olive trees, crush Palestinian aspirations, while believing—really sincerely believing—that Israel is the real victim of everything that has happened.  And, unbelievable as it is, that idea too (that Israel is the real victim of Palestinian aggression) was repeatedly expressed in Netanyahu’s speech. Make no mistake that he really believes it; it’s astonishing to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history, but most Israelis, and most of their supporters in this country, really do believe in this totally inverted—and perverted—view of history.

Such attitudes, such views, are the inevitable products of endless indulgence.

No matter what the best way forward is—two states or one—it is absolutely vital for the American people to call their leaders to account and to demand that this indulgence must end, for the sake of everyone involved. And until our politicians learn (or are persuaded) to do the right thing, it falls on each of us to do what we can to end the indulgence and to bring pressure to bear on Israel. Heeding the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions is the obvious place to begin.

– Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA and author of Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation. This article was contributed to by The Institute for Middle East Understanding (

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