At first sight, the idea of a single state in Israel-Palestine is barely intelligible; the region is permeated by bitterness and hate, everyday life there involves pervasive fear and violence, and there is calculated interference by foreign lobbies and other states. Even the most conciliatory positions seem to offer some form of two-state solution.
Nevertheless, many are now advocating a single-state solution. Four of the most authoritative proponents of the idea gathered recently for a public debate, the first in a planned series on Israel-Palestine, hosted by two voluntary campus groups at the University of Southampton, namely Amnesty International and the One State Group. With Dr. Oren Ben-Dor in the chair, Professor Ilan Pappe, who has been called Israel’s bravest historian and is the author of “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” explored the issues in the company of Dr. Ghada Karmi, who — like Prof. Pappe — is at the University of Exeter; Professor Smadar Lavie of Macalester College, Minnesota; and Dr. Nur Masalha of St. Mary’s College in the University of Surrey.
All the arguments were founded on the idea of justice as central to the ending of violence; this, as Dr. Ben-Dor said, would involve redeeming past injustices without perpetrating new ones, and require constitutional and other institutions. The delivery of justice, Dr. Karmi noted, would require conditions in which Palestinians could lead normal lives in their homeland, and could be reunited with their displaced kith and kin.
The obstacles to a single state founded on justice for all its citizens are, it hardly needs saying, formidable. In particular, the Zionist project would have to be stopped. Founded on the idea of an ethnically pure population, Zionism necessarily involves the expulsion of those who were already in the region and the rendering invisible of the Palestinians now within Israel. They, Dr. Karmi pointed out, have been ghettoized, isolated, and made politically ineffectual; it further follows that the project of a Greater Israel would create a “crazy situation.” This has not gone unrecognized; Dr. Karmi’s book is titled “Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine,” and she informed the audience that even Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said if a two-state solution failed, the resulting single state of Israel would be accused of apartheid.
Prof. Pappe, in part addressing such advocates of a two-state formula as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, founded his argument for a single state on an historical infrastructure. The two-state concept corresponds to the existing balance of power, and amounts to an element of a Zionist project which started in the late 19th century and is still in progress; in 1948, the Zionist leadership ordered the systematic and forcible expulsion of Palestinians, and the world seemed to accept the idea that Holocaust victimhood and Zionism were one and the same thing. The expansionist project has generated terrible trouble; if until 1966 the military rule under which the Palestinians lived was “tolerable,” the Israeli victory in the 1967 war gained for it a hundred per cent of Palestine — and 1.5 million Palestinians. According to Prof. Pappe, secret Israeli documents dating from then showed that Israel would not displace those Palestinians but had no intention of ever leaving the West Bank and Gaza, and that all Israeli political parties, including the socialist Mapam party, agreed on that. In effect, a two-state formula, whether based on the respective agreements at Oslo, Camp David, or Annapolis, would only favor Israel, which has learned to let the language of discussion go “anywhere” while establishing ground conditions which totally consolidate its own power; Prof. Pappe even said Israel was worse than apartheid South Africa.
Furthermore, Israel has since 1967 attempted to find a “practical way” of running the lives of up to 2.5 million Palestinians without expelling them or granting them citizenship. This makes the occupied territories a “mega prison,” reducing the Palestinians to inmates who are only allowed to work, to move around, and to lead anything resembling normal lives if they collaborate with the Israeli authorities.
The issues go far beyond simple dichotomies, as Israeli Jewish society is anything but homogeneous. Prof. Smadar Lavie, an anthropologist whose first book was “The Poetics of Military Occupation: Mzeina Allegories of Bedouin Identity Under Israeli and Egyptian Rule,” reminded us that only 30 per cent of the Israeli Jewish population have Ashkenazi, or Eastern European Jewish, origins; the rest are Mizrahim, with origins in North Africa, Turkey, Iran, and India, and started settling in Israel in the 1950s. The Ashkenazi are very much the Israeli elite, even to the extent that Ashkenazi feminism, which follows European and American feminism, sees Palestinians only in the West Bank and Gaza, and nowhere else; it also avoids questions of intra-Jewish discrimination. Ashkenazi feminists do engage in voluntary work, but one of their major funding bodies, the New Israel fund, vetoes all attempts to tell Palestinians about divisions in Zionist society, with the result that the work is confined to running soup kitchens and little else.
The mainstream Israeli left is also divided; the left parties agree on land for peace, but when in power move rightwards, and the post-Zionist left accepts that the Palestinians are the victims of injustice but in practice does not oppose Ashkenazi elitism; the anti-Zionist left, for its part, follows the European left of the 1960s, but none of the Israeli left groups has attracted the Mizrahim, who in the 1960s even voted for Menachem Begin’s Likud party and against the Israeli left. Intra-Jewish separation and discrimination were intensified in the 1970s too, as the Israeli occupation of the West Bank enabled working-class Ashkenazim to “escape” Mizrahi ghettoes.
Inevitably, Mizrahi feminists are in a difficult position, with their own economic and social problems and the risk of losing overseas Zionist funding if they support Palestinian rights. Many Mizrahim are also anti-Palestinian, and Prof. Lavie concluded that a two-state solution would preserve Ashkenazi hegemony, but that the Ashkenazi would need the Mizrahi presence in order to maintain the size of the Israeli Jewish population. As Dr. Ben-Dor added, the multiple and complex identities of the peoples of the region meant that “Arab Jews” were also the victims of any simple Zionist-Palestinian dichotomies.
This leads into the question of whether a Jewish state makes any sense at all, and of how the idea even came about. Dr. Nur Masalha, drawing in part upon his book “The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Post-Colonialism in Palestine-Israel,” asked if the Bible justified ethnic cleansing or apartheid, and pointed out that the idea of a Jewish state in the Holy Land was itself a British Protestant or Zionist Christian concept dating from the 16th century. Those European Zionists who adopted it in the 19th century were “assimilated” Jews, and even David Ben-Gurion, the socialist first prime minister of Israel, said, “I don’t believe in God but God gave us the land.” If it was European Protestants who racialized the Jews, one result was that God became a real-estate agent, with holiness as an instrument to redeem colonialism; today’s Zionists are like the Iberian conquistadores who took South America for Spain and Portugal. In effect, Ben-Gurion and other “secular” Zionists deployed the Bible instrumentally, and the Middle East is one of the few regions where colonization still continues.
In the open discussion, Israel was distinguished from apartheid South Africa because it has an enormously powerful and almost totally autonomous overseas lobby in the form of the U.S. Zionist movement; today’s most organized Zionists are American evangelical Christians and, as Dr. Masalha said, the Zionist tail wags the U.S. dog because the dog wants to be wagged. Israel may be a very expensive tool for the furtherance of what Dr. Karmi called the U.S. imperial project, but it is still cheaper than an invasion of Iran would be, and the imperial project creates dependent elites among Israelis and Palestinians, as well as among several of the pro-U.S. dictatorships elsewhere in the region.
The various Palestinian movements also received severe criticism for corruption and incompetence, and for failing to provide any kind of alternative to Zionism. The movements were, correctly, distinguished from the Palestinian National Authority, and one suggestion was that it could start engaging selectively with Mizrahi Israelis.
Other comments were equally severe. The Palestinian Authority has nothing to show for billions of aid dollars received, and Israel — also the recipient of billions — is, as Prof. Pappe said, not going to abandon the two-state idea, precisely because it “solves nothing.”
The symposiasts, all of whom were born in historical Palestine, continued the discussion in a local professor’s home by talking with one another in a fluent mixture of Hebrew and Arabic. Given the incoherence and the terrible consequences of the status quo, the one-state concept will not disappear soon.
Reprinted from The Hindu. © Copyright 2000 – 2008 The Hindu