November’s historic U.N. vote to recognize the state of Palestine sparked celebrations on the streets of Ramallah and Jerusalem—as well as a fresh round of debate over the future course of action in the region. While Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the initiative the “last chance to save the two-state solution,” some Palestinians and Israelis argue that the opportunity for such a solution has long since expired.
A September 2012 poll found that 30 percent of Palestinians and 31 percent of Israelis instead support a “one state solution in which Arabs and Jews enjoy equality.” To discuss the viability of a bi-national state, In These Times brought together Ali Abunimah, a cofounder of the online publication The Electronic Intifada and a policy adviser with Al-Shabaka; Marilyn Katz, founder and president of Chicago-based MK Communicationsand a member of the national board of J Street; and Atalia Omer, a researcher on religion and conflict at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
In These Times: What does the recent U.N. vote recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state mean for the prospects of a renewed peace process?
Marilyn: It was important for the Palestinians to go to the U.N., to get an affirmation of their status, and to demonstrate to the United States and Israel how much support there is for their fight. The unified reaction of the European and the Arab world is a gamechanger and brings into sharp relief the changing balance of forces. Whether this development can lead toward peace depends on what the United States does. But I’d argue that Israel’s best chance for long-term survival really now rests on the negotiating table.
Ali: My criticism of the initiative for U.N. recognition is that it has been a substitute for meaningful action.
Atalia: The broader Palestinian-Israeli conflict is inseparable from questions of social justice within Israel proper, where non-Jews are treated as second-class citizens. But the question of Palestinian citizens of Israel was not meaningfully included in the final status negotiations of the Oslo Accords in 1993, producing a profound problem inherent in the logic of the two-state solution.
The approval of new settlements in East Jerusalem immediately following the U.N. vote led to renewed declarations that the two-state solution is dead. Is this the case?
Ali: One hundred thirty-eight countries voted to recognize the so-called state of Palestine. So why are they sitting on their hands watching as Israel aggressively expands its colonies on the territories of this so-called state? The effort to create an actual state of Palestine has failed completely. So the world is clapping and cheering for a fantasy state.
Is the alternative a one-state solution? There’s a version of this that’s endorsed by the Israeli Right. What prospects exist for a bi-national state based on equal rights?
Marilyn: Zionist settlers have told me that they support one state because they believe their birth rates are higher than that of the Palestinians, so they’ll out-procreate them. I think that anyone who thinks there is a single-state solution that does not amount to the same situation we have with Indian reservations in this country is foolish.
Ali: This is what we always hear: that Israel will never accept a single, democratic secular state. But if Israel is so uncompromising, then how can it be trusted to produce a Palestinian state that is anything more than a bantustan? If, on the other hand, Israel could be pressured into a genuine withdrawal from the occupied territories, then why couldn’t the same pressure be applied to make Israel accept the basic principles of democracy? The key issue is not statehood; it’s that of addressing an aggressive colonial movement.
Marilyn: A two-state solution is still the only one we have. The Israelis are never going to accept a secular state, so it’s either two states or all-out war. But at the moment, I believe Israel can be forced to the negotiating table. Its ability to act unilaterally is being changed by the shape of the world, and we have to act on that.
Why is a single state unacceptable? Would it necessarily be incompatible with nationalism, whether Jewish or Palestinian?
Atalia: The issue is to reframe Israeli nationalism. There is a need to interrogate the Zionist discourse and its hold on the parameters of any kind of a peace framework. This includes addressing the amnesia of even the Israeli peace camp, which in general focuses on the 1967 borders but glosses over the dispossession of 1948 on which the state of Israel was built. This kind of amnesia undergirds the flawed logic of the Oslo formula. Zionism is a universalizing narrative that homogenizes Jewish history. But there are places within the Jewish community where there is already a process of internal contestation taking place, where you hear voices that offer very penetrating critiques of the discourse of Zionism and challenges to the parameters of citizenship in Israel.
Marilyn: And it’s important that there is a spectrum of opinion. I’m delighted when I find that a vast majority of Jews whom I meet support statehood and the end of occupation for the Palestinians. As someone who has lived my entire life under the tyranny of one voice for American Jews, that is a sea change that is hugely important.
Ali: I have no problem with attempting to re-imagine identities in ways that are not mutually exclusive. But this process cannot be an obstacle to moving forward with the push for Palestinian rights. From Zionists, the response to my attempts to initiate this kind of discussion has been to demonize me as someone who yearns for the destruction of Israel. This mirrors the response of whites in the Jim Crow South to calls for civil rights, which were then also heard as calls for the end to a way of life. The same dynamic also existed in apartheid South Africa. So the conclusion I’ve reached is that power is fundamental here. Those who are in power cannot hear calls for universal rights, which is why leveling the playing field is crucial.
Atalia: Israel’s repressive policies are undeniable. But to simply equate Israel with various evils—from apartheid to Jim Crow—is counter-productive. If your objective is to attain a democratic, unitary state, your road there cannot include the reduction of Jewish attachments to the land of Israel/Palestine to a colonial act. This rhetoric is also problematic because it echoes cultural memories of anti-Semitism and a willingness to accept Jews as individuals but not as a group. The question is not one of eradicating Jewish Israeliness, it’s one of thinking differently about Jewish Israeliness. Of course this cannot be the responsibility of Palestinians who suffer under a repressive occupation. But Ali’s vision needs to be realized alongside ongoing internal conversations. If we don’t make space for these, we’ll see greater militarization and xenophobic impulses entering the Israeli political framework every day.
These questions hinge in part on what actors or strategies we think will end the impasse. Where does a resolution need to emerge from?
Ali: The Boycott Divest Sanctions movement, which is the largest civil society coalition among Palestinians, really encapsulates a consensus among Palestinians on their rights, and offers a strategy to advance them.
Marilyn: The boycott is great, but it’s a tactic, nothing more. What happened at the U.N., and the pressure from Europe and the Arab League, is as equal as we’ll see to the kind of power shift needed to move the Israelis. Nothing will get resolved until Israelis sit down with Palestinians’ elected leadership.
Ali: But for Palestinians, the issue of national leadership is in crisis. The Palestinian Authority is essentially a puppet of Israeli occupation. Fortunately, this conversation is moving from where it has been for as long as I can remember: what makes Israel comfortable and how far American Jews are willing to go in their criticism of it. Instead, it’s becoming one based on solidarity with Palestinians, where they’re defining the goals of the movement.
Marilyn: It’s past the time to wait and see what one particular movement is going to achieve. We need to push for negotiations within the next six months, while we have a president who is progressive, while we have a world that is aware.