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Binationalism an option in search of peace in the Middle East


Never since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 has the cause of peace in the Middle East seemed more hopeless than is the case today. With the total collapse of the much vaunted ‘peace process’ in 2000 after the rejection of former Labor Prime Minister Israeli Ehud Barak’s ‘Final Status’ offer , the PLO relaunched its ‘Intifada’, only this time with a return to the old tactics of direct armed confrontation and Terror. In the years which have followed, the situation has only continued to deteriorate as moderates and ‘doves’ on both sides have faced marginalisation with the continuing escalation of the struggle. While Saddam Hussein has cunningly exploited the crisis to win a groundswell of support in neighbouring Arab nations, George Bush’s hopes of ‘finishing the job’ his father began and toppling the Iraqi dictator are beginning to appear utterly untenable. Even relatively moderate regimes such as that of Egypt are now beginning to ‘talk tough’ in regards to the Palestinian question, and the role of the US in the region. Naturally, this has also had negative implications for Arab co-operation in Bush’s so-called ‘War on Terror’ which, in the light of the September 11 atrocity, seems to have given Bush ‘carte blanche’ to settle old political scores, mop up resistance of US global hegemony, and secure long term strategic advantage. Meanwhile, Sharon’s offensives, which have penetrated deeply within the Occupied Territories, have failed utterly to stem successive waves of suicide bombings and other Terror attacks, but rather have confirmed, in many peoples’ minds, the status of Israel as the oppressor. The hopes of peace and reconciliation which arose, if only briefly, in the early 1990s, have been utterly crushed in the years following Yitzhak Rabin’s brutal assassination. Today, then, the conflict seems more intractable than ever, and increasingly it appears a new generation of Palestinians and Israelis will grow up amidst an oppressive atmosphere of fear, hatred and Terror.

From the margins of the socialist and liberal left of Israel and the Occupied Territories, however, a whispering can be heard. Disenchantment with the failure of Oslo and the once celebrated ‘Peace Process’ is leading, once more, to the discussion of alternatives long thought buried. Tentatively, cautiously, activists are beginning to revive old slogans. “One Land for Two Peoples” is whispered at the margins of the awful conflict which is tearing Israel and Palestine apart. Bi-nationalism: the idea of a secular state or federation: a National Home for both Jews and Arabs, is once again gaining currency amongst a significant minority of progressive activists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

Bi-nationalism emerged in the 30s, and during the years immediately preceding Israel’s declaration of independence as a movement seeking rapproachment between Arabs and the Jewish Yeshuv. Throughout this period its proponents included the United Workers Party and the Communist Party of Israel. Meanwhile Judah Magnes, Martin Buber and others articulated their binational stance from the respected Ihud (Unity) organisation. Left Zionists foresaw a binational arrangement under which Jews could coexist peacefully with their Arab neighbors, all the while enjoying unrestricted immigration rights which would gradually result in a Jewish majority throughout all of Palestine. Non-Zionist Jewish leftists were attracted by the secular and conciliatory principles of binationalism. As opposed to a ‘purely Jewish State’ they foresaw a Jewish National Home within a binational republic. Bound by powerful internationalist convictions, at all times they strove for Arab-Jewish rapproachment. It is a tragedy that these idealists found themselves overtaken by events, and by the failure of the binationalist compromise to win significant support amongst the Arab community.

With Israel’s successful war of independence in 1948, the face of Yishuv politics was utterly transformed. Standing now from a position of military strength and internationally accepted statehood, the ethical concerns of the binationalists were swiftly marginalised. The most glaring question posed by the formation of the Jewish state was that of the status of Israeli Arabs and the fate of approximately 700,000 Arab refugees, many of whom had been directly expelled. During the years that followed the conciliatory trends in Israeli politics continued to fade further and further into the outermost margins. When Israel responded to aggressive posturing by Egypt in 1967 by waging a ‘lightning’ Six Day War and occupying the Palestinian territories, the seeds of future tragedy were sown. The eventual Palestinian response to Israel’s formation was the creation of the PLO in 1964: an organisation whose main faction, Fatah, aimed at replacing the Jewish State with a secular Palestinian state with both Jews and Arabs as citizens. Isolated and powerless to realise its political ambitions, the PLO resorted to a long and bloody campaign of terror. At all points, however, this had been met by a steady Israeli response of state terror, culminating today in a brutal war of attrition where both sides attempt to break the other’s resolve, exacting an awful toll in innocent blood.

And yet today, even as Israel and the Occupied Territories are drowned in bloodshed and fear, there are voices once again speaking in favour of the binational solution. Lama Abu-Odeh, a Professor of Law at Georgetown University and expatriate Palestinian, has urged a shift of focus for Palestinians from ‘national self determination’ to ‘constitutional liberalism’. Liberalism, she argues, must ‘trump’ Zionism. Struggle would thus be oriented towards ‘rights of citizenship’, both in Israel proper, and in the Occupied Territories. Foreseeing a struggle more akin to the American Civil Rights movement, Abu-Odeh supposes such a strategy could win greater sympathy not only internationally, but even within Israel, whose citizens proudly view their country as the only democracy in the region. Running gun battles and suicide bombings would thus be replaced by peaceful mass action. Radicals may even prefer a variation on the liberal appeal, instead appealing to principles of socialist internationalism.

For Abu-Odeh, the ultimate aim is for Palestine to become ‘a federal state of Israel’ where Palestinians enjoy full citizenship rights. Under such circumstances, Palestinian refugees would be free to return to their homeland, while a generous fund would be established to compensate others for years of dispossession. By making this fund as generous as possible, Israel could prevent the kind of massive population movements which it fears might be destabilising as a consequence of lingering ill will. Furthermore, such a fund could finally give Israel closure on an issue which has undermined its legitimacy, and pricked the consciences of radicals and liberals for decades. If Israel does not move soon on this issue, however, it will be too late.

Certainly, it is true that if liberalism must trump Zionism, it must also trump Arab nationalism. Israelis and Palestinians with a shared moral vision in this regard would need to steel their resolve in the face of possibly violent opposition. Certainly, there are extremists on both sides who have already demonstrated the depths to which they will sink to scuttle any prospect of peace, and a just negotiated settlement. Today, as Palestinians count the cost of the recent Israeli assault on Jenin, and as wave upon wave of suicide bombers continue to target defenseless Israeli civilians, rarely has the desperate need to end this escalating cycle of violence seemed more urgent. Both Arafat and Sharon must share responsibility for the current nightmare: for while Arafat has effectively ceded to the strategy of Terror in recognition of his peoples powerlessness to resist though conventional means, Sharon, similarly, has embraced State Terror, deliberately wrecking any and all prospects of a just peace, as evidenced by his strident dismissal of the Saudi peace proposal, which would have offered full Arab recognition to Israel in return for a restoration of pre-1967 borders.

In the final analysis, the key to peace is building good will, and the binational vision will not be able to be realised until this is achieved. To this end, the kind of provocations we have seen since the collapse of Oslo must be put to an end. While not ceding to Terror, Israel needs to reconsider the virtual consensus that Barak’s 2000 ‘final status’ offer was a generous and just foundation for peace and reconciliation. As noted on the ‘Gush Shalom’ website, Barak’s ‘generous’ offer assumed the annexation of great swathes of Palestinian land currently occupied by settlers, including control of most major road networks. Furthermore, there was no resolution of the burning issue of repatriation and/or compensation of Palestinian refugees, or of the status of East Jerusalem. The cause of peace requires real compromise on the part of Israel – a willingness to negotiate a truly JUST resolution based upon mutual respect, not simply an advantageous arrangement dictated from a position of total military superiority. Palestinian self rule must be extended, and settlement construction put to a complete and final halt. Israeli economic aid and cultural exchanges with Palestinians must serve as to basis on which such good will can take root. In the long term, also, Israel needs to reconsider its identity as a ‘pure’ Jewish State, exploring the question, rather, of whether the aim of a secular ‘State for the Jews’ is more appropriate. The desire for an indefinite Jewish monopoly over Israel’s state security apparatuses is understandable, and currently a necessity for the concrete physical security of the Jewish people. Beyond this, however, recognition needs to be provided for minorities in Israel, Arab and otherwise. This, for instance, implies an end to land confiscation, equal opportunity for minorities in areas apart from the state security apparatuses, and affirmative action to remedy the impoverishment and marginalization of minorities. In such a way, it is to be hoped that Israel’s minorities will come to identify with the Israeli state, rather than perceiving it as an unwanted and oppressive imposition.

For the Palestinian part, real and ongoing progress needs to be met with a firm and genuine resolve to stamp out Terror in all its forms, a commitment to democratise the Palestinian Authority, and the determination to foster a thriving and independent Palestinian civil society and public sphere. Finally, the thought of rushing through any forced ‘final status’ agreement needs to be utterly buried. Rather, a peace process founded upon the gradual fostering of respect and good will must be more open-ended, involving a time frame perhaps as long as twenty years- or however long is necessary. Mutual respect and security will only come with the changing of hearts and minds, and for this patience, perseverance and sincerity are required most of all. The binationalist solution might not seem viable in the current climate of hate and terror. It is up to those of us with such a shared moral vision, however, to keep the idea alive, working unrelentingly for the day when, finally, Palestinians and Israelis can live side by side in respect and peace.

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