Is Democracy an Existential Threat?


As two of the authors of a recent document advocating a one-state solution to the Arab-Israeli colonial conflict, we intended to generate debate. Predictably, Zionists decried the proclamation as yet another proof of the unwavering devotion of Palestinian – and some radical Israeli – intellectuals to the "destruction of Israel". Some pro-Palestinian activists accused us of forsaking immediate and critical Palestinian rights in the quest of a "utopian" dream.

Inspired in part by the South African Freedom Charter and the Belfast Agreement, the much humbler One State Declaration, authored by a group of Palestinian, Israeli and international academics and activists, affirms that "the historic land of Palestine belongs to all who live in it and to those who were expelled or exiled from it since 1948, regardless of religion, ethnicity, national origin or current citizenship status". It envisages a system of government founded on "the principle of equality in civil, political, social and cultural rights for all citizens".

It is precisely this basic insistence on equality that is perceived by Zionists as an existential threat to Israel, undermining its inherently discriminatory foundations which privilege its Jewish citizens over all others. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was refreshingly frank when he recently admitted that Israel was "finished" if it faced a struggle for equal rights by Palestinians.

But whereas transforming a regime of institutionalised racism, or apartheid, into a democracy was viewed as a triumph for human rights and international law in South Africa and Northern Ireland, it is rejected out of hand in the Israeli case as a breach of what is essentially a sacred right to ethno-religious supremacy (euphemistically rendered as Israel’s "right to be a Jewish state").

Palestinians are urged by an endless parade of western envoys and political hucksters – the latest among them Tony Blair – to make do with what the African National Congress rightly rejected when offered it by South Africa’s apartheid regime: a patchwork Bantustan made up of isolated ghettoes that falls far below the minimum requirements of justice.

Sincere supporters of ending the Israeli occupation have also been severely critical of one-state advocacy on moral and pragmatic grounds. A moral proposition, some have argued, ought to focus on the likely effect it may have on people, and particularly those under occupation, deprived of their most fundamental needs, like food, shelter and basic services. The most urgent task, they conclude, is to call for an end to the occupation, not to promote one-state illusions. Other than its rather patronising premise – that these supporters somehow know what Palestinians need more than we do – this argument is problematic in assuming that Palestinians, unlike humans everywhere, are willing to forfeit their long-term rights to freedom, equality and self-determination in return for some transient alleviation of their most immediate suffering.

The refusal of Palestinians in Gaza to surrender to Israel’s demand that they recognise its "right" to discriminate against them, even in the face of its criminal starvation siege imposed with the backing of the United States and the European Union, is only the latest demonstration of the fallacy of such assumptions.

A more compelling argument, expressed most recently on Cif by Nadia Hijab and Victoria Brittain, states that under the current circumstances of oppression, when Israel is bombing and indiscriminately killing; imprisoning thousands under harsh conditions; building walls to separate Palestinians from each other and from their lands and water resources; incessantly stealing Palestinian land and expanding colonies; besieging millions of defenceless Palestinians in disparate and isolated enclaves; and gradually destroying the very fabric of Palestinian society, calling for a secular, democratic state is tantamount to letting Israel "off the hook".

They worry about weakening an international solidarity movement that is "at its broadest behind a two-state solution". But even if one ignores the fact that the Palestinian "state" on offer now is no more than a broken-up immiserated Bantustan under continued Israeli domination, the real problem with this argument is that it assumes that decades of upholding a two-state solution have done anything concrete to stop or even assuage such horrific human rights abuses.

Since the Palestinian-Israeli Oslo agreements were signed in 1993, the colonisation of the West Bank and all the other Israeli violations of international law have intensified incessantly and with utter impunity. We see this again after the recent Annapolis meeting: as Israel and functionaries of an unrepresentative and powerless Palestinian Authority go through the motions of "peace talks", Israel’s illegal colonies and apartheid wall continue to grow, and its atrocious collective punishment of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza is intensifying without the "international community" lifting a finger in response.

This "peace process", not peace or justice, has become an end in itself — because as long as it continues Israel faces no pressure to actually change its behaviour. The political fiction that a two-state solution lies always just around the corner but never within reach is essential to perpetuate the charade and preserve indefinitely the status quo of Israeli colonial hegemony.

To avoid the pitfalls of further division in the Palestinian rights movement, we concur with Hijab and Brittain in urging activists from across the political spectrum, irrespective of their opinions on the one state, two states debate, to unite behind the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, as the most politically and morally sound civil resistance strategy that can inspire and mobilise world public opinion in pursuing Palestinian rights.

The rights-based approach at the core of this widely endorsed appeal focuses on the need to redress the three basic injustices that together define the question of Palestine – the denial of Palestinian refugee rights, primary among them their right to return to their homes, as stipulated in international law; the occupation and colonisation of the 1967 territory, including East Jerusalem; and the system of discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Sixty years of oppression and 40 years of military occupation have taught Palestinians that, regardless what political solution we uphold, only through popular resistance coupled with sustained and effective international pressure can we have any chance of realising a just peace.

Hand in hand with this struggle it is absolutely necessary to begin to lay out and debate visions for a post-conflict future. It is not coincidental that Palestinian citizens of Israel, refugees and those in the diaspora, the groups long disfranchised by the "peace process" and whose fundamental rights are violated by the two-state solution have played a key role in setting forward new ideas to escape the impasse.

Rather than seeing the emerging democratic, egalitarian vision as a threat, a disruption, or a sterile detour, it is high time to see it for what it is: the most promising alternative to an already dead two-state dogma.

 

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