Overcoming Zionism Without Getting Bogged Down in an Idle Debate

The Oslo Accords of 1993-1995 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization did not usher in a new period of hope and reconciliation. Contrary to the promise held up by their proponents, they did not lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside a friendly Israel retreating to its 1967 borders of its own accord. Instead, they marked the beginning of the most intensive expansion of Israeli settlements since 1967 and, with it, a further undermining of the two-state option — or at least the two-state that had been promoted by the PLO leadership for years before.

After the Oslo Accords, the nearly spent PLO mutated into the Palestinian Authority in the occupied territories, a bloated civilian bureaucracy working at the Israeli occupiers' behest. The PA fitfully played its assigned role of enforcing Israeli-American policies and, every time it did, lost more of its Palestinian constituency's loyalty. While the PA has continued to clamor for a two-state solution and an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, it has also shown itself to be totally incapable of stemming (let alone reversing) Israel's creeping expansion.[1] Two-State has become code for something different from what the PA promises to achieve: Two-State is now not the demand of a liberation movement, but an item of barter between reactionary governments — chiefly the United States, Israel, and an Arab League dominated by oligarchies openly hostile to the Palestinian cause. If it is ever concluded on their terms, the Two-State agreement will produce a collection of walled-in mini-Bantustans to be policed by a wholly discredited PA.[2]

Out of the post-Oslo shattered illusions a new critical current has emerged among supporters of Palestinian rights. This new current has continued the earlier critique of Zionism and, less cohesively,   also striven to define alternative agendas for Palestinian liberation. Many of its proponents have even gone beyond and made the final shape of a far-off Israeli-Palestinian coexistence a matter of immediate relevance. Among the latter, the coexistence formula is a unitary state of some kind in historic Palestine. Part of their reasoning is that the Oslo Accords were the last Two-State opportunity and, after their collapse, it is time to try a One-State alternative (more on this presumed implication later).

Initially limited to Palestinian activists living in the West, the circle of One-State proponents now includes many non-Palestinians. It is a loose grouping of intellectuals, with a majority of them in the US, a few in Europe, and a handful in the occupied territories. They do not have a common political program, certainly not in the sense of belonging to the same political party, nor do they share a common understanding of the conflict. For some, the conflict is between "Israelis and Palestinians", for others it is "the Jewish people and the Palestinian people," and for others still the focus is on "Jews and Arabs" or some more ambiguous formulation. For an example of the latter, consider this one: "a single democratic state for Jews, Christians and Muslims" — a sectarian democracy, as it were, in the Holy Land — which replaces national identities by religious identities. (What will happen in such a state to secularists among both Israelis and Palestinians, or to those among them who cannot be so classified?) These are not minor differences, though innocuous now because they are far removed from the actual conflict; but they may confuse and undermine support for a just resolution in the future.

These differences are apparent in the many articles and books which One-State proponents have written.[3] The latest addition to these books is Joel Kovel's Overcoming Zionism.

Overcoming Zionism (in America)

Into the fray Joel Kovel jumps head-on. He defines himself as an anti-Zionist Jewish American and, with his new book, is ready to battle.

As with most of the other One-State works, Kovel's book does more than just envision a long-term solution. As with the others, Kovel includes a historical appraisal of Zionism, US-Israeli relations, and their effects on Palestinians and Arabs in general. This appraisal is by far the more substantial portion of the book, taking the whole of the first eight chapters (close to 200 pages) and some of the remaining two chapters; it corresponds to the "Overcoming Zionism" part in the book title, and this is Kovel's effort at unmasking Zionism in order to overcome it. The actual proposal for "Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine" is in the last two chapters (about 50 pages), mixed with other things which are part of the earlier appraisal.

There can be little disagreement with the first eight chapters, for anyone who is familiar with the record and will read without ideological blinders. These chapters are a blistering and unforgiving account of Zionism and its deeds, buttressed by a formidable battery of endnotes and references (27 pages). Woven into Kovel's own commentaries is a review of a large body of written material by social scientists, philosophers, historians, religious luminaries, and others. Kovel's survey of this literature is a valuable resource, especially for an American audience, without being comprehensive; for example, Kovel mostly ignores the vast literature produced by Palestinian and Arab writers, a large portion of it available in English. Two comments on the first eight chapters:

(1)  Kovel is primarily engaged in an internal American debate and, more specifically, an American Jewish debate. Many of his references are to people, politics, and history that will resonate with this audience. The tone is set from the very beginning, in the  Acknowledgments section, where Kovel thanks some 50 friends and collaborators, many of whom are progressive participants in American Jewish affairs. Kovel mentions that it is after an invitation from Michael Lerner that he began this book project by writing articles and essays for Tikkun magazine.

How many Palestinians or Arabs are included in this group of about 50 friends and collaborators? Exactly two, Edward Said and Samir Amin, both living and working in the West. The decision to go beyond the Tikkun articles and turn them into a book "was sparked by Edward Said's encouragement." How many Palestinians or Arabs are among the hundreds of authors Kovel cites in the whole book? By my count, only five: W. Khalidi, N. Masalha, J. Massad, N. Rouhana, and M. Younis.  This does not diminish Kovel's contribution in any way — his courage to confront Zionist shibboleths in America is commendable — but also defines its scope and limitation. 

(2)  Zionism, US-Israeli relations, and the whole history of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine, can be thoroughly deconstructed without any commitment to One-State or Two-State (the topic of the last two chapters). Proof for this is that Kovel can borrow heavily from authors who share his critique of Zionism but not his views on One-State and Two-State. For example, much to his credit, Kovel makes extensive use of the work by the Israeli "new historians" — Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Tom Segev, Avi Shlaim, and Zeev Sternhell — whose research in Israeli primary sources and archives is without equal. We owe them for doing the best work in the demolition of the myths of their own society: Far from Israel being egalitarian and democratic, as mainstream propaganda has it in America, they show that their state is quasi-fascist, anti-egalitarian and profoundly anti-socialist.

But, for all their invaluable work in demythologizing Israel and Zionism, these scholars hold personal views on One-State and Two-State that are mutually incompatible, if not antithetical to the truths they uncover themselves. For example, to put it in shorthand, based on what they say or write elsewhere: Morris is a Zionist, who favors a pure Jewish state ethnically cleansed of all its Palestinians; Pappe is a binationalist, anti-Zionist, One-Stater; Sternhell is liberal, Zionist, Two-Stater; and so on for the others — and Kovel himself: a "secular-universal" (page 229), anti-Zionist, One-Stater.[4] The point is that to be for or against One-State (or Two-State) is not a requirement for helping to clear the ideological fog around all these issues.

One-State or Two-State in Palestine?

It is not until the penultimate chapter of his book, entitled "Beyond the Two-State Solution," that Kovel mentions Two-State for the first time, on page 207 in a text of 247 pages. He views Two-State as the hallmark of misguided or muddled liberal thought:

"The horizon of liberal intervention in the affairs of Israel is to end the Occupation of the West Bank, after which Israel is supposed to settle down to become a normal state, and the Palestinians are to get their own state, hence, a Two-State outcome. … But it won't work. The Occupation, which undoubtedly needs to be ended, is simply an inevitable manifestation of the fundamental goal of the Jewish state, namely, elimination of Palestinian society."

In the remainder of this chapter, Kovel contrasts state-produced racism in Israel to that in several other countries. He rightly points out that apartheid South Africa provides the most salient point of comparison with Israel, in spite of many differences in the way the two states have removed and disenfranchised the native population. While apartheid South Africa created the infamous Bantustans as a pool of labor power for its economy and, as such, had to provide minimal physical care for the black population, the Zionist project was bent from the outset on getting rid of Palestinians by all means possible.  On this view, Israel's late acceptance of a Two-State is a subterfuge, a way to assuage liberal opinion in the West and deceive the Palestinians and their Arab allies. In Kovel's words (pp. 215-216):

"[T]he history of the years since 1948 may be read as a complex and subtle dance to gain the goal of a wholly Jewish Israel. Although there are opposing voices within Israeli state and society, as there are within any society, there is an extraordinary consistency to the behavior of the Jewish state, which has been crafted into a machine of expropriation. … Within this context, the Two-State option becomes for Zionism a necessary idiocy, and has been so from 1948 right through George W. Bush's 'roadmap'. … Within Israeli discourse the notion of Two-State simply means, then, the continued aggrandizement of the Jewish state along with a more or less negligible 'other state' on an ever shrinking fragment of land. … [T]he potential Palestinian state is no more than a bad joke, a less-than-bantustan … and is more aptly called a concentration camp than a state-in-waiting."

The preceding text seems to telescope (intentionally?) post-1948 Zionist policies into Israel's current official acceptance of Two-State. In truth, Israel has strenuously opposed a Two-State option, both in words (until the very late 1990's) and by evasion and practice (continuing today). If it was a "necessary idiocy," as Kovel writes, it became so only in very recent years. Politicians such as Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin opposed a Two-State option vociferously as long as they were in office; their Labor party did not mention it until 1996, and then marginally.[5]

Nevertheless, the gist of Kovel's text is clear: The logic and trajectory of Zionism from the beginning has been to negate the possibility of a second sovereign state in historic Palestine. But, since we are engaged in hypothetical situations, let's ask: What about a real Two-State solution? That is, a Two-State solution based on an equitable and fair division, admittedly predicated on a complete rollback of Israel into its 1967 borders?

To this suggestion Kovel counterposes several objections, starting with his own personal objection: He dislikes any state for any singular kind of people because "life has taught [him] that people do better when they are mixing and mingling in conditions of a rich diversity" (p. 217).  Many will sympathize with the sentiment, but how relevant is it in countering the facts on the ground? What we may personally like or dislike will have little bearing on the eventual outcome of the Zionist experiment and its impact on the Palestinians. Or, if we want to act on this sentiment, we should only try to prevent the US from continuing to underwrite this experiment, and let its victims decide for themselves the benefits of living in a mixed society and how to achieve it. In fairness, Kovel adds other objections, now rooted in reality and separate from personal preferences, but here he returns to the idea already expounded earlier in the chapter, that "so long as Israel remains Zionist there will never be a viable Two-State solution" (p. 218). By "viable Two-State" we can assume that Kovel means a just division of land and resources between Israelis and Palestinians.

For the record, there are many Israelis who disagree with Kovel's assertion that "so long as Israel remains Zionist there will never be a viable Two-State solution"; among these are people like Uri Avnery and Gush Shalom, Meretz, Peace Now, supporters of the 2003 Geneva Accord negotiated by Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abd-Rabbo, and many other Zionists, who fervently believe in the desirability and possibility of forcing Israel to retreat to its 1967 borders. 

But leaving aside whether such a philo-Palestinian or non-expansionist Zionism is at all possible –   probably a self-negating illusion according to Kovel[6] — there is still a fallacy in Kovel's assertion: As it stands, it does not logically imply that the alternative must be One-State. Indeed, we can assert with as much force that "so long as Israel remains Zionist" it will never become a viable One-State for both Israelis and Palestinians either. By "viable One-State" we mean a state where both national groups have an equal stake and representation in its institutions. So, the problem is with Zionism, not with the issue of One-State versus Two-State. Differently put, so long as Israel espouses Zionism — specifically a Zionism as a movement of conquest and domination –  neither One-State nor Two-State will be viable.

For a brief moment, Kovel concedes the absence of any logical implication: "Only a newly minted Israeli state … would be capable of restoring Palestine — either in a viable two-state configuration or along some other form" (p. 218). There is no mention of One-State in the book so far. Kovel prefers the future newly-minted state to be "along some other form," perhaps because he wants a clean unambiguous break. It is here that he mentions One-State for the first time: "The One-State option is a demand for Israel to cease being a Jewish state …" (p. 219). Once more there is a fallacy: A One-State in all of historic Palestine does not necessarily imply it will cease to be a Jewish state — i.e., a state that does not institutionally empower its Jewish citizens and discriminate against the others — even if the others are not ethnically cleansed and become more numerous than the Jews.

The last chapter of Kovel's book is meant to lay out a broad agenda for how to achieve the envisioned One-State. But it doesn't, and it can't realistically, do this. The chapter starts with the story of Ahmad, a Palestinian who was born in 1948, spent 17 years in Israeli prisons, and has lived through the repeated dislocations that his community had to endure as a result of Israeli policies. By itself, the story is a welcome counterpoint to the preceding chapters, which relegated Palestinians and Arabs in general to mostly nameless participants. Kovel is also careful in protecting Ahmad, "certain features of whose identity have been altered" (p. 223) and whose full name is never revealed, but the story is no less gripping and damning.  (The one other place where a Palestinian voice comes through is in the long epigraph to Chapter 8, excerpted from an anonymous email describing the abuse and gratuitous humiliation Palestinian civilians must endure at Israeli checkpoints.)  Heart-wrenching as it is, however, Ahmad's story is unrelated to the rest of the chapter.

What kind of One-State does Kovel envision? It is not a binational state nor any of the states projected by other One-State proponents. Kovel's proposed unitary state will be different still: It will be what he calls "secular-universal," in which Israelis and Palestinians will somehow merge into a single nationality in some distant future (p. 229). How will this be achieved? The idea to foist a brand new name, "Palesrael," on the newly-minted country is rather presumptuous;[7] it is not a new name that will mobilize Palestinians and Israelis to act together. To be sure, there are general guidelines for political action in the last section of the chapter, but notwithstanding the section title "The Practices of One-State," these neither follow from nor imply a One-State option. Indeed, to "speak the truth about Israel" (p. 232), or to "deprive the Zionist state of what it needs" (p. 233), or to "support the Palestinian right of return" (p. 236), are pursued by many activists who do not make it a priority to raise the One-State banner — or, for that matter, the Two-State banner either.

Where To From Here

One-State is now an escapist fantasy, whatever form one would like to give it. Some may think that, though perhaps a fantasy now, it will nevertheless be an effective slogan for mobilizing and unifying supporters of Palestinian rights. But it won't even be that, as it will probably be more a dividing than a rallying call for all those who are working against Israel's expansion and settlement project. Worse in fact, it is already a rallying call for another kind of One-State advocate: the supremacists of the Zionist far-right, who also want a unitary state in all or most of Palestine but ethnically cleansed of its Palestinians. The big difference between the anti-settlement One-Staters and the pro-settlement One-Staters is that the first are relatively few, mostly Western-based activists, with little power and no common distinctive agenda (beyond a call for One-State), while the second speak for powerful parties that are part of Israel's current government coalition and can therefore act on their racist beliefs.

Two-State is the other side of this false alternative. Two-State is stigmatized by the failed Oslo Accords, a discredited Palestinian leadership, and an "international community" that never enforced its own UN resolutions on Palestine. To insist on debating the two options — as if much is at stake on settling the question now, or as if there is no other alternative to these two options for anti-settlement activism — will be gratuitously obscuring the priorities. There is plenty that can and should be done to help the besieged Palestinians without any prior commitment to One-State or Two-State.

In particular, the biggest threats to the survival of Palestinian society are the settlements and the Separation Wall (better called the Annexation Wall[8]). These will all have to go if the dispossession and economic strangulation are to be stopped and reversed.[9] Whether it will be One-State or Two-State at the end of the road, expropriated lands and resources will have to be returned to their Palestinian owners. As the good Israeli writer Yitzhak Laor noted:

"Even in one state, the settlers would still need to be evicted from the land they have expropriated from the Palestinians. Even in one state, the resources taken from the Palestinians would have to be returned to their legal owners. … The [settlement] project initiated by Sharon, and executed by successive Israeli governments, has produced a country in which the Palestinians have been marginalized, geographically and topographically. This would need to be tackled even under a one-state solution."[10]



1. A two-state settlement is the declared policy of both factions of the now divided PA, the official Fatah-dominated faction in Ramallah as well as the rebellious Hamas-led faction in Gaza. After winning the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, Hamas formed a national unity government in which Fatah and other smaller factions of the old PLO were junior partners. The tense partnership between Hamas and Fatah broke down violently in June 2007. For all their bitter disagreements, however, the question of "one-state or two-state" was not one of them. In several statements to the Western press, Hamas leaders have made it clear — just as Fatah leaders have done –that they support a two-state settlement. Consider for example Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's op-ed, "Aggression Under False Pretenses," in which he calls for Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza (Washington Post, July 11, 2006), or Khalid Mish'al's article, "Our Unity Can Now Pave the Way for Peace and Justice," where he advocates the establishment of "a truly sovereign and independent Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in June 1967" (The Guardian, February 13, 2007).

2. It is instructive to review the positions which the Arab League has publicly adopted over the years regarding a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the extent to which it has been unwilling or unable to act accordingly.

At its March 2002 Beirut Summit, the Arab League adopted the so-called Arab Peace Initiative (API) proposed by Saudi Arabia. The API offered a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from all territories captured in 1967. By adopting the API, the Arab League was seemingly taking a unified position and aligning itself with the two-state option that factions of the PLO, including Fatah, had advocated since the mid-1970's and later approved by the PLO as a whole (at the November 1988 session of the Palestine National Council, the PLO's parliament in exile). Even though Saudi Arabia and several of the conservative Arab states nominally control enormous energy resources and can therefore exert great political leverage globally, the Arab League has in fact taken nary a step to advance the API since its adoption in 2002.

The API was taken up and endorsed again by the Arab League at its March 2007 Riyadh Summit. In July 2007 the Arab League sent a mission, consisting of the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers to Israel to promote the API. Significantly, the mission did not include a Palestinian member.  Israeli officials welcomed the Egyptian and Jordanian emissaries with considerable publicity, as a sign of cordial relations between their respective governments. Nonetheless, diplomatic cordiality did not translate into any tangible steps towards alleviating the plight of the Palestinians under occupation.

The API was discussed once more by the Arab League at its March 2008 Damascus Summit and received scant mention in its closing statement. Even normally pro-Saudi commentators did not hold back their contemptuous cynicism: "As to Arab solidarity in … support of the Palestinian cause, it is the last thing on [the Arab rulers'] mind. Let us not talk about their position vis-à-vis the US-Israeli coalition, … such as the Arab Peace Initiative, which they support but have neither the will nor the ability to put into effect" (Mostafa Zein, "Decisions Do Not Make the Success of a Summit," Al Hayat, March 29, 2008).

3. Among other books: Ghada Karmi, Married to Another Man: Israel's Dilemma in Palestine, Pluto Press, 2007; Ali Abunimah, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, Metropolitan Books, 2006; Virginia Tilley, The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock, University of Michigan Press, 2005; Mazin Qumsiyeh, Sharing the Land of Canaan, Pluto Press, 2004; Marc Ellis, Israel and Palestine: Out of the Ashes, Pluto Press, 2003. These authors do not all envision the same One-State, their differences varying from minor to significant, and they are not equally concerned with the final shape of a unitary state; e.g., Tilley puts more effort, and Ellis less effort, than the others in defining the organization of such a state. A website named "The One-State Solution" has a comprehensive list of articles and books on the topic.

4. Kovel is aware of the contradictions some of these authors put themselves in. The one who gets hit by his full wrath is Benny Morris, deservedly. Kovel devotes some eight pages (pp. 183-190) to dissect the contradictions between the truths Morris helped unveil and Morris' personal views.

5. A detailed review of this history is in Noam Chomsky, World Orders, Old and New, Columbia University Press, 1996. Whereas Yasser Arafat kept insisting that the Oslo Accords of September 1993 (Oslo I) and September 1995 (Oslo II)  ushered in a new historical phase, finally leading to Israeli acquiescence to a separate Palestinian state, Israeli politicians viewed the matter very differently:

"Israeli leaders recognized what had been achieved. In the Oslo II agreements 'we screwed the Palestinians,' President Ezer Weizmann informed the Chinese Ambassador. Asked how Israel expects the Palestinians to accept such terms, Foreign Minister Ehud Barak answered simply: 'We are the ones with the power.' Barak, formerly army Chief-of-Staff, had been appointed by Shimon Peres, who became Prime Minister when Rabin was assassinated a few weeks after the signing of Oslo II. Like his predecessor, Peres dismissed the idea that the permanent settlement might involve a Palestinian state. Explaining the Oslo II accords to a gathering of Ambassadors in Jerusalem, Peres stressed that 'this solution about which everyone is thinking and which is what you want will never happen.' Peres also responded with a 'resounding "No",' … when asked at a meeting with Newsweek editors whether a Palestinian state might be the eventual outcome. He proceeded with a 'learned explanation' that was never completed because the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial was just then broadcast so that the meeting had to stop, and afterwards the Newsweek editors were 'too excited about the verdict' to return to his thoughts on the final outcome of the 'peace process.'" (Chomsky, op. cit., pp. 275-276)

The first reference to the possibility of a Palestinian state, and only in fragmented parts of the territories, by the Labor Party seems to be in its 1996 platform (Michal Yudelman, "Labor Convention Approves Party Platform," The Jerusalem Post, April 26, 1996).  The previous Labor platform of 1992 rejected the establishment of a separate Palestinian state explicitly (Susan Hatis Rolef, "If Some of Labor's Doves Fly Away," The Jerusalem Post, November 13, 1991). The first politician of the Likud Party who made reference to a Palestinian state seems to be David Bar-Illan in 1996, a high official in the Netanyahu government, who said in response to a query that Palestinians can call whatever is left to them a "state" if they like, or they can call it "fried chicken" (Noam Chomsky, Failed States, Metropolitan Books, 2006, p. 178). The modest diplomatic recognition which the PLO had gained from the Oslo Accords was reduced, if not nullified, by the 1998 Wye Agreement brokered by President Clinton between Arafat and Netanyahu; not coincidentally, this was at a time when settlements were expanding at a faster rate than at any prior time since 1967 (Patrick Cockburn, "Israelis Declare Pact a Victory, Netanyahu Succeeds in Diluting the Oslo Accords," The Independent, October 26, 1998).

6. The historical evidence largely supports Kovel's views on Zionism's expansionist nature, but this is not the point. At a time when Palestinian communities are threatened with fragmentation and dispersal more than ever before, they need all the help they can get, from any quarter and any group, to stop and reverse Israel's settlement project. No doubt this is an effort that will take many long years. In the present dire conditions, in defining an agenda behind which all anti-settlement activists can rally, it is certainly not a priority to debate and disagree on the kind of Zionism that can survive within the confines of an Israel limited to its pre-1967 territory.

7. This resembles a proposal by Libya's strongman Muammar Qaddafi in his so-called White Book. Qaddafi proposes a single state to be named "Isratine," though he does not propose like Kovel an eventual merging of Israelis and Palestinians into a single nationality, allowing each community to preserve its national identity. In Qaddafi's words, he calls for the "establishment of the state of Isratine, home to both Palestinians and Israelis. This would allow both to move and live wherever they will. He, who believes that the West Bank is his land, can live there or travel there as he wishes. He could even call it Judea and Samaria, should he so want. Likewise, if a Palestinian should want to live or travel within the coastal cities of Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Jadwal and the others, he could do so. This would put everything back the way it was. Thus, an end shall be put to the injustice and deprivation."  Easy, isn't it? If only naughty Israelis and Palestinians would listen to wiser people for how to solve their problems!

8. The term is aptly chosen by Noam Chomsky, in "'Good News,' Iraq and Beyond," ZNet, February 16, 2008.

9. For a recent very detailed account of the horrors created by the settlers, the settlements and the Wall, see Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, Lords of the Land: The War over Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007, Nation Books, 2007.

10. Itzhak Laor, "What the Settlers Know," Letter to the London Review of Books, Vol. 25, no. 23, December 4, 2003.

Assaf Kfoury is Professor of Computer Science at Boston University. He is an Arab American who grew up in Beirut and Cairo, and returns frequently to the Middle East. He recently edited a collection of essays, diaries, and photographs — Inside Lebanon (Monthly Review Press, 2007) — documenting Noam and Carol Chomsky's journey to Lebanon in May 2006 and situating it within the tragically altered context of the region before and after the war of July-August 2006. This article is a follow-up to his earlier "One-State or Two-State?" — A Sterile Debate on False Alternatives.

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