There has been a strong revival in recent years of support among Palestinians for a one-state solution guaranteeing equal rights to Palestinians and Israeli Jews throughout historic Palestine.
One might expect that any support for a single state among Israeli Jews would come from the far left, and in fact this is where the most prominent Israeli Jewish champions of the idea are found, though in small numbers.
Recently, proposals to grant Israeli citizenship to Palestinians in the West Bank, including the right to vote for the Knesset, have emerged from a surprising direction: right-wing stalwarts such as Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, and former defense minister Moshe Arens, both from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. Even more surprising, the idea has been pushed by prominent activists among Israel’s West Bank settler movement, who were the subject of a must-read profile by Noam Sheizaf in Haaretz ("Endgame," 15 July 2010).
Their visions still fall far short of what any Palestinian advocate of a single state would consider to be just: the Israeli proposals insist on maintaining the state’s character — at least symbolically — as a "Jewish state," exclude the Gaza Strip, and do not address the rights of Palestinian refugees. And, settlers on land often violently expropriated from Palestinians would hardly seem like obvious advocates for Palestinian human and political rights.
Although the details vary, and in some cases are anathema to Palestinians, what is more revealing is that this debate is occurring openly and in the least likely circles.
The Likudnik and settler advocates of a one-state solution with citizenship for Palestinians realize that Israel has lost the argument that Jewish sovereignty can be maintained forever at any price. A status quo where millions of Palestinians live without rights, subject to control by escalating Israeli violence is untenable even for them. At the same time repartition of historic Palestine — what they call Eretz Yisrael — into two states is unacceptable, and has proven unattainable — not least because of the settler movement itself.
Some on the Israeli right now recognize what Israeli geographer Meron Benvenisti has said for years: historic Palestine is already a "de facto binational state," unpartionable except at a cost neither Israelis nor Palestinians are willing to pay. The relationship between Palestinians and Israelis is not that of equals however, but that "between horse and rider" as one settler vividly put it in Haaretz.
From the settlers’ perspective, repartition would mean an uprooting of at least tens of thousands of the 500,000 settlers now in the West Bank, and it would not even solve the national question. Would the settlers remaining behind in the West Bank (the vast majority under all current two-state proposals) be under Palestinian sovereignty or would Israel continue to exercise control over a network of settlements criss-crossing the putative Palestinian state? How could a truly independent Palestinian state exist under such circumstances?
The graver danger is that the West Bank would turn into a dozen Gaza Strips with large Israeli civilian populations wedged between miserable, overcrowded walled Palestinian ghettos. The patchwork Palestinian state would be free only to administer its own poverty, visited by regular bouts of bloodshed.
Even a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank — something that is not remotely on the peace process agenda — would leave Israel with 1.5 million Palestinian citizens inside its borders. This population already faces escalating discrimination, incitement and loyalty tests. In an angry, ultra-nationalist Israel shrunken by the upheaval of abandoning West Bank settlements, these non-Jewish citizens could suffer much worse, including outright ethnic cleansing.
With no progress toward a two-state solution despite decades of efforts, the only Zionist alternative on offer has been outright expulsion of the Palestinians — a program long-championed by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, which has seen its support increase steadily.
Israel is at the point where it has to look in the mirror and even some cold, hard Likudniks like Arens apparently don’t like what they see. Yisrael Beitenu’s platform is "nonsensical," Arens told Haaretz, and simply not "doable." If Israel feels it is a pariah now, what would happen after another mass expulsion of Palestinians?
Given these realities, "The worst solution … is apparently the right one: a binational state, full annexation, full citizenship" in the words of settler activist and former Netanyahu aide Uri Elitzur.
This awakening can be likened to what happened among South African whites in the 1980s. By that time it had become clear that the white minority government’s effort to "solve" the problem of black disenfranchisement by creating nominally independent homelands — bantustans — had failed. Pressure was mounting from internal resistance and the international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions.
By the mid-1980s, whites overwhelmingly understood that the apartheid status quo was untenable and they began to consider "reform" proposals that fell very far short of the African National Congress’ demands for a universal franchise — one-person, one-vote in a nonracial South Africa. The reforms began with the 1984 introduction of a tricameral parliament with separate chambers for whites, coloreds and Indians (none for blacks), with whites retaining overall control.
Until almost the end of the apartheid system, polls showed the vast majority of whites rejected a universal franchise, but were prepared to concede some form of power-sharing with the black majority as long as whites retained a veto over key decisions. The important point, as I have argued previously, is that one could not predict the final outcome of the negotiations that eventually brought about a fully democratic South Africa in 1994, based on what the white public and elites said they were prepared to accept ("Israeli Jews and the one-state solution," The Electronic Intifada, 10 November 2009).
Once Israeli Jews concede that Palestinians must have equal rights, they will not be able to unilaterally impose any system that maintains undue privilege. A joint state should accommodate Israeli Jews’ legitimate collective interests, but it would have to do so equally for everyone else.
The very appearance of the right-wing one-state solution suggests Israel is feeling the pressure and experiencing a relative loss of power. If its proponents thought Israel could "win" in the long-term there would be no need to find ways to accommodate Palestinian rights. But Israeli Jews see their moral currency and legitimacy drastically devalued worldwide, while demographically Palestinians are on the verge of becoming a majority once again in historic Palestine.
Of course Israeli Jews still retain an enormous power advantage over Palestinians which, while eroding, is likely to last for some time. Israel’s main advantage is a near monopoly on the means of violence, guaranteed by the United States. But legitimacy and stability cannot be gained by reliance on brute force — this is the lesson that is starting to sink in among some Israelis as the country is increasingly isolated after its attacks on Gaza and the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Legitimacy can only come from a just and equitable political settlement.
Perhaps the right-wing proponents of a single state recognize that the best time to negotiate a transition which provides safeguards for Israeli Jews’ legitimate collective interests is while they are still relatively strong.
That proposals for a single state are coming from the Israeli right should not be so surprising in light of experiences in comparable situations. In South Africa, it was not the traditional white liberal critics of apartheid who oversaw the system’s dismantling, but the National Party which had built apartheid in the first place. In Northern Ireland, it was not "moderate" unionists and nationalists like David Trimble and John Hume who finally made power-sharing under the 1998 Belfast Agreement function, but the long-time rejectionists of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, and the nationalist Sinn Fein, whose leaders had close ties the IRA.
The experiences in South Africa and Northern Ireland show that transforming the relationship between settler and native, master and slave, or "horse and rider," to one between equal citizens is a very difficult, uncertain and lengthy process. There are many setbacks and detours along the way and success is not guaranteed. It requires much more than a new constitution; economic redistribution, restitution and restorative justice are essential and meet significant resistance. But such a transformation is not, as many of the critics of a one-state solution in Palestine/Israel insist, "impossible." Indeed, hope now resides in the space between what is "very difficult" and what is considered "impossible."
The proposals from the Israeli right-wing, however inadequate and indeed offensive they seem in many respects, add a little bit to that hope. They suggest that even those whom Palestinians understandably consider their most implacable foes can stare into the abyss and decide there has to be a radically different way forward.
We should watch how this debate develops and engage and encourage it carefully. In the end it is not what the solution is called that matters, but whether it fulfills the fundamental and inalienable rights of all Palestinians.
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.