For those in the Middle East and beyond who have not been reduced to complete despair by the ongoing cycle of Palestinian-Israeli violence, Lama Abu-Odeh’s “Case for Binationalism” makes for deeply disheartening reading.
The first thing to be noted about “binationalism” is that, contrary to Abu-Odeh’s thesis, there is nothing new or innovative about it. Rather it has been the standard Arab solution to the “Palestine Question” from its earliest stages, supported in the 1920s and 1930s by a handful of Jewish intellectuals such as Judah Magness and Martin Buber. The second thing to be noted is that, unlike those Jewish proponents of the idea, the Arabs have never viewed “binationalism” as a true partnership between two equal nations sharing sovereignty over a specific territory. Based on adamant rejection of the Jewish right for statehood, or indeed for any moral claim to equal rights in Palestine, they have perceived “binationalism” as a unitary state comprising the whole of Palestine in which Jews would be reduced to permanent minority status at the sufferance of the Arab-Muslim majority, a modern-day version of the ahl al-dhimma system of “protected non-Muslim minorities” in the House of Islam. In the words of Edward Said: “I don’t find the idea of a Jewish state terribly interesting…the Jews are a minority everywhere. They are a minority in America. They can certainly be a minority in Israel.”
For decades, the PLO had been pursuing precisely this goal under the euphemism of a “secular democratic state.” Now that it has ostensibly committed itself through the Oslo process to a two-state solution—Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza—traditional Arab rejectionism has been rekindled. “For many Palestinians, myself included, the two-state solution has already lost a great deal of its historic appeal,” cautions Abu-Odeh, adding that “developments since Oslo have raised serious questions about the attractions of a separate state as a vehicle for expressing Palestinian aspirations and advancing Palestinian interests.”
This peremptory dismissal of a Palestinian state in part of historic Palestine, before it has actually been created and given the chance to prove its worth, is above all indicative of Abu-Odeh’s refusal to acquiesce in the reality of a Jewish statehood. Contrary to her assertion, far from having any “historic appeal” to Arab leaders and intellectuals, the two-state solution has invariably been their anathema. Hence their categoric rejection of all plans aimed at bringing about such an eventuality—from the 1937 British partition scheme, to UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947, to Ehud Barak’s peace proposals during the 2000 Camp David and Taba summits.
Indeed, a closer look at the behavior of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority over the past decade reveals that they have anything but abandoned their age-long dream of subverting the state of Israel. This has been illustrated, inter alia, by the systematic indoctrination of Palestinian society with a burning hatred for Jews and Israel, the Jewish state’s glaring absence from Palestinian maps, the refusal to abrogate those clauses in the Palestinian National Covenant calling for Israel’s destruction, and the adamant insistence on the right of the 1948 refugees and their descendants to return to territory that is now part of the state of Israel.
In their internal political discourse (albeit excluded from addresses to Western audiences), Arabs have made no secret of their perception of the “right of return” as a euphemism for the destruction of Israel through demographic subversion. As early as October 1949, the Egyptian politician Muhammad Salah al-Din, soon to become his country’s foreign minister, argued that “in demanding the restoration of the refugees to Palestine, the Arabs intend that they shall return as the masters of the homeland and not as slaves; or to put it more specifically, the intention is the extermination of the state of Israel.”
In subsequent years, this frank understanding of what the “right of return” implied was reiterated by most Arab leaders, from Gamal Abdel Nasser, to Hafiz al-Asad, to Yasir Arafat. At a closed meeting with South African Muslim leaders shortly after concluding the Oslo Accords, Arafat compared these agreements to the Treaty of Hudaibiya, signed by Prophet Muhammad with the people of Mecca in 628 only to be reneged by him a couple of years later as the situation later evolved in his favor. And the prominent Palestinian “moderate,” Faisal al-Husseini, was far more explicit, describing the Oslo process as a “Trojan Horse” designed to promote the strategic goal of “Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea”—that is, a Palestine in place of Israel. “Whatever we get now,” he pledged, “cannot make us forget this supreme truth.”
All this makes the difference between the PLO’s and Abu-Odeh’s “peace strategies” a matter of degree rather than substance. Both seek Palestinian domination over a country built on Israel’s ruins. But while the PLO is patiently implementing its “phased strategy,” adopted in the mid-1970s, whereby every tract of land relinquished by Israel is used as a springboard for further territorial advances, Abu-Odeh’s “binationalism” seeks to subvert Israel in one fell swoop by flooding it, not only with millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants but also with the 2.5-million-strong Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza. Given that Arabs already constitute a fifth of Israel’s population of 6 million, the creation of such a “binational state” would be tantamount to Israel’s immediate destruction.
But why should Israelis accept this recipe for national suicide and admit millions of implacably hostile immigrants into their midst? Why should they redistribute their self-generated national wealth, as suggested by Abu-Odeh, to accommodate this revanchist population bent on their destruction? Abu-Odeh makes not the slightest attempt to allay such fears or to convince Israelis of the merits of “binationalism”; instead, she directs her entire argument at Palestinian and Western audiences.
Yet it is precisely this historic dismissal of the Other and the legitimacy of its national cause that stands at the root of Palestinian statelessness and dispersal. One would have hoped that a century of futile and costly conflict would have prompted Palestinian intellectual and political elites to shed their all-or-nothing approach in favor of a more accommodating strategy of mutual acceptance and respect, one that recognizes the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to national self-determination within their own independent states. Lama Abu-Odeh’s article leaves little room for optimism in this regard.