On a lovely summer evening a few years ago, I sat with my old Oxford friend Sari Nuseibeh on the balcony of his apartment in Abu Dis, watching the sun set over nearby Israel as we sipped our gin-and-tonics. “Of course,” he said, in his precise, donnish way, “one day, in the near or further future, all this will be one binational state. It’s just a question of how we get there. Either we Palestinians will get the independent state our leaders are currently calling for, alongside Israel—which will almost inevitably lead to a Europe-style reintegration between Israel and Palestine some years hence. Or else, disaggregation into two states will prove impossible, and we’ll leave out that stage, going straight to the binational state.”
Now, Nuseibeh has always specialized in challenging prevailing modes of thinking. Most recently, as the person named by Yasser Arafat to succeed Faisal Husseini as the Palestinians’ “Minister for Jerusalem,” he has challenged his compatriots to stop acting as though they are pursuing a claim to all of Israel, as well as all of Palestine. No doubt, when he issued that challenge—which he did, strangely enough, in a speech at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—the perpetual small smile of his skeptical self-distancing continued to play around the corners of his mouth.
As Lama Abu-Odeh notes in her essay, the idea of binational state is one that has re-surfaced a number of times in the past sixty years. In the 1940s, Jewish luminaries like Martin Buber and his circle reached out desperately to try to formulate such a vision, even as tides of Jewish exclusivism were starting to engulf the yishuv. In the 1960s, the founding vision for many of the guerrilla groups that made up the PLO was that of a “secular democratic state”—a significantly different kind of entity from a binational state, to be sure, but one which would nevertheless include among its citizenry all the ‘authentically Palestinian’ Jews whose presence in the land could be traced back to before either 1948, or some other watershed point in Zionist immigration. It was only in 1974 that the PLO started signaling a readiness to relinquish its claim to all of ‘historic’ (i.e., Mandate) Palestine, and its desire to consider building a purely Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gazaalongside, rather than in place of, a predominantly Jewish Israel.
Abu-Odeh makes a number of interesting observations in her essay. But still, I think she fails to make convincingly the case that I take her to be making, namely that shifting from the still-extant two-state formulation of Palestinian political goals to a binational variant of the one-state formulation would be in the Palestinians’ interest. (She does not even start to sketch out the other part of the argument that would need to be made in this regard, viz., that a binational state would be in the Israelis’ long-term interests, too.)
I want to explore quickly two weaknesses I see in her argument: her claim that “Oslo proved the [Palestinian] nationalist goal unattainable,” and the confusion that she seems snared in, between ends (one-state or two-state) and means (nonviolent or violent).
In claiming that ‘Oslo’—by which she presumably means the entire train of negotiations, implementations, and failures to implement that grew out of the original Oslo Accord of 1993—proved the nationalist goal unattainable (presumably, to Palestinians, though perhaps also to others), Abu-Odeh seems to be implying that throughout that whole process the Palestinian leadership made the very best effort imaginable to realize a viable Palestinian state, but still failed to do so. “The period since Oslo,” she writes, “has repeatedly revealed that the Israeli military and political class has no serious intention of conceding to their Palestinian counterparts any set of powers…that would allow that [Palestinian] nationalist project to succeed.” Well, maybe that is what those years revealed to her—and I certainly do not underestimate the element of disappointment, and the dashing of some of her own earlier hopes, in such a judgment. But to me, the record of those years revealed two very different things: firstly, the extreme paucity of strategic vision exercised in that period by a Palestinian leadership that had already, before 1993, been shorn of the visionary capabilities of both Abu Jihad (killed by the Israeli military in 1989), and Abu Iyad (by the Iraqis, 1990); and secondly, the existential uncertainty about how to proceed that affected the Israeli political elite in those years, with the possible—if belated—exception of Yitzhak Rabin. In other words, strategic blindness, and a deep reluctance to make fateful decisions reigned on both sides.
To be fair to Abu-Odeh, she does admit that the Palestinians’ leadership throughout the post-Oslo years was not of the highest caliber. But in that case, how can she conclude that the whole Oslo experiment “proved” anything definitive about the viability or advisability of a political program which was, she seems to concede, pursued by a less than fully capable Palestinian leadership? Might not a smarter, less “unrepresentative” Palestinian leadership be able to register greater successes in pursuing this program than Mr. Arafat proved able to do? Given his less-than-optimal leadership capabilities, I think that possibility is still open.
As to what the “intention” of the Israeli political elite was throughout those same post-Oslo years, Abu-Odeh states baldly that, in Oslo, the Israeli elites (plural) aimed at moving, “from direct military occupation and economic hegemony…to partial withdrawal from population centers and economic siege.” Yes, partial withdrawal and economic siege were indeed what actuallyhappened on the ground in the years after Oslo. But I think it’s simplistic to conclude that this was the intention of “the Israeli elites” as they all marched in supposed lockstep to Oslo, and thence to the White House lawn. No, the original Oslo agreement itself, and every micro-step of its subsequent implementation and non-implementation, were all, always, highly contested within that broad, shifting mass that we can call ‘the Israeli elite’; and it was precisely that degree of intra-Israeli contestation that led to an outcome on the ground that—by late summer 2000—was so muddled and highly unsatisfactory to all parties.
Why do I say that it was the intra-Israeli discord and uncertainty that drove events toward this outcome more than, say, any corresponding degree of contestation within Palestinian society? For two reasons. First, it is easy to see which of the two national groups exercises more raw power in the relationship on the ground. Second, the degree of contestation was actually much smaller among Palestinians than among Israelis. Certainly, surface political preferences among Israelis were far more volatile. During the years 1993–2000, the Israeli government underwent two major political swings, and by summer 2000, Barak’s One Israel was already starting to look doomed. In those same years, there was never any serious challenge—though perhaps there should have been?—to Mr. Arafat’s command of the PLO/PA.
The original Oslo Accord had, of course, been expressly designed, at the insistence of the Israeli negotiators, to be completely open-ended. The text itself stated that nothing within its provisions—all of which were judged to be temporary measures—should be considered as prejudging the content of the final-status arrangement that remained (and still remains) to be negotiated. Palestinian negotiator Abu Mazen explicitly warned his compatriots that the final status could be anything from the establishment of a completely viable Palestinian state at one end, to outright Israeli annexation, at the other. Not that any present or foreseeable Palestinian leader would ever voluntarily negotiate the latter outcome. (Israeli annexation could, of course, be seen as providing a handy shortcut to one variant of the single, binational state that Abu-Odeh advocates. It is precisely for this reason, and because any outright annexation would immediately expose Israel to the direct claims of the territories’ Palestinian residents for full civil and political equality, that no Israeli government is ever going to voluntarily negotiate that outcome, either.)
So the Oslo agreement deliberately left the final outcome open. And the seven years of post-Oslo “peace process” were marked by intense Israeli contestation over the content of that final outcome. So once again, I don’t see that we can conclude that the record of those years “proved” anything at all definitive regarding Israeli intentions.
Meanwhile, we can see that a layer or two underneath the surface of Israelis’ notable volatility in political preferences, support for a negotiated settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians has remained remarkably high among Jewish Israelis, as revealed in polls conducted by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. In a poll conducted in late April and early May of 2001—several months into the fury and violence of the “second intifada”—the pollsters found that 42 percent of respondents still favored peace talks with the Palestinians, while only 28 percent favored stopping peace talks, “even if it means going to war.” Meanwhile, respondents’ support for returning the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to Palestinian control had mounted to an unprecedented 51 percent.1
My next concern is what I see as Abu-Odeh’s serious confusion between means and ends. To be precise, she seems to be arguing on the basis of an unexamined assumption that struggles for national independence are necessarily always pursued through violent means, while civil-rights struggles are necessarily pursued through nonviolent civil disobedience. A quick glance at the history of the twentieth century is enough to refute that assumption. When hundreds of millions of Indians were pursuing mass campaigns of civil disobedience, their goal was certainly not to win civil rights within the British system! It was, of course, national independence from Britain. Similarly, when millions of Turkish Kurds or Guatemalan Maya waged or sympathized with violent campaigns against their respective national centers in the second half of the century, their goal was generally the full respect of their civil and cultural rights within those polities, rather than a separation from them.
I myself have long argued that in all such cases, a smart pursuit of nonviolent means is not only the right but also the most effective strategy. In the case of the Palestinians’ struggle to free themselves from the tight noose of Israeli military occupation, this argument seems particularly convincing. Development of a robust strategy of nonviolence would permit the mobilization of the energies of all Palestinians—women, men, and children; Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territories. It would go a long way toward giving Jewish Israelis the reassurance that—as Nuseibeh noted—they still need, that peaceful coexistence with a neighboring Palestinian state is indeed possible. It would constrain an Israel that is still mindful of its liberal self-image from resorting to excessive amounts of counter-violence. And it would move the conflict from the field of arms, where the Palestinians could never prevail over a nuclear-armed Israel, to the field of morals and rights, where the Palestinians can certainly make a convincing case for having formal national equality with Israel.
So Abu-Odeh is quite right to argue that shifting to completely nonviolent means of struggle would be extremely advantageous for the Palestinians. But she is wrong to assume that using such means necessarily involves shifting the goal from national independence to the establishment of a binational state. Luckily, there are a number of respected social activists among the Palestinian residents of the occupied territories who have been advocating, and experimenting with, the use of nonviolent methods for several years now. But most of these people have done this work within the dominant political paradigm of aiming for national independence. They already find it hard enough, amidst the trauma-scarred gun worship of much of Palestinian culture, to make their case effectively to their compatriots. If, at the same time that they were urging theshebab to keep their guns at home, they were also arguing that the end-goal should be changed to that of a binational state, I fear their efforts would be totally doomed.
The present period also seems a particularly inauspicious time in which to advocate the goal of a binational state to Israelis. On both sides of the Green Line, the history of the post-Oslo years, as subsequently compounded by the lengthy months of intifada violence, has engendered a strong distaste for an intimate long-term entanglement. The desire for some sort of “separation” is deep on both sides—as is the revulsion at any proposal that might seek to dilute or even negate the “national” content of that for which they have suffered throughout these years.
So yes, it may well be—as Nuseibeh and others have predicted—that somewhere down the pike an independent Israel and an independent Palestine might seek to pool some of their powers into a joint political venture of some kind. But there seems no way of getting to any joint entity without traversing a period of separation along the way.
1The Jaffee Center’s regular opinion polls, like those carried out by many other Israeli polling groups, seek the opinions only of the 82 percent of Israeli citizens who classify as ‘Jewish.’ That such pollsters continue willfully to ignore the views of the other 18 percent of Israeli citizens—most of whom are Palestinian Israelis—is amazing. Imagine if polls of ‘American’ opinion deliberately refrained from seeking the views of, say, African-Americans! Nevertheless, these polls are revealing. These data come from Asher Arian, Israeli Public Opinion on National Security (Tel Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 2001): 20, 22.