ISRAEL’S BRUTAL rampage in the Gaza Strip in December and January claimed the lives of more than 1,300 Palestinians, the majority of them unarmed civilians according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. But the assault may also have claimed another victim—the viability of the so-called two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For several decades the conventional wisdom has been that peace in the Middle East can only be achieved by establishing a Palestinian mini-state in Gaza and the West Bank alongside Israel. But it has become clear to a growing number of people—many Palestinians and even some Israelis—that this idea will never become a reality, and that the only remaining solution is a single state in the whole of historic Palestine, with equal rights for all its citizens.
The future of the two-state solution was explored in an unusually candid and remarkably even-handed segment of the CBS news program 60 Minutes in January, just days after Israel had finally declared a cease-fire in Gaza. The program focused on the growth of Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank, which are now home to almost 300,000 Israelis. The settlements have expanded with the tacit approval of successive Israeli governments, who at the same time have been engaged in a never-ending “peace process” with the supposed goal of establishing a Palestinian state. But as CBS correspondent Bob Simon pointed out, “Palestinians say they can’t have a state with Israeli settlers all over it, which the settlers say is precisely the idea.”
The 60 Minutes report was one of the few occasions—perhaps the only occasion—that the reality of the more than forty-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank has been shown on primetime TV in the United States. As Simon noted,
Israelis have split [the West Bank] up with scores of settlements, and hundreds of miles of new highways that only [Israeli] settlers can use. Palestinians have to drive—or ride—on the older roads. When they want to travel from one town to another, they have to submit to humiliating delays at checkpoints and roadblocks. There are more than 600 of them on the West Bank.
Former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, a well-known Israeli dove, admitted in an interview that the settlements have made a two-state solution unworkable. “The geopolitical condition that’s been created in ’67 [the year that the Israeli occupation began] is irreversible. Cannot be changed. You cannot unscramble that egg.” The program even raised the unthinkable issue of whether Israel has constructed a new form of apartheid in the Occupied Territories.
Apartheid? Israel is building what it calls a security wall between the West Bank and Israel to stop suicide bombers. The Palestinians are furious because it appropriates 8 percent of the West Bank. Not only that. It weaves its way through Palestinian farms, separating farmers from their land. They have to wait at gates for soldiers to let them in. Settlers get a lot more water than Palestinians, which is why settlements are green and Arab areas are not.
Veterans of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have not been reticent about drawing parallels with the current situation in the Occupied Territories. According to Tutu:
Yesterday’s South African township dwellers can tell you about today’s life in the occupied territories. To travel only blocks in his own homeland, a [Palestinian] grandfather waits on the whim of a teenage [Israeli] soldier. More than an emergency is needed to get to a hospital; less than a crime earns a trip to jail. The lucky ones have a permit to leave their squalor to work in Israel’s cities, but their luck runs out when security closes all checkpoints, paralyzing an entire people. The indignities, dependence and anger are all too familiar.
Even some prominent Israelis agree that the comparison with South African apartheid is apt. Ami Ayalon, for example, the former head of Shin Beth, the Israeli security agency, admits that Israel has created a system with “apartheid characteristics” that “is not compatible with Jewish principles.”
But it is not just the situation in the West Bank or Gaza that can be criticized in this way. Twenty percent of Israel’s own population consists of Palestinian Arabs who have been treated as, at best, second-class citizens ever since the Zionist state was established. Israeli Jews have exclusive use of most of the country’s land, privileged access to private and public employment, special educational loans and home mortgages, and preferences for admission to universities. Other special privileges are reserved for those who have served in the Israeli military, from which Israeli Arabs are excluded. Meanwhile the poverty rate for Israeli Arabs is double that for Jews and the Israeli government spends much more on schools, hospitals, roads, and other social services in Jewish areas than in Arab areas. And while Jews from any part of the world have the right to become Israeli citizens, Israeli Arabs who marry Palestinians from the Occupied Territories are not even permitted to live with their spouses in Israel itself.
Ultimately, the failure of the two-state solution is rooted in the way in which Israel was created, the nature of the state that was founded, and the role it has played since that time. From its inception in the late nineteenth century, the Zionist movement wanted to create not just a homeland for Jews in Palestine, but an exclusively Jewish state in which Jews would have privileged status. Zionism was, of course, a response to widespread anti-Semitism in Europe, but it was a response that was itself rooted in European colonial traditions that ignored the rights, and sometimes even the humanity, of the indigenous Palestinian population. Thus the myth was created of a “land without people for a people without land,” when the reality was that a large Palestinian Arab population had lived in the region for at least a thousand years.
The Zionist “solution” to this reality was to plan the dispossession of the Palestinians. As Joseph Weitz, head of the Jewish Agency’s Colonization Department, put it in his private diary: “Between ourselves there is no room for both peoples together in this country.... And there is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries. To transfer all of them; not one village, not one tribe should be left…. Only after this transfer will the country be able to absorb the millions of our own brethren.” This was the logic that was largely put into effect when Israel was founded in 1948. Close to 800,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes into refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, and surrounding Arab countries, and hundreds of their villages were destroyed.
The establishment of Israel is often justified as a response to the Nazi Holocaust, in which nearly six million European Jews were killed. The Holocaust was the greatest act of barbarism in the twentieth century. But how could the suffering of European Jews give them the right to expel Palestinians from their own land? The oppression of one people, however brutal, does not give them the right to oppress others. Yet that, sadly, is what the Israeli state did to the Palestinians.
Israel was founded not only on the dispossession of the Palestinians, but also on the basis of a conscious strategy of courting support from the biggest imperialist powers. In the 1920s and the 1930s, when Britain controlled Palestine, the Zionists offered their services to crush the Palestinian anticolonial movement. After Israel was founded, it offered its services to the West as its proxy in the oil-rich Middle East. Following the 1967 Six Day War—in which Israel launched a supposedly preemptive attack on its Arab neighbors, easily defeated them, and occupied Gaza and the West Bank—it cemented a strategic alliance with the United States, which has lasted until today. The U.S. gives Israel billions of dollars of aid every year and in return gets a watchdog for its interests in the region. As the late Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson noted back in 1973, Israel “served to inhibit and contain those irresponsible and radical elements in certain Arab states, who, were they free to do so, would pose a grave threat indeed to our principle sources of petroleum in the Persian Gulf.”
Zionist ideology and Israel’s role as an imperialist proxy in the Middle East have made it an expansionary and militaristic state from its inception. It has never been able to countenance the existence of a genuinely independent Palestinian state on its border, since this would reduce its ability to project its power throughout the region. Israel’s far right, represented by the Likud Party, maintains the fantasy that it can expel the remaining Palestinian population from the West Bank and expand Greater Israel to the River Jordan. More “moderate” leaders in Kadima and the Labor Party are willing to give Palestinians local control over a fragmented collection of South African-style Bantustans, while Israel maintains effective control of the West Bank and continues to blockade Gaza.
A one-state solution is certainly not a new idea. For decades the goal of a unitary democratic and secular state in the whole of historic Palestine, with guaranteed equal rights for members of all religious, ethnic and national groups, was the official position of the Palestinian liberation movement. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) began to move away from this position in the 1970s, and in practice came to accept the idea of a Palestinian mini-state in Gaza and the West Bank as more realistic. This position was cemented as official policy with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. In exchange for the PLO’s recognition of Israel, a newly constituted Palestinian Authority was given municipal powers in Gaza and a handful of towns in the West Bank. Meanwhile, the Israeli occupation and settlement of the territories continued, and the status of Jerusalem and of Palestinian refugees outside the territories was left to future negotiations. It was a humiliating agreement for the PLO, which effectively turned it into a police force with the role of disciplining its own population. The Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said commented at the time, “The PLO has transformed itself from a national liberation movement into a kind of small-town government, with the same handful of people in command.” It has been the complete failure of this so-called “peace process” that has led to the rise of Hamas and renewed support for the idea of a binational state.
Last September, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that a report issued by the Palestinian Strategy Study Group “written by 27 leading Palestinian figures from across the political spectrum,” argues for “ending the negotiation process that has gone on now for nearly 20 years, reconstituting the Palestinian Authority into what might become a ‘Palestinian Resistance Authority’” and adopting “a ‘single state outcome’ as the Palestinians’ preferred goal.” The same month, the Toronto Star’s Middle East correspondent noted that “the notion of a single binational state for Arabs and Jews has experienced something of a revival among Palestinians, most notably when Sari Nusseibeh, a respected intellectual and president of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, spoke favorably about the concept in a lengthy interview with an Israeli newspaper.” In December, the respected Palestinian writer Ghada Karmi argued, “The peace process predicated on the two-state solution is stagnant, and a momentum has started toward the obvious alternative, a unitary state.” In late March, an international conference to discuss the one-state solution is due to be held at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
There is also a tradition among some anti-Zionist Jews supporting the idea of a single secular state. In the 1920s, Judah Magnes, the founder of Hebrew University, advocated the creation of a binational state with equal rights for Jews and Arabs, instead of a Jewish state. “If as a minority we insist upon keeping the other man from achieving just aims,” he wrote, “and if we keep him from this with the aid of bayonets, we must not be surprised if we are attacked and, what is worse, if moral degeneration sets in among us.” In the 1930s and 1940s, socialists like the Palestinian Jew Ygael Gluckstein (who later wrote under the name Tony Cliff) advocated unity between Arab and Jewish workers. More recently, the Israeli peace activist Miko Peled has argued, “Only full equal rights for both people in their historic homeland will bring an end to this conflict.” The Israeli-American journalist Nir Rosen has expressed the same idea: “What needs to happen at this point is a one-state solution, where Palestinian refugees are allowed to go back to their homes, where Israel is a state for Jews and non-Jews alike, a state for its citizens.”
Most Israeli politicians are today obsessed by the so-called demographic problem. Even if a two-state solution were to be instituted tomorrow, the Palestinian and non-Jewish population within Israel itself is growing so fast that it will constitute a majority of the population within a few decades. That leaves Israel with only three alternatives: massive ethnic cleansing of non-Jews, the imposition of even more brutal forms of apartheid, or the abandonment of the idea of a Jewish state. For activists who reject the first two options, the best model remains the struggle that ended apartheid in South Africa. Boycotts, divestment, and sanctions from the outside world helped end South Africa’s institutional racism. Similar campaigns are needed today to help end Israel’s repression of the Palestinians and to win a single state with equal rights for all.