For years the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been mired by a series of failed peace negotiation, enmeshing Israeli Jews and Palestinians in a seemingly intractable struggle. Even 59 years after the creation of the state of Israel the quest for Jewish security has not been realized, while Palestinians–”those dispossessed in 1948, 1967, and the 3.8 million living under Israeli occupation–”have not seen a just resolution to a conflict that has marred their history and shaped their identity. The international community, including many Israeli and Palestinians, still subscribe to the notion that the two-state solution is the only way to settle the conflict.
Ali Abunimah’s new book, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse,  exposes the impracticality of partition and presents an alternative vision, one that encompasses both peoples on the basis of equal rights. The vision Abunimah presents is a one state solution.
One Country begins by revealing the various layers of Israel’s occupation and the grim realities of the proposed two-state solution. The accepted international and Palestinian call for a two-state solution is based on 22 percent of historic Palestine–”the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Palestinians (entitled under United Nations Resolution 194) insist on the right of return to their homeland or to be duly compensated for their expulsion. Yet, no Israeli prime minister or prominent figure to date has endorsed this right, nor has any Israeli government proposed a full withdrawal from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Abunimah reveals that, during the Camp David talks of 2000, Israel’s most “generous” offer to the Palestinians included just 76.6 percent of the West Bank (while Israel would effectively annex East Jerusalem and the territorial waters of the Dead Sea) and demanded that “at least 80 percent of the settlers remain in place.” Abunimah further states, “Israel…insisted on permanent control of Palestinian airspace and a long list of onerous ‘security’ arrangements that would rob the Palestinian state of any real independence from Israel and introduce enormous opportunities for delay and backsliding as had happened with the Oslo Accords.”
Israel couldn’t simply withdraw from the entire West Bank. Israel’s impetus was predicated on the notion that the expansion of its borders and the enlargement of the demographic majority were necessary for its survival. Once the settlements were integrated into the Israeli narrative, successive US administrations acquiesced and declared–”privately and publicly–”that Israel was “entitled” to keep “parts” of the settlements in a final two-state solution. The settlement process, however, sectioned Palestinians off into inaccessible ghettos, dividing Palestinian land in such a way that a contiguous state became inconceivable. Israel never diverged from its initial plan to annex the settlements into the greater state. Abunimah correctly asserts, “It is not credible that a society would invest billions of dollars in roads and housing that it truly intended to give up.”
Whether Camp David 2000 or a host of other proposals, including the supposedly dovish Geneva Initiative (which scarcely deviated from the Camp David proposal), no plan had envisioned two separate states that would satisfy both Israelis and Palestinians. An initiative has yet to be produced by the Israeli left or right that resembles anything more than a continuation of the mistakes of Oslo and the self-serving policies that emerged during its “peace process.” Abunimah argues that those on the left, such as Yossi Beilin, have advocated plans that, “seek Palestinian endorsement of Israel’s annexation of territory and its refusal to readmit Palestinian refugees to their country.” Abunimah further suggests, “The leaders of the mainstream Israeli left came to embrace Palestinian statehood in theory while undermining it in practice.” The appropriation of Palestinian land and the expansion of settlements accelerated under leftist governments, debunking the myth that “dovish” administrations were needed to make peace with the Palestinians. What the Palestinians continue to need is a viable partner willing to engage with their government on the basis of equality and acceptance exemplified by action rather than words.
A new line of thinking transpired during Ariel Sharon’s administration. The iron-fisted military man, once fixated on annexing the remainder of occupied Palestine, came to grips with Israel’s demographic reality: Israel could not forever control the occupied territories without eventually assuming responsibility of its inhabitants. This transition triggered the shift towards unilateralism, ironically transforming Sharon (in the eyes of the international community) from a military strongman into a “man of peace.” The views articulated through unilateral “disengagement” and represented in the platform of Sharon’s new Kadima party were nothing more than Sharon’s attempt to ensure Israel’s Jewish majority, even if they necessitated militaristic and territorial reshuffling. While Israel “disengaged” from the Gaza Strip and removed 8,500 settlers (keeping full control of Gaza’s borders, airspace, and ports), it added an additional 14,000 settlers to the West Bank that same year. Given the demographic reality, separation was deemed vital, while annexing as much territory with as many settlers as possible remained the fundamental goal. Continued land appropriation, the further development of the apartheid wall, and the incessant efforts to increase the settler population only fan the flames of the conflict and sends a direct signal to the Palestinian people that a unilateralist Israel is disinterested in peace. Abunimah asserts that unilateralism “offers Israel a Jewish-Zionist state at the price of constant bloodshed and growing Palestinian desperation, which, despite all efforts to wall it out, will deprive Israelis of the normality they crave. It is not a solution, but a dangerous delusion.”
Extremist elements in Israel are also facing a daunting certainty: the influx of Jews into the state of Israel is not stably rising and guaranteeing a demographic majority is not possible given that the Palestinian birthrate within Israel far exceeds the Jewish birthrate. Some extremists have called for the outright expulsion of the Palestinian population living within Israel to neighboring Arab states, going further than the policy of keeping Arabs out the country and Palestinians from returning to their homes. Others have called for selective birth control laws for the Arab population, while one Russian-language newspaper, Abunimah writes, “published an article proposing that Arab men should be threatened with castration and that Arab families ‘who have more than one child’ be ‘deprived of benefits, lose their jobs, and [put] under threat of exile.'” Groups calling for the expulsion of Palestinians, such as Yisrael Beytenu and the National Union, are not fringe factions without power. The leader of Yisrael Beytenu, Avigdor Lieberman, now serves as Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs and as Deputy Prime Minister, while Yisrael Beytenu has been in the Kadima-led coalition government since October of 2006. Abunimah notes, “Even if most Israeli politicians do not openly advocate expulsion, their tolerance of those who do is alarming.” The fears of such extreme policy were heightened after this summer’s war on Lebanon, which forced hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians to flee their homes. These extremist attitudes reinforce the failure of the Israeli “peace camp” and further illustrate the infeasibility of the two-state solution.
Abunimah’s comprehensive criticism of the two-state solution is an insightful, well-founded argument that is essential for any reader looking for an alternative approach to resolve the conflict. Abunimah proposes that “Creating a single state for Israeli Jews and Palestinians could in theory resolve the most intractable issues: the fate of Israeli settlements built since 1967, the rights of Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem.” The alternative: perpetual conflict, absent of security for Jews or Palestinians, coupled with regional turmoil and the continuation of biased American foreign policy that stands to benefit no one except a select few in Israel, America, and a handful of quislings in the Palestinian Authority.
Over time most Israelis and Palestinians have come to the realization that no matter the settlement, the Jews and Palestinians of Israel will remain living together and the Palestinians of the occupied territories will stay on their land. Abunimah presents a solution that meets the geographical needs of both peoples. He argues, “The main attraction of a single-state democracy is that it allows all the people to live in and enjoy the entire country while preserving their distinctive communities and addressing their particular needs. It offers the potential to deterritorialize the conflict and neutralize demography and ethnicity as a source of political power and legitimacy.” Abunimah lays out a plan consisting of eight principles (based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Belfast agreement) for the one-state solution. Drawing upon such well regarded documents and models gives his argument the credibility that the two-state solution sincerely lacks. While calls for a two-state solution have come with slogans and promises of peace, little work has been done outlining what achieving peace entails.
Many Israeli Jews contend that Palestinians do not want to participate in a free and fair society with the Jews of Israel. Yet, as in most societies, issues such as economics and education bind people together–”while conflict and oppression pull them apart. Abunimah points out that, “Within Israel a significant number of Arab voters have traditionally supported the Labor Party for economic and social policy reasons despite its alienating Zionist ideology.” The road to a one-state solution will not be easy, but it is the only practicable solution that ensures the security of both peoples. Abunimah often cites Belgium’s democratic process, a “modern one-person, one-vote democracy…with modest safeguards” as a model which Israelis and Palestinians can look to. Belgium continues the process of constitutional reform which, as Abunimah notes, has led to a decline in separatism in Belgian society. Many of Abunimah’s detractors fear that the one country proposal may indeed work, which would run counter to the ideals of political dominance and exclusivity. Abunimah’s insight gives reason to be hopeful, and his approach comes with a deep sincerity that should be admired and taken seriously.
The primary reason that Abunimah’s vision for a one-country solution can work is that it positions the two peoples forward based on equality. In a conflict such as this, intention matters as much as action: if two people are progressing down a positive path, and good faith measures are employed, the fear of the other will slowly subside with each positive step. One Country is not an insidious outline of what Palestinians must do to gain access to all of historic Palestine. Abunimah makes a point throughout the book to not only address Palestinian issues such as the right of return and Palestinian property rights but also discusses the property rights of Jews who were stripped of their residency in the Arab world after 1948. Moreover, Abunimah understands the personal significance Jews see in having their Diaspora be able to return to Israel. This was a belief that the late Edward Said advocated: the Palestinian people cannot be brought forward by marginalizing the Jewish population, but rather the goal is to strengthen the two communities by embarking on a path together. Abunimah tackles such contentious issues as Israel’s education system, the disparity of funding within Israeli society regarding Jews and Palestinians and presents “a suggestion for a shared future for Israelis and Palestinians in a society that is democratic and tolerant, where two peoples who have fought for decades agree on rules that all can live by.”
Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine how Israeli and Palestinians could do the unthinkable and forge a future together after so many years of conflict. They both can learn much from the South African model and the fall of apartheid. Abunimah suggests that peace and reconciliation seemed impossible to the white Afrikaners and the native black population. After 400 years of white South African rule, with diverging narratives of their respective history, it appeared virtually inconceivable that a peaceful resolution to the conflict could materialize, but it did.
Abunimah exposes the patent similarities of the Zionist and white Afrikaner narratives, which both were “shaped by memories of expulsion, persecution, redemption, and rebirth and guided by a single-minded quest for national survival.” Both groups staked their claim upon the myths that the native populations were uncivilized and that the native rejection of the newcomer’s dominance was based upon hatred. Zionists and Afrikaners alleged that they brought their respective uncivilized population a superior way of life, with new technological advances, and argued that the native population should have been appreciative of their arrival. It is unsurprising that the Israeli government was a critical supporter of the apartheid government, even after the international community had turned on the apartheid regime and imposed sanctions. Abunimah notes, “To the ears of Palestinians or Africans, the justifications of Zionists and Afrikaner pioneers presented a stark choice: Submit or disappear.” The Afrikaner population also presented the theory that if they were to relinquish control and give rights to the barbaric African population, the black population would use its new-found power to seek the destruction of the Afrikaner people. Zionists use the same rationale: giving up control to the Palestinian population would lead to the Jews being driven into the sea. The fall of apartheid and the process of reconciliation in South Africa shattered the myth that the marginalized and oppressed black population would seek retribution against the Afrikaner population.
Abunimah asserts that once whites were forced to get over their fear of black supremacy and retribution, the implementation of a just solution and the process of reconciliation became much easier. He explains that reconciliation was vastly brought forward by Nelson Mandela, “Mandela urged South Africans to embrace any Afrikaner who abandoned apartheid, and thus Afrikaners gained a legitimacy in the eyes of other South Africans that they were unable to wrest through centuries of domination. It is an incredibly simple and powerful maneuver, yet one that so far has been beyond the ability of most Israelis and Palestinians.” Abunimah insists that Palestinians must look towards Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and its Freedom Charter, a move that could be instrumental in bringing the Palestinians forward to reach out to the Israeli people. Unfortunately, it is usually the oppressed who must come forward with a vision of peace and hope, engaging on an internal and global campaign to lift the unjust measures placed upon their people. The Palestinians have yet to fully realize this model, which Abunimah contends, is due in large part to the freshness of Palestinian wounds, while black South Africans had been dealing with white dominance for more than 400 years. He argues that this is why the principle of equality will quell the fears of both peoples, “The moment Israelis and Palestinians commit themselves to full equality, there is no rationale for separate states.”
A key step Palestinians must take is the further development and utilization of the resistance movement. While the Palestinian movement has expanded internally, it still has much work to do. Protests, such as the ones against the apartheid wall in Bil’in (which includes not only Palestinians, but Jews and international activists), are crucial steps in the right direction, but they haven’t sparked a broader movement in the occupied territories and Israel, which could significantly affect Israeli society. The global divestment movement has ignited interest and dialogue among several churches, as well as numerous teacher and labor unions. Arts and culture has served as a model of resistance, including the Made in Palestine art exhibit in the US, the showcasing of My Name is Rachel Corrie after one theater company canceled the show in New York City, the myriad Palestinian film festivals spanning across the globe and the Palestinian hip hop movement that has emerged not only in the occupied territories but throughout the Diaspora. In addition many individuals and groups have used the internet as a tool for documenting and sharing the Palestinian narrative, including websites such as the Electronic Intifada (which Abunimah co-founded). Engaging and supporting these forms of resistance and engendering new methods are vital for the Palestinian people and the supporters of their plight.
Palestinian groups internally continue to keep the moral upper hand through the cessation of suicide bombings that target civilians, but must continue to embark upon a campaign of resistance. Abunimah argues, “It was only when internal and external pressure made the monopoly on power too costly to maintain that whites grasped for a way out and listened seriously to the ANC’s ideas. Hence, continued resistance and struggle to raise the cost of the status quo for the powerful party is also essential. But a delicate balance requires that resistance exacts a price yet avoids creating so much new suffering that reconciliation becomes impossible.”
It is easy for those within Israel and America to evade negotiations by proclaiming that they will not engage in dialogue until Palestinian rocket attacks stop (attacks which have killed fewer than five Israelis in the last five years). On the other hand, Palestinians argue, how can they stop their attacks when Israel conducts “operations” inside the occupied territories that often kill more than five civilians in a single day? Nonetheless, negotiations toward a future together must take place, as was the case in South Africa, proceeding whether or not the conflict comes to calm. Abunimah explains, “Like Israel, the white government of South Africa always insisted that it would not negotiate as long as violence continued,” yet Abunimah cites former apartheid President F.W. de Klerk who stated, “South Africa was burning with violence, but no one allowed himself the luxury of believing that we could wait with the negotiations until the violence ceased.”
The lessons from South Africa are invaluable to both Israelis and Palestinians. Abunimah contends, “What Palestinians can learn from South Africa is that the promise of a future of reconciliation rather than revenge can rob an unjust system of the support it needs to survive because such systems are often built on fear–”in the case of Israel and South Africa, the fear…of being destroyed. The lesson for Israelis is to listen to their enemies rather than demonize them, which may lead to a secure future free of the burden of ruling others by force.” This is not to suggest that the process can happen overnight, but through incremental steps, which actuate positive results, this process can gain momentum, bringing a better future to both peoples.
Palestinian polls consistently show that Palestinians want peace for their people and that they are willing to coexist with Israelis. The major gripes Palestinians continue to have is the unjustness of occupation, the rejection of the right of return and the absence of a proposed settlement that includes their narrative and rights. After 39 years of occupation, Palestinians remain adamant in their calls for democracy and equality within their society. Despite the fact that Hamas was overwhelmingly elected into power in the January 2006 elections, Palestinians have not called for the installation of Islamic Law, rather they used their democratic vote to call for reform and oust the thuggish and self-serving Fatah-led government. While different cultural and community identities would persist in a one-state solution, they would not necessarily alter the feasibility of the two peoples living together as many other diverse societies do today (and as is the case with the 1.3 million Palestinians living inside of Israel, albeit under unequal conditions). Edward Said commented on the possibilities of one state in 1998, “Once the initial acknowledgment of the other as an equal is made, I believe the way forward becomes not only possible but also attractive.”
Many other great thinkers, including Azmi Bishara, Joesph Massad and George Bisharat have called for a one-sate solution to end the current conflict. Abunimah asserts, “Those who believe in a two-state solution for years came to realize that it only offered false promises of peace.” It would be foolish to suggest that a one-state solution will happen overnight, while an untold number of obstacles must be overcome and surely new obstacles would emerge, but a growing number of Palestinians and Israelis are coming to the conclusion that a one-state solution is the only reasonable solution to end the impasse, which makes its realization all the more achievable. Abunimah’s book may not be the key to a one state solution, as he readily admits, but it is surely a well founded guide to help Palestinians and Israelis begin to resolve the conflict.
One Country is an inspiring message of hope and reconciliation, and presents an intricate and well-crafted path for two peoples that deserve not only reconciliation, but also a prosperous future.
. One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse
by Ali Abunimah