The Oslo process demonstrated that the so-called peace partners were hopelessly divided over interpretations of the signed agreements and what the end result of the process should be. Observers witnessed one agreement after another-from the Declaration of Principles to the Sharm al-Sheikh Memorandum-until it became obvious during the Camp David negotiations in July 2000 that the most the Palestinians could get was a truncated state without sovereignty, borders, or territorial contiguity, and without Jerusalem or return and compensation for the refugees. Nonetheless, the Oslo process has, despite its failures, led to a conclusion that its own architects had not envisaged-that the future is necessarily toward integration, not separation; toward a pluralistic existence, not exclusion; toward parity, mutuality, common humanity, and a common destiny, not apartheid, exploitation, and separate futures. The lives of Palestinians and Israelis are inextricably intertwined through economic interests, infrastructure, water distribution, ecology, regional integration, human rights, and foreign relations.
A Single Polity:
Out of Oslo’s inherent flaws and failures, a new discourse has begun about a broader socioeconomic struggle for equal rights and citizenship and equally legitimate identities within a single Israeli-Palestinian polity. Different versions of a single state-either democratic and secular or binational-are being envisioned and debated by a growing number of people on both sides of the struggle as a viable alternative to perpetual conflict. Granted, most of the people involved in this debate are intellectuals and activists mainly outside the political center in both Israel and Palestine, but the discourse is attracting more people and is not abating.
In the long run, there seems to be no alternative to a one-state solution. For the Palestinians, a post-Oslo single-state solution was not a new political platform, having surfaced as their first program of liberation after the 1967 war. That call for a secular democratic state, however, was linked to armed struggle and thus summarily ignored by Israelis, Western intellectuals and activists, and mainstream Palestinians and other Arab officials before it could even be debated. Any realistic alternative to Oslo must guarantee the elimination of the inequities and disadvantages inflicted upon Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Israel, and in exile. No degree of liberation or independence can be meaningful without removing the legal, social, and economic barriers that set the Palestinians apart and keep them physically divided.
Developing a Single State:
A solution will require determined, systematic, and protracted struggle unifying Palestinians as a whole with Israeli Jews who wish to be neither masters of another people, privileged in an apartheid system, nor colonial settlers denying the existence of the indigenous peoples and wishing for their disappearance. The goal of the struggle should be equal protection for all under the law in a unified state. This goal, however, collides with the interests of the major players in Washington, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah. It would signal that U.S. domination of Middle East diplomacy has failed. Moreover, it would serve as an indictment of the classical Labor Zionist vision of former prime ministers David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak, as well as the revisionist brand of Vladimir Jabotinsky-the founder of revisionist Zionism-and former prime ministers Menachem Begin, Binyamin Netanyahu, and current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. It would also indict a narrow brand of Palestinian nationalism.
One state united would certainly be an uphill struggle, yet for the Palestinians the status quo is intolerable. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat placed himself in the untenable position of being unable to deliver to Israel and its U.S. patron as well as to his own constituents, a group that was ready to further scale back its aspirations but not to surrender its rights in order to legitimize what the South Africans and the rest of the world have already renounced-bantustans and apartheid. Arafat’s assumption of responsibility as Israel’s enforcer and guarantor of its collective and individual security has become increasingly indefensible as that “security” for Israel has involved demands for water distribution, settlement legitimacy, and demographic advantages that negate the rights of Palestinian refugees and most other Palestinian rights.
The contradictions of the Oslo process ended in an explosion in September 2000, when it became even clearer to the Palestinians that Israel, under the cover of diplomacy, had used the process to buy time to acquire more Palestinian land and water and to engage in ethnic cleansing in and around Jerusalem-a brilliant strategy indeed. In the end, Arafat had to say no to former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Barak, which left Arafat open to criticism, leaving Israel and the United States to reap the diplomatic benefits. According to the Israelis and the U.S., Israel made a generous, even magnanimous, offer, but Arafat chose to reject it and return to his old ways-violence and terrorism. This message was disseminated widely in the mainstream media in the West, and many people have come to believe it.
As settlement construction is likely to accelerate under Sharon’s leadership, the future can signal only two opposing outcomes: more ethnic cleansing of Palestinian land, or peaceful coexistence on the same area of historic Palestine. For the latter to become a realistic possibility, a common Arab-Jewish struggle is necessary to save what is left of the land and expose the subtle and ongoing “population transfer,” repression, collective punishment, and assassinations-grave violations of human rights that amount to war crimes.
The Oslo agreements never recognized Israel as an occupying power within the parameters of international law. Moreover, Oslo was grounded in the existence of Israel solely as a state for the Jews, which precludes genuine coexistence with the Palestinian people on any equal basis. As long as the Zionist ideology prevails of acquiring Palestinian land while excluding the Palestinian people, a negotiated settlement based on the right of the two peoples to dignity, equality, and self-determination will remain elusive. Movement beyond the past seven years of no peace/no war (and continued colonization) will necessitate a debate on Zionist ideology and history in which the difficult questions suppressed since the establishment of Israel will require an airing. At the heart of the debate should be the essential requirements for peace, the nature of the Israeli state, and the Zionist narrative, such as its negative portrayal of Palestinians and other Arabs, and its distortion of history.
The debate has started in Israel on the periphery, but the critique must be broadened to include the mainstream and penetrate the consciousness of the average Jewish Israeli. By the same token, only when the Palestinians, especially the leadership, decide to rediscover and reconstruct their framework for a democratic secular state into a viable program that can be adapted to the present realities will hope for real peace be rekindled. No matter what phraseology we apply to this phenomenon-a bi-national state, a federal system, or a cantonal arrangement based on the Swiss model-the common denominators must be equal rights and citizenship, pluralism, and coexistence.
Naseer Aruri is Chancellor Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Darmouth.