A large number of Palestinians are engaged today in exploring possible ways out of the crisis in which they are embroiled. More than fifty years have elapsed since the Nakba befell their people, with the occupation of their land, their exodus, and the denial of their right to the establishment of an independent sovereign state that would assure them of their rights to dignity and progress. These years, however, have brought no serious indication that they may one day be able to retrieve whatever they have lost — or what was stolen from them. This crisis has only deepened since the early 1990s, especially after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the wake of the Oslo agreement.
The present phase of this crisis has its origins in one simple fact: that the establishment of an independent state as the solution to the Palestinian “problem” has become an impossibility. This assertion rests on several facts:
1. The establishment of a Palestinian state is not mentioned in any of the clauses of the Oslo agreement, thus leaving the matter to be determined by the balance of power in the region. This balance tilts in favour of Israel, which rejects the establishment of a Palestinian state, in spite of its recognition of the Palestinian people and its national movement. No Israeli party, neither Labour nor Likud, is ready to accept a Palestinian state as the expression of the right of the Palestinian people to sef-determination. The Labour Party is ready to negotiate with the Palestinians in order to give them an advanced form of self-rule that will be called a state, and through which the Palestinians will be enabled to possess certain selected features of independence, such as a Palestinian flag, a national anthem and a police force. The Likud Party, on the other hand, is not prepared to give the Palestinians anything like self-rule. Their vision of the future is rather that the Palestinians should be allowed to run their own affairs under strict and binding Israeli tutelage.
2. Meanwhile, settlement activity in the West Bank continues, as does the confiscation of land and the opening of roads to service the settlements. Israeli governments, past or present, have never been willing to commit themselves to the evacuation of settlers from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Yet this is a basic pre-condition for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, especially in the light of Israel’s obligation towards the settlers which drives it to control the greater part of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in order to guarantee the security of the settlements and ensure their future development. Furthermore, in any future solution it is certain that Israel will invoke its security needs to justify continuing to tighten its control over the Jordan Valley (Al-Ghor), thus rendering the Palestinian project impossible.
3. Jerusalem has suffered and is still suffering from the continuation of settlement activity, the building of Jewish neighbourhoods, the confiscation of Jerusalem IDs and the policy of “facts on the ground” which leaves no room for future Palestinian control over the city. The proposal made by certain Palestinian intellectuals and politicians that Abu Dis should be their future capital, is nothing but a recognition of this reality and an admission that a return to Palestinian control over all those parts of Jerusalem that were occupied in 1967 is a quasi-impossibility.
4. Israel’s continued exploitation and depletion of the natural resources of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for the benefit of Israelis, settlers or otherwise, is another probably fatal obstacle. Israel deliberately persists in drawing down water reserves in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while at the same time rejecting any call to give up control over these resources for the benefit of the Palestinian people, in the context of a future settlement.
5. The basic characteristics of the PA and the manner in which Palestinian officials have used the power vested in them since the establishment of the Authority, indicate their inability to move towards establishing a modern and independent state. Their methods of managing those areas of Palestinian life which fall under their control are among the most important obstacles to the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In addition, Palestinians living outside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are experiencing increasing difficulties. The Palestinian community in Israel is unable to integrate or assimilate with either of the two sides, Israeli or Palestinian. It is this fact which underlies its failure to act politically and its deepening sense of social, cultural and economic crisis.
IF THE GOAL OF AN INDEPENDENT Palestinian state is indeed unattainable, for the reasons set out above, is there then an alternative solution?
One answer that is increasingly to be found in the writings and pronouncements of certain Palestinian intellectuals and politicians is the idea of a binational state (Israeli/Jewish-Palestinian/Arab) in Mandatory Palestine.
A binational state is one inhabited by two national groups and run on the basis of equality and parity both between the individuals as citizens and between groups (or representatives of groups) which have collective rather than individual aspirations. Inherent in such an arrangement is the condition that the groups living there are enabled to coexist and to develop on the following fundamental bases:
1. There exists a broad coalition of representatives of the two communities and a balance of power is preserved. The representatives or ruling strata of the two communities should agree on the principles of cooperation, coexistence and the shared administration of the state or the society.
2. Both groups should have the right of veto. This is basic in a binational state, in addition to the right of groups in each community to oppose or object to practices by the representatives of other groups which might be construed as threatening their own interest or position of equality in the shared state.
3. Representation on all bodies and governmental apparatuses should respect balance and equality between the two communities. For example, each ministry will have two ministers, one from each community.
4. Institutional or regional self-rule for each group: each group will conduct and develop its own private affairs through an apparatus of self-rule, particularly in the cultural and educational fields.
Such a system may appear at first sight unwieldy and even unworkable. However, it is not only possible, but is even a desirable outcome. It is proposed here, not just because it is the fashionable concept of the moment, but as a long-term solution that will need much nurturing, following the political demise of the project of an independent Palestinian state.
Some claim that a binational state is a theoretical concept which could never be implemented. But how can it be less possible than the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip? Indeed, the whole reality of Palestine is one of binationality. This reality has to be developed, so that it becomes the basic structure upon which equality among Israelis and Palestinians can be built.
Those who support the concept of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have to believe that the Palestinians in Israel will be able to continue to live there as citizens, and will solve their problems within the Israeli framework. Yet if so many of the problems besetting these people have not been solved already, it is precisely because they cannot be solved in an Israeli context, in which Palestinians, far from being treated as equals, are viewed as foreigners and, sometimes, even as enemies. Nor can their problems be solved as long as they continue to be cut off politically and culturally from the rest of the Palestinian people. Thus, for them the way forward can only lie through fundamental changes in the nature of their position vis-é-vis these two communities.
Such a change can only come about in the context of a binational state. In this new Israel, the “old” Israeli Palestinians would, on the one hand, be citizens with equal rights; while on the other, they would be part of the Palestinian community, thus transcending their present position as a weak numerical minority. Their reintegration with the Palestinian community living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will bolster their confidence and expand the scope of their development. It is only within such parameters that both their identity as citizens and their national belonging can find some form of completion.
Supporters of a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip also tend to assume that Palestinian refugees in neighbouring Arab countries will be able to immigrate to the future Palestinian state at some later stage. But we have only to consider this supposition for a moment to realise that it is not true. One of the conditions for the establishment of a Palestinian state set by Israel is that the Palestinian Authority will not open its doors to Palestinian refugees, as this would result in a rapid change in the Israeli-Palestinian demographic balance. The majority of these refugees have in any case been forcibly removed from areas where the State of Israel stands today. They are subject to continuing discrimination wherever they are in the Arab world, which explains why, over the last few years, large numbers of these refugee youths have emigrated to the West, especially Europe.
FOR ALL THESE REASONS, it is necessary to find a political solution to the Palestinian problem that can guarantee these people, theoretically at least, the possibility of return to their country of origin. This solution can only be a binational state based on equality and parity. For in such a state, the right of return that has been exercised by millions of Jews since 1948, would have to be extended to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who would thus be able to return to their villages, or at least to areas close to them.
Some of those who oppose a binational approach, and call instead for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, claim that Israel together with the overwhelming majority of Jews throughout the world will reject such a solution, on the grounds that it would spell the end of a pure Jewish state.
This claim may well be true. But it ignores two crucial points: Firstly, it can apply equally to the rival proposal for a Palestinian state. Will Israel and the Jews agree to the establishment of such a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip? Have those who call for such a solution obtained their prior consent? Or do they intend to force Israel to comply regardless? Secondly, it neglects the fact that solutions to national and ethnic problems have never been achieved with the agreement of the majorit or the ruling group, but have always been arrived at by force and in spite of the position of the dominant group. This has been the case with every national liberation movement: consider the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa, for example. Consequently, the evolution and implementation of a binational state does not necessitate the agreement of Israel at this stage, but merely that of the Palestinians. Israel’s consent will be needed at the end of a process by which that concept is forcefully imposed upon the attention of the Jewish community — a process which may well take many decades.
Some of those opposed to a binational state claim that the concept will abort the Palestinian national project. This opposition comes from two directions. On the one hand, there are those who support the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on the grounds that this state is the Palestinian national project. To these the answer is that a binational state will not abort the concept of a Palestinian national project; on the contrary, it is an expansion of it, as it will include the Palestinians in Israel, and as the state will be established on all of Mandatory Palestine, with the proviso that the other national-ethnic group there — the Jews — deserves to be treated according to the same criteria.
On the other hand there are those who claim they support a secular Palestinian state, and who go on to argue that a binational state does not reckon either with the intense national feeling of the Palestinians or with their power.
This view is misleading and has to be corrected. A secular-democratic state is not a national or an ethnic state; it is a state of citizens and not of nationalities. As such, it represents the inevitable termination of the Palestinian national project. Yet some of those who promote a secular state mean a Palestinian national state and not a state for all citizens, irrespective of their national or religious affiliation.
Moreover, they do not recognise the existence of a Jewish-Israeli national group worthy of a national project. To do so is to ignore the reality of Israel. If we envy Israel for the cohesiveness of its Jewish society while we beg that society to concede to us some of our rights, how can we then go on to ignore its national integration and deny its members their right to express themselves as a national group?
While we reject the expression of this right when it takes the form of an independent Jewish state, we should accept it in the context of a shared binational state.
THIS ACCEPTANCE HAS CERTAIN consequences about which we should be clear from the outset.
Firstly, the establishment of a binational state (irrespective of the number of years this may take) is an admission that the future of the Palestinian people differs from that of the rest of the Arab peoples and does not coincide with the concept of Arab unity and Arab integration. The Palestinians thus have to accept an identity and affiliation that are in keeping with the nature of a binational state. While they should remain aware of the necessity of intellectual and cultural integration with the Arab world, they should also be aware that that integration cannot take a political form.
Secondly, establishing a binational state will not necessarily mean that Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will have to ask for Israeli identity, as some would have us believe. However, it is possible that such requests will have to be made, when the need arises for cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in various fields and for the establishment of joint committees and bodies that would evolve towards binationalism.
Palestinians in Israel will have to seek possibilities of cultural, social, economic, political and syndical cooperation and integration with those Palestinians living under the rule of the PA. The Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, for their part, will have to encourage their compatriots in Israel by engaging extensively in Arab activities taking place inside Israel — an exchange that would take place under the auspices of the PA.
The establishment of a binational state on the principles outlined above is the only way to resolve the many complex problems facing the Palestinian people today. It should certainly not be promoted simply as a path that has been forced on us by the insuperable obstacles that stand between us and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It should rather be our solution of choice, and one whose virtues we are eager to promote. The first to call for it have been those Palestinian intellectals and politicians who see the reality and its complexities, and who recognise both that a shared Israeli-Palestinian state is highly desirable, and that a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, even in the best case, could hardly constitute a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian problem, but would only contribute towards the solution of the problem of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Such a “solution” would necessarily lead to a permanent fragmentation of the Palestinian community, and to the perpetuation of the problems of the many Palestinians who live outside this limited state, who would be obliged to seek their own way within different political frameworks.
The writer is an Arab citizen of the state of Israel and a history lecturer at Haifa University.