A Secular Democratic State in Historic Palestine: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?
Over the last two decades, the idea of a two-state solution has become a persistent theme in the discourse on the Palestinians-Israeli conflict. In 1993, when the Oslo Accords were signed, there was a prevalent view that the creation of an independent Palestinian state was only a matter of time. Although the Accords never explicitly said this - indeed they indicated no specific end point - it did not deter most Palestinians and others from this view. Now, nearly nine years later and despite the changes on the ground, the official Palestinian position with regard to an independent state remains the same. It has in fact been reinforced by European and US support, verbally at least, and now represents the established view about the ultimate aim of Palestinian aspirations.
The history of the Palestinian state originates with the Palestine National Council (PNC) decision taken in 1974 to establish a Palestinian "authority" on any liberated part of the Palestinian homeland. This was later defined to mean statehood and since then, the Palestinian leadership has consistently aimed for an independent state, to be set up in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Arab League accepted "Palestine" as a member state in 1976. In November 1988, the PNC meeting in Algiers formally accepted the existence of two separate states, Israel and the new Palestine. In 1997, Yasser Arafat announced that the PLO would declare the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on May 4 1999. Though this never happened, he has been reiterating this position ever since. Although the exact boundaries of the proposed state have not been defined, despite the rumors that came out from the Camp David and Taba talks in 2000-2001, the idea of such an entity "alongside Israel" has taken firm hold. And it seems that there is widespread if tacit acceptance of the idea even in Israel; although there has never been any official Israeli endorsement of a Palestine state, there is a feeling of resignation towards this as a probable outcome. As a result, the idea of two states as the preferred solution to the conflict has become so dominant as to exclude all other possibilities. Yet, the current Israeli military assault on the Palestinians and Israel's cantonization and unrelenting colonisation of Palestinian land has made it imperative to review this position. Is a Palestinian state in today's circumstances feasible?
The two-state solution
Irrespective of whether this solution is politically wise or desirable, a glance at the latest map of the occupied territories suggests that it might be impossible to realize it on simple logistical grounds. The West Bank of today is pock-marked by Jewish settlements encircling Palestinian towns and separating them from each other, criss-crossed by bypass roads built for the exclusive use of Israelis and breaking up Palestinian territory even more. Sharing the territory of the West Bank and Gaza with the Palestinians are over 180,000 Jewish settlers and a Jewish population of over 200,000 in and around east Jerusalem. There is no territorial continuity between the Palestinian areas in the West Bank, which are cut off from each other, from Gaza and from Jerusalem.
If the settlements remain, then any projected Palestinian state would have no meaningful territory on which to become established. The problem is further complicated by the lack of natural resources and economic disruption from which the Palestinian areas currently suffer. This derives from thirty years of Israeli occupation which transferred resources from the Palestinian inhabitants to the settlers, as well as the Israeli policy of closures imposed on Gaza and the West Bank since 1993. The Palestinian areas suffer from high unemployment, (over 50 per cent in Gaza, over 30 per cent in the West Bank), imposed trade restrictions, an undeveloped industrial base and poor natural resources. Any Palestinian state set up on this basis is not economically viable and could only survive with a massive infusion of billions of dollars in aid.
Israel's vision for a final settlement cedes little to Palestinian aspirations for a state of their own. Israel would keep much of the land and control all the resources. East Jerusalem would remain part of Israel's "united capital" forever. No Israeli plan so far has offered the Palestinians enough territory for a viable state. Without a total removal of the settlements and an Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem, the formula hitherto put forward for a Palestinian state, to be set up in the whole of the West Bank and Gaza up to the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, simply cannot occur. In order to realize the aim of the two states, one would have to postulate either a voluntary Israeli renunciation of the settlements and East Jerusalem or an external agency willing to pressurize Israel into doing so. Neither of these options is currently on offer and in any case, the practical difficulties of evacuating all the settlers, and disengaging from the West Bank in terms of security, water and infrastructure would be so formidable as to make an Israeli government of any persuasion unwilling to do it.
The one-state solution
For these reasons, a Palestinian state as envisaged is not feasible, and the situation on the ground makes even a physical separation of the two peoples hard to achieve. Given these circumstances, abandoning the two-state solution in favor of one state to include both peoples would seem the obvious alternative. The history of the single state solution on the Palestinian side in fact goes back nearly thirty years. The proposal to create what was then called a secular democratic state in Palestine was first propounded in 1969 by the left-wing PLO faction, the DFLP, and formally adopted in the modified version of a "democratic state of Palestine" by the PNC meeting that year. With a few exceptions, the proposal was met with rejection on both sides. The Israelis considered it quite simply a recipe for their destruction, and the Palestinians thought it an unacceptable concession to the enemy. It was never followed through by either side and was quietly dropped after 1974, as the option of a West Bank state began to unfold.
In recent times and faced with the current political impasse, the idea of one state for the two peoples has begun to resurface among a small number of left wing Israelis and Palestinians, albeit from varying perspectives and for different motives. The debate centers on what form this state should take, whether bi-national or secular and democratic. Bi-nationalism is not a new idea in Israeli thinking. During the 1930s and 40s, European intellectual Zionists like Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and Arthur Ruppin, were much interested in creating a bi-national state in Palestine in which both communities could live together. Some Zionists proposed living with the Arabs in a cantonization arrangement on the Swiss model. This would give the Jews self-government in the localities in which they lived and the rest of the country would be split up into Christian and Muslim self-governing cantons.
A few Palestinians agreed with the cantonization idea, because they thought it could be a way of halting Zionist ambitions towards creating a Jewish state in Palestine. But the vast majority were opposed to bi-nationalism in any form, since it would have given a foreign minority who had no rights to the country an equal share of Palestine and would enable them to pursue their Zionist aim of domination. On the Jewish side, the advocates of bi-nationalism remained a small, ineffective minority and their ideas were superseded in 1948 when Israel was set up as a Jewish state. The discourse on this theme then went into abeyance, but has re-surfaced among a few modern day left-wing Zionists who are today concerned with bi-nationalism once again..
In a bi-national state, Jews and Palestinians would coexist as separate communities in a federal arrangement. Each people would run its own affairs autonomously and be guaranteed the legal right to use its own language, religion and traditions. Both would participate in government in a single parliament, which would be concerned with matters of supra-communal importance, defense, resources, the economy and so on. Such a state could be modeled on the cantonal structure of Switzerland or the bi-national arrangement of Belgium. In the Palestine/Israel case, the cantonal structure would be based on the present demographic pattern of the country where densely Arab populated areas like the Galilee would become Arab cantons, and Jewish ones like Tel Aviv would be Jewish cantons, and so on. This leaves a number of practical issues to be resolved, as for example, the exact composition and powers of the parliament, the exercise the right of return for Jews and that for Arabs and so on.
However, the debate is still new and the Palestinian side, beyond a very small number of people, of whom the Knesset member Azmi Bishara and the Palestinian academic Edward Said are the most prominent, has yet to enter it. But at least implicit in these proposals is a recognition that Israel is in fact something of a bi-national state already, since a fifth of its current population inside the Green Line is Palestinian Arab. The democratic secular state on the other hand envisions a one-man, one-vote polity without reference to ethnicity or creed. It would aim to create an equitable pluralist society on the Western democratic model, and is opposed to an arrangement of separate communities. This idea has far fewer adherents and these, outside the tiny ranks of anti-Zionist Jews like Professor Ilan Pappe of Haifa University, and others who are, like myself, mostly Palestinian.
Objections to the one-state solution
Irrespective of which system is chosen, the one-state solution is unlikely to find acceptance amongst the mass of Palestinians or Israelis. Currently, there are several arguments put forward against it:
*Firstly it is maintained that Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians will never accept integration. There is therefore a choice between separation and military conquest by one side. Separation is the more humane of these possibilities.
But is the premise true? In reality there are many instances in world history of integration between peoples who appeared to be totally irreconcilable before the resolution of a conflict. Perhaps the most relevant, though still fragile, example is South Africa. England following the Civil War is another. It should never be forgotten that more than half the Jewish population of Israel came from Arab countries, where they were relatively well integrated. Though most of these now speak Hebrew and see themselves as Israelis, they retain strong elements of their Arabic culture and have recently begun to celebrate these openly.
*Secondly, it is pointed out that Israel has the military power to do what it likes. In these circumstances the Palestinians should take what they can get and live to fight another day.
This may be a realistic philosophy, but the Palestinians show no inclination to capitulate. Despite their military weakness, they continue to fight as we see in the current intifada because they perceive that military power is not the only form of power. There is a moral argument against capitulation to injustice and this has entrenched itself in Palestinian consciousness. Recent developments on the international stage seem to have endorsed this position. Any deal that ignored the moral argument would not last long
*Thirdly, it is argued that although far from perfect, the two-state solution offers a way forward which could later be developed into something more just - for example a federation or an economic union. Others would view it as the first step leading to a one-state solution. Many take this position because they believe a direct confrontation with Zionism given the present balance of power would prove ineffective. Let Zionism wither away as demographic and economic reality seeps in, they think.
Not attacking Zionism now simply stores up trouble for the future. The imbalance of power between Israel and a Palestinian state would ensure that 'further developments' would always be to Israel's advantage and to Palestine's disadvantage. In the context of the essentially racist nature of Zionism, I cannot conceive that a two-state resolution would result in any form of equality between the two.
*Fourthly, proponents of a unitary state are accused of diverting energy and attention away from what is attainable (two states) in favor of what is utopian and impossible to realize (one state).
This objection might be justified if the two-state solution were either both feasible in terms of practicality or desirable in terms of principle.
*Fifthly, it is argued that the creation of a unitary state poses formidable obstacles. How would it come about? Would Jews have a 'right of return' like the Palestinians? What would be the character of the hybrid state that would emerge and how would it be accepted by the rest of the Arab world? Would it be predominantly Arab with a Jewish aspect or the other way round?
These questions are hard to answer. There is no real historical precedent to draw on for guidance. The reality is that such issues will be faced when the initial and hardest step is taken, that is the decision to set up a unitary state. Once that is achieved, the rest must come through discussion and experience. It would be idle to pretend that the Zionist project in Palestine has not created a massive problem for the region. Dealing with its consequences will not be easy, but that cannot be a reason for not trying or for aiding the survival of Zionism through supporting the continuation of a Jewish state.
Bi-nationalism and the right of return
In the context of a unitary state solution, the bi-national state proposal is obviously less unacceptable, since it can be designed to mimic closely a two-state solution tipped in favor of the stronger side. But from a Palestinian viewpoint, for bi-nationalism to be equitable and not just a re-hash of the present formula of Israeli hegemony, it must provide for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to the state and for restitution of the land and resources which were stolen from them. The Jewish law of return must be cancelled and the bi-national state should be configured along non-Zionist lines, since it was the exclusivist and discriminatory nature of Zionism, which created the original problem. The prominent Israeli sociologist, Sami Smoocha, who conducted several surveys of Jewish society since the 1970s, has observed that the Jewish public in Israel was 'both racist and rigid' and it was this which was the cause of the persisting Jewish-Arab conflict.
The discussion is, however, somewhat academic in the light of current Israeli public opinion, where bi-nationalism in any form attracts minimal support.
The secular democratic state
The secular state idea can be expected to attract few adherents at the moment.. For it would effectively spell the end of Zionism and force Israelis to share equitably the land they view as exclusively Jewish with non-Jews. It is scarcely better for the Palestinians, for whom it means the end of the dream of a sovereign Palestinian state which had become familiar and seemed until recently so attainable. The prospect of life with the Israelis, after decades of hatred and the present Israeli assault, would seem unacceptable. And yet, what alternative is there now to a one-state solution? Ironically enough, it is the Israelis government's annexationist policies in the occupied territories which have destroyed the two-state option. In fragmenting the West Bank so effectively, they have ensured that no separate state can exist there and thus opened the door to the one-state alternative. As a result, the option of a Palestinian state is no longer feasible.
Nor, from a Palestinian viewpoint, is it even desirable; a two-state solution, had it ever happened, would have been unstable and ultimately unacceptable to the Palestinians. It would have given them at best a truncated entity, certainly demilitarized and economically dependent, on a fifth of their original homeland (even were they offered the whole of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, these would form only 23 per cent of Mandate Palestine). It would be unable to absorb the 4 million displaced Palestinians, and would end any hope of their right to return to their original homes. Most seriously, it would have set the seal of approval on the Zionist claim to Palestine as the exclusive land of the Jews which no Palestinian has ever accepted.
The Palestinian sense of injustice, which fundamentally derives from the loss of their homeland and the denial of their right to return to it, will not be redressed by an unequal arrangement of two states. And if the injustice is left unresolved, it will remain a source of instability and a cause of "terrorism" in the region. No one denies that there will be massive obstacles in the way of implementing a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine. Nor can the past be reversed, but a solution even at this late stage, which permits the equitable sharing of the whole land between the two peoples and repatriates the refugees will help lay the foundations for a stable future. Given the present structure of Israel and the occupied territories, which is bi-national in all but name, a formal policy of bi-nationalism is not unthinkable. It may even ultimately pave the way to the secular democratic state in historic Palestine. This might seem utopian now, but is it any more so than the Zionist enterprise of constructing a Jewish state in someone else's country?
Dr Ghada Karmi is a London-based Palestinian academic and writer. Her most recent book (co-edited with Eugene Cotran), is The Palestinian Exodus, 1948-1998, (Ithaca Press, 1999). Her memoir, In search of Fatima, will be published by Verso Press this autumn. She is also Joint Vice-Chair of CAABU.