As Palestinians edge toward a territorial settlement that is less than
satisfactory in terms of their minimal requirements for statehood, the
idea of a binational state for Israelis and Palestinians seems to be
acquiring a certain attractiveness. A public opinion poll published
at the end of 1999 suggested that close to 20 percent of the respondents
from the West Bank and Gaza and about 15 percent of the Jewish respondents
from Israel (17 percent of the Israeli Arab respondents) favored a binational
solution if the attempts at establishing two states fail.1
But the debate on binationalism (and Lama Abu-Odeh's argument for the
idea) begs for elucidation. Conceptually, the idea raises interesting
issues about extraterritorial nationalism and ethnicity, but practically
the binationalist concept could be counterproductive and escapist.
The appeal of a binational solution derives in part from the fact that
the two-state solution has gradually eroded before it could be realized
on the ground. This erosion rests on a number of political developments.
First, the Palestinian political regime has proved to be considerably
less democratic and representative than many expected in the years following
the Madrid Conference and the Oslo agreements. Second, the territorial
delineation of the Palestinian state-to-be appears to involve considerably
less land than the 23 percent of Mandated Palestine that constitute
the 1967 occupied territories, and it is likely to leave contested the
status of Arab Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, and a substantial area
under extraterritorial control by Jewish settlements. Third, there is
little chance that current negotiations will allow any meaningful return
of Palestinian refugees to their homeland, except perhaps in symbolic
or token numbers.
Moreover, as proponents of binationalism like Abu-Odeh suggest, the
"facts on the ground" created during the thirty years of Israeli political
incorporation of the West Bank and Gaza have rendered the Palestinian
economy and society so dependent on Israeli institutions that any separation
would be illusory (though separation would also tend to camouflage the
structural dependency and control over markets, services, and the labor
force). Whatever possibilities for separation and disengagement from
Israel that were sparked by the first Intifada were more than offset
by forms of economic, social, and political dependency.
In short, the final status talks are likely to end the Arab-Israeli
conflict as we know it, without resolving in a meaningful way the key
issues of territorial sovereignty, Jerusalem, refugees, and the duality
of exile/return in Palestinian consciousness. This fact, in conjunction
with the difficulties of separating the two entities, is bound to keep
the lure of binationalism alive.
Nonetheless, the idea that binationalism is an alternative to a truncated
statehood is problematic and hardly a political option. There are a
number of reasons for this.
First, espousing the binational state ignores a whole set of social,
political, and institutional modalities that have been created on the
ground since the return of PLO cadres to Palestine in 1994 and afterward.
In fact, the attractiveness of the binational idea lies precisely in
its simplicity. No serious discussion has been put forward here about
the repercussions of creating a juridical, social, and political regime
from two antagonistic national groups in one single constitutional body.
Second, the binational state idea has no real constituency on either
side. Although this objection should not, in principle, be valid for
an idea "whose time is ripe," nevertheless the "ripeness" is a function
of potential advocates. At the moment, the advocates are too few and
(politically) too marginal. This makes it difficult to mobilize large
numbers around the idea. As for the polling data I cited above, I do
not believe that they accurately reflect public opinion regarding binationalism,
since the question was formulated in the context of the failure of a
two-state framework. On the Israeli side, furthermore, one should read
the poll's results at least partly in the context of religious and right-wing
opposition to any form of statehood for the Palestinians.
Third, the binational debate does not address the formidable task of
fighting the institutions of the Israeli state, its military apparatus,
its Zionist consciousness, its religious establishment, and the material
benefits that accrue to its citizens by excluding the masses of pauperized
Palestinian refugees from its franchise. Nor does it address the cultural
resistance of Palestinian nationalism to being incorporated—at
least for the foreseeable future—within a Europeanized and industrially
Finally, and most importantly from the perspective of this argument,
binationalism means that Palestinians would have to give up their struggle
for independence, for the further evacuation of Israeli military rule,
and for the dismantlement of colonial settlements. They would give up
this struggle in order to struggle instead for a constitutional arrangement
that is bound to be met with hostility by their Israeli neighbors and
by the vast majority of their political leadership and currents of ideological
One can further argue that even a truncated state enshrined in a peace
treaty would leave considerable latitude for continued struggle aimed
at consolidating its territorial domain and achieving substantial sovereignty.
We have witnessed this in a number of historical cases (for example,
the Irish Free State after the autonomy agreement signed by Michael
Collins). We also witnessed, albeit under very different conditions,
the state of Israel expanding in 1948–49 and 1956 well beyond
the boundaries sanctioned by the 1947 partition plan.
For these reasons—and I do not think that Lama Abu-Odeh has really
said anything that diminishes their force—I believe that conditions
today are neither favorable nor desirable for abandoning the struggle
for realizing the objectives of Palestinian independence. Nor do I believe
that the state that results from conditions imposed by the Israelis
on the Palestinians in a situation of weakness will necessarily be permanently
deformed or that these conditions are immutable. Whatever the lacunae
in arguments like Abu-Odeh's, the Palestinian state that is emerging,
with its fragmented boundaries and limited ability to satisfy the aspirations
of the Palestinian communities of the diaspora (to say nothing of its
own citizenry), is bound to generate conditions in which the binationalism
debate will continue. These conditions tend to weaken the bonds of an
exclusive Palestinian identity and undermine the symbolic trappings
of Palestinian nationalism and their potency (the flag, the insignias,
the anthem, and so on).
They also compel Palestinians to rethink their relationship with neighboring
Arab states, particularly Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, in the
direction of confederal association. Since most West Bankers and even
many Gazans were until recently Jordanian citizens, and since about
half the current Jordanian population is of Palestinian origin, this
relationship is particularly meaningful as far as the future constitutional
ties with Jordan are concerned. In operational terms, this means that
the "binational idea" is increasingly of greater relevance to Palestine's
relationship with Jordan than its relationship with Israel, particularly
when one takes into account cultural factors.
In a more profound way, the conditions that will arise from a truncated
state will also compel Palestinians to rethink the pan-Arab component
of their own culture. This is particularly significant in the arenas
of cultural affinities and political identity.
But the manner in which binationalism is raised by Abu-Odeh refers
almost exclusively to recasting the strategic objectives of the Palestinian
national movement and to the dubiousness of creating a Palestinian state
next to the Israeli state.
It is noteworthy that not one Palestinian political group, not even
minority ones, have adopted binationalism as an objective (except for
the brief flirtation with the idea by the Democratic Front, the Popular
Front, and Fatah in the early 1970s). All the major Islamic groups find
it an anathema, since they reject the idea that the Israelis (or the
Jews for that matter) constitute a nationality. One could add here that
the idea raised by the PLO in the late 1960s and early 1970s of a secular
democratic state of Jews, Christians, and Muslims was never put forward
seriously except as a slogan. It was never properly articulated within
the PLO, the Palestine National Council, or in any intellectual forum
in that period. Emile Tuma raised a justified objection to the idea
in the late 1970s when he suggested that for decades the Palestinian
national movement had fought to establish the unity of the Palestinian
people in their struggle for independence under the banner of secular
nationalism. With the PLO slogan calling for a state of Jews, Christians,
and Muslims, he noted, the Palestinians had reverted to the Ottoman
formula of confessional communities.
At the level of resolving the immediate tasks of dismantling Israeli
colonial rule in the occupied territories, binationalism creates expectations
and prospects of political action that are either unrealizable or counterproductive.
In the main, it would act to defuse and mystify the struggle for independence.