The only framework for dramatic improvement in relations between Jews
and Palestinian Arabs within Palestine/Israel that has ever attracted
majorities on both sides is partition—division of the land into
two closely related but politically separate sovereign states. Although
the past year of violence has reduced dramatically the extent of expressed
support for this idea, it is safe to say that significant pluralities
and even majorities of Jews and of Palestinians are still willing to
accept it in return for a secure peace.
To be sure, levels of expressed support will continue to vary as terrible
events temporarily make any arrangement between the two sides seem virtually
impossible to many of the protagonists. But out of the mists of despair
associated with massacres, prolonged suffering, and horrific acts of
terrorism, the rugged image of two states in one land will re-present
itself as the least of all evils. This has been true in the past, it
is true now, and it will be true as long as Israeli occupation of the
West Bank and Gaza, in whatever guise, continues.
The two states for two peoples framework is resilient because
it alone holds out the prospect for both sides to think they may get
all of what they absolutely need and much of what they strongly desire.
What each side absolutely needs is access to a state apparatus that
can regularize daily life with reasonable access to public resources
for its members, international recognition of its rightful place in
the family of nations, and the ability to foster immigration across
its borders for nationals living abroad. What each side strongly desires
is to greatly reduce encounters with "others" in "its" land. Binational
or other single-state solutions seek to secure what is needed by abandoning
what is strongly desired—Jews and Arabs are to share the land,
resources, recognition, and immigration opportunities afforded by a
single state ruling the whole land, but at the cost of having to forever
encounter each other in micro and macro struggles to achieve a distribution
of those resources which each side feels is as much as it can get of
what it deserves. The secret power of the separate state solution is
that it uses what each side strongly wants (the desire to be rid of
the other) to achieve the territory, resources, recognition and immigration
opportunities each side needs.
These considerations constitute the infrastructure of the conflict.
But on top of this infrastructure are the political arrangements, commitments,
alliances, institutions, and beliefs, on each side, that make so much
of Lama Abu-Odeh's case for binationalism sound more like a fairy tale
than a political strategy. As I hope to make clear, I do not find fault
with her essay because she espouses binationalism as an important alternative
that deserves careful attention. On the contrary, binational or single
democratic state futures for Palestine/Israel have a variety of roles
to play and some current developments do indeed impact powerfully on
their salience. To argue that they have, or could have, more appeal
than the separate state solution for Jews and Palestinians would require
hardheaded analysis that looks directly at the political factors standing
in its way. But Abu-Odeh seems to have studiously avoided thinking about
any of the real problems facing single-state solutions and to have substantially
exaggerated elements of the situation that would seem conducive to it.
Abu-Odeh justifies her overall position by the claim that "for many
Palestinians…the two-state solution has already lost a great deal
of its historic appeal." Unfortunately, political struggles of the sort
that Jews and Arabs have fought for a century in the much promised land
are resolved by increasing the level of desperation to escape from intolerable
circumstances, not by increasing the "appeal" of rival solutions. So
nothing is resolved by comparing the attractions of the separate state
solution relative to a fully implemented "binational" solution. Instead,
we need to know whether either of them holds out the hope of such an
Moreover, Abu-Odeh focuses almost exclusively on the attractions of
binationalism in the eyes of Palestinians. Even within the bounds of
her own analysis—and assuming a negotiated solution—she
needs to wonder just how "attractive" the kind of binational state she
suggests would be to Jews. Her off-hand comments that Mizrachi Jews
(whose ancestors lived in Muslim countries) would find it a welcome
avenue of escape from Ashkenazi dominance, are unsubstantiated and formulaic.
These elements of the Israeli public have been more opposed to equal
rights for Arab citizens of Israel than the Ashkenazim.
Abu-Odeh also emphasizes the campaign of Chief Justice Barak of the
Israeli Supreme Court to increase the stature of liberal values as against
chauvinist values, hailing the Qa'adan decision in favor of Arab applicants
for housing in a Jewish town. But she fails to note that Barak is Ashkenazi,
that the record of Israeli courts on issues of Arab rights is extraordinarily
timid, that insofar as Barak has political allies, they are mostly Ashkenazi,
and that he is vilified by large chunks of the Israeli Jewish population—especially
its religious and Mizrachi segments—for seeming to be willing
to weaken the "Jewish" nature of the state. Even the Qa'adan case itself,
however important, was extremely narrowly rendered and hardly makes
a dent in the massive array of institutionalized procedures and laws
which bar Arab citizens (not to say non-citizens) from anything approaching
equal access to economic resources or civil rights.
It would, indeed, be useful and rather easy to describe the panoply
of political obstacles, on the Israeli side alone, confronting any attempt
to approach the binational idea as a practical and explicit political
program for advancement via the array of civil rights demonstrations
and lawsuit tactics she advocates. For reasons of space, this analysis
must be omitted, but the problem simply cannot be addressed without
some mention of the land question. Nowhere in her essay does Abu-Odeh
mention the question of access to "public land." In Israel this is a
loaded phrase because 93 percent of the country's land area is administered
as "state land," while it is in fact controlled according to the rules
and norms of the World Zionist Organization's land development and land
acquisition branch—the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth Le'Yisrael)
[JNF]. Since most of the good land administered by the state in this
way is technically owned by the JNF (including vast tracts of expropriated
Palestinian land), and since the Board of Directors of the Israel Lands
Administration comprises both Ministry of Agriculture and JNF representatives,
Arab citizens of Israel are denied any effective access to the long-term
leasing arrangements which make it possible for Jews to live and farm
virtually wherever they want in the country. Presumably, in a binational
state, these lands would either be equally at the disposal of all citizens
or would be divided between "Jewish" and "Arab" supervisory bodies.
Such a transformation of the land regime in Israel would require an
explicit and complete overthrow of the state's association with Zionism—an
unlikely outcome on any account. Yet, for a single state solution to
have any hope of success, this transformation would be required. If
Abu-Odeh has an argument as to how radical change in the land system
may be achieved, its omission is a fatal flaw in her case for binationalism.
If she does not think it possible to make a fair proportion of land
in Israel available for Arab use, then her argument is at best disingenuous.
The Binationalist Idea
I do believe binationalism is an important idea and that it deserves
serious attention—not because it can replace the separate state
idea as a target for diplomacy, but because we may never see a negotiated
settlement, and thinking about how binationalism might arise as an unintended
consequence of failed negotiations might make that failure less likely.
First, let us distinguish between "binational" and "secular democratic
states." These terms cannot be used interchangeably, especially when
they are so freighted with associations, as is the case in the Israeli-Palestinian
context. "Binational" refers to a country in which two and only two
national cultures are afforded pride of place, with juridically entrenched
rights for control of shares of the state's resources, positions of
authority, symbols, etc. In an Arab-Jewish binational state, Jewish
law might apply to matters of marriage, divorce, burial, etc. among
Jews, while Christian and Muslim law and practice would apply for Arabs.
In such a state Arabic and Hebrew would both be national languages,
two national anthems would be sung (or none at all), stamps would honor
equally both national cultures, land and other important resources would
be allocated according to an agreed formula, and so on. Such a state
could go far toward satisfying the specific national, cultural, religious,
and symbolic requirements of the two rival peoples. Moreover, despite
secular sentiments on both sides, majorities within both the Jewish
and Palestinian Arab communities put a high priority on the public and
official role of religion. Finally, while a binational state would not
require production or imagination of a new "Canaan," a secular state
committed to a sense of its own legitimacy would have to advocate something
like a common identity—an identity neither Abu-Odeh nor anyone
else has recently been able to describe.
Second, let us consider the extent to which Israel already is, if not
a binational state, certainly a multicultural one. As many now recognize,
with hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants from the former Soviet
Union classified as non-Jews, and hundreds of thousands more "guest
workers" from dozens of countries around the world, it is no longer
possible to think of Israeli society, even leaving aside the West Bank
and Gaza, as divided between Jews and Arabs. Roughly speaking the "national"
composition of the population living within Israel proper (i.e., excluding
occupied territories) is 70 percent Jewish, 19 percent Arab, and 11
percent non-Jewish non-Arabs. Note also that Arab political parties,
Arab votes, and the turnout of Arab voters have had a massive and sometimes
decisive effect on the outcome of Israeli elections within the last
decade and a half, and on the behavior of several different governments.
In these and in other ways, as Abu-Odeh suggests, Israel has already
moved toward multinationalism—gradually, unintentionally, and
largely as a product of desperate political and economic requirements
(for more immigrants, more workers, and more votes). Indeed if either
a "secular" or a "multinational" state is to emerge, it will most likely
result not from Palestinian or Israeli initiatives, but as a cumulative
effect of their failure to achieve a separate state solution or bring
about the elimination or departure of their antagonists.
In this context though, it is also worth remembering that a "binational,"
"multicultural," or "democratic" state in the whole country can be the
first stage on the road to the Palestinian separate state. That is what
happened in the United Kingdom. Ireland, unable to achieve independence
from Britain, was annexed at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
It took three quarters of a century for Irish Catholics to become fully
enfranchised participants in the politics of the "multinational" United
Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The effective mobilization of
those voters then laid the groundwork for the secession of most of Ireland
in 1921 and the establishment of the Republic of Ireland.