Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
The Cunning of History
December 1, 2001
With Responses From
Dec 1, 2001
9 Min read time
Binationalism is an important idea.
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 escape.
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.
Such is the cunning of history—responding not so much to the changing "appeal" of different constitutions or legal principles, but to the iron logic of contrary national necessities thrown repeatedly against one another.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.