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Uri Avnery
Journal of Palestine Studies

(An answer to an essay by Azmi Bishara in the same journal.)

When I come to contradict the theses of my friend Azmi, I am conscious of a certain irony. While Bishara, a Palestinian, albeit a citizen of Israel and indeed a self-declared candidate for the Prime Ministership of this state, mercilessly attacks Yassir Arafat and his strategy, I, an Israeli, albeit an old friend of the Palestinian cause, support them wholeheartedly. It looks like a battle with reversed fronts. I have no quarrel with most of Bishara’s analysis. Indeed, great parts of it run parallel to my own articles on the situation. My quarrel is with his conclusion. Mine are diametrically opposed to his. His description of the Israeli-Palestinian-American minuet at each stage of the negotiations is exactly right, except in one little detail: after each of these frustrating forth-and-back movements, something remains in Palestinian hands. Perhaps little, but little is much more than nothing, when the life of a nation is at stake.

Bishara has a lot of contempt for such little gains. Not I. Throughout the 20th century, this was a major tactical difference between the two national movements fighting each other in Palestine. The Zionists, when offered something, always accepted and immediately worked for more. The Palestinians always rejected, because it was not enough. History has proved the Zionists right. Their slogan „dunam after dunam, goat after goat“ led to victory, while the maximalist (Everything or Nothing) approach of all Palestinian leaders – until Arafat -- led to much more then defeat. It brought about a historic tragedy for the Palestinians. The result is the very same "imbalance of power" which Bishara bemoans now. Israel has an overwhelming superiority on all fronts, military, political, economic. It has at its disposal all the means of a modern state. There is no way of changing this imbalance dramatically. All Palestinian policy is necessarily being conducted within the framework of this situation, while striving to overcome it. Wishing it away is of no avail. What is needed is a strategy that will achieve partial gains and consolidate them, while fighting for more.

Arafat has created such a policy and adhered to it with remarkable tenacity. He has achieved outstanding results. Forty years ago, when Fatah was founded, there was no Palestine on the map, even the existence of a Palestinian people was denied. Those few (including myself), who advocated in the 50s the creation of a Palestinian state, were ridiculed. Today, an important part of the Palestinian people lives under an internationally recognized Palestinian self-government, whose many obvious faults are insignificant -- and hopefully temporary – compared to the fact of its very existence, as an embryo of a full-fledged state. The sole remaining superpower, which has been for decades a sworn enemy of Palestinian aspirations, has become remarkably more even-handed, Europe has become friendly.

This is not an ideal situation. Far from it. But compared to the starting point of this long march, a tremendous advance has been achieved. Certainly, this is not the work of one person; many worked, fought and died for it. But nobody can really deny the outstanding leadership of Arafat, one of the great leaders of this century. It is the job of the statesman to define the line of „main effort“ at each stage of the struggle. Arafat was right when he decided, in the early 60s, against much opposition, that the main effort must be the armed struggle. Sad to say, only violence put the Palestinians on the map again. He was also right when he decided, after the October 1973 war, that the main effort must now be a Palestinian-Israeli accommodation. That has already given the Palestinians a territorial base, however small. I believe that he is right in believing that now the main effort must be the proclamation of the State of Palestine.


The Titanic option

Bishara is right in saying that the mere proclamation of the state will not solve the outstanding problems – Jerusalem, settlements, borders etc. Of course not. But the real question is: Will statehood, recognized by the vast majority of governments throughout the world, improve the chances of he Palestinians in achieving a viable solution? For me, the answer is quite clear. The "imbalance of power" will not disappear as if by magic, but it will get smaller. The creation of the state will not be the end of the struggle, but the beginning of a new chapter of the struggle. The state is not the solution, but the means for achieving the solution. It is not an end by itself, but an instrument for attaining that end.

With the biting irony adopted by many in the Palestinian opposition, Bishara reminds us that a State of Palestine has already been declared once. How many times, he asks, can one declare a state? But Bishara is far too intelligent not to perceive the difference. The Algiers declaration was a symbolic act, a declaration of intent. Today, when there already exists a Palestinian entity on the ground, which includes most of the Palestinian population on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, the implications of statehood are vastly different. Bishara fears that such a step would finally cut the ties between the Palestinians inside Palestine and the millions outside. Frankly, I fail to see that. Quite on the contrary. The exile of the refugees is a fact, part of reality, a tragic legacy of past failures. This reality cannot be changed by patriotic slogans. But a State of Palestine, which will issue passports to all Palestinians and turn them at least into absentee citizens, will strengthen the ties of the refugees with the homeland and with the other parts of their people, improve their situation wherever they are, and strengthen thechances for a just solution. Indeed, does anyone see another way?

Another fact of life, bemoaned by Azmi, is Palestinian dependency on the Israeli economy. The mere proclamation of the state will not change that. But a state will be in a much better position to improve the situation, conduct negotiations, receive credits, facilitate exports, improve the lot of workers abroad (including Israel). It will also issue its own currency – by the way, a step of major economic importance, as Ben Gurion realized and set in motion just days after the declaration of the State.

Azmi argues that statehood will not put an end to Israeli settlement activity. But that makes it all the more urgent! This offensive against the very existence of the Palestinian people goes on relentlessly, giving a crucial urgency to counter-measures. Time is of the essence. It absolutely forbids Palestinians to say, as Bishara seems to be doing: Let’s wait until the balance of power changes. Let’s first put our house in order, strengthen democracy, reform the PA. That’s like the captain of the Titanic saying: Let’s first clean the cabins and renovate the dining hall. A state is in the position to take action, mobilize forces, press for international action, alarm world public opinion. It certainly will not worsen the situation.

That leaves us with the possibility of armed conflict. The Israeli government may react violently to the declaration of statehood. This eventuality must be taken into consideration by the Palestinian leadership, as it certainly will. But if one lets this threat to decide the issue, it would make every single Palestinian option subject to the threat of Israeli armed intervention. This means abject submission. Azmi Bishara would certainly not accept that.


The Binationals

What, then, is the alternative? At the end of his 500-line article, Bishara devotes the last six lines, as a kind of afterthought, to "a binational solution". With all due respect, I do not quite believe that Bishara arrived at this conclusion by way of elimination, after despairing of all other options. Quite on the contrary, I believe that the whole brilliant analysis was written down with the sole intent of arriving at this "afterthought".

The dream of a binational state is as old as Zionism. It was invented by left-wing Zionists, at a time when the Jews were yet a small minority in Palestine, with the aim of allowing for massive immigration and land acquisition without a bloody confrontation with the Arab majority. Not surprisingly, the offer did not find any Palestinian takers. Later it was taken up by the Palestinians, when they had become the weaker side. They thought to evade the necessity of confronting the reality of Israel by speaking about a „democratic, non-sectarian state, in which Jews, Muslims and Christians will live together as equals“. For Israelis, this was just a polite way of saying that their state must be dismantled. Thank you but no, they said unanimously. No takers again. Nowadays, this dream experiences a curious resurrection. Some intellectuals, both Israelis and Palestinians, are taking it up, some half-heartedly, some with gusto. Their motives seem to be as diverse as their personalities and political histories.

Some, like professor Noam Chomsky, who in his youth had lived some time on a left-wing Kibbutz, are nostalgic idealists. It was such a beautiful dream, after all. Since then their own logic has forced them, reluctantly, to accept the two-states solution, but now that this program has run into so many difficulties, why not return to the dream? Others, like Bishara, so it seems to me, oppose the two-states solution mainly because they are opposed to states in general. They dislike the idea of a Palestinian state as much as the idea of the Israeli state. Did not the followers of Karl Marx foresee the "withering away" of the state? A "binational solution" – avoiding even the term "binational state" – sounds nice. Why cling to past and present structures, instead of jumping straight into the distant future? Also, Knesset-member Bishara sees in the binational state a solution of the particular problem troubling the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. They will not be partners in the State of Palestine, while not really "belonging" to Israel either. In a joint, binational state, they will be in the center. Then there are Palestinians for whom a binational state is just a method of doing away with the State of Israel, to which they have never really become reconciled. Some, like Eduard Said, I suspect, are motivated mostly by a violent antipathy towards the PA and Yassir Arafat personally. If the Palestinian state cannot be ideal, they seem to say, let’s not have a state at all. Let’s have something else, even if it takes generations to achieve.

Somewhat similar feelings motivates the handful of extreme left-wing Israelis, who have a profound hatred for Zionism and would like to liquidate all its manifestations. They are totally out of touch with Israeli reality. They are also, by the way, the most extreme haters of Yasssir Arafat, whom they daily accuse of all possible and impossible faults and vices, from corruption to tyranny. They serve, unconsciously, the ends of the extreme right-wingers in Israel, who see in these "facts", coming from the mouths of certified left-wingers, a perfect justification for their opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state and – of course – the restitution of Palestinian lands. By the way, Israeli right-wingers also find much solace in the activity of those Palestinian human rights activists who preach their gospel mostly in the Israeli media, saying that the situation of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation was much better than under the PA. Why should Israel give up the occupation, if the Palestinians themselves confirm that their lot under the occupation was much better than under their own administration? And why should people of goodwill around the world continue to support the struggle for Palestinian rights, if in the end nothing will come out of it but another little despotic and corrupt Arab state?


It won’t work

However, whatever the motives of its advocates, the proposal for a binational state deserves to be analysed on its own merits. The real questions are:

(1) Is there a chance that the two sides will accept a binational state?
(2) If so, will a binational state really function?
(3) If so, will this put an end to the conflict?

My answers to all three questions are an unequivocal no.

(1) There is no chance whatsoever, that the Israeli side would accept such a solution in the foreseeable future – and no other future is relevant. It contradicts the basic Zionist ethos of the State of Israel. For non-Israelis to understand this, they must look back at the origins of the Zionist movement. It was founded at the end of last century as an answer to European nationalism. Throughout the 19th century, nationalism became the dominant political and social creed, sweeping people after people. One of its dominant features was anti-Semitism – from the pogroms in Russia to the Dreyfus Affair in France, from the intellectual anti-Semitism of a Richard Wagner to the populist anti-Semitism of a Karl Lueger, the mayor of Vienna at that time, the first politician elected on an undisguised anti-Semitic platform. After all the efforts of the Jews to become "assimilated" individually failed, Zionism was an effort at collective assimilation. If there was no place for the Jews in any of the nations of Europe, the Jews would cease being a religious community and constitute themselves too as a nation in the European sense and create a state of their own, where they could express their identity and decide their own fate. This was the basic idea of Zionism. Underlying it was the popular Jewish feeling that after centuries of persecution, there should at long last be one place where Jews could live among themselves, without the interference of "Goyim" (Gentiles). Israel the embodiment of this idea. It is, officially, a "democratic Jewish state", meaning that it belongs to he Jews, but that non-Jews can live there with equal civil rights. (In practice, even after 51 years, non-Jews in Israel are very far indeed from such equality.) These attitudes are not only official doctrine, they are deeply embedded in the mentality of almost all Israelis. They are imparted to the next generation in all Israeli schools, both secular and religious, as well as to all new immigrants. The binational idea does, therefore, negate the very essence of the Zionist idea, the "raison d’etre" of Israel as perceived by its Jewish citizens. It would be far easier for them to accord its Arab citizens special rights as a national minority (as proposed by Bishara) than to turn Israel into a non-national state (as also proposed by Bishara) – and even that idea is very far from the hearts of most Israelis. It can be argued that popular attitudes may change, that Zionism may fade away, that ideas like a non-national, supra-national, multi-national or bi-national society will take roots. But such a basic transformation can only come about over a long period of time, by a slow development. Can the Palestinian people wait for 50, 100 years for such a miracle to happen? With the relentless push of Israeli settlements going on, what will remain of Arab Palestine until then? On the other side, is the Palestinian people really ready to accept a binational state, not as an abstract idea, but as a political and social reality, with all that it entails? I cannot voice an opinion on that, but I do have my doubts. The Palestinian people need a confirmation of their national identity, as much as the Israelis did. If they will not experience statehood, they will always feel that they have been deprived of something that all other nations enjoy – national pride and recognition, a place of their own in the family of nations, a flag, a passport. Perhaps Azmi Bishara feels no need for this, but most human beings do.

(2) However, let’s assume for a moment that both people would agree to a binational state, could it really function? I am not aware of a single instance of two nations living peacefully in one common binational or multinational state. It is easy to point at the former Yugoslavia, particularly at Croatia and Bosnia, not to mention Kosovo. Some might argue that that’s too easy, that these are backward peoples crazed by mutual hatreds, while we are civilized. But what about Canada, where two highly civilized communities, divided by nothing but language, totter perpetually on the brink of break-up? Half of the Quebecois want their own national state, and they are likely to achieve this in the foreseeable future . Belgium is another "civilized" example. Walloons and Flemings have been living together now for centuries, but their relationship in the common state of Belgium is at best an uneasy one. Even in Scotland there is now a strong movement for independence. The most typical example of a binational state, consciously created as such, is Cyprus. Two peoples, crowded together on a small island, tried after centuries of mutual hatred to create a model constitution, which took into account the nationalist feelings of both. The result was disaster. Lebanon is another warning, Different communities are bound together by a kind of constitution which apportions all power according to a fixed division. This led to bloody civil war, occupation and repeated foreign interventions. Yet one can argue that there is but one Lebanese nation, speaking the same language, divided only on ethnic-religious lines. Hardly a success story. The one shining example of different peoples living in the same state is Switzerland. But this is a unique structure, the result of a long historical process which went on for centuries, the very opposite of an artificial creation imposed by an act of will. It is utopian to believe that Israelis and Palestinians, two extremely nationalistic peoples, could turn practically overnight from total enemies into loving compatriots, able to live and function in one common society. Tel-Aviv is not Zurich, Ramallah is not Geneva.

(3) If such a state were created, what kind of state would it be? Would it put an end to the conflict? In such a state, Israeli superiority in nearly all practical fields – economic, social, military – is such, that the Palestinian would automatically turn into an exploited underclass, devoid of real power. Such a situation does exist now in Israel proper, with the Arab citizens, nearly 20% of the population, living mostly on the border of poverty, in circumstances visibly below those of Jewish communities. Many parts of the administration and the economy are closed to Arabs, officially or unofficially. In the binational state, the national struggle will by no means cease. It will make it much easier for Jews to buy up Arab lands on the West Bank, control immigration and take other measures to safeguard national superiority. Some may believe that, in the course of time, demographic facts in the binational state would change this balance of power in favor of the Palestinians, who would immediately constitute some 40% of the population, with a vastly bigger rate of natural increase. Since the state would be democratic, it would automatically follow that power and economic privilege would pass in due course into the hands of the Arab Palestinians, who might then change the name, the flag and the identity of the state. That is a naive picture. If somebody believes that Israelis would relinquish power out of sheer democratic conviction – all one can say is that such a belief is touching. Much more probable is a development in the direction of the former South Africa, with years and years of violent struggle ahead. Even today, with an Arab minority that constitutes less than a fifth of its population, only few Jewish Israelis are ready accept the slogan "a state of all its citizens". One of Israel’s laws says that nobody is allowed to take part in elections if he does not accept that Israel is "the state of the Jewish people". Will Israelis voluntarily reconcile themselves to the idea of living in a state in which two of every five citizens will be Palestinian – with a Palestinian majority in sight? A binational state is not an abstract thing. It means that both nations must enact the laws together and abide by them, irrespective of the differences in their social evolution, mental outlook and cultural background. It means that they must agree on the laws of immigration, for example, on the levying of taxes and the distribution of tax money. Social services will have to be apportioned to the different communities. That is difficult enough in an ordinary state. For two different people, living together in a single state might turn into a nightmare. Again, mentalities might change. New generations may entertain different ideals. But how long would it take? What would happen to Palestine on the way? Indeed, who can prophesy the developments with any pretense of certainty?

The Two-State Solution

Immediately after the 1948 war, when I called, for the first time, for a two-state solution, I was not animated by nationalist fervor, nor did I believe in the holiness of states. For me, then and now, states are a necessary instrument at this point in time. And I had – and still have now – a healthy respect for the power of nationalism. Communism, Fascism and many other isms of the 20th century have disintegrated without leaving a trace, but nationalism has triumphed. Perhaps it expresses a basic human urge, perhaps it is only a sign of the times. But nationalism is here to stay for a long time. Seemingly, there is a paradox. We see that economic, political and military realities are leading inevitably towards regional units, such as the European Union. But at the same time, smaller and smaller units demand self-expression. While real power moves from London, Paris and Madrid to the EU, Scots, Bretons, Basques, Catalans demand autonomy and even independence. To my mind,this is quite logical. Real power moves slowly from state to region, from region to global structures. This process releases small peoples from the necessity to give up their identity, culture, language and self-government in areas that were expropriated by the bigger units. If the big economic and military decisions are made by Europe, why must Corsica subject itself to Paris?

The idea of an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution was always based on the assumption that the border between them will be open, and that that they will have a joint capital in Jerusalem. The guiding vision is not "separation", in the bad sense of the word, but partnership, with each of the two nations expressing its identity in a national home of its own. I am convinced that after living together, side-by-side, with Jerusalem as their common capital, the State of Israel and the State of Palestine will grow slowly together, under the pressure of geography and economics, and form a kind of federation based on mutual trust and interest. That, after all, was the basis of the UN resolution 181, which Palestinians remember nowadays with a new-found fondness.

As I wrote 51 years ago, both states should be part of a Semitic Union, on the lines of the present European Union. (I chose the term "Semitic" because it is the only one which is common to the two peoples and the two languages, emphasizing a common historical and linguistic heritage.) It must not be forgotten, that the European Union came into being after a profound debate between the idealists, who preached a kind of United States of Europe, and the realists, like Charles de Gaulle, who advocated a "Europe of Fatherlands", based on existing states, each with its own identity and flag. This vision won. A process which takes into account the power of nationalism may be slower, but it certainly is more realistic. As has been proven by now, it does reach the desired end. The Euro has come, borders have been practically eliminated, loyalty to Europe has taken root, with each nation waving the blue flag of Europe next to its own national flag.

Much the same, I hope, will happen in our region. Israel and Palestine (and perhaps Jordan too) will rapidly or slowly grow together into a kind of federation, becoming part of a regional union. Thus the positive parts of the "binational solution" will become reality in a natural process.

In the early 50s, those of us who advocated a two-state solution stood alone. The US and the Soviets, Europe and the Arab states, Palestinians and Israelis were united in their opposition to this program, if in nothing else. Much later, in 1971, long after the PLO had already become an important factor, the official PLO publishing house in Beirut published a book by Camille Mansur, in Arabic and French, titled "Uri Avnery and neo-Zionism", in which they condemned the "Avnery Plan" (sic!) of a two-state solution as a "plot against the Palestinian revolution". Now this plan is accepted by practically all governments, by most Israelis and the great majority of Palestinians. They were converted by the logic of reality.

On May 4, 1999, 500 prominent Israeli intellectuals and peace activists, including some of the most illustrious names of Israeli arts and letters, signed a manifesto stating: "We support the right of the Palestinian nation to declare the establishment of the State of Palestine in all the territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with united Jerusalem serving as the capital of both states – West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. The co-existence of Israel and Palestine, side by side, is the basis of peace, security and reconciliation between the two nations."

The historical moment

Should the Palestinians have declared their state on May 4, 1999? Instinctively I would have said: Yes. There comes a moment in the life of a nation when it must say: To hell with all tactics, let’s do what we have to do!

However, on second thought I believe that the Palestinian leadership was right to postpone the act for a few months. The Israeli elections were only one reason for that. The declaration would certainly have helped Benjamin Netanyahu, an unscrupulous demagogue, to win the elections and form an extreme right-wing, nationalistic-fundamentalist anti-Palestinian coalition. Palestinian self-restraint made the remarkably victory of Ehud Barak possible. Barak may turn out to be as difficult as Yitzhak Rabin was at the beginning of his reign, but he is a logical person and represents the realistic part of Israel. Realism and logic will inevitably lead him to the two-state solution, even if we still have a tough struggle ahead of us, corning borders, settlements and – of course – Jerusalem.

It seems to me that the main reason for the postponement was the reasonable chance the United States, Europe and the vast majority of governments around the world will in the end recognize the State of Palestine, if the ground is prepared carefully, and that is what Arafat has been doing. The success of this effort is worth a short postponement.

Also, perhaps under the leadership of Barak an agreement can be achieved, which will make it possible to proclaim the state by consent. At the moment, Barak sets conditions which are unacceptable. But in the course of negotiation conditions may change, especially if the Israeli peace forces keep up the pressure, as my friends and I fully intend to do. If a strict time-limit is set in advance, it is, at least, worth a try. If this fails, should the Palestinians, then, proclaim their state within a year? My answer, for what it’s worth, is: Yes. Absolutely.

When? On the last day of this millenium? In the beginning of 2000? Only the Palestinians themselves can answer that.


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