One state with equal rights

August 8, 2008

The Oslo Accords of August 1993 were supposed to lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel. Fifteen years later, after a vast increase in Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the ongoing erection of an apartheid wall and the barbaric siege of Gaza, increasing numbers of Palestinians and their supporters regard a two-state solution as unworkable. Snehal Shingavi looks at the debate.

IN THE 1970s, the dominant Fatah group within the Palestine Liberation Organization dropped its demand for a unified state governing all of Palestine with equal rights for all citizens and began the process of promoting a "two-state solution."

In the aftermath, a consensus grew among the Palestinian left that a Palestinian mini-state was the only viable solution for Palestinians. According to this argument, the best Palestinians could achieve was a state established on the territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 Six Day War--land that amounted to less than 30 percent of historic Palestine.

The conclusion that a two-state solution was the only viable alternative reflected several political realities. The first was the belief that Israel had become a dominant power in the region, with the backing of the United States and Europe. Israel's victory in the 1967 Six Day War--and the unwillingness and inability of any other states to deliver a decisive military blow against it--confirmed this conclusion.

Demonstration for Palestinian rights in Chicago
Demonstration for Palestinian rights in Chicago

The second factor was a shift in the thinking of the mainstream Palestinian liberation movement, toward trilateral negotiations (between the PLO, Israel and the U.S.) and away from armed struggle and a broader engagement of regional issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

While armed struggle, in itself, held no hope of winning Palestinian statehood, the trilateral negotiations among unequal powers meant that the PLO had little with which to bargain and much to lose. Once the PLO accepted peace talks and the nebulous "two-state" framework that came with them, a series of political debacles took place under the auspices of the Oslo Accords. Yet the "peace process" reinforced the idea that Palestinian statehood would happen only at Israel's behest.

The other factor in the debate was a decline in the Palestinian secular left, the long-time proponent of the idea of a single, democratic, secular state in Palestine.

The political weaknesses of the Palestinian left--its traditions of Stalinism and its unwillingness to oppose the Arab ruling classes of other countries in the region--left it unable to meet the challenges it faced. Thus, when the armed struggle posed the possibility of regional revolutions in the 1970s and Arab governments, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon, cracked down savagely on the Palestinian resistance, the left was paralyzed.

With the demise of the secular left, the possibility of a one-state solution seemed to die as well. As a further consequence, Palestinians lost a single banner for a unified movement that represented their concerns as an oppressed nation. Since the 1948 creation of Israel on much of the land of historic Palestine, Palestinians have always been divided between those who live within Israel's borders, those in the Occupied Territories and those in the diaspora. Abandoning a one-state solution meant accepting those divisions as permanent.

The result was that the Palestinian nationalist struggle gave rise to rival movements and rival local leaders. Israel has been able to play on those divisions and the relative weakness of the Palestinian resistance to tighten the screws on the Palestinian population to unbearable levels.

BUT ISRAELI policies over the past 15 years, under the auspices of the Oslo Accords, have convinced increasing numbers of Palestinians that the idea of a mini-state, or a two-state solution, isn't viable.

Rather, it leaves unresolved all the decisive issues that resulted from the creation of the state of Israel in the first place--not the least of which are the rights of the large refugee population.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq five years ago, conditions for Palestinians have only worsened. Brutal military attacks by Israel exhausted and drained the Palestinian resistance of the Second Intifada, which erupted in 2000. Plus, a barbaric policy of cutting resource flows and population movements in the West Bank and Gaza, in the name of Israeli security, has pushed more than 75 percent of the population under the poverty line.

Meanwhile, Israel has constructed a euphemistically named "separation barrier"--in reality, a concrete wall that limits movement and runs through Palestinian villages and property. There has also been a dramatic increase in the settler population in the West Bank, outstripping the number of Israeli settlers removed from Gaza.

Compounding the misery is the illegal withholding of tax revenues and an economic blockade, implemented by Israel and the U.S. to punish Palestinians for democratically electing the Hamas government in January 2006.

Yet the U.S. and Israel continue to demand that Palestinians make all the compromises, even as Israel expands its illegal occupation.

As a consequence, support for the idea of a secular, democratic state in Palestine has made a comeback.

An important indicator of this shift was the election of the Islamist party Hamas to the Palestinian Authority's parliament. Hamas' opposition to the Oslo Accords and the occupation differentiated it from the PLO and Fatah, which not only compromised on principles, but have shown a willingness to collaborate with Israel to run the occupation.

Importantly, too, academics have voiced support for a one-state solution. Three important new books--Virginia Tilley's The One State Solution, Ali Abunimah's One Country, and Saree Makdisi's Palestine Inside Out--all make the compelling case that an exclusively Jewish state of Israel would dominate any Palestinian mini-state, and that the changed conditions of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza make it necessary to focus on the creation of a single state with equal rights for all.

The renewed support for a one-state solution rests on two main arguments.

The first is that the two-state solution, no matter whose version you examine, would produce a Palestinian state in name only. Divided into bantustans geographically disconnected from one another, with little control over air space, borders, water resources and the economy, a Palestinian mini-state would be entirely at the mercy of the U.S. and Israel. The only way to solve the problem of Palestinian rights is to integrate Palestinians and Israelis into one state.

The second key argument for a single-state solution is a response to the logic of Zionism. The Zionist project--the creation of an exclusively Jewish state--inevitably requires policies designed to encourage or force Palestinians to leave Israel and the Occupied Territories, and that means increasingly barbaric attacks against Palestinians.

Either the Zionist project is defeated by the victory of one secular state for all, or the logic of Zionism slowly starves and kills Palestinians out of their land.

THE BIGGEST problem is that despite the strength of the case for a one-state solution, the strategy to achieve it is lacking. As Jennifer Loewenstein put it, "For all the talk about a one-, two- or bi-national state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, the reality is that no state solution for Palestine is on the near or distant horizon. Palestine is a series of disconnected pieces whose division into still smaller parts continues month after month."

Certainly, relying on U.S. officialdom is a non-starter. Barack Obama's recent trip to the Middle East highlights why. Obama, once a self-defined activist for Palestinian rights, has already bent over backward to prove that he will uphold the U.S.'s longstanding tradition of backing Israeli security at all costs. As Ali Abunimah has noted:

Every aspect of Obama's visit to Palestine-Israel...has seemed designed to further appease pro-Israel groups. Typically for an American aspirant to high office, he visited the Israeli Holocaust memorial and the Western Wall. He met the full spectrum of Israeli Jewish (though not Israeli Arab) political leaders. He traveled to the Israeli Jewish town of Sderot, which until last month's ceasefire, frequently experienced rockets from the Gaza Strip. At every step, Obama warmly professed his support for Israel and condemned Palestinian violence.

This raises, once again, the theories of the secular left that had been abandoned. The question of Zionism is intimately connected to the projects of American imperialism and global capitalism. This means that the issue of a single, secular, democratic state is not just in the interests of Palestinians, but working people throughout the Middle East.

Israel, of course, not only affects the lives of Israelis and Palestinians--its foreign policies have vast regional implications, and complement the U.S. military's permanent foothold in the region. Consequently, the issue of Zionism is a regional issue that affects masses of people throughout the Arab world.

So while armed struggle and popular resistance by Palestinians have been unable, by themselves, to force the hand of the American and Israeli governments, the Palestinian struggle has the potential to inspire a sleeping giant. The Arab working classes have the potential power to push the U.S. military out of the region, resist Zionism and end the collaboration of various Arab governments with the U.S. and Israel.

The Zionist project won't be reined in by the U.S. or any force in Israeli politics. The struggle ahead will be long and difficult. But the first step is recognizing that a two-state strategy will only preserve Israeli power--and that the time has come to demand a single, democratic and secular state.

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