The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be a smoldering problem in the Middle East and remains a threat to the stability of the region. The world today has become a smaller place – a global village. The ramifications of what happens in this region affect the stability of the world. There are still no signs that a solution to this conflict is at hand. The US has decided to hold a peace conference in November with the participation of Israel and Palestine as well as invitations to the moderate Arab states in the region. There does not seem to be any enthusiasm or any hint of a breakthrough. There are attempts between Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and Palestine’s President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to a working paper to turn the conference into a success in deeds rather than rhetoric.
There has been much discussion over the years on the issue of a binational state for Israelis and Palestinians as well as a two state solution for both peoples. The trend today, (this has overwhelming support by the US, EU, UN and Russia) is support for the latter.
Despite this, it would be worthwhile discussing both possibilities openly and objectively considering the pros and cons of both the binational state and two state solutions.
While there is frustration on both sides of the great divide because of lack of progress and the cycle of terror between the two sides resulting in lack of trust between them. However, the situation between Israelis and Palestinians, if it does not improve, will slide into further violence which could inflame the whole Middle East and further beyond. Another important factor which has been mentioned many times and remains the crux of the conflict is the failure of many Arab states including elements in the Palestinian camp such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their allies to recognize Israel’s right to exist. The conflict, unfortunately is not only about Israeli occupation, but also about the legitimacy of a non-Moslem state (Israel) existing in the Middle East amongst its Arab neighbours.
It is well known that the establishment of the Israel in 1948 resulted in rejoicing for the Jewish people after centuries of suffering heartless anti-Semitism in the Diaspora culminating in the Holocaust of the Nazi Period under Hitler. For the indigenous inhabitants of the area – the Palestinians – this was Al Naqba – the “catastrophe” or “great tragedy”. Because of the War of Independence an Arab refugee problem was created as many Palestinians fled their homes and has remained a problem until this day. These people have been housed in refugee camps under conditions of extreme poverty beyond Israel’s borders and no solution has been found. Three generations of refugees have grown up in this squalor and their hatred for Israel has increased as a result. There had been no attempt to solve this problem and it has remained a political football since Israel’s establishment.
Today there are signs of pragmatism amongst moderate Arab states towards recognizing Israel’s right to exist, but this is dependent on solving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the refugee problem, including the right of return of refugees to their original homes prior to Israel’s establishment. Failure to achieve this could result in Islamist extremism to take further hold of the poverty stricken people in the region and would result in Iran gaining more influence by financing extremist Islamist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Al Qaeda could also become more dangerous by establishing terror cells in the area as well as in many countries of the world.
These frustrations could spur the warring parties to find a solution or it could result in further conflagrations and continuing spirals of violence.
There are three possible solutions:
1. A binational state for both Israelis and Palestinians
2. A binational confederation concerning a three-state network.
3. A two state solution - each people living in its own state.
Let us examine the binational state solution. This is the establishment of a common state in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This would comprise one democratic state whereby the Palestinian Arabs will be given citizenship and an equal status with the Jewish and Arab citizens of present-day Israel. This state should be secular being neither Jewish nor Moslem. There would be no ruling by Sharia (Moslem law) or Halacha (Jewish law) in this state. In order to achieve this, both Palestinians and Israelis will have to change their basic ideas and be prepared to have total separation of religion and state. This does not mean that there will be no religion at all. Each religious group will be responsible for running its own religious affairs and will be given government support in this. However, safeguards must be introduced for preventing the domination of one religious group by another. All religions will have equal status and have their interest represented under one cabinet minister – the Minister of Religion, who will attend to the necessities of the various religious groups. The Minister of Religion could serve on a rotation basis between Jews, Moslems and Christians.
The idea of a binational state has been discussed as early as the 1920’s.
In 1925, Martin Buber in Germany and Judah Magnes in Palestine established Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) to promote Jewish-Arab understanding in Palestine. Brit Shalom, which functioned until 1933, stood on a platform of creating "a binational state in which the two peoples will enjoy equal rights as befits the two elements shaping the country's destiny, irrespective of which of the two is numerically superior at any given time" (from their first publication Our Aspirations, 1927). It had a few hundred members, mostly European-born intellectuals like Buber and the journalist Robert Weltsch. Albert Einstein was sympathetic to its vision. The general concept of binationalism was to be adopted by other minority Zionist groups, like Hashomer Hatzair and Mapam, Kedmah Mizracha, the Ichud and the League for Jewish-Arab Rapprochement. (From Wikipedia)
The binational state theory in today’s context could solve many problems between Israel and the Palestinians. The refugee problem would be easier to solve as the refugees would have the right of return to the binational democratic state.
The nature of the binational state could be a federation called “The Federation of Israel and Palestine”.
Professor Lama Abu-Odeh of Georgetown University, in her article “The Case for Binationalism”,
states that “the two-state solution has already lost a great deal of its historic appeal. The political events and institutions subsequent to the Oslo Accords of 1993—all the painful renegotiation and implementation leading to the second intifada—are to my mind responsible for the shifting enthusiasm.1 The period since Oslo has revealed the "unrepresentativeness" of the Palestinian Authority; it has not generated meaningful territorial gains; and it has not resulted in any progress on the crucial question of the return of refugees. Moreover, developments since Oslo have raised serious questions about the attractions of a separate state as a vehicle for expressing Palestinian aspirations and advancing Palestinian interests. Thus we have seen the development of social and economic "structural dependency" between Israel and the Palestinian regions; the emergence of "overlapping domains of national consciousness" due to factors such as daily labor movement to and from Israel; and the emergence of a new Palestinian national elite that shares economic interests with the Israeli state apparatus”.
She also states that the failure of the Oslo Accords makes it worthwhile to reconsider the idea of binationalism. .
Professor Abu-Odeh continues: “Binationalism in this context expresses the idea that the land of Mandate Palestine should be transformed into a secular state—a constitutional-liberal state, with Arabs and Jews as its national citizens. Its famous maxim is "One Land for Two Peoples" and its most famous proponents are the Palestinian American writer Edward Said and Azmi Bishara, (a Palestinian-Israeli member of the Israeli Knesset at the time this article was written). The advocates of binationalism typically distinguish it from the more familiar two-state solution, according to which two states, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, are imagined to coexist next to each other. It is also, of course, sharply distinguished from the current situation, in which a recognizable Israeli state coexists with disparate, partially autonomous, Palestinian areas within the West Bank and Gaza strip, while the remainder of the latter areas remains under the control of the Israeli army, whether its inhabitants are Palestinians, or Jews living in the largely isolated colonies commonly known as settlements”.
The decision to move towards a binational state depends on the desire of both parties to the conflict to achieve that goal. It is highly unlikely that it would be acceptable to the Israelis because mainstream Israel sees it as a threat to Jewish aspirations for a homeland for the Jewish People where the Jews are in the majority. Also there is no trust between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians when one considers the bitter history between the two peoples which is full of violence, terror and hate.
Mainstream Palestinians would not accept this either as it would be a threat to Moslem hegemony and their identity as Palestinians. For binationalism to survive or gain support there must be trust between the two peoples so that there could be a lower common denominator of desire to make it work. Both sides would have to work towards a single nation status that is secular in character with both sides striving for the same aspirations of a common statehood. At present there is no such desire from either side each having their own reasons not to support this binational concept.
Jerome M. Segal (a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies, and the president of The Jewish Peace Lobby), suggests a binational confederation
as opposed to a binational state as proposed by Professor Abu-Odeh. He talks about a three-state framework which at the same time preserves the Jewish character of the State of Israel. It seeks to use the idea of a binational state and a confederation to give Israelis and Palestinians who wish to be citizens of a binational state an opportunity to do so. It offers a way for some refugees to return to lands within current Israel without threatening the demographic balance among Israeli citizens. It further offers a way of circumventing the problem of Israelis' and Palestinians' sovereign claims to the Old City and its religious sites. And it may provide a way of dealing with the long-term demographic challenges facing a Jewish state that aspires to the values of democracy. This idea has the same problems as Abu-Odeh’s idea. For any of these ideas to be accepted there must be total trust between the two sides as well as a desire to recognize each others right to exist and all that it entails.
While the basis for this kind of arrangement is non-existent between both sides, the alternative of a two state solution remains the only viable alternative. Even this alternative does not have the total support of both Israelis and Palestinians. The former talks about giving up territory but does not give any concrete ideas of how to achieve this because there is no leadership in Israel or in the Palestinian camp who are serious about true negotiations. Both sides are beating about the bush and getting nowhere fast. Abu Mazen, the Palestinian leader, has Hamas breathing down his neck preventing any progress in peace negotiations while Ehud Olmert has his right wing coalition partners breathing down his neck preventing Olmert from making any real concessions to the Palestinians apart from a few cosmetic gestures such as limited prisoner releases of prisoners “without blood on their hands”. Both parties are in a “Catch 22” situation with both the Palestinians and Israelis being impotent bystanders.
Uri Avnery, a veteran left wing peacenik and a great supporter of peace, coexistence, and a Palestinian State alongside Israel in a thought-provoking article The Bi-national State: The Wolf Shall Dwell With The Lamb , disagrees with the binational idea. He sees the dismemberment of the communist bloc into sovereign nationalistic states where the indigenous peoples are rediscovering their national heritage and their religion that goes with it. This he views as a world-wide trend. The molding of nationalist groups seeking their identity into a binational state with a common heritage is doomed to failure.
He states: “The immediate roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more than a hundred years. A fifth generation has been born into it and its mental world has been shaped by it. It is a clash between the Zionist movement and the Arab-Palestinian national movement. After a hundred years, the force of Zionism is far from exhausted. Its main thrust – expansion, occupation and settlement – is in full, offensive swing. On the Palestinian side, nationalism (including the Islamic version) is deepening and growing from martyr to martyr. It takes real faith to believe that these two nationalistic peoples will give up the essence of their hopes and turn from total enmity to total peace, giving up their national narratives and being ready to live together as supra-national citizens”.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have national aspirations. These aspirations of identity cannot be viewed as a common identity. The Palestinians wish to have a viable state where they can realize their aims of patriotism no less than the Israelis. Both sides do not have anything in common or desire that would move the two peoples together towards a binational state.