A land for all its people?

Ran Greenstein examines a new civil initiative that looks beyond the one-state/two-states paradigm

Thursday, 27 October, 2011 - 10:41
London, UK

In the last decade, political debate on the Left has focused on the one-state/two-states issue. Historically, progressive forces in Israel saw the two-states solution as the only alternative to the occupation and Israeli domination over the entire country.

Initially that position enjoyed the support of a small minority of Israeli Jews, but by the end of the 1980s the situation had begun to change. With the first intifada of 1987, and the declaration of independence of the State of Palestine the following year, the prospect of the two-states solution became more appealing to many Israelis. Progress on the diplomatic front seemed to support this trend, especially the Oslo accords of 1993.

At the same time, another process operating simultaneously opened up a paradox. Ongoing settlement led to the intensification of Israeli control over the occupied territories. The more people declared their support for the two-states solution in theory, the more remote it became in practice.

With Oslo, political rhetoric reflected recognition of the temporary nature of the occupation and its impending demise. At the same time, settlers and military forces grabbed more land, entrenched themselves more firmly in the territories and – with the help of state and civil society forces alike – acted to erase the distinction between Israel 'proper' and post-67 'Greater Israel'.

The gap between the common sense of public opinion and reality on the ground continued to widen. In response, supporters of the two-state solution intensified their efforts to reach an agreement before it was too late, but have failed to this day to bring about any change in Israeli policies.

Another group of Israeli dissidents has gradually come to realize that there may no longer be any prospect for two viable states: the settlers have grown in numbers and geographical spread and would be difficult to dislodge; the state and its military and civilian institutions have been thoroughly implicated in that process, and it would be delusional to expect any willingness or ability on their part to change the situation.

From this perspective, the only purpose served by the two-states solution and the endless 'peace process' is to disguise reality and allow the occupation to continue unopposed.

Is the one-state solution a realistic alternative, then? It proposes to overcome the problem of withdrawal, and address the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel and refugees, whose problems go back to 1948 and not 1967. At the same time, it fails to address the entrenched division between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, who conceive their identity in mutually exclusive ethno-religious terms.

Unlike apartheid South Africa, in which the population adopted many partially overlapping racial, ethnic and religious identities, the dichotomy between Jews and Arabs seems less conducive for a 'rainbow nation' type of integrative solution.

Nonetheless, a new perspective is calling for precisely such a solution, based on the notion that all residents of the country between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River are equally entitled to citizenship rights, but also to recognition of their unique identities.

Inspired by Professor Yehouda Shenhav's book, The Time of the Green Line (Am-Oved, 2010), Eretz Yoshveyha (Land of its Inhabitants) aims to go beyond the futile debate on the number of states, to exploring possibilities based on sharing rather than dividing the land. 

Eretz Yoshveyha's manifesto declares: “The division of the land into two hermetically sealed political territories with a separation fence/wall between them is no longer possible, and if possible definitely not sustainable, and is destructive politically, geographically, economically, socially and religiously.” Only in this way, say the members of this group, can the rights of individuals and communities be ensured, without any forced removals. Sovereignty can overlap or be shared in a creative attempt to accommodate both equality and recognition of diversity in the joint homeland of both groups.

Eretz Yoshveyha is a new campaign, with a web site and manifesto, and one public meeting attended by 150 people to its credit. Not much, but its significance consists in opening up new avenues of analysis and action that might take us beyond stale debates. It is based on a core principle – shared political space as an overarching framework – rather than a detailed outline of future arrangements.

The group is mostly Jewish in composition, with some Palestinian citizens as well, but no presence of Palestinians from the occupied territories or the Palestinian diaspora. The risk of its becoming just another intra-Jewish debating society is real. Still, its members raise a crucial point: that Israel/Palestine is a bi-national society ruled by a single political-military regime. The big challenge is to transform that regime into one that treats all its subjects equally, as individual citizens and national collectives. And the proposed way is to start doing that at the level of civil society, without waiting for parties and state institutions to take the initiative.

Building bi-nationalism from the ground up has led the campaign to take the controversial step of calling for settlers to be regarded as legitimate residents. Hence the rejection of forced removals. But this is problematic. As pointed out by critics, settlers are not Jews who merely happen to live in the West Bank. They moved there as part of the occupation, to entrench Jewish domination, with the use of a legal and military apparatus serving to displace the local population. The call to remove them as a precondition for any solution does not stem from prejudice; it is not ethnic cleansing. Rather, it is a call for redress, for reversing the dispossession effected since 1967.

Removing settlers against their will may be difficult logistically, and other ways may have to be found to restore justice, but condoning 'a fact on the ground' that was forced on the local population is not quite a cause for celebration. Seeking to incorporate all potential supporters of a shared homeland is not wrong, of course, but there should be no illusions suggesting that settlers would join en masse.

This is a modest start, which may hold great promise, and must be explored further. When all existing roads have led nowhere, the road less travelled may be the only way forward.

Ran Greenstein is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg, South Africa. He has written extensively on the genealogies of the conflicts in Palestine/Israel and South Africa.

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Image by Fogelson-Lubliner, taken from www.nytimes.com

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