A Binational State? God Forbid!

Uri Avnery, the well-known Israeli left-wing peace activist and past Knesset member who has worked tirelessly for many decades to bring an end to the Israel/Palestine conflict, is a vocal critic of the so-called ‘one-state solution’. In articles with titles such as “A Binational State? God Forbid!” or “The One State Solution – A Vision of Despair”, Avnery disagrees with some very prominent Palestinians and Israelis (mostly, but not entirely, from the Left) about the viability and plausibility of a binational state. For example, Edward Said, the Palestinian American who was an outspoken critic of the policies of successive Israeli (and Palestinian) governments and an ardent supporter of Palestinian rights, has said that even though it “is not easy to imagine”, “real peace can come only with a binational Israeli-Palestinian state.” (See also, Virginia Tilley’s book The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock, Tony Judt’s article Israel: The Alternative, or Ilan Pappe: The Two-State Solution Is Not Going to Work”). Avnery’s criticisms of the one-state solution are of course not on par with those who see any call for a one-state solution as advocating Israel’s destruction: so let us briefly look at what the one-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict would involve, and then discuss why Avnery is so vehemently dismissive of such an approach (as a result, Avnery remains a supporter of the two-state solution, for practical rather than idealistic reasons).

The one-state solution was first proposed by left wing Zionists in the early 20th century (most notably Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, who were the authors, amongst a handful of others, of Palestine – Divided or United? The Case for a Bi-National Palestine before the United Nations, click here for details of their UN appearance), at a time when Jews were a small minority in Palestine. The Palestinians at the time did not agree to such a proposal. Then, in the mid-20th century, some Palestinians called for a move towards a “democratic, nonsectarian state, in which Jews, Muslims, and Christians will live together as equals”. For the Israelis, as Avnery notes, “this was just a polite way of saying that their state must be dismantled.” Thus, “No takers again.” But in the last decade or so, the one-state solution has been resurrected and its supporters include many who once believed in the two-state solution but now believe that, assuming the “facts on the ground” remain as they are, it is impossible. There are several proposals in regards to the implementation of the one-state solution (some are much more concrete than others), these are outlined, amongst many others, in the books and articles cited above (see also Khada Karmi’s Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine), but the overarching theme is, as Karmi notes, one of a secular state in which all citizens will have equal rights and whose membership will not be derived from ethnic or religious groups; citizens will be equal before the law as individuals, irrespective of race or religion. Supporters of the one-state solution admit that its implementation is difficult and near-impossible, but they argue that it is the only thing that can be done that will bring justice, peace, and security to both Israelis and Palestinians.

The question of the nature of a binational state should be considered together with the following:

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

Avnery’s “answer to all three questions is an unequivocal No.” Let us take a brief look at his reasoning.

(1) Avnery does not believe that Israel would accept a binational state in the foreseeable future (“and no other future is relevant”). This is because it “contradicts the basic Zionist ethos of the State of Israel.” Zionism was founded in part as a response to European nationalism that was steeped in anti-Semitism, peaking in the Second World War. Israel thus  allowed the Jews some sort of a safe haven. A binational state would be seen as the elimination of the only safe haven for the Jews of the world: this is a psychological barrier that would be take generations to overcome. “Can the Palestinian people wait for 50 or 100 years for such a miracle to happen? With the relentless push of the Israeli settlements going on, what will remain of Arab Palestine then?” On the other side, Avnery doubts that the Palestinians would accept a binational state.

(2) Even if both people can agree to a binational state, will it be able to function? Avnery states that there is not “a single instance of two nations living peacefully in one common binational or multinational state.” Canada, where “two highly civilised communities, divided by nothing but language, totter perpetually on the brink of brakeup”, is apparently not such an instance; neither is Belgium, where “Walloons and Flemings have been living together for centuries, but whose interaction has at best been uneasy”; neither is Cyprus. The only success according to Avnery is Switzerland, but that is an anomaly because it is “the result of a centuries-old process, the very opposite of an artificial creation imposed by an act of will”. It is perhaps a bit extravagant of Avnery to suggest that there is not a single instance of two nations living peacefully in a binational state, and the tensions that exist in Canada or Belgium would be a dream come true compared to the tensions that exist between the Israelis and Palestinians. Nevertheless, Avnery holds that it is utopian to believe that the Israelis and Palestinians, “two extremely nationalistic peoples, could turn practically overnight from total enemies into loving compatriots”.

(3) The third question, whether a binational state would bring an end to the conflict, is perhaps a moot point since one cannot know in advance how such an arrangement would transpire. Avnery believes that a binational state would leave the Israeli superiority intact and turn the Palestinians into “an exploited underclass devoid of real power.” It is far more probable, says Avnery, that a binational state would develop “in the direction of the former South Africa, with years and years of violent struggle ahead.”

The above was just a rough sketch of the debate over the one-state versus the two-state solution, there is of course much more to consider and discuss, but for many (Avnery notwithstanding) the difficulties and seemingly insurmountable hurdles in front of the one-state solution are almost irrelevant for they feel that a one-state solution is the only just solution to the conflict.

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