The One-State solution: my interview with Ali Abunimah
Ok, I've promised you a post on this for a while. And it just hasn't happened.
Frankly, I was waiting first for Aljazeera to run an interview I did with Ali Abu Nimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.
But for a number of reasons, that hasn't happened yet either. So, in the meantime, I'm taking the liberty of running an extended form of the interview here on my blog.
What also encouraged me is an, um, interesting article today in Haaretz by Ariel Sharon's son in which he openly advocates tranfer of Israel's Palestinian population to increase the Jewish majority-something that Ali Abunimah discusses as an option that will gradually come to gain acceptance in Israeli society and eventually become official policy, as it is in Jerusalem. So here you have it.
A forewarning: its a long read. But a good one.
Interview with Ali Abunimah
By Laila El-Haddad
For nearly two decades, the so-called “two-state solution” has been promoted as the agreed upon framework for negotiations- and ultimately peace- to end the seemingly intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But two decades on, it has failed to bear fruit.
In his new book, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, Ali Abu Nimah (a Palestinian-American writer and commentator on Middle East and Arab-American affairs and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada site) argues that the “conventional wisdom” of the two-state, land-for-peace equation needs to be drastically re-thought. Partition, he argues, is a flawed idea that is ultimately doomed to fail.
The only viable choice is to a return to the proposal of a one-state solution-one country with equal rights and votes for both Israelis and Palestinians. Laila El-Haddad interviewed Abu Nimah by phone about his book.
Q: You go from reluctantly backing a two-state solution to advocating for a one-state solution. When did you make the ideological shift and why?
Ali: I always struggled with it but I did for many years sincerely believe that a two-state solution was the best solution; the most possible; the most pragmatic. I think I sort of made the final shift about 3 or 4 years ago during the [second] Intifada, when I just recognized that all the talk of a two-state solution, all of the diplomatic initiatives, were so divorced from the reality of what Israel was doing on the ground that it became clear to me it was not possible. I learnt more, I read more about South Africa, about Ireland, about Palestine, and this is where I ended up.
You spend a significant part of your introduction sharing your own family’s tumultuous exile from Jerusalem in 1948, and later acknowledge that some might say you have no desire for reconciliation because you dwell on history. How do you reconcile competing historical narratives in a future state?
It’s a hard question to answer. I think that peace can never be built on denial. When someone has to deny their history that is an exercise of power against them. When there’s equality people will be able to tell their history and tell their stories without it being seen as a threat to the other.
You have repeatedly described efforts to push forth a two-state solution as “flawed conventional wisdom”. What do you mean by that?
What I mean is that you can get a majority of people to agree in principle to partition as in “yes it’s a good idea let’s agree on partition”. But you can’t get them to agree in practice. And nobody succeeded to getting to a partition plan that a bare minimum of Palestinians accept and a bare majority of Israelis accept and vice versa.
The absolutely max they were prepared to offer in Camp David was much less than the minimum that the vast majority of Palestinian would accept. And there was not even an Israeli consensus around Camp David. So as long as we’re vague, as long as we say “we agree on partition in principle” then everyone says we agree it’s a good idea. But when you sit down to do it, nobody ever succeeded. The Israelis want too much and the Palestinians want too much to make it work.
You can’t partition something that is inhabited by the same people. That’s why partition failed in Ireland and brought about misery in India where still to this day [people] remember where they were displaced from and many bloody wars have since taken place.
Partition is about trying to create on the ground a purity that exists only in people’s minds. Human reality is always about mixing.
You draw on the South Africa case extensively. But ultimately, there was a desire amongst South Africans to live together in one state, a desire that many argue is currently absent in both Palestinian and Israeli societies.
There is a common misunderstanding that there was already agreement on the goal of a united democratic South Africa. That is not the case. The policy of the Whites was separatism and Apartheid was about creating a separate state for whites and an artificial state for blacks- the so-called Bantustans. So actually partition along the lines we see in Palestine was the model in South Africa that the whites were pushing, and I quote De Klerk saying so- that they only accepted the notion of a united South Africa after they lost and recognized that they couldn’t maintain their power.
Whites were not more ready to live with blacks than Israeli Jews are to live with Palestinians. The fact that they were willing to do so was the outcome of the struggle.
But are Palestinians as ready to live with Israelis as blacks were with whites?
I think in some ways more so. Another common misunderstanding is that most Palestinians want their own state. In the West Bank and Gaza you have about 60% consistently over time that say they support a two-state solution.
But you also have consistently between a quarter and third who say they support a bi-national state or a secular democratic state. Not an Islamic state- but a state for Palestinians and Jews with equal rights. Support for an Islamic state gets 3 or 5 or 15% maximum.
So it’s remarkable that support for a two-state solution is so tepid even in the West Bank and Gaza when there is a full industry- a multi billion dollar industry, to promote the two-state solution. I also think its remarkable that support for a one state solution is so high and increasing given the fact that there is no official leadership that is advocating it.
That’s Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza. If you look at situation within Israel, you find that the sort of united leadership of the Arab and Palestinian communities within Israel has called for transforming Israel into a bi-national state and interestingly the example they use is Belgium- one of the examples I use in the book.
According to a recent poll of Arab-Israelis, only 14% of respondents thought that Israel should remain a Jewish democratic state in its current form. 57% said they wanted a change in the character and definition of the state, whether a state for all its citizens, a bi-national state, or a consensual democracy.
In other words, the clear majority want a bi-national state.
Then you move to the third group of Palestinians-those in the diaspora. And the diaspora have not traditionally supported a two-state solution because they have a lot to lose. The price of that is the right of return.
You ask whether it is really possible to separately two deeply intertwined populations (the Palestinians and the Israelis) and whether they really want what separation would entail. Are they really so deeply intertwined and haven’t Israeli policies over the past few years been meant to ultimately “untwine” them?
They are intertwined in the way that Catholics and Protestants are intertwined in Northern Ireland, a place I’ve traveled to quite a lot. Also in the sense that they are geographically completely interspersed, you have a million plus Palestinian in what is supposed to be Israel, and half a million Israelis inside what is supposed to be the Palestinian state.
What I say is that partition-drawing a line between these two peoples- has never been possible. And when they recommended it in the Peel Commission [in 1937] for the first time they said clearly that there is no way to draw a line between these two people, and that therefore the only way to create a Jewish state is by the involuntary transfer of hundreds of thousands of Arabs.
And that situation remains-you cannot have a Jewish state without the forced transfer of Palestinians or a Palestinian state without forced transfer of Jews.
So when I say they are intertwined I don’t mean necessarily that they are dependent on each other- although they are in some ways- but rather dependent on the same resources, they live in same land, breathe the same air, use the same water, and I think Israel has a fantasy of separation and they have managed to convince people that is taking place but behind the shadows you can never hermetically seal an entire nation There will always be much more contact than Israel wants.
In the book, you share a story your father told you as a child, and then say that “anyone peering into the pot must see that if we keep stirring these rocks, we will die”.
Yes, it was the story of Omar ibn al-Khattab that my dad always tells about an old woman whose children are starving and so she just has some rocks in the pot and keeps stirring them.
And when the children say “when will the food be ready” she says “soon, soon” because even if she can’t feed them, she wants to give them the comfort of believing they are going to eat.
That’s how the two-state solution is.
They keep saying we will have it. They make them believe they will eat. And though I’ve not visited Gaza personally, I have gotten as close as I can to understanding the situation from reading your accounts. Isn’t this death what’s happening to people in Gaza? If every child is growing up in that situation in Gaza and yet the world is still talking about a two-state solution, and having a summit with Rice and Abbas and Olmert.
A One-state solution renders both Israeli desires for a Jewish state and Palestinian national aspirations moot…
No I don’t think it does actually.
…well then how do you fulfill the national aspirations of both peoples, especially since they have significantly shaped their identities and narratives?
In a way you have to re-imagine and re-define them. I’m not saying I have one solution- these are all ideas I propose in my book. I use Belgium as an example in the book because that’s where two groups with very strong senses of identity have figured out a way to get along in a situation where there are very strong separatist tendencies-and it helps explain why partition doesn’t work. The only thing more difficult than getting Flemish and French to agree is partition, because as long as you don’t try to divide it there’s peace. If one group decided to secede and you have to decide how to divide neighborhoods of Brussels, you’ll have a real war.
[The One-State solution] is a way to accommodate two nationalisms and strong identities within the same space.
What do you see as the biggest challenge to a one-state solution?
There are many. But the biggest challenge is getting there. We also shouldn’t’ get to a situation where we say “it’s so difficult and unimaginable.” Any solution is difficult and unimaginable. Who can imagine a two state solution given the realities on the ground? I I think peace of any kind, justice of any kind, seems very far from the perspectives of today. When you look at South Africa, the darkest period came before the dawn, let’s say. And I think we are going through the darkest period.
And we have to bring light to it, and I argue in two ways: one is to engage in principled resistance in what Israel is doing and the other is to offer an alternative vision-and it has to be a vision that both Palestinians and Israelis can identify with.
And we have to realize that Israelis will not look for a way out unless they feel they have to. And that’s how it was with white South Africans. With a clear message that at the end there is a vision that everybody is part of.
Aren’t these dual paths contradictory?
I wouldn’t say they are contradictory. They are both necessary. There is a tension between them but nevertheless we have to do both. A struggle without a vision is heading into the unknown. And a vision without a struggle will have no power.
As part of the solution you ultimately propose, you argue for both implementing the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and for preserving the Israeli Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to people with at least one Jewish grandparent. Do you see this move as legitimizing Zionism or at least incorporating a Zionist element into the new state?
You could say that. In a way it is. And I don’t see them as equivalent-the Law of Return and the Right of Return. But I do see that as one way that the state can provide the kind of acknowledgement of the identity and interests of both communities that live in it.
And as I say also there are not floods of people coming in under the Law of Return. But if Jewish people want to come, I would say “Ahlan wa Sahlan” [welcome] under the conditions of equality and not coming to take someone else’s place. But that is again as an idea for discussion I’m offering.
I don’t want people to say they disagree with one point and throw the idea out. This book is an invitation to engage in a debate about these matters.
You have been called idealistic. Is this a time for idealism?
I don’t mind. Someone has to be.
Ultimately there is no official endorsement on either side for a one-state solution, and there is already so much invested in the current peace trajectory both financially and politically. How or when, then, if ever, do you envision a turning point as there was in South Africa?
As my father says, “ma fi thawra makhda rukhsa”, in other words no movement for justice or liberation or against colonization, or whatever, for civil rights for suffrage, was granted a license to do so. Every such movement started off as an underground movement and as an illegal movement. The authorities never endorsed them. This is one but will also come form the margins, its already growing.
To me it’s incredible the reaction I’ve had to the book. It has been a grassroots reaction. Right now it’s published in the US in English so most of the reaction is in the United States. But almost everyday I get invitations from student groups, community groups around the country who want to talk about this.
And they say “why are the leaders NOT talking about this?” So I feel very good that this is a growing discussion and feel very good that people recognize that this idea has more currency and more support than people realize and recognize.
How has your book has been received within Israeli and Palestinian circles?
It’s still in its very early days. I would like to see it published in Arabic and Hebrew. I have gotten some reactions from Israelis through my website-a handful, which has been extremely positive-which I want to say surprised me but it didn’t.
I genuinely believe that there is a significant group of Israelis who want to have this discussion but feel so hopeless that they can’t. So I’m very eager. Even a lot of Israelis outside of Israel-you have a huge number who leave Israel because they are so disillusioned, and they disappear off the radar politically, they are not organized, but as individuals they’ve often gotten in touch with me and said “yes this is what has to happen”.
I hope that I have a chance to engage Israelis by having it published in Hebrew.
I haven’t heard any official Palestinian official reaction yet. Most of the Palestinian reaction that I have gotten is in the diaspora and particularly in the US and in the younger generations-those involved in student groups for Palestine, and there it has been overwhelmingly positive. And I’ve spoken now-even before it was published-I was out there speaking about a one-state solution.
You examine the case of South Africa and what you call the “shift in mindset” of the white Afrikaaner population to overcome Apartheid. Do you believe a similar ideological shift is possible in Israel? Are there different factors at play that would make such a shift more difficult?
The shift will occur when the price of the status quo becomes unbearable for Israelis.
I argue that let’s make the price high by means that will maximize the chance for future reconciliation. The beauty of the anti-Apartheid movement is that it imposed a very high price on white South Africans-but it also said “change your policies and all of this will go away”. The resistance was aimed at the system, and not the people. But it did impose a price on the people. And that’s an important lesson to learn.
You say partition is intimately associated with ethnic cleansing, and cite the Israeli settlements as an example of this, yet you propose that the bulk of settlements would be allowed to remain in a future state. Aren’t these two notions at odds with one another?
No because the whole point is that a Palestinian state requires the removal of settlements and that is something that is unlikely to happen. We are not talking about 8000 settlers in Gaza- we are talking about half a million people, and half of those are around Jerusalem.
I’m saying let’s end the hypocrisy of talking about opposing the settlements when in reality everybody is saying they are going to stay. Let’s deal with what the problem is with the settlements: they are really basically racist colonies.
The houses are basically not the problem-the problem is that the settlement is a closed space for Jews only. And it is an exercise of power. But if you say that the settlements become towns and anybody can live in them, then it’s a different matter. Some might have to be removed. Overall, settlements as physical structures can remain but their relationship to the rest of the country has to change.
And settlements that have been built on Palestinian land?
There has to be full restitution for people. The principle is there. In a democracy you can make people give up land for a public good. Here in the US they can come and take my property and say we are going to build something else provided it is a democratic decision. Decisions must be made in an equitable way. It’s possible some may not get their land back but they will get proper compensation. At the same time, it’s not just so Jews can keep the land but so anyone could buy a house and live there.
So it could resolve the issue of settlements in one fell swoop?
Of course it raises different problems but resolves the issue of purification-of forcing settlers out so there can be a Palestinian state. It’s a recognition that the country is inhabited throughout by Israeli and Palestinians.
There was significant public and international pressure that eventually helped break down Apartheid South Africa, forcing them to accept an ideological shift. Isn’t this kind of intervention and pressure notably absent in the Palestinian case?
Yes it’s a crucial point and it’s necessary. But that pressure did not come from the governments, it came from civil society. You’ll recall that the European and American governments were not eager to put sanctions on South African-they had a lot of good business with them. It was a civil society movement, very much ad hoc on campuses and churches that eventually forced governments to put sanctions in place.
Now that is a model that the International Solidarity Movements and others are following and I’ve been amazed on how rapidly it’s progressing. You now see the discussion in the US with the publication of President Carters’ book.
People are talking about Israel as an Apartheid state, almost every day. Despite clashes with the pro-Israel groups, you have more and more people speaking out. At the same time, you have this massive, official rallying around Israel.
I think you’ll be surprised how quickly things can change.
But with Europe’s history and the Holocaust?
I don’t think that Israel and its supporters are going to be able to put a lid on this. But I’m also not trying to say that it’s easy and going to be quick. But I do think it’s possible.
Many point out-including yourself that this idea has been around for decades with relatively little impact. What’s changed?
A couple of things. One is that when the idea was first proposed by Zionists in the twenties and thirties, they were a tenth of the population or less and Palestinians thought this was crazy, why should we share power equally with a group of new immigrants who they were convinced were going to take over the country?
At that time, I don’t think Palestinians conceived that they would necessarily lose out as much as they did so they had no reason or incentive to accept the notion of a Palestinian state at that time. In the 60s and 70s when it was the official policy of the PLO, you had Israelis who had no interest in it because the Zionist movement as a whole thought they had the power to have it all.
It’s been the same in Northern Ireland. Whenever one side thought they could ultimately prevail they never talk about reconciliation or power-sharing. Often people are only reconcilable to power-sharing and figuring out a way to live together when they’ve exhausted all the other options.
Critics of a one-state solution, namely Harvard lawyer and author of The case for Israel Alan Dershowitz, cite as their arguments against it the lack of interest amongst the parties, the ethnic/religious conflicts in the bi-national states of Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia, and the fact that it would destroy the “Jewish character” of the state of Israel.
That’s such nonsense. Israel is obsessed now with demography. Every Palestinian terrifies them because the only way to maintain their state is though demographic superiority. If you look around the world there are many examples of multi-ethnic states that work well.
The point is it’s not easy to get groups with inequities or who have been fighting together-that’s why we have to look to solutions like that.
The point is not that we have a choice or menu of options. What I’m saying is that partition is impossible -these people cannot be separated. So the choice is ethnic cleansing or to find a way to get together.
It’s not because I went into a restaurant and said “you have a one state solution, two state solution, and the ten state solution”. We are dealing with a reality where people simply cannot be separated.
They now proclaim Gaza is separate state. It’s the most wretched place on earth and now they are saying “it’s not our business, it’s another country”. They stole the land, lives, and futures of the people in Gaza and are now saying “it’s not our problem anymore”.
At least in one state everybody has the opportunity to resolve economic justice.
Let’s talk abut the demographic question then.
Israelis are ..their myth is that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. They want a Jewish state. The only way they can call it a democracy is if Jews can always outvote everybody else. That is why they are obsessed with a Jewish majority. The source of power comes form numbers.
But if we take that out and say everybody has equal rights, you are not fro group that has larger numbers, we can reduce the role of demography. The reality is that Jews and Palestinians are now 50-50. And wishing that away is not going to change anything.
Then of course issues like ethnic cleaning and transfer have to become institutionalized to maintain a Jewish state.
If the only goal is to maintain a Jewish state and if you say Israeli has a right to be a Jewish state, then you have to remember that there is no right without a remedy. So if a non-Jewish member of that state violates the right of that state for having too many non-Jewish babies, then Israel can have the right to expel them.
That is the logical conclusion.
Saying Israel has a right to be a Jewish state is saying Israel has a right to control the demographics and to be racist and the only way to control demographics is to violate people’s human rights, to expel them, and to stop them from having babies- all of which are major, major violations of the most fundamental human rights.