Return of the one-state solution

Issue: 116

Jonathan Maunder

Jamil Hilal (ed), Where now for Palestine? The Demise of the Two-State Solution (Zed Books, 2007), £17.99

This collection of essays by a variety of academics is a significant development in the debate over the possibility of a “one_state” (or “bi-national”) solution to the “Palestinian problem”. Alongside books such as Ghada Karmi’s recent Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine and Joel Kovel’s Overcoming Zionism, it shows that the arguments moving away from the traditional “two-state” solution are gathering strength.

The key argument behind the idea of a one-state solution is that the ideology that drives the state of Israel—Zionism—has always been one of domination and expansion in the service of imperialism, rather than one of cooperation and equality with the Arab population. Israel defines itself as a state of an ethnic group (the Jews) and not a state of all its citizens (ie the 20 percent Palestinian Arab minority who live in Israel), an anomaly among parliamentary democracies.

To leave the state of Israel intact, as the two-state solution envisages, would not only deny the Palestinians a large chunk of historic Palestine, but would also leave untouched the source of oppression and instability in the region, and leave any Palestinian state vulnerable to ongoing restrictions and possible attacks. What is needed, therefore, is a single democratic state which brings Arabs and Jews together and gives predominance to no single ethnic or religious group.

What is interesting and significant about this book, and which also provides some of its limitations, is that some of the writers are from what might be called the Palestinian “establishment” and previously would not have seriously considered the one-state solution. This includes, among other serious academic specialists on the Middle East such as Sharif S Elmusa, a member of the Palestinian delegation in the 1993 talks with Israel in Washington, and Ziad Abu-Amr, a former minister of culture in the Palestinian Authority.

What has brought about this change? Most fundamentally, as this book makes clear, a recognition of the material reality on the ground in the occupied territories. The period since the signing of the 1994 Oslo Accords has seen a massive increase in Israel’s colonisation of the Palestinian territories through settlements, the building of settler-only roads, the plundering and destruction of Palestinian natural resources and the building of the separation wall which has encroached into Palestinian territory.

This has created an intricate and complex web of control which in some very direct ways supports the functioning of Israeli society. One example of this is the control over water that settlements provide. As Ariel Sharon asked in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in 2001, “Is it possible today to concede control of the hill aquifer, which supplies a third of our water?… You know, it’s not by accident that the settlements are located where they are” (p127). Similarly, in relation to the Palestinian economy as a whole, Israel has established a direct connection between its occupation policies and its own economic interests. As Elmusa puts it, “Fragmentation and severe restrictions on the mobility of people and goods have turned the Palestinian economy into a series of micro-economies attached to the Israeli economy” (p214).

Given the extent of Israeli colonisation many of the writers in this collection are pessimistic about the viability of a two-state solution. Husam Mohamad writes, “The actual realities in the occupied territories reveal that it might be impossible to implement the two-state solution” (p108), while Sufyan Alissa, after an analysis of the current state of the Palestinian economy, argues that the economic viability of the occupied territories is “problematic” and, therefore, “this also raises questions about the viability [of] the two_state solution, where the Palestinians establish their state within the 1967 borders of the occupied territories” (p140).

Elmusa also points out that a two-state solution cannot resolve the issue of the right of return for the Palestinian refugees. Any Jewish person in the world has the automatic right to live in Israel, but those Palestinian refugees exiled in 1948 have no such right to return to their homes, which now lie within Israeli territory.

Aside from the material reality on the ground in the occupied territories there is also the question of what kind of entity Israel would allow to come into existence on its borders. As many of the writers point out, Israel has assimilated the two-state discourse into its strategy for domination. As’ad Ghanem writes that Israel’s post_Oslo policy has been “to demarcate the permanent borders of Israel unilaterally…to retain a numerical Jewish majority within the borders of this state and to establish an accommodating authority on the Palestinian side to provide security and basic economic functions” (p56). Ilan Pappe describes this as “a Palestinian Bantustan…which the world has already hailed as a two-state solution”(p42).

As well as providing useful empirical data on the effect of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories, the book also includes some interesting chapters from Jamil Hilal, who gives the historical context to the ongoing debate over two-state and one-state solutions, and Karma Nabulsi, who illustrates the growing rift that has occurred between ordinary Palestinians and the leaders of the Palestinian Authority since the signing of the Oslo Accords.

However, perhaps due to the background of the contributors, the book does have some limitations. It is frustratingly imprecise on strategies that would pose a serious challenge to Israel. Crucially this is because the writers limit the conflict to being purely between Israel and the Palestinians, which of course is a conflict with a huge imbalance of power. None of the writers broaden their scope to consider how Palestinian liberation and an end to the Zionist state can be part of a wider movement across the Middle East—something which could upset the balance of power upon which Israel’s strength depends.

One important current example not mentioned in the book is the mass movement in Egypt (described in this issue of International Socialism), which is shaking one of the key pro-Israeli Arab dictators in the region. If a movement there can topple the government and impose a real strategy of solidarity with the Palestinians on whoever subsequently takes power it would have a significant effect across the region.

Unfortunately, this lack of focus on the wider struggle, and on the question of class in the Middle East, leads some contributors of this book to a very narrow, almost neoliberal, conception of Palestinian liberation. For example, Elmusa writes, “A single state in Greater Palestine means a large population and therefore a large market, highly desirable in today’s extremely competitive world economy” (p228). This would seem to be following the disastrous policy of many post-colonial regimes who have made their peace with global capitalism and have presided over massive inequality and corruption. However, these sentiments do not, in general, characterise this book, which, despite its limitations, marks an important shift in thinking on the Palestinian issue. It is an important resource for all those struggling for genuine liberation for the Palestinians.