IsraLeft Salvage: A pipe-dream, maybe, but not a nightmare

The last two of my posts on IsraLeft are also the two I am most proud of. It’s not that they’re perfect, or even that I still fully agree with what I said, but they reflect a sentiment I had and still have, and draw out my vision (which is in no way a unique one, of course) of how Israel can be a better state. Unfortunately, with the removal of the original site, the text to which this one responds will no longer be available, but I think the post stands on its own nonetheless. Rod has graciously allowed me to reprint his original post in this blog. It is linked below. Originally published November 17, 2009.

My friend Rod wrote at length against a binational solution to the Jewish-Palestinian conundrum. He does not so much oppose the idea of binationalism, but rather has serious doubts about the availability of a route to binational salvation that does not travel through some horrendous gutters. I disagree with him. A route to binationalism does exist that is more attractive than taking a detour through Apartheid and ethnic cleansing. This route, of course, is not very forthcoming, nor is it achievable through governments such as the current one – but then, neither is a viable two-state solution. The left must ask itself two questions: which is a more desirable solution, and which is a more likely solution to persuade the Israeli public to bring the left back to power to implement. Neither of these questions will be answered here. My intention here is merely to plot the road that might be taken to binationalism, under the ideal premise of a liberal-minded left-wing government.

It should be said, before I begin, that contrary to what Rod wrote, binationalism is rarely touted as the optimal solution to the problem – although I have noticed an uptick in texts carrying this message of late. The majority of mentions of binationalism use it as a threat, a whip, with which to hasten Israel’s acquiescence in a two-state solution. Binationalism is presented as the only realistic alternative to two-statism, and, building on the prevalent sentiment supporting a Jewish nation-state, the two-state solution is then made to look good in comparison. I personally deplore this line of argument. It exemplifies exactly what’s wrong with the two state solution: it is a solution built on virulent, hateful nationalism, rather than on mutual acceptance, and it ignores the fact that even after we “go our separate ways in peace”, as one popular bumper sticker once advocated, we still have one fifth of the population of Israel proper living in the “wrong” territory.

Binationalism is not merely unavoidable, but, I believe, desirable. Is it attainable?

The road to a viable binational solution must begin with a greater incorporation of the Arab citizens of Israel into the polity. The first step a prime minister with a wish to implement binationalism must do is call upon the more moderate Arab parties in the Knesset to join her government proper – not merely support it from the outside as in the second Rabin government.

The thing most lacking in current internal Jewish-Arab relations is trust. An Arab minister (from a “non-Zionist” party) would be able to begin building this trust, in both directions. Of course, having a token Arab minister would not suffice – it is merely pointing out the way for other government agencies. A higher rate of government employment of Arab-Israelis must follow. It is also assumed that an Arab minister will be able, by bringing the voice of this population directly into the cabinet meetings, to increase government investment in this population even beyond his own ministry’s jurisdiction (of course, we are assuming a government that is already more likely to do that anyway).

The Arab citizens of Israel are a bridgehead to the Palestinians in the territories. Establishing real bidirectional trust with that population will enable Israel to come into rapport with the Palestinians that was not possible so far. Throughout this process, and using it, Israel must support the democratic development of the Palestinian Authority and promote moderate deliberation within it (rather than prevent it, as in the case of the harassment of Mustafa Barghouti before the presidential elections).

If these processes are successful, and Israeli shows a continued willingness to follow this path (e.g., by reelecting the government), it seems to me that the road to a binational solution will be open. Of course, that solution must still be fashioned in a careful manner. The PhD thesis I am working on currently deals precisely with the question of the application of binational solutions, why they failed where they did and how they can succeed. I am still in early stages of this study, but my hunch so far is that the biggest mistake is to create an identity between the national interests of each group, and territorial interests of the administrative units of a federal state, e.g. the Belgian solution. A good binational state will make sure to break each national community into two (or more) territorial units. This will foster more opportunities for cross-cutting cleavages and cross-national interests. An “East” and “West Palestine” are simple enough to envision. Similarly, a “North” and “South Israel” can also be conceived. Each of the units will get equal representation in an upper-house (much like the US Senate), to create parity between the national communities regardless of demographics. (Jerusalem can be a fifth district, with no upper house representation, a-la Washington D.C., or Brussels).

In time, one could consider a “third layer” of federalism to this state (“The Abrahamic Federation”? Nah, too religious…), at the individual level – a “cultural federalism”. This layer could, for example, handle issues such as education and the arts, which will be shared across the administrative units, and also important for those of one nationality living in the units of the other (e.g., current Arab Israelis). This will also facilitate freer movement between the units.

But there is no need to go into the intricacies of the particular model of binationalism to be used. The point is that a well-meaning government can achieve this through positive means, rather than through diving into the realms of Hades to reemerge with the ghost of a binational state. The fact is, the first steps of this plan are positive even if we don’t wish to achieve a binational state, and — maybe I’m being overly optimistic here — could be potentially supported by a majority of the population in Israel even today.

The road is there. It isn’t the King’s Highway, nor a yellow-brick road. It is, if anything, a long and winding one, and an arduous one no doubt. But it is there, and I believe we should take it.

29 comments to IsraLeft Salvage: A pipe-dream, maybe, but not a nightmare

  • Yuval

    Excellent post. Thank you, Dubi, for clearly writing what I were thinking for some time now and couldn’t get into words. This is exactly the way to go towards the only possible just solution to the situation. Unfortunately, at the current political climate, this is impossible. A necessary step in the route to change that climate will be a pressure from outside – not through Sanctions, but through Boycott and Divestment.

  • Thanks for taking my part in the discussion with Rod, on his previous post, and thanks for doing it much better – and in much more detail – than I could possibly do.

    One note, however – do you really think that in the current political climate, an arab minister from a non-zionist party will be welcome? Public opinion had a hard time swallowing Majadala…

  • Dubi Kanengisser

    @Yuval: I’m not a fan of divestment and boycott. Where I’m at, whenever I hear talk of that, it smells bad.

    @Nadav Perez: Thanks. I think it’s about as likely as the formation of a left-wing government… :)

  • Yuval

    Dubi: I can’t argue with the impressions you’ve got, and I have no doubt that some of the vocal critics of Israel who call for B&D are motivated by hate and antisemitism. It shouldn’t cast a shadow over the entire idea. Divestment is a non-violent way of putting pressure on the Israeli Jewish society, which now enjoys the spoils of occupation without having to pay a real price for that. Boycotting goods that are manufactured in the occupied territories seems to me like the moral thing to do – and I live in Israel! That’s even without mentioning the Israeli weapons industry.
    But the main question concerns your answer to Nadav – without some kind of foreign pressure, how do you envision a change in political climate that would enable a one-state solution? and what kind of foreign pressure do you envision which is better than B&D? (sanctions are on the verge of violence, as far as I’m concerned).

  • Ori Folger

    Wonderful post. Best yet for IsraLeft, perhaps.

    And I’d like to suggest a name for this approach – חיבור (Chibur) – bridging, connecting.

  • Dubi Kanengisser

    @Yuval: I could look favourably at boycotting stuff that’s made in the occupied territories, only there’s no such label, so it’s either boycotting everything in Israel (=Israel is Evil) or nothing. In general, I don’t believe in collective punishment. Don’t buy Israeli weapons – fine. Don’t have any investments in Israeli companies? Unfair.

    I don’t think any kind of international pressure is going to help, certainly not of the negative kind. Pressure causes people to retreat to the comfort zone, and for most that means violently lashing out at others – “the world is against us”. Change needs to come from within. We need to make it, nobody will do this for us.

    @Ori Folger: Thanks.

  • Joni

    I understand people saying that the two states solution is “not possible”. But saying that a binational state is “desirable”?!

    Basic math: I live now in a political entity in which there is a large group of people who share my culture and values, and as a result I feel that my voice is represented, and I have some influence in shaping the public sphere. You are proposing to join to the pool of citizens a set of people with whom I have little in common. Why would I want to switch to an entity in which my voice is less heard?

    And beyond all that – I just don’t believe that a country with an Arab majority can protect my basic freedoms and guarantee my personal safety. I just don’t.

  • @Joni: Joni

    The basic math you present leaves out of the equation the political, cultural, financial, etc. games that are required to make “your” voice be heard. The Bi-national state (at least, the model I support, and it sounds to me that Dubi’s as well), aims to secure the voice – i.e. cultural expression, sense of community – of Jews, without necessitating the disenfranchisement of Palestinian, or the denial of their idiosyncratic culture (including the fifth of Palestinian who hole Israeli citizenship).

  • Nivra

    God forbids sharing a state with a population whose majority supports this:

  • Dubi Kanengisser

    @Nivra: A. I could care less about what God thinks of anything, although I’m glad to hear he’s still notifying you of his intentions.

    B. Any proof that this is supported by a majority of Palestinians?

  • Nivra

    Dubi, any proof that the sun will rise tomorrow morning as it did each morning before? And still, do you have any doubts about that? As a resident of Jaffa I can assure you that the majority of my Arab neighbors are supportive of a violent takeover if necessary. For most of them, the Islamic mission is in their mental veins.

    For people like the writer of this article it costs nothing to speak of heavenly friendship among all men, as long as he raises his family as far as possible from the horrors of his city of heaven. In fact, it even grants him some respect from those ‘enlightened’-ones he blindly worships.

  • Dubi Kanengisser

    @Nivra: See, this is the difference between you and me. You think Arab hatred of Jews is a force of nature, immutable and eternal, like the physical forces that keep the Earth revolving around its axis. Their preferences are not grounded in anything that happened in the real world, but rather is inscribed directly into their “mental veins”, whatever that is.

    So as long as you won’t recognize that Arabs are people and people change, I see no point in arguing with you. Let me know when you change.

  • Joni

    Dubi, yes, Arabs are people and people can change. But the change that happens today is to the other direction. There is a wave of extremism in the entire Arab world, which has only little to do with Israel’s action. There is no reason to assume that it will pass over the Arab population you propose to annex.

    From all the Arab states around the world, there is not a single one that I would consider living in. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but I believe the chances of success are just tiny. Why do we need this? We have a state, it’s not perfect, but it’s functioning. Why should I try against all odds to build a viable bi-national state, when most chances are that by doing so I’m digging my own grave?

  • Joni

    Aryeh: I heard what you said. I just don’t buy it.

  • Dubi Kanengisser

    @Joni: I think that’s one of the benefits of my suggested course of action: each step of the way is positive in its own right, even if the next one is not taken. It’s like “Dayenu”: Having a greater incorporation of Israeli Arabs in the Israeli polity is a good thing even if nothing else happens; having a successfully democratized Palestinian Authority is a positive even if nothing else happens; having a greater incorporation of Israeli Arabs into the Israeli polity AND a democratized, secularized Palestinian society AND a binational state – that’s the best and most just solution. None of the steps I suggest requires an irreversible commitment to a binational commitment, nor does it require an irreversible endangering of Israel’s security (except for the very last step, and even then one could come up with measures that would postpone any conceivable danger from unobstructed movement within the federation). Without a doubt, “trust building measures” might put Israelis at risk from terrorists, much as they have before. But it’s possible to take such calculated risks, and it sure beats the status quo in terms of any hope of change in the future.

  • Nivra

    Thank you Jony, ‘couldn’t say it better.

  • Joni

    Dubi – I agree, except for that last step. If all the previous phases are achieved, then what will we gain by binationalization?

  • Dubi Kanengisser

    A just and viable long term solution, one where the national aspirations of the Jewish people will not require the never ending policing of demographics within the state, but will be assured within a binational state.

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  • Hi,
    some thoughts and comments:

    “even after we “go our separate ways in peace”, as one popular bumper sticker once advocated, we still have one fifth of the population of Israel proper living in the “wrong” territory.”
    I would say this also goes for all the Arabs and Hebrews. Just because the two peoples would be separated to different countries doesn’t mean the one country’s agenda and decision making won’t affect the other country. We saw this when Hammas was elected. Can we really say Palestinians decisions don’t affect Israelis and visa versa.

    “the biggest mistake is to create an identity between the national interests” – I totally agree.

    “A good binational state will make sure to break each national community into two (or more) territorial units.” – why? where do you take this Idea from?
    I agree with the concept, just wondering why two and not more.
    For example look at Switzerland. Although It has more then two nationalities, it’s still a good example of a country that has had and has peace between it’s peoples. It’s divided between cantons. Why shouldn’t Israel be divided between the symbolic areas we have today (like the Coastal plain and north Israel). Let the religious and seculars have separate cantons and etc.

  • The entire debate above completely ignores the 4.6 million Palestinian refugees. They have a right to go home. But the racism exhibited by Joni, Nivra, and (let’s face it) the vast majority of the Israeli public ensures Israel will not willingly even consider those basic human rights, let alone acknowledgement of the monstrous act of deliberate ethnic cleansing upon which Israel is founded. So long as the fear and loathing of the darkies is in the eyes of the Joni’s and Nivra’s of Israel (i.e., most Israelis) just as it was in the eyes of white southerners in the US or Apartheid-believing Afrikaners in South Africa, no incremental approach is going to work. A leftist such as Dubi may have the best of intentions personally, but ideologically and socially, Israel is a state built on a racist core. That core has to be replaced wholesale with an inclusive one. The country needs to be taken out of the pre-WWII European era of race-based nationalisms and race-based quackery myths and replaced with a modern state that acknowledges the fundamental equality of all human beings. And screaming “but the Arabs are bloody murderers, I see the hate in my neighbors’ eyes!”, besides for being an echo of every KKK pep rally ever held (just replacing Arabs with blacks), simply doesn’t make it true. Everyone wants a system where they can live in security with their rights intact and opinion respected, even – GASP! – Palestine’s Arabs. The problem is Israelis grow up so brainwashed by the same type of racist hatred that southern whites did for a century, that they can’t pick up and see it.

    Ergo, a state that refuses to willingly change, needs outside pressure with moral force and a better future promoted. BDS, Right of Return, and a religiously/ethnically blind future governmental system based on secular laws. Those are the future.

  • @Non-Arab Arab: Thanks for the kind words, but I would like to throw into the debate also the fact that no other group of refugees in the world is granted that status in perpetuity like the Palestinians. That refugee status is hereditary for Palestinians is a historic error that should be rectified, particularly for those Palestinians who found refuge in Western countries (as opposed to those who fled to nearby countries).

    Also, you ignore the fact that the wish for self-rule is a legitimate one, and it cannot be accomodated in a plainly formed state of all its citizens, especially one that grants the right of return to all Palestinian refugees. Historic wrongs cannot be rectified by new ones, such as the revokation of Jewish self-rule in its entirety.

  • Martin

    Dubi: “no other group of refugees in the world is granted that status in perpetuity like the Palestinians”. Umm, what? Iranian groups such as MEK have been granted refugee-privileges since the fall of the Shah, and so on. But aside from that, do you mean to argue that if you just put someone in a refugee-camp for long enough time, that person then should loose his refugee-status (and his property rights in his home country) and automaticaly become a citizen of the country where his camp is? Should the camp become his new home?

    That is a interesting argument for ethnic cleansing.

  • @Martin: I have little patience for people that can’t or won’t read. There were never 4.7 million Palestinians in Palestine. There were less than a million. The unique status awarded to Palestinians is that of “hereditary” refugee status: the children of refugees, even those who have naturalized in other countries, are still considered refugees. This is true only for Palestinians.

    A refugee never loses his or her refugee status, but that status does not get handed down to one’s children and their children in perpetuity.

    Note also that I specifically said this should not apply to those Palestinians who fled to nearby countries, and naturally it does not apply to those who live in refugee camps to this day. Nonetheless, the way to resolve this is not through a full right of return to the original home of the refugee, but through rehabilitation in a joint Israeli-Palestinian state, in the manner I described above. Does it mean ethnic cleansing works, in the long run? Yes, it does. It also means ethnic cleansing should be tackled and stopped when it is happening, not generations later. THAT would be a recipe for neverending conflict the world over, and certainly in our little plot of land. I did not cleanse anything, and should not be evicted from my home for the sins of my grandparents. We must address the wrongs that still exist, not the wrongs of the past. We need to look forward, not back.

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  • Peter H


    Interesting article. One question: Can you cite authority for your assertion that “A refugee never loses his or her refugee status, but that status does not get handed down to one’s children and their children in perpetuity.” Because the literature on refugee rights I’ve read suggests the opposite. See p. 2-3 of this position paper by Amnesty International, for example.

  • Dubi Kanengisser

    Peter – The link you provided talks about the right of return and what AI believes, rather than what int’l law actually says. The fact is, refugee status is never given to descendants of refugees (which says nothing of their right to return to their home country, of course) – except in the case of Palestinians. This is a result of the fact that Arab countries refuse to naturalize Palestinians or their descendants, despite existing int’l conventions to minimize cases of statelessness.

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