Something is stirring in Israel these days. After a long
hiatus, the country's left is gearing up for a new ideological
offensive. Major figures, including the writer David Grossman
and former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, have recently spoken
out against the right-wing policies of Ariel Sharon. Their
impassioned pleas for a radical alternative cannot but impress
all those who genuinely seek a way out of the deadly cycle
of Palestinian-Israeli violence.
But there is something poignant about the Zionist left's
continuous attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. Its
criticisms of Sharon hark back to an idealised notion of
a Jewish state in which democracy, decency and tolerance
are the guiding principles. In moving forwards towards peace
with the Palestinians, the left seeks to take a few steps
back; consolidating the Jewish state, preserving its Jewish
character, withdrawing from the quagmire of occupation and
reinstating the values of a democratic and humane society.
But to Palestinian ears there is something inherently wrong
here: for us, there is a basic and inescapable contradiction
between Zionism and democracy. If Zionism means anything,
it means a Jewish state with a clear Jewish majority - and
in Palestine this has necessarily been at the expense of
Palestinian Arab rights.
The question of whether Zionism can be reconciled with democracy
has always been at the heart of the debate on the Palestinian
problem. But it has dropped off the broader political agenda
partly because a majority of Israeli Jews have been resistant
to anything that smacks of a challenge to the very premise
on which the Zionist enterprise was built, and partly due
to the belief (on both sides) that the Palestinian problem
is ultimately resolvable via a territorial partition that
would separate the mass of Arabs from Jews.
However, a number of recent developments have challenged
these assumptions. With an unbridled settlement policy now
matched by a "separation wall" that merely consecrates
the divide between Palestinians and Israeli settlers within
the occupied West Bank, Sharon and his predecessors have
all but destroyed the possibility of a viable and sustainable
territorial settlement along national lines.
There is also a growing realisation that demographic trends
will redefine the Arab-Jewish population balance in the
territory of historic Palestine between the Mediterranean
sea and the river Jordan. We already have rough parity between
the two populations today; by 2020 the balance is likely
to be 60-40 in favour of the Arabs.
But that is not all; the moral terms of Palestinian-Israeli
debate have also changed. Thus former Mossad head and national
security adviser Ephraim Halevy believes that Israel's real
post-Oslo mistake has been to accept a trade-off whereby
the Israelis acknowledge Palestinian rights (such as that
of "statehood"), while the Palestinians merely
concede contingent realities which, by implication, they
could overturn at a later date. Henceforth, he says, the
Palestinians must accept Israeli-Jewish rights, and the
moral legitimacy of their presence in Palestine.
But there are no conceivable circumstances in which any
Palestinian can concede their own history in favour of the
Zionist narrative. It would mean that they would have to
accept that for 1,400 years the Arab-Muslim presence in
Palestine was transient and unlawful, and based on the false
premise that continuity of habitation conferred rights of
ownership. Furthermore, the Palestinians would have to accept
that the pulverisation of Arab Palestine in 1948, and the
50-odd years of subsequent dispersal and occupation, are
the rightful outcome of an illegal struggle against the
real owners of the land. Simply put, Halevy wants Palestinians
to become good Zionists.
Palestinians cannot confer legitimacy on the Zionist narrative
and should not be asked to do so, or vice versa. But if
the two-state solution is no longer physically possible,
and demography is creating its own inexorable facts, what
are we left with that can serve as a framework for a settlement?
A move from the dominance of the territorial struggle to
a redefinition of the national struggle, from the discourse
of self-determination to that of freedom and democracy,
provides one way out. If history cannot serve as a common
basis for legitimisation, let us consider doing so on the
basis of mutuality and equality. In other words, on the
basis of equal political and civic rights in one state,
with one-man, one-vote.
One can almost hear the sheer panic in former prime minister
Ehud Barak's voice as he argues that the Palestinians may
demand not two states for two peoples, but one state west
of the Jordan river: "But," he warns, "that
single state will have to be in the spirit of the 21st century:
democratic, secular, one-man, one-vote. One-man, one-vote?
Remind you of something? Yes. South Africa. And that's no
accident. It's precisely their intention."
As it happens, having espoused the two states for some three
decades, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority are desperately
clinging to the fading prospects of a viable partition.
But let us suppose that the Palestinians do "demand"
one-man, one-vote as in South Africa. What is the argument
Barak is not alone in not really having an answer. The best
that the influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman
can do is caution his American Jewish readers that if they
think it is hard to defend Israel on college campuses today,
"imagine what it will be like when their kids have
to argue against the principle of one-man, one-vote".
The truth is that the Zionists want it both ways: a secular
political existence for Jewish communities everywhere and
equality of rights as the underpinning of global Jewish
security, yet an ethnic state in Israel that is built on
the converse. As that canny veteran Israeli peacenik Uri
Avnery has observed, Israel is not really a "Jewish
democratic state" but a "Jewish demographic state".
By positing one homeland for both sides, the one-state solution
not only does away with the conflict over history and mutual
legitimisation, but has practical political implications
as well. Both sides can maintain their "right of return"
without this being at the expense of the other, and Israeli
settlers would not need to be removed from where they are
today. Jerusalem could truly become the shared capital of
a unitary Arab-Jewish state.
It would be sheer illusion to pretend that this idealised
vision is about to wean Israel away from Zionism. Neither
can the Palestinian national impulse be easily melded into
some kind of fuzzy warm-hearted version of semitic brotherhood.
But if the two-state solution simply is not to be, some
truly serious questions must soon be asked: what is more
important, democracy, or the Jewishness of the state? A
Jewish state, or a homeland for Jews and Arabs alike? What
is better: no Palestinian state at all, or a single state
that provides them with equal rights alongside Jews?
There are alternatives to the one state/two-state paradigm;
a slide towards apartheid, for example, or a drift towards
ever-escalating resistance and violence, and the chances
are that both sides will pursue them to the bitter end.
But the resilience of the democratic option should not be
discounted. Unlike the two-state solution, its viability
is not contingent on developments on the ground, but really
is a matter of a change of hearts and minds. And yes, we
do have the example of South Africa.
• Ahmad Samih Khalidi is a Palestinian writer and
former negotiator and a senior associate member of St Antony's