Israel should adapt to the 21st century. Is that really a utopian idea?
As Tony Judt succinctly distilled the issue a few years ago: “The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”
President Obama’s “bold” departure from the position of his predecessor is that he has repeatedly asserted — as he did again on Wednesday — that “the status quo is unsustainable — for Israelis, for Palestinians, for the region and for the world.”
An occupation that has continued for 43 years has certainly proved very durable — sufficient reason for half a million Israelis to defy the claim that the status quo is unsustainable as they carry on living in the West Bank.
The focus of skepticism should in fact be focused less on the sustainability of the status quo than on the realistic prospects for a two-state solution. Such a resolution appears no more imminent now than it did when it was first proposed 73 years ago. In that period whole empires have risen and fallen and yet we’re still supposed to imagine that a Palestinian state is lurking just over the horizon?
As the Zionists have understood all along, it is the facts on the ground that shape the future and none of these facts point towards a partition of land upon which two people’s lives are now so deeply intertwined.
One state already exists. The challenge ahead is not how it can be divided, but how all those already living within its borders can enjoy the civil rights that belong to the citizens of all Western states — the part of the world to which Israel’s leaders so often profess their deepest affiliation.
George Bisharat lays out the one-state solution as being far from a utopian vision but, on the contrary, what might turn out to be the path of least resistance.
A de facto one-state reality has emerged, with Israel effectively ruling virtually all of the former Palestine. Yet only Jews enjoy full rights in this functionally unitary political system. In contrast, Palestinian citizens of Israel endure more than 35 laws that explicitly privilege Jews as well as policies that deliberately marginalize them. West Bank Palestinians cannot drive on roads built for Israeli settlers, while Palestinians in Gaza watch as their children’s intellectual and physical growth are stunted by an Israeli siege that has limited educational opportunities and deepened poverty to acute levels.
Palestinian refugees have lived in exile for 62 years, their right to return to their homes denied, while Jews from anywhere can freely immigrate to Israel.
Israeli leaders Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have admitted that permanent Israeli rule over disenfranchised Palestinians would be tantamount to apartheid. Other observers, including former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have said that apartheid has already taken root in the region.
Clearly, Palestinians and Israeli Jews will continue to live together. The question is: under what terms? Palestinians will no more accept permanent subordination than would any other people.
The answer is for Israelis and Palestinians to formalize their de facto one-state reality but on principles of equal rights rather than ethnic privilege. A carefully crafted multiyear transition including mechanisms for reconciliation would be mandatory. Israel/Palestine should have a secular, bilingual government elected on the basis of one person, one vote as well as strong constitutional guarantees of equality and protection of minorities, bolstered by international guarantees. Immigration should follow nondiscriminatory criteria. Civil marriage between members of different ethnic or religious groups should be permitted. Citizens should be free to reside in any part of the country, and public symbols, education and holidays should reflect the population’s diversity.
Although the one-state option is sometimes dismissed as utopian, it overcomes major obstacles bedeviling the two-state solution. Borders need not be drawn, Jerusalem would remain undivided and Jewish settlers could stay in the West Bank. Moreover, a single state could better accommodate the return of Palestinian refugees. A state based on principles of equality and inclusion would be more morally compelling than two states based on narrow ethnic nationalism. Furthermore, it would be more consistent with antidiscrimination provisions of international law. Israelis would enjoy the international acceptance that has long eluded them and the associated benefits of friendship, commerce and travel in the Arab world.
The main obstacle to a single-state solution is the belief that Israel must be a Jewish state. Jim Crow laws and South African apartheid were similarly entrenched virtually until the eves of their demise. History suggests that no version of ethnic privilege can ultimately persist in a multiethnic society.