There seems to be a crisis emerging in the American discourse over the two-state paradigm. University of Maryland researchers presented a study indicating that American attitudes on the Israel/Palestinian conflict fall into three broad categories: (1) 35 percent support a two state solution to the conflict, (2) 31 percent support a one state solution—defined as “a single democratic state in which both Jews and Arabs are full and equal citizens, covering all of what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories”—and (3) 27 percent favor some version of the status quo. John Kerry has recently warned that “an untenable one state reality” is taking hold.
Two liberal Zionists, Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street and Roger Cohen of the New York Times, are on a five-city speaking-tour attempting to revive some urgency for a two-state solution. They argue that the status quo is not acceptable but…nevertheless… a two-state solution remains the only viable solution for securing both a secure Jewish state in Israel/Palestine, and peace for Jews and Palestinians.
Recognizing that a two-state-solution is not in the political cards at this time, J Street is launching a Maps Initiative, to bring maps that recognize the Green Line (the putative border of a future Palestinian state) back into Jewish institutions and consciousness. J Street notes that Israel has made a concerted effort to erase the Green Line, and with it the idea of two states living side-by side in peace. It’s the Green Line as life-support for an idea until such time as the political will can be found to end the occupation and to create a separate Palestinian state.
I heard Ben-Ami and Cohen on Monday night at Reform Temple Beth Am in Los Altos, California. There was a very large turnout. The crowd of ~450 was Jewish, skewed older (50-90), and was very receptive to what the two speakers had to say. County supervisor Joe Semiti was in attendance. There was periodic polite applause. The first question to Roger Cohen was whether the New York Times will be covering the support from U.S. non-profits for West Bank settlements? He begged off, saying he is on the editorial side of the paper, where he doesn’t have to “hide what I think,” but has no input on news content. Asked whether he would support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to apply pressure, Cohen said he supports labeling and BDS of West Bank products; he is afraid of the broader BDS movement and its call for the right of return of 4 million Palestinians to Israel proper.
Ben-Ami affirmed his hope for an Israel that is Jewish, but also something to be proud of:
This is a difficult, trying moment, … and to find a pathway out is part of the mission of J-Street. … Zionism is a movement that says “we can build a nation for our people that is grounded in the values on which we were raised…and that can and should be …something that reflects well on us as a people, and that provides safety and security, but also a sense of purpose and something better.….”
Many will bridle at the notion that there is anything Jewish left to be proud of in Israel/Palestine in light of the systematic discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, the violence against individuals inherent in the occupation, and the mass violence against Palestinians demonstrated by the last three Gaza wars, and the decades of collective punishment illustrated by blockades and house demolitions. Ben-Ami and Cohen are carrying the message that, despite all, “Yes” the original vision of secular liberal Zionism can be revived.
To the extent that the answer is “No, it’s too late,” or “the Zionist project was doomed from the start” the question is “What is possible now?” That’s the question I had as I listened. The vision of a two-state solution that Jews can be proud of may be a mirage; is one democratic state with equal rights for all also a mirage? The urgency for a change in the status quo, no doubt, is real.
Roger Cohen was asked to assess the chances for a two-state-solution at this time. I have transcribed the heart of his speech below at some length. Whether you are in support of a two-state solution, a one-state solution, or happy with the status quo, if you are interested in peace for Israel/Palestine, Cohen’s speech is worth taking note of:
In researching my memoir, “The Girl from Human Street,” I was cemented in my convictions as a Zionist because I realized that at every stage of this [family] odyssey, be it in Lithuania, in South Africa—the tenuous existence of the whites—and the knowledge that this unjust system was persecuting the invisible blacks at the horizon in ways that for Jews could only be reminiscent to the ways Jews had been treated in Europe, most especially between 1933 to 1945. Onward to Britain where, at least when I was growing up, it was fine to be a Jew, but preferably to be a Jew in a whisper….. Everywhere one went there was this slight unease. And Herzl was right: half acceptance into Christian Europe was more dangerous than non-acceptance. …. So Jews need a homeland; they need the modern state of Israel.
The question, of course, is which Israel? ….
We are gathering at a very difficult moment…. We have yet to put the future over the past. Narrative is all very well. We can disagree on narratives; we’ll never agree—we Jews and Palestinians—on what happened in 1948. For Jews it’s their day of Independence, the day when the state of Israel was created; for the Palestinians it was the Nakba, it was the catastrophe, it was the moment that 700,000 Palestinians were driven out in a war … and we will never agree about this. But we don’t have to agree about history; we don’t have to agree about history if we can agree that the future is more important; that to put the food on the table for our children—be they Arab children, or Jewish children—is more important than deciding exactly what happened in some particular village in what was then mandate Palestine 68 years ago. And what Mandela and De Klerk did (in South Africa) was precisely that: all the violence that had preceded their coming together was less important than their trying to get over it….
In a situation as bad as the current one is in Israel, what possible reason is there to believe that things can get better. Well, there is no doubt that the situation is dire. And why is it dire? Because we have what Secretary of State John Kerry very recently described as a one state reality. And if a one state reality persists, that means that Israel cannot remain what I think we all want it to remain, that is a Jewish and democratic state. And it cannot remain that for the simple reason that in the not too distant future there will be more Arabs in the land between the Jordan River and the sea than Jews, and so the choice for Jews will be to either oppress these Palestinian people, several million of them, in a system that may come to resemble what I observed in South Africa during my childhood, or give up on its Jewish nature. And that I think is not an option that any of us want. And the only way to get out of that, the only way, still, is to have a two state outcome: Israel and Palestine, living beside each other in peace and security.
Right now, the signs are not good. Why are they not good, because in essence I think the secular Zionism that we saw at the foundation of Israel … [with political and social equality for all inhabitants…has been abandoned] But unfortunately we have drifted from that secular Zionism that wanted to find a place for that Arab minority within Israel, to the messianic Zionism that says “all the land is ours between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.” Why is it ours? “Because God said so; because it was deeded to us millennia ago in the scriptures; and that land is ours forever.” And that is very problematic when there are millions of other people living on that very territory.
For me, the foundation of the state of Israel has to lie in legality. And east of the 1967 line there is no legality. What is the legal foundation of the State of Israel. It is Resolution 181 of 1947 at the United Nations, calling for two states, one Jewish and one Arab in the Holy Land, with international supervision of Jerusalem, and an economic union between those two states. It’s worth reading, that document.
Rivers of blood have of course flown since that time, since 1948 and the 68 years since. And many would say that is the demonstration that this idea, that in the place of British Mandate Palestine you can have two states, one Jewish and one Arab with international supervision of the Holy Sites in Jerusalem—that was a terrible idea. But I say “No,” what that bloodshed demonstrates is that there is no alternative to what was stipulated there, that if you try to build one state, if you try for some other solution, it will only result in disaster.
And for me the idea that the State of Israel could be based ad infinitum on the statelessness of another people; the Jews who for so long were strangers in a strange land will continue to live exercising dominion over another people; and anybody who has visited the West Bank knows exactly what that dominion looks like, and how humiliating it is to the Palestinian people living under it; the idea that the Jews, an ethical people, who came up with the idea of a formless, faceless God, with whom we had a covenant, and it was that covenant that we took around the world with us over millennia, in our dispersal, in our diaspora; and what was that covenant? It was a covenant of ethics. And what is the core of those ethics. …It’s the notion that “that which is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man.” That is the whole Torah. And the idea, to me, that this could only be applicable when Jews were powerless, but not applicable when Jews have reached a position of power as in the State of Israel, I think that would be a very sad outcome.
Well, you say to me…. What about the Palestinians? We need an interlocutor. These Palestinians who “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” who are divided; Fatah in the West Bank; Hamas bent on the destruction of Israel in Gaza; unserious about peace because of insistent incitement they show toward the Jewish people; how can you work with these people; how can you try to forge a peace with a Palestinian leadership that is that weak and that divided? And, of course, Prime Minister Netanyahu always says: “there is no one to talk to.” Well, yes, it is difficult. Very difficult. Is it impossible? I would be prepared to say it’s impossible if I believed that the current Israeli leadership had ever tried in good faith, in good faith stopping building settlements in the West Bank, engaging in good faith trying to achieve a two state peace. If that had been tried and failed, then I’d be prepared to say that it’s hopeless. But I do not believe that under Prime Minister Netanyahu that there has been such a good faith effort. I do not believe so. We are dealing with a Prime Minister in Israel who recently declared, before retracting it, that Hitler did not have the idea for the Holocaust before the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem suggested it to him. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have reached this point; this is really a new low. We are dealing with a Prime Minister who 20 years ago compared Yithzak Rabin to Chamberlain, and who compared the Oslo accords to Munich; we are dealing with a Prime Minister who when Salam Fayyad, who—then the Palestinian Prime Minister—did try, in a serious way, to build up a state in the West Bank that was uncorrupt, that had a functioning administration, did all he could to undermine Fayyad by saying he was a radical unilateralist; which he wasn’t. The problem with Fayyad was that he spoke good English, he looked presentable, he’d been educated in the United States, and he was serious about two states for two peoples living side-by-side with each other in peace and security. But for the Israeli government, this right of center Israeli government, this was the Palestinian from hell. Yes, Fayyad was also being undermined by Fatah, by the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, and that opportunity was lost.
The Israeli political scene has drifted slowly to the right. Prime Minister Netanyahu is of the center right and he is held hostage by people who are even further right. He only has a one-seat majority in the Knesset and those further right want to annex part of the West Bank, want to drive out the Palestinians from the West Bank. It is extremely problematic, the situation, and one of the issues, I think we all have to deal with, is the lack of a viable political alternative right now.
Perhaps you all saw the advertisement in the New York Times, this week, from three Israeli retired Generals who said “we cannot go on like this.” We cannot have a fourth Gaza war. …Israel’s security, which must always be front and center, does not pass through more fighting, it does not pass through more war. It passes only through arriving at a two-state outcome. And their words are very similar to the words that I’m sure you saw in that powerful movie, the Gatekeepers, about five heads of Israeli security who all concluded, one and all, having made every attempt over their entire lifetimes to secure Israel’s well being and security with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza…concluded that it was just not tenable. It was just not sustainable; it cannot go on.
What is the status quo; what is the one-state reality? The status quo might suggest stasis, it might even suggest calm; but no, I think the status quo has violence built into it. The three Gaza wars over the last six years, and I was in Gaza a year ago and I saw the rubble there, and the condition of children who have seen three wars in six wars. You don’t need to teach them anything about Israel. That is the generation that is coming along. The status quo is that; and it is also these unconscionable stabbings, the violence that you see in the streets of Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel right now, because people want to be free. They want to run their own lives. I have been a foreign correspondence for many years in many different places and I think that it is a fundamental human instinct, a fundamental human trait. It does not matter if you’re born Black in South Africa, or if you’re Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza; if you’re an oppressed peoples anywhere you want to be free. And I think you can hit people over the head, once, twice, three times, four times, five times, six times, there will come a time … the seventh time, when they will rise up, and you will see acts, individual acts it seems recently, such as we’ve recently seen from Palestinians.
So if we want to change the status quo, there is no change possible, in my view, no viable alternative to two states. More and more people talk about one state, they might be writers in Israel, they might be BDS movement, who under the cloak of boycott and divestment also call in that platform for the return of all the 4 million plus refugees to Israel. Well that is code, actually rather flimsy code, for the end of the Jewish homeland of Israel, and that’s the reason I oppose the BDS movement. But if we want to avoid that one state reality, if we want to get beyond it, if we want to defeat the people on both sides who want one state for their different reasons, we have to work very, very hard to try to revive the possibility of two states. There is no alternative. You can’t have one state with some of the people in it marking a day of independence in it on one day, and some of the other people in that state regarding that day as their Nakba, or catastrophe. And if you look at Syria or Iraq, or Turkey now, where violence has flared again between the Turkish state and the Kurds, the examples of multi-denominational, or multi-religious states in the region is not good.
In fact, Israel proper, legal Israel, Israel west of the 1967 lines—for all the problems of the 20 percent minority Arabs—is doing a pretty remarkable job of affording to that minority lives where at least they can vote, they can be represented in the Knesset, be on the Supreme Court, occupy some of the highest position in medicine and some of the other professions. And I’m not saying it’s a perfect situation. But it’s a lot better than what surrounds it.
What can be done, and I’ll come to an end here…. As Jeremy said, Secretary Kerry made a huge effort and we got the third Gaza war. It’s pathetic. We all know the broad outlines of a peace settlement. It will be hard, it will be tough; that’s what diplomacy is about. The whole Iran negotiation demonstrated that. It’s about “what do I want; what do you want.” And what, grinning our teeth, hating it, can we agree that we both want. And for there to be a two state peace settlement, most of the settlements in the West Bank, most of the settlers… not all of them… not those in areas contiguous with Jerusalem, and of course there will be negotiations, but most of them will have to pull back. Palestinians will have to give up on the so-called right of return. There is no way that 4 million plus Palestinians are going back to Israel. They can be compensated, but they are not going back. These are painful and difficult decisions for both sides.
And then, once you get through that, you have Jerusalem. And what do you do about Jerusalem. Well, I think you go back to 1947, and the UN Resolution. You need guaranteed access to the holy sites for all peoples. And for that you probably need some international supervision, and you need for the Palestinians to be able to say that some cut of Jerusalem can be had for their capitol. These are very, very difficult issues. We shouldn’t disguise that. But we all know what the parameters of a peace deal could be.
I don’t think we’re going to see such a deal in the last year of the Obama Presidency. …The United States and its allies is not going to afford to Prime Minister Netanyahu, or Mahmoud Abbas, the fig leaf of a process that is not really a process. …
It’s also important, I think, for the United States to continue to make clear that expansion of settlements is inimical, is incompatible (with peace). If you’re a Palestinian, and you’re sitting in the West Bank, and you see these garrisons on hills growing, and you see the progressive occupation of more and more territory by Israel, how seriously… are you going to take discussions about a putative Palestinian state on that very territory. ….
[W]e need to see a change of leadership in Israel. Both those in the opposition and in the primeministership. When that will come we don’t know. But things do move. Some of the biggest events, significant events in my lifetime were foreseen by nobody: the Arab awakening, the fall of the Berlin wall.
I was a correspondent in Berlin for three years, and I would drive into Poland, and I could not see a border. And I had to pinch myself that only six decades earlier, not hundreds of thousands of people as in the Middle East, but millions, and millions, and millions of people had to die to cross that very border on that very land, and now I couldn’t even see where the border was just then 65 years on. … It is not impossible to change situations, as that situation shows, as South Africa shows.