Reflections After the Harvard One State Conference

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Palestinians in line for a Qalandiya checkpoint during Ramadan, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

I attended the One State Conference at Harvard University on March 3-4, 2012, and was encouraged to continue working to bring peace and prosperity to all the people who live between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. Nevertheless, I left the conference unsettled by several issues.

Regime Change

Lets face it, any resolution of the present conflict will require regime change in Israel and the Palestinian administration in the West Bank. The reason that negotiations for a Palestinian state alongside Israel (the two-state solution — TSS) have failed is that the Israeli government does not want a just, political resolution of the conflict. This was demonstrated at the conference by Diana Buttu who worked six years with the Palestinian negotiating team. She described Israeli tactics to undercut any progress in the TSS talks: (1) all proposals put forth by the Israelis were designed to expand Israeli control over the West Bank, (2) the Israeli negotiators never mentioned Jerusalem, and (3) the Israeli team would walk out of meetings when the Palestinians attempted to discuss the right of return. And Buttu’s comments are not news – they confirm what we learned from the Palestine Papers released by Al Jazeera in January 2011.

Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, all Israeli governments talks have been opposed to allowing any meaningful Palestinian self-determination to emerge through Israeli-Palestinian talks. The result is that for the almost 20 years of negotiations, not only has there been no success, but Israeli government actions have actively and passively expanded settlements and deepened Palestinian dispossession.
This situation means that there must be regime change in Israel for any hope of ending the present reality, and establishing either a two-state solution (TSS) or a non-apartheid one-state solution (OSS). Simply changing the Israeli government will probably not be enough, some sort of more profound change is required; for shorthand I use the term “regime change”.

There are several ways to effect this regime change: impose it militarily, a military coup, force or allow the existing government to collapse, or agree to a new regime through negotiations. Defeating Israel militarily, considering that Israel has one of the ten most powerful militaries in the world with bio-chemical and nuclear weapons, is not even worth considering. Any of the other options may be triggered by serious disruption in the existing political, economic, social order. In theory this could be possible if the United States were to make its ongoing military, financial, and diplomatic support conditional on Israel and the Palestinians reaching a just agreement. A movement among some American foreign policy elites as well as among small politics groups to make that happen is growing, but it is ineffective small and easily countered by the Israel lobby. The lobby, consisting of establishment Jewish American groups, Christian Zionists, Israeli government operatives, and the American military-technology complex, works to assure the status quo in American – Israeli relations. Progress on this front seems distant unless the U.S. government suffers serious setbacks domestically or in the Middle East that trigger unanticipated desperate acts.

Ali Abunimah, in his keynote address, suggested that an enlightened Israeli leader might emerge, someone like F. W. de Klerk who led South Africa to negotiate the end to apartheid. In recent years we have seen Israeli leaders like Ehud Olmert who recognized the unsustainability of the present situation, but they lacked a desperate situation and leadership skills needed to effect a change.

It is important to recognize that de Klerk worked in a South Africa that had become ungovernable, not by the world-wide boycott and sanctions movement, but by rebellion of the 90% of the population that was black. Strikes were crippling the economy; whites were in fear of physical violence, and the economic elite worried that major industries would be nationalized. Palestinians, who are 50% of the population in Israel-Palestine, even supported by the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, are a long way from making Israel ungovernable or threatening the viability of the Israeli economy which is still expanding.

The best chance Palestinians have of making Israel-Palestine ungovernable is to stage massive, continuous, non-violent protests on the model of the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt that brought down Mubarak. Imagine 100,000 Palestinians from Ramallah showing up every Friday morning at the Qalandia checkpoint and demanding access to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque.

It should be recognized that if Israel produced an enlightened leader, (s)he will likely push for a Palestinian state alongside Israel – the TSS, rather than a single democratic state – the OSS. After all, the TSS is the international consensus and may be easier to “sell” to the Israeli people. Furthermore, even if a Palestinian state is sovereign, and not a “bantustan,” it would be economically subordinate to Israel with its economic elite still cavorting with their Israeli counterparts.

A major problem with the TSS is that it does not account for the Palestinian Diaspora and the right of return. But that problem can be transcended if the right or return is allowed to the Palestinians state, combined with a suggestion of Jeff Halper that an Israel-Palestine confederation is established as part of the TSS. This confederation must be similar to the EU in allowing any citizen to remain a citizen of his state, but to live and work anywhere within the confederation boundaries.

Nature of one-state

Most speakers at the conference supported an OSS remedy to the current dispossession of Palestinians by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. But hardly any speaker fleshed out what one democratic state would look like or addressed economic issues, which are the major failure of the one-state solution to South African apartheid. In the South Africa case, government transformation allowed the existing class structure and government bureaucracy to stand. Although many blacks were able to significantly improve their economic situation and become solidly middle class, corruption and inequality increased under African National Party political control,

Obviously no one at the conference supported the type of one state that some on the Israeli-right favor where Palestinians would hold second-class status and might even be expelled. But on the liberal left there are a range of possible democratic states. They can be grouped into two types: civic egalitarian and civic bi-national. A civic egalitarian one-state is characterized by one-person, one-vote and a bi-national state is also characterized one-person, one-vote and in addition, certain regions or groups, have defined rights and/or autonomy. Examples of bi-national democratic states include Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, China, and even the United States.

Most speakers at the conference tactility seemed to assume a civic egalitarian one democratic state, although Nimer Sultany, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, proposed a non-territorial, civic bi-national state, but did not flesh out his idea. And again, no speaker spoke to building economic equality between Israelis and Palestinians and among Palestinians.

I would love to see a civic and economically egalitarian democratic state in Israel-Palestine, but I find it hard to have confidence such a state would be stable after 45 or 64 years of Jewish – Arab conflict and taught hatred. It is not the pent-up anger and fear of the other – that can be overcome as it was in South Africa. Rather I worry that the economic and infrastructure differences between and among the Jewish and Arab communities are so extreme that special arrangement would be required to undo those inequalities, and those arrangements would weaken the egalitarian nature of the state such as affirmative action programs do in the United States.

A bi-national state would take into account difference among the population, and set-up political structures to account for these differences. The idea is to turn differences into positive aspects of the state, rather than leaving them unaddressed as bombs that might explode at a later date. A bi-national state might have a better chance of long-term stability than an egalitarian state with equal civil rights because it will directly and constitutionally address inequality in human rights.

A path from here to there

Many speakers emphasized that change to a OSS must come from the bottom-up, and that change from the top-down is an empty dream. To that end, a movement for an OSS must attract massive popular support from ordinary people. It was the active participation of masses of people that propelled the American civil rights struggle in the 1960s. That will be hard to garner for an OSS unless the people see achievable goals. And that means a realistic path from here to there. Unfortunately, the only mention of a path to a OSS at the conference were questions to two speakers, and neither got a substantial response.

There is a path that has been proposed by Palestinian as well as Americans in several forms. Among its proponents are Dr. Sari Nuseibeh, President, Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. It was predicted as inevitable future by John Mearsheimer in a 2010 lecture at the Palestine center, and was hinted at by Stephen Walt during his talk at the One State Conference. The idea is that the West Bank will be incorporated into a “Greater Israel,” which will be an apartheid state. But the apartheid state will not be politically viable over the long term. Palestinians would initially have second-class citizenship. They would initiate a civil rights struggle for full voting rights, a struggle they surely will win because it will be supported by most Americans, including Jewish Americans, Europeans, and most of the world. In the end the Greater Israel will become a democratic state whose policies will be dominated by a Palestinian majority – that is, it will be the OSS.

The problem with this path is that it does not include either Gazans or the Palestinian Diaspora, at least initially. But that will be remedied after the Palestinians win their civil rights struggle. A bigger problem is that it means Palestinians will have to accept an interval of second-class citizenship for their civil rights struggle to have meaning. Another problem is that this path will likely not remedy the existing economic inequality.

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I see another possibility for regime change – a complete takeover by the fanatic settler faction.

/In the end the Greater Israel will become a democratic state whose policies will be dominated by a Palestinian majority/

Basically it will become another Arab state with a large Jewish minority,
seems so attractive to the Jews.
Yes i think i am convinced.

Thanks for this piece about the conference. I have known folks who have been involved with this issue for literally decades. Most of these folks in their early to late 70’s. All of them non Jews. Almost all of them shifting towards a one state solution as the only solution. Interesting to hear individuals who have lobbied, petitioned met with Reps privately for decades shifting over to the OSS perspective. Wondering if this relatively new… Read more »

I’ve posted this article before, but I’ll toot a dear old school friends’ horn again. Aref Dajani, a good guy who works hard for peace and reconcilliaition. Ahead of their time – and article by Dajani and Walter Ruby written over 10 years ago: Two States, One Common Land by Walter Ruby and Aref Dajani Where do we go from here? The tragic eruption of large-scale violence between Palestinians and Israelis in recent months… Read more »

RE: “In the end the Greater Israel will become a democratic state whose policies will be dominated by a Palestinian majority – that is, it will be the OSS.” ~ Jeff Warner FROM ELLIOTT ABRAMS, 04/08/09: (excerpt)…Is current and recent settlement construction creating insurmountable barriers to peace? A simple test shows that it is not. Ten years ago, in the Camp David talks, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat approximately 94 percent of the… Read more »