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What Comes Next: Towards a bi-national end-game in Palestine/Israel

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This post is part of “What Comes Next?: A forum on the end of the two-state paradigm.” This series was initiated by Jewish Voice for Peace as an investigation into the current state of thinking about one state and two state solutions, and the collection has been further expanded by Mondoweiss to mark 20 years since the Oslo process. The entire series can be found here.

In our struggle for a just peace in Palestine/Israel, we find ourselves at a precarious crossroads. It is clear that the two-state solution is dead and gone, the victim of deliberate Israeli policies of settlement, territorial confiscation and Israel’s refusal to relinquish control over Palestinians’ lives. Yet the Palestinians, whose lead we must follow, have only just begun formulating alternatives, mainly around the notion of a single democratic state. Finding ourselves locked in a political struggle with no end-game for which to advocate is dangerous and self-defeating; it only invites other forces to step into the breach and impose their own agendas.

The need to formulate a just and workable end-game is also urgent. The fall of oppressive regimes shows a pattern. Apartheid South Africa, the Soviet Union, the Marcos regime in the Philippines, the Shah in Iran, Mubarak in Egypt – all seemed overwhelmingly strong until the very end, and then collapsed suddenly. So it might well be with Israel’s Occupation. The failure of the Kerry negotiations are likely to trigger a chain of events, sooner rather than later, that will open up political possibilities not available to us at this time.

This, then, is the moment when Palestinians and critical Israelis should be entering into serious strategizing, in concert with our international partners. Governments manage conflicts, they do not resolve them, and they certainly do not resolve them in accordance with international law, human rights or the desires of the oppressed. If we, the people concerned, want to be actors in determining our own future, we need to begin formulating immediately an end-game to the conflict. Yet Palestine/Israel is too small a unit for resolving all the outstanding issues – refugees, water, security, economic development and self-determination, among others. Even as conflicts embroil our region,we need to envision a just and inclusive Middle East if we are to have a hand in fashioning it. The outlines of a vision and plan presented here are intended to contribute to those most urgent of tasks.

Where Do We Begin?

Before we enter into the details of constructing a just and workable political system encompassing the two peoples of Palestine/Israel – the end-game – we must identify the essential elements of any just and sustainable settlement. In my view, they are as follows – and all of them must be present for any plan to work.

1. A just peace must accept the bi-national reality of P/I and be inclusive of both peoples. The national identities of Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews, both seeking self-determination in a common land, cannot be ignored or denied if a workable, substantially just resolution to the conflict is to be realized. This is perhaps the hardest element for Palestinians to accept, since it implies granting legitimacy to Jewish national claims embodied in Israel and the Zionist movement. Just as the ANC made a strategic decision to pursue a multiracial South Africa out of a recognition that to exclude the Afrikaners would tear the society apart and lead to further violence and injustice, so, too, could the Palestinians decide that the political reality of Palestine has become bi-national and, accompanied by measures of restorative justice such as the settling of the refugee issue, redistribution of land and reparations, would provide a better basis for the future than the pursuit of absolute justice. This is the element upon which all else depends.

2. A just peace must find a balance between collective rights (self-determination) and individual rights (democracy). This suggests a dual political system: bi-nationalism combined with one person-one vote.

3. A just peace must conform to human rights, international law and UN resolutions in respect to both the collective and individual rights of both peoples. If power negotiations alone determine the outcome, Israel wins and the conflict becomes irresolvable.

4. A just peace requires that the refugee issue be fully resolved. This, plus relinquishing exclusive claims to the Land of Israel, represents the most difficult element for Israeli Jews to accept. It involves not only technical matters of repatriation, resettlement and financial compensation, but requires two additional symbolic acts upon which closure and eventual reconciliation depends: Israeli acceptance of the refugees’ right of return as set down in UN General Assembly resolution 194, and Israeli acknowledgement of its responsibility in creating the refugee issue.Within a common state joint planning bodies could then comprehensively address the various facets of refugee return: returning to the actual sites of the their villages and rebuilding; return of their urban properties or fair compensation; and integration of Palestinians into Israel’s cities, towns and villages, as well as into the settlements of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, thus nullifying their control. Without a full and genuine resolution of the refugee issue any plan of peace is still-born.

5. A just peace must be economically viable. All the citizens of Palestine/Israel must have equal access to the country’s basic resources and economic institutions. Once viable economic and political structures are in place, the Palestinian Diaspora will likely invest in the country, supporting in particular the Palestinian sector, a source of economic parity seldom taken into account.

6. A just peace must address the security concerns of all in the region. 

7. A just peace must be regional in scope. Israel-Palestine is too small a unit to address such regional issues as refugees, water, security, economic development and the environment. Any peace process must provide a suitable regional environment in which P/I can integrate, ultimately leading to a regional confederation.

Towards a Bi-National, Democratic State in Palestine/Israel

Once these elements are accepted (perhaps with others I have missed, this alone being a fruitful discussion to have, one that highlights differences and issues that must be resolved), the best political system to express both the desires of the two national communities of Palestine/Israel for self-determination and of its individual citizens for democracy would seem to be a consociational democracy. Based on power-sharing, this form of government is the most appropriate to a post-conflict situation, since it avoids the competition for power that undermines cross-communal trust and present the once-antagonistic communities with common, transcendental issues of joint governance.

In brief outline, in order to address the dual needs of self-determination (collective rights) and (democracy) (individual rights), the parliament of the country would consist of two houses, one representing the national communities and the other the wishes of the electorate as a whole. Each voter would thus have two votes: one for the house of parliament representing the community to which s/he belongs or identifies (Palestinian Arab or Jewish Israeli);the other for the house representing his/her constituency. Each house would legislate laws which would require the approval of the other house, thus creating a system of power sharing rather than competition.

Since no overarching identity yet unites Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, each national community might found a national university, a national museum and a national theater, as well as operating newspapers, television channels and schools – all significant expressions of self-determination. At the same time, however, public institutions would exist for those who wishing to develop a common civil identity: non-sectarian schools and universities, common cultural spaces and inclusive labor movements, not to mention mere neighborliness. And instead of being the repository of national identity, thus raising the irresolvable question of who the state “belongs” to,” a relatively weak executive – a Federal Executive Council composed of three members elected by parliament: a representative of the Palestinian community, a representative of the Israeli Jewish community, and a representative of the general electorate – would administer the technical affairs of the country, much as in Switzerland.

A bi-national solution avoids one of the major pitfalls obstructing the resolution of the conflict: ending the Occupation. Since the entire country becomes the normal territory of a common state, settlements will lost their exclusive nature and controlling functions by the very fact of their natural process of integration – given, of course, proper restitution for the Palestinian owners of the land. If Ma’aleh Adumim becomes a mixed Palestinian/Israel city, then who cares? The Occupation will be neutralized in the very course of establishing a state in which all enjoy parity (again, after a process of restorative justice creates parity among the communities and citizens). Palestinians and Israeli Jews will finally be able to genuinely address the needs of both peoples within a common geographical space.

Envisioning a Regional Future: Towards a Middle Eastern Confederation of Cultures

A bi-national state would address the most urgent need at hand: resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Palestine-Israel is too small a unit to truly address such issues as refugees, water, economic development or security, all of which are regional problems that cannot be resolved within its narrow confines. Peace-making and development must occur evenly across a region. A flourishing Palestine-Israel cannot exist in a highly militarized region characterized by poverty, inter-communal conflict and autocratic regimes. The establishment of a state in Palestine-Israel, then, would be but a first stage in creating a comprehensive political and economic structure necessary for stabilizing and developing the region as a whole.

The wider region of which Palestine/Israel is a part of historic “Greater Syria,” which also includes Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, a potentially powerful economic bloc – and the regional struggles arising out of the Arab Awakening offer a window of opportunity if progressive civil society can begin to articulate an appropriate future vision. What political form would best “fit” the cultural needs, political aspirations and economic concerns of all the peoples of that conflict-torn region, home to dozens of national, cultural, linguistic, religious and political communities? Again, a consociational federation of communities – Palestine/Israel writ large – seems most appropriate, administered, like the European Commission or the Swiss federal government, by a weak Executive.

The Confederation of Cultures and Peoples would thus be based on the communities that traditionally comprised Middle East society rather than on states, inappropriate political structures imposed by Europe. Governance of the Confederation would therefore devolve to its constituent communities. One way to organize for governance, then, might be to create (say) seven Constituent Assemblies whose membership would be both voluntary and overlapping. Functioning on local, regional and pan-Confederation levels alike, the assemblies would engage all the diverse communities in common issues of governance and cooperation, while maintaining close connections with the decision- and consensus-making institutions of each community. The Constituent Assemblies might include:

  • A People’s Assembly would represent the many ethnic and cultural groups of the region, many of whom have territorial allegiances (Bedouins, Druze, Circassians, Samaritans, Alawites, Maronites, Roma, Armenians, Mizrahi Jews, Greeks and many others).
  • A National Assembly would represent those who choose to identify with their national communities whose territorial attachments often overlap (Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian, Syria and Lebanese, perhaps also Kurds and others).
  • An Assembly of Religions would represent those many for whom their religious identities are central, if not primary (Muslims, Jews and Christians in their myriad denominations, some overlapping with their national identities, plus Bahai, Samaritans, Druze and others).
  • A Free Assembly, for people like me and probably most of you reading this, would represent or give expression to citizens of the Confederation who choose to identify solely as individuals or with whatever pan- and post-state identity emerges, or for whom participation in the wider body-politic complements their participation in other Assemblies;
  • A Woman’s Assembly;
  • An Assembly of Youth; and finally,
  • An Assembly of Political Groups would represent constituencies organized around cross-cutting issues and ideologies (political movements and parties, religious groupings such as Hizbollah or Hamas, feminist and LGBT communities of interest, environmentalists and businesspeople, to name just a few).

Alongside the Executive, a Confederational Assembly comprised of representatives of the various regional assemblies would serve as the legislative arm of government–a truly consociational, power-sharing form of government, built upon strong communities, the genuine building blocks of Middle Eastern society. A key element of regional confederation would be the ability of all the Confederation’s inhabitants to live and work anywhere within the region, much as in Europe today.

It’s Up To Us

The manner in which Israel’s warehousing of the Palestinians has been allowed to progress unfettered by the US and Europe highlights a key fact of international politics: as long as any situation can be quieted to the point where it ceases to disrupt the world system, it can be tolerated. Governments will invariably choose the course of least resistance, preferring repressed injustice to the difficulties of pursuing genuine justice.

It is therefore up to us, the international civil society led by Palestinians and critical Israelis, to formulate and promote a just solution. Actually constructing the most appropriate political structure is not a tremendously difficult problem. Models exist upon which we can build. Most crucial is to decide what political community are we talking about: a shared bi-national one, an electorate composed merely of individual voters, or a polity based on the domination of one people over the other (or even the exclusion of the other). This is the issue on which everything depends, upon which a political structure is built. And to a large degree it is the Palestinians who must signal what options they accept before we can progress.

Envisioning the future state and society, and beyond that a more just and multicultural Middle East, constitutes the primary agenda before us. In this process the Palestinians possess great leverage; they are the gatekeepers. Only they can signal an end to the “conflict,” and only they can legitimize the presence of Israeli Jews in the Arab and Muslim worlds, under conditions of transformative justice. As a dynamic society with democratic traditions and a history of resistance, Palestinians also hold a key to articulating a vision of a new Middle East and mobilize regional civil society.

We are truly at a cross-roads. The inevitable failure of the Kerry initiative will likely trigger two developments: the end of the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s unilateral annexation of Area C. Having the air finally cleared of the two-state solution, which we will all be able to agree is gone, the raw fact of Israeli occupation, apartheid and warehousing will finally come to the fore. Collapse of the reality we have known since 1967 is by itself a welcome thing, yet we must anticipate it and be prepared. We cannot begin to scramble after the fact – and the “fact” might come by April, if not before. Now is the time for us to brainstorm, envision, crystallize a just solution of our own making, and be prepared to act. We do not possess the mechanisms or forums to do that, but communication – which means ending the self-defeating practice of “anti-normalization” with even anti- or non-Zionist Israeli groups – is the necessary and urgent first step.

Jeff Halper

Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a member of the One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC). He can be reached at [email protected]

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14 Responses

  1. W.Jones on December 3, 2013, 1:36 pm

    I like Mr. Halper alot and one to focus on something he mentioned:

    A just peace requires that the refugee issue be fully resolved.
    This is of course correct, but a just peace also means that the refugee issue be resolved justly.

    This is correct: “represents the most difficult element for Israeli Jews to accept.”

    The alternative is also problematic: The State, set up by a Leftist Zionist party, the Labor Party, enforced the expulsion. When I say Leftist Zionist, this refers also to Ben Gurion, who today would be considered a liberal Zionist due to his opposition to the occupation of the West Bank. The alternative of no return is problematic because in fact it enforces what occurred:
    A model was set up that would not allow a significant Palestinian population, and that population was expelled since having a Jewish State would not be realistic “otherwise”. Chomsky mentioned how his fellow “binational” Kibbutz guard said their Kibbutz felt they just “had” to expel the neighboring village. Afterwards, they were not allowed to return because it would not be “realistic”, and 70 years later after the crucial hostilities have ended, leftist Zionists, ranging from Chomsky to Altermann, still reject the refugees’ return because it would not be “realistic.”

    As Halper points out, it requires “acceptance of the refugees’ right of return”. If their right is accepted, then what could deny that right if they would wish to perform it? Many left Zionists propose paying off the Palestinians so that they do not choose to exercize that right. And why should they be paid off to avoid living in their homeland?

    A person has a right to his home, and normally of course, he does not have a wish to put it on the market. A rich man can come along and ask to buy his house, and with a big enough price, the man will agree. If the rich man keeps buying property, he could practically own the whole village.
    Further, imagine that the rich man took 75% of the villagers’ houses by force and does not let them return to their village. After their families have lived for decades as beggars in run down trailer homes he offers to compensate their grandchildren on the condition they agree never to live in their village. It would not be a surprise that the grandchildren, being used to the trailer park and having no means of their own would choose what the rich man offers to them.

    And in the end, based on the millions with which the US has compensated Israeli immigrants for being refugees, and compensated Palestinians already- both in the territories and in the UN camps, it would not be surprising if we ended up footing a big chunk of the bill.

    In my opinion, the right of refugees to return to their homeland is a much more vital human need than many other issues discussed about the holy land, whether they be the route of the wall, the settlements, Jerusalem’s status, or others.

  2. James Canning on December 3, 2013, 2:26 pm

    The Soviet Union “seemed overwhelmingly strong, until the end”? Nonsense. I was predicting its collapse before the end of the 20th century, back in the 1970s.

    The weakness of the Shah of Iran, was not a secret.

  3. miriam6 on December 3, 2013, 2:27 pm

    Apartheid South Africa..the Shah in Iran, Mubarak in Egypt – all seemed overwhelmingly strong until the very end, and then collapsed suddenly. So it might well be with Israel’s Occupation.

    Invoking Apartheid SA / the overthrow of Mubarak / Shah of Iran as examples of a true change is foolish. In many ways real change in all three examples referred to by Halper has proven illusory.

    In the struggle to overthrow Apartheid , the ANC had allied itself to the Communist Party, the SACP, whose rhetoric and policies was far more effective in mobilising the black masses than the ANC, with it’s elitist, middle-class nationalism. After the ANC itself got into power in 1994, it moved quickly to shrug off it’s left-wing, working-class allies and began a programme of conservative Free Market economics aimed at it’s political constituency- the middle classes.
    Capitalism had manifested itself as outright racial apartheid in S.A.
    The white capitalists in S.A simply came to the conclusion that the black middle class capitalists of the ANC were a potential ruling elite they could do business with – therefore the whites were willing to jettison their racial privilege in favour of achieving middle / – upper CLASS privilege over the white/ black working classes instead .
    The ANC has done little to significantly improve the lots of the black / white working classes of South Africa since racial apartheid was ‘dismantled’.
    On the contrary the ANC ruling elite has been hostile to advancing the interests of / and towards the black working classes. The massacre of the Marikana miners is a profound example disproving the much vaunted SA ‘rainbow nation’ as the myth it always was.

    In Egypt the brief experiment in democracy under Morsi was stymied by the seizure of power by the military – in other words the counter revolution won again. In any case – if Tariq Ramadan is to be believed – Egypt’s brief year of democracy was always an illusion as the military were in power all along..

    In the case of Iran the initial revolution was led by non Islamists – but again the counter revolution in the shape of Khomeini won power instead.

    • James Canning on December 5, 2013, 7:16 pm

      I too think South Africa was no surprise, when end came to white rule. Clearly this outcome was inevitable, and one that was going to come sooner rather than later (if a deal could be made, etc etc etc etc).

  4. dimadok on December 3, 2013, 2:40 pm

    We, Israeli Zionists, should be really thankful for people like Mr. Halper- his diatribal futuristic projections make the whole idea of a future Middle East paradise, with mutual hugs and love, even more distant. Hard and cold reality will surely stay long after Mr. Halper idea’s.

    • Woody Tanaka on December 3, 2013, 3:56 pm

      “We, Israeli Zionists, should be really thankful for people like Mr. Halper- his diatribal futuristic projections make the whole idea of a future Middle East paradise, with mutual hugs and love, even more distant.”

      Yes, because the last thing that zios want is peace, love and happiness. You want ethno-religious supremacism and Aparthied. Thanks for clearing that up.

    • Ael on December 3, 2013, 4:51 pm

      Do not feed the troll.

    • DICKERSON3870 on December 4, 2013, 2:01 am

      RE: “his diatribal futuristic projections” ~ dimadok


      WORD ENTERED: diatribal

      The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary. Click on a spelling suggestion below or try again using the search bar above.

      date rape

      SOURCE –

    • Ron Edwards on December 4, 2013, 10:07 am

      What you should be thankful for is the opportunity to learn something:

  5. Rusty Pipes on December 3, 2013, 5:21 pm

    A bi-nationalist solution presumes that Israeli Jews and Palestinians are two distinct and separate peoples. (My main objection to the 2SS has been when it has been posited as 2 states for 2 peoples). Other than differences in language (Hebrew and Arabic) between Israel and Palestine, the only other distinctive differences between the two are the systems that privilege one religious/ethnic group over others. A multi-cultural democracy (or two) could accommodate many cultural and religious differences without infringing on the rights of its citizens.

    • RoHa on December 3, 2013, 11:26 pm

      Exactly. The sooner the idea of “peoples” is dropped, the better.

      (Psst! “infringing on the rights of its citizens”

      “Infringe on” is for physical trespass.)

    • Tal on December 5, 2013, 1:59 am

      Other than differences in language (Hebrew and Arabic) between Israel and Palestine, the only other distinctive differences between the two are the systems that privilege one religious/ethnic group over others

      There are other differences like Religion, historical myths, and the most important one is the subjective identity and sense of tribal belonging.
      In the end all peoples are invented and imagined but before we reach John Lennon’s “Imagine” utopia, a system which guarantees a protection of collective rights is a must in order to mitigate tensions and injustices.
      I don’t know what you mean by “multi-cultural democracy”. In the end, we may mean the same thing. What I mean is that national holidays (derived from religion), languages, and some of the content included in the education system’s curriculum – all these things and others should be protected in the constitution and not subjected to arbitrary parliament legislation.

  6. Russian Prussian on December 3, 2013, 7:47 pm

    dimadok: “Hard and cold reality will surely stay long after Mr. Halper idea’s.”

    He is just brainstorming. I think that is a commendable exercise because sooner or later there will be opportunity to realize ideas. And when that time comes it will be laudable to have ideas in place. It is a good thing to know what one prefers, regardless if it can be realized right now or not.

    That quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery fits here I think:
    “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

  7. RoHa on December 3, 2013, 11:24 pm

    “This is perhaps the hardest element for Palestinians to accept, since it implies granting legitimacy to Jewish national claims embodied in Israel and the Zionist movement.”

    Surely all that is needed is to recognize that Israeli Jews have as much right to live in the country as Palestinians. There is no need to bring in “Jewish national claims” or grant any legitimacy to Zionism at all.

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