United We Stand

Do Israelis and Palestinians belong to one divided society, or to two separate societies in a situation of forced proximity as a result of a temporary occupation?

Meron Benvenisti
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Meron Benvenisti

Do Israelis and Palestinians belong to one divided society, or to two separate societies in a situation of forced proximity as a result of a temporary occupation? This is a crucial question. The answer depends on the historical-political-ethnic evaluation of the pre-1967 period, and on one's perception of the entire Jewish-Palestinian encounter since the beginning of the Zionist enterprise. It has profound ramifications for understanding the present situation in Israel/Palestine.

Those who would divide the history of the conflict into two unrelated periods - before the 1967 war and after - and turn the Green Line (the 1949 armistice boundary) into a mighty geographic obstacle would like to believe that the root of all evil is the occupation that followed that war. They consider the pre-1967 situation of "Little Israel" as a "golden age," unconnected to the post-1967 reality. However, the period of almost two generations that have elapsed since then make it clear that 1967 was not a break, but a bond, and that the 1948-67 period was a lull.

During the British Mandate period, the Zionists emphasized the dual aspect of Palestine's economy and society and viewed it as two separate entities. The Palestinian perspective was that of a colonial situation in which white settlers - the Zionists - in cahoots with the Mandatory authorities, exploited the native Palestinians. Both sides overemphasized their separation for political ends, thus eclipsing the considerable economic and social interaction between Arabs and Jews. Both sides refused to acknowledge the strong - albeit hostile - interaction, creating an intimate enmity that formed the central component of self-identity in both communities.

This Mandatory dual-society structure that existed until 1948 - and was suspended for 19 years between 1948 and 1967 - was reconstituted after the 1967 war, but with a fundamental difference: instead of an equally-ranked social system of Jewish and Arab communities under a British bureaucracy, a superordinate-subordinate status hierarchy was created. This polarized society is kept together by coercion; the political, economic and social inequalities are explained away by the status of temporary military occupation.

The partition of Palestine, which existed for 19 years, was erased within six days. The speed and vigor with which the colonizing urges of a settler society reemerged have shown that the use of the term "golden age" to describe "Little Israel" is intended to define the intercommunal relationship after the war as a colonial condition of occupier and occupied. That definition imagines a mother country and a colony, suggesting a transitory situation similar to all colonial regimes, which ostensibly will lapse by decolonization through a peace process. This process is a model taken from international and interstate conflict-resolution techniques, and is not suitable for internal, intercommunal relations.

Code words

By placing the post-1967 period within the 120-year history of the conflict, one can see the continuity of the native-settler encounter that has characterized the Jewish-Arab confrontation from the start. This forms the paradigm within which the conditions prevailing in Israel/Palestine can be correctly understood.

Many Israelis perceived the occupation of the territories as a liberation, and even those outside the Greater Israel movement were unwilling to accept the obligations imposed on the occupying power by international law. So an ambiguous term - "administered" - was created. Gradually the term "occupation" was transformed from a juridical definition, describing the condition of belligerent occupation of enemy territory by a foreign army, into a political and value-loaded concept. Like many terms that comprise the dictionary of the conflict, it has become a shibboleth, a code word that makes any argument or clarification redundant. Using "occupation" indicates that one belongs to liberal-leftist circles; those who refrain from using it are considered right-wing bigots. Similar terms are "West Bank" versus "Judea and Samaria," "liberation of Jerusalem," "Palestinian state," "security fence" versus "separation wall," or "withdrawal" versus "redeployment."

The occupation in 1967 resulted from military action. But the military element quickly became secondary, while the "civilian" component - the settlements - became the dominant factor, subjugating the military to its needs and turning the security forces into a militia in the service of the Jewish ethnic group.

Sometime in the late 1980s, the settlements crossed the critical threshold beyond which continued demographic and urban growth were assured.

From that point on, the number of settlements, and even the size of their population, became immaterial because the apparatus of Israeli rule was perfected to such a degree that the distinction between Israel proper and the occupied territories was totally blurred.

Similarly, the takeover of land ceased to be chiefly for the purpose of settlement construction and became primarily a means of constricting the movement of the Palestinian populace and of appropriating their physical space.

In the new paradigm, the settlements are no longer important as instruments of spatial control. The separation barrier/wall and its gates, the "sterile roads," and a myriad of military regulations have taken the settlements' place as symbols of Zionism. Forty years after the first settlement was established, "the settlement" - like the kibbutz and the moshav - has become just another exhibit in the museum of Zionist antiquities. The age of ideology is over.

The attempt to mark the settlements - and the settlers - as the major impediment to peace is a convenient alibi, obfuscating the involvement of the entire Israeli body politic in maintaining and expanding the regime of coercion and discrimination in the occupied territories, and benefiting from it. By the late 1980s, after two decades of occupation, Israeli control of the territories beyond the Green Line has become quasi- permanent, differentiated from sovereign rule only vis-a-vis the Palestinian residents. As far as Israeli citizens and their range of interests are concerned, the annexation of the territories is a fait accompli.

Defining the territories as "occupied" is in fact an attempt to depict "occupation" as a temporary condition that will end "when peace comes," and is designed to avoid resolving immediate dilemmas - "in the meantime." The term is a crutch for those who seek optimistic precedents, allowing them to believe that just as all occupations end, this one will, too. This linguistic choice thereby contributes to blurring and obfuscating the reality in the territories, thus abetting continuation of the status quo.

Continuation of the status quo creates a quasi-stable situation: The Jewish community, a loose framework of cultures and ethnic tribes in constant tension, is held together by enmity to the Palestinian "other" and by a determination to rule them. This unity vis-a-vis the outside world enables the Jewish community to maintain control and successfully implement a strategy of fragmentation of the Palestinian community.

Fragmentation policy

The Palestinian people have been fragmented into five splinters over the last three generations. They have not merely been crushed by force, but have taken upon themselves split identities and have surrendered to agendas dictated to them. The Palestinian Authority ostensibly represents the Palestinian people, but actually represents only the Palestinian splinter that lives in the West Bank and is struggling, through the "peace process," to obtain better conditions for merely one quarter of the entire Palestinian nation. The residents of East Jerusalem want only to be left alone and not forced ("out of patriotism") to forgo the privileges they enjoy as Israeli residents. The Palestinian Israelis are fighting for "equality" and "civil rights" whereas the Palestinians in the occupied territories are fighting for "self-determination." Hamas activists in the Gaza Strip are not interested in the implications of their rhetoric for the interests of the entire Palestinian nation. And those in the Palestinian diaspora continue to carry around the keys to homes they left in 1948, and to dream about "the return."

Political, economic and security constraints are deepening entrenchment of the divided identities, which are slowly assuming separate cultural and even linguistic characteristics. Over the generations, the Zionist enterprise - whose development challenged the Palestinian Arab community and promoted its unification into a distinct national group - became the dominant force under whose fist the Palestinian community has been shattered.

Fragmentation became the major tool of Israeli control, used to preserve Israel's rule over Israel/Palestine from the river to the sea. It serves Israel as insurance against the "demographic threat" - when, very soon, the Palestinians will achieve a numerical majority in the region. The ruling Jewish community will continue, even when it becomes a minority, to force this split on the Palestinians with the usual use of "carrots and sticks" - dictating the agenda, presenting threats, imposing collective punishments and bribery.

This will preserve and even deepen the lack of coordination and the conflicting interests of the splintered Palestinian communities. It will insure the dominance of the internally fragmented, but externally cohesive, Jewish community over the fragmented Palestinians - thus sustaining the status quo.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the fragmentation policy was aimed at the small minority of "Israeli Arabs." Now it is being put into practice against five million Palestinians, attracting almost no attention. It is not by chance that Israeli propaganda has no interest in stressing the achievements of fragmentation. On the contrary, Israel needs the bogey of "existential threat" posed by a monolithic adversary - "the dark forces of Islamo-fascism." In this, the Israeli government is unwittingly assisted by leftist circles and the "peace camp," which remain steadfastly attached to the romantic notion about a cohesive Palestinian people, united in its struggle for freedom. They are joined by Palestinian spokesmen who perceive talk of the success of fragmentation as hostile propaganda. Attention is diverted to marginal issues, and various competing organizations support each fragmented group, pursuing different agendas and clamoring for attention - thus exacerbating the fragmentation and increasing the confusion.

The paradox is that serious attempts to deal with separate Palestinian agendas that purport to challenge the status quo are actually strengthening it. The high profile of "international relations" and the diplomatic discourse are the most glaring examples. Useless negotiations and lengthy expert discussions on "core issues" have been going on decade after decade without any change in the stale arguments and counterarguments, while reality has been transformed. The "peace process" serves as a curtain behind which a policy of divide-and-rule has become entrenched.

Since it is impossible to refrain from reacting to the Palestinian demand for self-determination in the occupied territories, the Israelis seek to limit it to a mere quarter of them, those who live in the West Bank. For them they have invented a unique concept of a "state": Its "sovereignty" will be scattered, lacking any cohesive physical infrastructure, with no direct connection to the outside world, and limited to the height of its residential buildings and the depth of its graves.

The airspace and the water resources will remain under Israeli control. Helicopter patrols, the airwaves, the hands on the water pumps and the electrical switches, the registration of residents and the issue of identity cards, as well as passes to enter and leave, will all be controlled (directly or indirectly) by the Israelis. This ridiculous caricature of a Palestinian state, beheaded and with no feet, future, or any chance for development, is presented as fulfillment of the goal of symmetry and equality embodied in the old slogan, "two states for two peoples." It is endorsed - even by supporters of Greater Israel - and the traditional peace camp rejoices in its triumph.

Large segments of the Israeli peace camp, who staunchly believe in "partition of the land" as a metapolitical tenet, are gratified; they believe that they won the ideological, historical, debate with the right wing. Now they can load the entire Palestinian tragedy onto an entity that comprises less than 10 percent (areas A and B under the Oslo Accords) of the area of historic Palestine. Moreover, it is supposed to offer a solution to all refugees outside Palestine "who can return to the Palestinian mini-state," and also provide a remedy for the Israeli-Palestinians who can achieve their collective rights in the Palestinian state. Indeed, a cheap and convenient solution; after all, it is seemingly based on the venerable model of the two-state solution.

Permanent status quo

But how did it come to pass that Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, scions of the "nationalist camp," became champions of the Palestinian nation-state? What brought those who believed that Palestinians are merely terrorist gangs, to declare that the conflict is national and therefore the solution is partition between "two nation-states"? This was caused by the Palestinians, who by launching the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000 compelled the Israelis to realize that they are irrepressible and cannot be ignored or deported. The intifada forced the Israelis, for the first time in their history, to delineate the geographic limits of their expansion, construct fences and roadblocks and abandon populated areas that might upset the demographic balance. The remaining areas, fragmented and non-viable, could be declared a Palestinian state.

After almost half a century, the Israeli governing system known as "the occupation" - which ensures full control over every agent or process that jeopardizes the Jewish community's total domination - has become steadily more sophisticated through random trial and error, dictated by the inner logic of a settler society.

This status quo, which appears to be chaotic and unstable, is much sturdier than the conventional description of the situation as "a temporary military occupation" would indicate. Precisely because it is constitutionally murky and ill-defined, its ambiguity supports it. The volatile status quo survives due to the combination of several factors:

1. Fragmentation of the Palestinian community and incitement of the remaining fragments against each other.

2. Mobilization of the Jewish community into support for the occupation regime, which is perceived as safeguarding its very existence.

3. Funding of the status quo by the "donor countries."

4. The strategy of the neighboring states, which gives priority to bilateral and global interests over Arab ethnic solidarity. Internal considerations cause them to prefer the status quo of Israeli control - while paying lip service to Palestinian national aspirations - over an emasculated Palestinian state. As for Jordan, the establishment of a Palestinian state constitutes a threat to its very existence.

5. Success of the propaganda campaign known as "negotiations with the Palestinians," which convinces many that the status quo is temporary and that they can continue to amuse themselves with theoretical alternatives for a "final-status arrangement."

6. The silencing of all criticism by calling it an expression of hatred and anti-Semitism.

One must not surmise that the status quo is frozen; on the contrary, actions taken to perpetuate it bring about long-term consequences. Cutting off Gaza is not a temporary but a quasi-permanent situation, which will affect the future of the Palestinian people. The severance of Gaza from the West Bank creates two separate entities, and Israel can record another victory in the fragmentation process: 1.5 million Palestinians are on their way to achieving a caricature of a state that encompasses 1.5 percent of historic Palestine, where 30 percent of their people reside.

The West Bank canton, whose area is rapidly shrinking due to massive settlement activity, is considered the heart of the Palestinians under occupation. However, it is experiencing rapid political and economic developments that resemble those experienced by Israeli-Palestinians after 1948, with obvious differences due to historical circumstances and population size.

It seems that many West Bankers have genuinely grown tired of the violence that led them to disaster, and are adopting the strategy of the Israeli-Palestinians, which forces the Israelis to relate to their non-violent struggle and their community's accumulation of economic and socio-cultural power. All these and other changes in the status quo are significant, yet internal, and take place under the umbrella of Israeli control that can speed them up or slow them down, according to its interests.

However, without the sanction, or at least the indifference of external powers, the status quo would not endure. Massive financial contributions free Israel from the burden of coping with the enormous cost of maintaining control over the Palestinians and create a system of corruption and vested interests. The artificial existence of the PA in itself perpetuates the status quo because it supports the illusion that the situation is temporary and that the "peace process" will soon end it.

Usually the emphasis is on political and civil inequality and denial of collective rights that the model of partition - or the model of power sharing - is supposed to solve. But economic inequality, greater and more dangerous, which characterizes the current situation, will not be reversed by either alternative. There is a gigantic gap in gross domestic product per capita between Palestinians and Israelis - more than 1:10 in the West Bank and 1:20 in the Gaza Strip - as well as an enormous disparity in the use of natural resources (land and water). This gap could endure without the force of arms provided so effectively by the Israeli defense establishment, which enforces a draconian control system.

Even most of the Israelis who oppose the "occupation" are unwilling to let go of it, since that would impinge on their personal welfare. All the economic, social and spatial systems of governance in the occupied territories are designed to maintain and safeguard Israeli privileges and prosperity on both sides of the Green Line, at the expense of millions of captive, impoverished Palestinians.

Total dominance

One must therefore seek a different paradigm to describe the state of affairs more than 40 years after Israel/Palestine became one geopolitical unit again, after 19 years of partition. The term "de facto binational regime" is preferable to the occupier/occupied paradigm, because it describes the mutual dependence of both societies, as well as the physical, economic, symbolic and cultural ties that cannot be severed without an intolerable cost.

Describing the situation as de facto binational does not indicate parity between Israelis and Palestinians. On the contrary, it stresses the total dominance of the Jewish-Israeli nation, which controls a Palestinian nation that is fragmented both territorially and socially. No paradigm of military occupation can reflect the Bantustans created in the occupied territories, which separate a free and flourishing population with an annual gross domestic product of almost $30,000 per capita from a dominated population unable to shape its own future with a GDP of $1,500 per capita. No paradigm of military occupation can explain how half the occupied areas ("Area C") have essentially been annexed, leaving the occupied population with disconnected lands and no viable existence. Only a strategy of permanent rule can explain the vast settlement enterprise and the enormous investment in housing and infrastructure, estimated at US $100 billion.

The binational versus partition dilemma is not new to either national movement. The Palestinians, who rejected the 1947 United Nations partition resolution, stated in their National Covenant that Palestine "is one integral territorial unit." This principle evolved in the 1970s to the concept of "democratic non-sectarian (or secular) Palestine."

In 1974, political thinking in the Palestine Liberation Organization began to grapple with the idea of partition. The formula endorsed was the Phased Plan: "Self-determination in the context of an independent national Palestinian state on any part of Palestinian soil, as an interim objective, with no compromises, recognition, or negotiation." In 1988 this strategy was changed to the present formula of partition along the 1967 armistice lines, through negotiations. Thus, Palestinian acceptance of the partition option is only two decades old.

Until the mid-1940s, the Zionists officially defined their ultimate national objectives by the general formula of the transformation of Palestine (Eretz Israel) into an independent entity with an overwhelming Jewish majority. The ultimate objective of all national movements, the creation of a sovereign state, was implied in Zionist self-identification as a national liberation movement. The official leadership concentrated on formulating intermediate political objectives, and these changed according to political conditions. These objectives (in chronological order) were: a national home; unrestricted immigration and the creation of a Jewish majority; "organic Zionism" (i.e., settlement and an independent Jewish economic sector); power sharing ("parity") with the Arabs (irrespective of size of population); a binational state; a federation of Jewish and Arab cantons; partition.

It was only in the early 1940s that the Zionists openly and officially raised the demand for a sovereign Jewish state. One must remember that the Jews were a minority and the demand for a Jewish state was impudent; power sharing, and even parity, sounded better. Also, a federation of cantons could have evened out the huge Arab demographic lead.

The choice between binationalism and partition was made twice: In 1936 the Peel Commission rejected the Jewish Agency's cantonization plan and chose partition; in 1947 the UN General Assembly voted for partition and rejected the minority plan for a federal state.

Only a marginal group of Jewish intellectuals considered the binational state the only way to avoid endless bloody conflict. They sought to emulate the Swiss model, accentuated the principle of parity but did not elaborate the details. Indeed, there was no need for such elaboration, since both Palestinians and Zionists rejected the binational idea, and most Jews considered it treason. The Hashomer Hatzair movement adopted some elements of the binational model, but the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 ended the initiative. The opinion that the realization of Zionism can only be achieved by a sovereign Jewish state triumphed, and those who dare to challenge this precept are considered traitors.

After the 1967 war, the Israeli political right played with the concept of binationalism, in a form that suited its ideology (the autonomy plan). Likud ideology rejected the transitory nature of Israeli occupation, but its belief in Greater Israel clashed with the demographic reality. Liberal circles in Likud (led by Menachem Begin) struggled with the famous dilemma: a Jewish or a democratic state? Begin's answer was based on the (failed) system known to him in Eastern Europe after World War I - non- territorial, cultural and communal autonomy for ethnic minorities under the League of Nations minority treaties.

Begin's autonomy plan was modified in the Camp David Accords of 1978 and territorial components were added. The Oslo model used many components (with major changes) of Begin's autonomy plan. The Oslo Accords can be viewed as binational arrangements, because the territorial and legal powers of the Palestinian Authority are intentionally vague: The international boundaries, the economic system, even registration of population, remained under Israeli control. Moreover, the complex agreements of Oslo necessitated close cooperation with Israel, which, considering the huge power disparity between the PA and Israel, meant that the PA was merely a glorified municipal or provincial authority. So, in the absence of any political process, a de facto binational structure was entrenched, willy-nilly.

Description, not prescription

It is no longer arguable; the question is not if a binational entity will be established, but rather what kind of entity it will be. The historical process that began in the aftermath of the 1967 war brought about the gradual abrogation of the partition option - if it ever existed. Hence, binationalism is not a political or ideological program as much as a de facto reality masquerading as a temporary state of affairs. It is a description of the current condition, not a prescription.

This reality-oriented approach differs from that of some advocates of binationalism who use it to delegitimize Zionism and "put an end to the anachronism of the Israeli nation-state." They view binationalism not as a lamentable consequence of the protracted conflict, but as a project that should replace the Israeli state.

The Israeli public discourse over binationalism versus partition into two states is conducted on a theoretical and ideological plane, and in effect binationalism is mentioned only as a threat to the accepted and desirable solution of partition. But that debate, which always resurfaces when frustration with the peace process intensifies, never manages to turn into a real discussion of the two alternatives, but remains a provocative academic topic.

For this reason, the precise definition of terms is regarded as unimportant. On the contrary, the arguments pro and con are presented as being diametrically opposed, as if this were a genuine metapolitical, moral and ethical dilemma. However, an examination of the two concepts from theoretical and empirical perspectives reveals that both binationalism and partition have multiple variants incorporating diverse political structures. Moreover, a comparison of these models shows that the two concepts are not as dichotomous as they seem, but form a continuum, with some variants of each concept actually overlapping.

The danger of a binational state is portrayed by the bogey of the "demographic threat." According to most forecasts, by the middle of the second decade of this century, there will be more Arabs than Jews living in the former Mandatory Palestine. Continuation of this demographic trend, claim some Israeli pundits, will destroy the Jewish state and turn Israel into a country with a Jewish minority, just as in the diaspora.

The demographic bogey has meaning only when presented in relation to one specific binational model, that of "one man, one vote." This is the model of a centralized, unitary state where the civil rights of the individual citizen are respected, but the collective rights of ethnic groups are not grounded in constitutional law - the model adopted in post-apartheid South Africa, for example. The unitary binational model is wholly inappropriate for Israel/Palestine, for the simple reason that its presentation would result in perpetuating the supremacy of the Jewish ethnic group, securing its rule by Palestinian fragmentation.

A liberal democracy cannot function in a milieu such as Israel's, where ethnic polarization - political, economic and cultural - runs deep. Here the problem is not one of individual rights, but is focused on mutually incompatible collective rights, and the political system (elections, separation of powers) lacks the means for channeling interethnic frictions.

One has a sneaking suspicion that Israeli public discourse concerns itself solely with the unitary binational model precisely because this is a truly unworkable option, thereby delegitimizing the whole concept of binationalism. There are of course other, more appealing, binational models, whose implementation may be more efficient and practical than that of the partition option.

In this context, it should be pointed out that all major intercommunal peace processes launched since 1989 (Ireland, Bosnia, Cyprus, Lebanon, and Macedonia) were based upon binational or multinational models. This fact flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that the binational model failed everywhere in the world with the exception of Switzerland and Canada.

One of the reasons binational models are used in the resolution of interethnic conflicts is that a partition solution - which requires alteration of international borders - disturbs the existing geopolitical balance and gives rise to tensions in nearby countries. It is preferable to retain the recognized international borders - which are like a mosaic, in that every little change distorts the picture and causes problems - and to aim for "soft" internal boundaries, as in federated or confederated states.

This is where it is useful to insert the principle of "parity of esteem", which is a core concept in the Northern Ireland peace agreement (the Good Friday Agreement of 1998). It reflects the principle of respect for the identity and the ethos of both communities (Unionists and Republicans in Northern Ireland) and underlies the effort to achieve coexistence in a common physical space, despite the cultural differences.

The historical, diplomatic, political and constitutional literature is full of theoretical and empirical cases that have coped with problems of states torn by ethno-national conflicts. The Israeli discourse chooses to ignore the vast experience accumulated, and sticks to wholesale rejection of all binational models. It is even more surprising that the international community, which seeks to preserve the integrity of polarized states, insists in the case of Israel/Palestine on a solution based on partition, even after repeated failed attempts.

In the prevailing circumstances, does it matter whether a person supports "two states for two peoples" or a federal state, power sharing in the context of a consociational democracy, cantonization, or other models? The nature of the constitutional framework is secondary; after all, the entire dilemma is not earth-shattering: it is a choice between horizontal (power sharing) and vertical (territorial) partition. But the bottom line is this: The coexistence of the two national communities is a destiny that cannot be avoided. All attempts (theoretical and empirical) to separate them have failed. This coexistence must be based upon communal equality and ethical principles, human dignity and freedom; otherwise it will not endure and will perpetuate violence. It is clear that without parity of esteem, mutual respect for the identity and equality of the two communities, there will be no reconciliation and neither of the two alternatives - partition and power sharing - can be implemented.

In any case, productive discussion of this topic will be possible only when the people of this region have taken psychological ownership of the binational condition that has been thrust upon them and have begun to strive together to pave a road to reconciliation. W