The Binational Option

Meron Benvenisti
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Meron Benvenisti

A growing number of articles and analyses by Palestinians and their supporters are warning that the "two states for two peoples" option is fading, and the goal of a Palestinian state should be exchanged for the establishment of a binational state. At the same time, polls among Israeli Jews show there is a majority, albeit slim, in favor of a Palestinian state.

Palestinian Authority representatives recently presented a document suggesting the surge of settlement and infrastructure development in the West Bank has eliminated the possibility of establishing a viable state in the shrunken, diced-up territories, so they have to reconsider the two-states option. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meanwhile declares he is sticking to President Bush's "vision of a Palestinian state" - obviously under conditions dictated by Israel. When a Palestinian representative thinks out loud about a change of policy - from a demand for national independence to a struggle for civil rights in a binational state - an Israeli diplomat responds furiously, "That's more proof of Palestinian unwillingness to reach peace, because a binational state obviously means the destruction of the state of Israel."

Ostensibly, there's not much new in a renewed discussion of the binational option, other than the fact that in the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement it was perceived in the past as "betrayal of the struggle for self-determination and replacing it with an internal Israeli issue concerning an ethnic minority that must struggle for its civil rights." Now, representatives of the PA - which has but one purpose, to prepare the groundwork for an independent state - are daring to discuss a plan that would mean full Israeli annexation of the occupied territories.

There's also nothing new in the outrage of Israelis about raising the idea of a "binational" state, since it has always been perceived as the eradication of the Jewish-Zionist state. The response to the de facto binational reality created after 1967, has been the definition of the Israeli occupation as temporary, which does not require "long-term conclusions" but rather "ideological" disputes between left and right: "two states versus autonomy." The Oslo framework, which ostensibly was aimed at creating the conditions for separation and establishment of a Palestinian state, was nothing more than a binational regime, in which there was defined division of authority and responsibility between the dominant Israeli element and the PA. The latter was controlled indirectly while Israel was allowed to continue its integration of the territories, turning the entire Mandatory Palestine into a indivisible geopolitical entity.

The collapse of the Oslo regime, destruction of the PA, the reoccupation of the West Bank, rapid pace of settlement expansion and road building, made clear to the Palestinians that their ambitions for national sovereignty in besieged cantons only played into the hands of the Israelis, making it preferable to bring up the idea of the binational alternative if only for the sake of the national struggle. After all, there is nothing that would embarrass the Israelis more than the demand to annex the territories and grant civil equality. Israel did not manage to deal with the "1948 Arabs," its citizens, so how will it deal with millions of "1967 Arabs?" It's possible that those who initiated the "searing of the consciousness," using brute force to make the Palestinians "surrender and uproot their national aspirations from their hearts" have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations and the Palestinians indeed are ready to "privatize" their demands for freedom and redefine them as demands for civil rights. Now the slogan "Palestinian state" will become Israeli, since the alternative is a political entity with a non-Jewish majority, meaning a loss of identity for the Jewish state and the perpetuation of an apartheid regime.

There are, of course, three ways to sidestep the dilemma - or to "solve" it - but all three are dangerous illusions. The first is transfer, which is impossible to implement; even debating it and its dangers is an escape from reality. The second, "the Lebanese solution," means not counting the Palestinians and disconnecting demography from democracy, meaning a democracy of a nation of masters, going the way of the whites in South Africa. The third is separation, that magical solution that has no chance of success as long as hundreds of thousands of settlers are living amidst the Palestinian population.

There is a fourth solution - withdrawal to the 1967 borders and evacuation of all the settlements. But that is perceived as a grave danger because the Palestinians insist on "the right of return." So what is done when the ruthless reality undermines the ideological positions, and the popular answers are impossible to implement? Starting to think about what appears to be heretical and fantastic, such as, perhaps a binational solution would create less friction than separation and partition? And perhaps an open debate about binational arrangements, even if it's only theoretical, will do more for reconciliation than sticking to ethno-nationalist separation.