Which Kind of Binational State?

Israel and the Palestinians are sinking together into the mud of the "one state." The question is no longer whether it will be binational, but which model to choose.

Meron Benvenisti
Meron Benvenisti

In the rush of refreshing statements heard lately, the warnings have come from the length of the political spectrum - from Ami Ayalon to Ehud Olmert and the Geneva accord initiators and Jewish intellectuals in America - Israel faces "a threat that could spell the end of the Jewish state," meaning the danger of the binational state. Within a few years, there will be a Palestinian majority between the Jordan and the Mediterranean and according to Olmert "more and more Palestinians are no longer interested in a solution of two states for two peoples." The result is "a disaster - one state for two people."

The vast majority of public opinion rejects that option and the academic sector is revolted by the binational concept, "which hasn't solved any conflict in the world and does not work anywhere except in Switzerland." The opposition is so strong and emotional that seemingly there's no need to even define what kind of regime it would be and what the term "one state for two peoples" might mean. Examining various regimes included in the binational model might show perhaps that one or more of the options could actually please some of those who meanwhile so vehemently denounce the binational approach as a disaster.

The connection between losing the Jewish demographic majority and the fear of the demand for equal voting rights for everyone - one man, one vote - that would bring an end to the Jewish state shows that the type of regime identified with binationalism is a classic liberal regime of individual rights in a unitary, centralized state, without any regard for ethnic-collective rights.

That's the kind of regime that replaced the apartheid government in South Africa and it works with relative success. If the Palestinians do indeed force the Israelis to impose such a model, as the blacks did in South Africa, it would indeed spell the end of the Jewish state in the sense of its ethnic dominance and other national privileges.

However, it is difficult to assume that such a situation would evolve in reality because the State of Israel today without the territories seemingly has a liberal democracy, but the Jewish community in it made sure to impose an "ethnic democracy" that gave the Arabs second class citizenship.

The fear of the loss of the majority has already yielded plans for campaigns against the danger, such as the projects for increasing the Jewish birth rate, granting voting rights to expatriates or even to Jews wherever they may be. The chance of fulfilling the unitary model is nil. But the effort to identify binationalism only with that model is deliberate, meant to prevent any debate about other, more attractive alternatives.

One such alternative is a system that recognizes collective ethnic-national rights and maintains power sharing on the national-central level, with defined political rights for the minority and sometimes territorial-cantonal divisions. That model, called "consociational democracy" has not succeeded in many places, but lately has been applied successfully to reach agreements in ancient ethnic-national conflicts such as Bosnia, through the Dayton agreement, and Northern Ireland, with the Good Friday agreement. That should be food for thought for the experts who contemptuously wave off the binational option.

Why did arrangements based on one state for two peoples work in various methods and places - South Africa, Bosnia, and Northern Ireland - while the Oslo accords, based on territorial division, achieved at the same time, collapsed?

The option of power sharing and division into federated cantons is closer to the model of the territorial division of two states but it avoids the surgery, so it allows the existence of soft borders, and creates a deliberate blurring that eases dealing with symbolic issues, the status of Jerusalem or the questions of refugees and the settlers. The mutual recognition allows preservation of the national-cultural character on the national level and preservation of the ethnically homogenous regions. Everything depends, of course, on recognition being mutual and symmetric.

Those who don't recognize and accept intercommunal equality propose a third model of binationalism - even though they rise up against the very idea. They suggest cultural and civic local autonomy, but without voting in the Knesset, or alternatively, voting in Jordan, the "real Palestinian state." That is Menachem Begin's original autonomy plan, or the "functional partition" proposed by Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, a plan being implemented nowadays through the Palestinian Authority. That model has another version in the form of the "Palestinian state" defined by the separation fence: four cantons under Israel's indirect control. That's also a model for binationalism camouflaged by the division into "two states."

And there's a fourth model, which can be called "undeclared binationalism." It's a unitary state controlled by one dominant national group, which leaves the other national group disenfranchised and subject to laws "for natives only," which for the purposes of respectability and international law are known as laws of "belligerent occupation." The convenience of this model of binationalism is that it can be applied over a long period of time, meanwhile debating the threat of the "one state" and the advantages of the "two states," without doing a thing. That's the situation nowadays. But the process is apparently inevitable. Israel and the Palestinians are sinking together into the mud of the "one state." The question is no longer whether it will be binational, but which model to choose.



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