Half an hour was all MK Ahmad Tibi needed – from the moment U.S. President Donald Trump stated, two weeks ago, that he was committed to a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but not necessarily a two-state solution – to appear on CNN and illustrate what Israeli Palestinians mean when they hear “one state”: “If this will be the case,” he said, “I will be running for the post of prime minister, and I can assure you that I will win [over] Bibi Netanyahu.”
On the way to a meeting with Tibi in his Knesset office this week, I remembered a letter that was sent to Haaretz last year in response to a controversy that played out in the paper about the meaning of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state. The writer, a Rimon Lavie from Jerusalem, noted: “Whoever talks about ‘Jewish and democratic’ is evading the main issue without which a democratic state is not feasible: In the future, the minority, every minority, can become the majority.”
Observing the separation barrier through a car window, one understands that for Israeli Jews, the attraction of maintaining the “Green Line” is that it allows for the civil affiliation of the millions of Palestinians who live in the West Bank (and the Gaza Strip) to a Palestinian state, even an imagined one. The “two-state vision” makes it possible to exclude the Palestinians who live on the other side of the Green Line from being counted with the Arab citizens of Israel. Because the number of the latter constitutes just one-fifth of the country’s population, the prospects of Mr. Lavie’s principle being tested in reality are quite slim.
However, the moment we discard the two-state vision, even if only for argument’s sake, and adopt the one-state vision in its place, Israeli democrats have no choice – even before we’ve annexed a millimeter of land – but to imagine the possibility that the Palestinian minority will become the majority. Which is exactly what I invited MK Tibi to do.
Why him? Because he was the first to bring it up.
What’s the first thing you would do as prime minister?
Tibi: “Ensure that the principle of equality among all citizens is the country’s primary value.”
Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that the state is committed to total social and political equality for all its citizens, irrespective of religion, race or sex.
“We will annul the Declaration of Independence and in its place write a civil declaration that represents all citizens: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze. The entire public. It’s untenable for a democratic state to have a declaration of independence that is fundamentally Jewish.”
What would the country’s name be?
“I don’t know. Its parliament will decide.”
What about the flag?
“That would have to change.”
The national anthem?
“It would be changed.”
The Law of Return [enabling all Jews to establish residency and citizenship in Israel]?
“That would automatically be annulled, because the country would no longer be a Jewish state as it is today. The single state will not resemble the present-day State of Israel. It will be something different. Why should Jews be able to return here and Palestinians not?”
Could there be a Law of Return and a right of return [of Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants]?
The country would be open to all Jews and Palestinians from everywhere in the world. There would be equality in entering the country and in returning for all citizens – Jews and Arabs. The Law of Return embodies the state’s Jewishness, which I do not accept.”
In other words, the single state you envision would mean the dismantlement of the State of Israel.
“The single democratic state will have a different format from the present State of Israel.”
Ahmad Tibi, 58, was born in the Arab town of Taibeh in central Israel, studied medicine but didn’t practice (he didn’t finish his internship in gynecology), and served as a political adviser to the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Currently a member of the Ta’al faction of the Joint Arab List party, he is one of a number of deputy speakers of the Knesset, where he began his career in 1999.
The profile image accompanyinig Tibi’s WhatsApp account is Martin Luther King’s assertion, “I have a dream.” It’s certainly difficult to think of a more apt slogan for the civil struggle for equality between Jews and Arabs. If the two-state paradigm is to be supplanted by the one-state conception, the struggle of people like Tibi against the occupation will become a fight for one person, one vote. Nonetheless, it’s important for Tibi to point out that he himself does not advocate one state but believes in the two-state solution: a Palestinian state, and Israel as a state of all its citizens. It was only when President Trump spoke about the acceptability of a single state that he began to imagine what that would mean on a practical level.
Before we met, Tibi asked me what the thrust of my article would be, whether for or against the one-state notion. I Trumped him: I said I thought the two-state idea was best for both peoples, but that if both want to live together in one state, I would flow with that. I’m in favor of the future. “Yes, exactly,” Tibi said.
Is that how you understood what Trump said?
“What surprised me is that for the first time an American president spoke about one state, with an Israeli prime minister standing next to him and not opening his mouth. Were Trump’s remarks those of someone who’s not versed in the details, or were they very sophisticated? It’s hard to know. I belong to those who support the two-state vision, have fought for it and continue to fight for it. I think it’s the optimal solution for the existing situation. The international community wants it and the majority on both sides wants it, even though that majority is diminishing according to the surveys I see, among both Palestinians and Israelis. And with 620,000 settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and two separate judicial systems, there’s a reality today of one state with rolling apartheid.
“And then along comes Trump, who says ‘one state,’ and the debate is launched. There are three possibilities: two states or one state that could take two forms. One form is apartheid, where a privileged class, namely the Jews, gets all the rights, and there’s a class with diminished rights, or no rights, no vote, namely the Palestinians. The second form that a single state could take is that of a democratic, equal state: one person, one vote. My point is that if there is to be one state, we will want the democratic model and we will never accept the apartheid model. But not only us. The international community in the 21st century will not accept an apartheid model.”
Even though it’s accepted a 50-year occupation.
“Even though it’s accepted a 50-year occupation. And in such a state, I assume that the Palestinians will take power, because they will have a majority.”
In other words, by virtue of demography, you will be prime minister.
“I don’t like the use that’s made of the demography issue in the political debate in Israel. It draws on all kinds of professors who count us day by day and talk about us as a demographic threat. I am not a demographic threat.”
You are a democratic threat.
“Exactly. I am not a demographic threat, I am a democratic hope. And I am not saying that I or some other Palestinian will be prime minister in order to frighten the Jews, but to make it clear that there will not be an apartheid state, because we sanctify the value of democracy. For years you feared and attacked our nationhood, and lately there are those in the government who are fearful and who are trying to assail our citizenship – whether it’s Bibi warning that we are ‘flocking to the polling stations’ in droves, or [Defense Minister Avigdor] Lieberman who wants a transfer of Wadi Ara. When I said I would be prime minister, I meant Ahmad Tibi as a parable.”
Do you think a state like that would be able to fulfill the national aspirations of the Palestinian people? Can you envisage a single state, in which Jews and Palestinians live, that meets the criterion of Palestinian self-determination?
“Those who support it as a first option think so. When the Palestinian national movement was founded, it spoke of one state. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish told me, two years before he died, that two states is the possible solution, one state is the just solution. Why is it just? Because all the refugees will return; Jews will live where they want, Palestinians will live where they want; and there will be no problem of borders.”
Can the Zionist dream be realized in the one-state format?
“Not in the way you demonstrate Zionism to us on a daily basis. You know, we get lessons in Zionism: in laws, in the definition of the state, in the attitude toward the Arab Other. Zionism prefers the Jew over the non-Jew. And that’s translated into a discriminatory approach toward Arabs in Israel and across the Green Line: through the Law of Return, through the Jewish National Fund, through land seizures. Zionism advocates ‘a nation that dwells alone.’ Zionism will come to the end of its road in a one-state format.”
Recognizing the Nakba
Will the one-state format be empathetic to the harsh history of the Jewish people?
“Of course. In my speech about the Holocaust, I spoke out against Holocaust deniers, because it’s not humane: To deny the suffering of the Other is to cause suffering. But I also want empathy for my nation, which is suffering today. There must also be empathy for the Palestinian narrative. The single state must recognize the Nakba [“catastrophe,” in Arabic, used to describe the 1947-49 Israeli War of Independence when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes], with all that this entails historically, legally and judicially.”
So you say we would mark the Nakba. And would we celebrate Independence Day?
“The independence of the new state.”
In other words, the Independence Day celebrations of the state that was established in 1948 will be canceled?
“For the Palestinians, your Independence Day is a catastrophe. It is our Nakba, which denotes suffering of a people that fell apart. Crashed. Was crushed. Was expelled. Killed. How can it be celebrated?”
So we cancel Independence Day and mark the Nakba. What about Memorial Day?
“You mean with all the sadness and so on? Everyone is entitled.
At present it’s a day of national mourning. There’s a siren, there are ceremonies. What would happen with all those practices?
“There were also Palestinians who fell.”
What do you mean?
“The question is whether the single state will want to emphasize the contrasts or push them aside and emphasize what there is in common.”
From your perspective, is there a difference between 1948 and 1967?
“Politically, yes, because I am demanding two states. But I have a narrative that goes back to 1948, and I will not revoke my narrative just because a Palestinian state has come into being. I do not forget my memories. Look, 1948 is the homeland, 1967 is the state. There’s a difference between [the entire] homeland and state. Homeland is in the heart. Jaffa is homeland. My father was born in Jaffa; my mother was born in Ramle. People were born in Haifa. I can’t annul the feelings of those people, not even if a Palestinian state is established in the territories [conquered in] 1967. The feeling a person has for his first birthplace, his homeland, will always continue to exist.”
And that feeling, you say, is not divided by a Green Line?
“Feeling is not crossed by lines, but there are pragmatic policy decisions that incorporate concessions. A state that’s established within the 1967 lines covers 23 percent of greater Palestine. You can’t imagine what it was for Yasser Arafat to agree to that – for the leader of the PLO, the leader of the Palestinian people, the leader of the national liberation movement. It’s the same for [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, who is from the founding generation. He told me: It’s 23 percent of the homeland. And yet even that is not agreed to. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu doesn’t agree to it.”
In the single state, if we want to push the differences aside and emphasize the common elements, do we need to cancel Independence Day and Memorial Day, or maybe expand them? To celebrate both, to remember both? How do you envisage it?
“I don’t want to go into details now. You are getting into the minute details of a single state, which is far off.”
We are trying to imagine what the one-state solution will look like concretely.
“I will sum it up in one sentence: With one, equal state, the State of Israel in its present format will not exist. All its symbols will change, and the narrative will be different. The unifying element in one state will be different from what it is today, because it will be a state of everyone, not a state of the Jewish collectivity in which there is a tolerated minority that is thrown a bone in the form of gestures like new roads and the establishment of well-baby clinics. In an equal, single state, equality is a supreme value.”
What about the language?
“Both Hebrew and Arabic, which will be taught and spoken at the same level. At present Israel does in fact have two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic, but Hebrew is dominant. And the leader will have to be articulate in both languages and deliver speeches in both – like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who speaks English and French.”
In all the schools.
“That would be decided by the one-state parliament – what the education system will be. Whether there will be separate systems, like today, or a joint one. There are several examples, such as Belgium and Canada, of a bilingual system.”
But in the education system you envisage, with two languages and two narratives – how would that work?
“I don’t know, but getting to know the Other is important.”
What would be the core subjects? What would be studied by all pupils?
“I’m sure that the Education Ministry of the future will be different from the one under Naftali Bennett.”
In what way?
“There will not be control of Arabs by Jews, nor control by Arabs of Jews by coercion. In a lecture I gave two months ago, I said that if there were to be one binational, democratic state, and elections were held, it was probable that I would be prime minister, and I added: But I want to promise you that I will behave toward you as you behave toward us. A cabinet minister from the previous government who heard me said, ‘Ahmad, don’t be bad.’ That says it all.”
You are saying to the Jews that they would not want a Palestinian majority to treat them the way the Jews now treat the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
“The attitude toward us is discriminatory, exclusionary, unequal, and there is great bitterness and anger over that. I am talking about the Arab public that I represent, but also about the Palestinians who are under occupation. Between themselves, Jewish Israelis know they are not treating the residents of Taibeh or Nazareth equally. Or those in Umm al-Hiran and [elsewhere] in the Negev. I don’t know how a people that suffered a great deal has reached the present pass in its attitude toward the Other. Look at who’s leading public opinion, who the social leaders in Israel are: Netanyahu, [Gilad] Erdan, Miri Regev, ‘The Shadow’ [the far-right rapper Yoav Eliasi], Bennett, the fans of [the soccer team] Beitar Jerusalem in the eastern stands of the stadium, Elor Azaria as a national hero.”
Jokes and racism
While preparing for the meeting with Tibi by watching videos of some of his speeches in the Knesset – as impressive as they are numerous – I found it impossible to ignore the fact that the most beautiful moments in the House, as well as the ugliest ones, are embodied in the interaction between Jews and Arabs. There are moments where everyone is laughing and joking, and the Israelis [Jews and Arabs alike] look normal, and suddenly it seems as though the conflict is no more than a misunderstanding that has swelled to monstrous proportions. But at other times the hatred and the racism rise to the surface, and you are ashamed to hear what the Jewish MKs and ministers are saying, and the future looks bleak. Tibi agrees with that description, and adds that even when interrelations are good and cordial, this cannot blur existing ideological disparities. I admit to Tibi that I identify with Darwish’s remark.
But would the moral corruption of the occupation make it possible for a single state to be just, or would the bitterness you mention be translated into revenge?
“We have to do all we can to create a structure that would gradually do away with that bitterness. The bitterness exists and it won’t go away automatically by pushing a button. The national tension will remain, and the inter-religious tension, too. It’s important to neutralize this structurally. You know what, it’s important to neutralize it today, even before there is a single state. Everything I said about the one-state option and about the anger and so forth – we have to start dealing with it now.”
Would it be important to guarantee equal representation in a single state?
“No, there would be democratic elections.”
But democratic elections in which 50-50 representation between Jews and Arabs would be mandatory?
“I don’t know, I hadn’t considered that. My vision is two states, but I’m not one of those whose knees wobble or who goes into defensive mode or gets nightmares from the one-state vision. Even more so because now there is one state with three governmental systems [for Israel, and in the territories, for settlers and for Palestinians] and two national groups, toward which there are divergent approaches. And I assume that in democratic elections no one will be shortchanged. No group must be shortchanged in an equal state.”
Do you think that the structure of the regime of such a state must by definition oblige equal representation of the different nationalities?
“In Lebanon, for example, there are communities. I don’t think it should be like Lebanon: distribution of roles according to communities.”
Do you have any sort of state model in mind?
“I don’t think there is anything similar.”
Though there have been similar failures in history.
“True, there have been failures. It will be pioneering – after a conflict of this kind, entering into a model of an equal, democratic state that hasn’t yet been tried. I am aware of the debate and of what the majority of the Jewish public says: that this is not why we’re here. They say they will leave the country if that happens. There are some who leave because of [the price of the snack] Milky. I don’t think it’s a nightmare.”
But the country will look different.
“The country will look completely different.”
Is there any area in Israel today where you can get a feeling of what it would look like?
“Neve Shalom [a community west of Jerusalem]. Jews and Arabs live there, and there’s equality. Sometimes there are serious differences, but they still live in peace and in mutual respect and with respect for the two narratives. Or the bilingual schools in the country – my daughter went to one of them.”
“In Jerusalem. It was attacked and burned several times, so it’s possible that the single state will also be attacked.”
But the places you mentioned do offer a glimpse of this possibility. Can you describe what it will be like? For example, will both languages be heard equally?
“Each person will speak his language, and it’s desirable for everyone to know the other’s language. In today’s Israel, 90 percent of the Arabs speak Hebrew and want to learn it, and 90 percent of the Jews don’t know Arabic and don’t want to learn it. Knowing the Other is an important element. That doesn’t exist today. The Arabs know the Jews better than the Jews know the Arabs. In regard to the language, in terms of the desire to know, to read Hebrew, we know Hebrew literature – we study Tanach [the Hebrew Bible] in high school. Jews don’t study the Koran, for example.”
So in the single state, the Koran will be taught, too.
“I think that those who wish can study both the one and the other. It’s preferable to learn the other in all its aspects. Jews and Arabs will learn Tanach and Koran and the New Testament.”
But there will be separation of religion and state.
And there won’t be an official state religion?
“No. There has to be separation of religion and state. The vision of the Palestinian secular left was of a secular state.”
What about the division of taxes? Would people in Tel Aviv and Ramallah pay the same taxes?
“Yes, provided the investments will be the same: when the investments in Arab or Palestinian locales are similar to those in Kfar Sava or Ra’anana. After the two Germanies were united, West Germany embarked on affirmative action costing hundreds of billions of dollars in order to develop the eastern section, and now there is a large-scale narrowing of gaps. My opinion is that this should be done in Israel today.”
What about the army?
“I don’t know. In one state, it would be the army of everyone. But I’m telling you once again: We haven’t reached that point. It would not be an army that occupies the Palestinians, because the Palestinians and the Israelis will be equal citizens in the same country. It sounds like a dream, like utopia, and when I talk to you now, it really does seem utopian. But utopia, too – you can draw it, picture it; you can fear the possibility of failure and hope for the possibility of life together that will succeed in one form or another. Look, the situation today is catastrophic, and the worst thing is the desire to preserve the status quo.”
In the one-state situation, aren’t you concerned about a Hamas takeover, as happened in the Gaza Strip? You and I can say, okay, one democratic state, but there are also antidemocratic forces.
“They exist today, too.”
But they are restrained by the Israel Defense Forces.
“I mean that they exist today within Israel. True, the structure is democratic, but the government takes the form of an oppressive rule over a nation, rule that discriminates against 20 percent of the population. And there is an antidemocratic thrust led by influential Jewish forces that is threatening the traditional democratic structure.”
In other words, you don’t see a greater threat to a one-state situation by Hamas than by Jewish nationalists.
“I think that no religious movement on either side supports the idea of a democratic secular state.”
If we try to imagine the single state in a regional context, would it in effect resemble an Arab state?
“I am telling you now that it is Palestinians and Jews – Arabs, Christians, Jews, Druze. It’s something special. There is nothing comparable.”
And you see it being welcomed in the Middle East region?
“I think it will be more exceptional and more progressive than other countries.”
Do you see a state like that being accepted by Iran, Syria, Lebanon?
“I don’t know what kind of a welcome it would get even from the United States. I don’t know how it would be viewed by Iran. It would depend on what it looks like, because a secular democratic state will be something attractive.”
And with a joint Jewish-Muslim army?
“I don’t know if an army would be needed, though every country needs an army in the end. But it would be different from an occupation army. It will not be an army of occupation or oppression of a people under it. There will not be a Jewish army that will oppress Palestinians in the democratic state.”
Do you coordinate moves with Abu Mazen?
“We meet. But this present declaration of mine is not coordinated with anyone.”
Would he be warranted in viewing you as an opponent?
“Abu Mazen is committed to the two-state idea, but he comes from the PLO, which originally advocated one state. The one-state idea is not foreign to him.”
But Abu Mazen would run against you for prime minister, won’t he?
“It seems to me that when that happens – in another 20, 30, 40, 50 years – neither I nor he will be here,.”
You would have opponents in Israel, too. Why you and not Ayman Odeh, who heads the Joint Arab List and is also the leader of Hadash, which has five seats, compared to your party’s two seats?
“Each person has the right to present his candidacy.”
Why do you think it will be you?
“Possibly because of my popularity and the public surveys. According to a poll conducted by Statnet [a research institute based in Daliat al-Carmel], I am the most popular Arab MK among the Arab population. But I am certain that there are people who are perhaps better suited than I both in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Again, I meant Ahmad Tibi as a parable.”
Hadash defines itself as an Arab-Jewish party.
But your party, Ta’al [Arab Movement for Change], doesn’t categorize itself like that.
“Our slogan is ‘a state of all its nationalities.’ I am in favor of cooperation with Jews, I think it’s important, but that’s not how Ta’al defines itself, Jewish-Arab, no. Our party represents the Arab public, but is in favor of Jewish-Arab cooperation.”
But let’s say that in the one-state vision, you see a possibility of redefining your party.
“Everything will change. But I challenge you to conduct a survey of the whole public in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza – Israelis and Palestinians – that asks, ‘Bibi or Tibi?’ If you ask the whole population, I beat Bibi.”
What’s the first stage in getting there? For the Palestinians to forgo the struggle for a Palestinian state?
“That won’t happen. That’s why I told you that I prefer two states, which is the preferred, optimal option. The demand for national liberation is for national liberation from the yoke of the occupation. That cannot be relinquished.”
But the question is whether a paradigmatic change is implemented – if we change course in the direction of a one-state situation and in the first stage say that you no longer aspire to a state of your own and want equal rights in the State of Israel.
“A few Palestinian intellectuals have spoken of equal rights in one state. But never at any stage have we said that we were stopping the struggle.”
But maybe in order to change tracks, the first thing to say is that we are no longer aspiring to a state of our own.
“That won’t happen.”
The Palestinians could announce that they are joining the state and then they would fight from within for civil rights and for changes in the state’s character.
“No. I am familiar with that thesis of ‘civil rights for all in the State of Israel.’ That is not the intention. A secular democratic state is something else, it’s not joining Israel, it’s a whole new game. It’s an equal game between Palestinians and Israelis, there’s no Israeli hegemony.”
But how does it get off the ground?
“There is no Jewish-Israeli hegemony at any stage, it’s a new state.”
In other words, without a struggle.
“At no stage will a national struggle be forgone. The banner now is two states; the banner can be replaced, but while continuing the struggle against the existing occupation, because the Israeli establishment, the governing establishment, does not want to forgo the hegemony of the occupier. Accordingly, it’s necessary to go on struggling against the occupier. We don’t have to make things easier for the occupier by a one-state declaration.”
The question is whether you change tracks.
“We don’t change tracks. We don’t replace one track with another. There are two options. My preferred track is the two-state solution, which calls for an end to the occupation. Maybe if you ask one of the Palestinian intellectuals – ask Sari Nusseibeh [a philosopher and the former president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem], for example – he will tell you equal civil rights for everyone, as he’s already said in the past. Possibly if you ask someone from one of the Popular Front organizations, he will say straight out: a secular democratic state. But we will not stop the struggle.”
I didn’t say to stop the struggle, but to conduct it within the state as a civil battle to change the character of the State of Israel. To start with the call, “Annex us.”
“No. No one is saying ‘annex us.’ There are some who have been positive about the notion of one state in which there are equal voting rights for all, as President Rivlin said. That changes the whole situation but doesn’t eliminate the struggle. It’s only a semblance of the victory of the struggle.”
What you’re actually saying is that it has to be the result of an agreement, a prior decision about a change in Israel’s character. And not as a different track of the struggle that’s planned in stages – first you ask to join and then begin to spearhead a struggle for civil equality.
“Which is why I am telling you that, despite my personal ambitions, it will probably be someone else, many years from now.”
No one can predict the future. But in the meantime, at the southern entrance to Ramallah, a huge billboard has been erected that states, in Arabic: “If the choice is between one state or two, I choose one state.”