Israel Is Already a Binational State, and Has Been for a Long Time

The debate must begin to shift now. No more proclaiming 'two states' and 'Jewish state.' The task now is to make it just.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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A protester holds a flag, designed like an Israeli flag with the Palestinian national colors, as he demonstrates against new austerity measures set to be included in Israel's 2013-2014 budget.
A protester holds a flag, designed like an Israeli flag with the Palestinian national colors.Credit: Reuters
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

The terror, shock, repulsion and resistance the one-state idea stirs in every Zionist Israeli are understandable emotions. They are the traces left by 120 years of Zionism and 120 years of fighting the Palestinian people, with all the fears, hatred, ideology, propaganda and brainwashing. Moreover, contemporary precedents, from the Balkans to Northern Ireland, do not bode well. The one-state solution is the darkest of demons, which will lead to the mother of all disasters: the return of Palestinian refugees. Intifadas, wars, terror, tyranny, civil war and Armageddon pale before the terror that the idea of a binational democracy strikes in the Israeli heart. Return is the absolute apocalypse.

That’s how it is when the members of the neighboring nation are regarded as nonhuman. That’s how it is when you live in the shadow of a trauma that someone makes sure to cultivate, magnify and distort its impact. As a result, a binational state is seen as an invitation to suicide. With that kind of start, any change in mind-set is a long way off. This Israel will never freely accept the Palestinians as citizens with equal rights. And we can trust the prime minister to do his part: Last week, in response to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s doomsday-weapon warnings, Benjamin Netanyahu firmly declared, “Israel will not be a binational state.”

If the premier says Israel won’t be a binational state, then of course it won’t be. There’s just one small detail, from the realm of facts: For more than 48 years now, Israel is already a binational state. There’s no other way to describe it: a state that governs two nations is binational. Nor is there any indication that this situation is about to change. And so, the campaign of fearmongering collapses like a house of cards. It turns out that the disaster is already here and it’s not the end of the world. In Basel, Theodor Herzl founded the Jewish state; 70 years later, in 1967, it came to an end and became a binational state. For most of its history, then, Israel has been a binational state. The terrible demon is the reality.

And perhaps the devil is not so terrible? In the cruelest, most unjust situation that can be imagined — in which a binational Israel maintains an apartheid regime in the territories and a regime that discriminates against its Arab citizens — the horrific prophecies have not come true. There is no civil war, no Yugoslav-style massacres. Every few years there’s an uprising, every few years there’s a small war. Israel lives by the sword; it’s not the end of the world, certainly not in its own eyes. So how much worse could it be if the binationalism were also to become democratic? And why can’t the state’s Jewish character, whatever that means, be preserved in a binational democracy, alongside the national character of the second nation?

Proponents of the single-state solution are trying to put forward a crazy proposition: the establishment of a just regime, an egalitarian democracy for everyone, not only the Jews. That’s the entire story, the whole catastrophe. The background to this is another development that is increasingly gaining recognition in Israel and beyond: the futility of the alternative. True, there are still people who amuse themselves with the two-state idea, whether out of inertia or a desire to be misleading so as to preserve the status quo. And there are people who think it’s possible to establish a Palestinian state and to let justice reign beyond the 1967 borders, without evacuating all of the settlements and without resolving the refugee problem. That is insane. There has never been an Israeli government that believed in that solution: The proof is that no one ever seriously stopped building the settlements, whose entire purpose is to preclude such an option.

The road is long and hard, but the debate must begin to shift now, at least for the few who want to live in a more just state. They must stop proclaiming “two states” and “Jewish state,” and begin talking reality. And the reality is that the binational state has been here for a long time. The task now is to make it just. That is much less frightening and dangerous than any other scenario.