Time to Give Up on Two States, but Not on Coexistence

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Palestinian school children walk past a section of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank village of Abu Dis, on the outskirt of Jerusalem.Credit: AP

1. Last week I was in Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv for a “prenatal tour.” We were eight young couples, each looking forward to the birth of their first child. We saw the delivery room and the recovery room, and walked through broad corridors, bursting with pictures of smiling parents and children, when it suddenly struck me that our children will come into the world in a country whose future we are not sure about. I, too, have my doubts.

But maybe that’s not surprising. People don’t conduct their lives with images of the apocalypse flooding their consciousness; in the end, we are machines of everyday habits. Occasionally, though, the awareness dawns that we are conducting our lives in a country whose borders we can’t demarcate – not now and not in another 40 years – and about whose continued existence we are dubious. Naturally, I hoped that this month’s election would bring about a change and give rise to a new government that would dare to shape our future.

The 2015 election campaign was the ugliest Israel has had in some time. The potpourri of groups that constitute Israeli society launched an all-out battle for power: the settlers against the “traitorous left,” Avigdor Lieberman wildly inciting against Israel’s Arab citizens. Although everyone talked about the price of housing and the cost of living, only the nave believed that those were the real election issues.

What we failed to grasp fully is that the poison the prime minister has been disseminating here – the notion that it’s we Jews against the world, and against the Arabs especially, and that there is no way out – seeped into the arteries of most people. The flagrant nature of the manifestations of racism aimed at the country’s Arab citizens actually made me long for a little hypocrisy in the public space.

On Election Day, the prime minister fired up his constituency with declarations about a dangerous mass vote by Israeli Arabs, one that the Jews had to counter. Just imagine the president of France making a similar remark about voting patterns by French citizens of Jewish origin – the whole Jewish world would have been up in arms against Europe for ignoring the lessons of the Holocaust. This was the nadir to which our election campaign deteriorated, and it culminated in Netanyahu’s biggest victory. In Israel you don’t pay a price for racism.

Why did Netanyahu win? In the final analysis, the story he sold the Israelis is the one that most of them believe: that we live in a small country surrounded by enemies, the international community doesn’t like us, and ISIS and Iran are at our gates, so weakness and concessions and other European refinements are luxuries we can’t afford. The situation is irreversible, but we can survive by force of arms, and by taking a determined stand.

Netanyahu was always a wily merchant of fear, and fear has become the reason to reject every initiative for change. Fear has supposedly entrenched us in this form, in the way we are now, afraid to budge. To most Israeli Jews, the familiar political solutions – two states, or the Arab League initiative – sound like a hippie hallucination or a line from a John Lennon song. This is the turnabout that has occurred in Israel: the no-solution, determined-stand coalition has won.

For years, Netanyahu promoted a political thesis masquerading as reality (there is no solution, only a determined stand), and in this election it paid off handsomely. For most Israelis, his thesis became the only reality, and they set out to save him and his government from the clutches of the center-left, who would leave Israel unprotected against an ever-growing mountain of threats, in the face of another Holocaust.

I voted, albeit without enthusiasm, for Meretz, the left-wing party, which won five seats. Meretz’s weakness is clear testimony to the collapse of the left. The Israeli left has lost its momentum, become a kind of closed club concentrated largely in the Tel Aviv area. It has lost the ability to carry on a dialogue with the majority of the country’s Jewish society.

The reason I voted Meretz is that I feared its extinction – and, under the new electoral threshold law, it was indeed close to disappearing. To Meretz’s credit, it has to be said that in this campaign it was the only party, along with the Joint List of the Arab parties, that mentioned an issue that was buried in the recesses of the voters’ consciousness: the Palestinians. Two states? One state? Occupation? Palestinian rights? The subject was of no interest to the Jewish public.

Since Ehud Barak’s tenure as prime minister, Israel’s center-left and right-wing governments alike have implanted in the consciousness of citizens the notion that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. Almost 50 years after the 1967 Six-Day War, the occupation has assumed the status of total normalization. If in the 1980s and ‘90s, we were at a stage where some Jews were still appalled by the occupation, the killing and the checkpoints – we are now in a stage of complacent habituation. The occupation is a bureaucratic system that operates far from the Jews’ field of vision, and they don’t want to hear about it, either.

‘So we bore you now?’

Not long ago, I visited Balata, one of the world’s most densely crowded refugee camps, abutting Nablus, in the West Bank. Children play amid heaps of garbage in the narrow alleys, sewage flows in the streets and the children’s parents talk about the rampant unemployment. The Palestinians I met there were stunned to hear that their hardships, their yearnings, indeed their very existence are of no interest to Israeli voters. They couldn’t understand how, as though with a wave of a magic wand, they had been made to vanish from the consciousness of Israelis.

“We Palestinians,” I was told by a man whose family was expelled from Haifa in 1948 and who has been fighting the Israeli occupation for decades, “don’t have the privilege of losing interest in you – your army invades all spheres of our life. But we seem to have reached a new phase: Now we simply bore you?”

The March 17 election was a watershed. We must now acknowledge the truth: The two-state idea has become the obsession of small, elitist circles in Israel, together with the international community – and both groups together lack the clout to force its acceptance by Israel. In the campaign, Netanyahu declared explicitly what was already apparent: There will not be two states.

It’s still possible to meet in pointless peace conferences and to evoke the heady days of the 1990s, but with the constant awareness that in the emerging reality of the West Bank, a separation between Palestinians and Jews is increasingly unfeasible.

For how many more years will we go on talking about a two-state solution? In 2060, when there will be about a million Jews living in the West Bank, will we still be demarcating abstract borders? Since the Oslo Accords, there has been a lot of talk and plenty of ceremonies and even negotiations, but the only consistent, unrelenting process has been the expansion of the settlements.

There was another reason for Netanyahu’s victory, too. Since the 1980s, the Israeli left wing has claimed that the Western world will not accept the occupation and that ultimately Israel will be treated as an apartheid state. In contrast, the right insisted that Israel could bear the price of the occupation. It must be admitted that so far, at least, the right-wing argument has proved correct: Israel has grown stronger and richer in recent decades, and engages in extensive global trade – all the while pursuing a cruel occupation policy.

Effectively, Netanyahu mocked U.S. President Obama, rebuffed Europe and showed the average Israeli that one can be both an occupier and an economic success, and even make the Palestinians disappear. That’s the deal Netanyahu offered, and the Israelis bought it.

2. For the past year I have been engaged in a political journey in the West Bank, for the purpose of writing a series of articles. I’ve spoken to people in cities and villages, Jews and Palestinians from all classes. I’ve seen arrests, cruelty and much suffering, but I have also become acquainted with new ideas and seen inspiring acts of cooperation. I was a longtime supporter of the two-state solution, and even now I would be happy if it were implemented. But I also see that more and more Jews are settling in the West Bank, and that the mixture of Jews and Palestinians is increasing apace. It’s hard to see how the knots can be undone and the two nations separated.

The election also bears the potential for shedding the rigidities of the past. It is our obligation to contemplate new solutions and, above all, to question the feasibility of separation models. The Palestinians are doing so: Groups of them are working for the creation of one state or for a new two-state model that isn’t based on separation. The most critical struggle is to achieve equal rights for everyone living in this space, Jews and Palestinians – the political practicality is only a means to that end.

It’s also essential to find new partners in Jewish society for the equal-rights struggle, because Israel’s old, entrenched left is too feeble to broaden the circles on its own.

In the wake of the election results, everyone in my close circle is in mourning and, in despair, even talking about leaving. I too feel that I have been dealt a vicious blow. But for those who have decided to make their life and their children’s lives here – there is no choice but to prepare for the fight ahead. I will never accept an apartheid state, and for me the struggle for equal rights for Jews and Palestinians is not over.

However, the current failure demands serious, not to say anguished, soul-searching on our part, which will allow us to come to terms with a reality that is changing before our eyes.

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