To Solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Try Thinking Binationally

A vision of a Greater Israel in which Israeli citizenship is granted to those Palestinians who desire it could help shake off some of the obsolete and fossilized clichés, and stir new and creative thinking.

Olivier Fitoussi

A few months ago, participants in a day-long seminar at Bar-Ilan University gathered to assess, 10 years on, the civilian and military disengagement from Gaza, carried out under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

THE ISRAEL CONFERENCE ON PEACE - NOV. 12, TEL AVIV

Panelists included some of the architects of the 2005 disengagement, such as the military commander of the operation, Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen, as well as a number of settlers who were removed from Gush Katif in Gaza, and one of the Gush Emunim rabbis who had railed against the evacuation from the very beginning.

The large audience that filled the auditorium was mostly hawkish and had a hostile view of the disengagement. Many in the audience wore kippot.

I was also invited to talk at one of the sessions, where I was the speaker most closely identified with the peace camp. At the start of my remarks I said, “Defense Minister [Moshe] Ya’alon said a while ago that he sees no chance for peace or an accord with the Palestinians in his lifetime. And I dare say that if Israeli policy continues as is, then he can be sure there won’t be peace in his children and grandchildren’s lifetimes, either.”

At that moment, a disgruntled murmur rumbled through part of the audience and I asked myself, “Why?” After all, a majority of the people sitting in the auditorium supported settlement expansion and were opposed to a further withdrawal from the West Bank. And most of the audience also believed that Israel has no partner for negotiations on the Palestinians side, and didn’t see the need for such a partner in any case. Why should these people feel disappointment when someone from the peace camp shares their lack of faith in peace?

Then, on reflection, I realized that the unease was due to hearing someone so long-identified with the peace camp also giving up hope for peace – as if, by so doing, he had betrayed his mission. As if it is the role of “the peace camp” in Israeli public life to maintain hope and belief in a possible peace with the Palestinians, while it is the role of “the national camp” to forever proclaim the near-total impracticality of this hope.

In a way, a parallel phenomenon is found within the peace camp, too. There is a desire to believe in peace, to believe in the Palestinians’ readiness to accept the two-state outline, while leaving it to the right to explain yet again how hard and nearly impossible it will be to evacuate settlements, how Jerusalem cannot be divided, how great is the fear of a recurrence of Hamas’ aggressive behavior after the Gaza disengagement. And how if a Palestinian state had already been established, it would certainly have been overrun by now with thousands upon thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

New ideas

In order to escape this trap, which neutralizes and silences any genuine, fruitful debate between the camps, it is important to try and generate a different kind of serious discussion, even if only as an intellectual exercise: to discuss the binational solution, since delving into its potential details might spawn new ideas for a federative arrangement (with or without Jordan) or a (Swiss-style) cantonization arrangement, or something else, and restore a realistic and practical hope of peace while also making clear its full cost.

As an interesting and stimulating thought exercise, a vision of a Greater Israel in which Israeli citizenship is granted to those Palestinians who desire it – as President Reuven Rivlin has sketched out in general terms – could help shake off some of the obsolete and fossilized clichés, and stir new and creative thinking. Because when the right cites the “two-state” formula while expanding settlements and deepening the occupation; and the left cites the same formula and draws impossible maps of a divided Jerusalem while maintaining “blocs” that constantly grow new tentacles; and the Palestinians remain caught in their passive stance of affronted victimhood, the peace process remains at an impasse.

Israel within the Green Line is already something of a binational state, and it bears noting that the two sides have coped fairly well with the unique and severe tests to which this binationalism has been subjected for many years. The binational idea is not foreign to large portions of the Zionist public, whether socialist or on the liberal right, and is still deeply ingrained in the consciousness of most Palestinians.

It’s true that, ever since the sixth day of the Six-Day War, I have held the view that we should offer the Palestinians the chance to establish their own state. And I still hold this view, more than 48 years later. But it is extremely painful to think that with this view – politically and morally correct as it may be – the occupation will only continue to solidify for many years to come, terrorism will not stop, and peace won’t be so much a glimmer on the horizon but instead will be enveloped by an ever-thickening yellowish haze.

The writer is an author and Israel Prize winner. His latest novel, “The Extra,” will be published soon in Britain and the United States.