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The Peace Process

Beyond Road Maps and Walls

Jeff Halper is the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House demolitions (ICAHD) and a Professor of Anthropology at Ben Gurion University. He has lived in Israel since 1973. Jeff has researched and written extensively on Israeli society and is the author of the book Between Redemption and Revival: the Jewish Yishuv in Jerusalem in the nineteenth century, Westview, 1991. Jeff founded and directed Israel’s Committee to Save the Ethiopian Jews. He has been active in the Israeli peace movement for many years. As the Coordinator of ICAHD, he has forged a new mode of Israeli peace activity based on non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to the Israeli Occupation authorities and in close cooperation with Palestinian organizations. Jeff is married and has three children.

by Jeff Halper
The Link
January/March 2004

I write as an anthropologist and an activist, an American Jew who moved to Israel 30 years ago and today heads the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. In all the considerable time I have spent in the Occupied Territories, in reviewing reports and analyses of what we call “the situation,” as well as my years simply living in Israel, interacting with my neighbors, watching the news, reading the newspapers, I have tried to address the basic question confronting all anthropologists: What the hell is going on here?

The process of achieving a viable peace in the Middle East is, I believe, a two-stage process. First, to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The feasibility of different political options must be examined in terms of the “facts on the ground” imposed by Israel. Second, to address the underlying elements that would otherwise destabilize and frustrate attempts by Palestinians and Israelis to reach an equitable accommodation. This requires a regional approach to bringing peace, democracy, and development to the Middle East.

What I propose here is a regional economic and political confederation — a Middle East Union, akin to the European Union — encompassing Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon (historic “Greater Syria”), with the possible inclusion of Egypt and, in the future, other states of the region. I hope the following thoughts shed some light on a dark conflict.

The First Stage:
Accommodation Between Palestine and Israel

Permanent occupation threatens Israel’s identity and democracy. A stable, peaceful Palestinian state is necessary to achieve the security that Israel longs for. So I challenge Israel to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state. —President George W. Bush, June 24, 2002.

The conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis is emblematic. Until it is resolved, the Middle East will continue to be a volatile place of autocracy, stagnation and instability, unable to find its proper role on the global scene, while relations between the West and the entire Muslim world will continue to be characterized by hostility, violence and tenuous relationships. In many ways the Palestinians are the gatekeepers. Resolve their claims for parity among the nations, for a just peace with Israel, for a just resolution to the refugee issue, and the way is open for far-reaching changes in the entire region and beyond. The first step, then, is an equitable arrangement between Palestinians and Israelis.

Assuming that neither apartheid nor the expulsion of either population is acceptable, only two possible political frameworks are possible: two truly independent and viable states — Palestine and Israel — with the potential for future confederation; or a single democratic state encompassing the entire country of Israel-Palestine from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

Neither of these options, however, has in the past been accepted by either Israel’s Labor or Likud governments, and it is doubtful whether they will be in the foreseeable future. Regardless of which ideological or political direction they are coming from — religious, nationalist or simply military-security — all Israeli governments reject the notion of a truly viable and independent Palestinian state emerging in the belly of their country. No matter what the status of negotiations, their working assumption is that the Arabs — all of them — are and will continue to be Israel’s enemies. They pursue, then, a third option which they believe can be imposed on the Palestinians: autonomy, in which the Palestinians live within a dependent, non-viable, semi-sovereign bantustan controlled by Israel. (A fourth option, a federal bi-national state, is a favorite of the Israeli left. I do not consider it a viable alternative since it presupposes discrete territorial clusters of Jewish and Palestinian populations that simply do not exist.)

My evaluation of what is possible does not depend on how compelling the idea is, however. As an anthropologist, I look at what I consider to be the two deciding elements: the odds that it can actually be accomplished “on the ground,” and whether it is ultimately acceptable to the international community. Since both the Oslo peace process (including its extension, the Geneva Accord) and the “road map” are based on the idea of two states, this seems the best place to start. Its success depends, however, on whether Israel’s Occupation can in fact be meaningfully rolled back. I contend that it cannot, that the opposition of all Israeli governments to a truly independent Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), translated into irreversible “facts on the ground,” has already rendered the two-state solution irrelevant — although I am prepared to admit that the dismantling of the Occupation is possible if the will, today lacking, is someday found. I will therefore consider the option favored by Israel’s political leadership: autonomy to a greater or lesser extent. Since I do not believe that this is viable either, I will go on to what appears to be the least feasible and, on the surface, least acceptable to the two sides, but which I consider to be the only acceptable option in the event that a just and “real” two-state solution fails: a single democratic state.

The Option Favored by the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories, the Israeli Public and the International Community: Two “Real” States, Israel and Palestine.

Based on the idea of partition, the two-state solution has been traditionally favored by Israel’s peace camp, as in the recent Geneva Accord, for example. It lies at the heart of the Oslo peace process and the Quartet’s “road map,” and is the only option being considered by the Palestinian leadership. It has even been accepted, in principle, by Israel. Its strength comes from the recognition that two national groups demanding self-determination in the same territory require separate states. From this point of view, the two-state solution seems to be the most workable and just. To be sure, the element of justice is diluted somewhat by the territorial imbalance between the two projected states. In the best-case scenario, with Israel abandoning its Occupation completely, the Palestinians get only 22% of the country. But the Palestinian leadership, in what can only be described as a “generous offer” towards Israel, has agreed to accept that imbalance, a position shared by most Palestinians of the Occupied Territories.

The commitment to the two-state solution has withstood extreme provocation: constant expanding and strengthening of Israel’s Occupation, an all-out war against the Palestinian civilian population, growing talk in Israel over the possibility of mass transfer of Palestinians out of the country, the unwillingness of even the most liberal Israelis to relinquish control of “Greater” Jerusalem and some of the major settlements, Israel’s insistence on imposing severe limitations on the sovereignty of any future Palestinian state. This reflects the overpowering desire on the part of the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories to achieve self-determination, even a modicum of self-determination within a diminished state. But its final acceptability hinges on four fundamental conditions:

  1. Viability. The margin of difference between a viable solution and apartheid is extremely thin. The Palestinian state, especially if it is a diminished one, must be viable; it must be a “real” state. That means full sovereignty, control of its borders and its basic resources (such as water), territorial contiguity, freedom of movement for people and goods, the ability to develop a viable economy and the capacity to address the refugee issue.
  2. An End to the Occupation. The issue of viability involves not merely territory, but whether Israel will actually dismantle its Matrix of Control. Barak’s vaunted (though mythical) “offer” to the Palestinians of 95% of the Occupied Territory (excluding “East” Jerusalem) appeared more than “generous,” for example. It left the Israeli public with the impression that if the Palestinians reject such an offer, and then unleash an Intifada, their desire for peace cannot be genuine. Such a view ignores the fact, however, that it also left Israel in control of “Greater” Jerusalem (in fact, the central portion of the West Bank), eliminated the Palestinian tourist industry (by far its largest economic branch), truncated the Palestinian territory into disconnected enclaves, limited Palestinian sovereignty over its borders, airspace, water and foreign policy, and virtually ignored the refugee problem.
  3. Evolutionary Potential. One reason why many Palestinians consent to a diminished state is that they foresee a time when Palestine and Israel, having developed trust through a period of peaceful relations and joint economic growth, will evolve into a confederation, one that could conceivably include Jordan. This stands in stark contrast to the Israeli view which regards a signed agreement and the subsequent rise of a Palestinian state as the end of the process. Clauses inserted into the various Oslo texts — and repeated in Article 1 of the Geneva Accord — declare that the agreement resolves all the claims of the two sides. That raises the ante considerably. It means that whatever the Palestinians sign is all they will receive; evolutionary developments are precluded (unless they are agreed upon by Israel and serve Israeli interests). Since the Geneva Accord, concluded (in large part) in December, 2003, includes final borders, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, Israeli veto power over the return of refugees, incorporation of settlement blocs and the majority of settlers into Israel, recognition of “Jewish Jerusalem” (including the massive settlements in East Jerusalem), limited Palestinian sovereignty (a demilitarized state with no army) and a Palestinian commitment to fight terrorism (but nothing reciprocal, although Israel has engaged in far greater acts of state terrorism), Article 1 threatens to lock the Palestinians into permanent non-viability.
  4. Refugees. Eighty percent of the Palestinians are refugees. A sustainable peace will not come merely from technical arrangements. Beyond the issue of viability, there is the issue of justice. As Jews well know, acknowledgement of injustice and the suffering it entails is no less important than any formal acts of reparation. A sustainable peace is dependent upon the just resolution of the refugee issue, and that, in turn, is dependent on three elements: Israel must recognize the refugees’ right of return (and not frame it as a “humanitarian” problem to be addressed merely by symbolic gestures of “good will”); Israel must acknowledge its role in creating the refugee issue for a healing process to begin; and the issue of actual return must be addressed. Although the Palestinians have indicated that the process of return can be done in a way that does not compromise Israel’s integrity, it must resolve, at a minimum, resolution of the unbearable camps in Lebanon, repatriation of the remaining ’48 generation that wishes to return and the option of choice whether to return or to accept compensation.

The Option Favored By Israeli Governments: Autonomy, i.e., Israel Over A Palestinian Bantustan.

A just and sustainable solution involving two states requires the end of the Occupation, territorially (with possible adjustments mutually agreed upon) and in terms of Israeli control. Successive Israeli governments since 1967 have not shared this view. Instead they hold on to a common set of assumptions that necessitate Israeli control over the entire country and virtually eliminate a viable Palestinian state:

  • An exclusive Jewish claim to the country, the Land of Israel, at whose heart lies Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), not Tel Aviv. While this claim is explicit among the religious public that supports the settlements and the secular right that upholds the Jews’ primordial, tribal, historical ties to the Land, it is also implicit in Labor Zionism. It is a generalized, almost apolitical view conveyed to the broader public through the Israeli school system, public rituals, the media, political policy and elsewhere. According to this understanding, only one people possess legitimate rights and claims to the country, the Jewish people. It is recognized, of course, that “Arabs” live in the country (Israelis tend to avoid the term “Palestinian,” which gives too much distinctiveness and recognition to a collectivity, thereby lending legitimacy to its national claims), but their presence is based on sufferance, not on right, and is subject to their “good behavior.”
  • A fundamental assumption that the “Arabs” (Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the wider Arab societies, as well as the entire Muslim world) are and always will be Israel’s enemies. This view, held as firmly by Labor’s generals as by Likud and religious ideologues, explains why neither Peres, Barak nor Mitzna offered the public any meaningful alternative to Netanyahu or Sharon, and why Labor could sit so comfortably in a “National Unity Government” — or why, for that matter, it was Labor that initiated the construction of the Wall. For Labor as well as the Likud, any Arab gestures towards peace are mere ploys.
  • As a result, regardless of how the different parties approach the conflict ideologically, the end-game is the same: it is simply inconceivable that a truly sovereign and viable Palestinian state could arise in the very “belly” of the Jews’ country. Those who find it difficult to understand Israel’s doubling of its settlement population while supposedly negotiating peace during the Oslo negotiations should understand, as Uri Savir makes clear in his book The Process, that a truly sovereign Palestinian state in all of the Occupied Territories was simply not in the cards. Indeed, Savir points out that Rabin repeatedly (and with irritation) corrected Arafat each time he spoke of Oslo as promising a Palestinian state.
  • While Israeli governments, if not the general public, lay claim to the entire country for a variety of religious, nationalist or security reasons, the presence of three and a half million Palestinians in the Occupied Territories prevents them from annexing Judea, Samaria and Gaza and creating a single Jewish state. Questions of justice and national rights aside, Israelis realize that they cannot “digest” the Palestinian population. If the Territories are annexed and Israel (as “the only democracy in the Middle East”) grants citizenship to their Palestinian residents, Israel will cease being a Jewish country, since the Palestinians constitute almost 50% of the country’s population. If, on the other hand, Israel annexes and does not give the Palestinians citizenship, it has created a new apartheid state, hardly an acceptable proposition. This sets up a difficult if not impossible situation. For the sake of preserving Israel as a Jewish state it must grant the Palestinians a state of their own, yet it refuses to relinquish control of the country or permit a truly sovereign Palestinian state to emerge. Hence the “bantustan” solution, or another variation on the theme of “autonomy,” is the only way out.
  • All Israeli governments rely on the passivity of the Israeli public. “Peace,” for most Israeli Jews, means simply peace-and-quiet. The general public does not care what the “solution” is — a viable Palestinian state, a bantustan, autonomy, repression or transfer — as long as it brings them security. This does not mean that Israeli Jews do not grasp the importance of arriving at some kind of modus vivendi with the “Arabs.” It simply means they view peace-making as a matter of functional arrangements, not of recognizing Palestinian rights, aspiring to a just solution or even seeking true peace and reconciliation. Thus, while polls indicate that as many as 70% of the Jewish public is willing to concede most of the Occupied Territories for a peace agreement, the fact that they do not “trust” the Arabs leads them to grant their political leaders a great deal of latitude — as long as they are convinced that the government is furthering their security. Policies that seem to be obviously designed to ensure that a viable Palestinian state does not emerge — policies such as settlement, land expropriation, house demolitions, assassinations and wall building — are not perceived as compromising the possibility of peace. On the contrary. Israelis will argue that it is Palestinian intransigence and violence that make such policies necessary, absolving themselves and their political leaders of any responsibility for the failure to achieve a just peace. It is such a wide consensus that Labor and Likud would have absolutely no problem in forming “national unity” governments if the conflict with the Palestinians were the only consideration.

When Sharon signed on to the Quartet’s “road map,” his conception of a Palestinian state was one of a “cantonized entity” (his term). It is a conception that conforms to all the assumptions listed above. Israel even rejects the notion that it has an occupation (after all, how can you occupy your own country?). The two-state solution envisioned by both Likud and Labor entails an expanded Israel dominating a Palestinian mini-state — a 90%-10% solution according to the Likud, improving to an 85%-15% solution under Labor.

Anxious to make its control over the entire country immune from either internal or external pressures, successive Israeli governments have conducted an aggressive campaign to “create facts on the ground” that incorporate the Occupied Territories irreversibly into Israel proper while precluding the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. I would argue that five fundamental “facts” already in place have eliminated a viable two-state solution.

Fact #1: Confining the Palestinians to Areas A and B of the West Bank

Since the Oslo II agreement of 1995, the West Bank was divided into three Areas: A, under full Palestinian Authority control (comprising just 18% of the West Bank); B, under Palestinian civil control but joint Israeli-Palestinian security (22%); and C, under full Israeli control (60%). [See map on page 8, PDF version.] Although Area A was intended to expand until it included all of the West Bank except Israel’s settlements, its military facilities and East Jerusalem — whose status would then be negotiated — in fact, the division became a permanent feature. Today Areas A and B comprise the territory, fragmented into 64 tiny enclaves that shape the “cantons” Sharon has proposed as a Palestinian state. Taken together with Gaza (which Israel will probably relinquish), the emerging bantustan will consist of just 10% of the country, truncated by Israeli settlements, by-pass highways and checkpoints, though another 5-10% could be cosmetically added without compromising Israeli control. [See map on page 9, PDF version.]

Fact #2: The Closure

With the beginning of the Oslo peace process, Israel imposed a permanent “closure” over the Occupied Territories. Regardless of its security justification, the hundreds of permanent and “flying” checkposts erected around, between and throughout the Palestinian areas have confined the population to an extremely limited life space for the past decade. Restricted in their movement to one or two islands, Palestinians have adjusted to a situation where travel from Jenin to Tulkarm, Ramallah to Jerusalem, Jericho to Hebron, one’s home to an airport, is virtually impossible. This has affected residential, marriage and commercial patterns; it has destroyed the fabric of Palestinian life, shredding it into tiny particles. After years of limited movement Palestinians have internalized the constricted space in which they live. Expectations of movement, let alone sovereignty, have been so reduced that, Israel hopes, the Palestinian public will accept with relief and gratitude a truncated mini-state in which the roadblocks have been removed and Palestinians can move freely within the cantons surrounded by Israel.

Fact #3: Israel’s Settlement Blocs

When Ehud Barak proposed to “jump” to final status negotiations in 1999, he consolidated the settlements Israel sought to retain into “blocs,” leaving the more isolated and less strategic ones liable to being dismantled. Thus, instead of dealing with 200 settlements, the Israeli government had to negotiate the annexation of only seven settlement blocs: (1) the Jordan Valley Bloc; (2) the Ariel Bloc that divides the West Bank east to west and preserves Israeli control over the Territories’ largest aquifer; (3) the Modi’in Bloc, connecting the Ariel settlements to Jerusalem and integrating the central West Bank into metropolitan Tel Aviv; a “Greater Jerusalem” consisting of (4) the Givat Ze’ev Bloc to the northwest of the city, (5) the expansive Ma’aleh Adumim bloc extending to the northeast and east of Jerusalem and (6) the Etzion Bloc to the southwest; and finally (7) a corridor extending from the settlements in the south to the Jewish community of Hebron. While these settlements blocs are somewhat flexible (Israel could conceivably relinquish the Jordan Valley and Hebron Blocs, with adjustments to others), their function is to further define, divide and control the Palestinian cantons.

Fact #4: Infrastructure

In order to incorporate the West Bank and East Jerusalem permanently into Israel proper, a $3 billion system of highways and “by-pass roads” has been constructed that integrates the settlement blocs into the metropolitan areas of Tel Aviv, Modi’in and Jerusalem, while creating additional barriers to Palestinian movement. This ambitious project articulates with the Trans-Israeli Highway, now being built along the entire length of the country, hugging the West Bank in its central portion. Shifting Israel’s population center eastward from the coast to the corridor separating Israel’s major cities from the settlement blocs it seeks to incorporate, the Trans-Israel Highway will become the new spine of the country, upon which the by-pass road network can be hung. The result is the reconfiguration of the country from two parallel north-south units — Israel and the West Bank, the basis of the two state idea — into one country integrated east-west. Besides ensuring Israeli control, the reorientation of traffic, residential and commercial patterns further weakens a truncated Palestinian mini-state; each Palestinian canton is integrated separately into Israel, with only tenuous connections one to the other.

Fact #5: The Separation Barrier/Wall

The final defining element of the bantustan is the Separation Barrier, a complex system of deadly electronic fences and massive concrete walls that rise to 24 feet when reaching Palestinian population centers. Sold to the public as an innocent security device, the Barrier in fact defines the border between Israel (including the settlements blocs and East Jerusalem) and the Palestinian cantons. It follows not the Green Line, but a much more tortuous route hugging the contours of Areas A and B, then swinging around settlement blocs in order to ensure they are on the “right” side of the Barrier. When completed the Separation Barrier will be nearly five times longer than the Berlin Wall (some 420 miles versus 93), and in places twice as high. A $2 billion installation, it is not designed to be dismantled.

Sharon and Labor will frame the Palestinian bantustan/canton-cum-state as a viable version of the two-state solution. That narrow margin between viability and apartheid, between a true two-state solution and “autonomy,” is something we must all monitor.

Far more explicit is the political program advanced by the far right-wing of Israel, led by former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the ideological settlers and proponents of “transfer.” Fearful that any Palestinian state would compromise Jewish claims over the land, they envision an Israeli state extending from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. In this version of maximalist Zionism, the [Palestinian] Arabs would be “transferred” to other Arab states. There they would be “happier,” and if the Palestinians wish to establish a state in Jordan (“Jordan is Palestine” in Sharon’s well-known formulation), that would be fine. Arabs who wish to remain in the Land/State of Israel could do so, but only if they recognize Jewish sovereignty and accept a limited form of citizenship. As long as the international community demands a Palestinian state, this option will be held in abeyance. Advocates of a single Jewish state are by no means marginal, however. At least eight ministers in the Sharon government (Netanyahu, Eitam, Allon, Lieberman, Landau, Hanegbi, Livnat, Sharansky), representing four parties, adhere to this program. Continued Palestinian resistance or democratic threats to Israeli-Jewish sovereignty could easily trigger demands for transfer and the extension of Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan.

The Option Most Likely to Offer a Just and Lasting Solution to the Conflict In the Event That the Occupation is Irreversible: A Single Democratic State.

Until the autumn of 2003 only a tiny handful of Israeli ultra-leftists advocated the creation of a single state for the two peoples of Israel-Palestine. No one, however, familiar with Israel’s campaign of creating “facts on the ground” could ignore the fact that, with the five elements described above virtually in place, the Occupation had reached — or passed — the point of no return. The road map was understood as the last gasp of the two-state solution. When it failed (even though the Security Council expressed its unanimous support for it in mid-November, 2003, despite Israeli objections), it only confirmed what the peace activists already knew: that Israel, by its own hand, had made the viable two-state solution impossible. In August, 2003, Meron Benveniste, an Israeli historian and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, declared that one state, the integrity of the Land of Israel/Palestine for all its inhabitants, was the only possible way to live. He said movingly:

In the past year, then, I reached the conclusion that there is no choice but to think in new terms. The seemingly rational solution of two states for two nations can’t work here. The model of a division into two nation-states is inapplicable. You can erect all the walls in the world here but you won’t be able to overcome the fact that there is only one aquifer here and the same air and that all the streams run into the same sea. You won’t be able to overcome the fact that this country will not tolerate a border in its midst. This is a country in which the Arabs are the landscape... I don’t see myself living here without them. In my eyes, without Arabs this is a barren land....

Israel under Sharon is now in the process of bringing its own version of the two-state solution into being: that of an expanded Israel overseeing a Palestinian bantustan. Assuming that apartheid is not acceptable to either the Palestinians or the international community (not to mention parts of the Israeli public), and that the establishment of a limited bantustan will not end the conflict, the end of the viable two-state solution leaves only one possibility: the creation of a single state in Palestine-Israel. Ironically, this was the Palestinian position before they adopted the two-state approach in the 1980s. In effect, the Palestinians would be saying: “OK, Sharon, you won. You have incorporated the Occupied Territories irreversibly into Israel proper, you have foreclosed the possibility of a viable Palestinian state, your settlements are here to stay. We accept that by your own hand you have created a single state. And since we will not accept life in a bantustan or reservation, we demand equal rights. We want to live as equals in your single democratic state. One person, one vote.”

It is still too early to advocate for a single-state solution. Although I believe that the average Palestinian in either Israel or the Occupied Territories would have little problem with a single democratic state (neither, presumably, would the refugees, since it would both recognize and permit their right of return), the Palestinian leadership does. Having come so far in gaining international support for their claims of self-determination, they are loathe to jeopardize their efforts by introducing an entirely new program that entails the end of Israel as a Jewish state. It is, in their view, unattainable, and therefore even raising the issue is counterproductive. What’s more, jumping to a single state endangers the very principle of self-determination. Not only do the Palestinians not have a state of their own, they are locked into a joint state with another people who are much stronger in terms of education, economy and institutions. The history of two national entities — and entities with a history of opposing claims and bitter conflict no less — coexisting in one political framework does not have a happy history. For the immediate future, until they are forced to abandon all hopes of a viable state of their own, Palestinians prefer to struggle for an end to the Occupation and the establishment of a state on 22% of the country rather than shift to a campaign for a unitary state that would displace both Palestinian and Jewish national aspirations. Still, many Palestinians do express their hope that over time the two states would either merge into a single unit or at least federate.

From the Israeli point of view, the single-state solution is clearly a non-starter, even though its very mention arises out of Israeli government policies of turning the entire country into one integrated unit. Since a Jewish-Israeli state already exists, the single-state solution’s threat to the status quo is much more tangible and immediate than the various future scenarios entertained by the Palestinians. For the transformation of Israel into a single state possessing a Palestinian majority means nothing less than the end of political Zionism, of Jewish claims to self-determination. The end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Is this an unthinkable option? Certainly the end of Israel as an ethnic state releases it from its primary preoccupation: maintaining a Jewish demographic edge over the Palestinians. This is a contest Israel cannot win. Palestinians make up almost half the population of the country between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, and will be a majority within less than a decade. Even without the Occupied Territories, however, a Jewish state is not demographically sustainable.

The “blame,” if we want to phrase it in this way, can only be placed on the doorstep of world Jewry. The vast majority of Jews — some 70% of them — never came to Israel or have permanently left. Indeed, whenever they had a choice, Jews preferred to migrate elsewhere. Today the Jewish majority in Israel stands at only 72% and dwindling. The Palestinian citizens of Israel make up almost 20% of the population; some 300-400,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union are non-Jews; and up to a half million Israeli Jews are estimated to live permanently abroad. Artificially maintaining a “Jewish” state on such a narrow base has become increasingly repressive. By law “non-Jews” are forbidden to buy, rent, lease or live on “state lands” — almost 75% of the country. The Palestinian citizens of Israel are confined to 2% of the land. In the fall of 2003 the Knesset enacted a law preventing Palestinian citizens of Israel from bringing their spouses from the Occupied Territories to live with them in Israel. Now that political Zionism has run its course and leaves us with the stark option of apartheid, it could be argued that the conditions are ripe for cultural Zionism to reemerge. Even if this sounds utopian, it is the only option besides apartheid left open by successive Israeli governments.

The prospect of a single state rests on yet another aspect of Israeli life that is rarely taken into account: Israeli society, culture, economy and institutions, all of which are vital and strong. The notion that Israel’s survival as a Jewish state is essential to the survival of Israeliness must be questioned. Just as the European sector of South African society survived the transition to black majority rule and even retained its position of influence, so, too, will the Israeli sector endure and even flourish. This may sound naοve; it is difficult, after all, to imagine Palestinian-Israeli harmony given the conflicts of the past century. But we should recall the optimistic eagerness that accompanied the investment and joint economic ventures of Oslo’s early years. Both peoples understand they need each other.

Still, the notion of a unitary state contradicts completely the principle of Jewish self-determination as embodied in the Zionist movement and the Israeli state, a claim that Israel will not willingly relinquish. If the Palestinians speak of a democratic state of all its citizens, Israeli Jews perceive the threatening image of a state with a Palestinian majority, realization of the refugees’ right of return and the consequent subordination of the Jewish population. The one-state solution will only be considered — and then only after a struggle a lΰ the struggle against South African apartheid — if it addresses two major concerns of Israeli Jews. First, the issue of self-determination. For nationalist Jews, the issue of cultural development was subordinated to the perceived need to control their destiny, to never again be dependent upon others given the Jews’ history of persecution. Since the vast majority of Jews chose to settle abroad and not in Israel (including a considerable portion of Israeli Jews themselves), this issue appears moot. It is doubly moot given the fact that the Jewish majority in Israel is dwindling, and that exclusive control cannot be reconciled with democracy. For better or worse, the internal contradictions between control of one’s destiny and living as a minority among others have become too great to reconcile. I would argue that the security of Israeli Jews is best protected when they become involved in the wider Middle East and when we all achieve an inclusive world order based on human rights and international law.

The other objection to a single state revolves around the issue of refuge. Where could Jews find refuge in a time of need? — a pertinent question given the Jewish experience. If the vision of a single state is founded on the belief that Israeli Jews and Palestinians can live together in peace and mutual respect, then this concern could be addressed by an article in the new state’s constitution specifying that both Jews and Palestinians possess the right of return to the country, and that members of both peoples in need of refuge will be automatically accepted. The very enactment of such a law would go a long way towards assuring each people of the good intentions of the other.

Needless to say, I reject the notion of apartheid/autonomy on both practical and moral grounds. Since it is the program of the present and past Israeli governments, bolstered by massive “facts on the ground,” it is an option that nevertheless must be taken seriously and guarded against. As to the other two “viable” solutions — two real states or a single democratic state — I have no personal preference. They appear to me equally acceptable. If the two-state solution lends greater expression to Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish aspirations for self-determination, Israel’s “facts on the ground” seem to make it unattainable. If the one-state solution seems impractical because it involves the end of both Jewish and Palestinian aspirations of self-determination, it is able to accommodate Israel’s irreversible “facts” and integrate Israeli culture, society and economy with Palestinian needs, including the Right of Return.

The Second Stage: A Middle East Union (MEU)

A sustainable peace must encompass the entire region. One of the key parties, without whom there will be no regional development, is the Palestinians, whose people are scattered throughout the region. After a just political settlement to their conflict Israelis and Palestinians, both peoples with strong democratic tendencies, can expect a surge in economic growth, but will face common hostility and instability if their region remains poor, backward and autocratic. Regional peace and development involving all the countries of the Middle East are as integral to resolving the conflict as negotiations over settlements or border security.

I would go so far as to argue that a regional confederation is the most do-able element of a Middle East peace, a development that would take place fairly soon after a just conclusion to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, mediated by the Palestinian “gatekeepers.” While taking into account issues of national self-determination, it provides the strategic space necessary for wider accommodative processes to work. A regional confederation offers the scope to handle those problems, issues and processes that cannot be resolved within the narrow confines of Palestine/Israel.

Regional confederation rests on several principles:

  • The experiences, narratives, claims and needs of the major groups in the region — national, ethnic, religious and political — connected in particular to the issue of self-determination. For a sustainable political solution to emerge in our region, no party can “win.” Mutual accommodation means creating a process of inclusion and dialogue in which the voices of all the major groups may be heard, in which “ownership” of any peace program is shared. This does not mean that everyone will agree on each item, but that a process of accommodation that is transparent, inclusive and respective of others’ experiences and requirements will generate the trust and good will upon which any political arrangement must be based. Mutual respect, listening and accommodation are prerequisites to a just and lasting Middle East peace. They will lay the foundations for the regional system that must eventually emerge.
  • The differential power each party wields in the proposed political system. Any agreed-upon political solution must be sensitive to historic experiences and the scars of past conflicts, as well as offering security and a meaningful measure of self-determination to the various parties.
  • Dynamic processes of everyday life, both collective and individual. Solutions cannot be mechanical. While particular issues of self-determination, cultural space and economic viability must be addressed, so too must the reality that the region’s states cannot be self-sufficient and self-contained. The massive displacement of Palestinians since 1948, together with the limited size and resources of their prospective state, has created a trans-state reality in the region. Peoples’ loci of personal life do not coincide with the loci of their national existence. A Palestinian state will not be able to accommodate all the refugees and Diaspora Palestinians who would seek citizenship, nor will all Palestinians seeking self-determination be willing or able to relocate from places in the region where they have lived for decades. A system is required whereby citizenship in a particular state does not limit one’s ability to move, reside and work throughout the entire region. It must also accommodate major economic developments and intra-regional labor movements.
  • The possibility that envisions political and social forms that may evolve in ways as yet unanticipated. Any political “solution” must be viewed as a work in progress, just as its formulation must derive from a dynamic process of accommodation. Solutions that lock populations into static and inadequate units, as did Barak’s “generous offer,” are doomed to failure. With so much displacement, such major reconfiguration, such dormant economic potential and the need to integrate into a rapidly changing global reality, the ability to evolve in unexpected ways is crucial.
  • As mentioned, the problems facing the peoples of the Middle East are regional in scope and cannot be solved in a piece-meal fashion. This is true of the Palestinian refugee issue, of course, but also of other fundamental problems in the region. Overall economic development as well as the development of each state’s economy, together with sustainable management of the region’s scarce resources (water first among them), all require a regional approach. So, too, do issues of security, both inter-state and intra-state. Not only must conflicts among the different states be resolved, but also those that affect the region’s many peoples. Artificial political borders imposed by colonial powers do not conform to national, religious or ethnic boundaries, leading to endemic tensions. And both development and security rest on the need to democratize every regime in the area. All this requires a free flow of peoples and economic activities that only a regional association can provide.
  • “Greater Syria” is historically the geographical and economic unit of the Levant. Combined with Egypt (which once entered into a federation with Syria and which has a long-standing peace agreement with Israel), the outlines of a Middle Eastern federation become apparent. Such a confederation could be extended to include other states in the future.
  • The civil identities of each state in the region must be respected together with particular national, religious and ethnic identities. Regardless of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved, a distinct Israeli civil society has come into being which must be respected, as does a distinctly Jordanian civil society that can no longer be defined strictly along Hashemite Bedouin lines. A state of Lebanon may continue to exist, or its constituent communities may choose to realign with other configurations that might arise in the region when each state becomes incorporated into a free-flowing regional confederation. The entire Middle East will eventually be restructured, with freedom of movement balanced by respect for its constituent communities, be they defined by states or as discrete entities within wider political frameworks. As in Europe, states will continue being the building blocks of the region, although they may be reconstructed.

Towards A Middle East Union: A Regional Confederation.

The European Union, preceded by the Nordic Alliance in Scandinavia and the Benelux arrangement, has developed a model of confederation that could prove extremely useful in providing solutions to the complex Middle East situation. Of special relevance is the ability of European citizens to live and work wherever they wish within the Union, yet preserve their civil identities in their respective countries. If, for example, thousands of Greek workers migrate to Germany because it offers employment possibilities, they do not “threaten” Germany because they remain Greek citizens voting in Greek and not German elections. But their own individual rights are protected by such regional institutions as the European Parliament and the Union’s administrative arm, the European Commission. In this way a practical balance is achieved between preserving the integrity of each member state and permitting the fluidity of movement required by a global economy.

The conflicts in the Middle East require a regional approach. This is especially evident in the case of the Palestinians.

Since 1948 the Palestinians have become a people of diaspora and exile. Only half the Palestinians live in Palestine (three and a half million in the Occupied Territories, one million in Israel). The other half demands the choice between returning to their homeland or starting new lives in their diaspora countries. Initially a Middle East Union could include the states of “Greater Syria” — Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon — plus, perhaps, Egypt. In the future, however, it could expand in the future to include other Middle Eastern countries, just as Europe has accepted new members to its east.

In a Middle East Union, then, Palestinians would have the choice of either becoming citizens of the Palestinian state (assuming a viable two-state solution), retaining citizenship in their current countries of residence or applying for citizenship in one of the MEU member countries. Regardless, like all residents of the region, they would have the option of living and working anywhere in the MEU. Some may prefer to live in their own state, others to remain where they are, still others to “go home” to areas inside Israel, yet others may prefer emigration to other countries.

Under such a confederation even a major influx of Palestinian refugees into Israel (again, assuming a viable two-state solution) would not endanger its sovereignty, since the refugees, as citizens of Palestine and the MEU, would not vote in Israeli elections. MEU laws and regulations, legislated by a confederal parliament, would protect their individual rights. In a regional confederation the Right of Return would no longer threaten Israel’s sovereignty; after all, 350,000 foreign workers reside today in Israel without threatening its integrity. With their political identity realized by the existence of a Palestinian state, refugees could find substantive individual justice by living in any part of Palestine (or the wider MEU) they choose, including Israel, but would reside in the country as non-voting permanent residents. By the same token, Israeli Jews wishing to live in the settlements could continue to do so, but under Palestinian sovereignty.

An MEU would encourage the even development of the region as a whole. In the early stages of the Union labor migrations from the less developed areas of the confederation would probably migrate in large numbers into the strong economy of Palestine-Israel. In this case the disassociation of citizenship from residency would protect both countries. Eventually, however, given stability, peace, democratization and an attractive investment and tourist environment, the region would develop in a more equitable way.

Even the promise of a Middle East Union could measurably advance the cause of Palestinian-Israeli peace. The issue of viability is critical for the Palestinians since the small state they are asked to accept (small even if the Occupation ends completely) cannot carry the entire burden expected of it: recovering from a century of displacement, occupation, impoverishment and suffering; bringing the refugees home and offering them decent conditions of life; developing an economy; offering its people a better future; and more. The process of accommodation with the Israelis would be greatly eased if, as part of a peace package, the Palestinians would be assured that a regional confederation will come into being. Palestinian readiness to compromise with Israel and even to broker its integration into the Middle East would be greatly facilitated were they guaranteed a transition from Stage 1 to Stage 2.

Towards A Two-Stage Solutionn

A perspective of inter-communal harmony in Palestine-Israel within a context of a democratic and prosperous Middle East might sound utopian at the moment. There is no doubt that decades of conflict, destruction, suffering, poverty, autocracy, religious intolerance and the domination of militaries have made the tasks of political and economic restructuring difficult and long-term.

But we must also note the positive. Saudi Prince Abdullah’s offer to Israel of regional integration in return for relinquishing its Occupation, made in April 2002 and supported by the Arab League, demonstrates good will on the part of the Arab countries. For their part, the peoples of the Middle East — Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Bedouins, Egyptians, Israelis and others; Muslims, Jews and Christians — all have strong traditions of commerce given promise by life in an economically strategic part of the world rich with resources. The educated and affluent Palestinian and Arab diasporas are also a resource that should not be overlooked. Joined by a Jewish diaspora eager to support Israel and a strong Israeli economy, these local/international actors would invest in the region and serve as pivotal elements of stability and development.

Resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict is still the key. It is emblematic for the entire Arab and Muslim worlds. But once resolved, once the Palestinians assume their role as gatekeepers signaling the end of the conflict with Israel and granting “permission” to move on to other pressing matters of economic and political restructuring, a truly liberated Middle East might surge onto the world stage as a crucial bridge between the North and the South.

Achieving a Middle East Union should constitute an urgent common agenda between Palestinian and Israeli peace activists, as well as their counterparts in the Arab world and abroad. A small, sovereign Palestinian state surrounded by autocratic regimes and a stagnant regional economy, unable to accommodate its own refugees and raise the standard of living of all its citizens to an acceptable level, will lack viability regardless of the Occupation or Israeli hegemony. Nor will the Arab states willingly accept democratization unless pressed by their civil societies. We, citizens of all the Middle East, cannot shuffle our responsibilities onto Europeans or Americans. We need to quickly resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so as to move onto the “second stage” as soon as possible. The time has come to put aside obstacles that prevent cooperation among all the progressive forces of our region.

This is a vision worthy of Edward Said, who supported ICAHD’s work and with whom I shared ideas in the last years of his life. His approach to the conflict encompassed both “stages” — although he rejected the “two state” option. For him genuine peace for Palestinians and Israelis could only come within a bi-national state. Although he spent his life as a professor in New York, in exile and far removed from the daily tribulations of his beloved Palestine, he was very much an “engaged intellectual.”

One of my fondest memories of him was the time he stood on the Lebanese border with Israel and threw a stone at what? — the Israeli soldiers too far removed to be in any immediate danger? the paraphernalia of the Occupation (watchtowers and the like)? or merely the entire idea of occupation, conflict and control? I found myself moved by the image of a world-renowned scholar (it is said that Said is the most quoted intellectual of the present time) able to throw empirically “real” stones at injustice.

No person’s view of the Palestinians, the “conflict,” the wider Middle East or, indeed, the modern world is free of Edward Said’s critical perspective.

In our own small way we owe him a different and more just Middle East.

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