Monday, June 25, 2012

Why a one-state solution is the only viable answer

It's hard to recognize that much of what you were told growing up wasn't true.

I was raised in a good, Jewish home. So I went to Hebrew school on Saturdays and religious school on Sundays. I even remember going to a Zionist day camp in the summer. We learned a lot, of course about Israel. We were told about the roots of Zionism, and about 'Tzedakah,' those little blue boxes people had put money into to buy land in Israel (of course when I went to school the state of Israel had been establshed for twenty or thirty years, so the money went to plant trees, but we were told about how during the Depression era people had put their spare change in the boxes to buy land in Palestine.) They gave us the impression that most of the land had been a barren, sparsely populated desert until the Zionists came and planted it and made it bloom, and that the few people who had lived there prior to the settlement by Jewish settlers were mostly nomads. There was even a slogan that went along with that, "The land without people for the people without a land."

We were told lots of other things about the Arabs too, little of it good. We were told that they were mostly terrorists, or supporters of terrorists. We were shown a map of the middle east in which Israel was a small piece and there were over 20 countries where 'arabs' lived. The implication was that those arabs (all residing outside of Israel) who wanted to take it over were fanatics and greedy for every bit of land ('why not a small piece for the Jewish people?' was a rejoinder I heard when the map was rolled out.) We were told that Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza (at the time they were still considered occupied parts of Jordan or Egypt) were 'squatters' and that they could go to any of those countries, from Iraq all the way to Morocco. We were told that not only were there some arabs living peacefully in Israel, but that those who had left did so voluntarily, either because they wanted to go someplace where they could take up arms and fight against the peaceful Israelis, or because they 'believed the stories' others were telling them that if they stayed then later when the Zionists were defeated they would be executed as 'collaborators.'

Even until a few years ago, I was, if not a Zionist, much more ready to give Israel the benefit of the doubt. But what I've observed though, is the intransigence of the Israeli government, and it has convinced me that there is no way that one can reasonably support such a government or support a peace process that depends on the cooperation of such a government.

It was a useful fiction. But unfortunately, as I later learned, it was a fiction. Like most fiction, there are small pieces of it that may be true but are used to misrepresent the whole. Yes, there were boxes where people put spare change to buy land. But by 1948, the fund set up to purchase land, using money that had been sent from abroad, had only purchased 2 million of the approximately 26 million dunams of land in Palestine (a dunam is a unit of area equal to 1000 square meters, or about a quarter of an acre.)

They also did not buy the land that they did buy from nomads. In fact, they bought it from farmers and other landowners. Palestinian farmers. But those Palestinians who sold their land were only a small minority. Most Palestinians lived on land, or at least in a land that their ancestors had lived in for thousands of years and had no desire to sell it or to live anywhere else. The whole idea of a 'land without people' is false. In 1947, on the eve of the beginning of all out war and after decades of Jewish inmigration, the estimated population was 1,970,000 (see table on page 5) in which Palestinians (who are both Muslim and Christian) outnumbered Jews by 2-1. Keep in mind that this was nearly 2,000,000 people packed into an area the size of Vermont; had it been in the United States it would have been the most densely packed state (there is a reason why land was measured in quarter-acres.) The Palestinians had ancestors who had lived there since antiquity. They had their own culture, and were not merely 'arabs' any more than, for example, Hungarians are merely 'Europeans.' Imagine, for example, if the Hungarians were told that Hungary had now been assigned to the Chinese, but since the Hungarians were 'Europeans' they could all just move to Spain. Ridiculous? Yes. But no more so than reasoning that the Palestinians are 'arabs' so if they are forced to leave Palestine then they can move to Morocco. Another fiction, but one which betrays a bigoted and simplistic viewpoint on the part of those who brought us the map to look at.

The British attempted to divide up the land into two separate states, one for Israelis and the other for Palestinians. This was at the same time they were doing the same thing in India and Pakistan, and we know how poorly that worked. It worked no better in Palestine. Here is where the fiction really got hard to separate from the fact, but it must be separated. We all have heard the saying, "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." This is true. The Israelis won the war, so we must also keep in mind another adage, "History is written by the winners." Certainly that is true in the Zionist school and summer camp. We were certainly told of every instance of Palestinians killing any Israeli (and during the 1970's there were frequent P.L.O. attacks, including at the Olympics, so it was very easy to tell this narrative,) but it was not until I was in high school that I learned that then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had been the leader of the Irgun, and the Irgun had committed many massacres and killings. Of course these were all explained away as 'necessary' massacres (not sure how a massacre can be 'necessary' but there it was told to us.) The Palestinians who fled were not fleeing because of some perceived threat of being shot as 'collaborators,' when some other arabs returned! They were fleeing because the Irgun and other armed Zionist groups killed many of them, and theatened to kill the rest if they remained. It is true that some arabs were allowed to remain behind. In some cases these people actually were the collaborators (!) but in other cases they were allowed because the new masters of the land (including new masters of the homes of those they forced to flee) needed a supply of low-wage, low skill laborers to do menial tasks. But the number of arabs who were allowed to stay was carefully limited to be far fewer than the Jewish population. The Palestinians who fled mostly went to refugee camps in southern Lebanon or other neighboring countries, or to camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, areas that had remained nominally under Palestinian control but were taken over by Jordan and Egypt, respectively.

There is a term for this process of driving an entire ethnic group or population out of their homes and forcing them to leave an area. It is 'ethnic cleansing.' But that term only came into vogue in the 1990's. It happened to the Palestinians much sooner than that. To argue that this was justified because there were also some arabs who killed Jews (which is also true) misses the point. Ethnic cleansing is always wrong, no matter who is doing it, and to whom.

It also explains why Americans are so much more willing than people in other countries to accept at face value the Israeli narrative on ethnic cleansing. We have it in our own history. The 'five civilized tribes,' the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole, had all signed treaties with the United States and adopted American cultural and governmental designs. However, when southern planters wanted their land, President Andrew Jackson and his successors chose to ignore the treaties and forcibly sign new ones, and removed them to Oklahoma along the 'Trail of Tears.' In other words, the tie between native people and their land meant nothing-- they could be arbitrarily 'assigned' to land a thousand miles away and then forced to abandon their homes and walk there. This model repeated itself throughout the history of American westward expansion; the Nez Perce were rudely driven out of the Wallowa Valley in Oregon despite a treaty they had signed with representatives of Thomas Jefferson years earlier promising them the valley in perpetuity, the Sioux who were promised the Black Hills (sacred to them) but were forced out when gold was discovered there, and locally, the Navajo and Hopi tribes (historically blood enemies) who were assigned land together at Bosque Redondo-- after both being forced to walk hundreds of miles to get there they almost killed each other off in a tribal war while American officers couldn't understand why the 'indians' were fighting each other. Luckily, things turned out better for the Navajo and Hopi than for the five civilized tribes, the Nez Perce or the Sioux; after the army decided that the land they had been driven away from was 'worthless' they were allowed to return home. But an understanding of American history helps explain why we have been so willing to accept that the Palestinian people can be removed from their land (ironically in the name of 'returning' the Jewish people to the same land.) We have removed nations of people that were smaller and weaker than we were to some arbitrarily selected piece of land, so at a visceral level we are less willing to call it a crime when others do it because then the finger can be pointed back at us. Well, it can. Deal with it. It was wrong in the 1800's and it was wrong in the 1900's and it's still wrong.

Several wars later, the world came to realize that this conflict if it continued was intractable, so for a while the answer was the so-called 'two state solution.' This idea reached its zenith in 1994 with the Oslo accords, signed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The basic idea was straightforward enough: that Israel would be recognized by the Palestinians on territory it controlled prior to the 1967 war and a Palestinian state would be established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Like many others, I bought into it at the time, and in fact did so until fairly recently. In fact, the 'two state solution' is still the official position that the U.S. government and at least officially, both sides are operating under. The reason I said 'its zenith' occured in 1994 when the accords were signed, is that it has pretty much gone downhill since then. After signing the accord, Rabin was assassinated by a fanatical Israeli settler. Then in 2000, an accord was nearly reached between Arafat and Ehud Barak, a member of Rabin's Labor party who succeeded him as prime minister. However, the final agreement proved just too elusive and talks failed. Shortly thereafter things broke down completely and Israeli voters booted the Labor Party from power and have elected a succession of right wing governments who may claim to want peace but have shown no interest at all in peace talks. Only one of the right wing leaders even hinted that he might be interested in moving forward on the peace process, Ariel Sharon, but after he said he might do that, he had a stroke and remains in a vegetative state to this day. On the Palestinian side, after Arafat died the Palestinians elected a new leader, Mahmoud Abbas (and let's be clear here-- Arafat himself only had the support of the Palestinian people because he was the leader according to the west, and the west provided funds, much of which Arafat kept for himself; a Palestinian friend of mine once explained to me, "Arafat has the authority to say 'yes,' " or in other words as long as he was willing to condone whatever the people were doing anyway then they would call him a 'leader,' but the resistance fight had long since moved on past Arafat.) But Abbas has been unable to make any progress towards negotiations, and in fact suffered what could be considered the equivalent of a civil war when Hamas, a rival group that unlike the Palestinian Authority has never recognized Israel and continues to fight took control of the Gaza strip in 2007.

In order to unify the Palestinians, Abbas formed a government with Hamas, which also gives Israel a way to avoid serious negotiations. A big reason why there are no negotiations right now also has to do with Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. Unlike limited settlements like those in the Gaza strip (which settlements Israel abandoned and physically removed settlers from in 2005) in the West Bank, fully 10% of the population of Israeli Jews is now living there, not in the pre-1967 borders. This means that a right wing government can't negotiate peace because these settlers are a strong part of their base. In theory a Labor government could (since the settlers will certainly not vote for Labor anyway) but with more and more votes being cast by settlers the entire complexion of the government has shifted to the right so it is unlikely that Israel will elect another Labor government anytime soon, if ever again. At the same time, the complicated patchwork of Palestinian areas, legal settlements, illegal settlements (a crass distinction, because what is 'legal' is what Israeli law makes it, in fact according to international law the settlements are ALL 'illegal') and segregation walls makes it almost impossible to come to envision where one might put any kind of a border if the settlements remain, and as just discussed they are too big for Israel to likely be able to root out politically. In other words, Israeli intransigence is likely to remain because the tail has now taken over the dog. The settlers don't want any peace negotiations and they are now politically powerful enough that their opposition guarantees that there will in fact be no peace negotiations.

So where to now, then? Well, despite my upbringing and even my support for a two state solution until a couple of years ago (for an example of my evolution on the subject, consider that in a post I wrote seven years ago, I was still open to both a two-state solution and to bogus arguments about Israel needing extra land for 'security': Abraham Had Two Sons,) I believe it is time to suggest seriously a one-state solution. A single, secular state that allows everyone, Jews, Christians and Muslims equal rights, including equal religious rights. I know. Doesn't that put me in agreement with Hamas? It does, to a point. Hamas, of course is on record favoring the deportation of almost all Israeli Jews. I don't favor that. The overwhelming majority of Jews in Israel were born in Israel. So where would they go? Instead, what if the international community got behind a plan to create a single state, including everyone who lives there now. If someone lost a piece of property because it was seized from them, and they can prove legal ownership then give it back or compensate them (for example if an apartment house is now where there used to be a farm, it may not be possible to restore the farm, but then shouldn't the owners of the farm (or their descendants) if they were forced to flee, get compensation for the farm? Why not bring back the "Tzedakah boxes?" Bring them back, and let people put their spare change in them to compensate Palestinians for the land they had stolen. Yes, in a one state solution with guaranteed freedom of religion for everyone, we are going to have some major issues of trust (especially after decades of violence.) But wouldn't an effort abroad to compensate those who deserve it, be a worthwhile effort and a start towards building trust?


Anonymous said...

and how do you handle the so-called right of return which the Palestinians consider the most important core issue superceding even settlement construction

Eli Blake said...

If there were a single state, then any citizen of such a state would have the right to travel and live anywhere in the country. Regarding specific pieces of property, I believe I adressed that at the end, that they should either receive said property back, or be fairly compensated if that is not possible.

Eli Blake said...

Which I should add, that there is precedent for the idea that Palestinians who were driven out into other countries could return-- the same policy that Israel now uses to allow any Jew to enter. Granted the country is crowded, but I don't see why you couldn't tie the two together. Allow both, in a one state solution.

Anonymous said...

how would you convince Israelis to accept a one-state you well know it is not even on the political radar screen

Eli Blake said...

Good question.

I believe the answer is because the problem is so intractable and it continues to drain Israeli coffers (even though by sending $3 billion a year to Israel this is really being underwritten by American taxpayers) and nobody likes a state of perpetual war. The Palestinians aren't going to simply vanish (as some settlers wish they would) so eventually this situation will have to be dealt with. In a different context (where we were fifteen years ago) a two state solution might have been the way to deal with it, but that is no longer feasible.

Eli Blake said...

Keep in mind to that there was a relatively non-violent transition from a state in which a minority ruled over a majority which was denied of most of its rights, to a single democratic state in South Africa, so it is possible.