If the US brokered talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaderships fail, all parties seeking a two state solution will need to reevaluate their strategies, and possibly, their goal. It is therefore worth asking: after decades of failed attempts at the creation of an independent state, can the Palestinian Authority reframe the conflict by adopting Sari Nusseibeh’s once tongue-in-cheek idea that Palestinians turn “their political aspirations inside out” by asking for Israeli citizenship? Nusseibeh thought that publicly abandoning the goal of a Palestinian state might actually be the fastest path to one. Access to Israeli voting booths would transform the Palestinians’ demographic advantage into democratic advantage. A Palestinian movement that demanded Israeli suffrage would open an as yet unexplored avenue to power by threatening to electorally dominate Israel. In a reversal of Clausewitz’s maxim: politics would become the continuation of war by other means.
A fantasy scenario for most Zionist Israelis has three objectives: a Jewish majority state, a democracy, and the Land of Israel between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. In reality, a stable future demands they choose two of the three. Since 1967, the risks of making such a choice have been politically prohibitive and the decision has been deferred. Meanwhile, the nationalist aspirations of the Palestinian Authority have been premised on the creation of a Palestinian state, not inclusion within Israel. Zionism is procrastinating, and for the most part, getting away with it.
But what if rather than negotiations for independence, or armed struggle, the dominant Palestinian nationalism called for a middle-eastern “rainbow nation”? Land-for-peace would morph into land-for-Zionism; only by creating a separate Palestinian state could Israel save its Jewish and democratic character. Imagine a Palestinian premier declaring at the UN that, like the baby presented before King Solomon, the land cannot be divided, and Palestinians want only to share it. Their swords have been beaten into plowshares, and they wish to plow in peace.
Could such a movement signal to the Israeli establishment, as Mandela’s did to the South African leadership in the final days of Apartheid, that there is only one way forward? Would a brave Israeli Prime Minister dismantle the Israeli state to build an inclusive “Israstine”? Unlikely. No Palestinian movement will convince Israelis to surrender their sovereignty. However, a civil rights based Palestinian nationalism would still be powerful, but to a different effect. There is a sense among Israelis that the world does not understand their predicament in the Middle East, and that international judgments need not be taken seriously. But the fear that the Palestinians can back them into the wrong side of history could be exactly what is required to create the political will for making difficult choices.
The present strategies of all major Palestinian political camps lack leverage with Israel or major international powers. Palestinian groups have often used guerilla warfare and terrorism to pursue their nationalist aims. Hamas remains committed to armed struggle. Within Israel, Palestinian violence reinforces a sense that there are simultaneously no partners for peace, and no enemies (yet) strong enough to pose an existential military threat. Palestinians lack the means to conquer Israel with force, and diminish their own international standing with any attempt to do so. While the PA is back at the negotiation table, Al-Jazeera’s 2011 release of the “Palestine Papers” showed past negotiators as too weak to secure a deal acceptable to the mainstream. Additionally, even if Israel made peace with the PA, instability in surrounding Arab countries warns of an uncertain future.
While it will be Israelis who choose which two of the three Zionist objectives will define their country, Palestinians can force their hand. A Palestinian nationalism that appeared to ask for so little: voting rights and equality under the law, could strike fear into the heart of the Israeli public. By threatening to render Jews a minority population, it would endanger Jewish national self-determination. And without explanations about physical security, Israel would be hard-pressed to explain why a Palestinian population that has come to accept its presence, and is offering to willingly pay taxes, should be denied civil and voting rights. A non-violent movement for access to Israeli democracy as the dominant expression of Palestinian nationalism could gain international admiration while threatening Israeli objectives in a way armed struggle never has. It would appear to be the ultimate acceptance of Israel’s right to exist while endangering the practicality of that existence.
Israelis, seeing their self-determination imperiled, would have to face a decision about what kind of country they want. An Israeli public committed to Jewish self-determination and democratic values would need to come to terms with leaving the West Bank, thereby invalidating claims that the land cannot be divided. Ironically, a Palestinian movement for democratic rights within Israel might indeed be the way to independent statehood.