“If there’s no change by January,” the former diplomat told me over a cup of coffee, “I give up on the two state solution.” A senior academic and one time Israeli envoy whom I’ve always held in the highest regard, he was now busy campaigning against the occupation in some minor international forum. Trying to convince the Israeli public, he felt, was no longer of any use.
What, exactly, does it mean to “give up,” I wondered. Does Zionism have a December 31st expiration date? Or was he simply worn out from years of effort? The very same questions gnaw at me when I consider Israel’s newest political campaign — endorsed by Peace Now, among others – to hold a referendum on the occupation in 2017. Decision at 50, as the initiative is called, advocates a plebiscite to decide between “a binational state or two states, annexation or a negotiated agreement.” By appealing to the Israeli people, Decision at 50 ostensibly takes issue with my coffee partner. In fact, they’re saying the same thing: “Let’s face it. The game’s almost up.”
What, after all, will a referendum prove? What imprimatur will it lend Israeli policy, or what corrective will it provide, beyond that supplied by parliamentary elections which form the heart of Israel’s political system? According to the Decision website, it will “allow the public to declare its view,” since “no Israeli government and no Knesset has had the courage” to make a decision on the matter. This fails to answer the question. It is also false. Three leaders – Rabin, Barak and Olmert – actively tried to negotiate an end to the occupation, while the Netanyahu governments since and in between have pursued the opposite policy. The divide between left and right on the Palestinian question is crystal clear, and there is no reason to think the electoral choices of the Israeli public have been uninformed.
The biggest problem with Decision at 50, however, is not the false assumptions that guide it, but the irresponsible gamble the group would take with Israel’s future. After the Brexit debacle, the disgrace of Trump’s victory and the unequivocal mandate voters have given the right in the last two Israeli elections, what conceivable justification is there to roll the dice on the survival of the Zionist idea in an emotionally charged plebiscite where the right will pull out all the stops, use every trick in the book and flood media with blood curling images of Palestinian terror and ISIS atrocities to sway voter opinion? Has some brilliant sociologist discovered an algorithm the defies everything we know? Or is the peace camp simply exhausted and secretly hoping the public will put them out of their misery with a single vote? No, it’s not fair to engage in armchair psychoanalysis. But, really now, what alternative will they have left themselves the morning after Israelis formally endorse greater Israel at the behest of Peace Now?
If Decision at 50 displays the symptoms of suicidal depression, another group – Two States, One Homeland – has already jumped off the ledge. Its declared objective is the establishment of “two sovereign states in one, open land.” Lest one be confused about the difference between this idea and the plan hitherto advocated by the Zionist left (to be sure, TSOH does not purport to be a Zionist group but rather seeks to bridge the Jewish and Palestinian paradigms) TSOH explains that “the citizens of both states [will] have the right to travel and live in all parts of the land.” Thus, while “both states will have the right to define their own laws of immigration and naturalization within its own boundaries [sic]” they will, presumably, forgo that right in advance, at least insofar as Jews and Palestinians are concerned.
How this will work appears simple enough. Jews seeking to live in Palestine and Palestinians seeking to settle in Israel will receive permanent residency without voting rights (which they will exercise in the nation state to which they ethnically belong). Simple, indeed, and a recipe for disaster. What will distinguish these permanent residents — or their children and grandchildren — from their next door neighbors, Arab or Jewish, whose ancestors enjoyed full citizenship in the state where they reside before the new arrangement went into effect? Nothing, really, except that the former will be denied the most elementary right to choose the government that sets the laws, collects the taxes, polices the streets and determines the policies of the sovereign state in which they live. Eternal second class citizens, if you will, offered the consolation prize of citizenship in another polity.
Why, then, is all this necessary? TSOH, it seems, is trying to square the circle by maintaining the pretense of a two state structure while implementing the Palestinian right of return within Israel. A peace agreement without this right, explains TSOH, “will not be sustainable. It will be a cease fire between wars.”
Advocating the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Israel rather than in the independent Palestine to be established alongside it defies the test of moral logic. After all, Two States One Homeland does not propose reestablishing the Palestinian village of Fallujah on the ruins of Kiryat Gat; Deir Yassin in place of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Shaul; or Sheikh Munis in Ramat Aviv. Descendants of Palestinians who fled what became Israel will not return to communities that ceased to exist 67 years ago. What difference does it make, then, whether they build their homes a few miles to the east or west of the 1949 armistice lines if, as the TSOH site declares, “Palestine/Israel constitutes a historical and geographical unity from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean?”
Circles cannot be squares. Neither can democratic nation states exist when they fail to “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Uncoupling sovereignty and citizenry, the cardinal sin of the Greater Israel movement, has now been adopted — mutatis mutandis — by a group on the left. It doesn’t work.
In the end, there is no silver bullet to save us from the uphill battle for a two-state solution. Neither a dystopian settler apartheid state nor the nightmare of a powerless Jewish minority in Palestine, nor some genetic mutation combining the two is an acceptable scenario. Fighting for what one holds dear has always been a trying endeavor. It still is.