Sayed Kashua’s second novel Let It Be Morning (Vayehi Boker) was published in 2004. In a richly ironic ending, Kashua imagines a final two-state peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. This historic deal involves land swaps, the dismantling of settlements, the return of refugees and the transfer of the Arab citizens of the Triangle. The ‘Zionist dream is coming true,’ declares an academic on television. ‘The greatest threat confronting the State of Israel is no longer’ and we can expect ‘an overwhelming and permanent Jewish majority.’ Overnight, the long-standing ‘demographic problem’ of the State of Israel is solved.
In the days of the Second Intifada this might well have seemed far-fetched. A review in The Guardian of the English translation praised the novel’s ‘absurdist thought experiment’ which pushes ‘exclusive notions of statehood to … a logical extreme.’ A year or so ago, however, there was a surreal moment at the height of Trumpism when Kashua’s writing seemed less fictional than prophetic. It’s worth recalling that population transfer and land swaps (if not refugee return) were part of the ‘vision’ of Peace to Prosperity and its proposals regarding Israel’s Arab citizens. Of course, things have now changed.
The perspective of Kashua – an ‘Arab-Israeli’ writing in Hebrew – is an interesting one; his work providing insight into the lives of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, their duality and experience of discrimination. Notwithstanding Netanyahu’s current courting of it, this community knows that after the coming elections it will go back to being perceived by many as a demographic problem that is, in Kashua’s words, ‘a bone in the throat’ of mainstream Israel.
Separation – of the kind envisioned in the novel – has long been seen on the left and elsewhere, as the solution to this ‘problem’. As self-styled ‘radical centrist’ Gadi Taub has put it, ‘if we achieve partition, Zionism will have saved itself.’ The tension between the ideas of democracy and a Jewish state will have been resolved.
But with Trump gone and another two-state solution presumably dead in the water, there has been a growing collective reconsideration of the two-state approach led by the likes of Peter Beinart, Avraham Burg and Gideon Levy. It is in this context that Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem published its new position paper this month. This contends that the terms of the debate about the future of Israel-Palestine must change considering the facts of ongoing settlement, the Nation-State Law, and the planning for annexation. The argument is that the Green Line has all but disappeared and there is one regime between the Mediterranean and the Jordan that, as the position paper puts it, ‘promotes and perpetuates Jewish supremacy.’ This regime discriminates against those who are not Jewish – including the Arab citizens of Israel depicted in Kashua’s novels. Clinging to the notion of a ‘process’ leading to a two-state solution only maintains the status quo of ongoing settlement and enables the consolidation of what B’Tselem is now openly calling apartheid.
The paper makes for uncomfortable reading (and the terminology will upset many) but the continual erasure of the Green Line by government does little to counter B’Tselem’s argument. Note the rapid approval of 780 settlement housing units prior to Biden’s inauguration. In the coming elections, all the parties with a chance of forming a government support the continual process of permanent settlement. It has been clear for some time that the temporary nature of the occupation (now 53 years old – Israel is only 72) is an illusion.
The B’Tselem paper may have made limited noise in the mainstream Israeli media, but it is an important contribution by an internationally respected organisation to the consideration of ideas which were previously marginal on the left. Mainstream liberal discourse holds up the possibility of a Palestinian state alongside Israel whilst the building of settlement units, the taking of land and the denial of equal rights continue. If it is to avoid accusations of connivance, the left must move beyond the narrative of a democracy with an occupation temporarily attached. If we finally acknowledge the de facto annexation of the territories, then the so-called demographic problem refers not only to the Arabs who make up 17% of Israel’s citizens, but all the Palestinians between the river and the sea. This is a population roughly equivalent in size to Israel’s Jewish one, as B’Tselem argues. Rather than being concerned with a supposedly temporary occupation, the discussion can then address the (admittedly very difficult) question of how we are to live together in a country of 14 million people. We are thus freed to talk about liberty and justice for all rather than the remote idea of a truly independent Palestinian state.
Perhaps it is time to conclude that the two-state solution is a speculative fiction that should be filed away together with other imaginings – like Kashua’s wry and engrossing Let It Be Morning or the pages of Trump’s Peace to Prosperity. It bears no more relation to reality today than Altneuland. Those of us invested in Israel’s democratic future can then focus on countering the corrupting reality of de facto annexation and begin to move towards a more positive discussion about what kind of country we desire.