Some of the readers of this piece were born after 1967, the beginning of the de facto one-state solution, with Israel ruling throughout the Holy Land. It seemed eternal. But as the country begins to collapse under the weight of its own diversity and contradictory aspirations, it turns out that this was only another transitory, historical phase. This old power arrangement is now crumbling apart – with the entire variety of its disadvantages and advantages.
The two-state solution anticipated by the Oslo Accords was supposed to create a soft landing platform for the unsustainable situation of a “one-size-fits-all country.” But it failed to materialize, not least due to the assassination of then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, at the hands of a Jewish religious extremist, after a huge peace rally at the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality building. The Arab side’s intransigence didn’t help either.
Perhaps the time has finally come to try something new: a three-state solution. Rather than watching the dangers of yet another civil war grow by the day, like in 1948, or accepting that a million or so “liberal” Israelis – and thousands of migrant “non-Jews” – will soon be forced to flee or emigrate abroad, give them a piece of land. Let them discover that a “safe space abroad” can actually be found for them – at home.
Much of the current right-left or conservative-liberal tension in Israel is admittedly imported from the United States (except the colors get swapped: what’s red here is blue there). As in the United States, Israel is split between a liberal coast and a conservative hinterland, although here there is also the overlap with the Palestinians. But unlike in America, the majority of Israeli “liberals” – often secular and feminist or queer activists – reside in or around just one city, Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Also unlike in the United States, the demographic trends in Israel strongly favor the religious right wing.
Teaching courses on the history of Tel Aviv and its ancient predecessor and twin city Jaffa to more than a thousand, predominantly international students over ten years, I realized that in their eyes there often were already two “Jewish states,” namely Tel Aviv-Jaffa and “The Rest,” often epitomized by Jerusalem. Inspired by this, I began a viability study “Our City – Our Country” (in Hebrew it rhymes as “Irenu Artsenu”), which examined the possibilities and limitations of Tel Aviv and Jaffa as a sovereign city-state.
The starting point of “Our City – Our Country” were ideas by the leading Tel Aviv-Jaffa architectural theorist Sharon Rotbard, author of “White City-Black City” and Dutch-American globalism thinker Saskia Sassen. She wrote for the 2019 Centenary Jubilee Magazine of the Bauhaus School: “The current conditions, especially in global cities, are creating completely new power structures… the urban space in strong cities offers new hybrid platforms, which can serve as a basis for action”. (It should be noted that Tel Aviv-Jaffa is actually a UNESCO world heritage site for the so-called Bauhaus architecture that emanated largely from this same pre-Nazi German modernist school.)
The first and most important step towards a city-state will be an internal re-division of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality into two: Tel Aviv and Jaffa. The two cities are a kind of “Siamese twins” with two heads, and we should respect this reality by splitting the city-state into two autonomous municipalities (approximately along the lines of the British Mandate period). Make that three municipalities, in the case that Tel Aviv’s “hyper-secular” northern suburb and diplomacy hub Herzliya wants to join.
The second challenge would be the consensual exchange of territories with the Israeli mainland, in order to coordinate a “lean” border, probably mostly following (except in Herzliya) the highly contested Ayalon Highway, the center of demonstrations now for many weeks, which is Israel’s main traffic artery. At the same time, the twin cities (and Herzliya?) will likely have to take in people from the neighborhoods given up, for example Hatikva, and especially the remaining African refugees, who were among the prime victims in recent years of the public roundups and clandestine deportations. They were also labeled by Prime Minister Netanyahu in one of his recent major addresses to the nation, as “infiltrators” – and one of the prime “reasons” for his clash with the Supreme Court.
“Liberal” Israeli political and gender refugees will arrive to the new city-state from around the country, for example from Haifa and Jerusalem, although most Palestinians would likely prefer to sit it out where they are, a concept called in Arabic “sumud” – staying put steadfastly on their ground. A new multi-lingual and secular/multi-religious society will eventually emerge in the city-state, composed of many different types of locals and immigrants.
If a “Velvet Divorce” can be achieved, the solution of Tel Aviv and Jaffa (plus Herzliya?) quitting the State of Israel is a good one, and not only for the city-state, but also for the entire country. This division will not weaken Israel, but help it to re-evaluate its power balances. It can in and of itself serve as a model for a future division of the entire land between Israelis and Arabs in an orderly, agreed upon, and functional manner.
Meanwhile, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa “city of refuge” could become a destination for Jewish and Palestinian day tourism, an informal space of encounter, a place of co-existence and intermarriage, of gender equality and a free press, a stage for a vibrant cultural life, run by an accessible, transparent, representative administration. “Our City – Our Country” would also become a much-needed, conveniently “neutral” residential base in the Middle East for various embassies, representatives of the international community, business and economic interests, for green, feminist, and liberal NGOs, media workers, and specifically a safe place for journalists.
There are many models of small or miniature countries in the world. It should be possible to reach similar arrangements that have been successfully implemented elsewhere and adapt them to the current situation without reaching a crisis point with Jerusalem. It is especially important to allow the free movement of people and trade via a security membrane. At least until the construction of an industrial port in the territory of the city-state, Tel Aviv-Jaffa will be dependent on supplies via Israel. But it would already be possible to start daily fast ferry services for passengers to places such as Larnaca, in Cyprus (with an international airport). Jaffa, perhaps the world’s oldest continuously used port city, may soon become – together with Tel Aviv and Herzliya – the UN’s newest, 194th member state.