Let's discuss stuff
The problem of what to do with the Arab minority under Israel’s purview has been vexing since Israel’s modern inception. Obviously, the two-state-solution has been central to this idea for some time now, but that is simply one idea that has been proposed and yet has not been achievable despite 50 years of trying. Unlike what some would say it is not a forgone conclusion – it is not the reality whereby any deviation from it is “illegal.” Not under Israeli law, not under international law, not even under any rubric of general ethics. To be clear, the treatment of individual human beings, be they Arab or Jew (or Christian or Druze, or any other) certainly could be deemed ethical or unethical. But the two-state-solution, even if it is your preferred option, is not itself the ultimate or only frame by which to view the issue.
That said, the question becomes what do we do now? The latest brouhaha over a binational state is perhaps one example of what else we could do now. The concept of a binational state stems from a thought experiment. The idea is that if we could somehow erase the political and cultural chess board, and imagine a situation where there were no states here at all, just a bunch of random individual Jews and Arabs, and then we were to apply a sort of universal, democratic principle, that because there would be approximately equal numbers of Arabs and Jews we would then according to this universal, democratic principle end up with a binational state. So therefore, as a result of that thought experiment, that’s what we should do now. However, there are a few problems with that thought experiment.
First of all, although it may be interesting in the abstract, you can’t take a country that already exists, decide you don’t like it, create a thought experiment that results in a different country, and then expect the actual country to simply vanish of its own accord so you can put your “thought experiment country” there instead. That’s just not how history works. To that point, Peter Beinart might say (I believe he did actually say something similar) that’s exactly what occurred in apartheid South Africa. A country existed, people didn’t like it, held a thought experiment about what a better country could look like, and through force of ideas, force of rightness, force of character of the leaders of the movement, were able to cause the new “thought experiment country” to essentially replace the old, racist regime. And while, yes that may be what happened, that is the exception that proves the rule. As a rule, existing countries don’t disappear and turn into other countries because people don’t like them. Unless, as was the case in South Africa, the existing country is simply corrupt or racist or for some other reason lacks internal legitimacy. One could say that most of the empires and monarchies in old Europe disappeared and were replaced by modern democracies because they lacked the same internal legitimacy. In that vein, if one considers Israel to be a colonialist enterprise of European white people colonizing native Arab lands, then one might hope for a similar outcome to occur here. However that narrative is a patently false reading of history which is beyond the scope of this article. For those that hold Israel to be the culmination of over 2000 years of collective aspirations to reconstitute our national homeland, Israel isn’t going anywhere.
So given that Israel isn’t going anywhere, the second point to be made is that the thought experiment itself is not valid because the initial conditions which it posits are not the conditions in which we find ourselves today. In other words, the theoretical view that this land is currently occupied only by random people and not any actual political entities is simply untrue. Interestingly, one could argue that it was like that toward the end of the British Mandate era, when there was no actual state or government other than the British mandatory government which was by definition temporary, so that when it eventually left there would actually be a situation similar to that in the above thought experiment. And interestingly, what came out of those actual “thought experiment” initial conditions was the 1947 UN partition plan. Not a binational state, mind you, but just as reasonable a solution, at least from the perspective of a dispassionate outside observer. However, today is not 1947. Those initial conditions no longer exist. Today there is an economically, culturally, and politically successful Jewish state. And a lot of (no disrespect intended) individual Arabs. Which is to say that the initial conditions (at least politically) for the Arab population haven’t really changed very much since 1947, in contrast to the situation for the Jews. Yes, there is the PLO and Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas. But nobody really believes that they are the equivalent of the modern state of Israel. So it is somewhat disingenuous to have a thought experiment which posits initial conditions which no longer exist. I suppose if one wanted to tilt the results towards the Arabs – to level the playing field, so to speak – one could have that thought experiment. How would that level the playing field? Because positing the 1947 initial conditions for the thought experiment involves erasing all the progress which the Jewish state has achieved while not changing very much at all for the Arabs. But by what right should we be able to overlook Jewish progress, and then somehow claim that the results of the thought experiment are fair or valid?
So then the question is, again, what do we do now – now that there is only a Jewish state and a lot of individual Arabs? I guess one option would be to say, well, we think that it would be most fair if each side had a state – the same idea they had in 1947. So since the Jews already made theirs, we just have to help the Arabs make theirs – to sort of equalize things. Then there’ll be two equal states and everything will be fine. That might be a nice idea. The only problem is that its been tried multiple times for more than 50 years and hasn’t worked. At all. We’re still in the same situation. Now you could say that 50 years just isn’t long enough. You could blame Israel for all the failures. Or you could blame the Arabs. Either way the result is the same. You could say we should keep trying and keep waiting. Even if it takes 100 years or 200 years. You might say we shouldn’t compromise on our ideals just because it’s taking longer than we had hoped. But, it might be worth noticing that all the while we are waiting, there are actual people that need to live their lives. Remember all those individual Arabs? The Jews are all living “the good life” in the state they already have. What are all of the essentially stateless, individual Arabs doing all the while we are trying and waiting for 50 years, 100 years, 200 years, etc? You could say, (as an Israeli) that’s not my problem. We’re doing just fine, and as soon as those Arabs get around to seeing things our way, as soon as they “become nice,” we’ll welcome them with open arms. In fact, that seems to be the position of much of the Israeli center today. We’ve waited 50 years to give them a state like we have, they keep being too mean and greedy about it, so there’s nothing we can do but just continue to wait. And wait. And wait.
So, since we have some time, (after all, we’re just sitting here waiting…) what else can we do now? The problem is, as much as the democratic, fair, and universalist part of ourselves would like to erase the past 70 years to recreate the initial conditions here when there were no states or political entities at all, and then create some kind of utopian equality – either two exactly equal states, or since that didn’t work maybe one single binational state – that’s just not possible. In the game of life you don’t get to pause, rewind the clock, and pick the time from when you wish to resume play, so that you can alter reality in the present. Life just doesn’t work like that. The best you can do is move forward from where you are. And once again, where we are is that there is one Jewish state, and a lot of Arabs without one. Once you realize this, there really is only one option: Can either the Jewish state (that there already is), or some other state, act to incorporate, to take care of, all of the individual stateless Arabs that are here as well?
Now you may say that’s not fair – its not fair for the Jews to have a state and the Arabs not to have one. But fairness is an individual idea, not a country or state-based idea. The world of states and nations doesn’t operate on fairness. It never has, nor has there ever been any expectation that it ever would. To be clear, there are international treaties, there are the Geneva Conventions relating to treatment of prisoners of war, there are principles of international maritime law, and so forth. But those relate to the practicalities of how nations interact with each other, not fairness. Belgium can’t say to France, “you have more land than we do – that’s not fair.” Jordan can’t say to Saudi Arabia, “you have more oil than we do – that’s not fair.” Fairness is, however, an individual concept. Within a state there usually is an expectation that individual people will be treated fairly – that all individuals will be treated equally before the law, for example, or that people will be taxed according to fair principles.
So when we think about what to do now regarding Israel, the Jews, and the Arabs, the appropriate question to ask is not, is there some macro-geopolitical fairness principle that should guide us, but rather, is there a way to ensure that all of the individual people can be treated fairly? And since modern governments are supposed to be the guarantors of the fair treatment of the individuals under their purview, the question is then, is there a modern government which could guarantee the fair treatment of the individual people here? And as much as you might want to knee-jerk yourself back to the idea of “let’s make an Arab government to guarantee the Arabs’ fairness” – i.e. the two state solution – again I remind you that this hasn’t worked for the past 50 years, all the while the population of actual Arabs continue living without a “fairness guarantor.” So in the absence of that option, what other government is there which could serve that function? Well, it isn’t very hard to just look at a map of governments situated contiguously surrounding that exact group of “guarantor-less” Arabs. On the north you’ve got Lebanon and Syria – not very appealing from a government stability or fairness-guaranteeing perspective. Then to the east you’ve got Jordan, perhaps more stable, and possibly a bit more appealing in the fairness department even though it is still a monarchy. Then to the south-west there’s Egypt. Also not very stable from a government perspective and I suppose marginal from the perspective of guaranteeing fairness of individual citizens. And then, of course, there’s Israel. Israel has a stable political structure, and while one could argue that it still has trouble treating all its citizens fairly, it certainly stands within the scope of respectable modern countries in this regard, with a stable list of freedoms, independent judiciary, etc. So it seems like the three most likely governmental entities to be able to guarantee the fairness of the individual Arabs living here are either Egypt, Jordan, or Israel. Now, could it be that Israel, the Jewish state, would take precedence over either Egypt or Jordan, fellow Arab states? Well, perhaps as a Jew and Israeli myself, that’s not for me to answer. But I do feel that we, Israel, would certainly have the capability if called to that task. But, because all those individual Arabs are still just waiting around after more than 70 years, we (and I include those individual Arabs themselves in that “we”) should probably start making some decisions…