One state solution?

The last week has seen a flurry of statements from the Palestine National Authority's Fatah leaders and others about a bi-national state in Israel/Palestine.

By Naomi Shepherd (Palestine, Guardian News Service)

Published: Mon 25 Aug 2008, 10:14 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

Ahmed Qureia, chief Palestinian negotiator at the anaemic peace talks, warned that if a two-state agreement was not reached soon, the Palestinians would demand equal rights in the entire territory under Israeli rule. President Abbas made virtually the same statement a few days later, and Professor Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem, predicted a bi-national outcome to the conflict in an interview last Friday ñ though as a gradual process over centuries.

The idea itself is far from new. Zionist intellectuals backed it when the Jews were a minority in Palestine. After the six-day war, Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO, proposed setting up a democratic, secular state for Arabs and Jews; the Palestinians as equals, not refugees as they were then seen. Hamas today envisions an Islamic state in all of Palestine: an Israeli nightmare. The new statements by Fatah leaders look like a tactic to prevent the collapse of talks, attract international support, and keep their Hamas rivals at bay. It is not difficult to see what has encouraged them; the problem is that the move may have the opposite result to that intended.

Fatah is aware of Israeli concern about "the demographic problem" — the fact that soon the Palestinian population of Israel and the land under occupation, now almost at parity, will outnumber Jews. The Winograd Commission's findings on the 2006 Lebanon war showed that using the army to police the West Bank had damaged it as a fighting force. Israel cannot expel or "transfer" the Palestinians under its control, and has no wish to govern them. Recent negotiations have brought the two sides very close to an agreement; but rightwing settlers and their supporters in shaky Israeli government coalitions oppose withdrawal, and Fatah have Hamas waiting for them to fail and return to the armed struggle.

Fatah may feel that Israel will only go the extra mile on the refugees and Jerusalem — the main sticking points -- if the alternative means governing an Arab majority demanding its democratic rights in the international forum: a challenge which Israel has never faced.

Resolutions against Israel have been passed in the international court of justice against settlement policy in the West Bank; boycotts are threatened against Israeli professionals abroad. The composition of the UN has changed since the general assembly approved the partition of Palestine in l947. The growth of the electronic media has advertised the plight of dispossessed West Bank Palestinians. Israeli liberals are publicly concerned that the settlement drive is irreversible and that a bi-national state is already in existence, Israel no longer a democracy.

So the threat of an appeal to the UN looks like resonating both internationally and in Israel itself. But it carries huge dangers.

A majority of Israelis are now known to be in favour of concessions for a genuine peace. But the bi-national proposal — meaning the end of the Jewish state — may so alarm many that they may prefer prolonging the occupation in the hope that the Palestinians will ultimately give up and emigrate.

In Jerusalem, a bi-national city, both sides are overwhelmingly hostile to and suspicious of one another. A century of bloodshed and fear, the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian economies, irreconcilable political cultures — all make bi-nationalism utopian. Liberal Israelis are the most eloquent and knowledgeable of Palestine's supporters, civil rights activists catalogue Israel's abuses; but the mass of the electorate is indifferent, all the more so because its contacts with West Bank Palestinians are now limited by the physical barriers surrounding them and the veto on Israeli travel outside the Jewish settlements.

Israel may be unpopular in liberal western circles, but this has little practical impact. Even in countries overtly hostile to Israel, arms and other deals continue. So if the Palestinians, backed by a substantial number of UN members, were to press for a bi-national state, the US and Europe would certainly block any such resolution. The best that could be hoped for would be for the US to put pressure on Israel on further concessions for a two-state solution. Which — to repeat — is almost certainly the objective of the current, if risky, statements by the Palestinian Authority.

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