A binational Israel-Palestine

We can ask, "Who killed the road map for peace between Israelis and Palestinians?" Or we can start thinking through the implications of the fact that it is dead. Either way, the Palestinian bombing Saturday that killed 19 people in Haifa, Israel, followed by the Israeli bombing of a site in Syria, indicates that the road map - which the Bush administration and its allies have pursued throughout the past year - cannot now be salvaged.

The road map's declared goal was the establishment of a Palestinian state of undefined powers and uncertain borders alongside Israel, in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

Israel's ruling Likud Party never liked that idea, and it hedged its very qualified "acceptance" of the road map with a list of 14 formal reservations.

The Palestinian leadership - including Yasser Arafat, who was voted president of Palestine in a US-sponsored election in 1996, and two successive Palestinian prime ministers - expressed unqualified acceptance of the road map.

All that is now history. The road map, which never had much real momentum, is dead.

Its death marks not just the latest in a long series of debacles in Washington's attempts at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

It could also mark the end of the long-pursued concept of a two-state solution. For if a two-state solution were to provide the stability and security that both peoples so desperately crave, the resulting Palestinian state would have to be just as viable as the Israeli state with whose fate it would always be so closely entwined.

But continued implantation of Israeli settlers and all their supporting infrastructure into the West Bank has brought about a situation in which the establishment of a viable Palestinian state looks impossible.

Over the years, Israel has planted more than 400,000 settlers into the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. All that land - like Gaza, like Syria's Golan - has the status in international law of being "occupied territory," and the 4th Geneva Convention expressly states that it is illegal for the occupying power (Israel) to transfer any of its citizens into these occupied lands. (It would be as if the US, now running an occupation in Iraq, should decide to move hundreds of thousands of US citizens into Iraq in an attempt to control the resource base and the government there forever.)

But now, most of the 400,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank want to stay in the luxurious communities that hefty government subsidies have provided. Politically, it would now be almost impossible for any Israeli government to suggest that they move back to Israel - or to leave them where they are under a Palestinian ruler. But if they stay where they are, and under Israeli sovereignty, then the land left for the Palestinians can never provide the basis for a viable Palestinian state. As with the "Bantustans" created by the old apartheid regime in South Africa, the Palestinian-ruled area would be resource-starved and totally under the control of the stronger power. No recipe there for long-term stability - for white South Africans, or for Israelis.

This lesson in history does, however, suggest an approach to peacemaking that might work if, indeed, there is no hope for a two-state solution.

In South Africa, once supporters of apartheid figured out that no amount of repressing or fencing off blacks and no amount of punishing military raids against the country's neighbors could bring them peace, they finally settled for that good old standby of democracies: a one-person-one-vote system within a unitary state.

That wasn't an easy decision for white - or black - South Africans. On both sides there were centuries of hostility and harm to overcome before they could accept the "other" kind of folk as fellow-citizens. But by 1990, the situation had become intolerable - for white as well as black South Africans. The country's transformation to democracy was difficult for some, and, as in all democracies, problems remain. But in general, it was overwhelmingly successful and deeply inspiring.

So why not in Israel/Palestine? If Israeli settlers want to stay in the West Bank - let them stay! But if they want to stay there and be part of a community built on long-term peace, then they cannot refuse to give equal rights within the whole of an expanded state of Israel/Palestine to all Palestinians who want to be a part of it.

The end of the dream of a monocultural "Jewish state"? Yes. But in the Holy Land, as in South Africa, it could be the start of a hopeful new chapter in human history. For Jewish Israelis, as for Afrikaans-speaking and English-speaking South Africans, they could still be living in a multicultural state in which their language, their culture, and their religion would be fully embraced.

The idea of a binational (Arab/Hebrew) state in historic Palestine was first proposed in the 1930s by Jewish thinkers like Martin Buber and Judah Magness. Now, increasing numbers of intellectuals on both sides are discussing it anew.

At a time of so much despair in the Middle East, this idea - based on the deepest concepts of human equality and respect among peoples - might give us all fresh hope.

Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.

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