One state for Palestinans and Jews?

I’m reading Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. There’s so much in the essays collected here that’s interesting and stimulating; but in this post I’ve chosen to note the chapter on Edward Said, originally published as the foreword to Edward Said’s From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map in 2004, and as an essay in The Nation.

In particular, it was the following section which impressed me, in which Judt explains how Said moved from favouring the two-state solution to the Palestinian problem to favouring a single, secular, democratic state. I hadn’t been aware of this development in Said’s thinking, and it struck me forcefully because I’ve felt for some time now myself  that this has to be the only way out of the impasse – it may seem fanciful, but perhaps no more than the idea of Mandela and de Klerk negotiating the end of the apartheid regime that had been busy selling the idea of bantustans as a solution to that problem.

This is the concluding part of Judt’s essay; it seems even more pertinent after the Israeli military action in Gaza earlier this year:

In 1980, when he first publicly pressed for a two-state solution, Said was attacked and abused from all sides, not least by Arafat’s own Fatah movement. Then, in 1988, the Palestine National Council belatedly conceded that the best possible outcome was indeed the division of Palestine into two states–one Israeli, one Palestinian–echoing Said’s insistence that there was no alternative to reciprocal territorial self-determination for Jews and Arabs alike. But as the years went by, with half of the occupied territories expropriated; with the Palestinian community a shambles and the putative Palestinian territory a blighted landscape of isolated enclaves, flattened olive groves and ruined houses, where humiliated adults were fast losing the initiative to angry, alienated adolescents, Said drew the increasingly irresistible conclusion.

Israel was never going to quit the West Bank, at least not in any way that would leave it in a coherent, governable condition. What kind of a state could the West Bank and Gaza ever constitute? Who but a criminal mafia would ever want to take on the task of “governing” it? The “Palestine” of PLO imaginings was a fantasy–and a rather unappealing one at that. For good or ill, there was only going to be one real state in the lands of historic Palestine: Israel. This was not utopia; it was merely hard-headed pragmatism shorn of illusion. The genuinely realistic approach lay in accepting this fact and thinking seriously about how to make the best of it: “Much more important than having a state is the kind of state it is.” For the last decade of his life Edward Said was an unbending advocate of a single, secular state for Israelis and Palestinians.

What grounds did Edward Said have for his faith in a single-state solution, a nonexclusive, secular, democratic alternative to the present impasse? In the first place, the status quo is awful and getting worse: two peoples, each sustained by its exclusive victim narrative, competing indefinitely across the dead bodies of their children for the same tiny piece of land. One of them is an armed state, the other a stateless people, but otherwise they are depressingly similar: What, after all, is the Palestinian national story if not a reproachful mirror to Zionism, a tale of expulsion, diaspora, resurrection and return? There is no way to divide the disputed “homeland” to mutual satisfaction and benefit. Little good can come of two such statelets, mutually resentful, each with an influential domestic constituency committed to the destruction and absorption of its neighbor.

In the second place, something fundamental has changed in the Palestinian condition. For four decades millions of Palestinian Arabs–in Israel, in the occupied territories, in refugee camps across the Arab world and in exile everywhere–had been all but invisible. Their very existence was long denied by Israeli politicians; their memory of expulsion had been removed from the official record and passed unmentioned in history books; the record of their homes, their villages and their land was expunged from the very soil itself. That, as Said noted, was why he kept on telling the same story: “There seems to be nothing in the world which sustains the story; unless you go on telling it, it will just drop and disappear.” And yet “it is very hard to espouse for five decades, a continually losing cause.” It was as though Palestinians had no existence except when someone committed a terrorist atrocity–at which point that is all they were, their provenance uncertain, their violence inexplicable.

That is why the “right of return” had so central a place in all Palestinian demands–not because any serious person supposed that Israel could take “back” millions of refugees and their descendants, but from the deeply felt need for acknowledgment: a recognition that the initial expulsion took place, that a primordial wrong was committed. That is what so annoyed Said about Oslo: It seemed to excuse or forgive the Israelis for the occupation and everything else. But, as he wrote in Al-Ahram in March 2002, “Israel cannot be excused and allowed to walk away from the table with not even a rhetorical demand [my emphasis] that it needs to atone for what it did.” Attention must be paid.

But attention, of course, is now being paid. An overwhelming majority of world opinion outside the United States sees the Palestinian tragedy today much as the Palestinians themselves see it. They are the natives of Israel, an indigenous community excluded from nationhood in its own homeland: dispossessed and expelled, illegally expropriated, confined to “bantustans,” denied many fundamental rights and exposed on a daily basis to injustice and violence. Today there is no longer the slightest pretense by well-informed Israelis that the Arabs left in 1948 of their own free will or at the behest of foreign despots, as we were once taught. Benny Morris, one of the leading Israeli scholars on the subject, recently reminded readers of the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz that Israeli soldiers did not merely expel Palestinians in 1948-49, in an early, incomplete attempt at ethnic cleansing; they committed war crimes along the way, including the rape and murder of women and children.

Of course, Morris notoriously sees nothing wrong in this record–he treats it as the collateral damage that accompanies state-building. (“I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes,” he told Ha’aretz. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”) But this brings us to the third ground for thinking Said may be right about the chances for a single state. Just as the Palestinian cause has begun to find favor in public opinion, and is gaining the moral upper hand, so Israel’s international standing has precipitately collapsed. For many years the insuperable problem for Palestinians was that they were being expelled, colonized, occupied and generally mistreated not by French colons or Dutch Afrikaners but, in Said’s words, by the Jewish citizens of Israel, “remnants of the Nazi Holocaust with a tragic history of genocide and persecution.”

The victim of victims is in an impossible situation–not made any better, as Said pointed out, by the Arab propensity to squeeze out from under the shadow of the Holocaust by minimizing or even denying it. But when it comes to mistreating others, even victims don’t get a free pass forever. The charge that Poles often persecuted Jews before, during and after World War II can no longer be satisfactorily deflected by invoking Hitler’s 3 million Polish victims. Mutatis mutandis, the same now applies to Israel. Until the military victory of 1967, and even for some years afterward, the dominant international image of Israel was the one presented by its left Zionist founders and their many admirers in Europe and elsewhere: a courageous little country surrounded by enemies, where the desert had been made to bloom and the indigenous population airbrushed from the picture.

Following the invasion of Lebanon, and with gathering intensity since the first intifada of the late 1980s, the public impression of Israel has steadily darkened. Today it presents a ghastly image: a place where sneering 18-year-olds with M-16s taunt helpless old men (“security measures”); where bulldozers regularly flatten whole apartment blocks (“rooting out terrorists”); where helicopters fire rockets into residential streets (“targeted killings”); where subsidized settlers frolic in grass-fringed swimming pools, oblivious of Arab children a few meters away who fester and rot in the worst slums on the planet; and where retired generals and Cabinet ministers speak openly of bottling up the Palestinians “like drugged roaches in a bottle” (former Israeli Chief of Staff Rafael Eytan) and cleansing the land of its Arab cancer (former Housing Minister Effi Eitam).

Israel is utterly dependent on the United States for money, arms and diplomatic support. One or two states share common enemies with Israel; a handful of countries buy its weapons; a few others are its de facto accomplices in ignoring international treaties and secretly manufacturing nuclear weapons. But outside Washington, Israel has no friends–at the United Nations it cannot even count on the support of America’s staunchest allies. Despite the political and diplomatic incompetence of the PLO (well documented in Said’s writings); despite the manifest shortcomings of the Arab world at large (“lingering outside the main march of humanity”); despite Israel’s own sophisticated efforts to publicize its case, the Jewish state today is widely regarded as a–the–leading threat to world peace. After thirty-seven years of military occupation, Israel has gained nothing in security. It has lost everything in domestic civility and international respectability, and it has forfeited the moral high ground forever.

The newfound acknowledgment of the Palestinians’ claims and the steady discrediting of the Zionist project (not least among many profoundly troubled Israelis) might seem to make it harder rather than easier to envisage Jews and Arabs living harmoniously in a single state. And just as a minority of Palestinians may always resent their Jewish neighbors, there is a risk that some Israelis will never, as it were, forgive the Palestinians for what the Israelis have done to them. But as Said understood, the Palestinians’ aggrieved sense of neglect and the Israelis’ insistence on the moral rectitude of their case were twin impediments to a resolution of their common dilemma. Neither side could “see” the other. As Orwell observed in his “Notes on Nationalism,” “If one harbours anywhere in one’s mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible.”

Today, in spite of everything, there is actually a better appreciation by some people on both sides of where–quite literally–the other is coming from. This, I think, arises from a growing awareness that Jews and Arabs occupy the same space and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Their fates are hopelessly entangled. Fence or no fence, the territory now ruled by Israel can only be “cleansed” of its Arab (or its Jewish) residents by an act of force that the international community could not countenance. As Said notes, “historic Palestine” is now a lost cause–but so, for the same reasons, is “historic Israel.” Somehow or other, a single institutional entity capable of accommodating and respecting both communities will have to emerge, though when and in what form is still obscure.

The real impediment to new thinking in the Middle East, in Edward Said’s view, was not Arafat, or Sharon, or even the suicide bombers or the ultras of the settlements. It was the United States. The one place where official Israeli propaganda has succeeded beyond measure, and where Palestinian propaganda has utterly failed, is in America. As Said observed in a May 2002 column for Al-Ahram, American Jews (rather like Arab politicians) live in “extraordinary self-isolation in fantasy and myth.” Many Israelis are terribly aware of what occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has done to their own society (if somewhat less sensitive to its effect on others). In the words of Haim Guri, an Israeli poet who served in the 1948 war, “Rule over another nation corrupts and distorts Israel’s qualities, tears the nation apart, and shatters society.” But most Americans, including virtually every American politician, have no sense of any of this.

That is why Said insists in these essays upon the need for Palestinians to bring their case to the American public rather than just, as he puts it, imploring the American President to “give” them a state. American public opinion matters, and Said despaired of the uninformed anti-Americanism of Arab intellectuals and students: “It is not acceptable to sit in Beirut or Cairo meeting halls and denounce American imperialism (or Zionist colonialism for that matter) without a whit of understanding that these are complex societies not always truly represented by their governments’ stupid or cruel policies.” But as an American he was frustrated above all at his own country’s political myopia: Only America can break the murderous deadlock in the Middle East, but “what the U.S. refuses to see clearly it can hardly hope to remedy.”

Whether the United States will awaken to its responsibilities and opportunities remains unclear. It will certainly not do so unless we engage a debate about Israel and the Palestinians that many people would prefer to avoid, even at the cost of isolating America–with Israel–from the rest of the world. In order to be effective, this debate has to happen in America itself, and it must be conducted by Americans. That is why Edward Said was so singularly important. Over three decades, virtually single-handedly, he wedged open a conversation in America about Israel, Palestine and the Palestinians. In so doing he performed an inestimable public service at considerable personal risk. His death opens a yawning void in American public life. He is irreplaceable.

Edward Said lectures on Palestine and Human Rights in 2003

Full, one and half hour lecture by Said, Memory, Inequality and Power:Palestine and the Universality of Human Rights at Berkeley University in February 2003, six months before his death.

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