The One State Delusion and the Confederated State Dream

There are significant “progressive” voices both in the Jewish camp and in the Palestinian camp now pushing for a one-state solution. Much of the push admittedly comes from the failure of all efforts to bring about a two-state solution. This is also true of Jews in the diaspora and a majority of Jewish Israelis who will not cross over and opt for one state. A small part of the reason is that the dominant faction supporting a single state among Israelis consists of right-wing greater Israel advocates who want a Jewish controlled polity over all of post-1922 Mandate Palestine.

The irony, of course, is that left-wing progressives in the Palestinian camp have the same vision, but in an inverted dress. It will be a Palestinian state amongst which individual Jews will live with full protection for their individual human rights. They will have no collective rights. Jewish nationalism or Zionism will be attacked as a colonial enterprise from the beginning, deliberately developed to assault Palestinian self-determination or indigenous nationalism.

Yet there is and always has been a Jewish voice upholding the vision of a unitary state in all of Palestine, but neither a Jewish nor an Arab Palestinian one. Rather, it will be a bi-national state or a confederation of two peoples. The Foundation for Middle East Peace convened a webinar of those it called, “Jewish Israeli Thought Leaders,” two of whom were open advocates of a confederation, a third focused simply on the repatriation of Palestinian refugees and a fourth, an active member of the Arab List who argued for Mizrachim identification with their Middle Eastern, mostly Arabic, roots.

The very positions they take indicate that they are indeed Jewish and Israeli thinkers but not leaders given the paucity of their followers in the Jewish-Israeli community. For example, Orly Noy, the last of the four listed above, is a member of B’Tselem’s executive board, translates Farsi poetry and prose and, most significantly, is an activist on the Balad Party, the Palestinian Israeli party that promotes Israel as a state for all its citizen. However, she advanced a very marginal position. She put forth a thesis about restructuring Mizrachi identity in Israel in favour of restoring their Arab identity. Yet she admitted that only 1% of Mizrachim support her position. She is a public intellectual but a lone voice as editor of Local Call.

Balad promotes a two-state solution, though she supports a one-state solution, but definitely not the one-state solution preferred by the Israeli right. That version, she claims, is intended to protect the colonial privileges of the Ashkenazim. “Since 1967, billions of dollars have been spent to impose this ‘two-state solution’ on the Palestinian people – which, it is important to point out, is only a solution to the Zionist failure to successfully colonise the whole country.”

Her basic narrative is that the Ashkenazim imported Mizrachi (the 850,000 were evidently not forced to flee Arab countries and even Iran), but looked down upon them. Likud, in contrast to the Labour Party, embraced the narrative of Mizrachi as “savages.” This offered the Mizrachi the opportunity to rise to the middle class in the settlements, which correlated with a condescension and distancing from the Palestinians below them. Thus, they were provided with ideological, economic and psychological supports for joining the colonial enterprise.

Don’t Mizrachi have equal rights with Israelis of Ashkenazi background? What about the Mizrachi who are prominent in government, the media, academia, culture, business, sports, religion and the military? Three Israeli presidents – Yitzhak Navon, Moshe Katsav and current president Reuven Rivlin are Mizrachi Jews. Many Mizrachi have served as Chiefs of Staff of the ID, supposedly confounding her claim that the Ashkenazim send the Mizrachi officers to do the dirty work in the West Bank. Orly admits all of this, but really offers a narrative of cooption in what is, for her, fundamentally a colonial enterprise.

Rachel Beitarie, Executive Director of Zochrot (“remembering” in Hebrew), has been a feminist and human rights advocate but her recent work has been focused on Palestinian refugees, their right of return and right to restitution. Zochrot has run a series of international conferences on the return of Palestinian refugees in 2008, 2013 and 2016. The conferences were not about whether Palestinians had a right to return. That was accepted as a given. The meetings were about promoting return and envisioning rehabilitation as part of a movement to promote Palestinians and Jews living side-by-side in a democratic an egalitarian society. As a first step, Jewish Israelis have to acknowledge the Nakba, recognize their responsibility and willingness to be held accountable for what happened.

Rachel claimed success in that Nakba is now part of Israeli political discourse but admits that broad acknowledgement of responsibility is still lacking. Why? Because Israel is a colonial state which still adheres to colonial concepts and practices. Peace requires decolonization as a prerequisite. She envisions an equal and joint Palestinian-Jewish society.

However, successive Israeli governments have denied any responsibility for the Palestinian refugees while Palestinians interpret the UN resolutions as conferring on those refugees a “right of return.” Israeli rejection of responsibility is based on its own interpretation of those UN resolutions, demographic, security philosophical and ideological concerns, the latter including the belief that Israel is a nation state for Jews and that the return of the refugees will distort that Jewish identity.

A workshop on “Israeli Perspectives on the Refugee Issue” held in Cyprus on 5-6 March 2014 confirmed an overwhelming consensus in Israel rejecting any right of return to Israel, a view that hardened further after the second intifada between 2000 and 2005, though, since the publication of Benny Morris’ studies, Israelis have increasingly acknowledged some degree of responsibility for the refugees while continuing the claim that the major parties responsible are the Arab countries that invaded the nascent state. In any case, the 720,000 refugees who fled were offset by the 850,000 Mizrachi Jews forced out of their homes in the Middle East.  A minority argued for very limited family reunification on humanitarian grounds.

While Orly was admittedly a lone voice in the wilderness for her views and Rachel expressed the views of only a tiny minority of Israeli Jews, support for a confederation was wider and deeper but still only included a smally minority of Israeli Jews. Meron Papoport of “A Land for All” and Dr. Dahila Scheindlin, who argued for a confederal solution, did not seem to base their opinions on a narrative of past colonizing but more on the practicality of confederation for the future given the inadequacies of either a one-state or a traditional two-state solution.

Meron Rapoport, an Israeli journalist, initiated a dialogue with Palestinian activist, and journalist Awni Al-Mashni. Together they initiated a movement to promote a confederation of two states, a Palestinian and an Israeli one which would be based on democratic principles applicable to all as well as freedom of movement in all of what was mandatory Palestine. What is proposed is not a binational state, but two nation states coming together in a confederation. In that way, both nations would have a homeland and could share a capital in Jerusalem while together ensuring security for both groups.

In a confederation, the member states remain sovereign while cooperating on security and economic development, both very difficult issues given past history and the huge discrepancy in GDP between Israel and Palestine. Though there are various degrees of cross relationships  and the distribution of powers, the polity is neither an international alliance, on the one hand, nor a federal system on the other hand with the main citizenship granted by the federal state. In a confederation, the equivalent of the federal authority remains weak. Its decisions generally require confirmation by each of the sovereign states that belong to the confederacy.

Nevertheless, as attractive as its proffered solution is in the abstract and in the face of the dead end that the two-state solution has encountered, (the number of Jews supporting a two-state solution dropped to a low of 43% in July of 2018), a confederal proposal has attracted supporters only in the thousands and not even the tens of thousands.  In contrast to Rachel’s position, Palestinian refugees would only have a right of return to a Palestinian state. Settlers would have residency rights but not citizenship in the Palestinian state, while Palestinian Israelis would continue to keep their Israeli citizenship. The plan is more in keeping with facts on the ground and has a joint vision in contrast to the one-state solution which has three radically different interpretations.

As Dr. Dahlia Scheindin argued, two peoples would both preserve their national identity and have a state of their own. Neither Meron nor Dahlia dealt with the historic difficulties investigations, such as the Peel Commission in 1937, encountered that turned the investigators against a confederation model. That idea was in central contention in the proceedings of the United Nations Special Committee of Palestine (UNSCOP) in 1947 but UNSCOP ended up with a clear majority recommending partition. Though Meron mentioned Belgium as a positive precedent, he ignored the reality that Belgium was without a government for almost two years because of disputes between the two ethnic groups. Further, they never had a history of warring against each other for almost a hundred years. Finally, Belgium had the advantage of being a bi-national state rather than a confederation.

Neither Meron nor Dahlia speculated on whether the confederal model would be expected to evolve into a federal system within a single state as happened with Switzerland, the United States and Germany. Though the proposal took greater account of facts on the ground, it seemed not to be well thought out in terms of historical precedents and discussions, current models in operation and a realistic appraisal of future challenges and prospects.

Clearly, there are a number of voices promoting recognition for the other, equality and security for all in various iterations of a polity, but they seem to be based in most instances on abstract ethical principles rather than in the concrete experiences in history and contemporary politics. In any case, only Orly’s vision of a unitary state, at odds with her own Palestinian Israeli party, overlapped with the promoters of a Palestinian unitary state by Palestinian intellectuals on the webinar of the Middle East Policy Forum the previous week.

I would suggest a grounding in reality. The concrete experience of civil war resulting from conflicting identities and interests that results in refugees followed by repatriation and reconciliation might help. An examination of the case of Rwanda might have some lessons for the Israel-Palestine conflict much more than examples such as Northern Ireland.

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