13 April 2007

12 April 2007 - On a bi-national state (2001)

When September 11th turned the world upside-down, I happened to be living with a Muslim family in a crowded industrial enclave in Cape Town called Salt River. I had moved in several months after the new Palestinian intifada began, partly because my other lease ended but also because I wanted to learn more about Islam and to try, in a personal way, to bridge the chasm that had opened up in the world.

It was a fascinating, challenging and wonderful experience. By December 2001—after covering the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, dealing with South African schadenfreude about 9/11, taking on Ronnie Kasrils, starting Arabic lessons with an imam in another heavily Muslim neighborhood, and making it through my first-ever Ramadan fast, I was exhausted. But I had learned a great deal.

I penned the following essay as a reflection on the idea of a bi-national state. The piece was once carried by a pro-Palestinian site (with permission) but was never published My ideas have changed since then: I no longer see a two-state solution as simply “an interim stage on the way to some kind of confederation,” nor do I feel that “one can't help but mourn the disappearance of the bi-national ideal.”

But I do think some of the things I wrote then, especially about the importance of cooperation, have merit. The real joy was discovering the pamphlet by Magnes and Buber in the old Beinkinstadt bookstore at the lowest corner of what used to be District Six. Nothing is new under the sun as Ecclesiastes wrote. But it is fun to re-visit old ideas. If nothing else, they tell us more about the ideas we hold today.

"On a binational state"

Joel Pollak (December 2001)

Yesterday, while browsing in the Beinkinstadt Jewish bookstore in what used to be Cape Town's District Six, I discovered an old hardcover pamphlet, yellowed but still readable after decades on the shelves, entitled "Arab-Jewish Unity."

The pamphlet was written by Judah Magnes, former President of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and by Martin Buber, the renowned Jewish theologian. Published in 1947, it is a transcript of their testimony before the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry, which in 1946 investigated Jewish and Arab claims in Palestine and made recommendations for the future of the territory, then under British rule.

In their submission to the Commission, Magnes and Buber, both of whom identified themselves as Zionists, argued that since both Jews and Arabs had a claim to Palestine, it could neither be an Arab state nor a Jewish one. They also rejected the partition option, saying that it was impractical and a "moral defeat for everyone concerned." Instead, they recommended that a bi-national state be formed, in which Jews and Arabs would share power in a single land.

Their suggestion was that Jews agree to limit immigration to the point of parity with the Arab population, and that Arabs agree, in turn, to a power-sharing arrangement with Jews. Jews and Arabs would have equal representation in a democratically-elected legislature, and the head of state would be appointed by the United Nations Organisation. Each community would have autonomy in cultural affairs. The entire entity would be overseen by a regional trusteeship to be organized by the United Nations and chaired by Britain, and composed of representatives of the Arab League and the Jewish Agency.

The Commission was impressed with Magnes and Buber's deeply idealistic testimony, and its final report, issued in mid-1946, reflected some of their suggestions. "Palestine," according to the report, "must be established as a country in which the legitimate national aspirations of both Jews and Arabs can be reconciled, without either side fearing the ascendancy of the other. In our view this cannot be done under any form of constitution in which a mere numerical majority is decisive, since it is precisely the struggle for a numerical majority which bedevils Arab-Jewish relations."

But there was little support in Palestine itself for the bi-national idea. It was flatly rejected by Arab leaders, and on the Jewish side only the most left-wing groups supported it. In addition, the events of the preceding twenty years—particularly the Arab riots of the 1930s—had radicalized opinion and encouraged militancy on both sides. The net effect of British rule, during which unrealistic promises had been made to both camps, had been to set the two communities against each other rather than to prepare them for joint government.

The escalating Jewish-Arab antagonism was discouraging to proponents of the bi-national idea: "You can't introduce a bi-national State all at once," Magnes was forced to admit in his testimony. And the Commission didn't try to: it proposed that "until this hostility disappears, the Government of Palestine be continued as at present under mandate pending the execution of a trusteeship agreement under the United Nations."

But the Mandate was becoming more and more unstable. As early as the Arab riots, a British commission had recommended terminating the Mandate and dividing the land. After the Second World War, the Mandate government was the target of organized sabotage and terror campaigns by Jewish right-wing groups. When the question of Palestine was referred to the United Nations, that body turned to the only remaining alternative under the circumstances: partition.

The idea of a bi-national state remains marginal today. Fifty years of Arab-Israeli conflict, and the intense Israeli-Palestinian clashes of the last few decades, have done little to build the foundation of trust that bi-nationalism would require. There is also the demoralizing example of Lebanon, which was set up as a bi-national state between Muslim and Christian groups but collapsed into civil war and anarchy under the demographic and political strain.

A handful of Israeli leftists and academics had revived the idea of Jewish-Arab bi-nationalism in recent years, but since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, such ideas have been all but forgotten. Instead, various versions of partition have come to form the loose core of a weak and troubled consensus in the diplomatic community.

Despite its obvious and insurmountable flaws, one can't help but mourn the disappearance of the bi-national ideal. Magnes and Buber may have been naive in their hopes for a bi-national state, but they were correct in their basic assumptions that "Jewish-Arab co-operation is essential for a satisfactory solution of the difficult problem" and that "Jewish-Arab co-operation is not only essential, but also possible."

For the myth that finally ended the Oslo peace process was that there could be a "permanent solution" to the conflict. Few people were prepared to face the fact that when the "peace process" was over, the "process of peace" would begin, and that the two independent states would have to cooperate on virtually every major issue of importance—from security to trade, from religion to environmental protection.

Any partition will be, at best, an interim stage on the way to some kind of confederation. And while the immediate concern at the moment must be to end the violence and terrorism, there must also be a diplomatic paradigm shift away from the dystopia of separation and towards the utopia of cooperation. The focus of international intervention should not merely be to assist separations between Israelis and Palestinians, but to discover ways for them to come together in mutually beneficial ways—and not just on security issues.

Perhaps it is utterly idealistic to speak of cooperation when Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon glare hatefully at each other across the carnage, riding their respective governments to collapse. But on the other hand, perhaps it is the only way forward. Fifty-five years ago, Magnes and Buber suggested that "Jewish-Arab cooperation should be the objective of major policy." Maybe it's time the world took that advice.


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