Are we beginning to have an open debate about the one-state agenda?

The latest article on the Electronic Intifada by Ali Abunimah is an unacknowledged response to arguments I have been pressing, first in my book, What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda?, and most recently in my interview with the Atlantic website. In both places, and on many other recent occasions, I have made the point that one-state advocates have been ignoring the fact that a virtual unanimity of Jewish Israelis is totally opposed to any notion of a single state (even though it’s perfectly true they are enforcing a de facto one at present), and that one-state advocacy as it has existed to date among pro-Palestinian activists has made no serious effort to appeal to Jewish Israeli interests, concerns or perspectives. The obvious corollary is that until it does so, it really doesn’t have much chance of becoming a viable political agenda, since in the end any such arrangement is clearly going to have to be voluntary.

The issue was pressed when, on twitter, Ali accused me of saying in the Atlantic interview, in effect, "the one-state solution is bad because Israeli Jews don’t want it." I responded on Prof. Juan Cole’s blog, Informed Comment, that
this is to misread not only my analysis but the fundamental political reality, which is extremely simple: a one-state solution will be impossible as long as an overwhelming or even a solid majority of Jewish Israelis don’t want it. The added irony is that most one-state advocates have not only done nothing to try to create a message that can appeal to mainstream Israelis, they have crafted one that encourages the greatest possible fear and suspicion.

There is no doubt that this latest offering from EI is an interesting effort to take the argument a step further, and calls for a serious and thoughtful counter-response, which I offer here. This can and should be the beginning of a much more direct, serious and responsible debate on the subject, and I hope it is. I have no trouble explaining my point of view in the context of the ongoing conversation in a frank and direct manner, and I think everybody’s readers deserve the same respect.

Abunimah makes a manful effort to respond to this aspect of my multifaceted critique, without acknowledging it, but falls well short of the mark because he misses, or rather elides, too many crucial points. In my view, if he and his one-state colleagues were serious about their agenda, they would be spending their time trying to craft a rhetorical framework capable of appealing to what in the end is going to have to be their main target audience rather than writing articles that in effect argue this isn’t necessary. But that would mean essentially moving past what amounts to a very strident version of the Palestinian narrative, and taking the perspectives, interests and concerns of Jewish Israelis seriously. I just don’t think the present crop of one-state advocates on the Arab side appear remotely interested in anything of the kind. This latest article, which is called "Israeli Jews and the one-state solution," but which does not in fact spend any time or energy considering Jewish Israeli interests, perspectives or concerns and treats the entire problem as an analogy and an abstraction, only reinforces this suspicion.

Ali’s article mainly is devoted to a largely accurate recitation of the history of white resistance to ending apartheid in South Africa. Fine. It’s most instructive, but about South Africa. What he doesn’t acknowledge, however, is a crucial distinction between the two circumstances: the primary pressure faced by white South Africans was an overwhelming demographic imbalance favoring black and other South Africans. As I point out in my book, in the end this imbalance meant that the best deal white South Africans could possibly get was to secure existing rights, privileges and property that were not based on continuing legal systems of racial discrimination in exchange for in effect surrendering power to a black majority.

No such equation presents itself between Israel and the Palestinians. In this case, the occupation presents an unmanageable problem for Israelis, but with a fundamental difference: we are talking here about relative demographic pluralities rather than overwhelming majorities. Moreover, this fundamental calculus of preserving the maximum of what had been acquired during colonial process, which militated heavily in favor of ending apartheid among white South Africans, militates heavily in favor of ending the occupation for Israelis, but also heavily against any form of unified statehood with the Palestinians.

One-state rhetoric often presupposes that there is a perfect parallel between the Israeli occupation and South African apartheid models, but it seems to me that this huge distinction in terms of demographic pressure, among other things, means that not only is the problem fundamentally different, the solution is extremely unlikely to be similar. Israelis who reject ending the occupation seem to feel that they can maintain their abusive, discriminatory policies in the occupied territories for the foreseeable future and do not face a grave enough threat from the Palestinians to mandate choosing Israel over the occupation. There is no question they are laboring under a severe delusion. Ali and I agree on one thing: the occupation makes a mockery of Israel’s self-definition as a "Jewish and democratic" state and is fundamentally unmanageable. However the facts that Israel cannot be meaningfully either "Jewish" or "democratic" as long as the occupation is in place, and that Palestinians will not accept the occupation in peace and quiet, do not translate into reasons to believe that a drive for a single, equitable post-national state shared by both peoples in relatively equal numbers can or would succeed. Not, at least, without a frightful conflagration.

Simply affirming, as Ali does, that whatever concerns Jewish Israelis might have, even though "change is scary" nonetheless "change will come," bears a lot more similarity to an article of religious faith than to the conclusion of an analysis based on the facts pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic as it exists at this moment (as opposed to some alternative fantasy version, of course). That change will come, there can be no doubt. That it will be the change I want, or that Ali wants is very much open to doubt indeed. He avers that, "there are few reasons to believe that it [establishing a single state in place of Israel] cannot be a well-managed process." On this point, we part company fairly dramatically.

One of the main reasons for doubting all of this is another of the more significant factors missing from Ali’s analysis: the fact that both sides are heavily armed and increasingly driven by religious extremists. I would argue that there are few reasons to doubt that Jewish Israelis would resist this agenda virtually unanimously and, if necessary, violently. Ali’s article does not mention at all the presence among Palestinians of large, heavily armed and well-organized Islamist groups led by Hamas that in reality are the primary alternative to the nationalists in the PLO who have sought a negotiated two-state agreement with Israel. One-state rhetoric tends to ignore or dismiss the Islamist factor in Palestinian political life, but it seems almost inevitable that as the fortunes of the nationalist project dwindle, momentum shifts primarily not to an international, grassroots boycott, divestment and sanctions agenda but rather to an agenda of armed resistance on the ground led by the Palestinian religious right (facing an Israel increasingly dominated by its own religious right).

The ANC continuously appealed to the white South African narrative — linking the anti-apartheid struggle with Boer resistance to British rule — and white South African interests as well. However, one should note that resistance by the ANC, not to mention more extreme South African organizations, was by no means limited to, or even primarily defined by, BDS tactics and in fact relied heavily on various forms of armed struggle, including urban terrorism, and other, shall we say, more direct forms of violent resistance (the ANC paramilitary force, Umkhonto we Sizwe or "spear of the nation," was, of course, co-led by Joe Slovo, a white, Jewish, Communist ANC leader). The logic of violence held sway until an alternative logic, which held very real, direct and undeniable benefits for both peoples was fully fleshed out and became irresistible, based on self-interest. Developing such an equation of self-interest in a single state between two peoples of relatively equal numbers is an infinitely more difficult proposition than developing an equation between a privileged but small minority seeking to retain its property and, insofar as possible, status and a large majority willing to forgo any revanchist tendencies in order to secure legal equality and political power. The logic of self-interest in a single state between Israel and the Palestinians has yet to be clarified at all, and seems very difficult to explain, which may be why no one has ever attempted to do so.

Ali and I agree that the present condition is untenable, but the distinction is, at its heart, about what we think the future is likely to hold without a negotiated agreement to end the occupation. Ali seems to think that it will almost inevitably give way to a single, democratic state that will be voluntarily accepted by Jewish Israelis. If I thought this for one second, I would be all for it. However, I am sad to say that I think the most likely scenario involves a huge amount of violence, which I think is almost inevitable given the violence of the occupation and the commitment to armed struggle by those Palestinian organizations who are the primary rivals to those seeking a negotiated agreement.

Moreover, I find it almost unimaginable that a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions, even if it were to be effectively organized throughout the West (which I very much doubt), against Israel would bring it to its knees. I can see no other way of arriving at a one-state outcome than decades, and possibly longer, of brutal armed struggle that is increasingly fanatical and increasingly religious. Even though everything is in place for precisely such a scenario on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, Ali and most other one-state advocates don’t seem to take it very seriously, or perhaps, prefer not to think about it. I would very strongly argue that none of us can afford not to think about what is actually likely to occur if there is to be no negotiated end to the occupation and no Palestinian state. I have met people who argue that they don’t care what kind of bloodbath would follow, or what kind of atrocious process of mutual massacre, exhaustion and possibly decimation would be required in order to compel both peoples to abandon their national agendas. I don’t know if it’s more disturbing to see people unaware, or pretending to be unaware, of the consequences they welcome than openly embracing them

The equation one-state rhetoric such as the new EI article presents is a choice between pointless, debasing negotiations that lead nowhere versus an enlightened, inspiring and uplifting campaign of international grassroots activism. Unfortunately, the equation on the ground points in a very different direction, and I think any analysis that pretends otherwise is providing false comfort, because it inhabits a fantasy world rather than the stark, cruel realities that actually exist.