Since the start of the second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000 there has been a resurgence of interest in a one-state bi-national model for solving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The idea is achieving increasing popularity among people on the liberal left who had previously supported a two-state solution, and it has found new endorsement among both Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Tony Judt’s advocacy of bi-nationalism in “Israel: The Alternative” (New York Review of Books, October 23, 2003) generated intense controversy in Jewish and Israeli circles. Several weeks prior to the appearance of Judt’s piece, Ahmad Khalidi, a Palestinian scholar at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and a long time proponent of two states, published “A One-State Solution” (The Guardian, September 29, 2003) in which he anticipated many of Judt’s arguments. It is odd that Khalidi and Judt have chosen a point in this long and brutal conflict when the violence and mutual bitterness are particularly intense to promote a framework that requires the two sides to share sovereignty. Given that many bi- and multinational states have failed to accommodate distinct national groups under far more auspicious circumstances (as illustrated in the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and the bloody collapse of the Yugoslav federation), it is important to examine carefully the current arguments for a bi-national framework. It is also worth considering why they are being pressed so vigorously at this time.
Supporters of the new bi-nationalism invoke two main arguments to motivate their case. First, they claim that it provides a democratic alternative to a sectarian Jewish state organized along lines of ethnic privilege. By granting equal rights to Israelis and Palestinians it becomes the state of all its residents rather than an instrument for preserving the dominance of one group at the expense of the other.
Second, bi-nationalists argue that thirty-seven years of Israeli occupation and settlement in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem have irrevocably changed the infrastructure and demography of these territories in such a way as to render a partition effectively impossible. Uprooting the settlements is politically no longer feasible. The two populations have been mixed to the point that they can no longer be pulled apart. The only viable alternative to the continued occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians is, therefore, a single egalitarian state that accords the same rights to Jews and Arabs alike. This view was first presented in the mid-1980s by Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, who conducted extensive research on the effect of the Israeli occupation on the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Before I take up these arguments let me set the current discussion in the context of the generally forgotten history of the bi-national idea for Israel/Palestine.
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