By Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian-American, and the author of
"One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the
The Chicago Tribune
November 12, 2006
As I watched the images last week of destruction from the
Gaza Strip, where an Israeli shelling attack had killed an
entire family, as a Palestinian I could understand the
feelings of one survivor who said, "I cannot see a day
when we will live in peace with them." But I also know
there is no other choice.
When Israel was established, its founders said it would be
an exemplary, moral state. For many Jews, it seemed like a
miraculous redemption after so much suffering and loss in
the Nazi Holocaust.
Palestinians experienced a different reality. Israel
became a "Jewish state" in a country that had always been
multicultural and multireligious. The expulsion and
exclusion of Palestinians from their own homeland has led
Israelis and Palestinians into an endless nightmare of
mutual non-recognition and bloodshed.
For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that this
conflict can only be resolved by partitioning the country
into two states. Yet despite enormous political and
diplomatic efforts to achieve this, the two peoples remain
thoroughly if unhappily intertwined. Israel's project of
establishing settler-colonies inside the territories where
Palestinians wanted to create a state has rendered
At the same time, Israel finds itself in a conundrum. For
the first time since the state was founded, Israeli Jews
no longer form an absolute majority in the territory they
control. Today there are roughly 5 million Jews and 5
million Palestinians living in the same land. The trends
are incontestable. Within a few years, Palestinians will
form the clear majority.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recognized in 2003 what
this would mean: "We are approaching the point where more
and more Palestinians will say, `There is no place for two
states,'" in this country, and "`All we want is the right
to vote.' The day they get it, we will lose everything."
Warning that Israel could not remain both a Jewish state
and a democracy if it held on to all of the occupied
Palestinian territories, Olmert added, "I shudder to think
that liberal Jewish organizations that shouldered the
burden of struggle against apartheid, will lead the
struggle against us."
Some Israeli extremists, like the new Deputy Prime
Minister Avigdor Lieberman, believe this "demographic
problem" can be solved by expelling non-Jews. Israel's
chosen solution, which it calls "unilateral separation,"
walls Palestinians into impoverished ghettos Palestinians
compare to the townships and Bantustans set up for blacks
by the apartheid government of South Africa. The result of
this approach, as we see in Gaza, is more hopelessness,
resistance and defiance, and sure disaster for both
The two-state solution remains attractive and comforting
in its apparent simplicity and finality. But in reality,
it has proved unattainable because neither Palestinians
nor Israelis are willing to give up enough of the country
that they love. Faced with this impasse, a small but
growing group of Israelis and Palestinians are tentatively
exploring an old idea long dormant: Why not have a single
state in which both peoples enjoy equal rights and
protections and religious freedom? Many people dismiss
this as utopian dreaming.
Allister Sparks, the legendary editor of the
anti-apartheid Rand Daily Mail newspaper, observed that
the conflict in South Africa most resembled those in
Northern Ireland and Palestine-Israel, because each
involved "two ethno-nationalisms" in a seemingly
irreconcilable rivalry for the "same piece of territory."
If the prospect of "one secular country shared by all"
seems "unthinkable" in Palestine-Israel today, then it is
possible to appreciate how unlikely such a solution once
seemed in South Africa. But "that is what we did," Sparks
says, "without any foreign negotiator [and] no handshakes
on the White House lawn."
To be sure, Palestinians and Israelis would not simply be
able to take the new South Africa as a blueprint. They
would have to work out their own distinct constitution,
including mechanisms for ethnic communities to have
autonomy in matters that concern them, and to guarantee
that no one group can dominate another. There would be
hard work to heal the terrible wounds of the past. Such a
solution offers the chance that Palestine-Israel could
become for the first time ever the truly safe home where
Israelis and Palestinians can accept each other. It may be
an arduous path, but in the current impasse we cannot
afford to ignore any ray of light.
Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune