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A state of conscience

By Khaled Diab and Katleen Maes


Eight Israeli and Palestinian men and women will soon embark on an ‘extreme peace mission’ code named ‘icebreaker’ that will take them to Antarctica. By sailing across oceans and scaling an unclimbed mountain they hope to send a resounding message that the growing chasm between the two peoples is bridgeable.


November 2003


But when these brave souls return to their divided – physically, by a brand new wall and psychologically, by hatred –  homeland to consider just how to bridge this gulf, they might be excused for reaching the conclusion that their 14,500km journey was the easy leg on the long road to peace.


This voyage into the perilous unknown provides a poignant, scaled-down symbol of how Israelis and Palestinians can work together towards a common goal. Why not then take the model these dedicated adventurers are providing and acknowledge that living on the same land necessarily involves sharing a common future?


This means Palestinians should give up their claim to – and struggle for – an independent state and the remaining 22% of historic Palestine that has been earmarked for ‘self-rule’ should be merged with Israel. Radical as it may sound, this solution may finally offer a viable way out of the endless deadlock.


This will lead to a fundamental rethink of the foundations of a conflict that has dragged on for too many decades, spilt too much blood and created excessive fear and loathing. Recasting the relationship between the two peoples is the only way to construct lasting peace and stability on this troubled land.


Although there is bound to be resistance – some of it violent – to such a bold drive for peace on both sides, it will help demystify and humanise the ‘other’. By creating the opportunity to move around freely and mingle, Israelis and Palestinians will begin to see each other – as was beginning to happen in the optimistic early days of the peace process – more and more as individuals and not some abstract evil force.


Under such a deal, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – like their counterparts living within Israel – would be issued with Israeli nationality. In addition, Israeli law would be adjusted to accord them the same rights (voting, land ownership, and so on) as their Jewish brethren. Moreover, just as all Jews in the world have a theoretical ‘right of return’, all Palestinians should be granted a similar right.


Surprising as it may sound in the current climate, but this one-state solution is gaining ground among Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals. Its most prominent and vocal proponent was the late Palestinian-American thinker Edward Said. “Separation can't work in so tiny a land,” he noted shortly before his tragic death in September from leukaemia. “Two people in one land. Or, equality for all. Or, one person one vote. Or, a common humanity asserted in a binational state,” was his dream for the homeland he was forced to flee as a child.


Other progressive Palestinian and Israeli thinkers have come to the same conclusion as Said. Set up earlier this year by Sami Aldeeb, a Palestinian-Swiss lawyer at the Swiss Institute of Comparative Law, the Association for One Democratic State in Israel/Palestine already has over 200 members drawn mainly from academia in the Middle East, Europe and North America.


No man’s land

Many on both sides of the conflict – and perhaps even those sitting on the fence – will immediately raise protests and say that this ‘completely unworkable’ idea amounts to a potentially bloody invitation to jump into bed with the enemy. Many Israelis will probably object to the erosion of their country’s ‘Jewish character’ and complaints of conquest by demography – being gradually diluted and watered down rather than driven into the sea – will ring out. To many Palestinians, it will be interpreted as a sell-out and complete surrender giving up the last piece of the land.


Such interpretations are unnecessarily sceptical and a symptom of the ideological malaise that penetrates right to the bone of the conflict. It is these conflicting ideological constructions that have to be stripped away and dismantled far more urgently than settlements in the Occupied Territories and so-called ‘infrastructures of terror’, if the two peoples are ever to live with anything more lasting than a temporary laying down of arms.


The ever-spiralling cycle of violence cannot be allowed to carry on for much longer, not just for the rising loss and grief but also because it has confused people’s moral compasses, robbed many of compassion for the suffering of the other. For peaceful Israelis and Jews who support the Palestinian cause, suicide bombers are a bitter pill to swallow. Likewise, for their Arab counterparts who wish for Israel to exist in peace and security, a heavy-handed occupation and a blockade that has grown to resemble a siege does not win hearts nor minds.


More than a decade of negotiations have achieved nothing – they have not given Palestinians a land to call their own, nor have they given Israelis the security they covet. In fact, the situation has worsened in many ways: this Intifada has killed far more Israelis and Palestinians than the previous one, and today there are more settlements and poverty in the Occupied Territories than ever before.


Yet the same tired formulas have been unimaginatively rehashed in umpteen Mitchell Reports, Tenet Plans and Road Maps, all to no avail. Instead of carrying out a post-mortem to see why this process died, the international community, led by the Americans, have been desperately trying to resurrect it. But, as the present-day state of the Middle East lays bare, the age of miracles has long since passed and it is only gritty pragmatism that will lift the clouds of the current crisis.


However, the two state solution is bound to fail. One key reason for this is that the land – small, densely populated and dotted with settlements – is impossible to carve up neatly into two consistent pieces, not without major reconfigurations of populations and physical infrastructures. In addition, the entire territory is riddled with symbols that are poignant to both peoples. A case in point is the Tomb of the Patriarch in Hebron, which is sacred to both Israelis and Palestinians. The proposed dimensions for a Palestinian homeland so lack territorial integrity that independence will only bring a temporary moral boost until people on both sides realise that the two states really exist only on paper.


Removing mountains

It is only creativity and a willingness to reinvent attitudes towards this bloody conflict that offer an enduring way out.  A single state will completely redefine the terms of engagement and overturn the passionately held articles of faith that have fuelled the conflict for the 55 years since the creation of Israel. One of Israel’s founding fathers, David Ben-Gurion, admitted as much when he said: “We and they [the Palestinians] want the same thing: we both want Palestine. And that is the fundamental conflict”.


By acknowledging that Israelis and Palestinians possess equal stakes in a common land, one removes the familiar – and uncompromising – terms of reference of who exactly holds historic title to the land, of occupation and resistance, of terrorism and retaliation, of Cane and Abel, of David and Goliath.


It will defuse what is, in many ways, a bloody tribal feud, but one with political, economic, social and moral ramifications that ripple far beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories. Instead of a bleak struggle for nationhood pitting rocks against one of the most powerful military machines in the world, the Palestinian struggle will be transformed into a civil rights movement for economic and social equality, similar to dozens around the world. Its weapons will exclusively be banners and marches, rather than the soul-destroying desperation of human bombs.


Israel will be rid of the moral and economic burden of an increasingly iron-fisted occupation that horrifies peace loving Israelis – and Jews around the world – whose only real reason for supporting it is fear of a faceless enemy. It will also win the long isolated country friends in the Middle East and beyond, reducing its dangerous dependence on the patronage and largesse of the United States. And, for the world’s sole superpower, it may win back some of the Arab ‘hearts and minds’ it lost on the back of its ‘shock and awe’ campaign in Iraq.


This solution overcomes the inertia that has marked the peace process by addressing the thorniest issues – borders, refugees, Jerusalem and settlements – in one fell swoop. Disputes over settlements and boundaries – for long bones of contention between negotiators poring over unbelievably complicated colour-coded maps – will become irrelevant. All that will be left will be questions over who can live in settlements and how to address the cramped and overcrowded squalor in which Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, live. Under the current conventions, resolving the issue of Jerusalem – always relegated to final status talks sometime in an obscure future – would require nothing short of a miracle. But, since borders are irrelevant in a single state, the holy city also becomes a non-issue.


The question of Palestinian refugees – also a complicated final status issue – is resolved by extending to them the same theoretical ‘right of return’ as their equivalent members of the Jewish diaspora. Many Israelis will throw their arms up in protest at such a suggestion arguing that it will threaten the very Zionist ideals enshrined in the constitution which perceive Israel as a safe haven for Jews everywhere. On the other hand, Israel prides itself on being a democracy. But by putting Jews in a more privileged position than its other subjects, Israel undermines the very democratic principles it claims to uphold. In order to be a true democracy, Israel needs to become blind to the ethnicity, race and religion of the people living within its borders.


Agreeing to a ‘right of return’ does not mean that all Palestinians should and will be allowed back into the country – the land simply could not accommodate a potential influx of 15 million or more diaspora Palestinians and Jews. Diaspora Palestinians should receive money to stay in their current homes and to compensate them for the loss of their land in 1948 and 1967 and the generations who have grown up in refugee camps. Strict quotas, designed to maintain a balance between the two peoples and not overburden the land, could be put in place. Alternatively, both peoples could receive a symbolic right of return, which can be activated in times of humanitarian need. Moreover, there will be natural checks – just as not all diaspora Jews have made Israel their home, not all Palestinians will do so either. Many Palestinians lead comfortable lives, have good jobs, family and friends in their exile, and when it comes to the crunch may not be willing to uproot themselves from all that. However, being stateless feels like being out in the wilderness unprotected from the elements. As even Jews who have not set foot in Israel will tell you, knowing that you have a ‘home’ somewhere helps make you feel more secure and anchors your identity. Do stateless Palestinians not deserve to feel rooted too?


Land of milk and honey

The benefits go beyond thorny ideological and spiritual issues. Giving both Israelis and Palestinians a clear stake in the country will help divert the energy currently being bled dry by this endless war of attrition towards building a prosperous common home. The potential peace dividend for this reborn country will be enormous.


Dependent as it is on Israel, the Palestinian economy – sealed off by Israeli closures – is a veritable catastrophe zone. According to UN estimates, with over 40% of the population jobless and more than 2 million living on less than $2 per day. In fact, Palestinians have steadily been becoming worse off  economically since the peace process began and, as the number of settlements has more than doubled, they have seen the land available to them shrink.  Although not as badly beaten, the Israelis economy is feeling the strain of the three-year-old intifada, which has scared off tourists and foreign investment and burdened the treasury with crippling military and security expenses.


Not only will this solution remove the cost of an expensive occupation, it will also allow Israel to reduce gradually its run away military spending. Tourism will thrive again and the dormant ranks of frustrated Palestinian workers will be employed productively. The stable country will not only attract more international capital, but will draw a steady stream of investment from wealthy diaspora Palestinians and Jews. Moreover, Israel has aspired for years to be better integrated in the region’s economy and political landscape, and this solution will encourage real trade and diplomatic ties with its Arab neighbours. “Making peace with the Palestinians will turn Israel into what it always wanted to be, a normal Middle Eastern state,” a Palestinian noted in conversation.


This peace dividend will also extend to the surrounding region for much the same reasons. In the Middle East, the conflict has – along with the more recent so-called ‘war on terror’ and the invasion of Iraq – derailed political and democratic reforms and turned the region’s economy into a runaway train hurtling towards poverty. With peace on the Israeli-Palestinian front, Arab countries will not only attract more foreign investment and visitors, but Arab leaders will no longer be able to use the instability in the region as an excuse to hold up political reforms.


Not an overnight solution

Some critics may regard this proposal as naïve and will argue that removing the barriers between the two peoples will be an open invitation to anarchy and civil war. They might point to the cases of Lebanon and Yugoslavia as object lessons in the dangers of mixing ethnic and religious groups. But partition has hardly fared better. Not only has it had a poor track record in Israel-Palestine, but India-Pakistan have gone to war three times since independence and are currently engaged in a reckless nuclear arms race.


Belgium has been touted by some as a possible model for the Israelis and Palestinians to follow. Although it has a far from perfect set up and the issues there are much simpler than in the Middle East, it does demonstrate how a willingness to compromise can defuse potentially explosive situations.


Of course, there is bound to be resistance, at first, particularly among hardliners on both sides. However, the level of violence – mainly suicide bombings and attacks by heavily armed settler militias – would not be much higher than it is now and, more importantly, it will gradually subside as the new situation becomes normal and the reasons for fighting disappear.


Every act of violence currently reverses any progress that may have been achieved prior to it. However, agreeing to a one-state solution will be a tacit acknowledgment between the two peoples of their common destiny. This commitment to a single future will bolster the political willpower and increase public determination to see through the conciliation process and not allow a violent minority to hold it to ransom.


With equal treatment under the law, freedom to move around, no more occupying army and jobs, few Palestinian youngsters will feel the urge to blow themselves up. Support for militant groups, such as Hamas (religious) and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (secular), will dip as people realise the fighting is over. Likewise, as Israelis get to know their Palestinian neighbours and realise they have nothing to fear from them, they will no longer have sympathy for the ultra-orthodox and ultra-right wing’s militancy.


“There is not much difference between us,” an Israeli noted in conversation. “Everyone wants to live and be happy.” And polls back up this view. Nearly three-quarters of Israelis and Palestinians say they are ready for peace. It is the nature of that peace and how to get to it that they cannot pin down in the current climate.


Of course, a common home for Israelis and Palestinians cannot be built in a day. A single state would fail not out of anything intrinsically wrong with the notion but out of a failure to galvanise popular support. Transforming a long-standing war into a lasting marriage of two peoples cannot be done overnight. This requires a bold and vocal peace movement on both sides to advocate and sell the idea to a sceptical public. It then needs brave political leaders to carry it out.


As long as land, bricks and mortar are viewed as being more sacred than the people living within them, this conflict will drag on for eternity. Both peoples have a just case for staying on the land, acknowledging that they deserve shared custody over it is the only way to end the decades of conflict.


*This article first appeared in the Palestine Chronicle on 17 November 2003




ã2004 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.