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The two-state solution will not disappear

Shlomo Avineri

As the English political theorist Lord Acton is frequently quoted as saying, "It is difficult to prophesy, especially about the future." Yet with meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations currently stymied, it is legitimate to ask if the two-state solution may not become, at some point in the future, irrelevant. My answer, though, is that even as time passes without visible progress towards it, the two-state solution nevertheless may not disappear. It is the only game in town.

Articles in this edition
Why we are closing - Yossi Alpher
The arc of the pendulum - Ghassan Khatib
The reasons for this are complex. They are intertwined inextricably with the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and deeply etched into the political ideologies of both national movements and their respective publics. And the paradox is, that while the one-state solution can be said to be at the back of the mind of the Palestinian movement even at a time when its representatives have publicly supported a two-state solution, it is precisely this that makes most Israelis wary.

In other words, and put somewhat crudely, for the Palestinians one Palestine, undivided, can be seen in a most fundamental way as the ultimate goal, while for Israelis this is an undisguised recipe for the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish nation-state. Most Palestinians may object to this characterization and present it as an Israeli ploy, yet the fact is that the map of Palestine as an undivided entity is what appears on all their organizations' symbols, as well as in Palestinian school textbooks and propaganda leaflets.

This can be seen also as the reason for the vehement rejection by Palestinian spokesmen of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's demand that as part of negotiations between the two sides the Palestinians accept Israel as the Jewish nation-state. Even Israelis who object to Netanyahu's demands were rather rattled by the ferocity of the Palestinian refusal even to entertain the idea. This suggests to them that, at the end of the day, the Palestinian national movement is not ready to really accommodate itself to the existence of Israel as a legitimate expression of the Jewish right to national self-determination.

Equally, Palestinians' insistence that they will never, as President Mahmoud Abbas has stated, give up their claim to the right of return to Israel of 1948 refugees and their descendants, seems to signify the same ultimate goal, even if for tactical reasons the Palestinian movement is willing to accept a two-state solution.

At the back of all this is, of course, the Palestinian refusal in 1947-8 to accept the United Nations partition plan and their decision to go to war against it. While such perceptions in Israel of the Palestinians' ultimate aim make negotiations for a two-state solution difficult and are used--sometimes honestly and sometimes less so--by the Israeli right-wing as an alibi for opposing a two-state solution, they deeply influence Israelis' rejection of a one-state solution. When Palestinian spokesmen appear to threaten Israel that, absent a negotiated two-state solution, "the only alternative will be one state," many Israelis say, "You see, that is what they really want--the end of Israel."

Much of this may be an unjust and unkind Israeli interpretation of Palestinian positions. But practically and politically, it means an almost total Israeli refusal of a one-state solution. The Israeli left and center reject it for Zionist and democratic reasons, the Israeli right realizes that this would make the Jews a minority in what they consider a Jewish state. Hence both would prefer the uneasy status quo, difficult as it may seem.

There is, of course, a long list of other reasons that would make a one-state solution utterly unacceptable to both sides if looked at closely and seriously. What would the one state be called: Israel or Palestine? Just raising the question suggests how impossible such a solution would be. Would it revere Theodor Herzl or Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini as a founding father? Would it celebrate May 15 as Independence Day or Nakba Day? Would "Hatikva" or "Biladi, Biladi" be the national anthem--or perhaps, absurdly, both? Would it teach its children that Zionism is the Jewish national movement for self-determination or that it is colonial imperialism, like the French presence was in Algeria?

Dozens, if not hundreds, of such contested issues would make any serious attempt at cohabitation in one state impossible. Given that these issues have divided the two movements for a century, a single state is not a solution but a recipe for institutionalized civil war.

All this suggests that at the end of the day, the two-state solution will not, and cannot, disappear from the political agenda. Only it, and not a chimerical one-state solution, takes both national movements seriously, tries--despite all difficulties--to find a place in the sun for both, and allows Israeli Jews and Palestinians to feel at home, each in their respective homeland, under their own flag and with their national memories, histories and narratives.-Published 23/1/2012 © bitterlemons.org

Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was director general of the Foreign Ministry in the first cabinet of Yitzhak Rabin.
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