Alternative Palestinian Agenda


Saber Al Sabbar


The Patience of the Cactus

In the Media



Middleton Man Seeks Middle East Peace

Nasser Abufarha's plan for a binational state is drawing international attention

By Katherine Kingsbury

The day after an ambush in the West Bank city of Hebron killed 12 Israeli security personnel and 3 Palestinian militia members, Nasser Abufarha of Middleton is still hard at work on a peace plan for the middle east. "we can't just let the course of events take us along," he says between sips of Arabic coffee.

Abufarha's proposal unveiled earlier this year ( differs radically from those hashed out between Israeli governments and the Palestinian authority over the past decade. He says it "comprehensively addresses the concerns and current realities of both Israeli and pal society," thereby paving the way for lasting peace.

The plan as envisioned would create a sort of middle eastern Switzerland out of what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaze. The new union would consist of two states, Israel and Palestine, each of which would have its own language, legislature, national holidays, and educational and social-service systems. They would share a federal parliament and jointly operate a single military force. Jerusalem would be in a district all its own, so that neither state could claim exclusive authority over it.

Far from putting an end to Israel, Abufarha says his plan would strengthen its status as a Jewish state.

One-fifth of Israel's current population are non-Jewish Arabs: in twenty or thirty years, they are likely to make up half of its population. Under Abufarha's plan, most Israeli Arabs would be absorbed into the Palestinian state, leaving Israel citizenry almost completely Jewish. It's security, he says, would be virtually guaranteed, since the Palestinian State would not have the means to attack it. And by equalizing power btw the two states, the plan could reduce the cachet of militant groups that play on Palestinian sense of victimization.

Abufarha estimates that half of all Palestinians cling to the idea of establishing their own state on what was once British Mandate Pal - Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. But he says the portion of Palestinians in the Territories in favor of a binational state - now estimated at 25% - is surprisingly high given that no detailed proposal on the subject has circulated widely. Once his idea gets out, he thinks support for a binational state will blossom.

Abufarha brainchild has already been endorsed by several leading Palestinian intellectuals, including Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi, who led the Palestinian delegation to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. Israeli academics have also expressed interest. In mid November, 14 Palestinians from the Middle East, Europe, and the US came to Madison to work out details of the plan, and another group of Palestinians and Israelis will gather in the Spring to refine the proposal further.

On this sunny late-autumn morning, Abufarha's Middleton house seems about as far away as you can get from the world of war. Half a dozen neighborhood kids are out raking the front lawn, dumping clumps of yellow maple leaves into red wagons and granny carts.

Abufarha, 38, did not have this kind of childhood. He grew up in a small village outside of Jenin in the West Bank, west of the Jordan river, an area taken from Jordan by the Israeli military in the 1967 war.

"I went to a high school that was surrounded by Israeli army forces, stationed on rooftops around the building. They would check us at the gates of the high school. Sometimes they came inside and there were beatings of students in the school."

In the mid-1980s, Abufarha came to the United States to attend college, getting an undergraduate degree in computers in Michigan. He moved to the Madison area in 1996. He opened and later sold the Shish Café in Middleton.

Abufarha rejects the notion that violence in the mid east stems from some intrinsic animosity between Arabs and Jews. Ordinary Israelis and Pals, he says, "got along even after wars. I remember in the 70s, Israelis used to shop in Jenin regularly. Pals worked for Israelis and shopped from Israelis suppliers. Pals hired Israeli technicians."

In 1998, Abufarha began work on a new peace plan. The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Arafat, had already begun to show signs of unraveling.

Abufarha saw two major problems with that agreement. First, in dividing the West bank into alternating pockets of Israeli and pal control - a process that made the maps of the west bank bear a vague resemblance to those of the town of Madison - it started to limit the movements of the Pal population. Second, it created an armed pal police force that threatened both Israeli and pal security by further militarizing a highly charged situation.

Abufarha calls the Oslo Accords and subsequent negations "more of a business deal between two parties bent on maintaining power than something that improves the lives of ordinary citizens. He thinks that's why Pal suicide bombing and Israeli settler violence have continued unabated.

"I don't have much faith in the current process," he says, "whether it's the current pal leadership's engagement or the current Israeli leadership's engagement.

The idea of a bi-national state is increasingly discussed in pal and Israeli circles, but only a small minority has become excited about it. "I just don't see it as possible or even desirable given what we know about how we resolve ethnic conflicts," says Michael Barnett, professor of political science at UW Madison and specialist in the Middle East and international relations. "It doesn't mean it's not a great idea, but it's not realistic."

Barnett says a bi-national state could quickly go the way of the former Yugoslavia after the Balkan wars of the 1990s - divided into multiple ethnic enclaves: "both of them view each other as the enemy and the perpetrator, and to ask the perpetrator to live with the victim is a little tough."

A better solution, says Barnett, would be to establish two separate groups, Israel and a de-militarized Palestinian state, and impose a seize-fire through forces supported by the United Nations. "If the Pals and Israelis agree on one thing, it's that they want to be apart. They're identities that have been created in mutual antagonism toward each other. They need a divorce."

Abufarha's proposal calls for a period of separation but the timeline is still up in the air.

Stephanie Manes, a UW doctoral candidate in political science with a focus in the mid east, finds the idea of a bi-national state compelling, but for "pragmatic rather than political, visionary reasons." Manes suggests that, after a period of separation, Israeli and pal leaders may discover that two independent countries on such a small strip of land cannot survive, economically or militarily, in the logn term. "there has to be two states for a while," she says, "but it's a question whether or not two individual states are going to be viable." Than again, Manes says, it's possible that the idea of a bi-national state could find favor more quickly, perhaps after the upcoming Israeli elections. "the thing about mid east politics is that so many negotiations go on behinds the scenes that who knows what's going on. Two or three years ago, I would have said there's going to be a pal state, but now there isn't."

Abufarha doesn't seem concerned about whether Israeli or pal leaders seize on his idea. In fact he says they probably won't - at least not on their own. "this is going to be a test to the whole theory of grass roots," he said. "we have to work a lot harder than Sharon or Arafat to get our word across. But the political system will be responsive to it at some point."

This article first appeared in Isthmus, the weekly newspaper of Madison, Wisconsin, on November 29, 2002. The author retains the copyright for this article. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission.






In Palestine-Israel


Haider Adbel Shafi

In the Media


The APA Proposal

Comments/Discussion of the Proposal

Human Support

Join Listserve

Get Involved

News Headlines


Organizational Philosophy

Past APA Events

Upcoming Events


Search the site