Alternative Palestinian Agenda

APA Home


This article appeared in Shu’un Tanmawiyyeh (Development Affairs Journal), July 2005, No. 31, Arab Thought Forum, Jerusalem

Bi-Nationalism in Palestine-Israel:
A Palestinian Historical Choice, Not a Last Resort
By Nasser Abufarha

The Oslo “peace process” turned out to produce more violence than peace. In fact, it has been associated with the most violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis in the century-long history of the conflict. The current talk of revitalizing the “peace process” seems to be based on the same premises of the previous processes of the 1990s and within the same framework with total disregard to lessons learned from the Oslo marathon. Certainly, the recent escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict casts doubt on how this conflict can be resolved. However, as the conflict escalates, the need to resolve it becomes even greater.

There has been a lot of attention given to the idea of bi-nationalism since I first drafted the Alternative Palestinian Agenda (APA) proposal in 2001 . The APA proposal called for the establishment of the Federal Union of Palestine-Israel with a joint capital in Jerusalem. The proposal has gotten a great deal of attention in general and more support and endorsements on the Palestinian side than the Israeli side. It has been endorsed by Dr. Haider Abdelshafi among other prominent Palestinian figures, discussed in detail in a week-long Palestinian strategy workshop in Madison, Wisconsin in November 2002 that gathered a number of Palestinian engaged intellectuals and grassroots leaders from Palestine and exile. The initiative has been presented and discussed in various forums across campuses in the US, including a thematic discussion session at the 2004 Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA) conference in San Francisco. It has also been presented and discussed at separate and joint Palestinian and Israeli forums in Jerusalem, a joint session held by the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) , a roundtable discussion at the Harry Truman Research Institute at Hebrew University, and an Israeli grassroots session in Jerusalem. At this point, and after four years of discussion, it is valuable to revisit the idea of bi-nationalism, address some of the concerns that came up through the numerous engagements, and respond to some of the misconceptions of the idea by some and misuse by others.


The failure of the “peace process”

First, we need to understand how and where the Oslo “peace process” failed in order to assess ways in which resolution and peace can be achieved in Palestine-Israel. In spite of all the talk of the “peace process” collapsing over Jerusalem, in reality there are more indications that it collapsed over the Palestinian Right of Return. Leading up to the final phase of negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, between 1998 and 2000, dozens of new Palestinian groups formed in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Europe, and North America whose main stated objectives and activism was centered on the Palestinian Right of Return. The Palestinian rebellion against the Oslo “peace process” due to it ignoring the Right of Return and effectively turning its back to Palestinian refugees, exiled Palestinians, as well as Palestinians inside Israel, began directly in response to the Oslo agreement in 1993. However, this movement intensified and spread widely after the 50th commemoration of al-Nakba and the 50th anniversary of Israeli independence in 1998. This event served as a wake up call for Palestinians. Palestinian refugees for the first time organized symbolic Walks of Return to sites of destroyed villages. Several such events took place from the West Bank and others by Palestinians inside Israel like the walk from the village of Kabul to the destroyed site of the village of Damun. Other events involved refugee youth meetings at the Lebanese border fence where youth from Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon met youths from Dhaisha and Aida camps near Bethlehem. Major conferences on the Right of Return took place, for example al-Fara’h conference in Palestine, as well as others in Jordan, Lebanon, the UK, and the US all in 1998 commemorating the 50th anniversary of al-Nakba. In fact, the whole Palestinian activist movement moved to focus primarily on the Right of Return issue.

This movement organized subsequent events and created a heated debate amongst Palestinians throughout the world about the issue of the Right of Return. Over the two years leading up to the Camp David final status negotiations in the summer of 2000, this dynamic created a great deal of popular pressure on Palestinian leadership and put it in a position where it was no longer capable of signing any deal that does not address the Palestinian refugee rights. The Oslo process had not factored in the Right of Return. It was implicitly understood in the PLO’s recognition of Israel and acceptance of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that the PLO had conceded the Right of Return. As the process moved into its final stages, Palestinian leaders realized that if they make agreements that give finality to the conflict without addressing Palestinian refugee rights, they would de-legitimize their leadership. Thus, the leadership were unable to make a deal as there was no feasible way address the Right of Return this late in the process. However, it was more convenient for the Palestinian leadership to present the collapse over Jerusalem. First of all, it is a denial that the process from the outset ignored the refugee rights and the Right of Return as a whole, and second, the collapse over Jerusalem brings the Palestinian leadership more sympathy from the Arab regimes than the Right of Return.

The most threatening aspect of the Oslo “peace process” as far as Palestinians are concerned is that it attempts to finalize the exclusion of Palestinians from their historic homeland in what is now Israel, to which they are strongly connected in many cultural ways. Furthermore, in this process, Israel further territorially fragmented and encapsulated Palestinian communities into separate geographic spaces within the West Bank. For Palestinians, Palestine is not a collection of lost real estate properties, but rather the sight of fusion of Palestinian identity in its land and its history. It is an acculturated space in which Palestinian identity is deeply rooted. Scholars on landscape agree that place constitutes the most fundamental form of embodied experience in human life . It is the site of fusion of self, space, and time. Palestinians’ relationship to their homeland as a whole and continued rootedness in it is the core element of Palestinian identity construction. Hence, if the peace process continues within the same framework of the Oslo process, grounded in separation and ignoring the Right of Return, such a process will most likely continue to produce more violence than peace.

Although it seems rational to separate groups that are engaged in violent confrontations, this pragmatic assumption fails when it is related back to the source of the confrontation, namely competing rootedness in the same place. Palestinians do not perceive the separation as separation from Israelis as much as a separation of Palestinians from Palestine and exclusion from it. Palestinians have a strong sense of rootedness in the land that is depicted, vocalized, and exemplified in all myriad Palestinian cultural productions and performances. Furthermore, displacement seems to only intensify a sense of rootedness, not to weaken it, and it further serves as a source of rootedness itself for the exiled communities. Continuous attempts at separation and exclusion only serve to intensification of the resistance as a medium to mediate denial and existence, uprooting and rootedness.


The weaknesses of the two-state approach to resolution

The current discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represented in the two-state solution also diverts attention away from the main issues of conflict that need discussion and resolution. On the Israeli side, the main issue of conflict remains the challenge of constructing an exclusive Jewish state in Palestine, and on the Palestinian side, the continued perception of Israelis as strictly a foreign colonialist presence in Palestine. Streaming from these conflicting concepts is a whole chain of social and political processes in diametric opposition to each other, resulting in cycles of war and violence that pose serious threats to the security of both peoples now locked in the conflict. The concept of an exclusive Jewish state necessitates and generates discriminatory measures against the non-Jewish inhabitants of the country, the Palestinians, in order to maintain it. At the same time the continued perception of Israelis as foreign colonialists necessitates and generates nationalist liberationist programs that aim at driving Israelis out of Palestine.

The discourse centered on two separate states attempts to come to a co-existence arrangement between Israelis and Palestinians, but bypasses resolution to these issues by failing to address them. Consequently, this discourse continues to fail. The two separate independent states program in my view will continue to fail because it rests on false assumptions. Its proponents assume that the exclusion of Palestinians from what is now Israel has been normalized and accepted among Palestinians and that the presence of Israelis and their collective rights for cultural expression in Israel has been normalized and accepted by Palestinians and the broader Arab region. The reality on the ground is totally the opposite. The majority of Palestinians do not give up their right to historic Palestine even though there is a majority of Palestinians in the West bank and Gaza who may support a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Such support does not automatically imply that they concede their cultural and historical connection to what would remain Israel and their entitlement to properties and political rights there. Also, the Arab region as a whole has not come to terms with Israel and accepted its presence in the region. In fact, such a discussion did not even start in the region and is possibly difficult to start as the conflict seems to continue and intensify. Moving towards reconciliation prior to resolution will undoubtedly be a very difficult task to accomplish.

The viability of the two-state option is practically also in question for many reasons. First of all, the two separate states arrangements may become a recipe for continuous war, since the new Palestinian state surrounded by Israel would continue to be subject to intimidation by the superior Israeli army, and Palestine would house millions of Palestinians who have countless claims in Israel that are not addressed. It is also important to note that he Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza represent only one third of the Palestinian population. Their suffering must be relieved immediately by ending the Israeli military occupation, but an end to the military occupation of West Bank and Gaza is not the end of the conflict. The plight of the exiled Palestinian population, the demographic crisis in Gaza, and the rights and concerns of the Palestinians inside Israel would all remain un-addressed. Moreover, the two-state solution fails to consider the Palestinians’ right not to be excluded from their historic homeland in what would remain Israel. In short, the inability of the two-state solution to respond in a satisfactory way to the Palestinian Right of Return represents its greatest weakness and questions the viability this option to bring the conflict to a resolution.


The APA proposal for bi-nationalism in Palestine-Israel

What I presented in the Alternative Palestinian Agenda (APA) proposal was a break from the current discourse that calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The proposal considers such a program fundamentally inadequate to comprehensively resolve the conflict. The APA proposal is based on the premise that a viable solution to the conflict must consider the historical context of the conflict, recognize the current realities, and address the concerns of both Palestinians and Israelis in combination, not isolation. The APA proposal was designed to comprehensively respond to the primary concerns of both Israelis and Palestinians and to equalize and normalize relations between them.

The current realities demonstrate that Palestinians and Israelis are not separate, nor are they separable. Consequently, I proposed two states joined in a federal union. These states would reflect the current demographic distribution and population density on the ground. The Israeli state would consist of areas currently inhabited by Israeli Jews. The Palestinian state would comprise areas currently predominantly inhabited by Palestinians as well as areas that are vacant or lightly populated that can sustain a higher population density in order to accommodate Palestinian returnees. Jerusalem, East and West, along with the city’s suburbs and the city of Bethlehem, would fall under separate jurisdiction independent of either state and would constitute the capital district of the federal union. Each state would have its own legislative parliament, state government, judiciary system, police force, education system, language, flag, and national holidays. The District of Jerusalem would have its own district council representative of the residents of the district, and run its own affairs and police force. The federal union would have an executive administration that coordinates aspects of common interest for the two states such as external security through a unified army and internal security by coordinating between the various security apparatuses for each state as well as ethno-national relations between the two states and shared use of resources.

This proposal aims to respond to nationalist aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis with respect to identity and cultural expression by allowing for two states. The federal union arrangement leaves room for both to remain included in the space they call home and allow access to both peoples to the entire homeland so that both are given room to express their rootedness. Under this proposal Palestinians would have the right to return and establish life in their historic cities for example in Acre, Haifa, and Jaffa in accordance with certain procedures and plans. By addressing the issues of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis and creating new mediums for mediating inclusion and rootedness, prospects for new relations between Palestinians and Israelis will be born in the new space of Palestine-Israel as it emerges in the negotiation process of its reconfiguration. Such negotiation can only bear fruit if it is grounded in the recognition of entitlement. Transforming the mediation from its violent forms to non-violent cultural forms is in essence the resolution. Such transformations constitute the only security guarantees on which both peoples can really depend.


Primary concerns about bi-nationalism

After four years of presentations and discussions of these issues in different forums, several concerns from Palestinians and Israelis surfaced throughout the discussion. The primary concerns with a joint and shared rather than a separation approach to resolution that came out through the various discussions can be summarized in a few points. On the Israeli side, primary concerns were: a) the risk of dilution of the Jewish identity in a federal arrangement, b) questioning the viability of joining in one polity a Jewish identity that is more Western with that of the Palestinian identity that is more Mediterranean, and c) the concern that a shared homeland in the federal configuration would negate Israel as home for the world Jewry and would no longer serve as a safe haven for Jews who might become subject to further persecution in other countries around the world. On the Palestinian side the primary concerns with the proposal were: a) there are not enough Israelis out there who would respond favorably to such a democratic option and Palestinians should seek more realizable options in the short term, and b) concerns that the economic disparities between Palestinians and Israelis would continue to marginalize Palestinians and keep them vulnerable to political domination and economic exploitation by the superior Israeli economy if not completely independent from it. Let us now consider these concerns.


Israeli concerns

The risk of dilution of Israel’s Jewish identity. The risk of dilution of the Jewish identity of the state would be more at risk in the current configuration than it would be under a bi-nationalism arrangement, at least as envisioned by the APA proposal. Currently, Israel as a state inscribes itself over all the territories of historic Palestine, encompassing 5.5 million Palestinians within its boundaries. Approximately 1.3 million of them are Israeli citizens, referred to by the state as “Israeli Arabs,” and the rest are Palestinians under occupation. Thus, the sum of the Palestinian population within the boundaries occupied by the state of Israel is now slightly greater than the Jewish population in the same territory. The only way to guarantee a Jewish state under these demographic conditions is through the maintenance of Apartheid policies against the Palestinians. This reality represents the main source of the conflict now where we have a Jewish state in a multi-ethnic setting. Policies of the state respond to the interests of its Jewish citizens, and in the case of Israel, extend to other Jewish communities abroad outside of the boundaries of the state at the expense of the non-Jewish inhabitants within the boundaries of the state. The continuation of this situation will continue to corrupt Israel and further deepen its conflict with the Palestinian population and deny it a sense of stability. Under the two-state arrangement, Israel would rid itself of the occupied Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza but still keep approximately 1.3 million Palestinians in Israel. This Palestinian population in Israel has a demographic growth rate higher than that of Israeli Jews. Hence, Israel may give up the West Bank and Gaza for a Palestinian state, but would still be under increased pressure from its Palestinian citizens to reconfigure itself as a bi-national state in order to allow for Palestinian political and cultural autonomy, even inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders. However, under the bi-national arrangement as envisioned by the APA proposal, over 5 million of the Palestinian population will become part of the Palestinian state, leaving Israel with a demographic distribution of a majority of Jews, which makes the Jewish state a plausible viability that is not contradictory to democratic representation and policy practices.

Identity concerns. Some Israelis question of the viability of joining in one polity a Jewish identity that is more Western with that of the Palestinian identity that is more Mediterranean. These conditions are not particular to Palestine-Israel as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism are new conditions around the world under which many states find themselves and to which they need to respond. Western countries themselves have to deal with these conditions and respond to them even though in some cases they are responding to immigrant ethnic communities in their countries. In the case of Palestine-Israel, however, the immigrant is the dominating Jewish identities as inscribed by the hegemonic state over the indigenous population. That said, the idea of bi-nationalism is not to create a new bi-national identity, but rather to build a political system that can guarantee rights to land, and political and cultural autonomy to two different national identities that are competing for substantiation in the same landscape. I will come back to this point in the following section where I discuss misconceptions about the bi-national program and its differentiation from the “one-state” program. The bi-national arrangement can give the space for identity expression with each state’s political and cultural autonomy over specific territory as well as accessibility to the whole political and economic systems of the entire country. Hence, the bi-national structure is more about a political and economic unity rather than cultural unity. The political unity in itself is about giving room for cultural diversity in the same space rather than cultural hegemony of one state structure that is representative of a politically dominant identity.

Israel as home for the world Jewry. The concern that a shared homeland in the federal configuration would negate Israel as home for the world Jewry has surfaced through the discussions with Jewish communities in the US. The concern is that Israel would no longer serve as a safe haven for Jews who might become subject to further persecution in other countries around the world. In my view, the Jewish security discussion needs to balance between Israel’s readiness to respond to potential security threats to Jewish communities abroad and Israel’s capacity to stabilize in the region in which it is situated and provide security and normalcy for its Jewish population. One needs to also look at security for Israelis. In other words, the security needs of Israelis must be taken in consideration, if not given greater emphasis since they actually live there. That said, even though the proposal calls for the Israeli Law of Return to be replaced by an immigration law that applies the same measures to immigration applicants regardless of religion or ethnic background, I think there is potential for creative ways to address such concerns in crafting the constitution. One idea is to give the right to Israel under the federal union charter to respond to and assist Jewish communities abroad in the case that such communities fall victim to discrimination and security threats by their country of origin, including by granting safe refuge. Perhaps there are other ways one could think of to continue the links of Israel to world Jewry, but such links cannot be thought of only though keeping Israel exclusively Jewish because it is not in reality, it only in policy, and such conditions keep it in conflict.


Palestinian concerns

The lack of Israeli support for such option. Even though I do share in this concern, I do think that the current political attitudes are in part reflections and responses to current political programs. I think the more the bi-national program becomes the Palestinian program, the more Israelis will be compelled to explore it. I think there is a substantial percentage of Israelis who seek satisfactory political settlement with Palestinians. I am not speaking here of supporters of the so called “peace process” as a process to perpetuate itself and a way to manage the conflict, but rather looking at those supporters of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. There is a 34% minority of Israelis that support a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza according to a poll conducted by al-Madar Center in Ramallah. From this minority there are those who support this option with genuine interest in resolution in order to move beyond the conflict. However, they see the solution to the conflict through the two-state option that has been the framework for resolution, even though it continues to fail. There is a growing community of young Israelis—Sabra Israelis—those born and raised in Israel for whom resolution with Palestinians constitutes a priority. The more the bi-national option is articulated and becomes visible amongst Palestinians, the more Israelis will have a chance to think through it and see their interest in it and in the capacity this option offers to address their concerns as well as those of the Palestinians. In short, the bi-national option provides the Palestinians with what they are due—statehood and the Right of Return— more than what the two-state option could offer them and hence, would have a majority of Palestinians to rally behind it. The more Palestinians rally behind it, the more likely Israelis interested in resolution would rally behind it as well. The bi-national option represents the only option that recognizes Israeli entitlement in Palestine because the two-state option simply requires Palestinians to concede territories due to their disadvantage in the power scale rather than recognize Israel’s right to exist in Palestine. Such concession would change should there be change in regional and global power structures. Hence, the bi-national option is much in the interest of Israelis as in the interest of Palestinians.

Economic disparities between Palestinians and Israelis. This concern refers to Palestinian fear that the economic disparities between Palestinians and Israelis would continue to marginalize Palestinians and keep them vulnerable to political domination and economic exploitation by the superior Israeli economy if they are not completely independent from it. First of all, we need to consider that these disparities are visible as it is. Thus, addressing them could be integrated into the resolution and reconciliation plan. Second, these disparities are a by-product of decades of occupation. We have several generations of Palestinians who are primarily preoccupied with addressing national liberation challenges. One cannot assume that Palestinians cannot compete economically if they were not marginalized politically. Under the bi-national proposal Palestinians would have equal access to the country’s resources and international markets. Once the political constraints are removed, these disparities would not necessarily persist, at least not in the magnitude under the present conditions. Thirdly, complete political independence in a small fragmented state in the West Bank and Gaza with most of its trading routes through Israel would not grant the Palestinians much economic independence or leverage. In comparison, the federal arrangement could grant Palestinians more economic leverage than a truncated, fragmented Palestinian state that is marginalized by neighboring economically superior Israel.


Misconceptions about the bi-national option

Aside from the concerns discussed above, there have been a few misconceptions about the idea of bi-national program. In what follows, I examine some of these misconceptions as well as some of the misuses of the idea of bi-nationalism. The greatest misconception of bi-nationalism is confusing it with the “one-state” program or the so-called “democratic state program.” The bi-national option came about because neither the two separate states nor the one democratic state option could constitute a viable option for resolution in Palestine-Israel given the current realities on the ground and the historical context of the conflict. The advantage of the bi-national program is precisely its capacity to address dual identity issues that the one-state program fails to consider or overlooks. The one democratic state program assumes that if the state policy guarantees individuals equal access to the political system as enshrined in the ‘one person one vote’ practice, this would result in a “democratic” representation that would resolve power struggles between the two groups, Palestinians and Israelis. Proponents of such an option, mainly the Palestinian traditional left, see this approach as a vehicle to a just, democratic solution where Palestinian Arabs can live with Israeli Jews and the majority “democratically” decides the details of state policy.

As much as it seems reasonable to assume that the majority representation would be democratic, such representation does not necessarily guarantee democratic responses to social processes on the ground in certain contexts. Such representation may respond to individuals’ rights for political representation but may respond poorly to collective identity rights to guarantee representation and respect collective entitlements. Before we consider the case of Palestine-Israel, take the case of Canada. Yes, Canadians of European origin represent a majority in the country and can have a majority vote, but they do not grant the native Indian population of Quebec or the Yukon the political autonomy and land entitlements they are calling for. Does this majority rule and response to indigenous demands represent a democratic choice? In the case of Palestine-Israel, what happens when one ethnicity becomes a dominant majority? Furthermore, the proponents of the one democratic state did not address the identity issue of the state at all. Some perceive of it as a Palestinian Arab state with an acceptable Jewish population. Hence, we are just in the reverse situation, although the dominant state identity would be that of the indigenous, not the newcomer. But these differences with time become a historical context. We still have two main national identities remaining. The one state cannot jointly accommodate both, nor can it afford to accommodate only one of the two and marginalize the other. The polity needs to allow for both expressions.

Some may argue that the one-state identity can be grounded in multiculturalism, which implies the capacity to distance self from one’s own cultural identity and rise above to embrace a hybrid cultural identity that encompasses multi-ethnic, indigenous, national, and migrant identities. Attempts at multiculturalism in both Australia and Canada are resisted by their respective native populations. Examples of the best attempts at hybridization in Australia and Canada have failed to get favorable reactions from their native populations . Australia, in particular, launched a deliberate multicultural campaign in an effort to create what they called “Creative Nation” based on multiculturalism, and Canada is engaged in similar efforts. Still, both are facing strong opposition to these multicultural hybridization programs, because natives in their homeland—and this the case with the Palestinians—will continue to consider themselves as the people of the land and refuse to be reduced to an ethnic minority group in their own homeland, even if they become a minority. It is not just about cultural representation, but rather rights to cultural expression, entitlement to the land, political and cultural autonomy, and the right to substantiate identity in territory. The one democratic state program cannot guarantee rights of collective entitlement to the native identity and the new emerging Israeli identity at the same time. The bi-national option can respond to these challenges in such a context by allowing for territorial reconfiguration where both groups can have political and cultural autonomy over territory through the two state systems in political and economic union.


Misuses of the bi-national option

Aside from the misconceptions of the bi-national program, there are a number of misuses of the idea by members of the Palestinian and Israeli camps, especially those engaged in negotiation in the current process.

Palestinian misuses. This is a trend amongst some Palestinian “peace process” negotiators like Hanan Ashrawi and Ahmed Qrei’ to waive the bi-national option as a threat to their Israeli counterparts with the implication that if a true independent Palestinian state is not viable, we will call for a bi-national state or equal citizenship in Israel. This same argument is made by other Palestinian intellectuals as well such as Azmi Bishara and Sarri Nusseibeh . Certainly, people who present the bi-national program as a last resort or secondary and less favorable choice are not its proponents and most likely do not understand what it entails. These politicians base their arguments on the premise that the bi-national option is a threat to the Jewish state and to capitalize on the premise that waving such an idea to the Israelis may pressure them to resign themselves to accept the Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which would guarantee a Jewish state in the rest of the country.

Politicians who make such threats fail to recognize the failure of the two separate states option from the Palestinian perspective and fail to understand that the bi-national option is the best chance Israelis have at securing a future for the Jewish state. The two-state option is not desirable as far as the Palestinians are concerned because it is inadequate to resolve much of the Palestinian issues. In fact, this option only responds to lifting the military occupation off the populations of the West Bank and Gaza. State viability, territorial continuity, capacity to accommodate the Right of Return for refugees, rights of cultural and political autonomy for Palestinians in Israel (“Israeli Arabs”), borders, access to trading routes, the demographic crisis in the Gaza Strip, all would not be addressed by simply ending the occupation. The bi-national program has the capacity to address these concerns far more effectively than any other idea contemplated. Hence, the bi-national option in Palestine-Israel is a Palestinian historical choice, not a last resort.

The bi-national option is also the best option for the Jewish state because the two-state “solution” does not end the conflict and hence does not give Israel as a Jewish state an entry to normalization in the region. Under the two-state arrangements Israel would make concessions to the Palestinians, but would not have resolution to the conflict. Its presence in the remainder of historic Palestine will continue to be challenged by Palestinians and the peoples of the region because such a presence entails the exclusion of Palestinians from their historic homeland in what would remain Israel. Furthermore, Israel would continue to house a sizable Palestinian minority—now at 20%—of the total population of the state’s citizenry. This population is already calling for political autonomy and is experiencing a higher demographic growth rate than that of Israeli Jews. Hence, Israel would come to the same impasse with the Palestinian population within its current boundaries at some point in the not so distant future. The bi-national state program is the option that provides Israel with a constitutional guarantee of Jewish culture and political autonomy over specific territory that is potentially not in a state-of-war with the populations of the region. The bi-national option has the capacity to give Palestinians access to their entire historic homeland and at the same time guarantee a Jewish presence with cultural and political expression in that homeland.

Israeli misuses of the bi-national idea: Israeli misuses of the bi-national idea come from several directions on the Israeli side. First, on the right, some flirt with the idea of leaving Israel as is and exercising the bi-national arrangement between Palestine and Jordan, arguing that this would give the capacity of the Palestinian state to accommodate refugees. Those who make such arguments clearly overlook the rootedness of Palestinian identity in Palestine and that such cultural rootedness is not substitutable by other territories or monetary compensation. If it were, Palestinians who gained citizenship in Europe and North America would have been the first to disengage from the conflict. But to the contrary, Palestinian communities in stable, industrialized countries are deeply engaged with the dynamics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Even though they were successful in securing palatable living conditions, they still seek inclusion in their homeland or country of origin and exercise physical rootedness there that can reconcile the conceptual and cultural rootedness of their identity in Palestine and its history.

Second, from the left, there is an Israeli activist who calls for the bi-national arrangement to encompass a regional arrangement. Jeff Halper calls for a regional approach where a confederation would take place between Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon . Here again, this approach would fail because it totally ignores Palestinian rootedness in Palestine. Attempts to settle Palestinians permanently in their host countries will continue to be challenged by Palestinian communities because they neglect historical entitlements and cultural rootedness. I am not arguing here that all Palestinians would seek to exercise their right to return to Palestine and establish residence there. What I am trying to point out is that Palestinians will continue to fight for their historic entitlement to Palestine and resist their exclusion from it. Once this entitlement is resolved, Palestinians will become more free to settle in places where they are making a good living. Moreover, such a regional approach like the one proposed by Jeff Halper ignores the regional constraints placed on Israel by the populations of the region, which would require Israelis to resolve their conflict with the Palestinians prior to seeking cultural and safe economic exchange with peoples of the region, much less regional political unity.

The third misuse of the bi-national option comes from some Israeli and pro-Israeli American journalists who started hinting and entertaining the idea of bi-nationalism as a way to counter international pressure on Israel to engage seriously to move quicker towards ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in order to allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state there. Such voices are not genuinely interested in the bi-national idea and cannot even speak to it. What they are interested in is a perpetual “peace process” as a way to manage the conflict while Israel continues its expansion. This is a dangerous position that has thus far consumed much of the world’s political energy in a perpetual process for decades. In order to respond to these advocates of never ending perpetual “peace process,” this brings us to the final thought of this essay. How can we conceptualize the bi-national option? And how can we build on the momentum that has been generated for the two-state solution towards the bi-national option?


The merits of bi-nationalism in Palestine-Israel

The fact that Palestinians and Israelis live in a landscape that they both call home is a reality any viable resolution cannot ignore. The solution lies not in how to divide this landscape, but rather in how to share it. This reality requires both people to reconsider their current programs and the choices they make. Israelis need to re-examine the ways in which they view the state of Israel as a Jewish state when half of the population in the space they consider their homeland are not Jews. At the same time, Palestinians need to re-examine their nationalist liberation program when 55 years after the establishment of the state of Israel in Palestine a new Israeli identity whose homeland is also Palestine has emerged and is as entitled to practice its collective rights. The new generation of Israelis, the Sabra Israelis, has no homeland but Israel. To continue to view this population as a foreign colonialist presence is in effect holding this population hostage to history and the injustices Palestinians suffered in the process of establishing the state of Israel in Palestine.

The merits of the bi-national program lie in the conditions in which Palestinians find themselves after more than 55 years of dispossession and occupation of their homeland. The Palestinian case is unique and differentiates itself from other colonial contexts and hence requires re-examining the nationalist liberation program. Israel as a colony is not supported by a traditional metropole as in the case of France in Algeria or Britain in India. It is rather supported by an abstract, non-territorial metropole, which is the Jewish nation . These conditions have generated a new identity, Israeli, that is territorially connected and rooted in the colony, not the metropole. This poses a new challenge to the Palestinian nationalist program. How can Palestinians be committed to Palestinian nationalist rights, but at the same time remain committed to moral justice? These commitments would require Palestinian nationalists to seek venues to address Palestinian nationalist rights without jeopardizing those of the Sabra Israelis.

Nationalisms are not one entity. Nationalism can be a colonizing tool, as in the case of Zionism, or, it can be a liberating tool. In order ensure it remains the latter in the Palestinian context, Palestinian understanding of nationalism needs to be based on freeing Palestine from colonial control and not necessarily liberating it from Israelis. Such programs require Palestinians to integrate into their nationalist platforms ways to accommodate for Israeli individual and collective rights as well as national rights for the new Israeli identity in Palestine. It is this understanding and historical context that makes the bi-national program the most responsive to Palestinian and Israeli rights and places the program for those who adopt it as an advanced Palestinian liberation program that is grounded in moral justice. At the time that the bi-national program is committed to Palestinian national rights, it remains committed to the social and moral responsibility towards the Israeli identity that today shares the same space with Palestinians.


The road map to bi-nationalism

To get back to the question of how to build on the momentum that has been generated for the two-state solution towards the bi-national option, I think it is an important question to rise and one that requires further discussion and exploration. Once we understand what bi-nationalism is and the factors that make it a more viable option to bring the conflict to a resolution, Palestinians and Israelis need to engage in discussion and dialog on developing a road map towards achieving it. Given the amount of energy that has been generated around the two-state option, it seems beneficial to build on it towards bi-nationalism. This requires us to conceptualize bi-nationalism as a direction rather than a prescription. The two-state option can become a phase on the road to bi-nationalism. From the Israeli side, Oren Yiftachel wrote towards a ‘phases bi-nationalism’ and Said Zeedani in the Palestinian camp spoke in favor of such an approach. However, this approach requires the re-conceptualization of the two-state program itself in order for it to build up towards bi-nationalism, rather than serve as an obstacle against it.

This re-conceptualization of the two-state option would translate into lending support of the two-state efforts, but not view it as a final resolution to the conflict. This strategy would also impact the way the two-state is implemented, which needs to be carried out in ways that maintain Palestinians’ contact and connections to Palestinian in Israel as well as Palestinian-Israeli cultural and economic exchange. The two-state option itself has a chance of succeeding only as a phase towards a more comprehensive resolution such as bi-nationalism. If the two-state is presented as a final “permanent status,” it would not even have the chance to be realized, much less be final or permanent. Thus, the two-state option is only truly viable if it is genuinely pursued as an integral step toward a comprehensive approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would ultimately bring resolution the refugee issue and a feasible unity of Palestinian national identity. In the current political dynamic, it is critical to lend support to the two-state option as a step on the road towards Palestinian- Israeli bi-nationalism in Palestine-Israel. Bi-nationalism is the preeminent Palestinian historical choice, not just a last resort. One that holds true for Israelis as wel

APA Home
Member Contributions
Please Send Us Your Comments