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What’s Old is New: the Idea of a Binational State Resurfaces

January 13, 2004
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When the Palestinian Authority prime minister warned recently that Palestinians might abandon their goal of an independent state and instead seek a single state of Arabs and Jews, Ahmed Qurei was playing one of his trump cards in the conflict with Israel.

The idea is ultimately to delegitimize Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through an international campaign for a single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, in which Arabs soon would be a majority. If successful, the strategy would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Abandoned years ago by a PLO that ostensibly had recognized Israel’s right to exist, the one-state idea has made a comeback in recent months among left-wing intellectuals and among Palestinians who either fear Israeli plans to withdraw unilaterally from areas the Palestinians claim or who feel they are close to realizing cherished dreams of dismantling the Jewish state.

The plan is not without its problems. The United States remains fully committed to President Bush’s vision of separate Israeli and Palestinian states living next to each other in peace, as does the European Union.

Moreover, the Israeli government’s declared intention to withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank and Gaza is designed partly to preempt international pressure for a binational state. Once Israelis and Palestinians are clearly separated, the theory goes, the single-state solution will lose much of its appeal.

Qurei’s binational threat came in an early January interview with Reuters and was in response to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan, if the peace process remains moribund, to withdraw unilaterally from much of the West Bank behind Israel’s security fence.

If that means annexing land the Palestinians claim, Qurei declared that the Palestinians would have no choice but to press for a binational state because, he said, they would be left without enough land to establish a viable state of their own.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell quickly rejected Qurei’s position as contrary to the “road map” peace plan. Probably influenced by Powell’s stance, Palestinian officials meeting two days later took a different tack: They proposed preempting Sharon’s plan by declaring a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a unilateral countermove that would at least be consistent with America’s two-state vision.

Clearly, the Palestinians have been badly rattled by the fence’s efficacy in preventing terrorist attacks and by Israel’s unilateral separation formula. Now they’re trying to create levers of pressure to disrupt the planned Israeli moves.

The Palestinian-led appeal on the fence to the International Court of Justice in The Hague is one such gambit; Qurei’s binational statement and the unilateral declaration of statehood threat are two more.

Though the Palestinians for now still officially favor a two-state solution, P.A. policy easily could switch to a binational state if conditions on the ground or the international stage change.

But how effective would such policy be?

Much will depend on Israel’s security fence. Its very presence creates, de facto, a two-state situation. But if the fence is delegitimized and perceived by the international community to be dispossessing Palestinians, calls for a binational state to replace what is seen as an unjust reality could gain momentum.

For many Palestinian intellectuals, the binational threat is the ultimate weapon against Israel. It revives the old PLO demand for a secular-democratic state in all of the land between the Jordan and Mediterranean, including Israel.

The demand expresses a goal that would mean the elimination of Israel. Even if that proves unrealistic, it still could be useful as a means of pressuring Israel: The specter of a binational state, the thinking goes, could be used to wring concessions from Israel in negotiations for a two-state model.

Besides the Palestinians, pressure for a binational state could come from Israeli Arabs and left-wing intellectuals in Europe and the United States. Azmi Beshara, an Arab member of Israel’s Knesset and a leading Israeli Arab intellectual, has been touting the binational idea for years.

Over the past few months, binationalism also has been gaining ground in Western intellectual circles. In The New York Review of Books last October, New York University professor Tony Judt caused a stir when he described Israel as “an anachronism” that ought to be replaced by a binational state with a Palestinian majority.

Support for a binational state among Jewish Israelis is confined to a left-wing fringe. When maverick left-winger Haim Hanegbi tried to circulate a paper in support of the idea among members of the radical Gush Shalom group last summer, he encountered wall-to-wall opposition and decided to leave the group.

Another maverick, Meron Benvenisti, vaguely proposes Jewish and Palestinian cantons but is not sure how this would work and says he still dreams of a sovereign Jewish state.

For most Israelis, the binational state is the ultimate nightmare because it spells the end of the Zionist dream of a homeland for the Jewish people. While Palestinians and some left-wing intellectuals may see this as the optimal outcome, many Israelis fear it could happen simply by default.

Haifa University geographer Arnon Sofer, one of the most active campaigners for separation between Israelis and Palestinians, warns that if Israeli leaders fail to act in time, they could wind up with a binational situation of their own making.

According to Sofer, the biggest threat to Israel is not Iran’s missiles or Syria’s chemical weapons, but what he calls the “demographic time bomb.” According to Sofer, there already is a non-Jewish majority when Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are taken as a single unit.

If nothing is done to separate Israel from the West Bank and Gaza, he says, Israel could face an apartheid-like situation, with the Palestinian majority demanding one-man-one-vote in a binational state.

Sofer calls for immediate separation from the Palestinians and calls the security fence “a last, desperate attempt to save the State of Israel.”

The fear that Israel could become a pariah state facing international sanctions for occupying Palestinians while denying them political rights is driving Likud leaders like Sharon and his deputy, Ehud Olmert, to press for separation.

Olmert put his fears on the table when he called for unilateral separation.

“I am appalled at the thought that at the head of the campaign against us we will find the same liberal Jewish organizations that carried the struggle against apartheid in South Africa on their shoulders,” he said in a December interview with Israel’s Yediot Achronot newspaper.

Qurei’s seemingly off-the-cuff remark was a first shot in what could become one of Israel’s most difficult wars of survival.

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