Israel/Palestine: two states or one bi-national state?

The idea of a bi-national state solution has become fashionable among some circles in Israel/Palestine. Yossi Schwartz in Jerusalem explains that on the basis of capitalism, with unemployment, bad housing, low wages and discrimination, neither the two-state nor the single bi-national state proposals can work. The only solution can be found within an overall Socialist Federation of the Middle East.

It is becoming obvious to a growing number of Israelis and Palestinians, most of them left wing liberals and Palestinian radical left nationalists that the idea of two capitalist states is leading to hell. However, instead of grasping that on the basis of capitalism there is no solution, they advocate what appears to be a new solution but one that has failed even before 1948, a bi-national democratic state, namely a capitalist state with two nations.

The late Liberal intellectual Edward Said (1935 -2003) argued for this option in the last years of his life. In his January 1999 article, "Truth and Reconciliation," written for the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram, January 14-20, Said wrote, referring to Oslo, that it was time again to question the so-called peace process that had brought no peace. "It is my view that the peace process has in fact put off the real reconciliation that must occur if the 100 year war between Zionism and the Palestinian people is to end. Oslo set the stage for separation, but real peace can come only with a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state."

Today, Dr. Ilan Pappe of Haifa University is one of the better known persons identified with this idea. In his article "Bi-National Realities versus National Mythologies: The Death of the 'Two States' Solution", [In Israel and a Palestinian state: zero sum game?, 2001]he has argued that the chances for a Palestinian state to survive and even come into a meaningful being are nil for two reasons. One is that of the balance of power. There is little hope for genuine Palestinian sovereignty and control over a future state. The balance of power in which the Israelis are the stronger party, is a precondition both for the Labor and Likud parties for dealing with the Palestinians; thus the concessions these parties will be ready to grant do not amount to a political entity that can be defined as a state in any reasonable and acceptable meaning.

The second reason is that within two separate states neither of the two nationalities would come into any meaningful existence. On the Palestinian side, even considering the most generous Israeli concessions, say under a Labor government, the Palestinian citizenry would include only a third of the Palestinians in the world, with an Israeli veto on the other two thirds from becoming Palestinian citizens. Furthermore, the potential Israeli citizenship granted to every Jew in the world on the one hand, and the discriminations inflicted upon about one million Palestinian citizens in Israel on the other, renders collective identity at best unclear and at worst non-existent.

On the other hand in Israel, as Jewish nationalism is defined by an affiliation to the Jewish religion, secularism, sectarianism, confessionalism and the presence of non-Jewish communities, all render any agreed definition of "Israelism" impossible. The conclusion Pappe draws from his analysis is that the only viable solution is one democratic state with equal civil and human rights for all.

For those who are not familiar with this idea and who may think that it is a new one, it is worth looking at the historical background to it and the reason why it failed in the past and why it would also fail in the future.

Unlike the current situation, where most supporters of this idea are Palestinians, during the Mandate period [when Palestine was under British rule prior to 1948] 99% of the bi-nationalists were Jewish. It is not difficult to understand the reason for this. Nationalists who feel weak at a given moment but dream of domination based on military power, sheer numbers, or technological advantage at some point in the future will advocate this idea as an interim measure.

Those involved in the discussions about the possibility of establishing a bi-national state in Palestine were mostly intellectuals, predominantly of Central European origin. They all believed in Zionism and in the Jewish right to return to the Land of Israel, but they thought that the idea of one Jewish state could not be realized because of the disparity in numbers.

Amongst the bi-nationalists there were several distinct groups. First of all, there was a group of Professors from the Hebrew University around "Ichud". The second group consisted of labor Zionists. Some of them maintained that the bi-national state should include the whole of Mandatory Palestine, both west and east of the River Jordan. A third group consisted of old-timers - people who had settled in the country towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, spoke Arabic and had many Arab friends and colleagues. The concept of living together came naturally to them, and bi-nationalism to them was simply an extension of their own personal experience.

For a while, after the 1929"disturbances", (which included the massacre of the Jews in Hebron, after which the old Jewish community in the town ceased to exist), David Ben-Gurion himself, who was already leader of the Zionist Labor Movement but not yet leader of the Zionist Movement, was one of these. At that stage he started to play around with the idea of cantonisation (dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab cantons).

The first group of liberal Zionist intellectuals, Martin Buber, Judah L. Magnes and Ernst Simon, who formed the Ichud Association, were conscious of the fact that the Zionist capitalists were stronger in terms of technology but did not have the numbers. They preached the idea of Bi-Nationalism not only as a way to securing the Zionist colonialist project, but also as a means of securing the domination of Zionist capital throughout the entire Middle East. Shimon Peres and his idea of a New Middle East is an echo of the same predatory vision.

In an article under the title The Bi-National Approach to Zionism the philosopher Martin Buber explained why the road to a successful Zionist project leads through the Bi nationalist state:

“When some years ago, a group of Jews from Jerusalem and elsewhere in Palestine combined their efforts in founding the Ichud (Union) Association, and later created the monthly Be'ayot as its organ, the main problem occupying their minds was the one usually referred to as the Arab question. This problem consists in the relationship between Jewish settlement in Palestine and Arab life, or, as it may be termed, the intra-national basis of Jewish settlement.

“…Jewish settlement in Palestine, which was embarked upon in order to enable the Jewish people to survive as a national entity, and which, in its social, economic and cultural aspects, constitutes an enterprise of universal significance, suffered from one basic error, which handicapped the development of its positive features. This basic error consisted in the tribute paid by political leadership to the traditional colonial policy…

“Whoever pointed to this state of affairs as constituting a decisive factor in the shaping of the future, had to realize that the Zionist public and their leaders were, in this respect, blind to reality. This blindness was bound to prove fatal. To a large extent, this attitude and its practical consequences are responsible for the fact that the self-confidence and desire for self-determination prevailing among the Arab population of Palestine have found a militant form of expression.

“What was needed at the outset of the settlement enterprise - in any case at the initiation of the modern one, undertaken with an international perspective - was a clearly defined program of do ut des (give and take). Such a program should have provided for the collective integration of the backward Arab population, as a whole, into Jewish economic activities and should have secured, in exchange, the indispensable demands necessary for the survival of the Jewish people as a national entity: free immigration, free acquisition of land, and the right of self-determination. What was actually put into practice, even when it seemed to answer real necessity, as was the case with the principle of "Jewish Labor" (1), was bound to have results almost contrary to the above program. In these circumstances, those in the Arab camp who wanted to shape the awakening Arab national movement in a negative, defensive manner, instead of allowing it to develop positive and social features, which would have threatened their interests, had an easy task.

“We describe our program as that of a bi-national state - that is, we aim at a social structure based on the reality of two peoples living together. The foundations of this structure cannot be the traditional ones of majority and minority, but must be different... The road to be pursued is that of an agreement between the two nations - naturally also taking into account the productive participation of smaller national groups - an agreement which, in our opinion, would lead to Jewish-Arab cooperation in the revival of the Middle East, with the Jewish partner concentrated in a strong settlement in Palestine. This cooperation, though necessarily starting out from economic premises, will allow development in accordance with an all-embracing cultural perspective and on the basis of a feeling of at-oneness, tending to result in a new form of society."

Recently, on January 9, even the so-called new Prime Minister of Palestine has threatened in despair that the Palestinians could call for a bi-national state. According to Agence France Presse: "The Palestinians could call for a bi-national state which they would share with the Israelis if diplomatic channels for creating a state of their own lead nowhere, Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei said. 'Israel's continued policy of building the wall means that talk about a Palestinian state makes no sense,' Qorei told AFP, referring to the separation barrier which Israel is building in the West Bank. 'If this Israeli policy continues, we are going to come back to the option of a single, bi-national democratic state,' he added." (AFP 09/01/04)

Most liberals in Israel however oppose the idea of a bi-national state. Uri Avnery the leader of Gush Shalom (Peace block) has written an article under the title, The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, which exposes the weakness of the idea of bi-nationalism from the point of view of the mainstream "Peace lover" liberals - Liberals that in the context of other countries and other periods would be considered to be very conservative. It is written from a clear anti-communist and anti-internationalist perspective, reflecting his belief in the imperialist order that he wants to maintain as the only possible reality.

Nevertheless he makes a valid point. A bi-national capitalist state would be based on a form of Apartheid. What he hides of course is that two states, one strong capitalist Israeli state on most of the land, with the other one dependent on Israel with its main function being to provide cheap labor, would also be another form of Apartheid. And thus he wrote:" 'The wolf shall dwell with the lamb' prophesied Isaiah (11:6). This is possible in our times, too - provided you bring a new lamb every day."

Avnery is right that this cruel joke reflects the reality of the idea of a bi-national state." He explains that despair is pushing some Israeli left-wing circles to adopt this noble but unrealistic idea at a time when only nationalism prevails; at a time when the multi-national Soviet Union has disappeared, and even the multi-national Russian Federation is under pressure (see Chechnya); at a time when not only Yugoslavia has disintegrated, but even one of its former components, Bosnia, has also broken into two parts that are only glued together artificially, and kept together by the presence of foreign troops; at a time when even the unity of Canada has been threatened by movements within the French-speaking population.

He poses three questions: 1) Will both sides accept this solution? 2) Can a bi-national state function? 3) Will it put an end to the conflict? His reply to all three questions is an unqualified 'no'.

The Israelis are strongly nationalist. Some Palestinians do indeed talk longingly of a bi-national state, but he believes that for some of them, at least, this is just a code word for the elimination of the State of Israel, and for some others an escape from bitter reality to the dream of returning to their homes and villages of the past. The chance that the two nations will accept the bi-national idea in the foreseeable future is remote indeed.

At present a bi-national state would not be viable, because in order to function properly, one of two conditions must be fulfilled: either all sides give up their national identity or they must have equal economic and political power. He maintains that this is a communist utopia that reality has smashed.

Then he turns to the supporters of the bi-national idea who have developed the theory that in the beginning the joint state would indeed be some kind of an apartheid state, but one where the situation would change gradually over time, and the Arabs would become the majority. Even now, some 5.4 million Jews and 4.6 million Arab Palestinians live between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. According to this theory the higher Arab birthrate would soon change the ratio. The Palestinian majority would thus fight for equality. The world would support them, as it supported the South-African struggle against Apartheid. And this would finally lead to a real democratic state.

Avnery tells these people that that this is a wishful dream: "The white racists in South Africa were hated by the whole world. Unlike the Jewish Israelis, they had no powerful base of support. American Jewry has immense political, economic and media might, and they will not lose it for many years to come. Israel continues to rely on – and will do so for a long time – the guilt feelings of the Christian world inspired by the holocaust. At the same time, the Arabs are becoming more and more the bogyman of the Western world. It will be far more difficult for international pressure to influence the Jewish community that will dominate the bi-national state. It will take generations, and in the meantime the expansion of the settlements will go on relentlessly. In a bi-national state every Jew can, of course, settle wherever he or she wants. The Palestinians will continually lose out economically, and the gap between the two peoples will grow."

His conclusion as a "realist" - i.e. a person who supports the imperialist order - is that two states are needed for two peoples. However his solution is as realistic as the idea of a bi nationalist capitalist state for the simple reason that both are based on the assumption that the capitalist class, in the epoch of the decay of the capitalist system, can find a solution to democratic questions. Both are preaching to the workers and the poor peasants a message of submission to the masters. Both liberal visions are, in the words of the Wobblies' song The Preacher and the Slave, "Pie in the sky."

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay
You'll get pie in the sky when you die.

Thus the liberals are offering us two choices. After all they are "real democrats". They offer us one form of class and national exploitation and oppression in the form of two states or another form of the same class content in the form of one state.

In this epoch as Trotsky explained in the theory of The Permanent Revolution, the only class that can solve the democratic tasks including the national question is the working class. Unlike the despairing petit bourgeois intellectuals who are nationalists of different stripes, the world view of the working class is internationalist. The solution of the working class to the national question in Israel/Palestine is not one or two or three capitalist states but a socialist federation of the Middle East where all nations including the Israelis and the Palestinians would have their own territorial autonomies. The working class has no interest in a "solution" à la South Africa where the white capitalists are still the ruling class while the state is run by black bureaucrats who are using it to defend the same old rulers. The workers of South Africa wanted a socialist revolution that was within the reach of the working class had there been a revolutionary leadership instead of the nationalist ANC and the reformist leadership of the SACP.

The multi-national Soviet Union that was built by the Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky has disappeared for the time being, because of Stalinism that came to power as result of the isolation of the Soviet Union, isolation that the nationalist liberals did their best to enforce. As Trotsky explained many years ago, unless the working class removed the Stalinist bureaucracy and opened the road to socialism as part of the world revolution, the pro-capitalist bureaucrats would eventually destroy the Soviet Union. The nationalist hell that exists today in the former Soviet Union is the result of the social counter-revolution that Avnery supported for so many years.

Even in countries of advanced capitalism where the national question should have been solved years ago, nationalist separatist tendencies have re-emerged. This is the case in Britain, in Italy and many others. The example of Canada is an enlightening one. The unity of Canada has been threatened by nationalist capitalist movements within the French-speaking population reacting to the national oppression fostered by the English-speaking Conservatives and Liberals. The wave of nationalist sentiment in Quebec reinforces Lenin's description of nationalism as a question of bread. The world economy is in crisis and profits are down. Capitalism has forced its ruling class to cut costs, and it is always the working class who feel the brunt of these cuts. The reformist leadership is attempting to divert the class struggle against the ruling class along nationalist lines. As the Marxists Lorenzo Fiorito & Miriam Martin wrote in their article The Defeat of the Parti Québécois - An analysis of the 2003 Québec Election,

"It is an absolute crime on the part of the labour leaders any time that working people are allowed to be led down the blind alley of nationalism. While genuine socialists fully support the right of nations to self-determination, we call not for separation but for voluntary unity of the working class of all nations. Dividing the working class along national lines can benefit only the bourgeoisie, who are all too happy to divide and conquer. The Charest Liberals have already met to discuss strategy with the infamous BC Liberals and the near future will be full of attacks on the poor and on organized labour. There will be incredible volatility and it will need its political expression. Things will continue to get worse for Québecois families and the answer to their need MUST come from socialists, from labour. If this answer is not provided, in the next economic crisis, the absence of a working class leadership will lead to increased nationalism and working people will again be distracted from the only real solution to their problems – the emancipation of their class. A legitimate left labour party in Québec would draw in the best layers of the separatist movement. They would dump the capitalist separatists and unite under a labour banner, fighting first and foremost for working class emancipation – the only solution to the problems of working people in Quebec, Canada, and worldwide."

What is valid for Canada is even more valid and appropriate for Israel/Palestine.