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October 2003 • Vol 3, No. 9 •

Cry, the Beloved Two-State Solution

By Ari Shavit

As negotiations with the Palestinians lurch forward and the separation wall snakes its way through the West Bank, two veteran leftists have reached a startling conclusion: There cannot be two states for two peoples in this land.

1. The groundwater

Meron Benvenisti and Haim Hanegbi did not exchange views. Benvenisti lives in Jerusalem, on the edge of the desert, and is trying to write a last book, a summing up. Hanegbi lives in Ramat Aviv, not far from the sea, and is trying to formulate a last, definitive, manifesto. Yet this summer both Benvenisti and Hanegbi reached an intriguing point in their conceptual development. They both reached the conclusion that there is no longer any prospect of ending the conflict by means of a two-state solution. Each of them separately has come to believe that the time has come to establish one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea: a bi-national state.

On the face of it, they come from utterly different worlds. Benvenisti’s roots lie deep in the old Zionist establishment. He was the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek’s right-hand man, a candidate of Ratz (the predecessor of Meretz) for the Knesset. Hanegbi, in contrast, is a retired revolutionary. He was a central activist in the radical-left Matzpen group, one of the founders of the Progressive List, a partner in the leadership of the peace movement, Gush Shalom. However, Benvenisti and Hanegbi also share a deep common background. Both are from Jerusalem and are graduates of the city’s Beit Hakerem high school, both are Ashkenazi-Sephardi whose ideas were shaped in the latter stages of the British Mandate period. And both of them love this land and love human beings. Both are surging rivers of emotions and stories and sheer human vitality.

It’s precisely because they are not cut of the same cloth, because they are not from the same ideological circle, that the parallel, albeit not identical, processes they are undergoing are so fascinating. True, they are both end-figures, lone wolves, sensitive sentimentalists who are sometimes perceived as eccentrics. Nevertheless, each is an original thinker with finely tuned senses. Both have a knee-jerk aversion to falsity, whitewashing, and uniform thought. So perhaps the fact that the two of them arrived during the past year at the conceptual place they now occupy is of some significance. Possibly it says something about the groundwater of the current Israeli reality.

2. Haim Hanegbi

Where did it start? Right after the start of the Intifada. Already then I told [veteran peace activist] Uri Avnery that I was regressing, I was returning to my origins, that it might be time to reconsider the dream of a shared state. But Avnery laughed—that’s his way. He said I was dreaming. Avnery has done a lot in the battle for peace and the battle against the occupation, but Avnery also has a defect. He has no psychic mechanism. Just as [pioneer Zionist activist Joseph] Trumpeldor had only one arm, Avnery is incapable of relating to people. It’s not something evil, it’s not indifference, it’s a disability. He simply lacks that emotional organ. So he laughed at me with a kind of patronizing disdain and ignored what I said. I didn’t respond.

For the next three years we continued to formulate the Friday messages of Gush Shalom. But at the beginning of the summer I decided I could no longer remain silent, that I had to come out with it. So I wrote a text against the occupation at the end of which I included, for the first time, the idea of one state for the two nations. A state in partnership, a bi-national state.

Avnery went wild. He was furious. He said I was harming the Palestinian cause and endangering the Palestinian state and serving the right wing. That I was reinforcing fears of the “phased theory.” When I insisted that the text be sent to all the members of Gush Shalom, I was told that it would not be disseminated because it was contrary to the Gush Shalom consensus. I said, fine, if that’s how it is, I’m leaving Gush Shalom. So with one phone call, I left Gush Shalom. Others also left in my wake. Half of the hardcore left, so now I am working with a few good people on disseminating my old-new idea about the renewal of bi-national thinking. As I wrote in my document, it is plain to me today that there is no other alternative to ending the conflict. Everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear has to understand that only a bi-national partnership can save us. That is the only way to transform ourselves from being strangers in our land into native sons.

The truth is that it all started long ago, in the Mekor Baruch neighborhood of Jerusalem. When I was 10, at the end of the Mandate period, our landlord was an Arab named Jamil. The word “Alhambra” was chiseled in stone on the house in Arabic and English. And the house next door was not only owned by Arabs, it was also inhabited by Arabs. The whole neighborhood from our house west was mixed. And at my dad’s place of work, the Jerusalem municipality, Jews and Arabs worked together, too. My dad took me on outings in and around Jerusalem. I remember Palestinian Ein Karem very well, and Malha and Lifta and Beit Mazmil. So the Arabs were never strangers to me. They were always part of my landscape. Part of the country. And I never doubted the possibility of living with them: house next to house, street next to street.

At the end of 1947 they disappeared. It was in the winter, in the middle of eighth grade. And the strange thing is that it wasn’t in the least traumatic. It was all done quietly, without any dramatics. They just sort of evaporated. I’m not even sure I saw them packing. I’m not really sure I saw them collecting their things and melting away down the slope behind Schneller Camp. But I remember Deir Yassin well. I remember that we were in our classroom in the Beit Hakarem high school when we saw the smoke rising from Deir Yassin [an Arab village on the western edge of Jerusalem where a massacre was perpetrated in 1948].

So, in the 1960s, when we talked about the principle of equality in Matzpen, I wasn’t just thinking in terms of socialism or a universal concept. With me it was baladi, my country, the scents and memories of my childhood. Then came obsessive collecting of Mandate period maps to locate the villages that had been erased, the life that ceased to be. And the feeling that without them this is a barren country, a disabled country, a country that caused an entire nation to disappear.

So it wasn’t easy for me to adopt the two-state solution, in the 1980s. It was a tough inner struggle. And I never, ever, joined the Zionist left. I never abandoned revolutionary thinking. But when I saw that Peace Now existed and that there was some sort of movement in the streets I didn’t think it was right to stay cooped up with dogmas. I thought the two-state idea was a worthy one.

When Oslo came, I thought it was really something great. I read the accords thoroughly, under a magnifying glass, and I reached the conclusion that there really was mutual recognition, that the possibility existed of closing the conflict file. So in the mid-1990s I had second thoughts about my traditional approach. I didn’t think it was my task to go to Ramallah and present the Palestinians with the list of Zionist wrongs and tell them not to forget what our fathers did to their fathers. I believed in the dynamics of Oslo. I also believed in [Yitzhak] Rabin. After the assassination I even joined the Labor Party.

In the past couple of years I realized that I made a mistake; that, like the Palestinians, I too was taken in. I took Israeli talk seriously and didn’t pay attention to Israeli deeds. When I realized, one day, that the settlements had doubled themselves, I also realized that Israel had missed its one hour of grace, had rejected the rare opportunity it was given. Then I understood that Israel could not free itself of its expansionist pattern. It is bound hand and foot to its constituent ideology and to its constituent act, which was an act of dispossession.

I realized that the reason it is so tremendously difficult for Israel to dismantle settlements is that any recognition that the settlements in the West Bank exist on plundered Palestinian land will also cast a threatening shadow over the Jezreel Valley, and over the moral status of Beit Alfa and Ein Harod. I understood that a very deep pattern was at work here. That there is one historical continuum that runs from Kibbutz Beit Hashita to the illegal settler outposts; from Moshav Nahalal to the Gush Katif settlements in the Gaza Strip. And that continuity apparently cannot be broken. It’s a continuity that takes us back to the very beginning, to the incipient moment.

I am now reading a book by Eliezer Be’eri about the beginning of the conflict and the start of the Zionist enterprise. At one point, he describes how, on November 3, 1878, as Yehuda Raab tilled the first furrow in the soil of Petah Tikva, he felt that “he is the first person to hold a Jewish plow on the soil of the prophets after the long years of exile.” But look what it says here: “Arabs also joined Yehuda Raab on the big day when plowing began.

He himself, with his plow harnessed to animals, could not have tilled an area of hundreds of dunams. He was joined in the plowing by 12 Arab fellahin.”

What does that mean, Ari? You tell me what it means. What it means is that when Yehuda Raab came to till the first furrow after 2,000 years of exile he didn’t have the strength to do it alone. He needed fellahin, and 12 of them came to help him. Reading that, I tell myself that I know all about Raab and who his descendants were and I know how his project developed. But I know absolutely nothing about the 12 fellahin. They appear in history as unknowns and disappear from history the same way, with hardly a trace. They were removed from history by Zionism. Who were they? Where did they go? Where are they today?

So the aging revolutionary you see before you has taken a vow to find those 12 vanished individuals, those 12 abductees of history. My life mission is to set them free from their historical captivity and give them names and faces and rights. Because their whole sin in relation to Raab was that they lived in this country untold generations before him. Why should they be punished for that? Why insist on their oblivion?

I don’t think this is some private madness. On the contrary: I think it is an attempt to be released from madness. I am not a psychologist, but I think that everyone who lives with the contradictions of Zionism condemns himself to protracted madness. It’s impossible to live like this. It’s impossible to live with such a tremendous wrong. It’s impossible to live with such conflicting moral criteria. When I see not only the settlements and the occupation and the suppression, but now also the insane wall that the Israelis are trying to hide behind, I have to conclude that there is something very deep here in our attitude to the indigenous people of this land that drives us out of our minds.

There is something gigantic here that doesn’t allow us truly to recognize the Palestinians, that doesn’t allow us to make peace with them. And that something has to do with the fact that even before the return of the land and the houses and the money, the settlers’ first act of expiation toward the natives of this land must be to restore to them their dignity, their memory, their justness.

But that is just what we are incapable of doing. Our past won’t allow us to do it. Our past forces us to believe in the project of a Jewish nation-state that is a hopeless cause. Our past prevents us from seeing that the whole story of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is over. Because if you want Jewish sovereignty you must have a border, but as [Zionist thinker and activist Yitzhak] Tabenkin said, this country cannot tolerate a border in its midst. If you want Jewish sovereignty you need a fortified, separatist uni-national structure, but that is contrary to the spirit of the age. Even if Israel surrounds itself with a fence and a moat and a wall, it won’t help. Because your fears are well-placed, Ari: Israel as a Jewish state can no longer exist here. In the long term, Israel as a Jewish state will not be able to exist.

I’m not crazy. I don’t think that it will be possible to enlist thousands of people in the cause of a bi-national state tomorrow morning. But when I consider that Meron Benvenisti was right in saying that the occupation has become irreversible, and when I see where the madness of sovereignty is leading good Israelis, I raise my own little banner again. I do so without illusions. I am not part of any army. I am not the leader of any army. In the meantime our act is that of a few people. But I think it’s important to place this idea on the table now.

In essence, the bi-national principle is the deepest antithesis of the wall. The purpose of the wall is to separate, to isolate, to imprison the Palestinians in pens. But the wall imprisons the Israelis, too. It turns Israel into a ghetto. The wall is the great despairing solution of the Jewish-Zionist society. It is the last desperate act of those who cannot confront the Palestinian issue. Of those who are compelled to push the Palestinian issue out of their lives and out of their consciousness. In the face of that I say the opposite. I say that we were apparently too forgiving toward Zionism; that the Jews who came here and found a land that wasn’t empty adopted a pattern of unrestrained force. Instead of the conflict foisting moral order and reason on them, it addicted them to the use of force. But that force has played itself out, it has reached its limits. If Israel remains a colonialist state in its character, it will not survive. In the end the region will be stronger than Israel, in the end the indigenous people will be stronger than Israel. Those who hope to live by the sword will die by the sword. That is perfectly clear, Ari: they will die by the sword.

Don’t treat me as a stranger, as an outsider. True, it’s easier for me, because I’m from Hebron and Jerusalem, from the Old Yishuv. It’s easier for me because I never took part in the killing and the dispossession and the occupation. All the same, I feel a commitment toward the society I live in. And precisely because of that, I believe that anyone who wants to ensure the existence of a Jewish community in this country has to free himself from the Zionist pattern, has to open gates. Because as things are now, there is no chance. A Jewish nation-state will not take hold here.

It’s totally clear that it can’t be done without recognition in principle of the right of return, because this is a case in which a nation was condemned to exile from its land, not because there was no room, but because it was supplanted by others. That injustice has not been erased for 55 years and it won’t be erased in another 55 years. But that doesn’t mean they will return to Jamusin, which is in the middle of Tel Aviv. It doesn’t mean they will settle at the corner of Arlosoroff and Ibn Gvirol.

What it means is that the borders have to be open to them, as in Europe. It means the establishment of a super-modern city in Galilee for the 200,000 or 300,000 refugees in Lebanon. It means the establishment of another Palestinian-Jewish city between Hebron and Gaza that will both make the desert bloom and connect the two parts of Palestine.

In general, we have to shift to a bi-national mode of thinking. Maybe in the end we have to create a new, bi-national Israel, just as a new, multiracial South Africa was created.

There will be no other choice, anyway. The attempt to achieve Jewish sovereignty that is fenced in and insular has to be abandoned. We will have to come to terms with the fact that we will live here as a minority: a Jewish minority that will no longer be squeezed between Hadera and Gedera, but will be able to settle in Nablus and Baghdad and Damascus, too—and take part in the democratization of the Middle East. That will be able to live and die here, to establish mixed cities and mixed neighborhoods and mixed families. But for that to happen, the mad dream of sovereignty will have to be given up, Ari. We have to forgo that mad dream, which has caused so much bloodshed here, has inflicted so many disasters, has generated a hundred years of conflict.

Ha’aretz (Jerusalem), August 7, 2003





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