In the Wake of Arafat, Will the Two-State Solution Survive?

Saree Makdisi is a professor of English literature at UCLA.

Since the death of Yasser Arafat there has been a lot of talk about restarting the Oslo peace process. But in fact, Oslo -- which was premised on the ethnic separation of Jews and Arabs into two states -- ended up embodying the conflict rather than solving it. What is needed now is not more separation but a step toward the cooperative integration of Israelis and Palestinians in one common state.

Paradoxically, it is Israel’s strategy of separation that has finally terminated any possibility of a two-state solution.

Gaza, after 30 years of Israeli rule, is now the world’s largest prison. No one can enter or leave it without Israeli permission, and that will not change even if Israel dismantles its settlements there as promised. The separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank is more of the same. When it is finished, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will be trapped in dozens of separate enclaves, each surrounded by concrete slabs three times the height of the Berlin Wall, with all points of access under Israeli control.

Indeed, West Bank residents are already incarcerated. Even without the completed wall, whole communities are trapped in “closed areas” in the West Bank to which only persons of Jewish origin (and visiting tourists) have unrestricted access. A matrix of Israeli checkpoints breaks the rest of the West Bank into disconnected fragments punctuated by Jewish settlements tied to each other and to Israel by what the army calls a sterile road network -- sterile because it has been cleansed of Palestinians.

To accomplish all this, vast swaths of farmland, orchards and ancient olive groves -- the very basis of an independent Palestinian existence -- have been destroyed. The $2-billion wall, which violates international law by running far beyond Israel’s 1967 border, will encroach on almost half the farmland in the impoverished territory, and two-thirds of its water. If these are to be the borders of the new Palestinian “state” the Israelis would like to see -- and who can doubt that they are? -- then a two-state solution cannot possibly work.


But the objections to a two-state solution are not merely pragmatic. Dividing historic Palestine -- from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean -- into two states would leave the Arab Palestinian population of Israel (a fifth of the total and growing, most of them unlikely to leave) in political limbo in their ancestral homeland. For Israel is no more Jewish than the U.S. is white or Protestant. Palestinian residents of Israel have been granted restricted citizenship (with limited access to land, for example), but they hardly enjoy equal access to democratic privileges in a state whose claim to Jewishness is fundamental to its identity.

When Israel was founded in 1948 in what had been Palestine, nearly all the indigenous population was non-Jewish, and half of them were forced from their homes to make room for Jewish immigrants and colonists pouring in from Europe. Some Palestinians ended up in the West Bank and Gaza -- the 20% of Palestine not captured by Israel in 1948 -- only to fall under Israeli rule once again in 1967. Others remain in refugee camps or the diaspora.

The Oslo negotiations neglected to address such problems and instead extended Israeli control over the occupied territories. Israeli settlement on (and expropriations of) the very land under negotiation continued briskly, and the settler population doubled by the year 2000. At Camp David, the peace process offered nominal Palestinian sovereignty over territory still to be dominated by Israeli settlements, roads and army outposts: a discontinuous “statelet” without control over its own airspace, borders and natural resources, lacking an independent currency or financial system and any of the other attributes of genuine sovereignty.

The question now is not how long Israel’s anachronistic system of ethnic separation -- its regime of walls and ghettos -- can endure in our global, multicultural world, but rather how desirable it is to think in terms of ethnic separation in the first place. Among developed countries, only in Israel is ethnicity deemed an acceptable foundation for politics. And while Israel’s American supporters are quick to denounce religious or racial intolerance in the U.S., they continue to turn a blind eye to such practices there.

There is an alternative. Israel and the occupied territories already constitute a single geopolitical entity, even if it’s not labeled that way. Palestinians such as Azmi Bishara and Edward Said (when he was alive) have joined with Israelis including Ilan Pappe and Meron Benvenisti to call for a peace founded on that reality, rather than false compromises and ethnic separation. That state would join two peoples whom history has thrust together into one democratic, secular and self-governing community of truly equal citizens.