Toby Greene

Bi-national state is a dangerous delusion

The notion risks leading a generation of well-meaning, liberal, diaspora Jews into a rabbit hole, writes Toby Greene

July 16, 2020 14:17

Those announcing the death of the two-state solution should wonder why its death needs announcing so often. The answer is, a compelling solution to a difficult problem won’t die without a better one coming along. Usually those keenest to bury the two-state solution are those opposed to it. Now former proponents — such as Peter Beinart, cited approvingly by Jonathan Freedland — are joining them. This is a big mistake.

Beinart is half right in analysing the dangers of the current order. It can be sustained only through Israeli power, with escalating costs to Israel’s liberal democracy and social cohesion. A new intifada could lead to Israeli withdrawals, but also, as Beinart warns, to a Palestinian catastrophe. Beinart’s error is in claiming a bi-national state is the most attainable alternative to this dark fate.

It is not correct — as Beinart claims — that the current reality is a bi-national state minus Palestinian rights. The Gaza Strip, though besieged and impoverished, looks more like a mini-state than anything else, since Hamas controls the territory and its borders with both Egypt and Israel. The Palestinian Authority, though having only limited territorial control in the West Bank, is nonetheless a foreign country to most Israelis.

Nor is it correct that Israel has consumed too much West Bank land to make a Palestinian state possible. Some 80 per cent of settlers live in blocs close to the Green Line that can be annexed in a territorial agreement. Isolated settlements represent barely one per cent of Israel’s population, living on built-up area covering barely one per cent of the West Bank. What’s more, most Israelis are ambivalent about isolated settlements. They value maintaining a Jewish majority over controlling all the territory.

These facts may explain why many Israelis seem uninterested in Netanyahu’s annexation proposals. They also give hope that Israelis can still be persuaded their interests are served by the eventual establishment of a viable Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank. However, they will never be persuaded their interests are served by allowing West Bank and Gazan Palestinians to become citizens of Israel, or that they should trade their Jewish majority state for a binational state. Nor should they. Northern Ireland and Belgium are not apt models as Beinart claims. They are beset with discord. More to the point, they are not in the Middle East, where multi-confessional constitutions and non-Muslim minorities do very badly.

A bi-national state is therefore not just a benign illusion, but a dangerous delusion, not least because it risks leading a generation of well-meaning, liberal, diaspora Jews into a rabbit hole. That said, the settlement population is growing, past negotiations have failed, and all territories previously ceded by Israel have become bases for armed extremists.

So what’s a liberal Zionist to do? First, update the vision of the two-state endgame. Creative ideas can soften some practical and political problems in the classic model, such as special residency arrangements that avoid uprooting isolated settlements. Sometimes these ideas are labelled as confederalism, but the most persuasive build around two sovereign states with special arrangements, rather than a binational state. Second, focus on achievable steps that can be taken now, which tilt reality towards a two-state solution. These include proposals to advance separation in the West Bank.

Practical steps towards a realistic vision offer more promise for Israelis and Palestinians than an unachievable binational fantasy.

Toby Greene is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London. @toby_greene_

July 16, 2020 14:17

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