Philip Slayton’s latest book is Antisemitism: An Ancient Hatred in the Age of Identity Politics.
On Monday more than a thousand Israeli troops, backed by military bulldozers and armed drones, descended on a large Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin. Their intent was to destroy militant armed groups and independent militias using the camp as a headquarters. At least 13 Palestinians were killed and 120 injured during the Israeli raid, which left one soldier dead. Meanwhile in Tel Aviv, in a so-called “tit-for-tat” revenge attack, nine people were wounded by a Palestinian in a car-ramming and stabbing incident.
These events are only the latest in a decades-long struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. It began with the 750,000 Arabs who fled or were expelled during the 1948 Israeli war of independence (some of the descendants of those expelled live in the Jenin refugee camp). Since 1948, things have gone from bad to worse. The situation deteriorated dramatically in 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank of the Jordan River, land generally regarded as Palestinian territory and part of Jordan before the Israeli occupation.
Many people of goodwill who once sought peace between Israelis and Palestinians have given up. Bitterness and extremism continue to deepen on both sides of the conflict. Will this dreadful conflict never end?
Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University (and a Palestinian), has made an assessment that is exactly right: “There are now two peoples in Palestine, irrespective of how they came into being, and the conflict between them cannot be resolved as long as the national existence of each is denied by the other. Their mutual acceptance can only be based on complete equality of rights, including national rights, notwithstanding the crucial historical differences between the two.”
But how on Earth to get Israeli Jews and Palestinians to accept each other’s national existence? How can complete equality of rights for these two peoples ever be established, given history and present circumstances?
For a long time, attempts to achieve these goals focused on the so-called “two-state solution.” This proposed a fully independent Palestinian state, comprising the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. The two-state approach reached its apogee with the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The Oslo Accords were intended to start a process that would lead to Palestinian self-determination. But the Oslo process came to an end with the failure of the 2000 Camp David Summit presided over by then-president Bill Clinton.
Many Israelis, particularly those on the right, seek to subvert the idea of a two-state solution in any way they can. They fervently desire a Jewish state that stretches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The most effective means of subverting the two-state solution has been extensive Jewish settlement on the West Bank. There are now more than half-a-million Jewish settlers on the West Bank and the number increases all the time.
The much weaker Palestinians have from time-to-time purported to accept the two-state solution (e.g., in the PLO’s 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence), but with varying degrees of commitment, enthusiasm, nuance and sincerity.
It is ironic that now the two-state solution is increasingly seen as an obstacle to peace. The American writer Peter Beinart, an orthodox Jew and self-proclaimed Zionist, argues that Jewish statehood as envisaged by Jewish leaders clearly includes permanent Israeli control of the West Bank. It is likewise clear, he says, that Israeli leaders would not allow a Palestinian state to have sovereign powers. The two-state project is therefore impossible. The only alternative, he says, is one state, stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, in which – crucially – Palestinians and Jews have equal rights.
But to most, the one-state solution seems like a febrile pipe dream. Bret Stephens writing in The New York Times described the proposal as utopian in theory, bound to be disastrous if it were ever implemented, feckless, and unworkable. The obvious problem is that immediately upon the state’s creation it would have as citizens approximately the same number of Arabs and Jews and, in due course, likely more Arabs than Jews (particularly if there were to be a generous Palestinian right of return).
The one-state solution would eventually – perhaps immediately – put Jews in the minority. It is impossible to see Jewish citizens of Israel, and many Jews in the Diaspora, agreeing to this. The one-state proposal, they would say, subverts the essential idea of Israel as a Jewish state.
There is an answer to this problem, imperfect but plausible. The American philosopher Omri Boehm proposes a federal, binational republic containing two largely independent states. The new republic would recognize the right of both Jews and Palestinians to national self-determination and sovereignty in their own separate territories and yet collectively regulate their separate sovereignty by a joint constitution ensuring human rights, freedom of movement, and economic liberties. This approach to political organization is quite familiar to a Canadian living in a confederation of people with different cultures, languages, laws and traditions. We might even call it the “Canadian Solution.”
The main issue with the Boehm proposal is whether the guarantees offered by a joint constitution would deal effectively with the enormous problem of the West Bank Jewish settlements, which would find themselves in the new Arab state. Drafting the joint constitution, settling its exact contents, deciding the guarantees offered Jewish West Bank settlers, and determining how the new constitution would be ratified and implemented, would all be tortuous undertakings. A lot of heavy lifting, and much time and international assistance, would be needed. The first question is who would be charged with this monumental task.
The original Zionists, says Mr. Boehm – notably Theodor Herzl, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion – ”believed that the Jews had the right to exercise political self-rule, administrate autonomously their own lives, and revive Jewish culture and education. But they did not believe that this should have been done in a sovereign Jewish state: the Jews’ state was envisaged as a sub-sovereign political entity existing under a multinational political sovereignty.”
What undermined the original Zionist agenda? The Holocaust, which destroyed the Jews’ trust in a liberal democratic world order, and prepared international public opinion for an ethnic Jewish state. “If pluralistic democracy could not protect Jewish life where Jews were a minority, Jews needed their own, exclusive state.”
Mr. Boehm rejects this analysis, and distinguishes between self-determination and sovereignty, a distinction which envisages one liberal state that belongs to and protects all citizens equally, whoever they are. The Canadian Solution.