Omer Aziz is a former foreign policy adviser in the government of Justin Trudeau and the author of Brown Boy: A Memoir.
When I first visited Israel, in 2016, I came away with a surprising conclusion: I wished that more Muslims and Arabs could see the country and how its democratic institutions worked – how its courts, the Knesset, and its civil society organizations functioned. Rather than build walls, I came away thinking it was time to build bridges.
This was despite the fact that Israeli authorities detained me for several hours when I arrived at the airport. At the end of the day, I resembled the terrorists to them, even though I was with my fellow classmates from Yale Law School.
In Israel itself, I noticed that people were respectful. I noticed Palestinian citizens of Israel walking through Jerusalem, though they were limited in their actual rights. I noticed armed soldiers looking at me while they were on perpetual alert for any sudden movements.
Of course, a people decimated at the genocidal hands of European fascism would, at some level, take self-defence very seriously. But I found myself worrying that such a permanent siege mentality – a state of ceaseless war in which a country perpetually kept its finger on the trigger – would ultimately harm Israeli democracy itself.
That democracy ended at the line where the Occupied Palestinian Territory – its name, according to the International Court of Justice – began. Since 1967, millions of Palestinians have lived under Israeli military occupation, either effective or official, even after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005. They have been policed, patrolled, controlled, conquered; in this netherworld, behind fences and walls, there is no freedom.
The more than five million Palestinians living today in Gaza and the West Bank do not have voting rights and cannot fully participate in Israeli society. They have separate ID cards and are tried in military courts. They are barred from free movement, and redress is nearly impossible. Palestinians are effectively colonized subjects, and in Gaza, are confined to what has been described, by a UN human-rights expert and others, as an open-air prison.
In some ways, I am beholden to what I know. I have grown up with Israel and Hamas going to war, with the brunt of the death and destruction suffered by Palestinian civilians. For me, the issue has always been about justice: that Israelis live in peace and Palestinians also have a homeland. Unlike many intractable geopolitical issues, this one seemed to have a workable solution: Two states for two peoples, which was the official, U.S. and UN-recognized resolution of the conflict, and the stated policy of Canada, the EU and Russia. There were even specific formulas for peace, land-swaps and the sharing of Jerusalem. In 2002, all the Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, proposed a land-for-peace solution: Israel withdraws from the Palestinian territories, in return for full normalization of ties with every Arab country. The Arab states renewed this proposal as recently as 2017. Official U.S. and Canadian policy, since 1967, has remained that Israeli occupation is inconsistent with international law.
Every few years, there are both new conflicts and new peace initiatives sponsored by the United States. But the Israeli settlements have continued to grow in number, and the prospects for peace diminished. The message these expanded settlements sent on the ground was that the occupation of Palestinians would continue in perpetuity. Meanwhile, settler violence toward Palestinians only worsened.
No matter the many negotiating details, or who-said-what-when, the underlying premise of those peace efforts was faulty. There could be no successful peace talks when Israel continued building settlements. This is why then-president Barack Obama tried his best, in 2009, to bring a halt to them: It was just not possible to strike a deal on land when the land is being taken during the negotiations. But Israeli settlement expansion actually increased during all U.S.-brokered peace negotiations with Palestinians; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even defiantly announced new settlements just as Joe Biden, then the U.S.’s vice-president, landed in Jerusalem in 2010.
There were many reasons the peace initiatives have failed: internal division among the Palestinians; intransigence in Israeli coalitions; terrorists exploiting the peace process to commit violence. Over the years, the Israeli far-right has come to power and rejected compromise with the Palestinians. The Israeli prime minister who most tried to make peace was Yitzhak Rabin; he was gunned down by a settler extremist in 1995.
Through it all, however, the main issue – the indefinite occupation of Palestinians – was never addressed. And in the case of Gaza, the objective even after Israel’s disengagement was to control the Palestinians through “Gaza’s external borders, airspace, territorial waters, population registry, tax revenues, and governmental functions,” according to a UN special rapporteur, while also shutting down their hopes. “The significance of the [Gaza] disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process,” said Dov Weisglass, a senior adviser to Israel’s then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. “When you freeze the process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.” Oppress the West Bank from within; oppress Gaza from outside.
Despite all this, my faith in the two-state solution persisted. At one point nearly a decade ago, a senior UN official told me that Israel was not serious about peace with the Palestinians, that Israel would continue building settlements until one day, there was nothing to negotiate over and no one to negotiate with. At that point, Israel would unilaterally declare its borders. I debated this point, noting Mr. Netanyahu’s own highly qualified acceptance of a Palestinian state in 2009, but I feared that this was meant to assuage a global audience.
Mr. Netanyahu played along with the U.S.-sponsored peace process for as long as he could. But late in Mr. Obama’s second term, the mask came off. Mr. Netanyahu fear-mongered among Israelis by warning that Arabs were coming out “in droves” to vote and presenting them as a danger. In 2019, Mr. Netanyahu declared his intent to annex the West Bank, and this year, his government effectively began doing so. Just three months ago, he declared that hopes for a Palestinian state “must be eliminated.” His own internal Security Minister is a convicted criminal and committed racist. Indeed, Mr. Netanyahu became so entrenched in settler expansion, and so unrelenting in his assault on Israeli institutions, that he may have compromised Israel’s security in the process.
Meanwhile, settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank has become worse than it has ever been, with random assaults or mob attacks on Palestinians who have no police or law to protect them. In August, the heads of Israel’s military, police and domestic security services warned Mr. Netanyahu that increased settler violence against Palestinian civilians was spurring more violence. “The nationalist crime and nationalist terror,” military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said at the time, referring to settler attacks, “push civilians in the Palestinian Authority who are not involved in terror – to terror.”
There are now more than 622,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank; the settler population is growing at a faster rate than the Israeli population. No Israeli government will upset that voting bloc of settlers or extract that many people from the area. Palestinians are experiencing the oldest story in the book: a colonized people repeatedly promised a homeland, on land they have lived on for centuries, and then forced to endure decades of occupation while being told by outsiders to quietly accept subjugation.
It is difficult for me to write this, but the prospects for a two-state solution, so elusive for nearly six decades, are now over. The Israeli far-right is emboldened, and the Israeli public will not accept a state on its borders, demilitarized or not, that it does not fully control. There is a reason why Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, once said that if given a choice between the Palestinian territories or peace, he would choose peace: He knew that eventually a moment would come when Israel would have to choose between its democracy and its occupation.
That moment has arrived. The way forward now is for Israel to become a binational, federated democracy with strong local autonomy. For this to work, the Palestinian territories would have to be absorbed into Israel, with full civil and political rights for all citizens. Israel’s Jewish heritage would be preserved via law and custom, but the state would remain officially secular. Palestinians could then turn to the ballot box and peaceful protests as democratic outlets, the way minority groups do in other democracies. Equality under the law would be supreme.
Federalism would be crucial: The Palestinians would have locally elected leaders who would address local concerns, as well as nationally elected leaders, within a federal parliament. This would still be true to the idea of a Jewish homeland, while also expanding it to include the Jewish people’s brethren: the Palestinians who are living there. A binational federation may not have the symbolic appeal of statehood, but it has the potential to radically improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians and Israelis.
In simpler terms, Israel will have to become like another imperfect, multiethnic, multiracial democracy: the United States of America.
Terrorism is always wrong, and there is no virtue in denying any people’s existence. Nor is there any redemption in imagining the extermination of Palestinians. Ignoring the humanity of the Palestinian people, and pretending they can be occupied forever, is not only morally wrong – it will strategically backfire. No amount of repression will ever bring about peace. And while it may be too idealistic to think Israelis and Palestinians can live together after this war, the alternative – permanent hostility – is worse.
“Tanks and planes cannot redeem humanity,” wrote the late rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great moral thinkers of the 20th century. War will never resolve this conflict – but liberal democracy just might.