A year to the day that Yassir Arafat died Professor Virginia Tilley of Hobart and William Smith College spoke at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University on "A Well Gone Dry: The Two-State Solution in Israel-Palestine." In October the Center hosted Hind Khoury, Palestinian Authority Minister of State for Jerusalem Affairs, on the topic of "Out of Gaza, Into Jerusalem: Is the Two-State Solution Threatened?" Other October speakers included Israeli film director Chaim Yavin speaking on his film "The Land of the Settlers." It was preceded by an event called "Confronting the Wall: Grassroots Activism in the West Bank" in which Palestinian and Israeli activists spoke.
The pattern is fairly clear, but the fact that a unit of Georgetown University seems to have taken up the old PLO mantra of the "Secular democratic state" does not seem to strike anyone as odd.
The "one state solution" has gained a bit more respectability lately thanks to books like Virginia Tilley's newly published "The One-State Solution A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock." A convenient summary is provided in an article published in 2003. All the traditional objections to the two state solution are recited, any future Palestine will be too small, too divided, too poor, too marginal, killed off by Sharon and the settlements, the US Congress is in thrall to the Israel lobby, the Christian right and business interests, and so on. The then still alive Arafat is corrupt, the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and collapsing, the Islamists are coming, and a host of other objections are raised. So what is the answer? Let's look at some of her proposals.
The challenge for the one-state solution is to find a political path through the transition from rival ethno-nationalisms to a democratic secular formula which would preserve Israel's role as a Jewish haven while dismantling the apartheid-like privileges that presently assign second-class citizenship to non-Jews.
The phrase "find a political path" would seem to be a masterful understatement. What might that path be?
It follows that, in a democratic secular state, the very concept of Jewish statehood (and, implicitly, the scope of Jewish nationalism) would have to change quite radically. National rights and privileges on both sides would have to be guaranteed by subsuming them into Israeli national privileges.
So Israel would have to give up all of its pretentious claims to being a Jewish state and simply become a state, not unlike all its neighbors. In fact, quite a few of things need adjustment:
Land use - some 93 per cent of Israel is at present reserved for Jewish use - would have to be reconfigured. Housing would have to be formally detached from exclusive Jewish occupancy (and the 'Jewish-only' character of the settlements would have to evaporate). The long-established role of the Jewish Agency, which administers Jewish national resources and privileges in Israel, would have to be re-examined. Electoral politics and Knesset representation would also be transformed, to permit legislative debate on the basis of equal ethnic standing. Alterations to the Basic Laws, or the creation of a secular constitution, could ensure that Israel continues to safeguard Jewish lives and rights, providing the sanctuary which many Jews in Israel and abroad remain anxious to preserve. But the same basic law would have to ensure Muslim, Christian and, indeed, agnostic/ atheist rights, and eliminate - at least juridically - any institutionalised hierarchy on ethnic or religious lines.
All these reconfigurations, evaporations, re-examinations, and alterations come on the Israeli side, giving up everything that makes Israel a sovereign and Jewish state. But at least the author is realistic about the challenges ahead:
Such a transition would require years of debate and struggle - and a political will now glaringly absent. Truth commissions and/or a general amnesty might eventually surmount the legacy of violence and hatred, but as in all such aftermaths, the process will take generations.
The deceptively simple phrase "the process will take generations" obviously undermines any claim to realism, regardless of the presence or absence of political will.
What about the challenges for Palestinians:
The problem for the Palestinians would be of a different order. Are their aspirations indeed for a democratic secular state based on territorial sovereignty - the model long proposed by Palestinian nationalists and elaborated by intellectuals such as Edward Said? Or would many now favour an ethnic or ethno-religious state based on notions of Arab and/or Muslim indigeneity of the kind taking hold in Gaza?
Current events suggest the latter. But in Tilley's view there is hope:
Moreover, many Palestinians are so disillusioned with their 'national leadership' that they might welcome the idea of its demise, provided equal rights as citizens of a single state were on offer to them (finding adequate guarantees for these rights may be the primary obstacle).
This statement is so stunning in its disregard of the facts, namely poll and after poll showing that a sizeable percentage of Palestinians do not believe peace is possible with Israel that is cannot be taken seriously. Nevertheless, Tilley is at least realistic about a few things:
The Palestinian leadership itself would probably resist such an outcome.
But the mind quickly boggles when faced with the details of the proposal:
In a one-state solution, the entire apparatus of the PLO and the PA would have to be subsumed into Israel's domestic governance and party-political processes.
Subsumed? What could this possibly mean in any realistic sense? Simply printing new ballots and making extra copies of keys to government offices? Presumably in her book length presentation she talks about confidence building measures, chief of which would be a cessation of things like suicide bombings. Her argument is further undermined in the very same paragraph where she states:
Many of Arafat's cronies - and his rivals - would lose major sources of economic power and political leverage in the transition. Fatah derives its economic strength from Palestinian businesses; its crony politics reflects its crucial devotion to the interests of affluent Palestinian families. Senior Fatah figures have long hoped for an independent Palestine in which, nicely positioned near the centre of power, they could flourish on the ballooning Israeli-Arab trade that peace would be expected to bring.
So, the patrimonial, patriarchal and occasionally homicidal kleptocracy of the PLO and the PA has to be "subsumed" into Israel. This defies both reason and experience. But the real threat, according to Tilley is:
Absorption is also a process that Israel is bound to manipulate, promoting some people and barring others from any role in the new domestic politics. Palestinians would be right to be on their guard. The Islamic militant groups, freshly inspired to see Zionism and Jews themselves as eternal enemies, would require special negotiations and treatment.
Israel might be logically expected to bar murderers and thieves, both for its own sake and that of the Palestinians, but this apparently is not cricket. And Islamists require neither fresh inspiration to hate Jews and Israel. Nevertheless, they should receive "special negotiations and treatment."
This is all deeply unserious. There is a lack of understanding of both sides, their histories, cultures, and most of all their aspirations, that is quite perverse, and overcoming past differences will take more than a few sessions with intercultural therapists and "conflict resolution" specialists like Tilley. Moreover, in a world that is rapidly repartitioning itself along ethnic lines, in part because of Islam's challenge to Enlightenment visions of universality that are reactivating even such dormant identities as Frenchness, there is no reason to suspect such a plan is remotely feasible.
In the end Tilley says nothing to convince Israelis why they should commit a practical form of national suicide, to give up who they are and control of their own lives, for the sake of abstractions. That she can point to more than a few obstacles on the Palestinian side as well suggests that even she might not believe any of it herself. But her final sentence, and the thrust of her appearance at Georgetown along with many other one state advocates, shows she is not trying to convince Israelis or Palestinians:
Given that the two-state solution promises only more trouble (and its failure will bring such dire consequences), the one-state solution is the only one that the international community can responsibly now entertain.
A solution must be imposed. Israel must be made into something else by the international community. Talk of peace and justice and harmony all dissipate in the face of a familiar demand, give up your identity, your autonomy, your sovereignty, for failure will bring "dire consequences." The illiberal core of Tilley's message is unmasked, and we are left with another Middle East Studies specialist, a teacher and public commentator, who, along with the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, calls for the erasure of Israel. While not as crude and violent as, say, calls emanating from Iran, the message is much the same.
Alexander H. Joffe is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.