Making It Work From the River to the Sea

For Israel and Palestine, security depends on equal treatment now that the ‘land for peace’ formula has failed

Making It Work From the River to the Sea
A man walks past a section of Israel’s separation barrier in Bethlehem, painted with a portrait of Marwan Barghouti. (Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty Images)

One could reasonably argue that religious identity does not, in and of itself, drive people to oppress others and commit heinous acts. Politics does that. Palestine is a political problem.

Yet for almost a century, governments and others have parroted the idea of a two-state solution based on ethnic and religious partition as the best, and indeed often the only, way forward. Partition is old and discredited. The people who will have to live under it — and since this century’s wars have starkly demonstrated the interconnectedness of our globalized world, not only them — deserve better than to be putting their children’s hopes into our grandparents’ basket.

It is true that there is not much desire to share. Israelis, enjoying vastly superior power, remain maximalist, Palestinians slightly less so. Both seek national self-determination on their own terms. But the plain reality is that they cannot both have it, because — rightly or wrongly — they both seek it in the same place. For them both to be able to achieve true and lasting national self-determination, they must do so not in 2D, cartographically, but in 3D, holographically. Say hello to nonterritorial autonomy, a long-standing but little-discussed method of managing diversity within a state by granting dispersed groups self-government on the basis of identity rather than land, while also retaining a broader structure of power sharing.

Overlaying two nations on one country sounds like science fiction, but that is testament to the corrosive power of the nationalist thinking that drives the two-state solution. Partition says more about the preoccupations of the chiefly American and European politicians who cling to it than it does about the aspirations or real lives of the people who will have to live in the resulting states. What, in truth, are the arguments justifying a solution that permits one population to continue dominating another, whether as occupier or neighbor? What are the arguments against equal opportunity for all? What are the arguments against democracy and universal suffrage, and equal application of the law?

We must unlearn some of the conventions we grew up with. Partition has failed almost everywhere it has been attempted. Ireland is perhaps the starkest example, but we might also consider India and Pakistan in 1947, Pakistan again and Bangladesh in 1971, Korea, Vietnam, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, Sudan and a fistful of others. Partition has perpetuated conflict and embedded trauma down the generations. Millions have died thanks to the idea that separating supposedly irreconcilable populations solves everything.

The “land for peace” formula was a failure. The challenge now is to decouple peace from land, to recognize that future security for all depends not on the acquisition of territory, but on equal treatment. A yearning for justice — for universal civil, political and human rights under the rule of law — is what drives the one-state solution.

Decoupling false conflations is becoming vital everywhere. The historically wide gaps between Jewish communities, whether between Israel and the diaspora, secular and observant or even between streams of observance — their separate outlooks and priorities, their differing levels of influence and mutual respect — are today vast. It will take immense skill and bravery from people all across the Jewish world to successfully detach the spiritual and cultural bond between Jews and Zion (meaning the Land of Israel) — a formative tenet of Jewish identity — from the destructive, discredited idea of supremacist governance inherent in Zionism.

All of this demands more than a 20th-century style partition.

First, a truism: Christians can get on with Muslims. Muslims can get on with Jews. Jews can get on with Christians. Israel’s nationalist schemer Avigdor Lieberman may have told The New York Times in 2006 that “[e]very country where you have two languages, two religions and two races, you have conflict,” but decent folk need not go along with him. As much as the region’s history is marked by spasms of religiously inspired violence, it is also underpinned by long centuries of not just tolerance but productive coexistence.

The 10th-century geographer al-Muqaddasi — who was born in Jerusalem and self-identified as Palestinian — reflects the reality of urban pluralism where he writes of the excessive influence of Jews and Christians in his city. The writings of the Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, 200 years later, reveal broad social diversity as he crisscrosses “the Land of Israel,” describing Muslim and Christian rituals and holy places as carefully and dispassionately as his own.

In 1394, a Muslim woman, Qutlumalik bint Abdallah, lived in an apartment she owned in a house in which Jews also lived in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. It is unlikely such a setup was unique. In 1656, a Christian woman named Maryam bint Eid was confident enough in her rights under the law to stand up in Jerusalem’s Islamic courts and speak against her husband. She won.

We have 19th-century accounts of Muslims, Jews and Christians descending steps on the Mount of Olives to a subterranean tomb dedicated to Rabia al-Adawiyya or Hulda or Saint Pelagia while praying side by side. The Orthodox Christian diarist Wasif Jawhariyyeh wrote in the early 20th century of his family friendships and close working relationships with Muslim and Jewish neighbors, and how Jerusalemites would celebrate religious festivals together across confessional lines.

Of course, there were also pogroms aplenty. Yet while we should strongly resist the fantasy of Palestine as paradise, we should also acknowledge that, at least until about a century ago, people generally lived the daily reality of sharing limited space more or less amicably. Two-state approaches to peace rest on the creation of single-ethnicity, religiously defined states, an Israel for Jews and a Palestine for Muslim and Christian Arabs. But sectarian exclusivity is not a Middle Eastern ideal. It is European.

Persecution in the 1880s killed many in Russia’s deeply rooted Jewish communities and displaced millions more, including my great-grandparents. They fled for their lives and ended up in the slums of London, forced to start again. European antisemitism — never far below the surface — erupted with the Dreyfus affair in France, the Hilsner affair in Bohemia, antisemitic policy in Poland and Romania, the proto-Hitlerian mayor of Vienna Karl Lueger, Britain’s racist Aliens Act and more.

It was against this backdrop that a group of European Jewish journalists and political pundits, seeking safe havens, borrowed from evangelical Christian millenarianism to promote the novel idea that Jews were a nation and so deserved self-determination in a state of their own.

This was political Zionism, an ideology contrasting sharply with the spiritual longing for Zion expressed in Jewish liturgy, and it emerged in a vicious era. Civilization was understood to be an achievement of white Europeans. Its apogee, the summit of human enterprise, was the advanced ability of white people to create nation-states. They governed best, and it was the natural order for everyone else to be governed.

British politician Arthur Balfour — famed for endorsing Zionism on behalf of the British government in 1917 — was able to glide effortlessly from stating that “the white and black races are not born with equal capacities” to the idea that a Zionist state in Palestine would “mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a Body [the Jews] which is alien and even hostile.”

Zionism fit into Balfour’s worldview of racial supremacy and the social ideal of what we would now call ethnic cleansing. Its exceptionalism also led, as the historian Avi Shlaim has written, to another key assumption — that Jews and Arabs occupy exclusive and antagonistic ethnic categories. Shlaim himself asserts the falsity of that assumption in his self-identification as an Arab Jew, as do other notable figures including journalist Rachel Shabi, academic Ella Shohat, author Sasson Somekh and art curator Ariella Azoulay.

In his recent book “Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew,” Shlaim wrote: “The Zionist movement was in origin and in essence a European movement led by European Jews who wanted to create a Jewish state for European Jews. … By its very nature, [it] deepened divisions [and] actively worked to erase our common past, our intertwined histories and our centuries-old heritage of pluralism, religious tolerance, cosmopolitanism and co-existence. Above all, Zionism has discouraged us from seeing each other as fellow human beings.”

Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defense minister during the war of 1967, is reported to have said after the Israeli army conquered the Egyptian Sinai that it was better to have Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than to have peace without Sharm el-Sheikh. In the end, of course, he had neither, but Zionism’s zero-sum outlooks have long driven Israeli policy and were also long mirrored on the Palestinian side. But the past few years have seen a shift in Palestinian opinion away from older generations’ lingering trauma around lost land to a new focus on attaining equality of rights wherever grossly unjust conditions prevail under Israeli control.

This has illuminated a long-standing slogan of liberation: “From the river to the sea” (with or without “Palestine will be free” appended). Some — wildly mistaken — choose to interpret the sentiment as genocidal, a call for the erasure of Jewish presence. Public prosecutors in Germany even tried (and failed) to criminalize it.

The phrase is not new: It has been said for 60 years or more by Palestinians and Israelis alike who oppose the reality of partition. Its new urgency comes in response to Israel’s legislative and bureaucratic division of Palestinian society into eight separate categories of people, each granted fewer rights than the last. At the top are Palestinian citizens of Israel, evasively defined in Israeli rhetoric as “Arab Israelis.” They hold Israeli passports and they enjoy freedom of movement and economic activity, access to Israeli healthcare and education and the right to vote, but they also face institutional discrimination and widespread racism in Israeli society.

Below them are the Palestinians of Jerusalem. They may apply for Israeli citizenship, but Israel can — and often does — refuse it. Most are stateless. They cannot vote in national elections and although Palestinian districts of Jerusalem hold around 35% of the city’s population, they receive between 5% and 12% of funding from the municipal budget. Israel’s separation wall isolates two such districts, Kufr Aqab and Shuafat Camp, which — uniquely — are inside the city but physically separated from it. Palestinian officials may not enter and Israeli ones refuse to. Despite for the most part paying Israeli taxes, people live there in overcrowded anarchy: stateless, abandoned, in substandard housing, with nonexistent services and no law enforcement.

Next come Palestinians in the West Bank, who are not citizens and who have no representation in the authorities that govern their lives. Their movement is controlled by Israeli military checkpoints and surveillance, and threatened by armed Israeli settlers. If arrested, they face trial in Israel’s military courts, which convict in more than 99% of cases. Palestinian residents in the West Bank’s Oslo-imposed subdivisions of Areas C, B and A live under progressively greater restrictions.

Then there are the Palestinians of Gaza. Even before the current horror, they lived trapped in what is effectively a concentration camp, with no rights and no freedom of movement, under continuous hostile surveillance, with every aspect of their lives controlled by Israel.

The lowest layer in the cake is made up of the 50% of Palestinians who live elsewhere in the world. They may visit their homeland only as tourists, applying to Israeli authorities for a short-stay visitor visa and then, should one be granted, often facing punitive immigration controls.

Faced with such absurd cruelty, “From the river to the sea” is simply a plea to be rid of it. It seeks to sweep away the divisions, to reclaim equality. It is an uncomplicated rejection of Israel’s laws of classification and segregation and an assertion of the most basic right to dignity in one state. It highlights that partition represents calamitous political failure.

Only a few of partition’s flaws in the specific context of Palestine and Israel can be addressed here. The standard proposal sees conversion of the 1949 armistice lines into international borders between two new states. But those lines apportion 78% of the land to Israel. Even with land swaps and other adjustments taken into account, supporting a “solution” that hands four-fifths of the available territory to one party seems naive at best.

On those lines, the borders of a future Palestine would lie less than five miles from major centers of Israeli population and 10 or 11 miles from downtown Tel Aviv. Two states would embed insecurity in already fearful Israelis.

In the same way, 700,000 Jewish Israelis live in the West Bank, many armed and violent, often acting as informal auxiliary militias for the Israeli army. Even in its strictest practicable form, partition envisages half a million of them remaining in place. Two states would likewise embed insecurity in already fearful Palestinians.

Palestine would be militarily indefensible, as would Israel. Questions would arise about airspace, water rights and other transnational issues. Any partitioned Israeli state that did not include the West Bank, which Israel refers to with the biblical names Judea and Samaria, would be unlikely to gain consent from its own population. But, as the lawyer and Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann has identified, a minimum of 200,000 Jewish Israelis would have to be displaced from the West Bank in order to ensure the territorial viability of a Palestinian state. Short of a land incursion by international forces and a yearslong deployment of peacekeeping troops, such an operation is inconceivable.

Similarly, any partitioned Palestinian state would have to include Gaza. When “safe passage” across the 30 miles separating Gaza from the West Bank was written into the Oslo II agreement, dreamers advocated all kinds of schemes for bridges, tunnels, corridors, roads and rail lines. Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak proposed an elevated highway in 1999, and 20 years later U.S. President Donald Trump imagined a tunnel. Either is achievable in terms of engineering. Neither is viable in terms of security.

International law grants refugees who were expelled in 1948 the right to return to their homes inside what is now Israel. The current Israeli state denies them this right, with impunity. Partition would endorse this illegality.

Two million Israeli citizens, roughly 20% of the population, are Palestinian Arabs. Some, or many, might accept citizenship in a partitioned Israeli state, were it to be offered. But an offer is by no means certain. If — as many in Israel want — the new state decides it has no room for Arabs, are these millions to be driven across the border into Palestine, as Muslims and Hindus were driven across the newly drawn India-Pakistan border in 1947? Should we consent to the repeated moral outrage of ethnic cleansing as conflict resolution?

Then there’s Jerusalem. Barring inchoate and unprecedented international custodianship, partition requires division of a city that Israeli politicians have characterized since 1949 as their “eternal capital” and since 1978 as “indivisible.” The Clinton Parameters of 2000 even imagined frontiers of sovereignty cutting to and fro across the alleyways of Jerusalem’s historic Old City. Nobody wants this.

Partition has its creative adaptations. Various ideas exist around confederation, which envisages two sovereign entities devolving powers upward to an overseeing authority for mutual benefit: The Israeli and Palestinian governments, drawn from their respective parliaments, share power with a common third government that is elected separately by both populations, while national vetoes and legislative majorities provide balance. A proposal called “A Land for All” develops confederation into a kind of Schengen association, with open borders, mutual residency rights and so on.

Yet the underlying flaws remain: The inequalities of territory that resulted from the 1948 war are made permanent. Intolerance becomes the basis for state-building. Segregation becomes the only possible future. Is that the best we can do? Do two-staters imagine that the dispossessed Palestinians in Amman will simply write off Jaffa and al-Ludd (Lod) as gone forever?

Nonterritorial autonomy has a long pedigree, extending back centuries in different contexts. It could exist in, for instance, a federal structure, where a jointly representative federal government shares power with Palestinian and Israeli governments that are autonomous but not tied to specific territories. A federation of this kind, founded on democracy, equal rights and the rule of law, and stretching between river and sea, would respect the national aspirations of all, since it would have an Arab character with Arabic as its official language and be named “Filasteen,” and it would also have a Jewish character and Hebrew as its official language and be named “Yisrael.” Inasmuch as any state has a right to exist, Israel and Palestine are on an equal footing. We can consign them to unending battles over ownership of every pebble, or we can enable both to exist simultaneously in the same space — to coexist.

The key there is “we.” Coercion is going to be essential. In Northern Ireland in the 1990s, public weariness with fighting helped pave the way for agreement. Today, though, Palestinians and Israelis remain as determined as ever. We, the outside world, must therefore demand accountability and force a sustainable resolution. One lesson from Irish partition that is being learned, though too slowly, is that there will be no military victory. That must now be understood everywhere, in Washington, London and Brussels as well as across Israel, Palestine and beyond. The only way forward will be political. But decades of evidence suggest that this movement is not going to come from within. We, the outsiders, will have to intervene. Nathan Thrall wrote compellingly in his 2017 book “The Only Language They Understand” about how every peace proposal has failed because, ultimately, Israel has always preferred the status quo to any other outcome. Two-state solutions would also favor Israel, on land area alone. So, for the sake of peace, we must worsen the status quo for Israel — and if the U.S. continues to refuse to impose sanctions, and the Gulf kakistocrats continue to offer deals on arms and tech, that means we must erase the Green Line.

Some visions of a single state between the river and the sea belong to the extremists, plotting ethnic cleansing to rid “us” of “them” once and for all; the power asymmetries mean that Israeli eliminationists, who promote annexation and demographic engineering to perpetuate Jewish supremacy, enjoy far more traction than their counterparts in southern Lebanon and Tehran. But a politically viable, morally acceptable one-state solution does not involve driving anyone into the sea. It is attainable, down to wonk-pleasing details of subsidiarity and centripetalism — but the point at this stage is the big idea, to move public opinion away from the zero-sum game of drawing borders and seeing partition as a panacea.

Ethnic and cultural diversity is a core human good. It is moral, it benefits societies, it boosts economies, and it is worth supporting. Nonterritorial autonomy would do what the judgment in Brown v. Board of Education did: It would enable Israelis, Palestinians and the many other minorities to be integrated for the good of all whether they like it or not, protected from themselves and one another, represented by their own linked administrations, governed within a single territory. It is progressive. It takes us from zero-sum to win-win.

On Oct. 24 last year, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote in a wartime letter to his diocese: “It takes courage to be able to demand justice without spreading hatred. It takes courage to ask for mercy, to reject oppression, to promote equality without demanding uniformity, while remaining free.”

There was a historical injustice committed. We have the chance to right the wrong, or to embed the wrong in perpetuity. Planting justice and restoring the land’s lost pluralism is the best hope for future generations to sit in the shade of peace, at last. But it will take the cardinal’s courage to get there.

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