Friday, March 26, 2010

Revisiting Israel as a Bi-National State

Steven Johnston

University of South Florida

The recent assassination of a top Hamas official by the Mossad comes as no surprise, not even its amateurishness. The security side of the Israelis state, though often resisted by Israeli dissidents, has a longstanding extrajudicial policy of liquidating its enemies. The Hamas murder, however, comes at an interesting time. As Fawaz Gerges argues in a recent essay in The Nation, there are signs that Hamas is undergoing a transformation, however tentative, even hesitant. It could well become the negotiating partner that Israel has often said it lacks. Hence the assassination? As Henry Siegman reminds us, in the same issue of The Nation, Israel has been painstakingly creating facts on the grounds since its founding, and the facts forged since the 1967 war have rendered a two-state solution effectively impossible. Thus apartheid has been the reality for some time now. Apartheid is what it means, borrowing Moshe Dayan’s formulation, to “live without a solution.”

Many in the United States invested hopes in the Obama Administration, believing that it might depart from George W. Bush’s uncritical, knee-jerk support of right wing initiatives from Israel. Despite Obama’s initial, fruitless effort to secure a settlement freeze, as if the 1967 borders might one day prove relevant, these hopes were misplaced. Obama’s foreign and security policies differ little, if at all, from his predecessor.

Nevertheless, this is a good time to rethink the idea of a bi-national state. The goal here, to borrow from Martin Buber, is to set a direction, and the direction is the goal of a single state in the land of historical Palestine that would be the state of all its citizens. Buber worked and argued for much of his life for a bi-national solution. He insisted that the conflict between Arab and Jew was not a tragic one, meaning that it was not irreconcilable. He never wavered in this conviction, thus performing the solution he sought. Buber blamed politics for framing issues in a way that divided and incited Arab and Jew. The greater interests and loves the two peoples shared for the land were obscured, even erased, in the process.
This is not to say that Buber was without his own blind spots. Alert to the dangers of imperialism, he preferred to think of Zionist settlers as pioneers rather than colonialists.

Assuming that life entails injustice, he could argue for the taking of Arab lands in the name of necessity.  Still, Buber continued to pressure Israel after the founding, which he considered an ambiguous achievement and, more importantly, premature. Early in the 20th century, he had called for an organic process of settling the land. Buber, too, knew the importance of facts on the ground, but the ones he imagined were not devoted to irreversible, ever-expanding conquest. It was critical for two peoples to learn to trust one another. This could not be achieved by sudden influxes of immigrants without ties to the land, let alone by imposing a political solution. In fact, a declaration of independence and the creation of the state would prove self-subverting in the long run. They would inevitably engender resistance. Once founding became a fact, Buber argued that the Zionist ideal was betrayed by its incarnation insofar as the pursuit of state interests eclipsed the pursuit of the ideal of justice, as dictated by God. Israel could not be and should not aspire to be a normal state. The state of Israel was not an end in and of itself; it was a means to other, higher ends.

Perhaps this is where hope lies. As Buber argued, the fates of Arabs and Jews are linked, not just with one another but the region as a whole. Many Israeli’s understand this and Israel exceeds its conservative governments. Buber, for one, never lost hope, and he argued that Israel, once the state was instituted, was in a position to perform a novel moral act that would fundamentally alter, if not altogether undo, the injustices that Jews had inflicted on Palestinians. What kind of act? He did not specify. For justice to become a reality, for democracy to triumph, where the sovereign notions of majority and minority would no longer apply, the Israeli majority now has to overcome how it conceives of itself. As Tony Judt observed in 2003, Israel is a multicultural society—except in name. Thus it is an anachronism “because it is a Jewish state in which one community—Jews—is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.”  Buber envisioned the work needed for rapprochement as open-ended, the labor of lifetimes and generations. Any so-called two-state solution, given the settlements, exorbitant Israeli security obsessions, and control over water resources, seems doomed to solidify and intensify a relationship of domination. A one-state solution, perhaps the de facto reality on the ground (wall or not), may provide the context within which Israel reinvents itself, a home for two peoples, one a victim of the most horrendous crime, the other the victim of that victim. That’s a commonality of experience and interests born of tragedy that Buber did not articulate, but might point to a new direction for a democratic state that recognizes the equality and differences of all.

For the “peace” process to live up to its name, Israel needs to make the first move and take an unprecedented risk—Mr. Netanyahu should start by tearing down that wall. It is the region’s superpower, possessing weapons of mass destruction. Its existence is not threatened by terrorists. Palestinians suffer from a much greater threat from state-sanctioned violence. For Buber, Israel’s success always meant enhanced responsibility. Success meant not the end of problems but the assumption of new problems. Israelis must come to realize that they cannot enjoy a way of life denied—that they help to deny—others, their fellow citizens, their neighbors, their victims. We must put ourselves in the place of the other, Buber counseled, and not despite the war and violence but precisely because of them. What would we do if the roles were reversed? Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science that “after a great victory,” the victor, now feeling rich, may be liberated from “the fear of defeat.” Defeat here might mean replacing one worthy ideal that has run its historical course without fulfilling its promise of justice with another democratic ideal that could realize the Zionist dream—which was always about two peoples and one land.



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