In a spirited debate about the relative merits of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, versus the creation of a single bi-national entity, Peter Beinart and Yehouda Shenhav addressed issues of ethics and ethnicity, historicity and history, pragmatism and idealism. The event was held at Columbia University on Monday night. Shenhav, an Israeli sociologist who teaches at Tel Aviv University, recently published Beyond the Two-State Solution. Beinart's article The American Jewish Coccoon, which addresses the failure of the Jewish establishment to include Palestinians in the debate about Israel-Palestine, was published in the most recent edition of the New York Review of Books.
For Beinart, the two-state solution is simply the only practical solution. He acknowledged several times that dividing the land into two separate states was unjust in many ways—it would mean uprooting thousands of settlers from their homes, for example, and Palestinians who were made refugees in 1948 would largely have to give up their dream of returning to their towns and villages because they were located inside the state of Israel. But the alternatives, said Beinart, were worse. The status quo is obviously immoral, because it involves an ongoing military occupation of civilians. And a single state would, he posited, lead inevitably to civil war.
The history of bi-nationalism, pointed out Beinart, was not an inspiring one. It had failed in Czechoslovakia and “barely worked” in Belgium. Besides, the Jewish people had a legitimate right to self-determination, particularly given their history.
Meanwhile, he said, no-one had answered the practical questions about how the army, police force and education system wound function in a bi-national Palestinian-Israeli state. The ideas of the left were beautiful in theory, he concluded, but did not “take into account the realities on the ground.” Even Marwan Barghouti, the jailed Palestinian leader, had said in a recent interview that the two-state solution was “the only possible solution.”
In his response, Shenhav made two salient points: That the two-state solution would “never happen,” and that there were more options than one or two states to explore. It was Israel's moral responsibility, he insisted, to look at all options. Furthermore, he said, for Palestinians and Israelis there was an unbridgeable gap between their basic perceptions of the conflict. Israelis who talk about the peace process do so from the perspective of the 1967 boundaries. But for Palestinians, this is about 1948—the Nakba, or Catastrophe, when the refugees, now over 6 million, were created.
In their rebuttals, the two men argued over whether Palestinian citizens of Israel would be better off living as a minority in Israel with a Palestinian state across the border, or as citizens of a bi-national state. The audience, composed of Palestinian and Israelis, academics, students, journalists and political activists, was attentive and engaged. The question-and-answer period was somewhat anodyne, partly because there was time for only three questions—none of which was particularly substantive.
But while the debate itself was interesting and sometimes provocative, it seemed to circumvent the real elephant in the room—which was the urgency of the situation on the ground. While two deeply intelligent, thoughtful Jewish men argued and agreed to disagree about the future of Israel and Palestine from the safe forum of an academic institution in New York, several million Palestinians continued, and continue, to live in an unsustainable situation. (I include Gaza, which is not only under closure imposed by Israel but populated primarily by refugees).
This sounds, perhaps, a bit obvious and didactic. And I wish I could think of a more elegant or subtle manner to make my point. But I can only think about people like Bassam Abu Rahmeh, who died in 2009 when an Israeli soldier fired a tear gas canister directly at his chest. Abu Rahmeh was unarmed; the army decided there was insufficient evidence to charge the soldier with misconduct, even though the incident was recorded on video. Or Mustafa Tamimi, who died when a soldier shot a tear gas canister directly at his face from only a few yards' distance. I also think about Ofer Military Prison, a bleak place of muddy paths and barbed wire, where Palestinians stand trial in front of Israeli military judges, who convict them at a rate of over 99 percent, even when they know the evidence or confessions were coerced. Ofer is where teenage boys get sentenced to a year or more in prison for the crime of throwing stones at fully armed soldiers wearing riot gear.
One state or two states? It's a theoretical argument at this point, and that will probably be the case for a long time. But it is fact that 2.5 million Palestinian residents of the West Bank live under military occupation, without basic rights like freedom of movement, access to sufficient water and due process in a court of law. This is what needs to change first—and urgently. Then we can talk about sharing or dividing the land.