President Obama’s trip to Israel is pretty important. If you had any doubts this is true, note that people have been doing lots of stuff recently to make Obama look bad specifically because he was going to be in Israel when that stuff was going down. The Syrian government concocts a chemical weapons scare (now apparently sufficiently debunked), just as Obama is heading for Israel. The Gaza Palestinians start sending rockets to Sderot, the Israeli town just outside the border with the Gaza Strip, just as Obama arrives in Israel. The Palestinian propaganda machine churns out leaflet and billboard, one after the other, declaring that their belief in “hope and change” is gone, that they think a Palestinian “civil rights” movement is in progress, and that Israel is a land of “apartheid”, just in time for the arrival of Obama. As usual, the emphasis is not on seeing the President’s visit as an opening for peace, but rather as an opportunity for the airing of the usual stale ideological talking points, punctuated by the sound of exploding rockets and the crackle of disinformation coming over the airwaves.
Israeli right-wingers were also prepared for Obama – so much so that the President was smart enough to avoid speaking to the Knesset, having remembered Joe Biden’s lovely greeting in 2010. Remember that, when Benjamin Netanyahu decided to unveil his plan for new Israeli settlements on the West Bank while Biden was present, as if the US endorsed the idea? The US doesn’t, of course, and Biden immediately signaled that he resented being put on the spot like that. Well, you can just imagine, then, why Obama wanted to limit the opportunity Netanyahu had to do something similar. Instead of putting himself in a position where he would have to manage dozens of right-wing Israeli politicians, Obama instead opted to speak to a mostly receptive crowd of Israeli university students. That was a bright move – indeed, it highlighted Obama’s willingness to act as the protector of Israel’s future rather than as the servant of the sticks-in-the-mud in Netanyahu’s cabinet.
Obama’s arrival in Israel has focused world attentions, once again, on the basic question – what would a reconciliation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict actually look like? Obama spoke about some of his more firm policy positions today, giving the most airtime to his opposition to continuing Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories (coming into clear conflict with Netanyahu on this, to be sure), and to encouraging both Israelis and Palestinians to try to negotiate without preconditions and “push through” differences.
Obama also defended the principle of the establishment of a Palestinian state – the so-called “two-state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. This gave the news media an excuse to investigate, once again, what the basic differences between the “one-state solution” and “two-state solution” are. This BBC article covers the highlights of that – and also adds that, because the Gaza Palestinian entity has emerged as an autonomously-acting unit, there are now some who favour a “three-state solution”, where Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza – all of them – get their own state.
I have long argued for the two-state solution, for the same reason Obama does. Israelis and Palestinians, on the whole, do not seem to want to live under the same authority. It seems unreasonable to expect them to do so, at least not without acknowledging that these are people with very deeply different cultural ideas, each of whom believes the “other” poses an existential threat to their safety, not to mention their “way of life”.
It does not trouble me to advocate multicultural societies when the fears are merely about protecting cultural “ways of life”. I think countries can have deep diversity and leave each other alone to practise different ways of life. There are people who live in my country right this minute who have ideas and cultural practices I deplore – as long as they don’t disallow people to choose to think differently, I have no problem with that. I still deplore those views, and I’m still more than willing to say that out loud, but – this is the important part – I tell my government to leave these folks alone to believe whatever they want, and I consider myself concerned that their lives and safety are always considered, even if these are people who have ideas I don’t like.
This I do because life and safety are the really important issues. If members of some other group in my country want me dead or hobbled, and are willing to act to make that happen, I stop waxing rhapsodic about multiculturalism and start getting universalist instead. In someplace like Canada, I don’t really fear that kind of activity too much, as hostilities are mostly expressed with words and not guns – people of different backgrounds hereabouts may jaw-jaw, but they don’t war-war, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.
In the Middle East, however, life and safety are the issues. As long as people on both sides fear for life and safety, they will want different states to protect them against those they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as threatening their existence. Thus, the two-state solution (or, if Gaza continues on as it has, maybe even a three-state solution). Still, if it is possible to move beyond this existential hostility, might the one-state solution someday make sense?
Really, the only way that can be on the table, I think, is if this unified, bi-national Israel/Palestine had protections built into it for the Israeli and Palestinian communities. I know it gives a lot of people – particularly Canadians – fits to even think about this, but that impllies asymmetric, consensus-oriented, community-based protections. Basically, what I mean by that is that major decisions in that “one state” would have to be made with by majorities within both communities, the community identifying as Israeli, and the community identifying as Palestinian.
That’s the kind of “one state” solution we’ve seen undertaken in places like Northern Ireland and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It’s hard to talk to people who live in basically non-violent countries about what an advance the current governments of those two places are, because to us, both Northern Ireland and Bosnia-Herzegovina still look like places where people glorify violence rhetorically and are accepting of all manner of petty bigotry. However, they used to be places where people glorified violence, accepted all manner of petty bigotry, and _also_ where people died by the scores in their violent, bigoted wars. Northern Ireland and Bosnia-Herzegovina are better today because they have governments that build consensus between communities – that’s the bottom line.
It’s also the bottom line that, until warring parties are fully exhausted, they are unlikely to make the move to build consensus. In Northern Ireland, it took the IRA realising it couldn’t defeat the Unionists, and the Unionists themselves being tired enough to welcome the initiative, before the current system could be put in place. Similarly, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the war-making power of the Bosnian Serb population had to be pinned back before that group would accept making a power-sharing deal with Croats and Bosnian Muslims. The hatred, in short, has to be depleted before the common sense can prevail.
Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah may be plenty tired and willing to take those steps, and Israeli peaceniks may well be receptive, but Hamas still fights. That’s where things stand at the moment. Nothing is likely to change until Hamas gets tired. (This is why I am always so angry at Western leftists who think Gaza needs flotillas and solidarity campaigns – these shortsighted individuals are undermining the only thing that is likely to bring the Gazans to the table as well. This only gives the Gazans the idea that their war-war is a strategy that will pay off for them better than jaw-jaw.)
The real basis of any “one state solution” is the principle that one is inviolable in one’s home country, and rationally fears no threat from others. I have often noted that this is the way I define what Zionism is – the demand on the part of Jews to have a place where they are safe, after a long history of being persecuted as a minority population in “someone else’s” countries. That’s a reasonable demand, and I am a promoter of Zionism because I support that.
Of course, refugee Palestinians also know what it is to be persecuted in “someone else’s countries” – and by that I don’t mean by Israeli occupiers any more than I mean other Arab countries. Palestinians are supported in theory by all the Arab nations – indeed, some Arab nations really love the Palestinians as long as they’re willing to strap on bombs and blow up Israeli shopping malls. But maintaining a group of Palestinian refugees in their countries? Well, not so much. There have been long histories of expulsions of Palestinians from numerous Arab countries.
That experience should make Palestinians aware of what it’s like not to have a place of your own where you feel safe. Maybe some day, some Palestinians will create a version of Zionism for themselves, and claim their right to be in someplace they consider their home, not because the Israelis took it from them decades ago, but because everyone needs a place of their own where they can claim life and safety as rights.
If that ever happens, then, yes, I think Israelis and Palestinians could possibly live together in the same country. But not before that time. A lot of the way people in the Middle East think is going to have to change before that can happen.