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«The bi-national idea in Israel/ Palestine: past and present TAMAR HERMANN Department of Political Science, The Open University of Israel and Tami ...»

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Nations and Nationalism 11 (3), 2005, 381–401. r ASEN 2005

The bi-national idea in Israel/

Palestine: past and present


Department of Political Science, The Open University of Israel and Tami

Steinmetz Centre for Peace Research, Tel Aviv University

ABSTRACT. This article reviews four different advocacies of bi-nationalism in the

context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Despite the differences in their context, content and style, let alone in motivations and implications, the four advocacies – the ‘old school’ and the ‘new school’ of Jewish bi-nationalism, contemporary Palestinian bi-nationalism, and bi-nationalist advocacy that comes from outside observers – present certain similarities which reduce their chances of becoming a mainstream option: (a) in all cases bi-nationalism is not the most desirable option; (b) they all gained momentum on both sides in periods of instability – due to transformations in the power relations between them or when the conflict reaches a point where the violence seems to become unbearable; (c) all these bi-nationalisms present a rather uneasy mixture of moralistic arguments and pragmatic ones; (d) in all cases the people who embrace the bi-national model are intellectuals. This gives their recommendations a touch of ‘ivory tower’ overrationalisation, further reducing thier public appeal.

Introduction On 9 January 2004, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) stated that if no progress in negotiations with Israel was soon achieved, the Palestinians would seek a single, Jewish–Arab state rather than pursue the two-state solution (New York Times, 10 January 2004). Even if only a tactical move meant to create a sense of urgency on the Israeli side, this statement marked a sharp departure from the official policy of the PLO and then the Palestinian National Authority since 1988.1 Palestinian reactions to Qurei’s statement were mixed: it was applauded by those who basically dislike the two-state solution, but most speakers of the Palestinian mainstream strove to provide persuasive excuses for this seemingly strategic shift. For instance, Labour Minister Ghassan Khatib asserted: ‘Qurei was only intending to warn Israelis and the international community’ (Khatib 2004). The American

administration’s response to Qurei’s statement was immediate and sharp:

Secretary of State Powell averred that the roadmap and hence the two-state formula is the only ‘game in town’ (New York Times, 10 January 2004). The official Israeli reaction was even more blunt: ‘Mr Abu Ala has threatened to 382 Tamar Hermann call for a binational state, but he may just as well call for a Palestinian state on the moon’ (ibid.).

The bi-national idea, however, is neither new to the region nor a Palestinian invention. In fact, it was Jewish groups during the British Mandate era that first advocated bi-nationalism, that is, the sharing of political powers equally between the Jewish and Arab communities in Israel/Palestine, their relative sizes notwithstanding. With Israel’s establishment as a Jewish state in 1948, the bi-national idea seemed doomed to political oblivion. Yet today, over fifty-five years later, against the background of the collapse of the Oslo process, the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada, the de facto Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and especially the changes in the Jewish–Palestinian demographic balance west of the Jordan River, this seemingly forgotten notion appears to be making a political comeback. This time, however, most advocates of bi-nationalism are on the Palestinian side, with also a few on the Israeli side. Some outside observers, too, now advocate bi-nationalism as a remedy.

The main aim of this paper is to examine the bi-national idea from both synchronic and diachronic perspectives. It therefore considers bi-national advocacy along two lines of comparison: (1) the time line, i.e. between the prestate and the present-day arguments for the bi-national idea on the Jewish side; and (2) the ethno-national line, i.e. between the rationales and programmes of today’s Palestinian, Israeli and external bi-nationalists.

The bi-national concept and practices

Bi-nationalism is a theoretically rather equivocal notion that carries different meanings for different ethno-national groups, depending mainly on their relative position in the relevant power structure. On the most technical level, the term bi-national refers to a country or territory in which ‘two, and only two national cultures are afforded pride of place, with juridically entrenched rights for control of shares of the state’s resources, positions of authority, symbols, etc.’ (Lustick 2001/2002). On the substantive level, however, it reflects mutual recognition of the two ethno-national collectivities’ rightful claims to the land. Since the technical and substantive facets do not always coincide, a technical or de facto bi-nationalism or bi-national state of affairs should be distinguished from a political framework that is based on a binational cognition or state of mind. De facto bi-nationalism is an ‘actual’, often unplanned, situation that evolves when a territorial unit is cohabited by two collectivities with separate national identities. Unless one or both of the collectivities develop exclusive claims to this territory, the bi-national situation may remain latent, even unnoticeable, for a long time. However, if and when such claims are put forward, an ethno-national conflict which is probably violent, is highly likely to develop. If, however, the claims are not mutually exclusive, in rare cases the sides may instead settle at an The bi-national idea in Israel/Palestine 383 early stage for less than total control over the land, and opt for a binational political framework. Nonetheless, in most cases, such a settlement is reached only after the costs of a violent confrontation prove unbearably high.

The power relations between the two national collectivities largely determine the respective prospects of the confrontational or accommodating scenarios. Usually, a small and weak national minority is not in an effective position to forcefully demand its rights over a territory dominated by a larger and stronger majority. Nor is the majority group expected to be attentive to such claims if advanced by a feeble contender. When, however, the two sides are more or less evenly matched, the sharing option may appear more attractive than the clashing option. Often, however, the contending collectivities do not operate on the basis of objective estimations of their respective capabilities but, instead, out of mutual perceptions of their relative strength.

Furthermore, each side calculates its moves based on subjective assessment of the likely future power relations. Thus, if the weaker side believes it will become much stronger because of a demographic change or some other development, it may well press claims that seem totally baseless under the existing power relations. Likewise, if the stronger collectivity expects to lose its relative advantages, for example, by falling behind demographically, it may act from a position of weakness despite its current pre-eminence.

The Realist school of international relations postulates that national collectivities are never motivated by altruistic or moralistic considerations.

If so, bi-nationalism appears to be a counterintuitive political option because it means relinquishing actual or potential power positions to a disliked if not hated ‘other’. As bi-nationalism implies the conscious relinquishing of the nation-state in its normative form, the ‘selling’ of this model requires very distinctive conditions and a clever ‘marketing’ strategy. One argument, admittedly quite weak politically speaking, that proponents of this ‘deviant’ political formation advance is the moralistic one. Only rarely, however, can such argumentation be translated into a political strategy of voluntarily transforming power relations from domination to a structure based on sharing. This may happen when the moralistic argumentation is sustained by external pressures, or when widening sectors at home conclude that the immoral pattern of domination also entails concrete dangers to the dominant group’s well-being.

As noted, bi-nationalism can take several forms. Of the following five models, the first three indeed are only de facto bi-national but do not reflect a bi-national political cognition. The other two are both de facto and de jure

bi-national models. Forms of bi-nationalism, then, include:

–  –  –

2. A political system that grants the nondominant national/ethnic group a certain amount of cultural autonomy and perhaps even equal individual human and civil rights, but no collective political rights, which are reserved for the dominant group only.

3. A classical liberal democracy, cohabited by two national groups and functioning on the principle of ‘one person, one vote’. Neither of the two national groups is granted collective political rights, since the only individual identity recognised here is the civic one. In this model the linkage between the state and its citizens is direct, and is not ‘filtered’ through ethnic or religious institutions or loyalties.

Unlike the former three, the next two models involve authentic bi-national

cognition and structure:

4. A parity-based bi-national framework in which not only are the members of the two national groups granted equal human and civil rights, but the two groups as such are entitled to equal collective political rights whatever their respective numerical sizes.

5. Consociational democracy is today the most refined bi-national arrangement. It recognises collective ethno-national rights and, by some cantonal or other arrangement agreed upon by the elites of the two national collectivities, guarantees that both groups get a fair share of the political powers (Lijphart 1969).

Out of frustration and despair at the collapse of the Oslo process and its repercussions, various alternative solutions, including bi-nationalism, have been examined. As explained above, bi-nationalism is neither side’s dream;


Bi-national or other single-state solutions seek to secure what is needed by abandoning what is strongly desired; Jews and Arabs are to share the land, resources, recognition, and immigration opportunities afforded by a single state ruling the whole land, but at the cost of having to forever encounter each other in micro and macro struggles to achieve a distribution of those resources which each side feels is as much as it can get of what it deserves. (Lustick 2001/2002).

Who, then, has advocated or is advocating such a basically unattractive regime, and why?

Bi-nationalism in Israel/Palestine Jewish advocacy of bi-nationalism The ‘old school’ For many devoted Zionists, it came as a severe blow to realise that implementing the dream of the Zionist movement – the ingathering of the Jews in the land of their forefathers and the building of a national home for the Jewish people – bluntly interfered with the life of the Arab community in the same land. Although warnings in this regard were expressed as early as The bi-national idea in Israel/Palestine 385 1907–08 (Epstein 1907/1908), awareness of the hostility that massive Jewish immigration created among the Arabs was minimal. In any case, as a weaker ethno-national group that expected to get stronger and larger in the foreseeable future, the Jewish mainstream reacted to the first manifestations of Arab resistance by seeking power first through numbers, i.e. by creating a Jewish majority in the land, and later by fortifying Jewish political domination through the establishment of a Jewish state. A small minority, however, rejected these strategies as early as the 1920s, denouncing them as immoral for disrespecting the national rights of the Palestinians and for putting the Jews and Arabs on a collision course. Instead, this minority position advocated a bi-national arrangement. Thus, in 1925 the Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) group was formed with the aim of promoting Jewish–Arab understanding and co-operation. The members of Brit Shalom, some of them prominent figures in the political or academic establishment, believed that the domination of one people by another would lead to severe friction and, eventually, war. At least in its early days, Brit Shalom’s bi-nationalism could be described as optimistic: it was meant to forestall the conflict before it ripened. Switzerland and Finland were the examples of successful bi-nationalism that encouraged Brit Shalom. In practical terms, the group advocated creating a legislative council based on Jewish–Arab parity, which would run the affairs of a bi-national state in which the two peoples would enjoy equal rights irrespective of their relative size at any given time.

The wave of violent Arab riots against the Jews in 1929, known as the ‘disturbances’, were a severe blow to the group since they suggested that time was running out faster than they expected. Brit Shalom warned that these ‘occurrences’ were not a sporadic, transitory phenomenon but the beginning of a national liberation struggle that would only get fiercer if not properly handled. Nevertheless, as noted, the chances for bi-nationalism to be adopted when other, more ‘natural’ options have not yet been tried, and failed, are slim. Indeed, Brit Shalom was harshly attacked by the mainstream and accused of defeatism. The fact that they spoke their minds while the murdered Jews were not yet buried infuriated their rivals even further, and the Zionist establishment denounced them as either pathologically naive or traitors. It is important to note that the bi-national advocacy of Brit Shalom and its successors in the prestate days was not echoed on the Arab side. Given their numerical superiority, the Palestinians rejected a parity-based regime. Those few Palestinians who were ready to co-operate with Brit Shalom, such as Fawzi Darwish el-Husseini and Sami Taha, had no political or intellectual standing in their own community (Husseini was assassinated because of his belief in bi-nationalism in November 1946, and Taha in September 1947).

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