Why we need to start imagining today what comes “After Zionism”

My co-editor on the new book, After Zionism, Ahmed Moor, writes in The National:

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on Palestine and Israel at the Frontline Club in London. About a hundred people packed into the intimately sized meeting hall to join in the conversation about the one-state solution. The other panellists and I disagreed on a number of issues, but our exchange was anchored by the unanimous recognition that a one-state solution is now inevitable. All else developed around that view.

Also on the panel was Antony Loewenstein, a journalist with whom I edited After Zionism, a book that seeks to move the Palestinian-Israeli discussion beyond the two-state standard.

Our purpose in crafting the anthology of essays was modest: we hoped to contribute to the growing awareness that there is an alternative to a moribund negotiations process, or, at least, to highlight the fact that the two-state track is not a viable alternative to the one-state solution.

Following events in the Palestinian Territories is like trudging knee-deep through black mud. There is no moving forward. There is only inertia and the irresistible sensation of suffocation from all sides. For Palestinians living there, misery can come slowly or all at once – the difference between the steady erosion of one’s dignity at a checkpoint and the sudden demolition of a home.

For Palestinians things are getting worse. The apartheid system that governs their lives is growing more entrenched and rigid. The occupation has flourished through the steady flow of euros and dollars to become all-encompassing. The one-state reality exists today.

Eventually, the Palestinians will overcome apartheid – but the risks latent in any political transition are considerable. One of the objectives of Palestinians, non-Zionist Israelis and others has to be to minimise the turmoil produced by that transition.

Beyond that, developing a clear idea of what a free and shared society should look like before it is practical is both sensible and wise. The American nation-building project in Iraq revealed the folly of improvisation when the stakes are high.

During the question-and-answer session at the Frontline Club, a person in the audience challenged the premise that the two-state outcome is unworkable. To both paraphrase and extend his argument, Israel exercises total control over the lives of the Palestinians in historic Palestine, but that needn’t be regarded as a permanent state of affairs. Settlers can withdraw, or be withdrawn, from parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem – as they were from Gaza in 2005. Mutually agreed land swaps can make up the difference, so why not focus on the development and implementation of the internationally agreed upon outcome: two states for two peoples?

My response to him was that a Palestinian state will never emerge in East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. The forcible removal of 8,000 settlers from the midst of 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip was deeply traumatic for Jewish Israeli society. It was also a complex and challenging operation.

Today, the Israeli political class possesses neither the willingness nor the capability (settlers now constitute a sizeable proportion of the Israeli government and army) to remove even one-fifth of the 600,000 settlers who currently occupy Palestinian land, especially not from East Jerusalem.

Furthermore, even if the political will to abide by international law materialises one day, the potent mixture of settler arms and rigid ideology remains. Israelis will not fight a civil war for the Palestinians.

But that is an issue that Jewish Israelis will avoid altogether. Every government since 1967 has worked to bloat the colonies – including the government of Yitzhak Rabin, the late prime minister who signed the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat. It is clear today that the settlement project is an integral part of Israeli society. Marginal Israeli leftists have failed to alter their country’s basic DNA.

There are also other reasons “two states for two peoples” never developed beyond the realm of banal sloganeering.

Israel has several purposes for occupying the West Bank – but only one of them is unalterably non-negotiable. The Mountain Aquifer, a significant source of Israel’s potable water, sits beneath the West Bank. It is largely by design that some of the largest settlement blocks are situated right on top of it. The Israelis would like to keep the water even if “mutually agreed-upon land swaps” ever materialise. Yet for the two-state solution to be viable, Israel would have to cede its control of the aquifer to the Palestinians. True sovereignty means exercising control over one’s resources within one’s borders.

It is possible that Israel could one day relinquish its control over the water, but it is hard for me to imagine a set of circumstances that could induce it to do so. To be sure, the Oslo years produced a set of interim resource-sharing agreements, but they were never implemented (the more powerful Israelis had no reason to compromise with the Palestinians).

Many observers recognise that a viable Palestinian state cannot be established, for the reasons outlined above. Furthermore, an honest appraisal of the current reality in the country leads to the conclusion that there is only one sovereign entity in Mandate Palestine (the combined area of Israel and the Palestinian Territories).

For Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, the sole authority that really matters is the Israeli government. It is policymakers in Tel Aviv who decide whether to allow families from the separate Palestinian Territories to reunite, or whether businesspeople can transport goods, or whether students are permitted to attend universities abroad. Israel collects Palestinian taxes and polices Palestinian streets. It monitors Palestinian lives – it has for decades.

So there is now a single sovereign state in historic Palestine. But it is an apartheid state. Jewish privilege is the supreme law and Palestinian rights are subordinated to it. That does not mean, however, that the occupation is permanent or that the Palestinian struggle will end in Bantustanised frustration.

That the Palestinian people will be liberated is an article of faith for many. The historical record on segregation and apartheid buttresses their guarded optimism. More than 90 years of continuous protest and revolt against oppression suggest that the Palestinians share in that optimism – I certainly do.

Yet the question of how much longer the struggle will last is an open one. And the means for defeating apartheid are only vaguely known to us right now. Uncertainty should not lead to inaction, however.

The one-state solution is the only viable outcome for Palestine/Israel – it’s the only destination at the end of the long road travelled by the Palestinians. Knowing that much means that now is the time to begin thinking creatively about what a shared country could look like.

For instance, one federalist vision for the country requires the creation of four different states modelled on the American political system. Two majority Palestinian states and two majority Jewish states in one country could serve to protect both the communitarian and political rights of the people who live there.

Societies that have weathered transitions like the one that Palestinians and Israelis must undergo work to highlight the risks inherent in any reformation process. For instance, apartheid-era income inequality in South Africa has only worsened. Could that problem have been addressed or minimised?

The reality in Palestine/Israel is dynamic and complex. There is no guarantee that Palestinians will succeed in liberating themselves and reforming Jewish-Israeli society. The outcome is profoundly uncertain but it can still be influenced.

For that to happen, the work has to start now.

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American writer who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a Soros Fellow, a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and co-editor of After Zionism.… On Twitter: @AhmedMoor