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September 2003 • Vol 3, No. 8 •

What if Palestinians Ask for Equal Rights Instead of A State?

By Guy Chazan

As Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas heads to Washington this week to meet with President Bush, some Palestinian intellectuals are questioning a fundamental goal of the so-called road map to peace the two will discuss: the creation of a Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel.

They argue that the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza might render a Palestinian homeland unworkable, a mere collection of discrete cantons or reservations. Instead of campaigning for independence, the theory goes, Palestinians should be pressing for equal rights within a single, democratic Israel. It is an idea many Israelis say threatens the very identity of the Jewish state—and therefore one that might also prod Israel to speed progress toward a two-state solution.

Which is more likely to lead to peace, a separate Palestinian state or a single democratic state of Arabs and Jews? What motivates the one-state idea—and explains why Israelis overwhelmingly reject it—is demography. Israel already has more than one million Arabs, aside from the 3.1 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. High Arab birth rates mean there will soon be as many Palestinians as Jews living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

Arnon Soffer, professor of geography at Haifa University, predicts the proportion of Jews in that area will fall to 39 percent by 2020. In these circumstances, if Israel annexed the occupied territories and granted all Arabs living there citizenship and voting rights, there would soon be enough of them to elect a Palestinian to run Israel. “What they’re saying is that their chief aim is not to create an independent Palestinian homeland but to destroy the Jewish state,” says Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the foreign and defense-affairs committee of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

To be sure, some analysts see the one-state idea as little more than a Palestinian ploy to speed implementation of the road map. Still, the idea poses a dilemma for Israelis. “Either we give the Palestinians equal rights, in which case Israel ceases to be Jewish, or we don’t, in which case Israel ceases to be democratic,” says Uri Dromi, of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. “The only way for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic is for it to pull out of the territories.”

The first signs of a shift in high-level Palestinian thinking emerged in October, when a delegation led by Salam Fayyad, Palestinian finance minister, presented the U.S. with a report saying expanding Jewish settlements could make a future Palestinian state unviable. If settlement growth didn’t stop, the report read, Palestinian policy makers might be forced to “re-evaluate the plausibility of a two state solution.”

Later, Diana Buttu, a legal adviser to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, went a step further. “One cannot unscramble an egg,” she said in an online interview published in October. The Palestinian leadership, she said, should give up its quest for an independent state and push instead for equal citizenship in Israel and “an antiapartheid campaign along the same lines as South Africa.”

Ms. Buttu’s proposal was a radical departure from current Palestinian policy, but it wasn’t new. In a 1999 article, Edward Said, a prominent Palestinian intellectual, advocated a “binational Israeli-Palestinian state,” arguing that the two nations are so closely intertwined that “clean separation simply won’t, can’t really, occur or work.”

One of the first public figures to broach the idea was Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh, now president of al Quds University in Jerusalem, a man with a reputation for saying the unsayable. “When I first said it 20 years ago ... people thought I was mad,” he says. “But more and more people that I come into contact with now say we should forget about the two-state solution.”

On the Israeli left, there is a growing awareness of the danger posed by the one-state idea and a sense that the road map may be a last chance to avoid demographic disaster. Some say that urgency ensures the road map a better chance of success than previous peace plans. “This is really our last opportunity for a two-state solution,” says Yossi Beilin, a dovish former justice minister. “In a few years’ time, it’s a solution the Palestinians might simply reject. If they do, it’s a big problem for the Zionist dream.”

This logic is also beginning to persuade some right-wing Israelis of the necessity of territorial compromise with the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon provoked outrage in his right-wing Likud party in May by saying Israel couldn’t keep more than three million Palestinians under “occupation” forever—his first use of a word long rejected by right-wing and religious Jews, who see the whole of the Land of Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza, as Jewish by right.

While the one-state idea is still on the fringes of Palestinian thought, some Israelis worry that it will take off as more Arabs grasp the implications of demography. “It’s only a matter of a year or two before it becomes mainstream,” says former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “So we need to establish a border in which we’ll have a Jewish majority for generations to come. It might be our last chance.”

The Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2003





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