Resolving the Conflict: The Nation-State and the Nation in IsraelfPalestine
"The curse of the nation-state" is what the African historian Basil Davidson calls the conflict-generating political framework imposed by Europe on the African continent. The phrase can be equally applied to Israel/Palestine. The lack of fit between cultural geography, state boundaries and unitary state structures is self-evident, especially as each state - Israel and the prospective Palestinian state - presumes to represent a particular "nation," but in fact incorporates within its borders one or more other national groups demanding their own self-determination. If we conceive of cultural, economic and political relations as a fluid "field" moving across whole regions and continents, then it is clear that no state can "capture" an entire people within its boundaries. Both the Palestinian diaspora and the hundreds of thousands of Israeli yordim (emigrants) illustrate that. "Nation-states," in particular, as Israel purports to be and Palestine aspires to become, contain special potential for generating conflict, since they rarely, if ever, represent one distinct nation. Yet the world is still composed of states, and self-determination has little meaning without the political and economic apparatus to back it up. Thus the apparent saliency of the "two-state solution."
At this juncture of Palestinian and Israeli history, however, where despite the seeming impasses new political forms are perceptibly arising, it might be useful to look at the limitations of the nation-state as an appropriate framework. Since Israel possesses state power which makes it a dominant force vis-a-vis the Palestinians, I will begin by examining the insoluble dilemmas inherent in the Israeli state, its national aspirations and its policies. I will then go on to consider how Binyamin Netanyahu, who is keenly aware of these dilemmas, proposes to address them, suggesting that the inadequacy of his proposals derives as much from the limitations of a nation-state approach as from his Likud ideology. I will conclude by reflecting on possible limitations of the two-state solution and raise the possibility of other options.

'The Israeli Blind': A Starting Point

The dilemma is a familiar one. Since 1967 Israel has tried desperately to juggle three essential aspirations. With varying degrees of emphasis between the right and left, religious and secular, it seeks to be a Jewish as well as democratic state, and to retain control over the Greater Land of Israel. But reality has dictated that, in the long run and on the best of terms, it can only achieve two out of the three. Which two go to the heart of the public debate in Israel?
Option One is for Israel to be Jewish and democratic, but for that to happen it must concede the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians. This is the option favored by most middle-class secular Jews of European origin who tend to vote for the Labor/Meretz bloc, but they comprise only between a third to 40 percent of the Jewish public. They enjoy the tacit support of Palestinian Israelis (which is why the Labor/Meretz bloc held out hope of winning the last elections). Yet even if advocates of this option came to power, the chances that they would evacuate the settlers and disengage from major portions of the West Bank in terms of security, water and infrastructure are extremely slim. Labor supporters, in particular, lack the will to take such decisive and far-reaching steps, especially if their actions, de legitimized in the eyes of most Israeli Jews as those of a Jewish minority supported by Arabs, threatened serious civil conflict. Indeed, one can only assume that the Rabin/Peres government pursued this option, since they equivocated on their final aims and consistently denied either envisioning a Palestinian state beside Israel or the possibility that Israel might eventually relinquish its West Bank/Gaza settlements or its control over security and borders. Although Peres has spoken often of the untenability of one people ruling over another, the "independence-minus" Bantustans Labor offered the Palestinians is clearly unacceptable to them, thus rendering Option One ideologically and theoretically viable, but an unlikely eventuality in practice.
Another major obstacle to Option One is the view held by most Arab citizens of Israel that "Jewish" and "democratic" are themselves mutually exclusive, and that a truly democratic Israel will be a binational one in which all citizens' civil status is equal and takes precedence over national, ethnic or religious background. Even Meretz supporters, I would argue, do not go this far. As Zionists (whatever that problematic term may mean today), they uphold the value of Jewish self-determination, and would argue that a strengthened civic equality in Israel, coupled with a Palestinian state next door, would constitute a substantive and acceptable, if not absolute, compromise. While I have no hard data to substantiate this, I would assume that even the most "left-wing" Zionist would oppose, for example, abolishing the Law of Return. Still, any attempt to measurably equalize the civil status of Arabs and Jews would be rigorously opposed by a Jewish majority that would consider it threatening to the Jewish character of the state.
Option Two, that Israel could remain a Jewish state and continue to control the entire Land of Israel, would require it to deny citizenship to the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza, thereby relinquishing any democratic pretense in favor of an apartheid regime. This is essentially the position of Netanyahu's government, but since he lectured the Arab world on the importance of democracy from his platform in the American Congress ¬and since he has committed himself publicly to the peace process - he obviously cannot frame his position as such. Indeed, Netanyahu believes he can "save" all three aspirations, including reconciling democracy with Israeli rule over the entire West Bank and Gaza. How? By offering "autonomy-plus" a la (as he suggested) Puerto Rico or Andorra. If the Palestinians will only accept autonomy within the borders of their Bantustans, all will be fine. Resistance only proves the Arabs' insincerity and strengthens the belief of the Likud and its coalition partners that the Palestinians seek not peace but the destruction of Israel.
Option Three is the most theoretical and unlikely of all: a democratic state encompassing the entire Land of Israel/Palestine, meaning a binational state. For Jews this entails relinquishing the Jewish character of Israel (in fact, relinquishing an Israeli state in general in favor of a more representative entity), and Jewish national self-determination, a cardinal principle of political Zionism and its very rationale. This alone makes Option Three a non-starter. Whether the Palestinians would be willing to forego their own national self-determination in favor of such a state is an open question, although the possibility has occasionally been raised by Palestinian leaders.

Netanyahu's Option: State over Nation

Oslo changed the whole picture. The vision of the final settlement with the Palestinians still remained vague on the part of Labor. Indeed, Oslo was predicated on "good faith," on the assumption that the Israeli public would not immediately accept peace based on a neighboring Palestinian state, and on the belief that a mutually acceptable and "salable" arrangement would emerge over time. But the status quo changed enough that the dilemmas facing Israel assumed a much more concrete and pressing character. Instead of a purely internal debate inside Israel, the peace process brought the PLO, Jordan and, to a much more tangible degree, Egypt and the United States into active involvement - not to mention those Muslim countries with which Israel was beginning to foster economic relations.
Where all that would have led is today speculation. The election of Netanyahu and the forming of his government radically altered the political trajectory. Instead of moving towards a mutually acceptable arrangement, Oslo became a means for forcing the Palestinians to accept Israel's dictates or be blamed for "destroying the peace process." Netanyahu has to try and reconcile the three aspirations - each essential to his party's and government's world view - while avoiding blame for violating Oslo or the peace process in general.
This problem he has attacked in a variety of ways, some illusory, some reflecting his deep-seated belief that Israel can remain Jewish and democratic, retain control over Judea and Samaria/ the West Bank, if not Gaza. Several ingredients go into this stew. First, Netanyahu does not believe that true peace is possible with the Arabs. Thus, unlike Rabin and Peres, he seeks not a mutually acceptable solution and reconciliation, but rather a modus vivendi built upon meeting minimal Palestinian requirements of autonomy, while preserving a power relationship in which the Palestinians concede' u Israeli dictates out of fear of losing even their autonomy. Israel, moreover, reserves for itself the option of taking any military steps necessary to defend its "security" (a catch-all phrase that can be invoked at any time). This definition of peace as merely the absence of conflict reflects the fundamental role that power plays in Revisionist/Likud thinking. Disputes are settled by either military victory or political domination. There has to be a winner and a loser. Arriving at a mutually acceptable resolution of the causes of conflict is therefore not considered an "authentic" or long-term solution - certainly where Arabs are concerned.
A crucial element in this conception of peace is its almost exclusively Israeli definition. Settlement, infrastructure, security, Israel's "ownership" of Jerusalem, the extent of its phased withdrawals, Palestine's economic relations, and the degree of autonomy Israel is willing to "grant" the Palestinians - all are removed from the sphere of negotiations between equal parties to that of Israeli "approva1." But since peace is equated with conceding to Israel's "natural and unquestionable" interests, any resistance is portrayed as proof of Palestinian insincerity and the cogency of Israel's policies. And since "peace" is essentially a state of non-conflict detached from the resolution of underlying conflicts, any resistance on the part of the Palestinians to Israel's self-evident interests, especially if it is "violent" (such as youths throwing stones at soldiers, which can only happen if the Palestinian Authority gives a "green light"), is grounds for stopping the process. Netanyahu's message: Either concede without resistance to our policies or carry the blame for ending the peace process.

New Model

Still, since national self-determination is a recognized human right that Israel has invoked to justify its won claims to statehood, Netanyahu is caught in a bind. To set the stage for accepting national rights for Jews while rejecting them for Palestinians, he begins by nothing less than questioning the very notion of the nation-state. Noting that "in tens of states there are minorities claiming independence" (thereby expanding the Israeli "state" to include the West Bank and Gaza, while reducing the entire Palestinian nation to the status of ethnic "minority" similar to the Palestinians of Israel), Netanyahu searches for "a new model" in which some peoples (now defined as "minorities" rather than national groups) are granted "autonomy": "management of some areas of life and not others." (How one group becomes a "nation" and the owner of a state with the power to "grant" autonomy, and another group becomes a "minority" with no state or national rights to determine its own destiny is left unclear.) Citing the Palestinians as an example of a wider problem facing the world's states, Netanyahu suggests that "the problem is the definition of the right of self-determination." Apparently decreeing that those nations that now control states are the only legitimate parties that should decide on such matters, he declares, no less: "Limitations should be placed on the right to self-determination, and a balanced order should be found."
Casting about for convenient models, Netanyahu settled on two: Puerto Rico and Andorra. (He originally included Finland, until an aide pointed out that Finns do indeed have their own country.) The Puerto Ricans protested, pointing out they had held several referendums over their destiny, and that they have been US citizens since 1917, with free and equal access to the mainland. The Andorrans thanked Netanyahu for calling world attention to the existence of their principality of some 65,000 people controlled by France and the Spanish Bishop of Urgel, but since they belonged to neither country nor were ethnically different from their neighbors, they apparently saw in themselves little of the "new model" of autonomy Netanyahu was seeking for the Palestinians and other "minorities." It is perhaps telling that in a world of thousands of national, ethnic, religious and linguistic communities, Netanyahu could not come up with one useful or convincing or even plausible example of a people with claims to self-determination happily settling for minority status.
Having thus called the principle of national self-determination into doubt and invoking his (apparent) power as head of state to categorize the Palestinians as a "minority" whose rights must be subsumed to the wider order of the state (which now encompasses the West Bank and Gaza), Netanyahu casts his rejection of Palestinian national claims in broader universal terms, as an issue not of Israel and the Palestinians, but of states compelled to protect themselves and the entire international order against the illegitimate claims of troublesome ethnic groups. To bolster this view, he brings in another concern that has long been behind such policies as "Judaizing the Galilee" (or the Negev) but has seldom been clearly articulated: the worry that if Palestinian national rights are recognized, then "Israeli Arabs" - apparently not yet convinced of their status as an ethnic minority in a Jewish state - may push for their annexation to the Palestinian state.

Some Other Option

If Netanyahu is correct that "tens of states" suffer from internal cultural conflicts, it is because the state has proven to be an inappropriate, oppressive and conflict-generating framework in a world where some form of self-determination is crucial for protecting one's cultural identity and collective interests. The nation-state does not work because no contemporary state contains just one national or cultural group. More just and workable alternatives do not lie, then, in giving ruling elites even greater moral and coercive authority to "limit" the rights of "minorities." Rather, we might look at wider political and economic arrangements that permit coordination among peoples without forcing them into unitary frameworks.
Netanyahu might be right that a two-state solution, supported by both the PLO and segments of the left in Israel, is untenable. This is not because the Palestinians might attempt to destroy the Jewish state, as Netanyahu fears, or because Israel destroys the integrity of Palestine, as Hamas and the Rejectionists believe, but for other equally cogent reasons: the two peoples and the lands they live on have simply become too intertwined to ever disengage; and it is in the interest of both peoples, and their neighbors, that the Middle East become a well-integrated economic unit. Meron Benvenisti adds yet another concern: two states would give the Palestinians little more than a Bantustan, even if they acquired the whole of the West Bank and Gaza, thus freezing the dominant/submissive relationship that Israel holds over the Palestinians today.
Dissatisfaction with the two-state solution has led to reconsideration of the binational state as a viable option. The idea of a secular, democratic binational state was long the PLO's favorite solution, and it still is among the Democratic Front and other Palestinian groups who fear the emergence of an undemocratic Palestinian state under Arafat's centralized leadership. Member of Knesset Azmi Bishara has noted the idea of a binational state always enjoyed more popularity among Palestinians than among Israelis.
The reason is clear enough: Israel was and is largely self-contained within its own state boundaries, while major concentrations of the Palestinian population are found on both sides of the Green Line, and will be divided if a Palestinian state emerges alongside Israel. But in perception, if not because of actual numbers, many Israelis today consider Judea and Samaria and its Jewish population as no less integral to the Israeli state - and therefore oppose "partition" for the same reasons as do the Palestinians. Rabbi Forman of Tekoa, for example, sees a binational state as a way of Jews retaining the whole Land of Israel, and, conversely, of the Palestinians retaining the whole of Palestine.
Yet national and religious identities extend beyond the boundaries of Israel/Palestine. Salim Tamari of Birzeit University points to a certain ambivalence in Palestinian nationalism deriving from its incorporation in wider identities no less important: Pan-Arab, Mashriq, Syrian and Islamic. Israel exists as a self-contained unit: world Jewry does not share its national identity nor desires to immigrate, despite the Law of Return. Thus it need deal only with issues of settlement within the Land of Israel, together with practical concerns of relations with its neighbors. A Palestinian state, by contrast, would have to address both a national diaspora consisting of people who do share its national identity, but might not be included within its boundaries, as well as its belonging to the wider Arab and Muslim worlds. Its interests would be best served by a fluid type of federation, perhaps an arrangement resembling the European Union, or even a Semitic Common Market. The knowledge that one's cultural traditions, identities and interest were fairly represented in the wider federation or union might diminish greatly the need for one people or another to control territory or claim exclusivity.
There is also some logic to Netanyahu's suggestion of moving to final¬-status negotiations (although he has a very different agenda in this regard). Without considering alternative options and moving towards some defined arrangement, the peace process is liable to get stuck at a certain stage or end up with a solution (e.g., two states) that resolves neither the needs nor the concerns of the parties. If, on the other hand, the two-state solution is conceived as a step on the way to a more innovative and suitable political arrangement, then even Palestinian autonomy that would allow Palestinians in Israel, the West bank, Gaza and Jordan to reestablish close cultural and economic ties might prove to be a flexible phase in the process.
None of this is to suggest skipping over the two-state model in favor of more fluid and inclusive political forms whose time has not yet come. For all the conflicts it generates, the state is still the only effective instrument of self-determination, and is still the only political form allowed to participate fully in the international arena, from the UN to the Olympics. But while the imperatives of self-determination must be accounted for, it might be well to look at the two-state solution as a phase towards a more equitable, workable and culturally satisfactory arrangement. Before us, then, lies an opportunity to overcome "the curse of the nation-state."