From Autonomy to Statehood: Challenges and Visions
The Palestine-Israel Journal sponsored a special roundtable discussion on June 18, 1996 on the topic "From Autonomy to Statehood," chaired by Mr. Daoud Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media at AI-Quds University and member of the Journal's editorial board, with three panelists: Ms. Judi Widetzky is chairperson of the World Zionist Labor Movement and a member of the Bureau of the Labor Party in Israel. She is also the chairperson of the Committee on Migrants and Refugees of the International Council of Women and a member of the Network for Peace. Dr. Sari Nusseibeh is president of AI-Quds University in Jerusalem. He has written extensively about solutions to various aspects of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Dr. Meir Pa'il, a military historian, commanded the IOF Central Officer College and was a leftist Knesset member for two terms.

Daoud Kuttab: Is the Palestinian goal to move from self-rule to statehood viable after the recent changes in the Israeli government?

Judi Widetzky: With the change of government in Israel, I do not think we are going to move towards a Palestinian state. The government is opposed to the concept, so if it is up to them, it certainly will not be part of their plans.

Daoud Kuttab: We heard your Labor party for a long time saying no to the PLO and refusing a Palestinian state, and then this changed. Is the Likud line more a tactic than a real intention?

Judi Widetzky: The Labor party too does not see a Palestinian state as the only option. In our guidelines for this election, we saw as a maximum a Jordanian-Palestinian entity, a confederation. So I would not say that my party itself is pro a separate state. As regards Likud, I do not know. However, according to the Nixon China syndrome, there is a possibility that this government could come round to supporting a Palestinian state. But it certainly is not what they are planning on doing.

Daoud Kuttab: Dr. Nusseibeh, if the plan of the Likud government is to make autonomy or self-rule into permanent status that will lead to an apartheid situation. Is it an option for Palestinians, since they are being denied statehood by the Likud government, to demand publicly in negotiations that they are in favor of Israel annexing the entire West Bank and Gaza, and giving them equal rights?

Sari Nusseibeh: If the question has to do with the negotiators and the position of the Palestinian negotiating parties, then that has never been an option, because the PLO and the Palestinian national movement have never been interested in thinking in terms of amalgamation. I do not think this will ever change. I do not think the time will ever come when the negotiating parties representing the Palestinians will go to the Israelis, as negotiators, and ask them to change the entire terms of the negotiations.

Daoud Kuttab: What about public Palestinian strategy?

Sari Nusseibeh: That is a different question, if your question is whether the people will ever think in terms of such a strategy. Then again, I think that was never really an option. In the past, people were never very attracted to the idea of adopting such a strategy.

Daoud Kuttab: You thought it at one time.

Sari Nusseibeh: I am not the people. I am a minority of one person. But if you are asking the other question - which I think is maybe the one you should ask - in the event of a successful Likud policy, whether, in fact, things will so change in the Palestinian public mind as to create support for this totally different strategy - namely, the strategy of calling for equal rights within the same system - then my answer to you is that it is possible, yes. That it is not only possible, but actually probable, and at one stage might seem more desirable than separation from Israel, if people see clearly that integration is preferable to the rights that they can achieve within the context of a very limited kind of sovereignty - for example, a sovereignty that excludes Jerusalem and excludes control over resources, such as water and so on. With this kind of option, integration is much more desirable. The time may indeed come.

Daoud Kuttab: Dr. Pa'il, could you tell us what reaction will Israel have if the probable and the possible that Dr. Nusseibeh spoke about is implemented?

Meir Pa'il: About 20 years ago, the PLO's doctrine was to turn all of Palestine, from the Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, into what they then called a secular democratic state in which Jews, Arabs and others would live together. In those days, the Israelis, including the doves in Israel, rejected the idea. The doves within Israel preferred the establishment of an independent Palestine alongside Israel, basically in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem. In the Zionist history of the 1930s and 1940s, there were groups who adhered to the idea of a binational state.
Following what we call our War of Independence, the 1948 war, basically everyone gave up this idea. From what I know about Jewish Israeli public opinion, they would accept the idea that Israel politically rule the entire area from the Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. They would agree that the Palestinians get autonomy, and that we negotiate this with them and discuss it. Security and foreign policy would be determined by the Israeli government, and most other rights would be given to the Palestinians automatically, even those Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem. They would call this autonomy, an autonomy without political rights. They would have citizenship, of course, either Palestinian or Israeli citizenship.

Daoud Kuttab: And they could vote for the Knesset?

Meir Pa'il: This is a problem. They would not have political rights. I am not that sure the Palestinians would agree to this situation. If I were in their place I would not agree. If things developed gradually, with no guerilla or terrorist wars or clashes, maybe after a generation the Palestinians would automatically get more rights. I prefer the idea of two independent states, without defined borders or defensive walls. As far as I understand the existing policy of the PLO now, they will not agree to less than statehood.

Daoud Kuttab: The choice of autonomy means apartheid, because there is no autonomy without political rights and without citizenship. In all autonomies around the world, people can vote for the federal government, and are then autonomous in local matters, such as culture, education and language. Here, we already have an autonomy. We speak Arabic. We worship. We have our culture. So there is nothing Mr. Netanyahu can offer us except apartheid as the final status. What would the Israeli public say if the Palestinians insisted on political rights and on voting for the Israeli Knesset? Some people are even saying privately, today, that maybe we will demand to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). If we want to have equal rights, we want to be equal in everything.

Judi Widetzky: I think that would frighten the Israeli public very much. I do not agree with Dr. Pa'il. I think the Israeli public would feel much more comfortable with a clear definition of two entities, not necessarily two states, but certainly two entities. Israel would definitely be able to accept a Palestine-Jordan confederation because, I think, we realize that there has to be a political solution. The only thing we would feel uncomfortable with is a political solution that went all the way to a state, which is obviously what the Palestinians should be requesting.
I personally applaud equal rights, but on the issue of asking for one state with equal rights ¬the specter that helped the Likud win this election was the fact that they managed to put fear into the Israeli electorate as to a final take-over of the Jewish state, saying that the PLO ploy right now is to accept Oslo as a waystation, and the next step would be to demand the rest of the country. That was one of the fear tactics that was used in these elections that made a lot of people vote the Likud rather than Labor, even though they were for the peace process. Even the fact that there are now so many Israeli Arab members of Knesset who aren't afraid to speak out, is making some of the people in the country uncomfortable.

Daoud Kuttab: Dr. Nusseibeh, is the fact that the idea of a Palestinian discussion of amalgamation or integration scares Israelis enough to strategically change Palestinian tactics?

Sari Nusseibeh: It is true that the sudden and formal adoption of a strategy like this on the part of the Palestinians would terrify Israelis. What I take into account as a Palestinian, in addition to fear, is also justice, and justice consists of an equitable division of rights between Israelis and Palestinians, which we can do either collectively or individually. This means, therefore, that either we end up having two separate states, or we end up having one state with equal rights for each individual. I think most Palestinians agree to this. This may frighten the Israelis, but it should be worked out so that justice does reign supreme, and also that the fears of the Israelis are allayed in the long run.
One should watch how things are going to develop. To the extent that the Likud is going to be successful in preventing the possibility of the evolution of a separate Palestinian state, to that extent the probability of a change in Palestinian public opinion about their own strategy is also going to increase. If the Palestinians see that it makes no sense any longer to seek independence or separation, the ground will then be ripe to see that only integration makes sense. They might not do this formally. It might not happen within the context of five years. It all depends. For example, let us say that what Dr. Pa'il just said about autonomy takes place. Time goes by, another five or ten years. The Palestinians who live under such an autonomy are going to feel exactly what Ms. Widetzky said, that they are living in a state of apartheid where they have some, but not all, rights. They are going to feel that they are living under the jurisdiction of a legislative body named the Knesset in which they are not participating. Only the Israelis, primarily Jewish Israel - has that option. So they are going to feel the only option that is available to them is to seek to participate. When that happens, I am not sure that Israelis will necessarily feel so terrified.
At that point in time, Israelis who are aware of things are going to see very clearly that I am not talking about terrorism. I am not talking about confrontation. It is going to be very obvious, black-and-white obvious, that there is a state of apartheid. Indeed, you might see in the future those Israelis striving for justice, wishing to be working side by side with Palestinians, precisely in order to bring about a peaceful
evolution of the system into that kind of state.

Daoud Kuttab: We are talking here about whether Palestinian statehood is irreversible or not. Clearly the victory of Netanyahu has slowed that train down. Do you agree that people like yourself have lost the struggle for two equal states alongside each other?

Meir Pa'il: First, I do not agree that the struggle is lost. Second, I would like to explain something about the Israeli nationalist mind. There is a majority within the Israeli public opinion, in the Israeli right and even within the Israeli Labor sector for establishing in the West Bank - or most of it - and the Gaza Strip an autonomy with no political or security rights. And what about citizenship? They have a solution: Jordan. Palestinians would live here, in the western side of the Jordan, under Israeli supremacy and political sovereignty, with equal social, educational and religious rights. But they would be citizens of Jordan. They would vote for the Jordanian parliament, and serve in the Jordanian army if the regime accepted them. They understand that maybe Israel will be blamed for maintaining an apartheid state, and the way out for these Palestinians regarding their political rights is to be Jordanian citizens.

Sari Nusseibeh: Let them vote in Jordan.

Meir Pa'il: Let them vote there. Even the Arabs in Nazareth could vote in Jordan. This is their answer: that our eastern border is Jordan. We are against evacuating the Jewish settlements, and do not agree that the Green Line is the final border. As regards the permanent solution for the Palestinians alongside Israel, they will not agree to an independent Palestinian state with the capital in East Jerusalem. And let's assume that the Israelis under Binyamin Netanyahu, supported by the Americans and so on, at least for the time being, achieve their goal - I accept your definition - it will be an apartheid autonomy because Palestinians will not have political rights. I am not that sure that the Jordanians will be ready to accept the ludicrous idea that Palestinians live in Nablus and vote in Jordan. From the nationalistic Israeli point of view, the more they negotiate with Jordanians, the more they will have to give up in terms of territories. For example, King Hussein will not be ready to give up Jerusalem or the Temple Mount.
Most Israelis would say: "If we had no other choice but to enable the Palestinians to get their Arab sovereignty, we would prefer a Palestinian-¬Jordanian federation to an independent Palestinian state." If they were to succeed temporarily to turn Oslo III into this kind of Palestinian autonomy, with semi-independence and the danger of apartheid, the development could take two different directions: The first is, instead of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, we would establish a binational state. Morally and from the point of view of justice, this is acceptable. I have no problem to live with Dr. Nusseibeh in the same state or the same neighborhood, but I am afraid that, as long as the Israeli public opinion and regime are against it (like the white man in South Africa), resistance will start functioning within Palestinian circles - different kinds of resistance, perhaps a civilian Intifada. This resistance may spread to Nazareth too.
This is why I think that to raise the second option of an independent Palestinian state is important now. Tactically, were the PLO to ask my advice, I think they should tell the Israelis: "Okay, you want autonomy. So you want us to live in apartheid. But just remember the end of apartheid in South Africa." The idea of exchanging independence for full autonomy is an excellent diplomatic or political negotiating trick. If both people find themselves mature enough to agree, I think this is the best solution on earth.

Daoud Kuttab: Ms. Widetzky, I want to ask you a question I asked the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin when I was the first Palestinian to interview him three months before the Oslo I agreement was signed. I asked him, "Imagine 10 or 15 years into the future - I hoped he would live that long, but Yigal Amir chose otherwise - what do you expect to see as the status of the Palestinians?" I would like to ask you why not enough Israelis are giving that question serious thought.

Judi Widetzky: You are giving me a chance to dream. I happen to think that, in the course of history, we are going to be looking at a wholly different structure of states. National states are not going to be as important in that future time as they are now. This is why I much prefer a separation to the integration that you are suggesting. I see the Palestinians as having political rights in a Palestinian entity and in the federation with Jordan. The voting would be within the Palestinian entity and not voting for Jordan. It is only with security rights that I have a problem. I do not agree with either/or, statehood or autonomy. There is a third option from my point of view, and that is political rights in the Palestinian entity that is not necessarily full statehood. I do not agree with apartheid.
I have been dealing with the whole question of refugees. One out of 50 people in the world today is on the move. States are going to change and all sorts of political entities are going to change. And so are we. Therefore, my concept of what could happen in the Middle East is probably a confederation between all of us, where there would be different types of entities, like the united states of Europe: not only Jordan, Palestine and Israel, but even Lebanon, Syria and further than that. Each of us will have some part of us that keeps a separate identity. I definitely would like the Palestinian entity or state - and I suppose, being realistic, that it is going to be a state and not an autonomy - as a secular and not a religious state. Just as I want my state to be a secular and not a religious one. One of our fears is that, by accepting your expression of Palestinian nationality, we may be losing ours. And that is our problem, not yours. It is ours because maybe we have not defined for ourselves what is a national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Fifty years ago they knew what it was. Maybe if we were sure of ourselves as to what we are, we would be able to be more open to accepting what you are.

Daoud Kuttab: Dr. Nusseibeh, it seems from this discussion that there are natural alliances being established between those 49 percent of Israelis who, in one way or another, support a Palestinian state in the long term, and the Palestinians. Can Palestinians and the groups on the left and left of center in Israel work together in trying to win over public opinion?

Sari Nusseibeh: I do not have the answer to the question of alliances. Normally alliances are formed in order to achieve interests. To have an alliance with anybody who shares the same values as I have, I do not really think too much about race or religion. I think it is a good thing to try as far as possible, today, to make use of the opportunity that arose in the last year or two, of creating separation between the two people in general. Have a Palestinian state if possible alongside Israel. This is probably going to be more pleasing to the Israelis, and certainly more pleasing to the Palestinians, whether it is the ideal solution or not. I think everything should be done to try to make use of this opportunity, whether through addressing Israeli public opinion, through alliances, through meetings, through research, etc. However, the chances are that whatever you do is going to fail if the Likud stays in power and succeeds in the policy it is pursuing. The Likud will try¬ which makes perfectly good sense from their point of view - to ensure that the kind of entity to emerge will not be the kind of entity that, from my point of view, will be acceptable because it will not be possible to develop it into a state. That is why I said at the beginning, if the Likud is successful, whatever we do, it is not going to be possible to continue working for a two-state solution.
For me, a binational state is not a tactical demand. I have always looked upon national liberation movements as a prerequisite for a movement of liberation from nationalism. To my mind, neither nationhood nor statehood should be regarded as sacrosanct. What is sacrosanct are human values, regardless of religion. Ideally, we should really have a single state. And it is a paradox that, in fact, the success of the Likud, which is anti-Palestinian, is in some strange way a step in the direction of creating such an ideal state of affairs. Ten or twenty years ago, I personally made the suggestion that Palestinians should seek Israeli citizenship, and I made the suggestion fully aware that I was doing it partly in order to ring some bells on the part of the Israeli public and leadership. Today, however, I would not personally ring any bells. I would not call for or talk about integration. But it will come. I think five years down the road you will probably have people beginning to say it and espouse it openly.

Daoud Kuttab: Dr. Pa'il and Ms. Widetzky, what can be done by Israelis and Palestinians to speed up the process of relative justice?

Meir Pa'il: I very much respect Dr. Nusseibeh's ideology, which I share with him. And I agree that the more Israelis impose their system on the Palestinians, the more they themselves will encourage the process of a binational state in the long run. We will have to get used to the idea. For example, most Israeli Jews now accept the Palestinian minority within Israel. They understand that they have the right to vote. Here and there someone complains, why do they vote for peace and so on. But they are there. They are 18 or 19 percent of our population and they are getting organized. In the meantime, I would like to put forward another consideration. We are living in an international world. All of us live in what is accepted by two-thirds of the human race as the Holy Land. Just imagine that, while discussing the problem of a Palestinian autonomy here, maybe some arrangement is agreed upon where Arafat's government or the autonomous government starts functioning from Azzariya, from Abu Dis, maybe from the Mount of Olives or from Ramallah. Just assume that, after six or seven months or one year, if there are quite a lot of Jewish settlements all around the West Bank, the international community and the United Nations will decide to recognize the Palestinian autonomy as an independent state. The Israelis will vote against it in the United Nations, but the Security Council and almost all states all over the world will recognize this fact. This is another direction in which things may develop.
The Israelis think that we are the stronger now, so we can impose our will.
And, basically, the Americans are supporting the Israeli Zionist interests. I am not sure that they are correct. So maybe the third agreement, Oslo III, will end with autonomy and not with an independent state. But an independent Palestinian state can emerge, not through us and not through the Palestinians, but through the international community. And the Israelis will not be able to do anything but accept it.

Daoud Kuttab: But what can be done between Israelis and Palestinians to speed up the process?

Meir Pa'il: Negotiate. Get to know each other at whatever level we can. I think every Israeli should speak fluent Arabic and I would like most Arabs to speak fluent Hebrew. To learn the other's history and culture, to learn to respect each other. Most Israelis are frightened of Palestinian terrorism, and I think the Palestinians are more or less frightened of Israel. It is not simple because, being stronger, the more we impose our system now, the more we encourage violent behavior on the other side. The only way I know is to try to do whatever we can to know each other, to accept each other, to visit each other, and gradually we will see each other as human beings.

Judi Widetzky: For the past five years I have been having conversations with Palestinian women. I am one of the women who went to Brussels for the formation, in 1989, of the Women's Peace Network. I have always thought that women were more open to holding these conversations. Not only Brussels started with the women, but also Angola and Ireland. Then when the real process of negotiating began, there were no women around the table. I really believe that this was one of the reasons for the hang-ups in all of them. For five years we had our ups and downs as to how to talk to each other, but we learned about each other. We learned why we are afraid of each other, and we realized that both sides have fears and both sides have aspirations and it is not one-sided. I believe that there is no other way. A political solution is not going to work if there is not a personal solution among the people, if the people do not feel they have to make peace. Therefore, they have to get to know each other. Talking to each other is imperative for peace, but it is not enough. There still has to be a political solution, and that is the catch. If it could only be done by dialogue, we would have had it a long time ago.

Sari Nusseibeh: I agree and I put it perhaps even more strongly: whatever the outcome is going to be politically, I think it is a primary imperative that Palestinians and Israelis continue to develop this dialogue and engagement in mutual cooperation. I would even go to the extent of calling it a process of naturalization, and I am quite aware that what I am saying is maybe not very popular. But in my own view, this process of naturalization between Israelis and Palestinians, regardless of the political outcome, is a necessary condition for producing an outcome that will, eventually, be acceptable to both sides. People should discuss, enter into joint ventures at every level, regardless of what the political situation is, with the view that, since we are living together, we might as well have an acceptable form of life to the extent possible.