For many years, Palestinian politics turned on a single idea: Palestine was stolen by the Jews, and so the Jews must be expelled -- “thrown into the sea,” the expression went.
Shortly before the Six-Day War in 1967, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Ahmed Shukairy, said the combined Arab armies, for which he assumed imminent victory, would allow those Jews who survived the coming conflagration to remain in Palestine. He added, however, “I estimate that none of them will survive.”
After the war, in which Israel, to the surprise of all parties involved, came into possession of a great deal of Arab territory, the discussion among Palestinians became more diverse. Over time, many acknowledged the reality of Israel, and, while not necessarily embracing the Jewish right to a state, adopted a more realpolitik attitude.
This faction, like some of their Israeli adversaries, began arguing for what has come to be known as the two-state solution. This concept, which would have Israel existing side-by-side with a Palestinian state on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, was even endorsed by Yasser Arafat when he was PLO chairman, though he ultimately balked when President Bill Clinton put to him the contours of such a deal at Camp David in 2000.
The other strain of thought -- the “destroy Israel” approach to the Middle East problem -- didn’t fade away, but the rejectionists divided into two camps, at least rhetorically. The first camp organized themselves mainly around Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and cast their struggle against Israel in religious terms. This camp’s rhetoric is bluntly anti-Semitic (as are its terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians).
The second, more secular camp understood that violent rhetoric was limiting the appeal of its cause among Westerners, and so it tried to hide its ultimate goal -- the forced disappearance of Israel -- behind a screen of euphemisms.
This group argues for the “one-state solution,” the merging of the Palestinian and Jewish populations between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea into a single political entity. It is an entirely unworkable and offensive idea, but because it is couched in the language of equality and human rights, rather than murder and anti-Semitism, it has gained currency in certain not-entirely-marginal circles.
This week, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government will host a conference called “Israel/Palestine and the One State Solution,” whose goal is to “educate ourselves and others about the possible contours of a one-state solution and the challenges that stand in the way of its realization.” The conference will feature speakers such as Ali Abunimah, a veteran anti-Israel agitator, and Harvard’s own Stephen M. Walt, co-author with John Mearsheimer of the scapegoating Ur-text of anti-Israel argumentation, “The Israel Lobby.”
The one-staters posit that they differ from the Shukairy approach or from the ideology of Hamas. They don’t seek the expulsion of Jews from Palestine, they say, but instead the creation of a unified parliament that would represent all Arabs and Jews between the river and the sea. Instead of two ethnic-based states, they say, there would be one harmonious, pluralistic democracy.
Many also demand repealing Israel’s Law of Return, which allows Jews to immigrate to Israel, and replacing it with a new law of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. This last item in their platform is offered with a knowing wink: The migration of four or five million Palestinians into this “shared” state would turn what is today the world’s only Jewish-majority state into the world’s 22nd Arab state.
The “shared state” model, of course, barely works in Belgium. In the heart of the merciless Middle East, where the oppression of ethnic and religious minorities by the Muslim Arab majority is in many countries severe and ongoing, it would be a formula for endless war.
Even one of the intellectual fathers of one-statism, the academic Edward Said, acknowledged that Jews could be endangered in this theoretical country. Asked by the Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit in 2000 if he thought a Jewish minority would be treated fairly, he said: “It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know.”
Israelis know. There is near wall-to-wall agreement among Israelis, and their supporters, that the Belgian model would quickly deteriorate into the Lebanese model.
Some of the most persuasive arguments against one-statism, in fact, come from the left. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobby group in Washington, told me that the one-state solution is a “one-state nightmare.” Gershom Gorenberg, in his new book, “The Unmaking of Israel,” a jeremiad directed at the Jewish settlement movement, writes at length about the absurdity at the heart of the proposal.
“Palestinians will demand the return of property lost in 1948 and perhaps the rebuilding of destroyed villages. Except for the drawing of borders, virtually every question that bedevils Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations will become a domestic problem setting the new political entity aflame.”
Gorenberg predicts that Israelis of means would flee this new state, leaving it economically crippled. “Financing development in majority-Palestinian areas and bringing Palestinians into Israel’s social welfare network would require Jews to pay higher taxes or receive fewer services. But the engine of the Israeli economy is high-tech, an entirely portable industry. Both individuals and companies will leave.”
In the best case, this new dystopia by the sea would be paralyzed by endless argument: “Two nationalities who have desperately sought a political frame for cultural and social independence would wrestle over control of language, art, street names, and schools.” In the worst case, Gorenberg writes, political tensions “would ignite as violence.”
There are people, perhaps including some of the Harvard students organizing the conference, who advocate “one-statism” out of naivete. But the leaders of the movement are not naive. They understand their project shares a goal with Hamas: the elimination of Israel as a homeland and haven for Jews.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.
To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at firstname.lastname@example.org.