Palestine: Partition the road to conflict, equality the road to peace

It is an almost unquestioned orthodoxy that the only way there could be a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is through the creation of two separate states.

This position was adopted by the Palestinian National Council in 1988, was the basis of the 1993 Oslo Accords and is the official policy of Israel's Western allies, including Australia.

In the Israeli political spectrum, the debate is between a negotiated two-state solution, "unilateral disengagement" — essentially an non-negotiated version of the same thing — and a far-right solution that would see one state with a Jewish majority ensured through "population transfer" — ethnic cleansing. While the latter, genocidal option is portrayed as a fringe position in the Western media, its advocates have held cabinet positions in Israeli governments headed by all the major parties.

On the Palestinian side, while Hamas officially does not recognise Israel's right to exist as an exclusively Jewish state, it has offered a permanent truce should Israel withdraw to its pre-1976 borders, which would leave the Jewish state in control of 78% of historic Palestine.

Palestinian state?

When the Oslo Accords were signed, the assumption by Palestinians was that the 22% of Palestine that remained outside Israel in 1948, but which Israel conquered in 1967 (the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip — the Occupied Palestinian Territories), would form the basis of the Palestinian state.

However, the feasibility of such a Palestinian state has been severely undermined and thrown into question by Israel's creation of "facts on the ground" through the construction of Israeli settlements, Jewish-only "bypass roads" that divide the territories, checkpoints and a concrete wall (which isolates and annexes a large part of the OPT) that is euphemistically termed the "separation barrier".

This process — that has involved the annexation of Palestinian land, the separation of villages from their farmland, the surrounding of East Jerusalem with a massive ring of settlements and the demolition of Arab neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem — has left Palestinians confined to a dozen non-contiguous walled ghettos. It has accelerated during the endless rounds of peace talks that have followed the Oslo Accords.

In his recently published book One Country, Chicago-based Palestinian journalist Ali Abunimah (co-founder and editor of the Electronic Intifada website, ), has proposed a radically different approach to resolving the conflict: a single, democratic state that belongs equally to the different populations between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

This position, of a democratic, secular state based on historic Palestine in which people of all ethnicities and religions can live in equality, was the official position of the Palestinian liberation movement until 1988.

Addressing a May 13 meeting at Sydney University, as part of an Australian tour organised by the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine, Abunimah explained that the traditional debate was over who had a greater claim to the land, with the two sides positing irreconcilable narratives.

The Zionist claim is based either on the religious argument that the country was given to the Jews by God, or on the historical argument that Jews need a country of their own due to centuries of persecution in Christian Europe, which culminated in the Nazi holocaust.

The Palestinian claim is based on the fact that it was their country until the Zionist colonisers arrived, and that the exclusively "Jewish state" was created by ethnic cleansing. This is recognised by historians, including the staunchly Zionist Benny Morris who has argued that sometimes ethnic cleansing is justified.

Abunimah suggested "a different way of looking at the problem", which is to "recognise the reality" that the 10.8 million people currently living in historic Palestine are divided roughly evenly between Israelis and Palestinians (with 600,000 people — guest workers and non-Jewish immigrants — belonging to neither category).

"Regardless of who wins the argument both populations still exist", he said. "If the Zionist narrative is right, does that give Israel the right to treat Palestinians as sub-human?"

He also posed the question the other way round, pointing out that a majority of the millions of Israelis were born in the country. He described a solution that was based on the removal of, or denial of rights to, either population as "anti-human".


Abunimah rejected the notions of either Jewish or Palestinian exceptionalism, pointing out that both populations were simply people. From this stand-point, he argued that a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict could be advanced by comparing successful and unsuccessful resolutions to other conflicts based on competing claims to a particular country.

Such a global perspective, Abunimah argued, reveals that "partition has never worked". "Human beings don't fit into ethnic boxes. Lines drawn on maps divide."

He pointed to the 1948 partition of India that led to the ethnic cleansing of 12 million people and a million deaths, while the partition of Ireland in the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty was "another brilliant idea that lead to 80 years of conflict".

Abunimah argued that the positive experiences that could be drawn upon were the 1994 negotiated end of Apartheid in South Africa and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. The latter has lead to a power-sharing government involving the hard-line Protestant-supremacist Democratic Unionist Party and the republican Sinn Fein. He described this government as "the political equivalent of a Likud-Hamas coalition".

The key to any solution was trying to create states to fit people, rather than what he described as the "failed 20th Century model of trying to create peoples to fit states".

Responding to questions pointing out that the end of apartheid in South Africa had still left the majority of blacks impoverished and living in the same squalid townships, Abunimah said that a settlement to the Israel-Palestine conflict had to learn from the mistakes of other processes and needed to include equality in the social and economic spheres, as well as the political.

He added that the example of the US, where African-Americans won political equality in the 1960s, but still face economic and social discrimination was another demonstration that political equality was not by itself sufficient.

He emphasised that he was not trying to create a detailed blueprint for a future state, but rather propose an alternative to the failed two-state model as a framework for solving the Israel-Palestine conflict. He envisaged many difficulties that would need to be overcome even if the single bi-national state model were adopted.

For example, some constitutional guarantees would be needed to ensure both communities representation. However, a system of proportional representation for different national and religious communities was likely to entrench divisions, as the example of Lebanon demonstrates.


The greatest obstacle to a genuine peace settlement, Abunimah said, was that history showed that communities in a privileged position did not surrender this unless compelled.

This had been true for white South Africans, Protestants in Northern Ireland and whites in the US. Furthermore, the pro-Zionist consensus amongst the world's powerful countries has meant that Israel feels no external pressure to give up its privileged position.

Responding to a question about Palestinian violence, Abunimah noted the far greater Israeli violence and the predominance of non-violent methods in the Palestinian struggle (both things largely ignored by the Western media). He argued that more Palestinians would choose the path of violence if there was no other way out of their unbearable living conditions.

For this reason, he placed a great significance on the campaign to boycott Israel that was making headway on campuses in North America and Europe. The emphasis that this campaign has put on equality, and the parallels it makes with international campaign of solidarity with the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa, is threatening to the Zionist establishment.

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert has recognised this, stating: "If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights … the State of Israel is finished."

A state dependent on inequality deserves to be finished. The vision Abunimah offers of a state based on equality, belonging equally to all who live in it, is deserving of support.