Toward Two States, One Homeland?
Binary thinking has trapped us in a paradigm of Israeli-Palestinian separation rather than cooperation says A Land For All, a joint effort at rethinking the "two-state solution."
It is hard not to get into a dark place as the Gaza war rages on. We have more questions than answers. The biggest one, in my humble opinion, is whether President Joe Biden will actually impose real red lines on Israel’s conduct of the war, or if we are dealing with another example of what Peter Beinart calls “revealed preference.” That is, it matters not what you say, but what you do. So while it certainly good to hear Vice President Kamala Harris declare from Dubai that the US will not permit the “forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank” or the shrinkage of Gaza’s borders once the war is over, and Israel must not intentionally target innocent civilians, what gives those statements any teeth? The simple answer is that America’s aid to Israel, which isn’t just billions to subsidize the purchase of American-made weapons but also all kinds of forms of military and diplomatic cooperation, has to be conditioned on changes in Israel’s behavior.
It’s also hard to not get dragged into the war of competing claims. Is it worse that UN Women ignored credible reports of Hamas fighters raping and sexually abusing many of the Israeli women it killed on October 7, or that the mainstream media uses the passive voice in describing how many Palestinians have died since then, instead of saying that Israel has killed them? If you haven’t noticed, it is nearly impossible to find stable ground to stand on, because to someone somewhere, whatever you do won’t be pro-Israel enough. Or it won’t be pro-Palestine enough. Your silence is complicity. But your words will also damn you. We Westerners insist on black-and-white, right-vs-wrong binaries to our own detriment, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a great generator of either/or thinking. But does it have to be?
Over the last two months, I’ve been trying here to hold up the idea that this conflict is not simple (sorry, Ta-Nehisi Coates), it’s complicated. It’s not simple how we got here, and simple slogans or epithets that boil it down to a few words of academic or legal jargon will not help resolve it either. As my friend Ami Dar, the founder of Idealist.org, put it the other day, “Even now, in the middle of possibly the worst moment since 1948, there are groups of Palestinians and Jews working to forge a future together. Because there's no other future. Any word or action that helps these people move forward is good. Anything that pulls us apart is bad.”
The book Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine was published just over a decade ago with the self-conscious intention of presenting each side’s narrative as their own teachers present it to their students. The book’s Israeli and Palestinian editors had initially hoped to write a joint “bridging narrative” together but abandoned that effort after the second intifada of 2000-2005 made things too intractable. Instead, the book presents the twin narratives across the page from each other. And one thing they note in the foreword is the challenge of treating the two narratives with parity while recognizing the power imbalance between the two sides and how each perceive that:
“In our teachers’ seminars we observed that there was a constant tension between the fact that the two narratives were regarded equally, whereas outside the seminar room there was a continuous power of asymmetry between the parties to the conflict: Israel’s dominance and occupation of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the domination of the Palestinian minority by the Jewish majority within the State of Israel. At the same time, most Israeli Jews tend to perceive themselves as a minority in a hostile Muslim Middle East and thereby construct an opposite asymmetry of feeling inferior. This tension between two contradictory asymmetries is well known to those of us who are experienced working with small groups ‘under fire.’”
If Israelis and Palestinians can learn to accept the legitimacy of each other’s national narratives, can they also forge a shared future as well? That is the premise of A Land For All, a joint Israeli-Palestinian peace group founded in 2012 that has been developing a fresh approach to resolving the historic conflict. It envisions something different that the two-state solution that was supposed to be the product of the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s. This model envisions Israel-Palestine as a single territorial unit, with two sovereign and independent states linked by a porous border allowing for freedom of movement through an agreed mechanism whose implementation is phased overtime with security restrictions imposed individually instead of collectively and unequally, as they are today. Instead of being divided by walls, each side would be able to cross these borders for tourism, study or work.
Key features of this model include joint mechanisms and institutions for shared concerns such as managing climate change issues and natural resources, as well as a shared economic zone to reduce the gap between Israelis and Palestinians, a joint Israeli-Palestinian court of human rights to resolve conflicts, Jerusalem as the capital of both states administered by a joint municipal council, and tight security collaboration while maintaining separate security forces for each state.
A Land for All also addresses the issue of Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlers, by allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel as citizens of Palestine, while Israeli settlers in Palestine could remain citizens of Israel as permanent residents in the other state, if they accept the sovereignty of that state and respect its laws and while dismantling any system of superiority or oppression. While the details of how many Palestinians could move back to their former towns inside Israel and how many Israelis could stay in their current homes in the occupied West Bank would obviously have to worked out, one thing this vision recognizes is that paradoxically, many Palestinians have a great attachment to places inside pre-1967 Israel while many Israelis have a great attachment to places in what was once the Biblical Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria. (The organization specifically commits not to rectify one injustice with creating another as part of its commitment to reconciliation.)
To understand a bit more how A Land For All arose and how it is dealing with the current moment, I talked with May Pundak, its Israeli CEO, by Zoom on Monday. She carries some auspicious DNA—her father Ron Pundak was one of architects of Oslo, one of two academics sent secretly to Sweden by then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to meet with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization. It is inspiring that people like her are still striving for a balanced resolution of the conflict. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
May Pundak: “The story of A Land for All is, I think very relevant to today, actually. It starts in 2011, at the time of the big social protest movement in Israel. This was just around when negotiations [over peace], both formal and informal, had kind of died out. And then you had the biggest political movement in many, many years in Israel. But no one was talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even though our economic situation is deeply intertwined with it. The social disparities in Israel are very, very extreme. It's crazy expensive, and there is a lot of despair. And to have the biggest social movement in the streets of hundreds and thousands of people, without even mentioning the biggest threat to our existence in this place, was very frustrating for the political left.
There also was a feeling that the conflict had been normalized, that somehow [Prime Minister] Netanyahu had been able to make it into a non-issue in the world, and the international community has neglected it and it has dropped from a number one priority to number thirteen. Finally, the other thing is that people who have been fighting for ending the occupation and for peace for a long time felt stuck. People were acting like they can shrink the conflict, maintain it, normalize it, as if it's not an issue that we actually have to address.
You know, when you talk about the classic two-state solution, Palestinians kind of laugh in your face, right? I mean, they're like, ‘What we hear is apartheid to us. What we hear is the PA [Palestinian Authority] and the corruption, and the very strong connection between the corruption of the PA and the oppression within Palestine and those two just creating an impossible reality.’ And so when you say two-state solution, what they hear has become over the years this empty shell. People say it and they gain points, like a fig leaf, for saying it, but actually no one knows what it means anymore. It has lost its connection to values and to sustainability and to reality, and it has become empty, an excuse for the international community not to intervene in the ongoing oppression of Palestinians.
What the people who started A Land for All were trying to do is to say is this is the reality we're at. If we actually care about peace, what can we do? As human rights activists we can’t end occupation right now. The classic two-state solution is withering away from us. This is what led to this new articulation of an updated version of a viable future.
One of the things that they did back in 2011 was a serious reality check. What are we basing our political vision on? They realized was that all peace processes have been based on the paradigm of separation. While most Israelis and Palestinians have a very strong attachment to the entire homeland and while reality speaks less and less to separation, and more and more toward partnership, like economy, climate, water, Jerusalem--we're used to thinking of these issues as deadlocks on the path to a two-state solution.
Somehow, when you turn around and look at it through the paradigm of sharing and partnership, suddenly they're not such big deadlocks, right? Suddenly, you can come up with really creative ways to figure them out in a way that will be acceptable by both people. Are you going to separate Jerusalem? It's not impossible, but it's a little crazy. You have two million Palestinians living in Israel and 750,000 Israelis living in the West Bank. Instead of trying to manipulate nature, you share resources. The soil is the same soil and the air when you pull it in Ramallah, it will eventually get to Tel Aviv. We see that with Gaza all the time. Experts on climate in Gaza, they say the pollution in Gaza gets to Tel Aviv after 24 hours and then the beaches there are closed.
The second idea was realizing that we’ve been selling this separation of us, as – in Hebrew we say “Anachnu po v’haym sham” (“We are here and they are there”). That’s the classic Oslo idea, right? But anachnu po v’haym sham is not based on where most Palestinians and Israelis are. For Palestinians, Jaffe, Akko, Haifa, Ramle, Lod—they are all Palestine. You can draw a Green Line [delineating the pre-1967 border] but they are all Palestine. It’s the same for Judea and Samaria [the Biblical names for the West Bank] for Israeli Jews. That doesn’t mean that you can’t separate, and that doesn't mean that Jews have to live in Judea and Samaria. But you have to address the sentiment. Because if you only connect yourself to international law and human rights and draw all these blue lines in with a ruler, and you don't address the sentiment of people, then there's less chance for your solution to be acceptable and relevant. So I think for us it's very important to also look reality in the eyes and respect the people. Respect the people.
Over time, our political imagination got stuck on the idea of separation. So when you imagine peace in Israel/Palestine, the only way that you are able to imagine it is two states, ‘we are here, they are there,’ complete separation, big walls, big separation barriers. But the truth is that the original Oslo agreement was much more based on collaboration than it has become. The separation wall was not part of the plan. There was much more collaboration when it came to climate and water. They already understood that in order to create a sustainable future we need a lot of sharing, a lot of tight sharing.
But ‘anachnu po v’haym sham’ has fed into this narrative of the ‘villa in the jungle.’ Or, of divorce. But how do you divorce if you have two million Palestinians living in Israel? What does that even mean? How are they not going to be Palestinians anymore? Of course they are! They're getting more and more Palestinian, because we're preventing Palestinians from having the right for self-determination and collective equality. So there's also something about how separation maintains a collective psychology that is actually very unhealthy.
So that's, the context that led people to say we need something updated. It needs to be relevant. It needs to be acceptable. It needs to defy the separation paradigm and move into an alternative paradigm of more sharing and collaboration. And within that, what was born is the compass of sharing and partnership. For us as Israelis who come from liberal backgrounds and very western affiliation, to have partnership be my compass, rather than only my own ideology and values, is very, very strong. And it's a mechanism that protects equality. Partnership is a mechanism to ensure equality. And without equality, although there won't be complete justice but without equality and the commitment towards justice, this won't work. This won't work.
Micah Sifry: This is all true and I appreciate you laying it out in such detail. But it inevitably leads to a hard question which is: it seems that polarization, back into only identifying with your tribe, has hardened since October 7. The presumption that, from an Israeli Jew that I can’t trust Israeli Arabs and vice versa, or the intensity of identification with my nation versus the other nation. We are seeing an echo of it here in the United States as well. The American Jewish community, for the most part, has withdrawn from many of its prior humanistic liberal commitments into more of a hard single-issue focus. So, you know, we're echoing the polarization that's coming from the conflict. It also seems as though the leaders on both sides are committed to a very maximalist answer. Either from Netanyahu that Israel has to go all the way in destroying Gaza, along with destroying Hamas. And Hamas’s leaders saying that October 7 is just a rehearsal, that they would like to do more. So it seems like the ground that you want to stand on is shrinking, not growing. And what's your answer to that?
May Pundak: I want to lean into history. Maybe the most relevant example would be 1973 [the Yom Kippur War] and the [Egypt-Israel] peace agreement of 1979. Who would imagine that our biggest enemy would become a peaceful neighbor? No one would imagine it. We can go to other examples, like Northern Ireland. Three months before the Good Friday Agreement, people were polled and they said, only maybe in 100 years [would that conflict end]. We can go further to Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda. It was way messier there not only in the in the amount of blood, but also how one people had been separated by the Belgians, but basically, they were one people living all together in mixed houses and mixed households. Who could imagine that 80 years after WWII, the borders between French and Germans would be completely open?
All of these examples are just relevant in order to pierce through the assumption that somehow when it comes to Israel-Palestine, it will never be solved. This is something that's very important for A Land For All, but I think it should be important to everyone who has something to say about this business. We are not doing this because we like each other. We are not doing this because we believe in human rights—though we absolutely do. And we don't do this because we're good lefty progressives, right, which is by the way, why a lot of the people who support A Land for All are not your usual suspects when it comes to the peace camp. We have a lot of religious folks, a lot of traditional folks. We even have settlers who support this program. And the reason is, that we each do it in for our own interests.
I know that if the Palestinian people won't have security, I won't have security. I know. And so, what is important for me is not so much confederation. What is important for me is ending this conflict in a way that I will be safe to raise my kids in my homeland. That's what I care about: raising my kids safely in my homeland. I know that I won't be able to do that if there is no freedom and equality for Palestinians. And safety. I know that because that's how the world works. So I'm committed to bringing as fast as possible, the best agreement that protects those things for my own good. And so I care less about what it exactly looks like, as long as it follows a certain number of principles and has the right mechanisms to ensure those ideas.
A Land for All is a movement promoting an alternative political vision for an updated version of the two-state solution. An updated political vision that, by virtue of being co-created by Israelis and Palestinians, and learning from the problems and deadlocks and faults of the classic two-state solution, we believe would be really, really good for each of our peoples and for both people together and for a shared future of reconciliation. That's what we do.
I have to be humble because I'm not a proper policy organization, nor am I a negotiator. I'm not here to negotiate the next peace agreement. That's not my job. Maybe, maybe, maybe one day we will be in that position. But we're not in that position right now. I don't have good answers to all those questions. And I'm fine with that. Because I have no doubt that when we start digging into that while committing to our principles, our "keys," our unique paradigm and the voices we represent and doing the work, they will be found.
Micah Sifry: So how has October 7 affected your work?
May Pundak: October 7 has changed a lot. And we haven’t yet updated our political program. But I will say two things. Number one is that security for Israelis, before October 7 has been based on very tight collaboration with the Palestinian Authority. By the way, not more than on separation. Now, Palestinians have no security. This has been built on a system of oppression and occupation. But you have 30 years of experience with Jewish security, thanks to collaboration with Palestinians, as opposed to a billion-dollar wall in Gaza and a siege and all the military technologies that you can imagine. And in the place where there was the most separation and most inequality, that's where Israelis have been least the least safe. Least safe, before October 7, as well.
And of course now, where do you see the most safety and security for Israeli Jews? Within Israel where 2 million Palestinians live, who are the families of the Palestinians in Gaza. They're not different Palestinians, they're the same families. That's where we have the most security--where Palestinians are free to move and have more rights. They’re not equal citizens, not at all. And there are under a huge amount of oppression of themselves. And now the situation is growing even worse, both in the West Bank and within Israel. But that's where we have the most sense of security and the next is in the West Bank, right? So what I want to want to say is that we have to untie the fact that separation will give us security.
I think what we are 100% able to learn from October 7 already is there is no military solution to this conflict. It will be a continuation of this bloodshed. The problem is not Hamas. Hamas is a problem. But that's not the problem. The problem is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The good news is that maybe it can be solved. But that needs a political solution. The other thing is that if we thought that complete separation will give us security--that has failed. The generals are now talking about even bigger walls, and even bigger security, it's just like WTF? You've made our biggest enemy into your strategic ally in order not to go into a political resolution of the conflict with the PA that you have done everything to undermine--and now you expect me to believe that like this will continue that. That's the strategy. It's the same.
I'm very focused right now on Israeli security. I'm not a pacifist. I just know that there's no security for me as long as there is no security for Palestinians. That much I know.”
—If you want to support A Land for All’s work, click here. Also check out Americans for a Confederation of Israel and Palestine.
—Yuval Abraham, “’A mass assassination factory’: Inside Israel’s calculated bombing of Gaza,” +972 Magazine. He describes how Israel is using a hyper-sophisticated AI targeting system to generate more bombing targets than it has ever had in any prior Gaza war, using it to come up with reasons to bomb civilian high-rises because they purportedly might house one Hamas functionary and thus hypothetically justify the resulting deaths, and using it because it is operating under a theory of war that claims that mass civilian residences can be considered “power targets” whose destruction will somehow cause Palestinians to turn against Hamas. It goes against all the history of mass bombings of civilians to expect that the carnage won’t cause them to feel greater, not lesser, loyalty to their own side’s army. Oh, and the AI system is called Habsora, “The Gospel.” (This October 11 story in the Jerusalem Post essentially confirms the outlines of +972’s much more detailed investigation.)
—Howard Jacobson in The Guardian, “Charging Jews with genocide is to declare them guilty of precisely what was done to them.” A snippet: “It has grown common to accuse Jews of ‘weaponising’ the Holocaust, as if banging on about it distorts its essentially peaceful nature. By exhuming the Holocaust, the argument goes, Jews claim exemption from the obligations that constrain everyone else. And that which you seek to profit by, you lose the right to. Charging Jews with genocide is a sophistication on that theme, painting them as perpetrators of the very crime that killed them in their millions, as a consequence of which that crime is abrogated.”
—Paul Mason on “Decolonisation and its discontents” on Medium: “This is what we are now up against: the abject degeneration of parts of the left intelligentsia into political amoralism, fuelled by a racialised reading of the structures of global capitalism which demotes all other dynamics. At its worst it leads to unconditional/uncritical support for violence perpetrated by one of the most reactionary forces in the world. So how did it become the new orthodoxy for parts of the Western left?” (Also available in two parts on his Substack.)
An antidote of sorts.
P.S. Dear readers: It’s now been two months since October 7 and I shifted my focus to writing mainly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its reverberations here in the US. Drop me a note or leave a comment--Do you want more in this same vein, or are you ready for a shift back to The Connector’s usual topics of democracy, organizing, movements and tech?