Palestine@UN: From national to civil rights

By Rachel Lever

As the two-state solution enters its final death throes, it is time for campaigners to switch their demands to equal rights in a single democratic state.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Mark Twain once asked, on hearing news of the death of a less-than-dynamic American politician, “How did they know he was dead?” What we are now asking about the two-state solution is: how will we know it is dead?

The formula of two states for two peoples has been so dead for so long that it has been dubbed the “undead”. Nevertheless, the powers-that-be will never declare the death of the two-state solution.  

's establishment will not do it because it has been a brilliant cover for the acquisition of the West Bank and the throttling of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority will not do it because their status and salaries depend on it. will not do it because they think their votes depend on it. Israel's “” will not do it because their illusions depend on it. And most Palestinians will not do it because they feel that a state, however limited and nominal, is their only hope of getting some control over their destiny.

UN tactic to resurrect the undead 

As for the tactic intended to resurrect the two-state option, it might gain Palestinians a better bargaining position for a separate state. But this bargain would cost the Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes, and leave Palestinians inside Israel open to further ethnic cleansing. 

And how many of the countries that will vote for recognition have committed themselves to supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) to isolate Israel until it ends its military rule over the new “state” they've just voted to recognise and until it fulfils the provisions of various UN resolutions? Has the PA even asked them to apply such sanctions? 

Kick-start without the kick 

The UN bid did seem to promise a bit of a departure from the tired old business-as-usual negotiations. It was still a two-state compromise, but its highlight was to insist, and get it voted on at the UN, that Palestine's territory consisted of nothing less than the pre-1967 borders with (as it stood pre-1967) as its capital. 

 Israel was, of course, dead set against this, and also hated the short-circuiting of negotiations and the bad behaviour of its prisoner appealing to the UN over its head. 

Now this has apparently been junked, Haaretz reported, and the whole concept drastically watered down in a new draft “crafted” by the Fatah leadership. Now, instead of recognising Palestine within the 1967 borders, it will say that the permanent borders will be determined by, yes, you guessed, negotiations with Israel “based on” the borders of 4 June, 1967. This is the position the negotiations were at five years ago. 

The idea is to make the resolution so feeble that even the United States and Israel could vote for it. So after all the excitement, what is the point of it at all? 

Another revealing comment from the Haaretz report noted that: “This approach made it possible to enlist the support of leading moderates in Hamas, who claim that recognition of the 1967 borders before the signing of a final-status deal means waiving the claim to the right of return.” So their only worry was that it would be given away cheaply at the start of the process rather than sold for a price at the “final status” point.

The two-state roadblock

This dead, useless and hazardous project to repartition historic Palestine stands four-square in the way of a perfectly feasible political solution that reunites the country based on universal , an equal , multicultural tolerance, and reconciliation. All of which could add up to real and lasting peace. 

This whole, complete and single state would have no internal borders. It would need no high-profile evictions of dangerous, armed and militant settlers (who have just vandalised an IDF base as a “price-tag” for losing three houses); no security arrangements, and no “population transfers” or land swaps. Palestinian refugees could be welcomed back to help build a new society. Jerusalem would be a united city, liberated from shameful ethnic cleansing and the racist rewriting of its history – house by house and street by street. 

Those who say this is impossible because of racial or communal hatred are simply pandering to such hatred. All evidence shows that separation, and unjust separation especially, serve to inflate fear and hatred.

A constitution created jointly would guarantee the most beneficial rights, and respect and nurture of the variety of identities, because its joint authors will insist on them on behalf of those they represent. Equality means what's “good for the gander is good for the goose” – no exceptions, no double standards. 

The new country would no longer be a Jewish state. But it will still remain a very Jewish country in the best sense, finally able to reclaim Judaism's core values that command us to respect “the other”. 

To ensure that the state will treat all cultures and faiths equally, there has to be strict separation of “church and state”. This principle has been tried and tested over hundreds of years in secular democracies, and withstood strong organised religion, even where one faith is dominant. 

A country with two strong faiths would have cast-iron defences for its constitution. In Israel and Palestine and among potential incomers, exiles, and expats, only a small minority is known to favour any state-enforced religion. It is not credible that such a constitution could be overturned if it required a massive, popular, across-the-board majority of all communities in a referendum. 

By far the strongest guarantee is that all the people would have an equal stake in the new state, and an equal interest in making it work and isolating rejectionists and extremists on either side. And a one-state solution is fast: work to create a merged society could start very quickly, transforming the political landscape from day one. Many joint projects will have been created as part of the struggle and ahead of formal transition. Some exist now, already forging strong bonds.

Anyone can see that the two-state train has been sitting up against the buffers for decades now, with the one-state express stuck behind it. The big problem has been opening up the line to let the fast train through.

A common scenario outlined by a number of historians, politicians (including Israel's former prime minister Ehud Olmert) and Israel's own leading think-tank Reut is that once the two-state option is closed off, Palestinians will start to demand civil rights in one country. 

Ethnocracy or democracy?

Israel calls itself Jewish and democratic, and obsessively seeks to maintain this strange hybrid by fiddling the franchise so that it will always have a massive ethnic majority. Its  complicated and flexible “apartheid” system, helped by the zones set up in the Oslo “”  allowed it to take the West Bank land but leave the Palestinians there without a vote, which means they effectively live in a military dictatorship.

But if the zones and borders are taken away, all this will be in full view, and Israel will be left with the choice of Jewishness (by openly denying the franchise to people who share the country) or democracy, which will end the present guaranteed ethnocracy, whose establishment and maintenance have called forth massive and continuing ethnic cleansing. Already, the issue is up for debate, as a new quasi-constitutional Basic Law has been tabled under which, if there is a choice, democracy must lose out. 

Choosing democracy

A grassroots Palestinian movement demanding an end to zones and borders, and waving the banner of equality under one law and universal franchise, could drive a wedge into Israeli thinking, separating those who choose democracy from those who prioritise Zionism. 

The universalism of this demand makes it far more powerful than national demands which are, after all, stuck behind their national boundaries. Civil rights slogans can penetrate into the liberal hearts of the majority ofIsrael's Democrat-voting American Jewish outriders, weakening Israel's lifeline lobby in Washington. 

Civil rights demands can get under the skin of the fervent old Zionist peace campaigners who thought the two-state solution would return Israel to its supposed days of innocence before 1967. And they can make big inroads into Israel's mass movement that is campaigning for social – but only on its side of the Green Line. 

Switching the points: from statehood to rights

In any other context, a demand for the right to vote would be obvious. But here it is a demand to vote in national elections for the Knesset, in what amounts to de facto (if, hopefully, temporary and transitional) acceptance of Israel in its current form.

So switching the points and turning the struggle around from demanding statehood (however nominal and symbolic) to demanding votes in the occupier's state will not be easy.

Israel's adamant and threatening opposition to the UN vote has made the compromise of 22% of historic Palestine look like a great act of defiance. Whereas the truly radical demand, for an equal share in and equal right to all of , looks uncomfortably like the ultra-Zionist demand for annexation. 

 A civil rights movement could also help to create a new, elected and accountable Palestinian leadership that stands its ground and speaks with one voice, and which might appeal across the national divide not by compromising and cringing but by expressing the inclusive and anti-racist values that are already gaining ground in the grassroots struggles. 

There may not be a better time than the September UN vote to declare that with the blocking of statehood comes the final death of the two-state solution, and to start the turn from a national territorial struggle to a fight for  one person, one vote, one law, for no borders and no more barriers.

At a time when a brave minority of Israel's J14 protests, such as Tent No.1948, are trying to connect the “social justice” demands and concerns with the Palestinian struggle, what better way to start a one-country civil rights movement or party than to raise the same demands for social justice from the other side?

Ideally, the organisations that have questioned the value of the UN bid will now get together with others and put out a joint call immediately after the vote, titled, in the words of Palestinian lawyer Noura Erakat, “Statehood blocked: equality struggle ahead”.

This article is part of a special Chronikler report on the Palestinian quest to seek United Nations recognition.


  • Rachel Lever

    Rachel Lever writes: I am Jewish, and England is my home, so I never felt the need of a second “homeland”. My parents took me to live in Jerusalem in 1947 and I did spend my primary school years there, being taught about “a land without apeople” etc. I have supported Palestinian rights since 1967, and firmly believe a single democratic state is the only outcome that satisfies morality and practicality on both sides, offering Israel a decent future without lies. I set up the website and hope my efforts will very soon bear fruit.

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2 thoughts on “Palestine@UN: From national to civil rights

  • Moshe Ben Ami

    Israel Unrecognised = No Peace = No Justice = More Occupation
    The only answer is for Jordan revert to its original pre-1922 name & identity

  • Christian

    Nicely done Rachel, complete with train metaphors, no less!


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