Whatever comes next in the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, the State of Israel is here to stay.
To acknowledge this fact is not to nod to Israel’s “right to exist” — people have rights, states are supposed to protect them — but to bow to the one-state reality in historical Palestine. There is but one sovereign entity in that territory and there is presently no combination of political forces that can produce a second or compel the first to surrender its sovereignty. Anyone who would see peace in Israel-Palestine must first grapple with the many implications of the one-state reality.
Number one is the need to adopt a tragic view of history whereby Zionism is both a Jewish national liberation movement and a settler-colonial project. The State of Israel is both an electoral democracy with liberal features, albeit ever fewer, and an exclusionary polity. There is no contradiction here — look at the United States — and, indeed, Shira Robinson argues that the legal niceties of exclusion are precisely what made Israel a “liberal settler state.” The need of David Ben-Gurion’s lawyers to justify second-class citizenship for Palestinians in Israel, incidentally, speaks to the one sense in which Israel is held to a double standard. Alone among the surviving settler-colonial states of the world, Israel’s founding is judged by post-Nuremberg standards. There is no right of return for Maoris or Mohicans. It is cold comfort for displaced Palestinians, who may never get to exercise their right, but because Israel was born in the twentieth century its ability to use nineteenth-century methods of conquest is not unfettered.
A corollary is that the same body of international law that Palestinians reference in support of their national rights also provides for the existence of the State of Israel. The UN admitted Israel — recognizing the settler-colonial project as a fait accompli — despite the world body’s nominal commitment to decolonization. The recognition is explicit in the text of several UN resolutions and juridical opinions, but more to the point, it is inherent in the very logic of international law, which after all is intended to police the behavior of states. As Mezna Qato and Kareem Rabie put it, “Laws have no enforcement agents except for the states they regulate.” Qato and Rabie offer this insight as part of a critique of the Palestinian movement’s abandonment of national liberation in favor of a discourse of rights that is so safe as to be indistinguishable from “liberal pieties and moralisms.” It is hard to contest their conclusion that international law has functioned mainly to protest Israel’s colonizing acts, while vouching for the legitimacy of the settler-colonial project itself. But if international law were fully and evenly applied, up to and including UN Resolution 194 stipulating the right of return, the State of Israel would not be legislated out of existence. The question would be the nature of the state — a political matter first, and a legal matter second.
Advocates for the Palestinians, therefore, do themselves no favors when they see Israel only as the oppressor of an occupied and dispossessed people. It is true, as Zachary Lockman showed years ago, that the Zionist and Palestinian historical narratives make sense only in relation to one another. But Israel did not simply appropriate Palestinian customs or import European ones. Like other settler-colonial projects, Israel created something new from the old, reviving and modernizing the Hebrew language, fostering a polyglot culture that drew upon traditions Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Arab, Persian and Turkish, Levantine and North African, to list a few. It is true as well that the rancorous debates of Israeli politics make little sense without reference to the unresolved question of Palestine. Much as many Israeli Jews wish it were otherwise, “the territories” cast a shadow over every “domestic” dispute. At the same time, Israel is a complex society in its own right, shot through with the overlapping tensions of religion, race and class that are familiar from other settler-colonial settings. The advent of BDS tactics should not deter pro-Palestinian activists from serious study of Israel, not in some naïve search for progressive allies (though those brave few deserve hearty solidarity), but in continuous effort to understand the “domestic” social and political currents that shape the Israeli state and, in turn, drive its approach to the questions of Palestine and Israel’s place in the Middle East. Max Ajl’s analysis of the summer 2011 encampments in Tel Aviv is an example of how to take Israel seriously without writing Palestinians out of the story.
Last, the one-state reality seems to obviate the recurrent discussion about which “solution” — two states or one — is most just or most readily achievable. Some may see such neutrality as an abdication of responsibility to present a positive political program or yet another missed opportunity to miss an opportunity. And these critics may be right. But surely the “solution,” if there is one, will be conceived and made possible through the cumulative lessons of struggles on the ground and the interactions those struggles occasion.
Outsiders have a role, of course, partly to press in international arenas for an end to Israeli impunity and partly to educate the public. The world needs to know about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and to understand why US-sponsored attempts to breathe life into the Oslo process are so half-hearted. The world also needs to know that the State of Israel is no ephemeral interlude, but the culmination of a project that has altered Palestine irrevocably and will be formative of Palestine’s future. The sooner the one-state reality is clear, the sooner the basis for a comprehensive peace can show its face.