By Khaled Diab
JERUSALEM: Is it possible to have statehood without a state? This is the puzzling question raised by the dramatic Palestinian bid to seek United Nations membership which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas launched with a rousing speech to the General Assembly last Friday.
However, for the Palestinian plan to work requires not only that the Palestinians succeed in acquiring UN membership, but also in mobilizing the international community, despite its dismal track record over the past two decades, to bring pressure to bear on Israel.
The likelihood of either happening is highly questionable, as the US threat to veto any possible resolution at the Security Council amply demonstrates. This underlines the fact that the UN bid is unlikely to change the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic on the ground and could even make matters worse.
So, with the two-state solution caught between the rock of Israeli-Palestinian deadlock and the hard place of international dithering, what can be done?
In my view, the space to create two states on the pre-1967 borders has largely disappeared. The upshot of this is that Israelis and Palestinians are effectively living in a single state, albeit one that is largely segregated and in which millions are disenfranchised.
Since questions of statehood seem irreconcilable for the foreseeable future, it is best to focus on tangible ”bread and butter” issues until the situation improves enough to enable an honest and broad public debate on the bigger picture. In short, the Palestinian national struggle should be transformed into a civil rights movement for equal rights. Activists on both sides should join forces to demand full citizenship, the right to vote and full mobility for both Palestinians and Israelis to live and work where they please.
For different reasons, this course terrifies many Israelis and Palestinians. Such worries reflect historical and psychological anxieties, heightened by the maximalist visions of extremists on both sides, more than they do real future possibilities.
Most Israelis currently worry that a single-state resolution would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state. However the demographic trend — a growing Palestinian population — underpinning Jewish fears will not go away regardless of the outcome. So the question is whether to handle this growing segment of the population justly or unjustly. With a secular democracy guaranteeing the rights of all, the millions of Jewish Israelis will give the future state an unmistakable Jewish character, albeit one that is part of a melting pot of other identities.
Though the single state is more popular among Palestinians, many are apprehensive that by choosing this path, they will be legitimizing the occupation and surrendering their rights. But this process will act as the final nail in the coffin of the occupation as everywhere in mandate Palestine becomes open to Israelis and Palestinians alike, and the future army — drawn from both sides — redefines its role as the protector of all.
Once everyone in Israel-Palestine has become enfranchised, the groundwork will be laid for a truly democratic, grassroots resolution to this conflict. Although the de facto single state may act as only a stepping stone on the path to two independent nations, Israelis and Palestinians may, after years of intense collaboration, decide that their future is best served by continuing to live closely together in one bi-national, democratic, secular country.
Or they may opt for a looser union. In that case, the state can adopt a federated model which affords Jews and Arabs the bells and whistles of statehood, such as separate flags and national anthems. Non-territorial community governments would represent them wherever they live on the land, while issues common to both sides, such as defence and foreign policy, would be decided in a federal parliament.
Or, instead, the equal citizens of this future state may ultimately opt for a magnanimous divorce, though the intertwined nature of their existence on this tiny land may mean that their independent countries are effectively a one-state “light”.
A single democratic state could well be the best option because it ensures that both Israelis and Palestinians, individually and collectively, enjoy unhindered access to the entire land, including the crown jewel for both: Jerusalem. More pragmatically, in Israel-Palestine’s diversity, and the creative energy this promises, lies its most unsung and under-utilized strength.
Egyptian by birth, Khaled Diab is a journalist and writer currently living in Jerusalem. He writes on a wide range of subjects, including the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Arab revolutions, the EU, Islam and secularism, multiculturalism and human rights. His website is www.chronikler.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).