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Binational solution

Binational solution is a term most often used in reference to a proposed resolution of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Proponents of a binational solution to the conflict advocate a common state in historic Palestine shared between Jewish and Arab populations. All of the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza would be annexed to Israel, with their Palestinian Arab inhabitants given citizenship and an equal status to the Jewish and Arab citizens of present-day Israel. The new state would have a secular character rather than being dominated by Judaism or Islam.

The idea is, as with virtually every other aspect of the conflict, immensely controversial. It has been around for decades with relatively little impact, but in 2003 the looming demographic crisis of a majority Arab population in Israel-Palestine brought the binational proposition back to centre stage.

Table of contents
1 Binationalism in British Mandate Palestine
2 Binationalism in Israel, 1948-1973
3 Binationalism after 1973
4 References

Binationalism in British Mandate Palestine

Binational proposals for a common Jewish-Arab state in Palestine have existed since at least the 1920s. In 1925, the journalist Robert Weltsch established Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) to promote Jewish-Arab understanding in Palestine. Brit Shalom, which functioned until 1933, stood on a platform of creating "a binational state in which the two peoples will enjoy equal rights as befits the two elements shaping the country's destiny, irrespective of which of the two is numerically superior at any given time" (from their first publication Our Aspirations, 1927). It had a few hundred members, mostly European-born intellectuals. The general concept of binationalism was to be adopted by other minority Zionist groups, like Hashomer Hatzair and Mapam, Kedmah Mizracha, the Ichud and the League for Jewish-Arab Rapprochement.

According to the historian Susan Lee Hattis, binationalists sought to recognise the reality of a majority Palestinian population in what is now the territory ruled by Israel. They supported "not the ideal but the reality, and if this reality is not grasped Zionism will fail. Brit Shalom were not defeatists who were willing to make any concession for the achievement of peace, they simply realized that the Arabs were justified in fearing a Zionism which spoke in terms of a Jewish majority and a Jewish state. Their belief was that one need not be a maximalist, i.e., demand mass immigration and a state, to be a faithful Zionist. What was vital was a recognition that both nations (the Arab and the Jewish) were in Palestine as of right."

One of the most prominent and forceful early advocates of binationalism was Professor Martin Buber, a renowned scholar in the field of Jewish tradition and literature. In 1939, shortly after he emigrated from Germany to British-ruled Palestine, he replied to a letter by Mahatma Gandhi, who thought that "Palestine belongs to the Arabs" and the Jews "should make that country their home where they were born." Buber rejected this idea but agreed that there needed to be a consensus between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. He wrote that Jews and Arabs must

"develop the land together without one imposing his will on the other. We considered it a fundamental point that in this case two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a different nature and a different origin, which cannot be pitted one against the other and between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just and which is unjust.

"We considered and still consider it our duty to understand and to honor the claim which is opposed to ours and to endeavor to reconcile both claims... We have been and still are convinced that it must be possible to find some form of agreement between this claim and the other; for we love this land and believe in its future; and seeing that such love and faith are surely present also on the other side, a union in the common service of the land must be within the range of the possible"

Buber and his fellow binationalists were, however, always a minority within the Zionist movement. Official Zionist policy advocated a "Jewish state" - not precluding democracy or civil rights for resident Arabs, but still ensuring that a future state of Israel would be ruled by Jews for Jews.

Binationalism in Israel, 1948-1973

With the establishment of Israel in May 1948, a binational solution became largely moot when much of Israel's native Arab population was displaced in the ensuing conflict. Some aspects of the binational ideal - such as equal political rights for the remaining Arabs - were granted in principle, but this was limited by the Israeli leadership's determination that the country would have a Jewish majority and political leadership. Successive Israeli governments have pursued a policy of encouraging Jewish immigration to Israel, known as aliyah (literally "ascent" in Hebrew), which served to preserve the Jewish majority in the country.

On the Arab side, the idea of a binational solution was generally rejected by the Arab national movement, which saw little to gain from it; the Arab leadership were (not surprisingly) opposed to their people becoming a minority in what they saw as their own country. From their point of view, the huge influx of Jews from Europe and the Middle East represented a gigantic colonisation project, which many saw as being a recreation of the medieval Crusader kingdoms. The Crusades were (and still are) an event seared on Arab collective memory, as was their outcome - the defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin and the subsequent expulsion of the European settlers. A binational solution was not, in other words, something that had any precedent in the Arab history of Palestine.

The binational ideal did not disappear altogether during this period, despite its lack of support, and was given a boost following Israel's capture of Gaza and the West Bank in the Six Day War of 1967. The stunning success of Israel's pre-emptive strike against its neighbours was greeted by euphoria within Israel, but some of the more longsighted Israeli and foreign observers quickly recognised that the new conquests posed a major long-term problem.

In the aftermath of the war, there was considerable debate about what to do next. Should the occupied territories be annexed to Israel? In which case, what would be done with the Palestinians? Should they be given citizenship, although that would significantly dilute Israel's Jewish majority? Could they be expelled en masse, although that would come at a terrible cost to Israel's reputation? Should the territories be returned to Arab rule? In which case, how would Israel's security be guaranteed? In the event, the Israel government fudged the question by implementing the controversial policy of Jewish settlements in the territories, establishing "facts on the ground" while keeping open the question of the Palestinians' long-term fate.

The dilemma prompted some foreign supporters of Israel, such as the crusading American journalist I.F. Stone, to revive the idea of a binational state. This found little favour in Israel or elsewhere and the binational solution tended to be presented not so much as a potential resolution of the conflict as a disastrous outcome risked by Israeli government policies. As early as 1973, the prospect of a binational state was being used by prominent figures on the Israel left to warn against holding on to the occupied territories. Histadrut Secretary General I. Ben-Aharon, for instance, warned in a March 1973 article for The Jerusalem Post that Israel could have any real control over a binational state and that Israelis should be satisfied with a state already containing a sizable Arab minority -- that is, Israel proper.

Binationalism after 1973

The 1973 Yom Kippur War was both a military and a political disaster for the Arabs and the Palestinians in particular. The crushing defeat of the Arab armies prompted a fundamental political rethink among the Palestinian leadership. It was realised that Israel's military strength and, crucially, its alliance with the United States made it very unlikely that it could be defeated militarily. In December 1974, Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) -- regarded as a terrorist group by the Israeli government - declared that a binational state was the only viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The change in policy was met with considerable confusion, as it was official PLO policy to replace Israel with a secular state with a full right of return for all displaced Palestinians. This would effectively have ended Israel's Jewish majority and, by secularising the state, would have ended its Jewish character as well. In short, a binational state on the PLO's terms would mean the destruction of Israel - a prospect strongly opposed by all sides in Israeli politics.

Despite this, opposition to binationalism was not absolute. Some of those on the Israel right who were associated with the settler movement were willing to contemplate a binational state as long as it was not established on Zionist terms. Members of Menachem Begin's Likud government in the late 1970s were willing to support the idea if it would ensure formal Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza. Begin's chief of staff, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, told the Washington Post in November 1979 that "we can live with them and they can live with us. I would prefer they were Israeli citizens, but I am not afraid of a binational state. In any case, it will always be a Jewish state with a large Arab minority."

That assumption was, however, based on the Arab population remaining a minority in the combined territories of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. In 1980, Hebrew University professors Dov Friedlander and Calvin Goldscheider published a highly influential study entitled "The Population of Israel," which concluded that - even allowing for a big increase in Jewish immigration - the high birth rate among Arabs would erode the Jewish majority within a few decades. The two demographers predicted that the total population of Israel-Palestine would be 6.7 million by 1990, and some 10 million by the year 2010. By that time, the Jewish population could be only 45% of the total. Friedlander and Goldscheider warned that maintaining Israeli rule in the occupied territories would ultimately endanger the Jewish majority in Israel-Palestine. Ariel Sharon, then Agriculture Minister in Begin's government, rejected this conclusion; he claimed that Jews would make up 64% of the population in Israel-Palestine by the year 2000 if Jewish immigration remained at the rate of about 30,000 a year, although he did not cite any sources for this estimate.

The conclusions of the Friedlander-Goldscheider study soon became a hot political issue between Israel's two main parties, Likud and Labour, in the June 1981 parliamentary elections. Both parties opposed withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders or setting up a Palestinian state, and both supported building more Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and maintaining exclusive Israeli control over Jerusalem. However, Labour argued for building settlements only in areas Israel intended to keep, while handing the rest back to Jordan. Likud argued for keeping the whole area, building settlements everywhere and giving the Arabs limited self-government. Labour was strongly critical of this proposal, claiming that the result would be a binational state spelling "the end of the Zionist endeavour." Many on the left of Israeli politics were already warning that without a clean separation from the Palestinians, the outcome would be either a binational state by default (thus ending Israel's Jewish character) or a South African-style "Bantustan" with a Jewish minority forcibly ruling a disenfranchised Arab majority (thus ending Israel's claims to be a democracy).

In the event, Begin won the election and announced (in May 1982) a formal policy of "extending state sovereignty ... over Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip" accompanied by a major expansion of Jewish settlement and the granting of "full autonomy" to the Palestinians. Formal annexation was not envisaged on the grounds that the territories already belonged to Israel by moral right. Labour strongly opposed Begin's policy, on grounds that were perhaps most succinctly stated by Shlomo Avineri, a Hebrew University professor and former Foreign Ministry director general under Labour:

"You can have a state that may be Eretz [Greater] Israel geographically, but sociologically, and intellectually, and emotionally and morally will be a binational state. It is out of this agony over the preservation of the Zionist and Jewish nature of Israel that we must make compromises territorially, because the soul of the Jewish people and the reality of Israel as a Jewish state is as much a Zionist goal as possession of real estate."

On the Palestinian side, the Israeli opposition to a binational state led to another change of position which evolved gradually from the late 1970s onwards. The PLO retained its original option of a single secular binational state west of Jordan, but began to take the position that it was prepared to accept a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza in land from which Israel had withdrawn under Security Council Resolution 242. Settlements would need to be dismantled and Palestinian refugees allowed to return (to Israel as well as the new Palestine). This new position, formally adopted in December 1988, was overwhelmingly rejected by Israeli public opinion and the main political parties but was subsequently used as the basis of peace discussions in the 1990s.