Steps to create an Israel-Palestine
By Jonathan Kuttab
December 20, 2009
For a while, it seemed that a two-state solution might actually be achievable and that a sovereign Palestinian state would be created in the West Bank and Gaza, allowing Jews and Palestinians at last to go their separate ways. But these days, that looks less and less likely.
With Israel in total control of the territory from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River and unwilling to relinquish a significant part of the land, it’s time to consider the possibility that the current situation — one state, in effect — will continue. And although Jewish Israelis may control it now, birthrates suggest that, sooner or later, Jews will again be a minority in the territory.
What happens at that point is unclear, but unless continued military occupation and all-out apartheid is the desired path, now may be the time for Israelis to start putting in place the kinds of legal and constitutional safeguards that will protect all minorities, now and in the future, in a single democratic state of Israel-Palestine. This is both the right thing and the smart thing to do.
In recent years the idea of a one-state solution has been anathema to Israelis and their supporters worldwide. This has been fueled by the fear of the “demographic threat” posed by the high Palestinian birthrate. Indeed, many Israeli supporters of a two-state solution came to that position out of fear of this demographic threat rather than sympathy with Palestinian national aspirations.
At the root of their fear was the belief that despite Israel’s best efforts to push Palestinians from land and property and to import Jewish settlers in their stead, the Arab population would keep climbing. And that, when the Arabs reached the 51% mark, the state of Israel would collapse, its Jewish character would disappear and its population would dwindle into obscurity.
Yet that scenario is not necessarily the inevitable result of either demography or democracy. Religious and ethnic minorities have successfully thrived in many countries and managed to retain their distinctive culture and identity, and succeeded in being effective and sometimes even dominant influences in those countries. Those who believe in coexistence must begin to seriously think of the legal and constitutional mechanisms needed to safeguard the rights of a Jewish minority in Israel-Palestine.
It is true that the experience of Israel with its Palestinian minority does not offer a comforting prospect. The behavior of the Jewish majority toward the Palestinian citizens of Israel has not been magnanimous or tolerant. Where ethnic cleansing was insufficient, military rule, land confiscation and systemic discrimination have all been employed. The relationship was not helped by the actions of Palestinians outside Israel who resented losing their homeland or by the behavior of some Arab countries, neither of which accepted the imposed Jewish character of Israel.
Yet it is possible, especially during this period when Jews are still the majority in power in Israel, to begin to envision the type of guarantees they may require in the future. Other countries have wrestled with this problem, and while each situation is different, the problem is by no means unprecedented.
Zionism will ultimately need to redefine its goals and aspirations, this time without ignoring or seeking to dispossess the indigenous Palestinian population. Palestinians will also have to deal with this reality, and accept — even enthusiastically endorse — the elements required to make Jews truly feel at peace in the single new state that will be the home of both people.
Strong, institutionalized mechanisms will be needed to prevent the “tyranny of 51%.” A bicameral legislature, for example, should be installed, in which the lower house is elected by proportional representation but the upper house has a composition that safeguards both peoples equally, regardless of their numbers in the population. A rotating presidency may be preferable to designating certain positions for each minority (as in Lebanon). And constitutional provisions that safeguard the rights of minorities should be enshrined in a constitution that can only be amended or altered by both houses of parliament with a large (80%) majority.
Both Hebrew and Arabic will be designated as official languages, and governmental offices will be closed for Jewish, Muslim and Christian holidays. New laws will be enacted that strengthen the secular civil courts in personal status matters, while leaving some leeway for all religious communities to have a say in lawmaking, including Reform and Conservative Jews who currently chafe under the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish personal status matters in Israel. Educational systems that honor and cater to the different communities will give each a measure of control over the education of its children within a national system that maintains professional standards for all publicly-funded schools. Strong constitutional provisions will be enacted to prohibit discrimination in all spheres of life, while independent courts will be enabled to enforce such provisions.
Many on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, will reject this line of thinking, and in all cases, it is clear that a lot of goodwill and much careful thinking is necessary. But as the options keep narrowing for all participants, we need to start thinking of how we can live together, rather than insist on dying apart.
Jonathan Kuttab is a Palestinian attorney and human rights activist. He is a co-founder of Al
Haq and the Mandela Institute for Political Prisoners.