Jonathan Kuttab’s one state vision

Jonathan Kuttab (File)

Robert Herbst

Mondoweiss  /  January 7, 2021

 Beyond the two-state solution

by Jonathan Kuttab

100 pp., available as an ebook from Nonviolence International

It has been only four years since the UN Security Council voted 14-0 with one abstention to condemn Israeli settlement building as a “flagrant violation” of international law and imperiling the viability of the Two State Solution.

Today, 2016 seems like a half century ago, as the Trump Administration’s actions in the last four years collectively amounted to an unremitting assault on Palestinians and their national aspirations:  closing the Palestinian Embassy in Washington, moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, cutting off aid to UNRWA and others.  There has been little pushback from the global community as Israel’s creeping annexation of Palestinian land has inexorably continued.  While formal annexation of 30% of the West Bank has been put off, normalization of the status quo by some of the Gulf Arab state regimes has been secured by Israel instead.

Today, as the Biden Administration takes shape, the Palestinian struggle for civil and national rights seems at an historic low point.  Palestinians appear to be isolated, divided, poorly served by corrupt and collaborationist leaders, lacking financial, political and moral support – their narrative as victims of Israeli and Western discrimination, colonization and oppression still struggling to be heard — beset by high rates of unemployment, diminishing per capita income and, as if all that were not enough, now facing rising rates of pandemic infection. 

Where do Palestinians and their allies go from here, in Palestine, in the Diaspora, in Washington, Europe and around the world?  Are new strategies needed?  What are they?

If the Two State solution is dead – no longer viable – is there, or could there be, sufficient Palestinian support for a One State solution that guarantees equal rights, dignity and resources to both peoples?  How would we mobilize public opinion around it, there, here and around the world?  What would the end game be?  What might it look like?  How do we get there? 

Jonathan Kuttab is a Palestinian-American human rights lawyer in Palestine, Israel and the United States. He has now delivered a book devoted to those questions and how we might start to answer them. Born in West Jerusalem to a family who moved to the United States after the Six Day War, he is the co-founder of Al-Haq, the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence.  In “Beyond the Two State Solution”, published by Nonviolence International, he offers a vision of a single state that might respect the national aspirations of both peoples. 

The book – a booklet really, numbering 100 pages in large-font – is a quick and easy read. Without implying any moral symmetry between the claims of the Zionist and Palestinian national movements, Kuttab quickly describes how those movements developed and how their respective narratives generally accorded no place for the other, and takes us through the expulsion of most Palestinians from their homeland, the 1967 War and occupation.  He characterizes the Two State Solution as a compromise between the two national movements, which soon became “the only game in town” — only to die at the hands of Israel, whose officials and settlers changed the facts on the ground, choosing dominion over all the land between the River and the Sea rather than creating conditions for a viable Palestinian state.

Kuttab convincingly explains all the reasons why the settlements containing more than 700,000 Jewish settlers, many of them fundamentalist, are an “irreversible fact,” noting the psychological impact on Israelis of the forcible settler evacuations from Gaza in 2005 and the West Bank outpost Amona in 2017 and the unsuccessful attempt to remove only a hundred settler families from the center of Hebron.  Even with proposals for land swaps, the fact that more than 100,000 settlers would have to be removed makes “a contiguous Palestinian state” physically impossible.

Kuttab then turns to the remaining alternatives, rejects the current one state Apartheid reality, and starts what he hopes will be a continuing conversation about what might take its place.  If there is to be a true unified Jewish and Palestinian democracy, Kuttab says, both parties must settle, not for what each wants, but for what each absolutely needs. His plea to all of us is to start considering and discussing what the “the minimum requirements are for each party,” noting that it is important that these “requirements” take into account that the proposed solution must also accommodate the Other, and that each demand carries within it the possibility that the other side may legitimately respond with a parallel demand. The exercise is therefore also an invitation to consider how such demands can be met within a new reality that is open to another community of roughly equal numbers and legitimate demands of their own, rather than in the spirit of triumphal exclusivity.

To start the ball rolling, Kuttab provides his list of what those requirements might be for Jewish Israelis and for Palestinians.  For the former, he suggests:

* A homeland with a Law of Return.

* Lasting security.

* A Jewish rhythm to public life.

* Official Hebrew language.

* Right to live anywhere in Israel/Palestine.

* Democracy, including individual and collective freedoms of speech, religion, peaceful assembly, free press, independent judiciary, representative government and rule of law.

For Palestinians:

* Democracy with political and legal equality — ironclad and constitutionally protected — similarly guaranteed to Jews if the demographic balance were to change in future years.

* Right of Return for Refugees, even if most are unlikely to ever move back.

* Right to freely move and live in all parts of Israel/Palestine, including Jerusalem.  That would encompass the end of the siege of Gaza, the removal of the Wall and all the accoutrements of military occupation and government that comes with it.

* Official Arabic language and state recognition and respect for Palestinian Arab cultural identity.

Kuttab argues that a new hybrid state providing these minimum needs to both peoples would “validate the essential elements of both Zionism and Palestinian Nationalism,” while rejecting those elements in each “which degrade or deny the Other.”  For example, a dual system of religious and secular courts would guarantee freedom of religion but mark out a free secular realm for those so inclined.  A freely-elected parliament would be “bound by an iron-clad constitution” to guarantee these basic rights to both peoples, enforced by a constitutional court composed, “of five judges, at least two of whom shall be Jewish and two Arabs,” which “must reach all decisions by a 4/5 majority.”  This supermajority concept, if applied to certain basic decisions in parliament as well as the composition of an independent judiciary, would provide assurances to both peoples that their rights would never be abridged. 

To address “forthrightly” Jewish fear and trauma resulting from “millennia of antisemitic persecution culminating in the Holocaust, and decades of conflict” with Palestinian and other Arabs in the region, Kuttab suggests that the Minister of Defense supervising the military and the state’s nuclear weapons be Jewish, with an Arab Deputy Minister, enshrined forever in the constitution.  Because of the history of abusive use of force and profiling by Israeli police, the Minister of Police would always be an Arab, with a Jewish deputy.  The book goes on to describe in more detail other elements hopefully enabling the two peoples together to transform the current state, run by and for one people dominating the Other, into one in which power and governance is truly shared by the governed, thereby enriching both Jewish and Palestinian life.

To the objection that he is a naïve dreamer, lacking any current working model anywhere in the world, Kuttab acknowledges that the Yugoslavian and Lebanese models foundered or have survived with difficulty in unifying diverse communities in peaceful cooperation.  But he finds hope in pluralistic countries like Canada, Belgium, Northern Ireland, and the current United States, where, with faltering steps, a multi-ethnic society was established.  Despite continuing low-level tensions, racism and discrimination by the majority, minorities have found legal protection and spaces to survive, and thrive and feel identity as stakeholders in the national enterprise.      

Kuttab also finds solace, and hope, in the better teachings of the Jewish “prophetic and ethical tradition” and the cognitive dissonance between those teachings and the current oppressive operations of the Jewish state, as well as the long history and experience of persecuted Jewish minorities.  Similarly, he notes the “Arab tradition of hospitality to strangers and history of tolerance toward minorities”, and the Palestinians’ own experience “with diaspora and struggle.” 

Kuttab’s invocation of the best rather than the worst of both histories and traditions may seem hopelessly optimistic and out of tune with the drift of the times in which we live, but it is based on his fundamental perception that there is ultimately no alternative for both peoples.  And some of the richest parts of the book are his responses to objections that his vision is not practical in a dangerous neighbourhood like the Middle East, or that it is overly reliant on legal mechanisms, or that the dominant Jewish people will never accept it, or that the hostility of both peoples is too deep for such reconciliation.  Also well worth reading is his chapter on how Palestinians might approach Jews both in Israel and abroad to enlist them in the common struggle for liberation.

Although Kuttab calls for new Palestinian elections and a commitment to non-violent struggle, he says he wrote the book “not to provide a political platform, much less to start a political party or movement.”  What remains to be fleshed out is how Palestinians can come to consensus around this vision, and how they can engage and mobilize politically in its pursuit.  He is now translating the book into Arabic as well as Hebrew in the hope, one senses, that Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and the Diaspora will rally round his One State vision and begin to work out for themselves how to develop a political program to make it a reality. 

There does seem to be no alternative, so I think it fair to say that the success of our struggle depends on making the one state solution a reality.

Robert Herbst is a civil rights lawyer; he was chapter coordinator for Westchester Jewish Voice for Peace from 2014-2017