The Guardian / July 20, 2020
The future of Israel-Palestine lies in it becoming a federal democracy with liberal values.
For now, the coronavirus crisis appears to have stayed Israel’s outright annexation of the West Bank. Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial – he’s been accused of bribery, fraud and “breach of trust” – has been newly invigorated, a development that may further delay the announcement. But talk of annexation is beside the point. Fifty-three years of occupation and settlements have produced their own reality. Ironically, it is a reality that may give hope to those who seek justice in Israel-Palestine.
For many in the movement for Palestinian rights, the Oslo process – which began in 1993 and was ostensibly designed to produce a Palestinian state alongside Israel – appeared too limited in its ambitions. The Palestinian struggle has evolved from being a struggle for national rights, a 19th-century ideal, to one focused on human rights, a timeless, universal ideal. Indeed, while there are Palestinians who are committed to an ethnic Palestinian state, many are not. Personal dignity, an inclusive state, the freedom to preserve cultural identities (or not), freedom of movement and the pursuit of a life lived free of racial or ethnic fetters – those are our ideals.
In seeking to understand the evolution of a system across time, physicists often speak of “initial conditions”. The set of possible outcomes at different points in time is informed by the configuration of things at the point it all started. In 2020, the initial conditions of Israel-Palestine are: 25% of Israelis are not Jewish (they are Palestinian-Israelis or migrant workers); one of every six people residing in the West Bank is not a Palestinian (they are Jewish settlers).
Nor is this state of things reversible. I recall being a young boy in Rafah, a camp in Gaza where I was born. Sometimes I would ride my bike to the beach past a Jewish settlement called Rafiah Yam. The only time I would glimpse the people who lived there was at the seashore. The settlers occupied a private space isolated by fence and wire. But it didn’t last very long. In 2005 the Israeli government chose to remove 8,000 Jewish settlers from among more than a million Palestinians. The ensuing national fight and trauma propelled the settler movement with new energy, and they successfully redoubled their efforts in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Who will remove 650,000 settlers from these areas? One may ask, controversially among Palestinians, whether it should even be done.
In other words, the egg is scrambled. Reconstructing the yolk is an impossible task, but frankly, it is also not an edifying one. The vision for a single, liberal, democratic state in Palestine-Israel is a positive one. It is the only possible outcome given initial conditions, but it is also the most desirable outcome. Simply, it accords with a modern understanding of what a liberal state can be.
People who study political solutions to ethnic conflict – most notably Brendan O’Leary and Arend Lijphart – catalogue different methods of organising democracies. One criticism of majoritarianism, the system in the United States, is that it enables extremist positions in the pursuit of electoral success. The theory is that winner-takes-all systems promote resentments and deepen fissures.
In deeply divided societies such as Israel-Palestine, scholars suggest that power-sharing constitutional arrangements may promote the kinds of cooperation necessary for achieving just outcomes for Palestinians and Israelis. Northern Ireland is a good example of what liberal values, political will and well-considered institutions can yield.
While no system of liberal, democratic government is perfect, one could imagine what democracy in Israel-Palestine could look like. The country may be organised into four federal units: Gaza, the West Bank, the Galilee and Coast, and the Naqab or Negev. Two states will be majority-Palestinian and two states will be majority-Jewish, a likely necessary concession to the country’s legacy of ethnic conflict. Federal elections would distribute power on a proportional party basis, while each federal unit may exercise limited decision-making authority on certain matters.
Mandatory national service required of all citizens could help forge a coherent, post-conflict identity rooted in common histories and experience. Trade with Europe and the Arab countries will help to secure the country’s prosperity; while freedom of movement and association across the country may allow a more integrated identity to emerge in time.
Critics may charge that this vision is utopian. And it is. Yet it is no more idealistic than the assertion that all men are created equal. Countries may not always adhere to their constitutional principles, yet those lofty principles serve a purpose. They act to guide jurors and legislators as they undertake their effortful, inevitably flawed work in pursuit of more just societies. Those efforts, it should be said, take many, many years to bear fruit. Yet our responsibility to our children requires that we take our first, perhaps halting, steps into our common future today.
Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American writer and recipient of the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans