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Friday, June 30, 2006

Reuven Kaminer on Israeli & Palestinian States

Avery guest-blogging for Rodger

Last week I went to hear a talk by Reuven Kaminer, one of the deans of the Israeli left. He comes from an amazing family; his wife, Dafna, is a founder of Women in Black, who hold vigils every week against the Occupation and settlements. His grandson just finished serving a two-year sentence for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. And Reuven is no slouch himself; he is a founder of the New Israeli Left, a member of the Democratic Front for Peace & Equality (one of the “Arab Parties” seated in the Knesset), a prolific author and activist.

This genealogy might lead one to think that Kaminer would be some leftist firebrand. Other people whose intellectual and political orientation is no farther left, such as Michel Warschawsky, scorn the pro-Zionist leftist movements such as Peace Now for being “Left Colonizers”; others, like the Haifa University professor Ilan Pappe, supports a 100% right of return for all Palestinian refugees to their homes in what is now Israel, and the abolition of ethnically identified states. Kaminer is a member of Peace Now recently had an important critique (scroll down 2/3) of Pappe published in the London Review of Books.

Despite having myself recently given up on my lifelong commitment to two states and come to the conclusion that a viable and just two-state solution is impossible, I came away thinking that Kaminer’s two-statism is the better position.

Kaminer argued that the Occupation—now in its 39th year—is destroying Israel and, if it continues, will eventually destroy the Jewish people. To get a sense of the Occupation’s fundamental impact on the state of Israel, it is well to remember that Israel was founded in 1948; it has been an occupying power for 2/3 of its existence. Nearly every Jewish Israeli male has served in the occupation, if not during his 3-year term of conscription, then while doing reserve duty. Obviously, it’s hard to say exactly what would be different if the Occupation had never happened. I don’t want to sound like a romantic, but when Israel was founded it aspired to be an egalitarian socialist society (albeit in denial about the displacement of Palestinians) with strong kibbutz and labor movements and relatively little emphasis on religion. It is now the most economically stratified country in the industrialized world, the kibbutz movement has been eviscerated, and, thanks in part to the settler movement, religion is one of the most important and divisive elements in Israeli politics. Arguably, the Occupation has become the central organizing feature of Israeli life.

According to Kaminer, every single viable solution to the conflict, no matter who proposes it, shares three pillars: 1. A Palestinian state on all the land captured from Jordan and Egypt in 1967 (or with alterations only if based on a swap); 2. Jerusalem as the capital of both states; and 3. Some improvement in the condition of the refugees.

I think 2 and 3 are obvious to most people who are thinking about “final status” issues, and 3 even seems understated, but it’s important to see that it doesn’t require the demographic change—the return—that seems implicit in recognizing a Palestinian “right of return” to their pre-1948 homes. As Yasser Arafat insisted, such a right can be acknowledged and symbolically recognized, for instance, by paying people reparations and giving them full political rights in a state of their own. Just as Jews have a right of return not to anywhere in the world that they have been driven from, nor even to the so-called “Land of Israel” (aka “Greater Israel”), but rather, to the territory of the State of Israel, so Palestinians may have a right of return to the territory of a State of Palestine. The mistake is to understand "return" as literal, rather than in the sense of "an ingathering of the exiles."

The key issue is #1—a separate Palestinian state. Kaminer’s argument was political rather than moral (but see below on this “rather than”). He insisted that opposition to the two-state solution is a dead letter, and we’d be best off recognizing this. Opposition to two states comes from two directions. Right-wing opposition comes from religious groups: Jews who want exclusive Jewish control of the whole territory west of the Jordan river; Islamists who want exclusive Muslim control. Kaminer pointed out that secular Palestinians in the Territories are overwhelmingly two-staters. In the current flare-up between Fatah (Mahmoud Abbas) and Hamas, Kaminer noted that Abbas has a trump card: he can call a referendum on whether there should be a two-state solution. Hamas knows that such a referendum would pass overwhelmingly, and Hamas’s position would be democratically rejected by the Palestinian people. On the Israeli side, Kaminer argued that former PM Ariel Sharon’s forcible expulsion of the settlers from Gaza was a political earthquake, because previously Israelis had thought the settlers had a veto on any policy. What Sharon achieved was to marginalize the settlers and make their eventual eviction from at least much of the West Bank seem inevitable. So the future on both sides looks dim for the forces of right-wing rejection.

But what about left-wing one-statism? Kaminer first pointed out that this is a 5% solution, and that, as noted a moment ago, the Palestinians aren’t willing to put their national aspirations on hold until this can be achieved. This was something of an ad hominem challenge to the left: you say you support Palestinians, but they don’t share your view. So what sort of support is that? I found this hard to argue with, I must admit. But that wasn’t all. Kaminer discerned and rejected two “utopias”. The first is “the socialist utopia”: the workers of both nations will rise up and create a socialist society that does not recognize national differences. Both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism would dissolve. (Back when I was in college, the ISO used to argue for this, except they revealed their true colors by calling for a “pan-Arab working class uprising.” Sorry, kids, if you reject nationalism you actually have to reject nationalism. Well, that’s the ISO for you. I would say “they meant well,” but I don’t know if that’s true.)

The second utopia, current on the left, is “the liberal utopia”: just wait for the inevitable demographic shift due to birth rates, and eventually 51% of the population of the region will be Palestinian, and Zionism will be eliminated at the ballot box in one fell swoop. Apart from the fact that this “strategy” requires Palestinians to wait another generation for a significant improvement in their political lives, it also ignores that, as Kaminer puts it, democracy isn’t sufficient to put power in the hands of the people at large. Jewish Israelis will presumably continue to dominate major institutions and corporations; the liberal utopia promises only a magnified version of the stratification familiar from so many elite democracies around the world.

The two utopias must, Kaminer argued, be rejected. I found this pretty convincing. But I asked him (mine wasn’t the only or the best question, but it interests me, so I’m going to mention it here) whether there wasn’t going to be a third, “neo-liberal utopia”—the sort of thing imagined by Israeli so-called doves like Shimon Peres, who imagine a Middle East modeled on the European Union, with superhighways and water pipelines and a regional labor market serving global capital. Isn’t the two-state solution essential to this vision, since it makes the welfare of the Palestinians someone else’s problem, while global capital gets on with its business? Relatedly, won’t the two-state solution increase the likelihood of a major international struggle over water?

Kaminer didn’t say much about the neo-liberal utopia, but he suggested that the regional water problem could be resolved easily if even a small percentage of the money spent on arms and security could be diverted to solving it. (I imagine he has in mind large-scale desalination.) Is he just waving his hands? Perhaps. But we in water-rich North America could start the ball rolling by recognizing water as a human right.

I thought Kaminer’s most striking achievement was to use political solutions as a way to rise above moral solutions. That sounds like a paradox. But by now, “moral” solutions (like the various utopias) not only insist on significant alterations of the map and of people’s mindsets on both sides, but also contain serious risks that even if they are achieved, they’ll be at best only marginally better than the political solution, which is less risky and can be achieved sooner. Fortunately, a negotiated two-state solution has majority support on each side, and one-staters on the left can recognize this as, at worst, a reasonable second-best. And maybe they’ll even overcome their utopianism and see it as a first-best, in light of the central fact that that’s what is desired by the majority of the people who are under occupation.

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