Endgame: Meeting with Noam Sheizaf

sheizaf-endgame My second meeting on Monday was with Noam Sheizaf, an Israeli independent journalist who recently published a fascinating piece in the Haaretz Magazine: “Endgame” (בעברית).

In it, he interviews a number of rising voices in the Israeli right who are speaking out against a 2-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, they propose what many see as a bi-national solution: one in which Israel will remain legally recognized as the Jewish homeland but in which Palestinians will have full citizenship rights.

Until recently, serious discussions of this topic have been limited in Israel to the non-Zionist left, critical sociologists, and increasingly, political scientists. Those speaking in various shades of a political and cultural “single space” in the territory which comprises the State of Israel and the territories of Gaza and the West Bank range from the ideological left to right. Notables among this list include Yehouda Shenhav, Meron Benvenisti, Benny Morris, and Ephraim Inbar. Now prominent politician on the right in Israel like Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, Moshe Arens, Tzipi Hotovely, and Uri Elitzur have all openly begun to speak about a need to explore options for integrating Palestinians in an undivided political unit to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is an approach that many have decried as post- or anti-Zionist which will lead to the erasure of the Jewish character and majority demography of the state. It certainly flies in the face of conventional peace-making strategies which have dominated since the 1993 Oslo Accords, namely two states for two peoples. This, Noam told me, is characteristic of the opposition approach to this debate. There is a rush to define the details of a proposed solution before the theoretical and conceptual groundwork itself has been worked out.

Indeed, it has not been explained by those proposing such an approach how they would precisely deal with refugees, voting, parliamentary institutions, etc. It is also unclear how Israel would maintain its “Jewish character” in a political environment in which Palestinians have full political rights and a perhaps equal and growing proportion of the population. It is in no small part because of the nascence of these proposals that Sheizaf finds them to be so interesting.

Unlike the two-state approach which has been under negotiation since the early 1990s and under examination for a good deal longer, the bi-national approach (although its proponents on the right do not consider this terminology to be appropriate) has garnered significantly less attention. He also believes it requires a much more complex understanding of levels of political control, representation, and civil rights than resolution through separation entails.

The Zionist left, he contends, has thoroughly adopted a two-state approach and formulated it most clearly in the Geneva Accords. However, with the failure of Oslo and Camp David and the onset of the second Intifada, public interest in actually implementing a negotiated two-state plan has flagged. Limited Israeli domestic response to both Geneva and the Arab Peace Initiative as well as the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2004 demonstrate this quite clearly. This has left Israelis with the feeling that there is little left to discuss.

Everyone knows, contends Sheizaf, where both societies can compromise and where they cannot. Focusing on the question of Palestinian refugees, he noted that Israel will never agree to a “full right of return” and Palestinians are unwilling to agree to anything else. Once solutions were formulated and found to be unworkable, this gave a boost to other approaches. One common idea, to make Egypt and Jordan share responsibility for governing the Palestinians is highly unlikely. Both made clear decisions in the 1970s and 1980s to divest themselves of the problem, with Jordan fearing an enlarged Palestinian majority and Egypt fearing being forced to control a lawless, restive, violent, and destitute Gaza (One cannot help but notice the parallels between the concerns of these countries and those of Israel).

Failing this approach, many see the most realistic option on the table as one state. In many ways, Sheizaf noted, this is already happening. While most of the “political currency” is on the two-state option, much more of the “political thinking” is focused on a single state. There is a strong belief that even while settlers and Palestinians and the Israeli political left and right can try to implement something that looks like a two-state approach, it will only prolong the conflict rather than stabilize it.

The split between the one- and two-staters is not a simple continuum, but rather seems to vary along at least two axes: while the mainstream Israeli political left is largely supportive of an independent Palestinian state, the radical left is split between two camps. One also wishes for an independent state separate from Israel as a solution to the conflict, while the other demands a single, neutral state which privileges no national group.

On the right, Sheizaf contends that they have always pushed for the state to be “more Jewish” and believe that the left is the unqualified enemy of the settlement project (although history belies this). Many on the right are still pushing for separation, as with the mainstream left, to preserve the Jewish character of the state. Others emphasize that Jews in a Jewish state must have special, unique privileges not shared by other citizens; this provides some sense of how their conception of a single state is different from the radical left.

However, the more sophisticated of those on the right have “some joint reading of reality” with the radical left. Both reject the notion of a two-state solution, and both insist that there can be no differentiation between Jewish settlement to the East or West of the Green line. In the article, Eliztur argues that the primary difference between these two kinds of Jewish settlement are that unlike those in pre-1967 Israel, the construction of settlements in the West Bank did not require or benefit from the destruction of villages or the removal of populations. In this way, argues Yehouda Shenhav also in the article, the 1967 paradigm makes it possible for the left to live in Tel Aviv and “feel good about itself”, sacrificing the settlements to “atone for what they did to the Palestinians in 1948.” Either way, it is clear that the left and the right have no joint platform on this issue and neither wishes to be associated with the other. Until there is some convergence, it seems unlikely that the one-state paradigm will able to meaningfully compete on a policy level with the much attempted two-state approach.

Another common theme today is Israeli politics which the one-state approach seems to deny is that of ethnic separation. Many on the right with whom I have spoken have pointed to the irony that the left, in its vigor to preserve what it believes is the Jewish character of the state, has been a forceful proponent of divorcing the two populations, politically and geographically. Rather on the right, with their drive to protect the Jewish right to settle anywhere and everywhere in the land of Israel, are ensuring integration.

Many on the left see this as a cynical appropriation of liberal political terminology. Argues Yossi Beilin in the article, the left, until Ehud Barak’s leadership, never spoke about separation but “peace.” It is bizarre, such thinking goes, that those who say they are promoting coexistence and civil rights are those whose people and political organizations maintain a project of ethnic superiority in geographic control. The Zionist left argues that it is seeking to preserve the Jewish majority of the state, so it continues to speak in terms of evacuation. The right insists it wishes to preserve a Jewish state, a necessary component of which is the land in which a significant Arab population resides.

How, then, does the right envision a Jewish state in control of all the land? First there is the issue of demographics. As many people with whom I have spoken have raised this issue again and again, it is clear that there is no consensus on this issue. In terms of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, “official” estimates put the number at some 2.5 million while some revisionist numbers put it at 1.5 million. Sheizaf said when he inquired from the IDF who administers the territory, they were unable to give him a number. There are some demographic trends which indicate that population growth may be slowing with increased affluence in the territory and there are plenty on the right who believe demographics should not determine government policy regardless.

Yet, Sheizaf believes, they may not be thinking the issue through all the way. While the right has an image of a single country but with fewer Arabs, in reality having a large number of Arab members of Knesset could change everything: national symbols, cultural policies, budget allocations, and especially the law of return. One should cut the one-staters a bit of slack, he argues, given that their proposals are only now getting a broader public hearing. That they have not yet answered all the conventional questions does not indicate that such a plan would be an automatic failure.

Given incredibly low expectations that Israelis and Palestinians will be able to get anything out of bilateral talks moving toward a two-state solution, especially if they are forced from abroad, it may be time to consider other approaches. Thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of one state, changes things significantly. Instead of a national problem, the Palestinian issue becomes one of civil rights (at least in the eyes of Israelis).

Whether the eventual solution will be one state or two states, Sheizaf believes that the basic fact of Israel’s existence in the Middle East is one of a joint Arab-Jewish reality. It is a tension and relationship which shapes everything in this country: religion, food, soccer, language… the list goes on and is certainly reciprocal. That the there are Palestinians in Israel is a political fact, just as, he believes, in a number of years, the reasons Jews returned to Hebron post-1967 will soon not be as important as the fact that they are there.

Mythologies on both the right and the left about the nature of Jewish-Arab conflict over land entitlement, he believes, are quite petty when compared to the problems of contemporary coexistence. The notion on the right that the predecessors of most Palestinians came here in the 1920s as a result of growing economic prosperity in the land is irrelevant; so too arrived a substantial aliyah of Jews. On the left, the belief that everything was okay in Jewish-Arab relations before 1967 is equally absurd; Arabs in Israel were under military rule until 1966. Instead of focusing energies on some idyllic past, Israelis, he believes, must come to accept the moral existence of their neighbors. Whether this is best accomplished through a single state or two is still unclear.

Noam Sheizaf has written for Ma’ariv, where he was previously deputy editor on it’s weekend magazine. In addition to his freelance work, he maintains a blog at promisedlandblog.com. Check it out.

2 thoughts on “Endgame: Meeting with Noam Sheizaf”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: