Report by Ari Shavit, Ha’aretz | 08.08.2003 16:51
Meron Benvenisti and Haim Hanegbi did not exchange views. Benvenisti lives in Jerusalem, on the edge of the desert, and is trying to write a last book, a summing up. Hanegbi lives in Ramat Aviv, not far from the sea, and is trying to formulate a last, definitive, manifesto. Yet this summer both Benvenisti and Hanegbi reached an intriguing point in their conceptual development. They both reached the conclusion that there is no longer any prospect of ending the conflict by means of a two-state solution. Each of them separately has come to believe that the time has come to establish one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea: a binational state.
On the face of it, they come from utterly different worlds. Benvenisti’s roots lie deep in the old Zionist establishment. He was the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek’s right-hand man, a candidate of Ratz (the predecessor of Meretz) for the Knesset. Hanegbi, in contrast, is a retired revolutionary. He was a central activist in the radical-left Matzpen group, one of the founders of the Progressive List, a partner in the leadership of the peace movement Gush Shalom. However, Benvenisti and Hanegbi also share a deep common background. Both are from Jerusalem and are graduates of the city’s Beit Hakerem high school, both are Ashkenazi-Sephardi whose ideas were shaped in the latter stages of the British Mandate period. And both of them love this land and love human beings. Both are surging rivers of emotions and stories and sheer human vitality.
It’s precisely because they are not cut of the same cloth, because they are not from the same ideological circle, that the parallel, albeit not identical, processes they are undergoing are so fascinating. True, they are both end-figures, lone wolves, sensitive sentimentalists who are sometimes perceived as eccentrics. Nevertheless, each is an original thinker with finely tuned senses. Both have a knee-jerk aversion to falsity, whitewashing, and uniform thought. So perhaps the fact that the two of them arrived during the past year at the conceptual place they now occupy is of some significance. Possibly it says something about the groundwater of the current Israeli reality.
2. Haim Hanegbi
Where did it start? Right after the start of the intifada. Already then I told [veteran peace activist] Uri Avnery that I was regressing, I was returning to my origins, that it might be time to reconsider the dream of a shared state. But Avnery laughed - that’s his way. He said I was dreaming. Avnery has done a lot in the battle for peace and the battle against the occupation, but Avnery also has a defect. He has no psychic mechanism. Just as [pioneer Zionist activist Joseph] Trumpeldor had only one arm, Avnery is incapable of relating to people. It’s not something evil, it’s not indifference, it’s a disability. He simply lacks that emotional organ. So he laughed at me with a kind of patronizing disdain and ignored what I said. I didn’t respond.
For the next three years we continued to formulate the Friday messages of Gush Shalom. But at the beginning of the summer I decided I could no longer remain silent, that I had to come out with it. So I wrote a text against the occupation at the end of which I included, for the first time, the idea of one state for the two nations. A state in partnership, a binational state.
Avnery went wild. He was furious. He said I was harming the Palestinian cause and endangering the Palestinian state and serving the right wing. That I was reinforcing fears of the “phased theory.” When I insisted that the text be sent to all the members of Gush Shalom, I was told that it would not be disseminated because it was contrary to the Gush Shalom consensus. I said, fine, if that’s how it is I’m leaving Gush Shalom. So with one phone call, I left Gush Shalom. Others also left in my wake. Half of the hardcore left, so now I am working with a few good people on disseminating my old-new idea about the renewal of binational thinking.
As I wrote in my document, it is plain to me today that there is no other alternative to ending the conflict. Everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear has to understand that only a binational partnership can save us. That is the only way to transform ourselves from being strangers in our land into native sons.
The truth is that it all started long ago, in the Mekor Baruch neighborhood of Jerusalem. When I was 10, at the end of the Mandate period, our landlord was an Arab named Jamil. The word “Alhambra” was chiseled in stone on the house in Arabic and English. And the house next door was not only owned by Arabs, it was also inhabited by Arabs. The whole neighborhood from our house west was mixed. And at my dad’s place of work, the Jerusalem municipality, Jews and Arabs worked together, too. My dad took me on outings in and around Jerusalem. I remember Palestinian Ein Karem very well, and Malha and Lifta and Beit Mazmil. So the Arabs were never strangers to me. They were always part of my landscape. Part of the country. And I never doubted the possibility of living with them: house next to house, street next to street.
At the end of 1947 they disappeared. It was in the winter, in the middle of eighth grade. And the strange thing is that it wasn’t in the least traumatic. It was all done quietly, without any dramatics. They just sort of evaporated. I’m not even sure I saw them packing. I’m not really sure I saw them collecting their things and melting away down the slope behind Schneller Camp. But I remember Deir Yassin well. I remember that we were in our classroom in the Beit Hakarem high school when we saw the smoke rising from Deir Yassin [an Arab village on the western edge of Jerusalem where a massacre was perpetrated in 1948].
So, in the 1960s, when we talked about the principle of equality in Matzpen, I wasn’t just thinking in terms of socialism or a universal concept. With me it was baladi, my country, the scents and memories of my childhood. Then came obsessive collecting of Mandate period maps to locate the villages that had been erased, the life that ceased to be. And the feeling that without them this is a barren country, a disabled country, a country that caused an entire nation to disappear.
So it wasn’t easy for me to adopt the two-state solution, in the 1980s. It was a tough inner struggle. And I never, ever, joined the Zionist left. I never abandoned revolutionary thinking. But when I saw that Peace Now existed and that there was some sort of movement in the streets I didn’t think it was right to stay cooped up with dogmas. I thought the two-state idea was a worthy one.
When Oslo came, I thought it was really something great. I read the accords thoroughly, under a magnifying glass, and I reached the conclusion that there really was mutual recognition, that the possibility existed of closing the conflict file. So in the mid-1990s I had second thoughts about my traditional approach. I didn’t think it was my task to go to Ramallah and present the Palestinians with the list of Zionist wrongs and tell them not to forget what our fathers did to their fathers. I believed in the dynamics of Oslo. I also believed in [Yitzhak] Rabin. After the assassination I even joined the Labor Party.
In the past couple of years I realized that I made a mistake; that, like the Palestinians, I too was taken in. I took Israeli talk seriously and didn’t pay attention to Israeli deeds. When I realized, one day, that the settlements had doubled themselves, I also realized that Israel had missed its one hour of grace, had rejected the rare opportunity it was given. Then I understood that Israel could not free itself of its expansionist pattern. It is bound hand and foot to its constituent ideology and to its constituent act, which was an act of dispossession.
I realized that the reason it is so tremendously difficult for Israel to dismantle settlements is that any recognition that the settlements in the West Bank exist on plundered Palestinian land will also cast a threatening shadow over the Jezreel Valley, and over the moral status of Beit Alfa and Ein Harod. I understood that a very deep pattern was at work here. That there is one historical continuum that runs from Kibbutz Beit Hashita to the illegal settler outposts; from Moshav Nahalal to the Gush Katif settlements in the Gaza Strip. And that continuity apparently cannot be broken. It’s a continuity that takes us back to the very beginning, to the incipient moment.
I am now reading a book by Eliezer Be’eri about the beginning of the conflict and the start of the Zionist enterprise. At one point, he describes how, on November 3, 1878, as Yehuda Raab tilled the first furrow in the soil of Petah Tikva, he felt that “he is the first person to hold a Jewish plow on the soil of the prophets after the long years of exile.” But look what it says here: “Arabs also joined Yehuda Raab on the big day when plowing began. He himself, with his plow harnessed to animals, could not have tilled an area of hundreds of dunams. He was joined in the plowing by 12 Arab fellahin.”
What does that mean, Ari? You tell me what it means. What it means is that when Yehuda Raab came to till the first furrow after 2, 000 years of exile he didn’t have the strength to do it alone. He needed fellahin, and 12 of them came to help him. Reading that, I tell myself that I know all about Raab and who his descendants were and I know how his project developed. But I know absolutely nothing about the 12 fellahin. They appear in history as unknowns and disappear from history the same way, with hardly a trace. They were removed from history by Zionism. Who were they? Where did they go? Where are they today?
So the aging revolutionary you see before you has taken a vow to find those 12 vanished individuals, those 12 abductees of history. My life mission is to set them free from their historical captivity and give them names and faces and rights. Because their whole sin in relation to Raab was that they lived in this country untold generations before him. Why should they be punished for that? Why insist on their oblivion?
I don’t think this is some private madness. On the contrary: I think it is an attempt to be released from madness. I am not a psychologist, but I think that everyone who lives with the contradictions of Zionism condemns himself to protracted madness. It’s impossible to live like this. It’s impossible to live with such a tremendous wrong. It’s impossible to live with such conflicting moral criteria. When I see not only the settlements and the occupation and the suppression, but now also the insane wall that the Israelis are trying to hide behind, I have to conclude that there is something very deep here in our attitude to the indigenous people of this land that drives us out of our minds.
There is something genetic here that doesn’t allow us truly to recognize the Palestinians, that doesn’t allow us to make peace with them. And that something has to do with the fact that even before the return of the land and the houses and the money, the settlers’ first act of expiation toward the natives of this land must be to restore to them their dignity, their memory, their justness.
But that is just what we are incapable of doing. Our past won’t allow us to do it. Our past forces us to believe in the project of a Jewish nation-state that is a hopeless cause. Our past prevents us from seeing that the whole story of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is over. Because if you want Jewish sovereignty you must have a border, but as [Zionist thinker and activist Yitzhak] Tabenkin said, this country cannot tolerate a border in its midst. If you want Jewish sovereignty you need a fortified, separatist uni-national structure, but that is contrary to the spirit of the age. Even if Israel surrounds itself with a fence and a moat and a wall, it won’t help. Because your fears are well-placed, Ari: Israel as a Jewish state can no longer exist here. In the long term, Israel as a Jewish state will not be able to exist.
I’m not crazy. I don’t think that it will be possible to enlist thousands of people in the cause of a binational state tomorrow morning. But when I consider that Meron Benvenisti was right in saying that the occupation has become irreversible, and when I see where the madness of sovereignty is leading good Israelis, I raise my own little banner again. I do so without illusions. I am not part of any army. I am not the leader of any army. In the meantime our act is that of a few people. But I think it’s important to place this idea on the table now.
In essence, the binational principle is the deepest antithesis of the wall. The purpose of the wall is to separate, to isolate, to imprison the Palestinians in pens. But the wall imprisons the Israelis, too. It turns Israel into a ghetto. The wall is the great despairing solution of the Jewish-Zionist society. It is the last desperate act of those who cannot confront the Palestinian issue. Of those who are compelled to push the Palestinian issue out of their lives and out of their consciousness. In the face of that I say the opposite. I say that we were apparently too forgiving toward Zionism; that the Jews who came here and found a land that wasn’t empty adopted a pattern of unrestrained force. Instead of the conflict foisting moral order and reason on them, it addicted them to the use of force. But that force has played itself out, it has reached its limits. If Israel remains a colonialist state in its character, it will not survive. In the end the region will be stronger than Israel, in the end the indigenous people will be stronger than Israel. Those who hope to live by the sword will die by the sword. That is perfectly clear, Ari: they will die by the sword.
Don’t treat me as a stranger, as an outsider. True, it’s easier for me, because I’m from Hebron and Jerusalem, from the Old Yishuv. It’s easier for me because I never took part in the killing and the dispossession and the occupation. All the same, I feel a commitment toward the society I live in. And precisely because of that, I believe that anyone who wants to ensure the existence of a Jewish community in this country has to free himself from the Zionist pattern, has to open gates. Because as things are now, there is no chance. A Jewish nation-state will not take hold here.
It’s totally clear that it can’t be done without recognition in principle of the right of return, because this is a case in which a nation was condemned to exile from its land, not because there was no room, but because it was supplanted by others. That injustice has not been erased for 55 years and it won’t be erased in another 55 years. But that doesn’t mean they will return to Jamusin, which is in the middle of Tel Aviv. It doesn’t mean they will settle at the corner of Arlosoroff and Ibn Gvirol.
What it means is that the borders have to be open to them, as in Europe. It means the establishment of a super-modern city in Galilee for the 200, 000 or 300, 000 refugees in Lebanon. It means the establishment of another Palestinian-Jewish city between Hebron and Gaza that will both make the desert bloom and connect the two parts of Palestine.
In general, we have to shift to a binational mode of thinking. Maybe in the end we have to create a new, binational Israel, just as a new, multiracial South Africa was created.
There will be no other choice, anyway. The attempt to achieve Jewish sovereignty that is fenced in and insular has to be abandoned. We will have to come to terms with the fact that we will live here as a minority: a Jewish minority that will no longer be squeezed between Hadera and Gedera, but will be able to settle in Nablus and Baghdad and Damascus, too - and take part in the democratization of the Middle East. That will be able to live and die here, to establish mixed cities and mixed neighborhoods and mixed families. But for that to happen, the mad dream of sovereignty will have to be given up, Ari. We have to forgo that mad dream, which has caused so much bloodshed here, has inflicted so many disasters, has generated a hundred years of conflict.
3. Meron Benvenisti
What I have to say is seemingly not new, because at the beginning of the 1980s I already maintained that partition was no longer a viable option, that the establishment of the settlements and the takeover of land had created an irreversible situation here.
And at that time there were only 20, 000 settlers. Today there are 230, 000. So it’s clear that the critical mass I was afraid of, which would not permit a change in the status quo, existed even then. Neither Oslo nor the separation fence nor talk about a Palestinian state can change the status quo.
In fact, even today we are living in a binational reality, and it is a permanent given. It cannot be ignored and it cannot be denied. What we have to do is adapt our thinking and our concepts to this reality. We have to look for a new model that will fit this reality. And the right questions have to be asked, even if they give the impression of a betrayal of Zionism; even if they give the feeling that one is abandoning the dream of establishing a Jewish nation-state in the Land of Israel.
What is new is that I have reached the conclusion that my analysis of the conflict was incorrect. For my convenience, I started with the assumption of the Israeli Zionist left: that what is taking place here is a struggle between two national movements for the same land. It followed from this that the rational solution was two states for two nations.
However, in the past two years I reached the conclusion that we are dealing with a conflict between a society of immigrants and a society of natives. If so, we are talking about an entirely different type of conflict. If so, we descend from the rational level to a completely basic, atavistic level that goes to the bedrock of personal and collective existence. Because the basic story here is not one of two national movements that are confronting each other; the basic story is that of natives and settlers. It’s the story of natives who feel that people who came from across the sea infiltrated their natural habitat and dispossessed them.
The result is that the conquering immigrants are victorious in every battle because they utilize the technological and cultural advantages that Western civilization has made available to them. But these settler immigrants are unable to enjoy the fruits of their victory. They take over the land but fail to achieve tranquillity, fail to entrench peace for themselves.
For me, that was an overwhelming discovery. It came after Camp David, after the trauma of 2000, after the two sides effectively retracted their mutual recognition. When we went back to seeing the Palestinians as a terrorist collectivity and they went back to seeing us as outsiders.
Then, as I observed this terrible breakdown, I suddenly understood that it was impossible to explain our pattern of settlement and redemption of the land solely in terms of a national conflict. It is impossible to explain the suicide bomber phenomenon solely in terms of a national conflict. Because beneath the rational crust of a national conflict, something is going on at a far deeper level. We will never reach a point at which one group will truly renounce the right of return and the other group will truly abandon its longing for Beit El. We will never reach a situation in which the Arabs in Israel forgo their demand for their own collective rights.
The conclusion is that the seemingly rational solution of two states for two nations can’t work here. The model of a division into two nation-states is inapplicable. It doesn’t reflect the depth of the conflict and doesn’t sit with the scale of the entanglement that exists in large parts of the country. You can erect all the walls in the world here but you won’t be able to overcome the fact that there is only one aquifer here and the same air and that all the streams run into the same sea. You won’t be able to overcome the fact that this country will not tolerate a border in its midst.
In the past year, then, I reached the conclusion that there is no choice but to think in new terms. There is no choice but to think about western Palestine [Eretz Yisrael, or the land of Israel] as one geopolitical unit.
Just as the South African rulers understood, at a certain point, that there was no choice but to dismantle their regime, so the Israeli establishment has to understand that it is not capable of imposing its hegemonic conceptions on 3. 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and 1. 2 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. What we have to do is try to reach a situation of personal and collective equality within the framework of one overall regime throughout the country.
I don’t yet have a coherent proposal. I don’t have a work plan. But the direction of thought is clear. The new paradigm is mandated by reality. What I see is a combination of horizontal division (sharing in government) and a vertical division (partitioning of the territory). What I see is a federal structure that will include all of historic western Palestine. Different ethnic cantons will exist under that structure. It’s clear, for example, that the Palestinian citizens of Israel will have their own cantons. They will have their own autonomy, which will express their collective rights. And it’s clear, on the other side, that the settlers will have a canton. The executive of the federal government will strike some sort of balance between the two national groups. It wouldn’t bother me if the basis for the balance is equality: one for one.
I admit that there is an emotional layer here: my own identity. I am 70 now, and I have the right to engage in summing up. And I was part of it all here: the youth movement and the army and the kibbutz and politics. I am the salt of the earth and I’m not ashamed of it. I am a proud Israeli Mayflower person. I won’t let anyone tell me I am a traitor. I won’t let anyone say I am not from here - including the Palestinians. I am exactly what my father wanted me to be: a native. He wanted me to grow like a tree from the soil of the land. He wanted me to be a natural part of the landscape. And he just may have succeeded: I am a native son. But this is a country in which there were always Arabs. This is a country in which the Arabs are the landscape, the natives. So I am not afraid of them. I don’t see myself living here without them. In my eyes, without Arabs this is a barren land.
This is where I am different from my friends in the left: because I am truly a native son of immigrants, who is drawn to the Arab culture and the Arabic language because it is here. It is the land. And I really am a neo-Canaanite. I love everything that springs from this soil. Whereas the right, certainly, but the left, too, hates Arabs. The Arabs bother them - they complicate things. The subject generates moral questions and that generates cultural unease.
That’s why the left wants this terrible wall, which in my view is anti-geography, anti-history and anti-human. That’s why the left wants to hide behind this wall, which in my view is the rape of the land. That’s why they are fleeing from Jerusalem and fleeing from the landscape and the soil and huddling in Tel Aviv and concentrating only on how to screw Vicki Knafo, how to lord it over the Moroccans.
Yes, you can tell me that I am a walking mass of internal contradictions. You can tell me that my recipe is hopeless. A federal solution hasn’t worked anywhere in the world. But my diagnosis is correct: even within the boundaries of 1967, Israel is on the way to becoming a binational state. In another decade, when the Arabs constitute 25 percent of the population, it will be a binational state. The attempt to drag more and more new immigrants from every remote corner on earth is becoming inane. These new immigrants are liable to cause the implosion of the Israeli society.
So I think the time has come to declare that the Zionist revolution is over. Maybe it should even be done officially, along with setting a date for the repeal of the Law of Return. We should start to think differently, talk differently. Not to seize on this ridiculous belief in a Palestinian state or in the fence. Because in the end we are going to be a Jewish minority here. And the problems that your children and my grandchildren are going to have to cope with are the same ones that de Klerk faced in South Africa. The paradigm, therefore, is the binational one. That’s the direction. That’s the conceptual universe we have to get used to.
Could things have worked out differently? Not necessarily. The Zionist idea was maimed from the outset. It didn’t take into account the presence here of another national group. Therefore, from the moment the Zionist movement decided that it was not going to exterminate the Arabs, its dream became unattainable. Because this land cannot tolerate two sovereignties. So the options are terribly simple: either one nation will not be or the other nation will not be, or one nation will subjugate the other and condemn itself to perpetual enmity, or both nations will forgo their demand for full sovereignty. That is what Sharon is now demanding of the Palestinians. That is what I am now proposing to both the Jews and the Palestinians on an equal basis.
In 1948, Zionism was truly victorious. It succeeded in consolidating itself in 78 percent of historic Palestine. But in 1967, Zionism won one victory too many, and in the 20 years that followed it sealed its fate by implementing the settlements project. Paradoxically, the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan only exacerbated the situation, because they determined the outer limit of the borders of western Palestine. They sealed us into the binational reality of a territory that cannot be divided. The result is that now Zionism really can’t realize its dream. It is the victim of its victories, the victim of a terrible history of missed opportunities.
What comes to mind in particular are those Shabbats when Dad would go on outings with me in the villages around Jerusalem. He was a tour guide and a high priest of knowing the land. He would take me into Malha and Beit Mazmil and Ein Karem and Saris and Deir al Hawa. So their way of life was not foreign to me; it was part of me.
But in April 1948, I was on King George Street in Jerusalem when Etzel [the nationalist underground military organization] held its victory parade through the center of the city with trucks carrying the survivors of Deir Yassin. When I think about it today it is terrible, but at the time it didn’t seem terrible. And again, in 1949, when I reaped the harvest in fields belonging to Palestinians as part of a work camp of the youth movement, that didn’t seem terrible, either. Their tragedy simply did not penetrate my consciousness.
It was only in 1955, when I was a student and we were carrying out a survey for the Geological Institute, for which we examined abandoned Arab wells after the rain, that I arrived in a village near Beit Guvrin and it suddenly hit me. Because the whole village was still standing, it was perfectly whole. Only it had no people. For the first time, I asked myself where these people were, where had they gone.
Yet even that was a passing moment. It didn’t shatter my consciousness. That happened only in 1967, when I met all those people who said they were from Malha, from Saris, from Deir al Hawa. Suddenly I said to myself, here they are. Here they are. And all that old geography suddenly hit me: The whole geography of the tragedy came rushing back.
So today I live their tragedy even though I perhaps caused it. I feel myself attached to them. Emotionally, I am very attached to them. But for years I didn’t know how to translate that attachment into political language. Now the binational mode of thought may give it political expression.
I am not happy about what I am proposing. I know that what I am stammering to you here is not truly a solution. Because even if some sort of federal structure is established here it won’t bring peace. There won’t be peace here. Even if there is some sort of binational arrangement, it will do no more than manage the crisis. The violence will always occur on its fringes.
But the truth is that the whole situation that has been created here is one of conflicts and contradictions and the absence of a solution. So today I am sad and pessimistic. I live with a deep sense of breakdown. It is not easy for me to part with my father’s dream of a Jewish nation-state. It’s hard for me. For most of my life that was my dream, too. But I am truly fearful for my grandchildren. Whenever I look around me I am fearful for my grandchildren. How will they live here? What am I leaving them? Because I know that there will not be a Jewish nation-state here and that there will not be two states for two nations here, I seize on this faint hope that maybe, after all, something shared will evolve here. Something neo-Canaanite. That maybe, despite everything, we will learn to live together. Maybe we will come to understand that the Other is not demonic, that he, too, is part of this place. Like these cypresses. Like these bustanim, these fruit gardens. What the land brings forth.
Report by Ari Shavit, Ha’aretz