By Chibli Mallat
December 23, 2014
The recent death of Palestinian Minister Ziad Abu Ain after an altercation with Israeli soldiers came as another reminder of the senseless deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We mourn the loss of an advocate of nonviolence who joined the universal call for freedom. Something must give. Usually this means another bout of violence, but the Israeli elections on March 17 might create a different, more peaceful opportunity.
The political scene in Israel is in disarray, due in part to a ruling elite bickering over positions and a particularly mercurial prime minister. But this situation comes mostly from a lack of compass. Two narratives are in competition. The traditional notion that peace must come from the creation of Jewish and Palestinian states based on the June 1967 borders is giving way to a one-state proposal backed mostly by the Israeli right. It aims to avoid giving up any territory. Advocates of such a political line are thinking of an increasingly exclusive Jewish state, which would force the Palestinians out by settling more territory. This is a far cry from the egalitarian model of a single bi-national state supported by the likes of the late Edward Said and Tony Judt.
The Palestinian scene is also divided. The mantra remains the creation of a “sovereign Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, with Jerusalem as its capital.” But the temptation is strong for the creation of a bi-national state, which was a central plank of the Palestine Liberation Organization from its establishment in 1964 until it adhered to a two-state solution for the first time in 1974.
In the resulting confusion, possibilities are unexpectedly opening up. For now, the Jewish ruling elite rejects any coalition with the 20 percent of “Palestinians in Israel,” as Arab-Israelis like to call themselves. Arab-Israelis themselves are also wary of any such arrangement. Traditionally, the fear factor on the Jewish side and diffidence on the Palestinian side have undermined the possibility of such an opening. But the reality is that a Jewish/non-Jewish coalition, formal or informal, would create an unprecedented tsunami on the Israeli political scene. A committed mobilization of the Arab-Israeli vote can yield up to 24 Knesset members to such a coalition, if it makes full use of the proportional system. There is no preordained conclusion in politics, and the Israeli scene is in such turmoil that the possibility has opened up for radical innovation on the basis of equality.
The skeptics will argue that a grand Arab-Jewish coalition is impossible because it cannot agree over a common objective. But the battle between those who support a bi-national state and those who seek two states has become moot. The question is one of basic human rights and conviviality under either scheme, since the reality of the Israeli settlements has thrown the map out of joint forever.
Inside Israel and Palestine, we are in the presence of events unseen since 1948. Extremism rules, threatening to swallow all decency. People are increasingly intertwined, while sectarian edges have hardened across the region. The map we were used to is shifting.
How does one get to an informal or, even better, a formal coalition? The parties must knock at each other’s door. When Tzipi Livni or Isaac Herzog knock on Haneen Zoabi or Azmi Bishara’s door, or vice-versa, with a view to form some sort of humanistic understanding over the future, the scene would suddenly brighten up with new potential opportunities. The knock could also be encouraged by President Mahmoud Abbas, or by the Europeans. It could come from American Jews. Ultimately, however, those voting in the March elections must decide. The onus is primarily on them.
There are more possibilities for cooperation than one would think. In the face of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israeli policy, the growing discontent of the Obama administration with Israel, and the legal sword hovering over Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, cooperation might suddenly sound meaningful to Israeli Jews. Closer integration into the European Union for a bi-national state or two states is another terrain for joint politics. Freedom of movement inside Israel and Palestine, and between Israel and its Arab neighbors, is a third.
The now common attachment to the memory of the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, also acts as a real anchor. The example of France and Germany in Jean Monnet’s vision of a united Europe offers a powerful precedent. Mostly, however, there was a more immediate precedent in summer 2011, when half a million Israelis protested in favor of social justice, without distinction between Jews and Arabs.
A formal coalition is preferable of course, but even an informal one can break the deadlock by putting extremists on both sides on the defensive for the first time in years. The political scene in Israel would witness a sea change, with a real opposition and a real commonality of purpose for the first time – beyond the one-state, two-state quandary.
Abu Ain’s message of nonviolence merits being embraced. Someone should be knocking at the door. “Who’s there,” would be a good initial response. So far, there is no knock, and no answer.
Chibli Mallat is a lawyer and law professor. His latest book, “Philosophy of Nonviolence,” is forthcoming at Oxford University Press. He is the chairman of Right to Nonviolence, a Middle East NGO based in Beirut.