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By Timothy Niedermann


The Montréal Review, May 2017


Wilhelm SasnalUntitled, 2004, Oil on canvas


It seems an obvious and fair question to ask: Why, after fifty years of occupation and control, hasn’t Israel managed to come up with a solution to the impasse it is in with regard to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza? The so-called Two-State Solution has been proposed and is widely accepted as the right way to go—the Jewish state of Israel bordered by a Palestinian state. The US supports it. European governments support it. Even Israel and the Palestinians say they support it. Yet there has been no progress.

In the meantime, the status quo has become dangerously unstable. The Occupation of the West Bank has been cited by many former members of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and Israeli intelligence services as an “existential threat” to Israel. Israeli humanitarian organizations such as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence (an organization of former IDF soldiers) have revealed to the long-in-denial Israeli public the truth about the constant abuses and unjustified killings perpetrated by the IDF and illegal settlers in the West Bank. The horrific bombardment of Gaza in 2014 is broadly seen as excessive, even unjustified, and the violent aggression of the settler movement, which is often openly supported by the current Israeli government, has sharply divided Israeli society.

And the world is now paying attention. European governments, in particular, have become more critical of Israeli policy. Anti-Occupation movements have gained credibility. The BDS—Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions—movement has gained widespread international support. This is the case even in the US, where the formerly unqualified support for Israel across a wide social and political spectrum has been markedly eroded.

Some of those former Israeli officials go so far as to say that Israel now faces a stark, almost inconceivable choice: either be a democracy or a Jewish state. For a country that prides itself on being “the only true democracy” in the Middle East and staunchly upholds itself as the Jewish homeland, this is indeed an existential question.

Each side blames the other for the impasse, but, stripping away the political posturing, the simple truth is that the Two-State Solution has never been a realistic option. It is, in fact, impossible.

The first reason is Israel’s stated security requirements. Israel has made it quite clear that it, and not a Palestinian state, must control security along the Jordan River and on the Mediterranean shore. All of the Palestinian state’s defense, immigration policy, and commercial traffic, even tourist entries, would therefore be under Israel’s control. There would be no national Palestinian army, only a limited police force. Superficially, given the potential outside threats to Israel in the region, this seems reasonable, but the effect of it would be to turn the Palestinian “state” into at best be a semi-autonomous province, certainly not an independent nation. So on the issue of exterior security alone, the notion of two states founders.

Aggravating the situation is the powerful settler movement, which strenuously resists all attempts to cede any part of “Judea and Samaria,” i.e., the West Bank, and wants to establish absolute Jewish control over the entire area. Its proponents not only aggressively erect outposts deep in the West Bank, they exert disproportionate influence in Israeli politics, leading the Israeli government to establish a network of settlements and Israeli-only roads throughout the West Bank (combined with the ubiquitous IDF checkpoints on Palestinian roads). These are all indisputably illegal under international law and have turned the West Bank into what is in effect a series of Palestinian-inhabited islands, rather than a contiguous Palestinian territory. Again, not a format for an independent Palestinian state.

In view of the influence of the settler movement and the support given it by the Netanyahu government, the Two-State Solution, far from being a realistic proposal, appears more and more to be, in reality, a delaying tactic, allowing Israel to continue to promote settlements and consolidate control of the West Bank. It is political expediency on the part of Netanyahu, catering to the settler lobby in order to keep his job.

(It is perhaps also personal cowardice. It was a settler who murdered Yitzhak Rabin for signing the Oslo Accords, which established the Palestinian Authority and gave it control of land in Gaza in the West Bank. That man, Yigal Amir, is a hero to the settler movement, which regularly petitions for his release from prison. It is quite reasonable for Netanyahu to feel his life would be in danger if he antagonized the settlers and their allies.)

The ongoing stalemate has recently led some in Israel to start openly speaking about the “One-State Solution,” a once derided idea that now is gaining traction as perhaps the only path remaining out of the current quagmire. Given that Israel already dominates the West Bank and given the long-held Zionist aim of inhabiting the same area as the ancient Jews, one might think that establishing a single unified state through annexation would have happened long ago. This actually has been proposed recently by Israeli President Reuben Rivlin, no less, who, based on a model developed by Jerusalem Post journalist Caroline Glick, would annex the West Bank and Gaza and give Palestinians full equal rights as citizens of Israel.

But there is a stumbling block to such a simple solution. In a single, merged state, Jews would constitute, instead of the current eighty percent of Israelis, only slightly over half the total population. The current twenty-percent non-Jewish minority is not a threat to Jewish dominance, but fifty percent would be. Glick’s model expressly assumes that Jews will remain the majority ethnicity. This is doubtful. Others within Israel have suggested alternatives to retain Jewish control, such as citizenship for the Palestinians, but with no right to vote representatives to the parliament, the Knesset. The suggestion is shocking, of course, not just on its face, but because it clearly expected to be taken seriously.

There have been more dramatic and convoluted suggestions as well: Israeli residency but only Jordanian citizenship for Palestinians; residency with Israeli citizenship only after a pledge of allegiance to “the Jewish state,” a loyalty oath, in effect; citizenship only for those who do not live in the “Arab” West Bank cities, which would, like Gaza, become non-contiguous, autonomous “emirates”; and so on. All in the name of preserving absolute Jewish control of Israel.

The Inherent Contradiction of the Jewish State

And here we arrive at the real problem, the fundamental contradiction that has existed as long as Zionism, but which has been deliberately avoided by Israeli politicians ever since 1948. And that is: What does “Jewish state” mean?

The world knows that the Zionist dream, Israel’s raison d’être, is to be a homeland for Jews. This sounds reasonable, even justifiable, given the centuries-long persecution of Jews in Europe, which culminated in the horror and devastation of the Holocaust. The yearning for a homeland is an emotional plea for safety and recognition, completely understandable, and the historical attachment of Jews to this region is undeniable.

But although it is a concept critical to Israel’s identity, there is, in fact, no official legal definition of “Jewish state” to be found. This is despite Israel’s frequent insistence that the Palestinians and neighbouring Arab countries accept Israel as a “Jewish state” as a condition for a permanent peace agreement.

In the absence of an official definition, the long-standing operative definition of “Jewish state” has been that a substantial (i.e., controlling) majority of Israel’s population must be “Jewish.” Leaving aside the question of what “Jew” means and who makes that determination (those questions have been hotly debated in Israel for decades and continue to be a source of contention there with no resolution in sight), why hasn’t this been made official? The reason is simple: It is quite impossible. There is simply no way to draft legal language to guarantee a Jewish or any other ethnic or religious majority in a territory where multiple ethnicities and religions exist.

Let’s take a look. Suppose you have a situation where the population balance is close to a legislated percentage, say 60–40. Then a baby is born to the minority, and the ratio is not 60–40 any more, it is 59–41. What do you do with that baby? Is that baby, the child of citizens, denied citizenship until a majority child is born to rectify the situation? Worse, what if someone of the 60–40 majority dies and the ratio drops to 59–41? Do you rescind citizenship of members of the minority to make the numbers work? And what are the criteria for doing that? And what if the rate of demographic change never lets the majority restore itself?

The reality is that, short of outright extermination, there are only two ways for any ethnic group to keep control, whether majority or minority, of any territory: expulsion or disenfranchisement. Expulsion is difficult; disenfranchisement is an open invitation to unrest and repression. This is in evidence in many countries—Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Bashir al Assad’s Syria being two recent and egregious examples. Yet expulsion and disenfranchisement have both been central elements of Israeli policy all along. The major expulsion occurred in 1947–48, of course. The Nakba (Catastrophe)—where approximately 750,000 Palestinian civilian non-combatants were driven from their homes and not allowed to return, a clear violation of international law.  Since then, segregation has been the rule. Although the remaining Israeli Arabs finally were enfranchised in 1966, after eighteen years of subjection to martial law, they are often treated as second-class citizens. For instance, no Arab party has ever been invited into any Israeli government. Since 1967, Israel has occupied the West Bank and controlled Gaza’s borders, yet Palestinians there have no direct voice within Israel on how they are treated. Their leaders have the veneer of being a political presence, but they are powerless toward influencing Israeli policy in what is ostensibly their own territory. To be blunt, the land seizures in the West Bank since 1967 can be viewed as an attempt at slow takeover, in effect an attempted expulsion, to reduce the territory controlled by Palestinians. In the same vein, the use of checkpoints and maintenance of military law in the West Bank, rather than Israeli civil law, is clear repression, constricting people’s lives nearly unbearably at times.

The deliberate maintenance of military law in the Occupied Territories is particularly onerous, because Israeli civil law does have the institutional legal structure to support defense of Palestinian rights. Numerous Israeli judges have found both Israeli government and settler land seizures illegal, despite the uphill battle Palestinians have gain access to those courts and despite the government’s efforts to pass laws making the Palestinians’ burden of proof more difficult.

Looked at broadly, it would seem the whole maintenance of the Occupation is to make Palestinian life so miserable that they will want to leave the land and emigrate. But that has not happened to any significant degree. Thus the stalemate.

The One-State Solution: A National Project for New Israel

Israel is out of choices. It must adapt to survive. The facts are very clear: the dangerously unstable status quo is impossible, and so is the Two-State Solution. Any hope that continued annexation of land and creation of settlements will accomplish anything other than endangering Israel’s very existence must be seen as outright delusional. Any eruption of violence endangers Israel, and as has been often said, Israel only has to lose once to be erased from the map. It is obvious: the only choice left for Israel’s survival is the One State Solution.

It will not be easy by any means. Nation building is more than defining borders and conveying citizenship. It requires creating a national identity, an overriding sense of purpose that subordinates and lessens regional rivalries, ethnic conflicts, and religious or racial differences. There will be much loud opposition to any attempt to confront the sacred cows Israel holds dear, but Israel has no real choice. Its existence is at stake, and its choice is between inclusion of the Palestinians and the disappearance of Israel as a democracy—and all too probably its violent disappearance completely.

A considerable obstacle is the concept of “Jewish state” itself. The exclusionary attitude, clung to for over so many years, has become an article of faith, of dogma really, spouted by Israelis and their supporters abroad alike as gospel, an unchallengeable given. Yet in substance, as reflected in Israel’s attitude toward the Palestinians, the notion of a “Jewish state” is tribal, driven by a dream of ethnic dominance where the “Jewish homeland” envisioned by Zionism is not so much a nation state as a native reserve, where residency is restricted to people of the same ethnicity—Jews—living on their traditional land—Judea and Samaria. Zionists like to root this claim in Biblical history, but actual history does not support this. Nor does Jewish morality, which speaks of embracing the stranger, not kicking him out of his home. Once quasi-socialist in its vision, Zionism has become a movement of ethnic supremacy built on the romantic mythology of a past that never really existed. The truth is that, far from ever having been exclusively Jewish, Israel/Palestine is the traditional home of several ethnicities and religions, not just Jews. These groups have inhabited the region for millennia and genetic research has proven their recent common ancestry with modern Jews, making any claim of a superior right to the land by Zionists not just absurd and self-serving, but unnecessarily alienating and a barrier to peace.

So it is here that Israel must start. Israelis must accept that the exclusionary character of the concept of a “Jewish state” is an impediment to Israel’s future and that it must give way to something else, something consistent with Jewish aspirations for a secure homeland while admitting others (i.e., Christians, Muslims, and Druze) under its umbrella. This could be based on a spiritual, rather than ethnic, notion of “Jewishness” which would allow Jewish Israelis to find common moral ground with Christian and Muslim Palestinians.

Finding and nurturing this common moral ground would then be the goal of a new, united Israel. As such, simply annexing the Palestinian territories and giving all Palestinians rights as Israeli citizens, though necessary, is insufficient. There is too much baggage that needs to be dealt with, and not just the resentments of the past, but the ongoing influence of ethnic/religious supremacists on both sides.

The task is therefore two-fold: make amends for the past, both material and spiritual, and create a national effort going forward to bring all citizens together in a common project of nation-building. This would be a rational, deliberate process comprising recognition, compensation, and atonement and would take place ideally over five to seven years.

The main thing is to start dialogue on even ground through existing Israeli institutions like the Knesset, hence the need for immediate citizenship (see below).

Who will take the initiative is an open question. The One-State Solution has not been articulated for people in any detail, and there is little trust between average Israelis and Palestinians. The best course would be for Palestinians to act first by demanding inclusion as citizens in Israel, thus showing a willingness to work with Israelis and obey Israeli law. The doors that are now closed in people’s minds would open a crack at that, if only to see if it were real. But there must be something concrete and well thought-out to show people. Vague ideas are hard to grasp and are too easily swept aside by prevailing interests. Thus a complete plan should be presented as well. A few necessary elements are described below.

The Elements of the National Project

Citizenship. All Palestinians should be immediately granted Israeli citizenship. This should be automatic, as with a newborn baby. No nonsense about loyalty oaths or other conditions. In this instance, they are meaningless: a needless distraction and a delaying tactic. Making Palestinians full citizens means they can legitimately be expected to act like citizens and subject to civil law. All citizens would be able to live anywhere in the new Israel.

A special Palestinian-only election would be held to allow Palestinians to install their own representatives in the Knesset, All current Israeli parties, including the Arab parties, will be allowed to participate. Palestinian parties will be allowed to participate as long as they do not explicitly support or encourage violence or crimes against the state or any ethnic group (in particular Jews).

One possible advantage to holding a prompt election is that the extremists in the current Palestinian parties will likely be marginalized, as dissatisfaction with both Hamas and Fatah is high and the main Israeli Arab party, the joint list, has well-established credibility.

Law. Israeli civil law would apply immediately throughout the whole territory and a de-militarized police force would replace the IDF as enforcers of the law. An active effort would be made to recruit and train Palestinians as policemen and policewomen to serve all over the country.

The Nakba: There must be closure on this issue, otherwise the resentment will continue to fester and cause violence. A simple admission by Israel that the expulsion of 750,000 people was wrong would be a major step in creating a foundation for coexistence. Palestinians should also acknowledge that acts of terrorism in their name (the 1972 Black September Olympic attack, to name the most infamous) were wrong as well. Both sides would be saying that crimes against innocent people are never justified.

Restoration of Palestinian property, where possible, would be a significant measure, if largely symbolic at this point. Monetary reparations would be the more common vehicle for restitution. This is only fair, but more important, it would go a long way toward removing the excuse for continued terrorism by extremist Palestinian groups. Also, there would have to be a right of return permitting Palestinians, especially those in refugee camps, to live in the territory of what is now Israel if they so chose. A non-partisan commission would be set up to examine and set rules for all property claims.

The Settlers and Settlements: The settlements in the West Bank are a thorny issue. They are all illegal under international law, and though Israel has retroactively legalized some, this has to be recognized as invalid. Israel would gain much credibility by acknowledging that all of the settlements are illegal, and submitting to a process of proper judicial rectification.

It is plain that the settler movement is the primary barrier to peace. Many among them want Israel, including “Judea and Samaria,” to be free of all “Arabs” and will likely continue to harass Palestinians and damage Palestinian property. Israel will need to take measures to ensure that the settler movement submits to the rule of law. For all but the most zealous extremists, this should be possible. By Israel’s annexing the West Bank, the settlers in fact get their wish: Judea and Samaria as part of Israel. The only catch is that they have to share the land with the indigenous population. This is a realistic compromise and most will probably accept it. To the extent that extremists react violently against either Palestinians or the Israeli government, they must be treated as criminals.

Procedurally, ownership of the settlements would have to revert to the original private owners of the land they are on, or where there was no private owner, to the municipality or other jurisdiction where they are located. The options at that point are as follows: tear them down (at Israel’s expense), rent them to the settlers, , or sell units to settlers individually. Both the rental and sale prices would be at the developed value of the land.  A non-partisan commission would be established to oversee the process. Exclusively Jewish (or Palestinian, for that matter) settlements would not be permitted.

Realistically, most of the settlements will remain. Illegal settler outposts will have to be razed, and no further outposts would be allowed.

Constitution: The great opportunity afforded by the “One-State Solution” is the mandate to create, at long last, a constitution for a united Israel. Israel has what it calls its “Basic Law,” but this is a simpler, rather ad hoc document, not a true constitution. And probably the reason Israel has not tried to draft a constitution is because it would have required facing the existential contradictions of Israel’s creation, that is, it would have to define “Jewish” and “Jewish state.” In addition to being impossible in practical terms, this would have certainly been extremely divisive among Jews themselves. But now it is time.

In terms of mechanics, adoption should require a supermajority approval, say sixty percent, either of the Knesset or the voting population in order to ensure a broad consensus involving both Israelis and Palestinians. And adoption of a new constitution would give the nation a sense of both newness, i.e., leaving the past behind, and national accomplishment.

The constitution would first and foremost enshrine equal rights for all citizens and other basic shared principles of governance and human rights and citizen responsibilities. But it would also give Israelis a chance to correct a huge defect they have been burdened with: their form of national government. Israel has a “pure proportional representation” government, meaning each party receives seats in the Knesset in proportion to the number of votes they receive in the election (there is a minimum threshold of 3.25%). Citizens cast their votes not for individuals representing a district, but for parties. And because Israel is so small, there are no national electoral districts, meaning there is no direct territorial link between national representatives and their supposed constituents. Parties proliferate, acting often as one-issue lobbying groups. Smaller, more radical parties wield disproportionate influence because they are almost always needed to form a governing coalition. This has been the case with Israel’s extreme right wing parties, and has given the religious and settler parties far more clout than their representation in the general public. The result has at times been a seriously distorted political process.

A better choice would be a standard parliamentary system or even a bicameral system like the US, with similar checks and balances to improve trust in the governmental process. Members of the Knesset should be elected directly from political districts. This would tie them better to the people they represent rather than leaving their only responsibility to uphold their ideological convictions, as is the case with many (not all, to be sure) now.

No system is perfect, but a few functional changes could greatly improve the way Israel is governed.

National Purpose: But even these items, as essential as they are, are insufficient by themselves, given the long history of conflict between Jews/Zionists and Palestinians. What is needed is a sense of common national purpose.

The idea would be to celebrate the common past while respecting traditional ethnic and religious differences. Rebuilding former Palestinian villages and Arab city neighbourhoods is one such possible project. Incorporating formal remembrance of the Nakba into Yom Kippur or another holiday of atonement is another.  

A major challenge is to tear down the structures of facelessness that both sides, but particularly the Israelis, have erected to demonize the opposite side. The Separation Barrier and related policies have turned the Palestinians into generic “Arabs,” foreigners instead of neighbours and co-inhabitants. This has been a deliberate, self-serving, and malicious political effort by reactionary parties in Israel and must be disowned by all Israelis as the opposite of what the Israeli nation stands for. 

Working together politically and personally on projects of all sorts, great and small, neighbourhood and national, would eliminate toe fear and apprehension caused by the policies of facelessness and create a new, shared Israeli identity.


These proposals will be criticized as naïve. But it seems to me that the real naïveté lies in thinking that Israel can go on as it has, taking away Palestinian land, denying Palestinian rights on every level, trying to promote an ill-defined “Jewish” hegemony over the indigenous Palestinian population.

The choice is clear, however. Israel must survive as a nation. The alternative is an unthinkable period of war, bloodshed, and ethnic cleansing. If a solution is not found, what is happening in Syria now could happen in Israel in the not-too-distant future. Who would spark it and who would win it are irrelevant questions, for the destruction of both people and property would be devastating for all, not to mention the threat to historical treasures, especially in Jerusalem. The aftermath would merely be the starting point for a new round in the region’s time-worn cycle of ethnic resentment and hatred.

It is time to break that cycle and create a new inclusive and sustainable future for Israel, if the courage exists to achieve it.


Timothy Niedermann is a professional editor and former lawyer, who over his career has dealt with a wide variety of subject matter—including international law and public policy as well as general fiction and non-fiction. He has also taught writing at Yale and McGill. Raised in the state of Connecticut, Niedermann moved to Montreal in 1999 and now divides his time between the two. In addition to his writing and editing, he reviews books for the Montreal Review of Books and the Ottawa Review of Books. A graduate of Kenyon College, Mr. Niedermann also attended the University of Freiburg in Germany and holds a J.D. from Case Western Reserve University Law School. He recently published his first novel, Wall of Dust, with Deux Voiliers Publishing.


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