Binational? What’s That?

 Binational, the most common term for a combination state, is not a very useful word. It suggests two separate monolithic tribes with their own different politics, interests and ways of life, meeting to decide on a common foreign policy. It seems best suited to those countries with distinct geographical areas, each having its own different language, history, religion and traditions.

Perhaps the widespread desire for some constitutional safeguards to reassure both sides against a hostile takeover would count as a bi-national hybrid. Such guaranteed parity, in populations that are roughly in balance, need not be artificial or unjust. And at ground level, community councils could express the different interests in a variety of ethnic combinations in any locality.

Probably to most people the term bi-national is not so much a model as simply a shorthand for the coming together of two peoples in one country, somehow.

A strictly binational result may question whether after all the effort to get One Democracy it ends up as two non-territorial states badly stitched together in places, creating de facto internal separation and missing out on all the opportunities for real coexistence.

However, these decisions are not really needed right now. Having made a decision in principle to unite, it will be for the two peoples to discuss and determine what model would best serve both their separate and joint interests.

Below are three views of the political tasks and options. It makes sense to suppose that following a popular vote in support of the principle, based on certain parameters, the different methods would be examined in detail followed by a final vote. The first precondition would be the political will to see it through. And a transitional period of  finalising the format could involve many interest groups, professions and sectors of the population in “merger talks”.

Jonathan Kuttab

… it is possible, especially during this period when Jews are still the majority in power in Israel, to begin to envision the type of guarantees they may require in the future. Other countries have wrestled with this problem, and while each situation is different, the problem is by no means unprecedented.

Zionism will ultimately need to redefine its goals and aspirations, this time without ignoring or seeking to dispossess the indigenous Palestinian population. Palestinians will also have to deal with this reality, and accept — even enthusiastically endorse — the elements required to make Jews truly feel at peace in the single new state that will be the home of both people.

Strong, institutionalized mechanisms will be needed to prevent the “tyranny of 51%.” A bicameral legislature, for example, should be installed, in which the lower house is elected by proportional representation but the upper house has a composition that safeguards both peoples equally, regardless of their numbers in the population. A rotating presidency may be preferable to designating certain positions for each minority (as in Lebanon). And constitutional provisions that safeguard the rights of minorities should be enshrined in a constitution that can only be amended or altered by both houses of parliament with a large (80%) majority.

Both Hebrew and Arabic will be designated as official languages, and governmental offices will be closed for Jewish, Muslim and Christian holidays. New laws will be enacted that strengthen the secular civil courts in personal status matters, while leaving some leeway for all religious communities to have a say in lawmaking, including Reform  and Conservative Jews who currently chafe under the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish personal status matters in Israel.

Educational systems that honour and cater to the different communities will give each a measure of control over the education of its children within a national system that maintains professional standards for all publicly-funded schools. Strong constitutional provisions will be enacted to prohibit discrimination in all spheres of life, while independent courts will be enabled to enforce such provisions.

Many on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, will reject this line of thinking, and in all cases, it is clear that a lot of goodwill and much careful thinking is necessary. But as the options keep narrowing for all participants, we need to start thinking of how we can live together, rather than insist on dying apart.

Jonathan Kuttab is a Palestinian attorney and human rights activist. He is a co-founder of Al Haq and the Mandela Institute for Political Prisoners. (20 Dec 09, LA Times)


Gary Sussman

 Two alternatives to the two-state endgame are discussed. One is a binational state, offering power-sharing to two separate peoples with distinct collective identities within one polity. The binational model encompasses federal, confederal and consociational variants.

The second alternative proposes a single democratic polity, where there is no ethnic or national distinction between citizens. Whereas the former alternative is premised on collective entitlements, as developed in the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, the latter is premised on individual rights, as in post-apartheid South Africa.

The two concepts are often used interchangeably, and the word binational is understood by most Israelis to denote the South African endgame. Some, like Meron Benvenisti, suggest that the conflation of terminology is designed to prevent any debate about attractive alternatives to the two-state solution


Virginia Tilley

The real issue for the international community now is to look the one-state solution full in the face, and sort out its obstacles. They are clearly massive. The problems for Israel are profound: compromising the Jewishness of the ‘Jewish state’ would not only require retooling its laws, but would run straight up against common Zionist (and right-wing Christian) beliefs about Israel’s raison d’être. That clash is not new: it echoes the divisions in earliest Zionist thought.

The one-state solution is being mooted at a time when new (and very emotional) debates about Israel’s Jewish character have been brewing for a decade or more, centring on ‘post-Zionist’ queries as to whether Israel itself can or should be reconceived: not as a Jewish state precisely (in the sense of public institutions enshrining permanent Jewish ethno-nationalist ascendancy), but as a state in which Jews are guaranteed ethnic freedoms and security on an equal basis with all citizens. It is impossible to exaggerate the extent of the fear, sorrow, grief and outrage that run through these debates about Israel’s future or the feelings of apprehension, resentment and rejection that talk of a secular state elicits..

A formally ‘binational’ state, recognising and reifying both Jewish and Palestinian ethno-nationalisms, could simply set up the bipolar rivalry which, given greater Palestinian demographic weight, inspires … such alarm. In [this] view, the domination of Jews by Palestinian nationalism is so inevitable that it justifies the domination of Palestinians by Jewish nationalism.

The challenge for the one-state solution is to find a political path through the transition from rival ethno-nationalisms to a democratic secular formula which would preserve Israel’s role as a Jewish haven while dismantling the apartheid-like privileges that at present assign second-class citizenship to non-Jews. Israel already faces that contradiction within its legal borders: even for the country’s present Arab population, the system of laws which safeguards the ‘Jewish state’ are widely agreed to be unjust and in the long run unstable.

It follows that, in a democratic secular state, the very concept of Jewish statehood (and, implicitly, the scope of Jewish nationalism) would have to change quite radically. National rights and privileges on both sides would have to be guaranteed by subsuming them into Israeli national privileges.

Benefits now legally restricted to Jews (commonly by attaching them to military service and less directly to the Law of Return), such as housing loans, education loans, public-sector employment and so forth, would have to be reconceived and resources redistributed. Land use – some 93 per cent of Israel is at present reserved for Jewish use – would have to be reconfigured. Housing would have to be formally detached from exclusive Jewish occupancy (and the ‘Jewish-only’ character of the settlements would have to evaporate). The long-established role of the Jewish Agency, which administers Jewish national resources and privileges in Israel, would have to be re-examined.

Electoral politics and Knesset representation would also be transformed, to permit legislative debate on the basis of equal ethnic standing. Alterations to the Basic Laws, or the creation of a secular constitution, could ensure that Israel continues to safeguard Jewish lives and rights, providing the sanctuary which many Jews in Israel and abroad remain anxious to preserve. But the same basic law would have to ensure Muslim, Christian and, indeed, agnostic/ atheist rights, and eliminate – at least juridically – any institutionalised hierarchy on ethnic or religious lines.

Such a transition would require years of debate and struggle – and a political will now glaringly absent. Truth commissions and/or a general amnesty might eventually surmount the legacy of violence and hatred, but as in all such aftermaths, the process will take generations.

The problem for the Palestinians would be of a different order. Are their aspirations indeed for a democratic secular state based on territorial sovereignty – the model long proposed by Palestinian nationalists and elaborated by intellectuals such as Edward Said? Or would many now favour an ethnic or ethno-religious state based on notions of Arab and/or Muslim indigeneity of the kind taking hold in Gaza?

Such a foundational debate is not unique, nor is it as hopeless as might be thought (post-apartheid South Africa has trodden some of this ground). Moreover, many Palestinians are so disillusioned with their ‘national leadership’ that they might welcome the idea of its demise, provided equal rights as citizens of a single state were on offer to them (finding adequate guarantees for these rights may be the primary obstacle).

The Palestinian leadership itself would probably resist such an outcome. In a one-state solution, the entire apparatus of the PLO and the PA would have to be subsumed into Israel’s domestic governance and party-political processes [losing] major sources of economic power and political leverage in the transition. Fatah derives its economic strength from Palestinian businesses; its crony politics reflects its crucial devotion to the interests of affluent Palestinian families. Senior Fatah figures have long hoped for an independent Palestine in which, nicely positioned near the centre of power, they could flourish on the ballooning Israeli-Arab trade that peace would be expected to bring. They would sooner have a separate Palestinian state, however weak and co-opted it might be.

Absorption is also a process that Israel is bound to manipulate, promoting some people and barring others from any role in the new domestic politics. Palestinians would be right to be on their guard. The Islamic militant groups, freshly inspired to see Zionism and Jews themselves as eternal enemies, would require special negotiations and treatment. The outlook may seem bleak but the prominence of the militant Islamists is quite recent and their reach much more fragile than it might seem.

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