By Jonathan Spyer
In recent weeks, a number of prominent Fatah figures have suggested that their movement might abandon its commitment to a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and return to the pre-1988 demand for Israel’s replacement by a single state in the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.
They claim that Israeli policy in the West Bank is forcing them to reconsider their commitment to partition. In fact, though, what used to be known as the “democratic, secular state” and is now called the “one-state solution”, has been the end-goal of modern Palestinian nationalism for the greater part of its history. Its re-emergence into prominence should come as no surprise. It is the natural product of Palestinian nationalism’s characterisation of the conflict.
The one-state solution is depicted by its adherents as a non-ethnic, non-nationalist alternative to the ethnic nationalism represented by Israel. Israel, according to Virginia Tilly, a prominent Western supporter of the one-state idea, rests “on the discredited idea, on which political Zionism stakes all its moral authority, that any ethnic group can legitimately claim permanent formal dominion over a territorial state.”
This formulation is dishonest. Ahmed Qurei and Sari Nusseibeh, two of the prominent Palestinians with apparently growing sympathy for the one-state idea, are also members of an overtly nationalist movement emerging from a distinctive Arab and Muslim cultural context.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) in its constitution describes the Palestinian people in ethnic and religious terms, as “part of the Arab and Islamic nations.” This document declares Islam as the official religion of the Palestinian state, and cites Islamic Sharia law as a “major source for legislation.” Thus, whatever argument the one-staters have with Israel, it isn’t based on a principled objection to ethnic nationalism. But then, why is this claim of the “non-national”, civil rights nature of the one-state demand being made?
The reasons for the conceptual lack of clarity at the root of the one-state idea are both pragmatic and conceptual. Pragmatically – an open, public commitment to the denial of the other side’s national rights would be counterproductive. It would upset the Europeans and Americans, who largely foot the bill for the Palestinian national project.
It is apparently hoped, however, that rebranding Fatah-style Palestinian nationalism using the language of the US civil rights movement of 50 years ago might cause at least some observers not to notice that the one-state solution coincidentally involves the disappearance of a legally constituted Jewish state, and the consequent termination of the right of self-determination of Israeli Jews. In other words, despite its non-ethnic, non-nationalist basis, the one-state solution also includes the full realisation of the program of Palestinian nationalism.
This attempt at obfuscation is fairly ludicrous. On the conceptual level, however, the current revival of this idea is of greater interest. It shows the extent to which mainstream Palestinian nationalism continues to see the conflict with Israel as one between a project of colonisation and a liberation movement.
Despite the short period of ostensible commitment to partition in the 1990s, Palestinian nationalism did not undergo any revolution in thought, toward reformulating the conflict as one between rival national groupings that each possess a basic legitimacy. This, of course, was the formulation of its supposed partners on the Israeli left.
But this idea found and finds no echo among the Palestinians. Fatah remains convinced that the conflict is one between a usurping, colonial entity and an indigenous resistance movement. This explains the ease with which plans involving the disappearance of the Israeli Jewish collectivity can be dreamed up. The Rhodesians in southern Africa, the pieds noirs in Algeria – all of them disappeared. So why should their local equivalents imagine their fate to be any different? In this interpretation, the denial of the national rights of Israeli Jews by turning them into a minority in an Arab and Muslim state is no denial at all, because belonging to a historically illegitimate collectivity does not confer rights. The trouble is, of course, that Israeli Jews are neither Rhodesians nor pieds noirs. They therefore decline to play the role allotted them in the thinking of Fatah.
Should Fatah actually elect to return to its old militant stance of 40 years ago, it will be transformed into a less religious and less serious imitation of its Islamist rivals. The most likely prognosis, though, is that this will not happen. In real life, Fatah leaders fear Hamas more than they fear Israel, and in any case they are deeply embedded in a type of patron-client relationship with the West. Thus, the period ahead will witness a tide of verbiage, vague threats and accusation, readily recycled by Fatah’s friends in Western academia and the media.
Fatah turned down chances at partition, ultimately because its leadership never fully freed itself from the conceptual straitjacket of the one-state solution. The movement is now threatening to retreat further back down the road it travelled in the 1990s, to the point at which its journey began in the late 1960s. The wearying spectacle of a rejectionist nationalism trying to dress itself up as Martin Luther King, Jr., is the latest strange product of the Middle East’s unique blend of tragedy and farce.
Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Centre, Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzliya. © Haaretz, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.