This essay, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on cancel culture and hypocrisy.) It was published on 23 May 2021, under the headline “From the river to the sea, Jews and Arabs must forge a shared future”.
“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, runs a Palestinian slogan. Originally a call for a secular state in historic Palestine between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean, it soon became a sectarian slogan, deeply inflected by antisemitism. In the hands of Hamas, it is a call for the driving out of all Jews from the region; at best, a demand for ethnic cleansing, at worst for genocide.
The founding charter of Likud, Israel’s leading centre-right party, and the party of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, echoes the same words but from the opposite perspective: “Between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty”. It has continually blocked any workable two-state solution.
Since one of the banes of contemporary public debate is the charge of “false equivalence”, often used to dismiss arguments without bothering to refute them, let me make clear that I am not equating Likud and Hamas. However degrading the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, there is freedom and democracy in a Likud-run Israel that would be unknown in a Palestine ruled by Hamas. What I am suggesting is that both Hamas and Likud play to the dangerous fantasy of a single state that caters for the needs and desires of only one group of people living in it.
There is another difference, too. Hamas controls a tiny strip of land that is blockaded by Israel and Egypt, with a barely functioning infrastructure or health service, its electricity and water supplies controlled from the outside. It is a pariah organisation, with little external support apart from Iran. Israel is a powerful state with a technologically advanced economy and military, broad international support and licence to impose disproportionate destruction on Palestinians, as witnessed in successive wars in Gaza.
That power means that there effectively already exists a state “from the river to the sea”, though one that, as writer Ralph Leonard points out, is cut into four regimes. First, there is the Israel of its Jewish citizens, a troubled liberal democracy. Then there is the Israel of Israeli-Palestinian citizens, formally accorded equality but facing intolerable discrimination, from police brutality to land dispossession. As Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, said of the evictions of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem, a spark for the recent war, “laws that some people may consider as favouring Jews” are necessary because “it’s a Jewish state” and only discriminatory laws can “protect the Jewish people”.
Third, there is the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Palestinians face a regime of humiliation and brutality and a land shredded by Israeli settlements. And, finally, we have the Gaza Strip, little more than an open-air prison. However odious Hamas, however venal the Palestinian Authority, it is this ferocious asymmetry of power – leading to “apartheid”, in the words of Human Rights Watch – that shapes the lives of Palestinians and galvanises continued resistance.
Many commentators have pointed to the way Hamas and Netanyahu engineered the recent conflict for their own political ends. But Hamas and Netanyahu are as much the products as causes of the conflict. The fundamental problem, as Tony Judt observed in 2003, is that Israel seeks to be both a democracy and “a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded”. Judt, once a Zionist, came eventually to accept that the only lasting solution would be a single, secular, binational state in which both Jews and Palestinians possessed equal rights.
“A Jew who today may declare, ‘I am a nationalist’ will not be saying, ‘I am a man who seeks to rebuild a Jewish state in Palestine and who dreams of conquering Jerusalem.’ He will be saying, ‘I want to be a man fully free, I want to have the right to my dignity as a man, I want to escape oppression.’” So wrote Bernard Lazare, an early French Zionist, in 1898.
The tragedy today is that on one side in the Israel/Palestine conflict, “escaping oppression” has come to mean rebuilding a Jewish state in Palestine and conquering Jerusalem. And, for too many on the other side, freeing Palestine has come to mean freeing it of Jews and of denying Jews the right to escape oppression. Whatever one’s views on Zionism, the aspirations of the 6.9 million Jews now living in the region cannot be ignored. Nor is corralling Palestinians into their own territories while denying them control over their lives any “solution”. From the river to the sea, “self-determination” in that piece of contested land that is Israel/Palestine can only be the self-determination of all the people who live there, Palestinians and Jews, in a single shared future.