Which flag? Which religion? And what about the army? Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi lays out his vision for the one-state solution.
Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi. Credit Emil Salman
Half an hour was all MK Ahmad Tibi needed – from the moment U.S. President Donald Trump stated, two weeks ago, that he was committed to a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but not necessarily a two-state solution – to appear on CNN and illustrate what Israeli Palestinians mean when they hear “one state”: “If this will be the case,” he said, “I will be running for the post of prime minister, and I can assure you that I will win [over] Bibi Netanyahu.”
On the way to a meeting with Tibi in his Knesset office this week, I remembered a letter that was sent to Haaretz last year in response to a controversy that played out in the paper about the meaning of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state. The writer, a Rimon Lavie from Jerusalem, noted: “Whoever talks about ‘Jewish and democratic’ is evading the main issue without which a democratic state is not feasible: In the future, the minority, every minority, can become the majority.”
Observing the separation barrier through a car window, one understands that for Israeli Jews, the attraction of maintaining the “Green Line” is that it allows for the civil affiliation of the millions of Palestinians who live in the West Bank (and the Gaza Strip) to a Palestinian state, even an imagined one. The “two-state vision” makes it possible to exclude the Palestinians who live on the other side of the Green Line from being counted with the Arab citizens of Israel. Because the number of the latter constitutes just one-fifth of the country’s population, the prospects of Mr. Lavie’s principle being tested in reality are quite slim.
However, the moment we discard the two-state vision, even if only for argument’s sake, and adopt the one-state vision in its place, Israeli democrats have no choice – even before we’ve annexed a millimeter of land – but to imagine the possibility that the Palestinian minority will become the majority. Which is exactly what I invited MK Tibi to do.
Why him? Because he was the first to bring it up.
What’s the first thing you would do as prime minister?
Tibi: “Ensure that the principle of equality among all citizens is the country’s primary value.”
Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that the state is committed to total social and political equality for all its citizens, irrespective of religion, race or sex.
“We will annul the Declaration of Independence and in its place write a civil declaration that represents all citizens: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze. The entire public. It’s untenable for a democratic state to have a declaration of independence that is fundamentally Jewish.”
What would the country’s name be?
“I don’t know. Its parliament will decide.”
What about the flag?
“That would have to change.”
The national anthem?
“It would be changed.”
An illustration depicting Ahmad Tibi as prime minister.Credit David Polonsky
The Law of Return [enabling all Jews to establish residency and citizenship in Israel]?
“That would automatically be annulled, because the country would no longer be a Jewish state as it is today. The single state will not resemble the present-day State of Israel. It will be something different. Why should Jews be able to return here and Palestinians not?”
Could there be a Law of Return and a right of return [of Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants]?
The country would be open to all Jews and Palestinians from everywhere in the world. There would be equality in entering the country and in returning for all citizens – Jews and Arabs. The Law of Return embodies the state’s Jewishness, which I do not accept.”
In other words, the single state you envision would mean the dismantlement of the State of Israel.
“The single democratic state will have a different format from the present State of Israel.”
Ahmad Tibi, 58, was born in the Arab town of Taibeh in central Israel, studied medicine but didn’t practice (he didn’t finish his internship in gynecology), and served as a political adviser to the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Currently a member of the Ta’al faction of the Joint Arab List party, he is one of a number of deputy speakers of the Knesset, where he began his career in 1999.
The profile image accompanyinig Tibi’s WhatsApp account is Martin Luther King’s assertion, “I have a dream.” It’s certainly difficult to think of a more apt slogan for the civil struggle for equality between Jews and Arabs. If the two-state paradigm is to be supplanted by the one-state conception, the struggle of people like Tibi against the occupation will become a fight for one person, one vote. Nonetheless, it’s important for Tibi to point out that he himself does not advocate one state but believes in the two-state solution: a Palestinian state, and Israel as a state of all its citizens. It was only when President Trump spoke about the acceptability of a single state that he began to imagine what that would mean on a practical level.
Before we met, Tibi asked me what the thrust of my article would be, whether for or against the one-state notion. I Trumped him: I said I thought the two-state idea was best for both peoples, but that if both want to live together in one state, I would flow with that. I’m in favor of the future. “Yes, exactly,” Tibi said.
“What surprised me is that for the first time an American president spoke about one state, with an Israeli prime minister standing next to him and not opening his mouth. Were Trump’s remarks those of someone who’s not versed in the details, or were they very sophisticated? It’s hard to know. I belong to those who support the two-state vision, have fought for it and continue to fight for it. I think it’s the optimal solution for the existing situation. The international community wants it and the majority on both sides wants it, even though that majority is diminishing according to the surveys I see, among both Palestinians and Israelis. And with 620,000 settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and two separate judicial systems, there’s a reality today of one state with rolling apartheid.
“And then along comes Trump, who says ‘one state,’ and the debate is launched. There are three possibilities: two states or one state that could take two forms. One form is apartheid, where a privileged class, namely the Jews, gets all the rights, and there’s a class with diminished rights, or no rights, no vote, namely the Palestinians. The second form that a single state could take is that of a democratic, equal state: one person, one vote. My point is that if there is to be one state, we will want the democratic model and we will never accept the apartheid model. But not only us. The international community in the 21st century will not accept an apartheid model.”
Even though it’s accepted a 50-year occupation.
“Even though it’s accepted a 50-year occupation. And in such a state, I assume that the Palestinians will take power, because they will have a majority.”
In other words, by virtue of demography, you will be prime minister.
“I don’t like the use that’s made of the demography issue in the political debate in Israel. It draws on all kinds of professors who count us day by day and talk about us as a demographic threat. I am not a demographic threat.”
You are a democratic threat.
“Exactly. I am not a demographic threat, I am a democratic hope. And I am not saying that I or some other Palestinian will be prime minister in order to frighten the Jews, but to make it clear that there will not be an apartheid state, because we sanctify the value of democracy. For years you feared and attacked our nationhood, and lately there are those in the government who are fearful and who are trying to assail our citizenship – whether it’s Bibi warning that we are ‘flocking to the polling stations’ in droves, or [Defense Minister Avigdor] Lieberman who wants a transfer of Wadi Ara. When I said I would be prime minister, I meant Ahmad Tibi as a parable.”
Do you think a state like that would be able to fulfill the national aspirations of the Palestinian people? Can you envisage a single state, in which Jews and Palestinians live, that meets the criterion of Palestinian self-determination?
“Those who support it as a first option think so. When the Palestinian national movement was founded, it spoke of one state. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish told me, two years before he died, that two states is the possible solution, one state is the just solution. Why is it just? Because all the refugees will return; Jews will live where they want, Palestinians will live where they want; and there will be no problem of borders.”
Can the Zionist dream be realized in the one-state format?
“Not in the way you demonstrate Zionism to us on a daily basis. You know, we get lessons in Zionism: in laws, in the definition of the state, in the attitude toward the Arab Other. Zionism prefers the Jew over the non-Jew. And that’s translated into a discriminatory approach toward Arabs in Israel and across the Green Line: through the Law of Return, through the Jewish National Fund, through land seizures. Zionism advocates ‘a nation that dwells alone.’ Zionism will come to the end of its road in a one-state format.”
Recognizing the Nakba
Will the one-state format be empathetic to the harsh history of the Jewish people?
“Of course. In my speech about the Holocaust, I spoke out against Holocaust deniers, because it’s not humane: To deny the suffering of the Other is to cause suffering. But I also want empathy for my nation, which is suffering today. There must also be empathy for the Palestinian narrative. The single state must recognize the Nakba [“catastrophe,” in Arabic, used to describe the 1947-49 Israeli War of Independence when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes], with all that this entails historically, legally and judicially.”
So you say we would mark the Nakba. And would we celebrate Independence Day?
“The independence of the new state.”
In other words, the Independence Day celebrations of the state that was established in 1948 will be canceled?
“For the Palestinians, your Independence Day is a catastrophe. It is our Nakba, which denotes suffering of a people that fell apart. Crashed. Was crushed. Was expelled. Killed. How can it be celebrated?”
So we cancel Independence Day and mark the Nakba. What about Memorial Day?
“You mean with all the sadness and so on? Everyone is entitled.
At present it’s a day of national mourning. There’s a siren, there are ceremonies. What would happen with all those practices?
“There were also Palestinians who fell.”
What do you mean?
“The question is whether the single state will want to emphasize the contrasts or push them aside and emphasize what there is in common.”
The Old City of Jerusalem with Islam's holy site the Dome of the Rock mosque (top R) is seen from the West Bank town of Abu Dis separated by Israel's barrier on February 24, 2017. From your perspective, is there a difference between 1948 and 1967?
From your perspective, is there a difference between 1948 and 1967?
“Politically, yes, because I am demanding two states. But I have a narrative that goes back to 1948, and I will not revoke my narrative just because a Palestinian state has come into being. I do not forget my memories. Look, 1948 is the homeland, 1967 is the state. There’s a difference between [the entire] homeland and state. Homeland is in the heart. Jaffa is homeland. My father was born in Jaffa; my mother was born in Ramle. People were born in Haifa. I can’t annul the feelings of those people, not even if a Palestinian state is established in the territories [conquered in] 1967. The feeling a person has for his first birthplace, his homeland, will always continue to exist.”
And that feeling, you say, is not divided by a Green Line?
“Feeling is not crossed by lines, but there are pragmatic policy decisions that incorporate concessions. A state that’s established within the 1967 lines covers 23 percent of greater Palestine. You can’t imagine what it was for Yasser Arafat to agree to that – for the leader of the PLO, the leader of the Palestinian people, the leader of the national liberation movement. It’s the same for [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, who is from the founding generation. He told me: It’s 23 percent of the homeland. And yet even that is not agreed to. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu doesn’t agree to it.”
In the single state, if we want to push the differences aside and emphasize the common elements, do we need to cancel Independence Day and Memorial Day, or maybe expand them? To celebrate both, to remember both? How do you envisage it?
“I don’t want to go into details now. You are getting into the minute details of a single state, which is far off.”
We are trying to imagine what the one-state solution will look like concretely.
“I will sum it up in one sentence: With one, equal state, the State of Israel in its present format will not exist. All its symbols will change, and the narrative will be different. The unifying element in one state will be different from what it is today, because it will be a state of everyone, not a state of the Jewish collectivity in which there is a tolerated minority that is thrown a bone in the form of gestures like new roads and the establishment of well-baby clinics. In an equal, single state, equality is a supreme value.”
What about the language?
“Both Hebrew and Arabic, which will be taught and spoken at the same level. At present Israel does in fact have two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic, but Hebrew is dominant. And the leader will have to be articulate in both languages and deliver speeches in both – like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who speaks English and French.”
In all the schools.
“That would be decided by the one-state parliament – what the education system will be. Whether there will be separate systems, like today, or a joint one. There are several examples, such as Belgium and Canada, of a bilingual system.”
But in the education system you envisage, with two languages and two narratives – how would that work?
“I don’t know, but getting to know the Other is important.”
An Israeli soldier is helped by a comrade as he looks for Palestinian protesters during clashes in the West Bank village of Kafr Qaddum near Nablus, February 24, 2017. Credit Mohamad Torokman, Reuters
What about the army?
“I don’t know. In one state, it would be the army of everyone. But I’m telling you once again: We haven’t reached that point. It would not be an army that occupies the Palestinians, because the Palestinians and the Israelis will be equal citizens in the same country. It sounds like a dream, like utopia, and when I talk to you now, it really does seem utopian. But utopia, too – you can draw it, picture it; you can fear the possibility of failure and hope for the possibility of life together that will succeed in one form or another. Look, the situation today is catastrophic, and the worst thing is the desire to preserve the status quo.”
In the one-state situation, aren’t you concerned about a Hamas takeover, as happened in the Gaza Strip? You and I can say, okay, one democratic state, but there are also antidemocratic forces.
“They exist today, too.”
But they are restrained by the Israel Defense Forces.
“I mean that they exist today within Israel. True, the structure is democratic, but the government takes the form of an oppressive rule over a nation, rule that discriminates against 20 percent of the population. And there is an antidemocratic thrust led by influential Jewish forces that is threatening the traditional democratic structure.”
In other words, you don’t see a greater threat to a one-state situation by Hamas than by Jewish nationalists.
“I think that no religious movement on either side supports the idea of a democratic secular state.”
If we try to imagine the single state in a regional context, would it in effect resemble an Arab state?
“I am telling you now that it is Palestinians and Jews – Arabs, Christians, Jews, Druze. It’s something special. There is nothing comparable.”
And you see it being welcomed in the Middle East region?
“I think it will be more exceptional and more progressive than other countries.”
Do you see a state like that being accepted by Iran, Syria, Lebanon?
“I don’t know what kind of a welcome it would get even from the United States. I don’t know how it would be viewed by Iran. It would depend on what it looks like, because a secular democratic state will be something attractive.”
And with a joint Jewish-Muslim army?
“I don’t know if an army would be needed, though every country needs an army in the end. But it would be different from an occupation army. It will not be an army of occupation or oppression of a people under it. There will not be a Jewish army that will oppress Palestinians in the democratic state.”
Do you coordinate moves with Abu Mazen?
“We meet. But this present declaration of mine is not coordinated with anyone.”
Would he be warranted in viewing you as an opponent?
“Abu Mazen is committed to the two-state idea, but he comes from the PLO, which originally advocated one state. The one-state idea is not foreign to him.”
But Abu Mazen would run against you for prime minister, won’t he?
“It seems to me that when that happens – in another 20, 30, 40, 50 years – neither I nor he will be here.”
You would have opponents in Israel, too. Why you and not Ayman Odeh, who heads the Joint Arab List and is also the leader of Hadash, which has five seats, compared to your party’s two seats?
“Each person has the right to present his candidacy.”
Why do you think it will be you?
“Possibly because of my popularity and the public surveys. According to a poll conducted by Statnet [a research institute based in Daliat al-Carmel], I am the most popular Arab MK among the Arab population. But I am certain that there are people who are perhaps better suited than I both in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Again, I meant Ahmad Tibi as a parable.”
Hadash defines itself as an Arab-Jewish party.
But your party, Ta’al [Arab Movement for Change], doesn’t categorize itself like that.
“Our slogan is ‘a state of all its nationalities.’ I am in favor of cooperation with Jews, I think it’s important, but that’s not how Ta’al defines itself, Jewish-Arab, no. Our party represents the Arab public, but is in favor of Jewish-Arab cooperation.”
But let’s say that in the one-state vision, you see a possibility of redefining your party.
“Everything will change. But I challenge you to conduct a survey of the whole public in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza – Israelis and Palestinians – that asks, ‘Bibi or Tibi?’ If you ask the whole population, I beat Bibi.”
What’s the first stage in getting there? For the Palestinians to forgo the struggle for a Palestinian state?
“That won’t happen. That’s why I told you that I prefer two states, which is the preferred, optimal option. The demand for national liberation is for national liberation from the yoke of the occupation. That cannot be relinquished.”
A banner supporting the creation of a single state for Israelis and Palestinians which reads in Arabic: "If I had to choose between one state and two states, I would choose one single state," in the West Bank city of Kafr Aqab, north of Jerusalem, Photo Nasser Nasser/AP
But the question is whether a paradigmatic change is implemented – if we change course in the direction of a one-state situation and in the first stage say that you no longer aspire to a state of your own and want equal rights in the State of Israel.
“A few Palestinian intellectuals have spoken of equal rights in one state. But never at any stage have we said that we were stopping the struggle.”
But maybe in order to change tracks, the first thing to say is that we are no longer aspiring to a state of our own.
“That won’t happen.”
The Palestinians could announce that they are joining the state and then they would fight from within for civil rights and for changes in the state’s character.
“No. I am familiar with that thesis of ‘civil rights for all in the State of Israel.’ That is not the intention. A secular democratic state is something else, it’s not joining Israel, it’s a whole new game. It’s an equal game between Palestinians and Israelis, there’s no Israeli hegemony.”
But how does it get off the ground?
“There is no Jewish-Israeli hegemony at any stage, it’s a new state.”
In other words, without a struggle.
“At no stage will a national struggle be forgone. The banner now is two states; the banner can be replaced, but while continuing the struggle against the existing occupation, because the Israeli establishment, the governing establishment, does not want to forgo the hegemony of the occupier. Accordingly, it’s necessary to go on struggling against the occupier. We don’t have to make things easier for the occupier by a one-state declaration.”
The question is whether you change tracks.
“We don’t change tracks. We don’t replace one track with another. There are two options. My preferred track is the two-state solution, which calls for an end to the occupation. Maybe if you ask one of the Palestinian intellectuals – ask Sari Nusseibeh [a philosopher and the former president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem], for example – he will tell you equal civil rights for everyone, as he’s already said in the past. Possibly if you ask someone from one of the Popular Front organizations, he will say straight out: a secular democratic state. But we will not stop the struggle.”
I didn’t say to stop the struggle, but to conduct it within the state as a civil battle to change the character of the State of Israel. To start with the call, “Annex us.”
“No. No one is saying ‘annex us.’ There are some who have been positive about the notion of one state in which there are equal voting rights for all, as President Rivlin said. That changes the whole situation but doesn’t eliminate the struggle. It’s only a semblance of the victory of the struggle.”
What you’re actually saying is that it has to be the result of an agreement, a prior decision about a change in Israel’s character. And not as a different track of the struggle that’s planned in stages – first you ask to join and then begin to spearhead a struggle for civil equality.
“Which is why I am telling you that, despite my personal ambitions, it will probably be someone else, many years from now.”