Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill provoked a fierce controversy with a speech at the United Nations that called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.”
As I know from decades of covering the Israel-Palestine issue in the region, that phrase has historically been used to mean an “Arab Palestine” over all of the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. It is a favorite slogan of the Gaza militant group Hamas. No question that it means the end of a sovereign State of Israel, which Hill admits in his writings.
But there is another aspect of this controversy that has gotten insufficient attention. Hill told the Inquirer he wants one bi-national state for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, with equal rights for Palestinians and Jews.
This idea is a naïve delusion that will never happen because neither side will tolerate it.
Yet the one-state solution – albeit in a different form than Hill’s -- is exactly where Israeli government policies are heading.
The Hill episode illustrates the perils down the one-state road.
Let’s focus first on Hill’s idea of a bi-national state. In the 1970s and 1980s, before the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized the Israeli state, only one small, secular, Marxist-Leninist Palestinian group called for a bi-national state. And few Arabs paid it any attention.
Fast forward to now. A quick look around the Mideast makes clear why the idea of one bi-national state is a non-starter. If you think identity politics is polarizing the United States, in the communal Mideast it rips states and societies apart.
Just look at Iraq, where the U.S. tried to impose a Western template of one person, one vote. The country’s religious and sectarian groups – Kurds and Arabs, Shiite and Sunni Muslims - demanded separate representation, and still fight viciously among themselves for which community will control the others.
In Lebanon, the only long-running Arab democracy, power is also assigned by sect, and brutal inter-sectarian civil wars have killed thousands.
So the idea that Palestinians would give up their long-held dream of sovereignty for a bi-national state is ludicrous. Yes, the idea is gaining traction as the hope for a two-state solution dies. But the vision is one in which Palestinians would soon hold the popular majority and control the state. Moreover, the idea that Israel would give up sovereignty short of military defeat is ludicrous.
However, there are strange parallels between Hill and Israeli government policy: Jerusalem is rapidly heading down the road toward establishing one state between the river and the sea.
It is 25 years since Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat endorsed the Oslo accords that were supposed to lead to two sovereign states, side by side. No room here to lay out the blame for the failure of negotiations.
The hawkish Rabin reluctantly accepted the two-state idea because he recognized the long-term danger of keeping the West Bank and Gaza. Eventually Palestinian Arabs would outnumber Jews (the population is now equal). Then Israel would have to give them the vote, or rule over a disenfranchised majority.
That is the situation Jerusalem faces right now.
The Israeli government is pursuing “leaping not creeping annexation” of the West Bank, in the words of the Americans for Peace Now organization. That refers to Israeli settlement expansion that has virtually ruled out any contiguous Palestinian entity on the West Bank.
Meantime, powerful Israeli right-wing political parties are demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu annex large chunks or all of the West Bank and impose Israeli law there.
Netanyahu’s goal is to establish local Palestinian control in urban patches of West Bank territory, with Israel retaining control of most land, movement, and economy. Gaza would remain under Israeli external control, with some economic sweeteners.
In essence, Israel would continue to control the entire population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea -- effectively a one-state solution. The Palestinian population will lack any sovereign rights, creating a situation that many (including leading Israelis) compare to apartheid. Such a situation – and here Hill does have an argument – is rife for violations of Palestinian human rights.
As the one-state solution becomes more entrenched, the outside world will start pressuring Israel for more concessions to disenfranchised Palestinians. If the latter are smart, they will abandon thoughts of any new uprising and campaign for the right to one person, one vote.
For those unfamiliar with the communal Middle East, that concept will seem just. The campaign to give Palestinians equal rights within one state will gather force, and Hill’s arguments will become more accepted.
This is not a question of fairness or of who’s to blame, but a prediction of what happens – unless new Israeli and Palestinian leadership can come up with better solutions, whether federation, confederation, or something not yet imagined. It’s unlikely that the long-awaited Trump peace plan will even recognize the problem.
Thus Hill’s speech – irrespective of the emotions it provokes - offers a peek into a future that is arriving fast.