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Peace Through Assimilation
Review by Curtis F. Jones

One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, by Ali Abunimah (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Co., 2006)

The Arab-Israeli conflict over ownership of the former Mandate of Palestine has persisted for sixty years with no hint of a negotiated or imposed conclusion. In principle, there are four possible roads to resolution: attrition, ethnic cleansing, partition, and assimilation.

Attrition has been the central element of Israel strategy. One Country opens with a lucid account of how Palestine reached the present impasse between a powerful Jewish state and its disempowered, largely stateless, but indomitable Arab subjects in the Occupied Territories of East Jerusalem, The West Bank, and The Gaza Strip. By relegating Arab-Israelis to second-class citizenship, and making life miserable for Arabs in the Territories, the Israeli regime has sought to preserve a Jewish majority in Greater Israel (which also includes the Syrian Golan). Efforts to repress Palestinian autonomy and goad Arabs into emigration have included: destruction of homes and orchards; confiscation of land; steady expansion of Jewish settlements, roads, and military areas; reprisals against resisters (including peaceful demonstrators from the United States); construction of the Separation Barrier; and violation of the decisions of international agencies, like the ruling of the International Court of Justice against the Barrier. The unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem and the progressive cantonization of the West Bank have exacerbated the Palestinians' failure to build a united resistance movement.

Nevertheless, attrition is a failed strategy. Abunimah cites an official census of August 2005 that shows that Greater Israel's non-Jews outnumber Jews by approximately 300,000. The gap will continue to widen. Sharon's stratagem for dealing with this “demographic time-bomb,” partial withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which is still under Israeli control, did not change the demographic reality that Israel has lost its prized Jewish majority.

In previous (more brutal) eras, governments preferred ethnic cleansing as the solution to land disputes. European colonists employed this strategy against native populations in America and Australia. Israel got away with two mass expulsions—700,000 Arabs in 1948 and 300,000 in 1967. The Israeli far right has always wistfully spoken of “transferring” superfluous Arab subjects. In the global village created by the new communications revolution, however, this drastic approach may be obsolete for Israeli purposes, except in the context of regional chaos—as might ensue from extension of Iraq's Sunni-Shiite civil war to neighboring Arab states. Moreover, the Israeli right fails to recognize that the future of Israel —however pure its ethnicity— will ultimately be determined by massive geopolitical forces beyond human control.

Meanwhile, oblivious to geopolitics, well-meaning onlookers have kept the fantasy of partition alive. Abunimah makes a compelling case that partition is no longer a viable solution, in spite of its respectable pedigree. The Peel Commission advocated partition in 1937, a UN special committee advanced a surreal form of partition in 1947, and the General Assembly recommended the same in its Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947. The Palestinian side rejected partition, however, for understandable (if misguided) reasons. Israel's initial acceptance was overridden by the first Arab-Israeli war. But it has deep legal significance as the official justification for a sovereign state of Israel.

In 1993, PLO leader Yasir Arafat fell for the tinsel promise of the Oslo Accord, which elevated him to the Presidency of what the late Edward Said accurately dismissed as a Vichy regime. “Palestine” received the pro forma recognition of over one hundred governments. In the real world, however, Oslo left the Arabs of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in political limbo, while Israel's major political factions participated in the resolute establishment of a dominant Jewish presence between the Jordan River and Palestine's two seacoasts. Leaving aside the theoretical impediments to partition, there is the pragmatic probability that it would never get through the Israeli Knesset. The settlers seem to have attained veto status, while the Zionist establishment—backed by Israel's equivalent of the military-industrial complex, the national-security network (which contains no Arab participants) —consider cession of any part of the West Bank to Arab sovereignty in today's chaotic political environment a gross dereliction of responsibility.

One Country makes the powerful argument that the only hope for stability lies in ethnic assimilation. With sober objectivity, One Country faces up to the current reality of the Jews' progressive empowerment at their Arab subjects' expense. Some of Abunimah's Palestinian critics, (including Bashir Abu-Manneh, in The Nation of January 29) make the valid point that amalgamation of Palestine's rival communities into a single secular state would take decades if not centuries, while stateless subjects continued to languish. The only rebuttal to this argument is that the unending hopelessness of attrition is even worse, and even Israel's current myopic establishment, which includes racists like Avigdor Lieberman, is capable of unitarian gestures, such as the appointment of a token Muslim Israeli to the cabinet. Those who cling to the will-o-the-wisp of partition have to recognize that, if it was achievable, it would be premised on the long-term viability of a Jewish state in a Muslim neighborhood—a probable fallacy (Divide and Perish, Authorhouse, Bloomington, Indiana, 2007, page 462).

Abunimah recognizes the truism that, in America's special-interest democracy, government and media are capable of being more slavishly pro-Zionist than their Israeli counterparts. With enthusiastic Congressional endorsement, the administration has supported Israel's de facto annexation of major settlement blocks in the West Bank, its cast-iron hegemony over the Occupied Territories, its disproportionate reactions to Palestinian and Hizballah provocations along the borders, and its effort to starve out the elected Hamas regime. If any steps toward a single state should ever materialize, they would be most likely to originate from Israel, which has to bear the brunt of Arab animosity. Some Israelis already see the single state as the only escape from perpetual conflict.

The obstacles to assimilation of Arabs and Jews in Palestine are immense. They include:

Language and Education - Although Arabic and Hebrew are close linguistic affiliates, they are mutually unintelligible. In present-day Israel, both languages have official status, but Hebrew is the language of higher education. Business and sciences require facility in Hebrew and English. Jews and Arabs attend separate and unequal schools. The curriculum in Arab schools is dictated by Jewish officials in the Ministry of Education. Those few Arabs who have attained academic eminence in Israel have had to do so in Hebrew. Arabs in the Territories study in schools run by UNRWA or the Palestinian Authority; in recent years, their education has been severely obstructed by the violence of two intifadah's, and now by clashes between Hamas and the PLO.

Since 1997, Hand in Hand schools—bilingual and integrated—have presented an embryonic but glowing example of how Palestine's three school systems might be combined to desegregate the society and replicate America's progress toward the evolution of a truly multicultural country. Experience in Lebanon, the south Caucasus, and elsewhere in the Middle East suggests that career advantage may lie in trilingualism— two regional languages plus English.

Political System - The endemic communalism that afflicts the Middle East, and has repeatedly flared up between Turks and Armenians, Turks and Kurds, Kurds and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites, and Arabs and Jews is a deep-seated pathology that will have to be overcome before secular democracy can be instituted. The only remedy is decades of egalitarian education.

In Israel/Palestine, the energetic form of democracy practiced by Israeli Jews is flawed by an ancient strain of tribalism that leaves no room in the power structure for non-Jews. Given humanity's notorious inability to recognize its own defects, whether individual or collective, integration will have to start in elementary school. The Jews and Arabs of Palestine will have to lift themselves up by their own ethical bootstraps. The glacial pace of cultural evolution is no secret to Americans, as they continue to wrestle with the consequences of the Civil War and the bigotry that generated it.

In the current era of communalist polarization—as in Lebanon, Iraq, and to some residual extent in the United States—assimilation of Jews and Arabs sounds like a pipe dream. The state of Israel is an incongruous marriage of convenience between state-of-the-art technology and an antiquated tribalistic ethos. The Palestinian community in the Occupied Territories is developmentally repressed and politically chaotic, since it never had the opportunity to practice self-rule. Long agonizing years lie ahead before Jews and Arabs can hope to recover the inter-sectarian comity of the Middle Ages, when Muslim Baghdad was the renowned center of Jewish learning —and longer years still before the two communities in Palestine can meld into a secular state wherein religious and political affiliation are unrelated.

For many Jews, the horrors of the Holocaust taught one indelible lesson: the Jewish people can trust no non-Jewish government, not even the United States; the only reliable safeguard is an ultimate sanctuary. Even if this proposition was valid, it would not apply to a site in the center of a region as conflicted as the Middle East. Sixty years of unending violence should have disproved the Zionist experiment in Palestine. It will be difficult enough to devise an equitable future for the beleaguered Jewish diaspora in Palestine and the abused Palestinian diaspora across the Arab East.

Ali Abunimah is an eloquent protagonist of sanity who writes from a Palestinian approach, but with an American accent and a humanitarian point of view. One Country is a visionary book, a riveting analysis of how best to untie the Gordian knot of three Palestines—Jewish Israel, Arab Israel, and the Arabs who have no state at all.


The reviwer, a retired senior Foreign Service officer, has some four deacdes of experience in the Middle East. He is the author of Divide and Perish: The Geopolitics of the Middle East (2007).

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