|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
19 - 25 July 2001
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Single, secular, democraticSeif Da'Na* explores the limits of binationalism
One of Oslo's major defects was approaching the Palestine question as if the problem began in the aftermath of the 1967 War, and thereby dismissing some of the core problems resulting from the creation of Israel in 1948 (i.e., the refugee problem and racism facing the Palestinians inside the green line), as well as reducing the Palestine question to the illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Oslo also concealed the essence of the occupation problem itself, confusing the institutional relations of colonisation with limited military redeployments.
Oslo was designed not to bring peace, but to prepare the infrastructure for a new regional economic configuration with enhanced links to the neoliberal global market. In other words, Oslo was a deal between elites to reconfigure political-economic arrangements in a manner more conducive to neoliberalism. The vast majority of the people of the region are simply non-existent within this framework.
The quest for sovereignty, like the quest for political emancipation, is historically limited and liberating only for the few. This is the problem with all nationalist-oriented agendas. At its core, nationalism aims to liberate the few for control of market mechanisms and reproduction of the social hierarchy. These issues don't concern the masses. This is why Israel, as a Zionist solution to the Jewish question, failed. Israel, however, exists because it is a key instrument of the core powers in the Middle East. It is maintained by the global economy and the coercive, violent, inhumane political structures that support it. This systemic violence is, in part, what shapes the nature of the Israeli state. As a racist ideology, Zionism is a catalyst for Israel's regional and global role.
Arab nationalism, because it developed in the process of resisting colonialism, had an overall progressive character. Nevertheless, nationalism is not a fixed phenomenon. If the nationalism of the late-1960s PLO unified the people in a common struggle against an imperialist oppressor, just a few years later the Palestinian nationalism of Oslo resulted in venal cronyism, corruption and capoism.
It is therefore necessary to question the idea of a binational state in the territory of Palestine that simply combines different (vastly unequal) nationalisms. Arguing for binationalism based on equality is misleading, because it dismisses the very foundations of what makes a nation.
Binationalism is a discursive subterfuge that camouflages a proposed political and economic partnership between the elites of the two nations. Oslo, as a process, was also a partnership between elites. The conflict over Oslo can be seen simply as an inter-elite conflict that sought to alter or strengthen the partners' negotiating positions.
In other words, a nationalist solution to the Palestine question may take one of two forms: two-state solutions that are simply reactionary, racist policies of national separation imposed on one geographic and economic society (apartheid across a political border); or a binational state that keeps distinct nationalisms together within a single political entity while reproducing economic inequality and social exclusion (apartheid within one political border).
The Palestinian nationalist agenda, in both its two-state and binational state forms, serves a tiny elite, not the pressing needs of the masses. The Palestinian elite once sought to control its own piece of the world market; it is now prepared to settle for a slice of Israel's portion.
Binationalism as a political-economic arrangement has at least two overriding congenital defects. First, and most importantly, it suppresses the social foundation of the Arab- Israeli struggle. The elite's understanding of that struggle ignores the racism built into the social order established for Arabs, which will not be altered within binationalism, and reinforces the false premise that national categories are fundamentally significant. Yet most if not all the consequences of Oslo leading to the current Intifada are social (higher poverty rates, land confiscation, unequal allocation of water, growing income inequality...).
In neglecting this social foundation, binationalism will only produce a racist neoliberal regime where democracy is an electoral spectator sport. Binationalism, by reproducing the racist democracy of Israel, is a blueprint for a Jewish state where Arabs are an oppressed political and economic minority, but a demographic majority.
This is not a question of agreements no one has read. The nationalist agenda is limited to political emancipation, which is only the emancipation of the elite on both sides. A single, secular, democratic state, based on equality, not nationalism, is the only solution that can deliver justice and peace -- by dismantling the racist institutions of both Zionism and the Palestinian elite.
* The writer is assistant professor of sociology at DePaul University, Chicago.
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