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Parallel Lives: Imagining a Different Future for Israel and Palestine

An excerpt from a new political analysis lays out reasons for hope in the idea of ‘parallel states’

Eyal Megged
August 07, 2014
Abu Dis, 2003.(David Silverman/Getty Images)
Abu Dis, 2003.(David Silverman/Getty Images)

“We are not going to get rid of them. They will continue to live around us and in our midst.”

I wrote those words to open an article for Haaretz on the Parallel States plan as the 2013 Knesset campaign was drawing to a close. The sentiment was expressed in response to a comment by Israel’s newest political savior, former newsman Yair Lapid, in a rally for his Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party on October 29, 2012. “We have to get rid of the Palestinians,” he declared when asked about his peace plan. Lhipater—to expel, get rid of, dispose of. There is no ambiguity in the word he chose. Nevertheless, of course, people immediately began to “explain” his intention—“What he means, of course, is not that … ”; “He doesn’t really want to expel them; he means we have to get rid of the demographic threat”; and so on. Indeed, Yitzhak Rabin used similar language—he spoke of a desire to “divorce” the Palestinians, the centerpiece of Labor Party rhetoric at the start of the Oslo era.

But Lapid’s tone remained unchanged on election night on January 22, 2013, when he declared that he would not block a Netanyahu-led coalition by forming one with any “Hanin Zuabis” (a reference to the rising star of Palestinian Israeli politics and member of the Balad Party). What do these words reflect? They reflect a racism that is both commonplace and well entrenched; no Jewish Israeli political leader has ever used Arab parties even to cement their coalition, never mind block another one. Yet his attitude is also one that is becoming even more pronounced today, when a man routinely described as “well-read” and “worldly” (and not “right wing” or “religious”) can say such things as if they require no comment—and in fact it seems they do not.

Lapid’s comments are just one recent incident pointing to the increasingly blatant and unreserved racism across and within Israeli society. On a radio show I was asked what I think about the football team Beitar Yerushelaim, whose supporters are known to be rabidly anti-Arab and will not allow the management to buy Muslim players from Chechnya. I responded that, as an enthusiastic football fan, I do not see this as a football problem. This racism reflects the racism of Jerusalem and of all Israel. Yair Lapid knew exactly to whom he was speaking when he said what he said.

And so, as I began writing the column for Haaretz, this was the first thing I thought: We are not going to get rid of them. Stop the illusion. And anyway, I don’t want to get rid of them, because I like to live with some of them more than I like to live with some of us.

However intense the anger, hatred, and racism, the day will come when “we” will sit with “them” and discuss how to live together. That will probably happen not by choice, but by coercion, and the representatives from the two sides will not be the present ones. Those who represent us today are attached to one story alone, and quote from it only what they consider convenient.

Moving beyond selective history

For example, I read that from the famous eulogy delivered by Moshe Dayan for Roi Rothberg—who was killed on the border with Gaza in 1956—Ehud Barak chose to quote only this sentence: “This is the fate of our generation. The only choice we have is to be prepared and armed, strong and resolute or else our sword will slip from our hand and the thread of our lives will be severed.”

The rest of the eulogy, which was written in the spirit of a biblical lament, did not serve the defense minister’s purpose at that moment. This is the vast disparity between the leadership of our generation and that of the previous generation: ours are salesmen, mainly selling themselves, while they—despite all their blunders—were fired with a sense of mission. Even as he grieved at the newly dug grave, Dayan did not forget the other side to the tragedy and did not let his listeners forget: “Let us not today fling accusations at the murderers. What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred for us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their very eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers lived. We should demand blood [for Roi] not from the Arabs of Gaza but from ourselves.”

If that narrative does not speak to you, there is no chance that you will be able to breach the hate barrier. There is no reason to suspect that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is unaware of the course of history. But whereas Dayan felt the Palestinian side of the story in every fiber of his being even as he fought against it, Netanyahu is just insensitive to it. He refuses to see reality through the eyes of the other side, apparently on the assumption that seeing both sides will weaken him and us. But to be sensitive and mindful of what is happening on the other side of the fence does not mean forgoing the survival instinct. On the contrary: those who see the whole picture are assuredly more firmly rooted in reality. Certainly the chance of any two-state solution, even one based on divorce or “getting rid of” the other side, will be nil without seeing enough through the opponents’ eyes to recognize their history and the justice of their claims.

Indeed, in the same period in which Dayan delivered his lamentation for Roi Rothberg, an infiltrator from the Gaza Strip murdered my grandfather in his orchard, in the dunes of Palmahim. The citrus industry had just recovered from the nadir into which it had been plunged by the world war and Israel’s War of Independence. Following a lengthy period rife with despair and humiliations, during which my grandfather had to hide continuously from his creditors, buds of hope had appeared. One day, before starting to walk along the dirt trail that led to the road to Rishon LeZion, from which he always started his long journey home by foot and by public transportation, my grandfather went to start the pump engine, as he did at the end of every working day. He was killed near the dark structure that housed the well. An Arab worker nearby fled when he heard the shot, leaving my grandfather to bleed to death.

After the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, second in command of Hamas’s military wing, an earlier interview with him was broadcast in which he had rejected all possibility of Jewish life in the land of Israel. “I have no problem with a Jew who lives in the United States or England,” he said, “but I will fight every Jew who lives between the Jordan and the sea.” It used to be to our minds only on the Palestinian side, but of course more and more we see the same discourse in Israel. For a long time I didn’t like to make parallels between us and them, but now I see that we are not better than they are.

It’s not merely that Israeli society has become so anti-Palestinian; at least there are reasons for this. It’s the prejudice against everything that is not Jewish. We’ve become more closed and hostile, moving in a direction that’s impossible to support—calling for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock or the expulsion of Palestinians, declaring that there will never be a Palestinian state under any conditions, and so on. People pretend to be optimistic—they say, “Look, we’re not as radical as we thought” after the election because of Lapid’s strong showing—but this is an illusion: if Lapid says things like the quote at the start of this essay, then we’re not in the center anymore.

Those words, combined with the deeds that have accompanied them for decades, are cause for despair. At least with Dayan and the other leaders of the 1948 generation, they knew to whom the bill was due, even if they weren’t prepared to pay it. We don’t even know that the bill is due anymore, never mind to whom it’s owed; or perhaps more accurately, we don’t care to know. Today we lack the ability to identify with the other. The impact of this disability on Israeli society is immense, the lack of ability to have pity on others, to sympathize. It’s harder to imagine that maybe Israel could once again become what it used to be because I now doubt whether it ever was what we thought.

It is in this context that today we find ourselves in the midst of another chapter in this struggle. By now, everyone knows that when one launches a military operation, there is no way to predict what its aftermath will be. From the Punic Wars to the Napoleonic conquests and the two world wars, the first moves by one of the parties began with a triumphant fanfare, often followed by impressive achievements on the ground; then they continued with disappointments, and ended in bitter chagrin. On the very first day of Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, we were informed of tremendous achievements by the air force in destroying the enemy’s missile stockpiles, just as in previous operations. But amazingly, as the war went on attacks did not lessen, much less stop; on the contrary, they intensified, as though nothing had been destroyed. Moreover, one errant Israeli bomb wiped out a family, instantly turning the war heroes into war criminals.

“So, what do you suggest?”

Hidden motives, a new agenda?

As a first step, I begin by wondering about the hidden motives that impel our government—which we are supposed to trust implicitly—first in going to war, and second, in feeding the public falsehoods. Too often have we gone through the ritual in which extraneous considerations encourage public attention to focus on a cycle of violence that suppresses thought and fans passions. As in narrative plots, psychological motives are at work here that do not manifest themselves either in headlines or in what underlies them. Here, precisely, lies the position that should be occupied by the irresponsible eccentric known as the “intellectual,” who, in contrast to commentators and politicians, eventually gets bored with thinking the same thoughts all the time.

The problem is that the practical, ostensibly acceptable ideas are appallingly limited. Time and again we chew the same conceptual cud; time and again we hear the same moldy, despair-creating solutions, which are unable to break the vicious cycle of stimulus and response— the solutions we have witnessed all our lives. As someone who is considered an “involved writer,” I am frequently asked, after I voice comments of one kind or another, the question of questions: “So, what do you suggest?” I prefer to say what I dream about. I dream about a leader who embarks on peace talks more easily than he or she embarks on a military operation. Someone who is not entirely certain that the only language Arabs understand—in contradistinction to us—is the language of force. I dream of someone who is capable of fresh thinking.

This is where the Parallel States Project comes into the picture. I have been involved in the group of scholars, activists, and diplomats represented in the book One Land, Two States since its inception more than half a decade ago. At first—and perhaps second—glance, the idea seemed fantastical (and indeed, it still does): two parallel states covering the entire territory from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. How can we share something even more intimately when we can’t manage to divide it so disproportionately? And yet there is something powerful about the idea that each state will have the right to say, “it’s all mine,” for it means that for the first time citizens of the two states will truly realize their sovereignty “bodily”; they will bear that sovereignty wherever they go within the borders of Israel-Palestine.

Sovereignty based on the citizen, not on the territory: the meaning of this transformation is as profound as it is still difficult for me to comprehend. This is something we have barely yet talked about among the participants in this project. It is like creating a European citizen on top of and alongside one’s older “national” identity; like the Pole who carries his national identity wherever he travels but now today has a European identity that is equally important. For me, such a notion of sovereignty allows for the retention of an Israeli Jewish identity while also becoming fully “Middle Eastern.” I would rather have a new Middle Eastern identity than a merely Jewish Israeli identity. This is the real “New Middle East,” a very different one from the version originally dreamed up and sold by Shimon Peres, Yossi Beilin, and the other architects of Oslo.

I think about the practical ramifications: all citizens of the two states would be able to live wherever they chose between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and yet remain citizens of one or another of the two states exclusively. They would be able to vote for the governing bodies of their state and be brought to trial according to the laws of that state, and yet would share the land, completely, with the other whom for a century their people had been in a life-and-death struggle to evict. Having state-exclusivity but sharing land completely—this is the trick that makes a Parallel States plan seem simultaneously fantastical and perhaps unrealistic and yet profoundly realistic. It can help heal, or at least displace and yet heal, all the anger that swims around inside every inhabitant of this land, regardless of which side he or she lives on.

In short, a Parallel States plan helps us heal by allowing and encouraging us to share. Seven years ago, I wrote, “Coveting the same land, like coveting the same woman, creates a complex relationship. You can’t help feeling close to someone who is attracted to the same things you are. Loving the same woman means that you have something in common deep down inside. On the one hand you feel close to this man, on the other you yearn for his destruction. Whatever the case, the bond created between you and he cannot be denied.”

Of course, in this scenario the one who is always denied choice is the woman, here the land (which in both Hebrew [adamah] and Arabic [ard] is gendered feminine). She becomes passive, without the ability to make the choice. She becomes perhaps the primary victim of the abuse, the violence, and the anger. If today we don’t care about two-thousand-year-old olive trees—how can you care about the olive trees and destroy them by the thousands, as we’ve done?—or the landscape, which we’ve destroyed with giant roads and monstrous walls, how can we say we love the land? We’re not talking about the same kind of love, or love of any sort anymore. The land is merely used and abused.

Perhaps in the first stage of the post-1967 settlement enterprise the settlers had this love-relationship with the land. They were really idealists and in a way—at least from our side—innocent, naively thinking that the “natives” would recognize their claims or passion to come back to the land of their forefathers. They really thought so. And it took them a long time to change. And when they did they became mere colonizers.

This brings us back to Hanin Zuabi, with whom Yair Lapid declared he’d never join in coalition to block a right-wing government. In a Haaretz interview, she said, “Jews don’t know how to love their country.” And today I can understand what she means and can agree with her. We are home; but how can we call home what we treat the way we treat this land?

Returning to our roots

Here it’s important to know whence the Parallel States idea emerged. Basically, the program sprang from the clear recognition that it is impossible to divide the land of Israel and impossible to divide Palestine, either physically or mentally. Perhaps, as Solomon would have admonished us, true love would rather share than mortally divide. Disengagement from the Palestinians carries with it no salvation, but rather the reverse, as we have seen with our own eyes since the “magic solution” concocted by Ariel Sharon for Gaza with the 2005 “disengagement.” (Never mind the “divorce” that Oslo was always supposed to be.) That is why I opposed the unilateral pullout from Gaza with all my might, despite the high price I paid for crossing the political lines.

From an Israeli perspective, the Parallel States idea stems also from the desire to break the dogmatism of the “peace camp”—or should we say “peace religion”—which presupposes, in a mistake that conflicts with reality time and again, that the return of the territory conquered in 1967 will constitute suitable atonement for the sin (with or without quotation marks) that we committed in 1948. The sin has changed over time. Today it is at its heart the sin of forgetting, or of erasing what members of the previous generation saw with their own eyes before partition. And so atonement, then, is bringing back forgotten or repressed memories and confronting them. The Parallel States plan allows this to happen; indeed, it encourages and demands it. If the sin was wiping out the Palestinian reality—not only on the ground but in the memory, history, everything—then atonement is reestablishing and reimplanting that memory, as much within ourselves as allowing them to do so on their ancestral land.

Those participating in this project began from a position of hope, however fantastical: in an era in which, to evoke Marx’s axiom, consciousness is no longer necessarily determined by one’s being, in the virtual and simulative time in which we live—the time of computers, Facebook, Google, and the rest of the Internet, where fewer and fewer connections are material, are real—it is possible, we believe, to apply full sovereignty without territorial attachment. Our political and national identities can be realized without our possessing exclusivity over the territory.

And yet the Parallel States plan is not merely a drastic innovation; it is also a compromise between the prevailing notion of two states for two nations and a binational state. We are talking explicitly about two sovereign nation-states, each of which realizes within its own framework its aspiration for a distinctive, separate identity. Obviously, numberless questions arise, of a legal, economic, and above all security character. The book One Land, Two States represents a preliminary—however hopefully thorough and well-executed—attempt to answer some of the myriad questions arising out of this idea.

Despite all our work and attempts to compromise, despite endless arguments and compromises and pleadings and defiance and “Eureka!” moments, many of our suggestions, never mind their details—for example, in the security realm—will inevitably shatter our illusions about the possible futures before us. That is, there really is no long-term alternative to just continuing to muddle through, to just “managing the Palestinians” while life goes on as normal and the occupation continues indefinitely. Either apartheid or a unitary state is on the horizon, likely both together, if we don’t change soon.

More prosaically, it is clear that however much the Parallel States plan is based on Palestinians and Israelis living together, for the foreseeable future there will be no choice but to allot exclusive areas to each state in which military forces will deploy for every emergency (special forces, secret military assets like the Dimona nuclear reactor, and special combat units). Lions and lambs—or rather, lions and cougars—don’t simply lie down together and forget their past antagonism and competition.

A role for Europe

There is reason to believe that the European community would be obliged to assist in the building of this model by bringing our peculiar animal into its herd, which of course would be a crucial incentive for both sides. This is not a subject of strong agreement among the participants in the project; and indeed, there are some who find it either not so important or even irrelevant (especially considering the difficulties currently being experienced by the European Union). But I believe that offering and encouraging the two states to join the European Union would be the cement that glued the whole process together in the long term, just as the European Union has served as the glue to keep its members together despite all the problems it has failed to address and perhaps even encouraged. Indeed, while leftists suspect that the plan is a right-wing conspiracy to prevent the partition of the country, and the right (as laid out by Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party) plans ultimately to annex all the territory of “Area C” and grant the roughly 150,000 Palestinians living there full citizenship rights within Israel as its preferred solution, a Parallel States solution would ensure in a pragmatic way that all the inhabitants of the country enjoyed the fullest rights possible without having to dilute their core identities or put their basic security and future at risk.

That is the plan, in a nutshell. Surprisingly, in discussing the Parallel States solution with a range of people from the extremes of left and right in both communities, hardly anyone suggested sending us for psychiatric observation. All listened attentively. Sometimes their eyes lit up. Astonishingly, people from the right wing in Israel are more receptive to the idea than those from the left, precisely because it satisfies perhaps the most important core goal: to remain rooted as sovereign citizens in the biblical heartland of Eretz Yisrael, in a way that no other plan does.

Our Palestinian partners would, I hope, testify that they have rarely if ever reached the same level of understanding with Israelis as they have in the forum we’ve created and shared, usually intimately, sometimes publicly, for a good part of the past decade. What is important here is the lack of duplicity. Unlike our Oslo compatriots, the Israeli participants have not said one thing and meant another. There was no agenda of drawing out talks while creating facts on the ground. At any rate, we are not the creators of facts. We are trying, rather, to create a viable future.

I believe from my experience that rarely, if ever, have Palestinians been shown the same openness by Israelis, leftists or rightists, as in our meetings. There has developed an understanding between us that, above all, a separation into two states does not satisfy their true longings—an understanding that, they have said, the Palestinians do not have with most of the Israeli peace activists. The half (or really, rump) country supposedly waiting around the corner is not what they are dreaming of. The Palestinians with whom we collaborated declined to let go of their national childhood; of the good childhood and the bad childhood, of the memory of its ordeals and of the pain caused by their expulsion from it.

Peace as a mirror image

Let’s face it, no one really wants two half-states if there is a way we can both have it all. Neither of us will be whole with half the country—and such important halves! Jerusalem, Hebron, Jaffa, Haifa—permanently removed from our bodies.

The emphasis here is on a mirror image, and this is something many among us tend to repress. Not until we face squarely the joint trauma of the two nations can the deep scars be healed. I believe that the Parallel States plan copes precisely with this repression through the solutions it proposes. That is what makes it revolutionary in the deepest sense of the word.

I have no choice but to believe that if a leader arises who thinks in such terms, he or she will also be able to find a path to the bitterest of our enemies, including, from “our” side, the leaders of Hamas, whom at present we see largely through gun sights or rocket launchers. I have no choice but to believe, because if I do not have faith my life here will be unbearable. Masada is not the place I want to live, not even in a villa. It seems to me that this is also not the wish of the majority of the nation that is emerging here, for whom pampering and self-indulgence are the usual mantras. The leader I would like to see in my lifetime will be able to say to the Palestinians and Arabs more broadly without fear, “Let us live together here (Bo’u nihiye kaan beyahad).” Not only does it have a nice rhythm to it; we simply have no other choice.

The other day I joined a tour of villages in the Nablus area, arranged by a group called “Combatants for Peace” (young veterans from combat units in the Israeli army who have their counterparts, former Palestinian fighters, in the West Bank) and I was amazed to realize how close the situation is there to the Parallel States vision.

There were the Palestinian villages, pastoral, at one with the natural ancient landscape, and there were the Israeli settlements, bringing with them the Zionist landscape from inside the pre-1967 parts of Israel, with the artificial pine “forests” that surround them. Two cultures in all respects—architecture, way of life, aesthetic values—that exist side by side, sometimes entangled with each other, with no mutual recognition whatever. Without mutual recognition. Astonishing, really. But this state of affairs is made possible not only by the force of the stronger, not only by the IDF, but also thanks to the goodwill and cooperation of the Palestinian security forces.

This impossible-possible situation in the heart of Samaria, in the heart of Palestine, is a cause for hope, in spite of the numerous complaints and the everyday injustice. It is a proof that the mutual will of two different cultures to live together, side by side, can achieve the impossible, the unimaginable. The wrong can be made into right if only you believe and let go of superstitions, if only you show respect for the other’s right to live as you yourself wish to live. Parallel lives in parallel states doesn’t mean endless bloodshed. It could mean the opposite: endless vital forces making a dream come true.

Excerpted from One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, edited by Mark Levine and Mathias Mossberg, published by the University of California Press. © 2014 by Mark Levine and Mathias Mossberg. This essay is adapted from a column originally published in Haaretz on November 24, 2012, in Hebrew and on November 29, 2012, in English.


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Eyal Megged, a poet and novelist, writes regularly for Haaretz. He is the author of, among other books, Everlasting Life, Saving Grace, and The Kamikaze’s Woman.

Eyal Megged, a poet and novelist, writes regularly for Haaretz. He is the author of, among other books, Everlasting Life, Saving Grace, and The Kamikaze’s Woman.